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Written by Louay Safi   
Nov 29, 1999 at 08:00 PM
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Overcoming the Religious-Secular Divide
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Language is a powerful dimension of social existence and interaction. It facilitates communication among individuals, and helps create agreement and consensus. It is, as such, an essential tool for advancing both knowledge and society. But language can be also a source of antagonism, misunderstanding, and confusion, and therefore has the power to undermine social harmony and to close the human mind. The impact of language on thinking and behavior is particularly noticeable when communication and exchange takes place across cultures. Under such circumstances the question of commensurability becomes relevant. The question can be posed as thus: Can peoples with different historical experiences have meaningful exchange of ideas, given the fact that understanding the meaning of a term presupposes an experience of a sort of the object to which the term refers?

The relationship between knowledge and experience gives rise to a series of questions with regard to understanding the grand concepts of "religion," "secularism," and “liberalism,” and the way each relates to the others. Such terms are not easily and fully interchangeable across cultures and civilizations, and misunderstanding results from extrapolating one's experience across cultures. Thus, superimposing the experience of a historically determined being on another--be it an individual or a community--is bound to stifle or even destroy the latter’s chance to develop and mature.

While realizing the above difficulty, I do believe that scholars in general and Muslim scholars in particular are duty bound to explore meaning across cultures and civilizations, and to stimulate exchange of ideas and experiences. As a Muslim intellectual who has had the opportunity to experience both Muslim and the Western cultures, I do think that the two cultures stand to benefit a great deal by learning from one another. I do also think that the future of human civilization is directly linked to our ability to learn from the historical experiences of Islamic and Western civilizations, and our willingness to build on the accomplishments of both.

Although Islamic and Western civilizations appear to be far removed from each other at the level of structure and organization, both seem to share a common commitment to the universal values of social justice, equality, common good, social welfare, political participation, religious freedom, and a host of other common principles and values. Western civilization has perfected the structural elements of social life so as to allow a better integration of the above universal values into social organization. Western successes were, however, achieved by overcoming two major historical forces that are peculiar to the West: feudalism and organized religion. This fact has contributed to the erosion of the very moral basis in which Western Renaissance is rooted—Enlightened religiosity.

Islam, on the other hand, is a tremendous spiritual force in search of modern forms. Historically, Islam is credited for building an outstanding world civilization in which science and religion, and the secular and religious, worked in harmony to advance human life. Can Islam play a similar role in restoring the moral core to modern life and arresting the increasingly immoral and irrational tendencies of the post-modern world? Many Muslim intellectuals would answer this question in the affirmative. The challenge of course is to re-institute Islamic values and ethos into modern forms. But for that to happen, Muslim scholars must re-conceptualize the various spheres of knowledge and society in relation to Islam and its fundamental principles and underlying ethos. The efforts advanced in this paper fall within the framework pointed out above, as I will focus, in particular, on the notions of religion, secularism, and liberalism.

My basic argument is that a political order rooted in Islamic norms shares with the modern secularist orders its desire to liberate the body politics from narrow religious and cultural interpretations. Unlike the secularist order, the Islamic political order, however, encourages the fostering of moral values in accordance with the overall scheme of moral autonomy. I conclude by emphasizing the priority of the institutions of civil society over those of the state, and the inevitability of invigorating inter-communal action to ensure the autonomy of both the individual and community, and to limit the power of the modern state.


Although a deep understanding of the interaction between the political and religious spheres requires a systematic and elaborate examination of their meaning, I will limit my statement to delineating their boundaries and identifying few areas of friction between the two.

Religion refers to those aspects of life that relate to the determination of the total meaning of existence. It is concerned, in particular, with three grand questions about human existence: its origin, its purpose, and its destiny. Although the above three questions can be raised from a philosophical point of view, the religious response to them is distinguished from the philosophical by the degree of conviction one enjoys over the other. That is to say, a religious conclusion with regard to the above grand questions is not only supported by rational arguments, but by emotional attachment as well. This difference gives religion an advantage over philosophy in that it makes religiously based convictions a better spring for action. It is a fact of history that people with deep religious conviction are willing to endure greater difficulties and make greater sacrifices in pursuit of their religious ideals than those whose attachment to their ideals is based on purely rational demonstration.

Paradoxically though, religion’s source of strength is also its source of weakness. For it is always easier to dissuade people from erroneous convictions when the latter are based on theoretical arguments rather than religious convictions. And while shared religious conviction can create more harmony in the public sphere, the possibility of interpersonal and inter-communal conflicts are bound to increase in multi-religious societies.

The question we need to address hear is not whether religion and politics stand in conflictual or harmonious relationship, but rather how and under what conditions religious commitment can strengthen and improve the quality of social life.


Politics is about organizing the public sphere, i.e. regulating action and deciding direction. As such both the convictions and interests of a people influence public regulations. In its drive to develop a social order in which religion and politics strengthen one another without suppressing individuality and creativity, Europe went through two interrelated processes: religious reformation and secularization. Reformation involved a struggle to liberate the individual from the control of religious authorities, viz. the Catholic Church. Secularization involved the liberation of the state from control by particular religious groups, to ensure that public policy is based on rational arguments, rather than religious injunctions.

But while religion ceased to have a visible influence in the public sphere, it continued to be an important force in shaping public policy and public life. This is true because rational arguments about the nature of pubic order have to start from a transcendental understanding of the meaning of public life and social interaction. The notions of right and wrong, good and evil, and the tolerable and the intolerable are the result of both religious conviction and political compromise.

It is important to realize that secularization is multi-faceted phenomenon. One facet of secularization, and the one that was initially intended by its early advocates, is the separation of state and church. But because it was achieved by negating history and tradition, it gradually led to the “death of god,” the erosion of religious values and convictions in western society by the turn of the 20th century, and to the “death of man” at the dawn of the 21st century. The secularism of the post-modern age is ruled by the ideas of self-interest, self-indulgence, and excess.


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Blaming Islam

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