Citation for Secularism

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Hashemi, Nader . "Secularism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


Hashemi, Nader . "Secularism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


A key problem in understanding secularism is agreeing on what the concept actually means. Does secularism suggest anticlericalism? Atheism? Disestablishment? State neutrality toward religion? The separation of religion from state? Or the banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere? According to Charles Taylor, if there is one thing that can be said with certainty it is that “it is not entirely clear what is meant by secularism.”

Making an understanding of secularism more difficult are the different histories of secularism and their legacies both within the Western tradition (e.g. French versus Anglo-American secularism) and in the non-Western world (e.g. Indian secularism is quite distinct). In the Muslim world, secularism has a negative legacy. Unlike in the West where secularism is broadly associated with pluralism, toleration, and progress, in Muslim societies secularism is broadly associated with dictatorship, corruption, repression, and alienation. Elites in the Muslim world, however, have a more favorable view of secularism.

Secularism's History.

The etymon of the word “secularism” is the Latin saeculum, which initially meant “age” or “generations” in the sense of time. It later became associated with matters of this world, as distinct from those of the spiritual world. The French word laïcité also signifies secularism and referred to “lay people,” those who were not of the clergy. In the English dictionary written by Samuel Johnson in 1755, secularism was defined as “worldliness; attention to the things of the present life.” Talal Asad credits George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), a social reformer and working-class activist, with coining the term “secularism” in 1851. According to Holyoake, secularism “is the study of promoting human welfare by material means; measuring human welfare by the utilitarian rule, and making the service of others a duty of life.”

Broadly speaking, secularism signifies that which is not religious. An easy way to think about secularism is in relation to three core disciplines of the social sciences: philosophy, sociology, and political science. Philosophically, secularism suggests a rejection of references to the metaphysical and transcendental with a focus on the existential and the empirical realm of human existence. Sociologically, secularism is tied to modernization, in particular the gradual reduction and influence of religion in social relationships and social institutions. Politically, secularism correlates with the separation of the public and private spheres and especially the separation of religion and state.

Political secularism has distinct European roots. It emerged in response to the problem of religion in political life. In the case of the Anglo-American tradition, the paradigmatic event that gave rise to secularism was the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing wars on religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A key political question during this time revolved around the relationship between religious toleration and political order. It was widely believed that the two were incompatible and that the establishment of a state religion and the union of church and state was the best way of preserving political stability. As Thomas Hobbes noted in the title of his Leviathan (1651), his ideal commonwealth required the amalgamation of the “ecclesiastical and the civil.” It was left to John Locke, who after reflecting on the problems of religious toleration in Europe, wrote his famous A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) in which he broke from the reigning Hobbesian consensus and argued that “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the Business of Civil Government from that of Religion, and to settle the just Bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the Controversies that will be always arising, between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a Concernment for the Interest of Men's Souls, and on the other side, a Care of the Commonwealth.”

The French Revolution was a key development in the history of secularism. The tension between Paris and Rome lead to the French invasion of Italy and the capture of recalcitrant popes on two occasions (1798 and 1809). More relevant, however, was the close connection between the Catholic Church and the ancien régime. French secularism or laïcité, therefore, had a decidedly anticlerical and antireligious component from the outset that persists to this day.

There are thus two distinct but related political models of secularism that have been bequeathed to us from the Western tradition. The Anglo-American version is less hostile to religion and necessitates a separation of religion from state while allowing for religious participation in the public sphere. The French model is more hostile to religion and demands a more robust separation of religion from politics. Each model was arrived at based on the unique historical experiences of the countries in question and the challenge that religion posed to political order and notions of progress. Postcolonial Muslim states that have been influenced by France (North African states and Turkey) have imported this religious hostility into their understanding of secularism.

Secularism in Muslim Societies.

Islam has long been viewed as a religious tradition that is uniquely antisecular. Influential scholars in the social sciences have argued that Islam's early formative historical experience and its unique reaction to modernity have prevented secularism from developing. In one famous argument Bernard Lewis has written that the “reasons why Muslims developed no secularist movement of their own, and reacted sharply against attempts to introduce one from abroad, will thus be clear from the contrasts between Christian and Muslim history and experience. From the beginning, Christians were taught both by precept and practice to distinguish between God and Caesar and between the different duties owed to each of the two. Muslims received no such instruction.” Similarly, Ernest Gellner put forward a sophisticated thesis on Muslim politics that sought to draw a distinction between the “high culture” of the urban clergy, which was characterized as scriptural and puritanical and which Gellner claimed is normative for the urban life of the entire Islamic world versus the “low culture” of the tribe and village life where folk Islam was practiced. Under modern conditions, Gellner argued, the puritanical Islam of the urban clergy is appropriated at the mass level due to political centralization, urbanization, and mass education. Islamic fundamentalism is thus “the demand for the realization of this norm, and the popular support it enjoys stems from the aspiration to the High Culture by the newly urbanized masses.” This explanation of Mus-lim politics, argued Gellner, is compatible with the requirements of political modernity where contrary to the previously dominant assumptions of social theory modernity required secularization. Thus, Islam's relationship to modernity is unique in that modernity strengthens religion's hold over society, and this explains why secularism has not flourished in Muslim societies.

The strength of these arguments were enhanced by the writings of political Islamists in the twentieth century who similarly rejected any separation between dīn wa dawlah (religion and government) in their normative theories on what constituted a just political order. Moreover, events on the ground in the later half of the twentieth century with respect to the rise of religious opposition movements that were overtly hostile to secularism, gave further impetus to this “Islamic exceptionalist” narrative.

It is rightly noted that there is no equivalent translation of the term secularism in Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. In Arabic the common term is ʿilmānīyah (from world ʿilm, science) or almanīyah (this-worldly); in Persian an adaptation of the English (sekularizm) is used, while in Turkish the common term is laiklik from the French laïcité.

An early allusion to the term came from Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, the prominent late-nineteenth-century Muslim political activist, who engaged in a famous debate on religion and science with the French philosopher, Ernest Renan. Given the stature of al-Afghānī as one of the founding fathers of modern Islamic political thought, the mistranslation of “secularists” as dahrīyīn, a Qurʿānic term used to describe atheists, led to an enduring misunderstanding. Equating nineteenth-century positivists such as Renan with seventh-century opponents of the prophet Muḥammad, as al-Afghānī did, effectively meant that secularism was seen as intimately related to anti-Islamic forces and tantamount to a rejection of religious faith and the attendant morality, traditions, and rules that operate within Muslim societies.

The problems with secularism in Muslim societies, however, are far greater than a matter of etymology and translation. They are rooted in the lived experiences of Muslim communities over the past two hundred years. The most politically salient part of this lived experience has been the encounter with European (and later American) imperialism. This is how secularism was first introduced into the region. The 2003 American-Anglo invasion and occupation of Iraq is just the latest chapter in a long series of interventions that has shaped the political and moral context in which debates on modernization and secularism have taken place. As renowned contemporary scholar Muhammad Khalid Masud has noted in a recent study: “Muslim thinkers found it very difficult to understand new ideas like secularism in isolation from Christian (Western colonial) supremacy.”

A key difference in the experience of secularism in Europe versus the Middle East was that in the former it was an indigenous and gradual process evolving in conjunction with socioeconomic developments and supported by intellectual arguments that eventually sank deep roots into Europe's political culture. By contrast, the Muslim experience was more rapid and has been marked by a perception of secularism as an alien ideology imposed from outside first by invaders and then kept alive by elites who came to power during the postcolonial period. In short, secularism in Europe was largely a bottom-up process that was intimately connected to debates from within civil society, while in Muslim societies secularism was largely a top-down process that was driven first by the colonial state and then the postcolonial state. As a result, secularism in the Muslim world has suffered from weak intellectual roots and, with a few exceptions, has never penetrated the mainstream of Muslim societies.

Most states in the Muslim world by the end of twentieth century were developmental failures. A pattern of state-society relations developed that further impugned the reputation of secularism. An autocratic modernizing state, often with critical external support, suffocated civil society thus forcing oppositional activity into the mosque, inadvertently contributing to the rise of political Islam. A set of top-down, forced modernization, secularization, and Westernization policies by the state—within a short span of time—generated widespread social and psychological alienation and dislocation. Rapid urbanization, changing cultural and socioeconomic relationships coupled with increasing corruption, economic mismanagement, rising poverty, and income inequality undermined the legitimacy of the state. These developments reflected badly on secularism because the ruling ideology of many postcolonial regimes in the Muslim world were openly secular-nationalist.

Thus, for a generation of Muslims growing up in the postcolonial era, despotism, dictatorship, and human rights abuses came to be associated with secularism. Muslim political activists who experienced oppression at the hands of secular national governments logically concluded that secularism is an ideology of repression. This observation applies not only to Iran (under the Shah) but also to Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, and many other Muslim majority countries in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Summarizing this trend Vali Nasr, scholar and expert in Middle Eastern affairs, has written: “Secularism in the Muslim world never overcame its colonial origins and never lost its association with the postcolonial state's continuous struggle to dominate society. Its fortunes became tied to those of the state: the more the state's ideology came into question, and the more its actions alienated social forces, the more secularism was rejected in favor of indigenous worldviews and social institutions—which were for the most part tied to Islam. As such, the decline of secularism was a reflection of the decline of the postcolonial state in the Muslim world.”

Contributing Factors Affecting Secularism in Muslim Societies.

The fact that the West proudly and loudly proclaims itself as secular and is simultaneously viewed by Muslims as pursuing policies that are unpopular have further undermined the reputation of secularism. Overt Western support for dictatorial regimes such as those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine are illustrations of this point. Similarly, Western support for the Algerian military coup which aborted the democratic process in 1992 and the strong support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians contribute indirectly to the erosion of secularism in Muslim societies. Furthermore, the ḥijāb (headscarf/veil) debate in France in 2004 was viewed in the Muslim world as further proof of the draconian and allegedly inherently anti-Islamic nature of secularism. Female Muslim students in some French schools were denied entry in the name of secularism, and a new law on secularism was passed to deal with this controversy, which had gripped France and later the rest of Western Europe and generated worldwide media coverage. Finally, the Anglo-American invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have further discredited secularism, albeit indirectly.

The Ottoman Empire and Its Legacy.

Ottoman Turkey, as a bureaucratic empire, had institutionalized both civil and religious authority in the imperial administration and in the person of the ruler, the sultan/caliph. During the nineteenth century, a state-sponsored modernizing reform movement created secular institutions intended to introduce Western educational methods, legal systems, and military techniques. These institutions, and the elite that administered them, did not so much destroy corresponding Muslim organizations as supplant them; the latter remained in existence, meeting the needs of the Muslim population. This process of reform, called the Tanzimat (reorganization process), encountered strong resistance throughout the century as Ottoman Turks struggled to confront the question of the empire's survival and how best to achieve it. For avowed secularist reformers, such as a Minister of Education in the 1870s, Saffat Pasha, survival was the issue: “unless Turkey… accept[s] the civilization of Europe in its entirety… she will never free herself from the European intervention and tutelage and will lose her prestige, her rights, and even her independence.”

After World War I and the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the new state of Turkey emerged under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk. He abolished both the political sultanate and religious caliphate. For Muslims generally, this ended the legacy of the prophet Muḥammad, a religiously sanctioned office of political authority. For Mustafa Kemal, it opened the way for a civil state in which Islam would be relegated to the status of personal faith. The Muslim calendar was replaced by the Gregorian, Arabic script by the Latin, and the veil was discouraged.

This top-down secularization process created a secular state, but it could not erase Islam as a religion followed by the mass of the people. With the advent of a multiparty democratic system after World War II, ostensibly secular politicians won elections by appealing to mass religiosity, thus appearing to threaten the Atatürk legacy. Military intervention in 1997 indicates ongoing political uneasiness in Turkey over the boundaries of Islamic expression within the secular state. The rise of a series of Islamic-based political parties in the last decade of the twentieth century has placed the question of secularism at the center of Turkish politics. While the media have portrayed this as a clash between Islamism and secularism, the real controversy is between contrasting interpretations of the concept of secularism: an Anglo-American version, which allows for religious participation in politics and is supported by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party versus a more draconian French secularism, which views such participation as a threat to social order and is championed by the Kemalist establishment and the Turkish military. The victory of the AK Party in the 2007 elections and the election of Abdullah Gül as President suggests an important victory for proponents of Anglo-American secularism in Turkey. This serves to strengthen the process of democratic consolidation in Turkey and bodes well for its future possible membership in the European Union.

The Arab World.

A wide range of governments exist in the Arab Muslim world, from the Wahhābī-sanctioned Saudi Arabian state to the avowedly secular, socialist regimes in Algeria and Syria. Saudi Arabia, because of the two-centuries-old link of the house of Saʿūd to the Wahhābī reform movement, proclaims itself an Islamic state. Technically, its rulers are secular officials governing in accordance with sharīʿah as interpreted by the ʿulamāʿ (clergy). Islam legitimizes the state which is governed by sharīʿah law. Saudi officials finance Islamic movements in other states against governments considered secular; the goal is to restore sharīʿah as the governing law of these states, returning these countries to the model known in the early Islamic centuries. Nevertheless, the Saudi ruling house has come under attack from more fundamentalist Muslim groups for its supposed deviation from Islamic norms.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the rival secular states of Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, each ruling in the name of various forms of Arab nationalism, although in recent years they have attempted to shore up their legitimacy by claiming to respect and uphold religious values. In order to accomplish this, concessions have been made to religious groups in society in the hope of pacifying opposition to the state.

In Syria there exists a religious opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, epitomized by the Muslim Brotherhood, which, like its parent organization in Egypt, seeks the creation of an Islamic state. Such movements have been ruthlessly suppressed. In 1982, Assad ordered the bombardment of the northern city of Hama, with an estimated twenty thousand casualties, to destroy centers of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members had infiltrated the ranks of military cadets.

In Iraq, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Islamist parties and militias flourished. Despite their differences and the competition for resources and political power these parties were united by an explicit rejection of secularism. This was in large part because of the perception of Baʿthist rule as an outgrowth of secularist ideology. Even the once powerful Communist Party, decimated under Saddam Hussein, adopted the politics of religion to spread its message. In the constitutional meetings that sought to draft a new Iraqi constitution, the majority of the delegates, reflecting popular opinion, insisted on assurances that the principles of Islam would not be violated by the new constitution and that Islam would be the state religion and a source of legal opinion. A similar set of events occurred in Afghanistan during its post-Taliban constitutional process.

In Egypt, the creation of a secular state and concomitant legal institutions began in the nineteenth century, encouraged by Khedive Ismail (r. 1863–1879) and applied more intensely under the British occupation from 1882 onward. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of an avowedly secular cadre of Muslim intellectuals linked to Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid and the newspaper Al-jarīdah, which advocated the relegation of Islam to matters of personal faith. Following World War I, Egyptian nationalist parties were generally secular, agreeing that Islamic institutions, including the mosque/university of al-Azhar, should be placed under state supervision and that sharīʿah should be supplanted by Western law codes in all areas except those of personal status.

Muslim secularists, such as Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Tāhā Husayn, aggressively advocated these ideas and the superiority of Western culture during the 1920s. In 1925, ʿAlī ʿ Abd al-Rāziq, a member of the ʿulamāʿ, argued that Islam prescribed no single model of government and instead promoted a set of broad ethical principles that permitted freedom of opinion and democracy. These declarations caused a backlash that contributed to the creation of a popular movement in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemned both the advocates of secularism and al-Azhar as being ineffectual in opposing them. The leader of the brotherhood, Ḥasan al-Bannā, called for the restoration of sharīʿah and the application of Islamic norms such as zakāt (tithing) to create a more just society; the Western model was condemned as creating socioeconomic inequality, an argument that has great resonance today.

To avoid political condemnation and to justify secular goals from within Islam, secularists often turned to writing studies of the early Islamic period. Haykal argued that basic Muslim principles supported freedom of opinion and democracy in accordance with modern ideals. He stressed that the Rāshidūn or “rightly guided” caliphs left no organizational model for later generations, but rather a set of principles whose specific application could change according to the needs of the age. This argument was directed against calls for restoration of an Islamic system where sharīʿah would be applied. Ṭāhā Ḥusayn distinguished between the suitability of Islam for the masses and the intellectual need for Western guidance, insisting in 1938 that Egypt was really part of western European culture.

From the 1930s onward, a state of tension has continued in Egypt between the secular state and a strong religious movement that calls for a return to society governed by Islamic values. The type of secular government has fluctuated, from parliamentary government under a monarch until 1952, to a military quasi-dictatorship from 1954 to 1970 under Gamal Abdel Nasser, to a more liberal autocracy which began under Anwar el-Sadat (in power 1970–1981) and which has continued under his successor, Hosni Mubarak. Throughout this period secular culture continued to expand, as did secular education, avowedly socialist in tone under Nasser, who suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood survived, however, and intensified its struggle, as seen especially in the writings of Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), who condemned “Atatürkism” as a basic secular evil and called for a return to rule under sharīʿah. In his search for allies against leftist factions, Sadat permitted the resurgence of the Brotherhood and allowed it to publicly declare its goals. However, his corresponding economic opening to the West in the 1970s, the infitāh, led to increased corruption and resulted in open Muslim Brotherhood condemnation of secularism, a factor that contributed to Sadat's assassination in 1981.

Today, outright advocacy of secular culture in Egypt is dangerous, as witnessed by the assassination of the journalist and professor Faraj Fawdah in 1992. Those who call for the restriction of Islam to matters of personal faith do so from within an Islamic context, essentially returning to the tactics of intellectuals in the 1930s. They counter the fundamentalist call for rejection of Western culture by declaring that it was the West that had religious control of the state in the Middle Ages, unlike Sunni Islam, which had never had the direct imposition of religious authority over the state; they argue for Western values from an ostensibly anti-Western stance. The debate in Egypt between Islamic modernists and fundamentalists is in the public arena. Many of the modernists espouse goals advocated by secularists in the past, but with greater respect for religious sensibilities. The ongoing strength of religious culture in Egypt requires that “the attempt to justify greater intellectual flexibility in approaching religious and social issues must come from within Islam, not against it.”

Left unanswered by this approach is the question of social equity and social order. The Egyptian secular state seems incapable of addressing socioeconomic crises, whereas religious groups, far better organized at local levels, provide social services, including medical care that the government does not. Such organizations, like their European and American counterparts in relatively isolated communities in the nineteenth century, provide cohesion and moral links to a broader community that the state fails to offer.

For many Islamists, freedom of opinion exists only within the limits of Islamic discourse. In their view, the Western concept of freedom fosters moral and social corruption. Some Islamist advocates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, are sensitive to this question and accept a gradualist approach to power in which parliamentary government is retained and differing views are tolerated. The major Islamic movement in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), however, sought to come to power by the parliamentary process between 1990 and 1992 but vacillated as to whether parliamentary government tolerating nonreligious opinion would continue.

The Algerian experience illustrates how a secular—in this case socialist—government, while paying obeisance to Islamic values, can lose the allegiance of poor and unemployed citizens who heed the argument that true socioeconomic justice is based on the restoration of a religious state and the rejection of foreign values. It is all the more significant as the secular Algerian state carried the legacy of leading the nationalist resistance to French occupation, a unifying symbol now apparently meaningless to many younger Algerians.

Although an Ottoman province like Egypt, Algeria was never fully controlled or united territorially, nor was there a central Islamic authority acknowledged by all as was found in al-Azhar in Egypt. The legal authority of the Algerian ʿulamāʿ coexisted uneasily with that of the marabouts and Ṣūfī shaykhs, who held great sway among the populace. In addition, Algeria's colonial experience was radically different from Egypt's. Egyptian secular state formation had begun under Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805–1849), well before the British occupation in 1882. Even then, an Egyptian government existed in name and form, with British rule imposed through a shadow government.

In contrast, the French occupied Algeria in 1831, although their conquest of the desert interior took nearly fifty years. The French created a political unity where none had existed and governed directly. Unlike other colonies, France made Algeria a province of France and encouraged European colonization and settlement, intending to govern the region forever. Egypt never experienced such direct government or colonization.

Algeria's lack of political institutions and its heterogeneous society, combined with direct French rule, meant that Algerian nationalism developed in the post-World War I period outside of the realm of political parties and represented conceptions derived from vastly different social experiences. Francophone Algerian secular intellectuals, such as Ferhat Abbas, defined an Algerian sociocultural identity based on a union with a French political identity. In contrast, Abd al-Ḥamīd ibn Bādīs and others created an Islamic reform movement somewhat modernist in its goals but concerned also with a return to the early Islamic period to purify religion, not unlike the ideas of the Egyptian Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) who had had a great influence on Luṭfī al-Sayyid and later Egyptian intellectuals. Beyond this realm, Ibn Bādīs and his colleagues were the first to assert the idea of an Algerian nation. Nevertheless, the reform movement's influence was limited, and it remained for a movement of Algerian workers transplanted to France to found the first true national movement that called for Algerian independence, the E´toile Nord-Africaine.

This brief survey illustrates the complexity of the Algerian national movement prior to the revolutionary phase that would be led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), an amalgam of nationalist tendencies that subsumed Islamic, socialist, and liberal intellectual trends. With independence in 1962, the FLN, composed of diverse factions, assumed leadership of the country. The mass of the people, still rural, remained profoundly Muslim even when they migrated to the major cities seeking work. In 1963, the nature of the polity was embodied in the Algerian Constitution, which declared Algeria to be a socialist state with Islam as its official religion. Algeria, like Egypt, was a secular state with a secular culture for the urban bourgeoisie and intellectuals, but the culture of Islam dominated the countryside and increasingly the urban slums. With the failure of FLN socialism and authoritarianism in the 1980s came both the demand for greater democracy and the appearance of a mass Islamic movement, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), that galvanized the discontented and played on the apparent impotence of the government.

The FIS and its rival Muslim organizations call for an Islamic state run by sharīʿah. They were anti-Western, condemning the West's secular culture as corrupt and alienating, the antithesis of the concern for society that is proclaimed by Islamists. Secularism as läicité was specifically attacked as antireligious, and those who support it are seen as identifying with the French colonial heritage. The FIS thus linked itself to Algerian nationalism in the name of Islam. Its leaders, ʿAbbāsī Madanī and ʿAlī Bel Ḥajj, also condemned socialism and communism, as distinct from secularism, as foreign imports. Madanī's position regarding democracy was moderate, while Bel Ḥajj's views were more confrontational. A civil war erupted after the 1992 military coup that banned the FIS and ended Algeria's brief experience with multiparty democracy. According to some reports, more than 150,000 Algerians were killed in the period between 1992 and 2002.


Since 1500 Iran has been a Shīʿī Muslim society. The rulers were legitimized by their protection of Shīʿī Islam as interpreted by Shīʿī clerics. The Qājār dynasty (1794–1925) ruled Iran in the name of Shīʿī Islam. Iran was never formally colonized, but its economic and political life gradually fell under European control at the end of the nineteenth century. This led to the short-lived 1906 Constitutional Revolution whose vanguard was an alliance of Shīʿī clerics, merchants, and secular liberals, all seeking to restrict the authority of the king. A provision in the constitution called for a committee of clerics to review all legislation to ensure its compatibility with Islamic principles, but this was never implemented.

For most Iranians, Iranian nationalism had religious overtones. The failure of the 1906 revolution, undermined by Anglo-Russian intrigue in collaboration with the monarchy, did not erase memory of its ideals. Neither did the appearance of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 created by the colonel Reza Shah, who sought to emulate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and create a secular state from above. The period of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979) was a secular interlude in which efforts to impose state-ordered modernization ultimately aroused mass resistance encouraged by Shīʿī religious officials, whose authority had never been fully quelled. Secularism as a foreign importation was linked to the gradual exertion of American influence over Iran especially under the second Pahlavi monarch, Muhammad Reza Shah (1919–1980), who was restored to the throne after a CIA-supported military coup in 1953 that ousted the liberal democratic Prime MinisterMohammad Mossadegh.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought together a coalition of clerics, left-wing parties, merchants, students, and many secular Iranian nationalists including educated women, all whom sought the removal of the Shah without necessarily expecting a theocracy. The overwhelming support for the creation of an “Islamic Republic” in 1979, which was ratified by popular referendum, was due to the ambiguity in the concept of an “Islamic Republic.” Different groups who participated in the revolution had different interpretations of this concept. Many viewed it as simply a code word for the creation of a just society. Consistent statements by Ayatulloh Khomeini while in exile in Paris in support of democracy and freedom including the formation of liberal interim government under the liberal-minded Mehdi Bazargan led many to believe that Iran was headed for a period of democratic rule. In the postrevolutionary party struggle, however, the Islamist supporters of Khomeini, backed by significant support from the lower-middle classes and a network of mosques, quickly vanquished their opponents. The seizure of the American embassy and the start of the Iran-Iraq war facilitated the consolidation of power of the disciples of Khomeini who had formed the Islamic Republican Party and by 1981 were in full control of the Iranian state.

Secularism was viewed as an offshoot of the unpopular and increasingly repressive policies of the Pahlavi monarchy. A condemnation of the concept of secularism and secularist intellectuals has been a staple of Islamic revolutionary discourse in Iran since the 1979 revolution. What is revealing in these references is the close association between secularism, imperialism, and the foreign policies of the great powers. This speaks to the weak intellectual roots that secularism suffers from in Muslim societies and the absence of an indigenous narrative on secularism, especially among the religiously devout and politically mobilized segments of society.

In the second decade of the Iranian revolution, a group of religious intellectuals, many associated with the Kiyan magazine, began a process of critical introspection and rethinking related to the intellectual foundations of the Islamic Republic, the course the revolution has taken, and the future direction of Iranian society. Themes such as the relationship between religion and democracy, tradition and modernity, and also secularism were debated and interrogated. The leading figure in this group was Abdolkarim Soroush who sought to reevaluate the question of secularism in a religious context based on Iran's experience with Islamist rule. Slowly a gradual indigenization of secularism began to take place in Iran led by religious intellectuals and some dissenting clerical figures. The enveloping context which gave force to this intellectual transformation was Iran's negative experience with theocracy during the post-1979 period, in particular, and its failures to meet the aspirations of many educated and middle-class segments of society who desired more freedom, rights, and accountability in government. During the first term presidency of Muhammad Khātamī (1997–2001), these debates were openly aired in newspapers, magazines, and journals and discussed in various fora within civil society. Students, women's organizations and intellectuals were deeply affected by this process of intellectual ferment and contestation. A gradual conservative backlash, however, put an end to this period of reform, but it is widely believed today that if free and fair elections were held, politicians and political parties who support a separation of religion and state would do well. Today most of Iran's leading intellectuals and political dissidents, including the leading student organization Daftar Tahkim Vahdat and figures such as Shirin Ebadi, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Kadivar, Ebrahim Yazdi, and others support a separation of religion from state along the lines of what has been described above as Anglo-American secularism.

South and Southeast Asia.

The majority of the world's Muslim population lives in South and Southeast Asia, stretching from Pakistan to Indonesia. There exists in this region a great diversity of political and geographic circumstances as well as the existence of other ethnic and religious groups with whom Asian Muslims must accommodate themselves. This is especially true in India and Malaysia and has served to intensify religious as opposed to secular, national identities, most notably in India, where Hindu sectarian movements have increased in assertiveness in recent years.

With independence in 1947, the Indian polity proclaimed itself a democratic secular state with religious identities presumably submerged in the common bond of Indian nationalism. The dominant Congress Party had long claimed to embrace all religious and ethnic groups as Indian. Although still a secular state, India has fallen victim to sectarian passions, Sikh as well as Hindu. Hindu revivalism has focused on a desire to erase India's Islamic past. Hindu sectarianism, encouraged by poverty and illiteracy, has become a political force threatening, for the moment, the basis of Indian citizenship. India's Muslim population is estimated at 140 million, which is only 12 percent of the total population. These tensions intensify the long-existing rivalry between India and Pakistan, whose roots lie in the achievement of independence.

Indian independence brought with it the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan, the result of the determination of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League to preserve a separate Muslim identity. The stage was then set for a battle over what type of Muslim state Pakistan would be. The battle was not between avowed secularists and Islamists but rather between Islamic modernists and fundamentalists. The modernists called for democracy, pluralism, and applications of the basic principles of Islam in accordance with modern needs; the state would be secular and the culture open to Western practices. The fundamentalists, centered on Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and the organization he founded, known as the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī, called for a theodemocracy Pakistan to be governed by sharīʿah.

In principle, Pakistan has always been an Islamic republic. In fact, however, Pakistan was governed for years as a secular state despite the broad statement embodied in the 1949 Objectives Resolution that “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone, and the authority which He has delegated to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust.” Recognition of God's sovereignty signified that sharīʿah should be applied as state law. Despite this preamble, the modernists won, as recognition was given to “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam…” Similarly, the 1956 constitution, though paying obeisance to Islamic thought as its guide, was not bound by Islamic statutes. It contained secular laws creating a parliamentary democracy on the British model with the parliamentary right to ensure that no laws were passed that undermined Islamic legal principles. No mention was made of Islam as the state religion.

The distinction between adherence to Islamic legal principles and strict application of Islamic law is the classic modernist position. It essentially permits the existence of a secular state and the tolerance of a secular urban culture in a society whose constitutional framework and popular culture would remain Islamic. Whereas this had been argued from a defensive position by Egyptian modernists, it was now the basis of the Pakistani state.

Surprisingly, Mawdūdī and the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī accepted the 1956 constitution as embracing its dual objectives of enshrining Islam and democracy, despite the fact that Mawdūdī's call for a fully Islamic constitution had not been realized. Mawdūdī was not as insistent on the complete application of sharīʿah as his followers in the Arab world have been. Pakistan might have continued on this course except for a military coup that brought General Ayub Khan to power in 1958. He abrogated the 1956 constitution and called for a more modern, industrialized nation. Proclaiming himself a defender of modern Islam, he introduced legislation aimed at traditional Islamic practices. He revised laws to limit polygamy, to control more strictly divorce procedures, and to protect women’ rights of maintenance; he also ordered government absorption of awqāf (religious endowments), whose religious guardians had ties to powerful landowners and were deemed to be an obstacle to economic development and state centralization. These steps, affecting women and the economic bases of important religious institutions, resemble those taken by Muhammad Reza Shah in Iran that intensified Shīʿī Muslim determination to oust him.

In Pakistan, Ayub Khan's policies caused Mawdūdī and the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī to move from support to open opposition. This opposition intensified once Zulfiqar ʿAli Bhutto became prime minister in 1970. Initially, Bhutto publicly espoused socialism including the nationalization of private property. He thus repudiated Islamic principles of the right to private property in the name of a socialist ideology that challenged the Islamic foundation of Pakistan. The Bhutto regime (1970–1977) proved to be a turning point in Pakistani history. Bhutto aroused sufficient opposition to force a compromise with Islamic groups. His 1973 constitution, a concession to them, contained more open acknowledgment of Islam than that of 1956: all existing references were retained, Islam was recognized as the state religion, and it was decreed that the president and prime minister had to be Muslims. His socialism, like Nasser's in Egypt during the 1960s, became “Islamic socialism” in an effort to appease public opinion.

However, this victory for the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī in parliamentary maneuvering did not signify a rapprochement with Bhutto or an ongoing commitment to parliamentary democracy. Open elections held in 1970 led to a resounding defeat for the party. Mawdūdī's belief in Islam and democracy thus shaken, he and the party were quite willing to choose between these alternatives when General Zia ul-Haq staged a military coup in 1977, two years before Mawdūdī's death in 1979. Zia ul-Haq began to impose an Islamic program including the Islamic penal code. Bhutto was later executed for state corruption.

Recent Pakistani history has reflected the tensions inherent in its past struggles between democracy and state enforcement of an Islamic system, as well as between conflicting visions of Islam. Despite the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī's political activism, it has failed to capture more than a fraction of popular electoral support. Notwithstanding its earlier advocacy of democracy, it willingly backed Zia ul-Haq's autocracy but then shifted to opposition in 1988, shortly before Zia's death, and condemned state tyranny and corruption; the party then decided to support Bhutto's daughter Benazir. Though widely known outside Pakistan, the Jamāat-i Islāmī, as a popular movement, has failed to supplant groups representing the ʿulamāʿ or to shake traditional adherence to populist Islam in the countryside, as witnessed by its poor showing in elections.

The most notable legacy of the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī lies in the writings of its founder, Mawdūdī, whose call for an Islamic state as the only answer to the modern age was always extranational and, in his view, applicable throughout the Islamic world. His writings have been widely read by members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Algerian FIS. Ironically, Mawdūdī may be revered more outside Pakistan than within it.

In Pakistan itself, the struggle between Islamic modernism and traditionalism continues, buffeted by external factors such as Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation, which became a Muslim cause and strengthened traditionalist as well as fundamentalist Islam during the 1980s. NATO intervention in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, has strengthened this trend. In Pakistan, like Egypt, secular and modernist interests must be expressed within an Islamic framework; unlike Egypt, that framework had been granted official recognition in Pakistan through the 1956 constitution, opening the door to a possible future compromise.

In sharp contrast to the political activism of the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the political implications of Mawdūdī's writings is the individualistic Muslim reform movement that eschews political activism, known as the Tablīghī Jamāʿat, founded in 1926 in India. It is an Islamic revivalist movement based on personal preaching and the call to adhere to the Qurʿān and the sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Protestantism, it views politics as corrupting and “as with the eighteenth-century English evangelical Nonconformists, the primary instrument of the Tablīghī Jamāʿat workers is itinerancy.” Espoused by individual missionaries, it has spread throughout the Arab world, Asia, and Africa, seeking a revival of personal morality through adherence to the basic values of Islam and a fostering of communal ties and services to maintain an Islamic society among its members.

Such a movement tolerates a secular government or state for the sake of creating an Islamic social order independent of state support, thus permitting a focus on personal salvation. Conversely, this approach enhances survival in avowedly secular societies by rejecting political activism, a particularly beneficial stance among Indian Muslims, but attractive in Europe and North America as well. On a broader level, Tablīghī practices depoliticize religious activists and have served to weaken institutional or politically inspired religious efforts in Malaysia as well as Pakistan. As Mumtaz Ahmad has shown, the Tablīghī Jamāʿat is an authentic international Islamic movement, postulating the authority of the preacher over that of the religious official, in this case represented by the ʿulamāʿ but not unlike the evangelical Protestant response to secularism.

The South Asian experience has provided two resolutions to the question of the place of Islam with respect to society and the state, the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and Tablīghī Jamāʿat. Their philosophies and strategies are diametrically opposed to each other. On an organizational level, the politically activist Jamāʿat-i Islāmī has succeeded in influencing Islamist reform in Pakistan but has failed to win popular electoral backing; the Tablīghī Jamāʿat rejects political activism, and opts for individual preaching and moral reform. On the ideological level, both movements have become international in scope. The writings of Mawdūdī have served as a basic source of inspiration for the contemporary Muslim Brotherhood and especially for revolutionary fundamentalists, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb, who expanded Mawdūdī's call for Islamic government to include the conquest of the non-Muslim world. The Tablīghī movement has sent missionaries worldwide and has influenced Muslim communities in North America and Europe as well as in Africa and Asia.

In essence these movements reflect the two poles of Islamic daʿwah or propagation of the faith. The first insists on the union of religion and state and strives to recreate in modern form the Islamic system of government believed to exist in early Islam; the second rejects politics for the sake of moral values and principles—for the Tablīghī, the essence of Islam is found in the era of the Prophet Muḥammad—thereby insisting on the separation of religion and the state. The one rejects secularism outright, the other group views its political manifestation as a necessary evil to be tolerated in order to fulfill personal religious goals. They both return to the same source, early Islam, for their solutions, as have Islamic modernists and Islamic fundamentalists.

Analogous differences appear in the two sharply contrasting approaches to Islam and secularism found in Malaysia and Indonesia, which result from their different histories and colonial experiences. As Manning Nash has observed, both Malaysia and Indonesia are “Islamic nations but secular states,” but their concepts of nationhood are themselves quite different.

The vast archipelago called Indonesia contains more than 234 million people, a population that is nearly 88 percent Muslim. It is the largest Muslim country in the world, but the state is officially secular and celebrates a variety of expressions of Islam. Secular and Islamic educational systems are both state-sponsored, and secular and sharīʿah courts coexist. But this duality does not mean that the products of secular education are antireligious. Many, like their counterparts in Northern Africa, are devout Muslims who accept a secular state as preferable to a religious one so long as it does not impinge on their private lives. Infringement can arouse strong protest, as occurred in the mid-1970s when the government was forced to withdraw a proposed family status/marriage law that would have permitted Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men and granted civil courts final authority in cases regarding divorce or polygamy. Strong public opposition led to a reassertion of Muslim statutes and legal authority in such cases and banned interreligious marriages for Muslim women. Indonesian tolerance and pluralism regarding manifestations of Islam could easily change if the state were perceived as trying to modernize at the expense of Islam, as occurred under the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan.

Indonesia, like the rest of the Muslim world, has experienced an Islamic resurgence in the latter half of the twentieth century. This resurgence played a central (and often-neglected) role in opposing the authoritarianism of the Suharto regime (1966–1998) and in the democratic transition that followed his ouster. A distinguishing feature of this religious resurgence—in contrast to the rest of the Muslim world—has been its tolerant and democratic orientation. Robert Hefner describes mainstream political Islam in Indonesia as “civil pluralist Islam” that comes “in a variety of forms” yet its main features are “denying the wisdom of a monolithic ‘Islamic’ state and instead affirming democracy, voluntarism, and a balance of countervailing powers in a state and society.” The role of Islamic intellectuals has been central to the development of a liberal and progressive interpretation of religion which today dominates the political landscape of Indonesia.

What has been noteworthy about the role of Islamic intellectuals in Indonesia's democratic transition has been their engagement with the topic of secularism. Nurcholis Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid are two leading figures of this modern Islamic intellectual current. Rather than shying away from the relationship between Islam and secularism, they have faced this issue directly and have gradually constructed a political theory of Muslim secularism that has become a central ingredient of Indonesian Islam. Both men possess solid religious credentials and have organic ties with civil society, which has contributed to their success and given their political theology a broad exposure.

Hefner notes that Madjid's arguments on secularism “excited some of the most furious criticism” and “provoked special outrage.” The main charge against him was that his views on secularism “amounted to a Westernized interpretation of Islam.” Eventually the neo-modernist ideas of Indonesia's Islamic intellectuals, however, won the debate and came to indelibly shape the Muslim discourse on the normative relationship between religion and government. A de facto secularization of Muslim political thought gradually emerged. According to Hefner, part of the reason that Muslim intellectuals succeeded in developing an Islamic theory of democratic secularism was the strategy they employed. Rejecting the scholasticism of classical jurisprudence, these writers kept Qurʿanic knowledge at the center of their arguments. But they struggled to contextualize this knowledge through an eclectic exploration of other traditions and new intellectual paradigms. Western social science, classical Islamic scholarship, Indonesian history—these and other sources were drawn into the effort to create a new Muslim discourse of civility and pluralism.

The variant of secularism supported by Muslim political parties in Indonesia is a weak version of secularism, but it is decidedly secular nonetheless. While it draws a clear line of separation between religion and state, it rejects the privatization of religion and instead encourages the participation of religious parties in the public sphere. The tolerant and inclusive orientation of mainstream political Islam in Indonesia prevents it from trying to impose one religious interpretation on society and thus in a genuine Tocquevillian sense, religion both nurtures and sustains democracy and secularism in Indonesia today.

Malaysia is over 50 percent Muslim. Unlike Indonesia, Islam is the official religion of the country. Islam serves as a source of national identity to Malays in a country with Chinese and Indian minorities amounting to 37 and 11 percent of the population respectively. Nevertheless, Malaysian Islam is itself fragmented. Though there is a national government and Islamic officialdom, there are also thirteen states, nine of which have their own bureaus, legal officials, and religious courts.

With such official fragmentation, Islamic revivalism has taken root in the dakwah (missionary) movement. It is evangelical and personally or communally organized. It attracts primarily urban, often university educated youth who reject Western culture and its secular values as corrupt, quite similar to Islam's appeal for many in Egypt, for example. Frustrated by the diversity of Muslim groups in the federation, many young Malays of the dakwah desire an Islamic state. They are quite close in aspiration to the Muslim Brotherhood. The achievement of their goals would signify the end of the current Malaysian secular state unless explicit guarantees for ethnic minorities were given. The main political party that embodies these aspirations is the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party(PAS).

These movements signify discontent with official Islam and its Malaysian leaders. As evangelical groups who seek to isolate themselves from society and its corruptions, they resemble Tablīghī Jamāʿat members, but their ultimate goal, an Islamic state and official rejection of secularism, contradicts Tablīghī perspectives. However, there is also a Tablīghī dakwah in Malaysia that eschews political goals. These differences permit the secular political parties and government to tolerate their activities for now, but a spread of Islamic militancy, expressed politically and socially through dress codes as a symbol of frustration with modern values, could threaten the current Malaysian political system.

In both Malaysia and Indonesia there has been a growing movement for the implementation of sharīʿah law. This poses a major challenge to secularism in these societies and has mobilized a coalition of groups comprised of feminists, human rights activists, religious minorities, lawyers, and intellectuals who oppose this trend. Maylasian scholar Farish Noor has situated the rise of sharīʿah consciousness in Southeast Asia in the context of the failure of the existing civil legal system to combat corruption and injustice and to hold politicians accountable. He notes that “one of the main reasons Shariah… [has] become so popular among many Malay-Muslims is the failure of the secular option itself.” This relationship between the rise of Islamist tendencies and the failure of secular alternatives applies across the Muslim world on a range of issues, some which were previously discussed above.

The historical relationship between secularism and Islam has passed through several stages that have varied according to the particular Islamic society under study. Muslim governing elites were often attracted to Western secular values in the nineteenth century, because Western culture had proved superior militarily. Adoption of the scientific products of that culture could provide the means to reject European political dominance. In the early twentieth century, a new generation usually educated in Western schools more readily and positively turned to European secular values as an alternative to Islam for their societies. They considered Islam backward and a hindrance to modernity. Behind this attitude was another perspective that had been shared by the earlier generation of bureaucrats in the Ottoman government: the issue was one of survival, of achieving independence from foreign control and achieving equal status with the West.

There has always been Muslim opposition to the exponents of secularism, either centered in major Muslim institutions, such as al-Azhar in Egypt, or in nationalist groups that were often more eager to oust the imperial occupiers than were the secular modernists. From the 1920s onward, new forms of Muslim opposition arose, often rooted in popular movements that criticized official Islam as represented by the ʿulamāʿ, as well as secularists. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is the most obvious example, but the reformist movement of Shaykh Ibn Bādīs in Algeria, from within the ʿulamāʿ, and the later Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the postindependence dakwah activities in Southeast Asia, reflect the same trend. Most of these groups have originated as both Islamic and nationalist movements, although several have sought to encourage Islamist tendencies elsewhere.

All these movements have seen secularism, whether Western liberal or socialist, as increasing rather than lessening dependency on foreign powers. In their view, secularism, as an outgrowth of Western culture, has also undermined values indigenous to Islamic societies and, in the secular-nationalist form of Zionism and the state of Israel, taken away territory that had been Muslim for centuries. For the religious opposition, secularism as the basis of newly independent nations after World War II ultimately acquiesced in a new form of colonialism, primarily economic but often political and cultural. The issue, to the opponents of secularism, is the same survival that initially motivated its proponents, but survival is now defined in cultural rather than scientific terms; Western science and technology are acceptable, but the perceived dehumanization identified with secular culture is not.

See also FUNDAMENTALISM; JAMāʿAT-I ISLāMī; MAWDūDī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā; and TABLīGHī JAMāʿAT.


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