In 1925, a distinguished Egyptian religious scholar named Ali Abd al-Raziq produced a highly unusual book, titled Islam and the Origins of Governance, in which he made the unprecedented argument that the caliphate, or state ruled by Islamic law, was not in fact a requirement of the Muslim faith.
Steeped in the most rigorous theological training as he was – being a graduate of and jurist appointed by al-Azhar, then the preeminent institution of Islamic learning worldwide – al-Raziq built his case entirely on religious grounds, marshaling to his side an ostensibly impressive set of observations. For one, neither the Quran nor the Hadith actually makes any mention of a caliphate, he noted. For another, there is no evidence that the Prophet Muhammad presided over any kind of institutionalized Islamic state, nor did he leave instructions for his followers to do so, he argued. Instead, the caliphate was an innovation devised by venal, self-serving tyrants who distorted the Prophet’s essentially apolitical message, with the result that by the 20th century the caliphate had become “a plague for Islam and the Muslims, a source of evils and corruption.”
The reader can probably guess how this thoughtful suggestion was received by the gatekeepers of the faith at the time. The al-Azhar clerics issued a formal condemnation of the book, enumerating with exhaustive quotations from Quran and Hadith exactly how very gravely it was mistaken, and then fired al-Raziq from his post. Muhammad Rashid Rida, probably the single most influential Islamic thinker of his generation, called the book the work of the “enemies of Islam,” while other notables such as Muhammad Bakhit argued at painstaking length that the Prophet did in fact govern a caliphate-like entity in Medina. Central to all these rebuttals was the fundamental conviction that, in Islam, religion and politics could not be separated. As Bakhit put it: “The Islamic religion is based on the pursuit of domination and power […] and the refusal of any law which is contrary to its sharia and its divine law, and the rejection of any authority the wielder of which is not charged with the execution of its edicts.”
This episode came to mind when on Sunday I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Ahmed Benchemsi and Karl Sharro in which they argued, among other things, that “secularism is not against Islam.” Of course, things have moved on a bit in the last nine decades – only a crackpot fringe minority of Muslims seriously calls for a revived caliphate, and many are those who would call themselves both Muslims and secularists – but the idea that Islam must have some kind of role in politics remains very much the official view of the clerics today. Indeed, state theologians continue to wield legislative power in every country in the Arab world, including supposedly ‘secular’ Syria and ‘liberal’ Lebanon (where they recently decreed civil marriage “apostasy” and blocked a draft law against domestic violence on the grounds that it “[violated] the Islamic law”).
Is secularism, then, compatible with Islam? Or, to put it another way, can Islam be separated from the clerical apparatus – the ulama – that converts its teachings into legislation in the real world? It’s a question that ultimately only Muslims can decide (and part of the problem to begin with, of course, is there is no single “Islam”), but the prevailing scholarly view for now seems to be that it can not. To claim otherwise is to make the rather large claim that one knows Islam better than its own clergy.
Which is obviously not to say there aren’t muftis and mullahs out there who would disagree vehemently. The point is rather that so long as such dissidents are firmly in the minority – so long as the great mass of their peers continue to dismiss and discredit them – then it cannot be accurate to say that “Islam,” as it is generally practiced around the world today, is a secular phenomenon.
Not that Islam is alone, of course. Every religion has a theocracy problem. Catholicism, as practiced in the Vatican, is not compatible with secularism. Judaism, as practiced in Israel, is not compatible with secularism. Even the quaint variety of Protestantism in my native UK is, in fact, a state religion, “defended” by a priestess-queen and granted 26 unelected and unaccountable seats in parliament. These are all by necessity the foes of any secularist worth the name, and I don’t think we should be embarrassed to say so forthrightly.
NB: All quotes and information on Ali Abd al-Raziq come from Albert Hourani’s indispensable Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939.