We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Secularism - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Secularism

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Secularism

    In the Islamic world, the battle between secularism—the belief that religious officials should have no direct authority in matters of public policy—and religion is more intense than ever. At one extreme are those who attempt to define Islam as a matter of personal belief alone, and at the other are those who believe that a return to traditional Islamic law and Islamic political authority is essential. In recent years, open support for secularism as a cultural value has become rare, and even dangerous, in many Muslim societies.

    A Controversial Subject.

    The historical relationship between secularism and Islam has passed through several stages, which have varied according to the particular Muslim society under study. During the 1800s, many Muslim officials and elites were attracted to the secular educational and government systems of the West. In their view, Islamic societies could overcome European political dominance if they embraced Europe's advanced scientific and technological knowledge. During the early 1900s, a new generation of Western-educated Muslims adopted this thinking and began to criticize traditional Muslim authorities, whom they regarded as an obstacle to modernity. Muslim opponents believe that secularism is an outgrowth of Western culture and a threat to the core values of Islamic societies. After Muslim countries gained their independence during the 1950s and 1960s, many conservatives embraced Western science and technology but continued to reject secularism, arguing that Muslim societies cannot compete with non-Muslim countries unless they preserve their own laws and principles based on Islam.

    Of central importance to the issue of secularism in the Islamic world is the status of women. Since the late 1800s, modernized Muslim societies have permitted greater freedom for women, including the removal of the veil, sometimes even forcing women to go unveiled. Western-oriented, well-educated Muslims have generally been more willing to support thesetrends. Conservatives strongly resist moves to westernize the legal status of women. In recent years, many educated Muslim women have begun to reject Western-style dress and have adopted types of covering that conform to Islamic guidelines for appropriate clothing. For some, this step represents a return to religious belief. For others, it reflects their desire to avoid criticism and harassment from men. The status and role of women in Mus-lim societies today is often a benchmark for evaluating the role of Islam in those cultures.

    Secular State.

    During the 1800s, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire instituted a state-sponsored reform movement to create secular institutions. In doing so, the government bypassed Islamic religious scholars and limited their authority to personal and family matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. These new institutions introduced Western educational methods, legal systems, and military techniques. Although this process of reform, called the Tanzimat or reorganization process, did not destroy corresponding Muslim organizations, it faced strong resistance. Nonetheless, secularists claimed that the empire would never free itself from European domination if it rejected westernization.

    After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, a new Turkish state emerged under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk . He abolished both the political sultanate and the religious caliphate in Turkey. For many Muslims, the end of the religiously sanctioned office of political authority was the end of a legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. For Atatürk, it was the way to inaugurate a civil state in which Islam would be a matter of personal faith. He also replaced the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian calendar and Arabic script with Latin script, and he discouraged women from wearing the veil. These changes created a secular state but did not diminish the power of Islam among the people. When the multiparty political system came into being after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ), politicians used religion to secure votes. Because this development threatened to under-mine Turkey's new secularism, the military took action. Since 1960 military intervention has helped the government limit the expression of Islam with-in the state. Despite a strict ban on religious-based political parties, the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party won a parliamentary majority in 2002 .

    Competing for Influence.

    A wide range of governments exists in the Arab Muslim world. Saudi Arabia identifies itself as an Islamic state. Its rulers govern in accordance with traditional Islamic law as interpreted by the ulama, and they finance Islamic movements in other countries. Syria, by contrast, is avowedly secular. The government relegates religion to matters of personal faith and practice. Women have equal rights, and many wear Western clothing and work outside the home.

    Since the 1930s, tensions between the secular state of Egypt and a strong religious movement have intensified. Government corruption has contributed to dissatisfaction with secular institutions and has led to a resurgence of Islamic identity. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 , promoted the restoration of Islamic law and the application of Islamic traditions, such as zakat, to create a more just society. Although President Gamal Abdel Nasser (ruled 1954 – 1970 ) suppressed the organization, its popularity led his successor, President Anwar el-Sadat , to permit its open operation. Today the government's apparent inability to address social and economic problems contributes to a climate that is increasingly hostile to secular institutions.

    Algeria's experience under French colonial rule led the country to develop a mix of secular and Islamic elements. After gaining independence from France in 1962 , Algeria adopted a socialist government that identified Islam as its official religion. By the 1980s, the failures of the government had led to the emergence of Islamist groups calling for the establishment of an Islamic state. Since the early 1990s, the members of the Islamic movement and the secular authorities have been engaged in a violent struggle to promote their conflicting goals.

    Religious Orientation.

    In the Islamic Republic of Iran, religious officials and Islamic law are the basis of government. Since 1500 Iran has been a Shi'i society, and the government has strengthened its legitimacy by protecting Islam, as interpreted by Shi'i clerics. The Pahlavi dynasty ( 1925 – 1979 ) represented a secular period in which state-ordered modernization ultimately ignited mass resistance, encouraged by Shi'i religious officials. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought together mullahs, merchants, and many secular Iranian nationalists, all of whom opposed the shah without necessarily expecting a religious government. Today, Iranian authorities condemn secularism and Atatürk as its Middle Eastern sponsor.

    The Challenges of Diversity.

    The majority of the world's Muslim population lives in South and Southeast Asia, an area that stretches from Pakistan to Indonesia. This region is home to a broad range of ethnic and religious groups, which often triggers conflict. In this environment, secular ideals have eroded. India, for example, is a democratic secular state with a sizable Muslim population. In recent years, however, India's Hindu majority has focused on eliminating the country's Islamic past.

    Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is an officially secular state. The government sponsors both Islamic and secular schools, as well as shari'ah and civil courts. Many Indonesian Muslims accept the idea of a secular state on the condition that the authorities do not interfere in their practice of Islam. They have protested vigorously when the state has taken steps to change traditional Islamic laws—as when the government introduced legislation to permit Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.

    In Malaysia, Islam serves as a source of national identity for the Malay population, who share the country with significant Chinese and Indian minorities. Nevertheless, the federation has a wide variety of Islamic groups. This situation has frustrated those who desire a more unified Islamic element in Malaysian society. Islamic revivalism remains a strong influence throughout the country. See also Algeria; Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal; Clothing; Egypt; Fundamentalism; Iran; Malaysia; Modernism; Muslim Brotherhood; Ottoman Empire; Saudi Arabia; South Asia; Southeast Asia; Turkey; Women; Women and Reform.

    • Previous Result
    • Results
    • Highlight On / Off
    • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
    • Next Result
    Oxford University Press

    © 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice