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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 essential secularist sentiment is, therefore, rooted in the religious reformation; more specifically, it is rooted in the Protestant revolt against religious hierarchy and centralized religion. Secularism was not originally intended as a way to separate religion from society or religious consciousness from political action, but only to isolate the state from the church structure and to separate religious and political authorities.


The tone started to change, however, a century later among progressive European intellectuals who saw in religion a negative force whose elimination, they believed, was essential for further emancipation and progress. Karl Marx, while agreeing that the secular state has successfully neutralized religion and purged it from the public sphere, still saw a great danger in religious life. This is because, he argued, secularism reduced religion into a private matter only insofar as the state is concerned. However, the privatization of religion gave it in effect more influence in the organization of civil society. Even in the United States where religion has been domesticated and individualized to the greatest extent, it continues to divide society into distinct religious communities, thereby allowing for the formation of internal solidarity with a clear bearing on economic life. Religion, Marx further thought, is an instrument is the hands of privileged classes to justify social misery and economic inequality  In The Jewish Question, Marx has the following to say about the need to emancipate humanity from religion:


The decomposition of man into Jew and citizen, Protestant and citizen, religious man and citizen, is neither a deception directed against citizenhood, nor is it a circumvention of political emancipation, it is political emancipation itself, the political method of emancipating oneself from religion. Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society, when political liberation is the form in which men strive to achieve their liberation, the state can and must go as far as the abolition of religion, the destruction of religion. But, it can do so only in the same way that it proceeds to the abolition of private property, to the maximum, to confiscation, to progressive taxation, just as it goes as far as the abolition of life, the guillotine.


Nietzsche, like Marx, condemned religion as a negative social force responsible for preserving the meek and the weak, and hence weakening the human race. By praising poverty and glorifying the taming of the natural instinct, Nietzsche insisted, religion contributed to delaying the refinement of the human species. By giving “comfort to the sufferers, courage to the oppressed and despairing, a staff and support to the dependent” Christianity, he contended, “preserved too much of what ought to perish.”[5] Unlike Marx, who saw religion as an obstacle in the way to achieving universal equality, Nietzsche’s rejection of Religion in general, and reformed Christianity in particular, was anti-democratic, directed against the egalitarian spirit it promoted, and hence against its failure to promote the order of rank, a hierarchical social order which he believed to be both intrinsic to humanity and desirable to social life.[6]




Many Muslim intellectuals insist today that Islam is an integral part of the state. The state in a society committed to Islam, they stress, is by definition an Islamic state since political authorities are bound to Islamic law, which has a direct bearing on constitutional law. This has created confusion about the nature of the Islamic state, and has given rise to apprehension on the part of modernist scholars who feared that remarrying Islam and the state is bound to give birth to theocracy.


The confusion is, of course, not limited to outside observers and commentators who tend to extrapolate in their analysis from the historical experience of western society, but also affect those who advocate the formation of political state on the basis of Islamic values. The difficulty arises from the efforts to combine the principle of popular government with that of a state bound by the rules of Islamic law. This confusion is, in my opinion, the result of equating the political structure of the Ummah with the political structure of the state, and consequently, mixing up the Shariah functions with that of the state. This confusion is not restricted to obscure works. Rather it is found in the works of influential contemporary Islamic thinkers. Under the title “The Objectives of the Islamic State” Abul Ala Mawdudi, for one, points out two kinds of objectives to be assigned to the Islamic state: negative objectives “like deterring the aggression and preserving the freedom of people and defending the state,13 and positive objectives such as banning all forbidden things which have been condemned by the Qur’an.”14 Mawdudi concludes by affirming the totality of the state’s objectives on the basis of the comprehensiveness of the Shariah objectives. He writes:


Obviously, it is impossible for such a state to limit its framework, because it is a totalitarian state encompassing the whole human life, and painting every aspect of human life with its moral color and particular reformist programs. So nobody has the right to stand up against the state and exempt himself from the liability by saying that this is a personal matter, so that the state does not intrude. In brief, the state encompasses the human life and every area of civilization according to its particular moral theory and particular reformist program. So, to some extent, it is similar to the communist and fascist state. But despite this totality the Islamic state is free from the color that dominates the totalitarian and authoritarian states of our age. Thus the Islamic state does not curtail the individual freedom nor has it much room for dictatorship or absolute authority.15


The above statement reflects the state of confusion we just pointed out. In a single paragraph the author characterizes the Islamic state as totalitarian, likens it with the communist and fascist states, and stresses that no one has the right to stand up against the state and resist its intrusion into personal life. He then backs up, two sentences later, denying that the Islamic state may curtails individual freedom.


Certainly the claim regarding the totalitarian character of the state is the result of mixing state functions relating to the Shariah's legal dimension with the functions of the Ummah concerning moral and educational dimensions. The differentiation between these two kinds of objectives is, thus, of vital importance to prevent the state from imposing on the larger society a normative order based on a narrow interpretation of the law. The Islamic state, it should be emphasized, is not an institution devoted to advancing the interests of the Muslim community, but a political system based on universal principles, and one committed to maintaining peace, security and welfare for all citizens, irrespective of their doctrines, religions, nationality, race, or gender.


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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