Shaker al-Nabulsi

‘Islamic secularism’ is a term both shocking and fearful for many clerics as well as some of the more romantic-minded liberals. It is a new term in name yet it is an old one in application. Working towards this now we see as the realistic, pragmatic cure, the effective response to some of the clerics’ accusations against Arab liberals that they are atheists.

One such accusation Rashid al-Ghannouchi made in his book The Principles of Governance and Power in Islam, where he maintained that “the secular proposition on the relationship between religion and state is influenced by western pattern, especially in its French form, and by an extreme communism”, Similarly, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi held that “secularism is atheism” in his book Islam and Secularism Face to Face.

Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān: The first of the Arab secular governors

So if we want secular political reform in particular, let it be from within Islam and not from outside. Secularism is the only route to reform, but there is no way to apply this secularism other than by means of an “Islamic secularism,” one which the first of the Arab Muslim secular governors succeeded in applying – that is, the Caliph Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān.

The term “Islamic secularism” has been an actual, applied concept on the economic front ever since the era of the Caliph ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, who made a partial separation, particularly in the realm of the public finances, between religion and politics. His famous remark was:

‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb used to keep his kinsfolk from the Treasury so as to gain God’s favour thereby, but I have given my kinsfolk access to it in order to gain God’s favour thereby.

This was his reply to those who had protested and risen up against him for having granted the Banī Umayya a significant sum from the Muslims’ treasury, and for privileging them alone the high offices such as that of the wālī. And by so doing he is considered to be the first governor in Arab Islamic history to establish and apply a ‘quota’ politics familiar today in the Arab world among its religious and ethnic groups. It was a policy which ‘Uthmān inherited from the Caliph Abū Bakr in the ‘Saqīfa incident’, when the Ansār[1] raised the slogan: “A leader from you, and a leader from us.” He replied “from us come the rulers, and from you come the viziers” and subsequently followed this with: “the Caliph must be a Qurayshī, in that people will only obey this class of the Arabs.” Abū Bakr himself inherited the quota model from the Prophet who had distributed the spoils of the Hunayn Raid among his kinsfolk and his tribe, whilst barring the Ansār from it.

The Caliph ‘Uthmān effectively fashioned the royal crown of the Banī Umayya, and placed it on the head of Mu‘āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān who perfected the secularism of the Caliph ‘Uthmān, and indeed intensified it, making a complete separation between religion and politics. Mu‘āwiya the politician defeated the pious cleric ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib with the aid of the political parties active in the arena. All the Caliphs of the Umayyads subsequently followed this pattern (with the exception of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz). In their turn the Abbasid caliphs also followed this system, as did the Umayyads of Spain.

This division between the imām of the state and the imām of the prayer is the project of a secular state

All these events, right from the Hunayn Raid to the fall of the ‘Abbāssid state, each point to the separation of religion from the state – one of the basic indicators of secularism. The Party Kings that arose following the fall of the ‘Abbāssid state in 1517 and the rise of Ottoman Colonialism in the Arab world all followed this pattern.

In fact the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate made a more thoroughgoing separation between religion and politics than the Umayyad and ‘Abbāssid caliphates achieved, in that when Kemal Atatürk abolished the Islamic caliphate in 1924 he found nothing serious to abolish, and instead undertook a number of absurd, purely formalistic actions, such as the prohibition of the hajj for a few years and the transformation of a number of mosques into museums, and the banning of traditional modes of dress and so on. This has convinced some thinkers such as Muhammad Arkoun to apply the name ‘communism’ to Atatürk’s movement, in preference to ‘secularism’, since the usage of this latter term for this period has been one of the most important causes behind the faltering of secularism’s progress in the Arab world, in that clerics take the example of Atatürk’s secularism – which is a false analogy – as a means to excite the Arab street to an aversion to secularism.

In this context I find the remarks made by the famous Hadith scholar Abū Hurayra somewhat pleasing, since he appears to unwittingly establish the foundations of an Islamic secularism:

I pray behind ‘Alī, for prayer made behind ‘Alī is superior. And I eat at the table of Mu‘āwiya, for the food at Mu‘āwiya’s table is more substantial, but I keep my home back at Rabwa, since sitting at Rabwa is safer.

Muslims who pledged allegiance to Mu‘āwiya as Caliph, after the martyrdom of ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, were thus laying the foundations of Islamic secularism when they declared in their pledge of allegiance to him:

We represent the nation in its religious affairs, while you represent the nation in its mundane affairs.

This constitutes a division of functions between the caliphs and the faqihs, clearly the germ for Islamic secularism. If only we could hear this expressed by our faqihs today.

The last Caliph Abdülmecid II: His system left nothing serious for Atatürk to abolish

Mu‘āwiya himself laid the foundation for the precursors of Islamic secularism when he shed the function of leading the prayer before the people, and appointed another imām to lead the prayer in his stead. This division between the imām of the state and the imām of the prayer is the project of a secular state, and one which has yet to be realized. It is well known that the caliphs after Mu‘āwiya also no longer led the prayer before the masses.

The path to secularism in the Arab world in the future can only be from within Islam, and not from without, given that many leftist nationalists, Marxists, Communists or even Islamists (such as ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq, Khālid Muhammad Khālid and Gamāl al-Bannā’ today) have failed in their calls for a secularism based on a model far removed from Islam, and given the successful attacks on secularism made by many clerics on ‘Islamic’ grounds, labeling secularists as atheists, and modern-day Kharijites[2].

So the way to recover and respond to these fanatical clerics is by calling call for secularism from within Islam, not from outside it, as we mistakenly did in the past, squandering our efforts for over half a century in vain. To do this demands some considerable learning. And this learning is the weapon which Shaykh ‘Alī ‘Abd al-Rāziq wielded, as did Shaykh Khālid Muhammad Khālid and Shaykh Khalīl ‘Abd al-Karīm. It is the weapon which the enlightened Shaykh Gamāl al-Bannā’ wields today, as does Ahmad Subhi Mansour, who concludes that “Islam is the religion that is the closest to secularism.”


[1] The ‘helpers’, members of the Banū Khazraj and Banū Aws at Madina who gave aid to the Prophet Muhammad after his flight from Mecca. (Ed.)

[2]Exiters’ or ‘Seceders’ - a party of ‘Ali’s supporters who objected to his conceding to the idea of adjudication on the issue of succession, since it implied that his authority was therefore not divinely ordained, absolute and non-negotiable. The term subsequently came to denote those whose excess takes them out of the fold of Islam. (Ed.)