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Written by Louay Safi   
May 12, 2001 at 09:00 PM
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Islam and the Secular State
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The secular state emerged in modern times in response to religious infighting that plagued Europe for over a century, and put social life on a self-destructing path. The Hundred Year War posed a serious threat to the then emerging modern Europe, underscoring the need to keep the state and church at a comfortable distance.


While the secular state was designed to prevent organized religion from controlling public institutions, it did not necessarily aim at undermining religiosity per se, or alienating religious communities. Rather, it was perceived as multi-religious society’s best defense against the imposition of the religious values and worldview of one community on another.

 For many Muslims, however, the secular state is viewed as an instrument used to undermine religious heritage and deny the relevance of moral teachings to public life. While this perception has an element of truth, it does not necessarily depict the general nature of western secularism. Evidently, Muslim perceptions of secularism are not formed through an understanding of the original purpose and historical circumstances of western secularism, but is influenced by the Muslim experience of secular dogmatism and the intolerance of the secular state in contemporary Muslim societies, most notably that of Turkey and many Arab and Central Asian states.


Reacting to secular dogmatism, populist Islamic groups have advanced a conception of the state that, while different in substance, is similar in purpose and form to the very secular state they oppose. Like Muslim secularists, Islamic populists see the state as an instrument in the hands of ruling powers for imposing a particular conception of the world on the rest of society. They insist, therefore, that the Islamic state should be charged with the duty of imposing Islamic law on the larger society.


This paper argues that the position of contemporary Muslim populist movements stands in direct contradiction not only to Islamic values and beliefs, but is also contrary to political practices developed in historical Muslim societies. It further explores the extent to which religious beliefs and values were related to the political structure and public policy of the historical Muslim society. The paper contends that the political order that emerged under Islam was never perceived as an exclusively Muslim, but was constructed on the basis of universal principles that transcend sectarian divisions.


The paper, therefore, concludes by underscoring the need to have a fresh Islamically-based conceptualization of political action and organization in ways that would help reclaim the moral core of social life, eroded with the advance of western secularism, without sacrificing the important principles of freedom and equality.




Secularism refers to complex and multifaceted attitudes and practices that cannot be easily captured in a brief description or rendered into a simple definition. While one may find certain similarities between modern secularist attitudes and practices and those that existed in pre-modern societies, it is fair to say that secularism as we know it today is an essentially modern phenomenon that grew in the modern West, and later took roots in different societies.


In its essential sense, secularism denotes a set of notions and values whose aim is to ensure that the state is neither engaged in promoting specific religious beliefs and values, nor uses its powers and offices to persecute religion. To prevent state officials from using their political authority to impose a narrow set of religious attitudes and values on the larger society, and to foreclose the possibility of using religious symbols to agitate one religious community against another, western intellectuals embarked on a project that aimed at separating political authority from religious affiliation. To do that, the Enlightenment scholars embraced a set of concepts and principles, and used them as the basis for reconstructing modern European consciousness. The new political ideology advanced by Enlightenment activists and thinkers emphasized concepts such as equality, freedom of conscience and conviction, and the supremacy of law, all of which were advocated by the Religious Reformation that put an end to the ancient regime of Europe.


The underlying socio-political morality advocated by the pioneers of the secular state in Europe was derived from the religious tradition delineated by the religious reformists of fifteenth century Europe, but argued in rational terms and common-good logic. Early advocates of the separation of state and church, such as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, had no intention to undermine religion, or faith in the divine, but rather predicated their reformist ideas on the notion of God and civil religion. Descartes, for instance, argued "that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge about anything else until I became aware of him."[1] Similarly, Rousseau, while critical of the way religion was traditionally taught and practiced, recognized the need, even the necessity, of religious commitment and faith for the modern state to function properly. He, therefore, identified a number of "dogmas", and argued for their inclusion in the "civil religion" he advocated: "The existence of an omnipotent, intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract and the law – these are the positive dogmas. As for the negative dogmas I would limit them to a single one: no intolerance."[2]

Even Kant, who limited the notion of truth to empirical experience and labored to set morality on rational foundation insisted that "without a God and without a world invisible to us now but hoped for, the glorious ideals of morality are indeed objects of approval and admiration, but not springs of purpose and action."[3] However, by denying the possibility of transcendental truth, and as a result of the relentless attack on the authority of revelation as a source of ethical and ontological knowledge, secularist scholars have been able to successfully marginalize religion and undermine morality. The efforts to ground morality in utility and cost-benefit calculation, rather than truth, proved to be counter intuitive and futile, and gave rise to egoism and moral relativism.


There were, of course, intellectuals who have less sympathy to religion particularly among French intellectuals, but these did not represent the larger sentiments of the great majority in Europe. The French revolution displayed a clear anti-religious sentiment, but these were not, as Nietzsche was to discover later, directed against religion per se, but against organized religion represented primarily by the Catholic church. “Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is,” Nietzsche argued, “covertly and overtly, anti-Christian—although, to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious.”[4]


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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