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Does “Religion” Deserve to be Privileged in Relation to the “Secular”? – Azizur Rahman Patel

October 18, 2013


Does “Religion” Deserve to be Privileged in Relation to the “Secular”?

by Azizur Rahman Patel

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 23 (October 2013)

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011 in the MENA region, the predominance of Islamist formations has surprised many political analysts. The perplexing question facing political analysts is, how has it come about that considerable percentages of the populations of this region—despite having been hitherto traumatized and oppressed for decades, by tyrannical dictators—have not used the opportunities they themselves created by the unseating of former dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Ben Ali of Tunisia, to usher in new dispensations based on political liberalism as applied in other established, as well as emerging democracies of the world.

The most plausible answer usually suggested is that not only politics, but also public, as well as private life in general in these nations, are profoundly influenced by the religious tenets of Islam. Egypt and Tunisia particularly, have seen major contestations for power between Islamist formations on the one hand, and “secular” groupings on the other. The Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as traditional conservatives such as the Salafists and the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars), are frequently inclined towards invoking “religion” and “sharīʿa” law as blueprints for their visions with regard to how Muslim societies ought to be governed.

This “religious”/”secular” binary has become the fulcrum for understanding the current political and social contestations taking place in the region. The centralization of these twin concepts in the various raging debates, tend to become reductionist and essentialist in nature. The central question of this article is: does “religion” deserve a privileged position in relation to the “secular,” or vice-versa, in terms of charting out a course for the future, for societies in the MENA region? While it is not the task of this article to provide comprehensive and decisive definitions of both these concepts, it would be appropriate and necessary to venture some discussion with regard to definitions, since particular understandings of concepts significantly impact on how the ensuing debates are conceptually framed, and practically applied.

Definitions and Conceptual Issues regarding Religion and Secularity

It would be no exaggeration to state that religion as a concept is remarkably difficult to define. William Cavanaugh, in his book The Myth of Religious Violence,[1] provides a very wide-ranging, and thorough discussion of the many multi-faceted definitions of the twin concepts of “religious” and “secular” that have been provided by a range of philosophers, sociologists, and scholars of religion. Although Cavanaugh is particularly interested in debunking the hypothesis that “religions” are necessarily pre-disposed to exhorting their followers to commit violence, as opposed to people who follow “secular” ideologies, his book provides noteworthy insights into the very important foundational issue of defining these pivotal concepts.

Cavanaugh’s first major hypothesis is that “there is no such thing as a transhistorical or transcultural ‘religion’ that is essentially separate from politics. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority.”[2] Furthermore, “what counts as religion and what does not in any given context is contestable and depends on who has the power and authority to define religion at any given time and place.”[3]

The second conclusion that stems from Cavanaugh’s analysis is that the development of the modern, liberal nation-state in the West is by its very nature responsible for the phenomenon of viewing the concept of religion as separate from secular phenomena, and hence as a “transhistorical and transcultural” phenomenon. For the liberal West then, understanding Christianity as a religion resulted in separating “loyalty to God from one’s public loyalty to the nation-state.”[4]

An additional crucial question that arises with regard to many of the wars of the past that plagued Europe, and which are usually referred to as the “wars of religion,” is, whether there are other important political, economic, and social factors that play a central role in these conflicts. Scholars are divided on this issue, and Cavanaugh argues that attempts at separating religion from politics, economics, and social factors, “are prone to essentialism and anachronism.”[5]

It is commonly understood that the modern nation-state “identified religion as the root of the problem and separated it from politics.” In fact, religion and politics were not separated. What took place instead, was what John Bossy described as “a ‘migration of the holy’ from the church to the state.” While seemingly, it appeared as if the “the holy was separated from politics for the sake of peace; in reality, the emerging state appropriated the holy to become itself a new kind of religion.”[6]

How this affects debates with reference to the apparent lack of compatibility between Islam and the implementation of liberal political systems in the Muslim world is that Muslims societies are frequently labeled as being “fanatical and dangerous,” since unlike the modern “West,” they have not learned to distinguish between “religion and the secular,” and consequently, to “separate politics from religion.” This makes them particularly prone to conflict with Western governments and cultures.[7]

When one conducts a historical analysis of the word religion, one finds that it “is derived from the ancient Latin word religio.” When the ancient Romans used the term, they understood it quite differently from how it is understood in modern parlance. In their case, “religio referred to a powerful requirement to perform some action.” It most probably originated from re-ligare, which means “to rebind or relink, that is, to reestablish a bond that has been severed.” When someone summoned the phrase religio mihi est—that something is ‘religio for me’,” it meant that that person considered it to be seriously compelling upon him/her to fulfill that obligation. In addition, many “civic oaths and family rituals” that people in the modern West would “normally consider to be secular,” were sometimes referred to as religiones.[8]

In the post- Renaissance period, the word religio was reinterpreted as a “modern category,” which specifically referred to the various ways in which Jews, Christians, and followers of the “Arabic religions” worshipped God.[9]

The modern “spatial division of the world into religious and secular” begins with Locke. During the medieval era, “the saeculum had both a temporal and spatial dimension; it referred to this world and age, and saecula saeculorum was translated in English as ‘world without end,’ ” and all creation was referred to as saeculum. In the early modern era, subsequent to the creation of a “new conception of religion,” the “secular” acquired an “oppositional character and became that which is not religious in the modern sense.”[10]

Conceptual problems abound and complicate matters when attempts are made towards charting out a political vision that is based on liberal democracy, for contemporary Muslim societies. This happens when religious and secular are strictly defined in terms of “a two-tiered view of reality: empirical-supraempirical, natural-supernatural, or human-superhuman.” This type of simplistic “two-tiered view of reality,” was essentially invented in the West. However, many non-Western cultures, which do not divide the world in terms of such binaries, are indeed ill at ease with such impositions on their philosophies and ways of life.[11]

There are indeed significant differences “between medieval religio and modern religion.”[12] Moreover, there is a multiplicity of apparently contradictory definitions of religion. However, it would be unwise to deduce from this “that there is no way to define religion.” In fact, the variety of approaches to defining “religion,” whether they are of the functionalist type, or of the substantivist variety, instead of inhibiting our understanding of the phenomenon referred to as religion, serve to contribute towards providing a rich array of explanations for it.[13]

Talal Asad argues that a “universal definition of religion” is not possible, not only for the reason that “its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.”[14]

The invention of the religious and secular binary in the West served to curb “fanaticism, sectarianism, and violence,” and “facilitated the transfer in the modern era of the public loyalty of the citizen from Christendom to the emergent nation-state.” Religion was cast as a “transhistorical and transcultural” stimulus, which was “essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life.” With regard to post-colonial Islamic and other non-Western societies, “the creation of religion and its secular twin” served to “marginalize certain aspects of non-Western cultures and create public space for the smooth functioning of state and market interests.”[15]

Finally, “[s]ecularism need not be antireligion. It is rather against the undue influence of religion on public life.” Referring to Martin Marty, Cavanaugh states that on the one hand, “public religion can be dangerous; it should be handled with care.” However, at the same time, public religion does have the potential to “contribute to the common good.” This positive potential however, is only possible if religions “…play by the rules established by the liberal nation-state. It must appeal to publicly accessible reason and avoid conflicts of loyalty between religious beliefs and the values of the nation-state.”[16]

Matthew Scherer hypothesizes “that the modern secular imaginary is premised upon an insufficient image of secularism as the separation of church and state, and that secularism should instead be understood as a process of conversion that reshapes key dimensions of both religious and political life.” What he means by this is that when “religion” and “politics” intertwine, both undergo “conversion,” and hence both become “transformed” by the “other.” He believes, this theory “might be usefully applied in thinking about Islamic politics today.”[17]

Scherer is critical of theories that on the one hand purport to make secularism the sole preserve of the West, and by the same token, produce “‘Islam’ as the other of secularism.” He correctly argues, “that secularism has itself been continuously transformed through engagement with global ‘religious’ traditions.” Furthermore, instead of positing “‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim politics’ as the antitheses of secular modernity,” he proposes his “concept of secularism as conversion” so as to consider “‘religion,’ including ‘Islam,’ as central to modernity.”[18]

For the purposes of analyzing contemporary Muslim societies, in this paper, I will define the religion of Islam as that system of thought that purports to have its foundations in the Qur’an and Prophetic sunna (traditions). Anything outside of that, that is, not precedented by explicit texts based on the above, will be considered as ‘secular’ for the purposes of this paper.

The Modern Middle East

Sami Zubaida, in his book,  Beyond Islam, posits the theory of “de-sacralizing” Middle Eastern histories and societies by questioning the primary role that is usually credited to religion in much of the historical and sociological analyses done on these societies, “where the adjective ‘Islamic’ is applied to every aspect of culture and society.” Through this process, religion becomes “‘materialized’ or ’embedded’ in social institutions and practices that are open to determination by economic and political factors.” This is very similar to the history of Europe, where “Christianity was materialized in the churches and monasteries as well as the courts, their economic and legal functions, the ebbs and flows of their political and institutional powers and their relations to monarchies and markets.”[19]

Much of the “Muslim world,” is witness to the contradictory tendencies of “largely secularized societies and polities” on the one hand, in contradistinction to the championing of “sacralized ideologies by regimes and oppositions” on the other hand. These societies are “secularized” to such an extent, that even in the case of “Islamic” Iran, many of the institutions and practices in these societies bear no semblance to religion. Consequently, the more secular these societies become, the more eager the religious authorities as well as oppositional movements become, “to paint them as Islamic,” which gives rise to what Zubaida calls spray-on Islam.”[20]

Parallel to the process of “sacralization” of “secular” phenomena, “modernities” are constructed as “alternative” to “tradition” and “culture,” whereas in reality, “…[m]odernities are not alternative: they are ideologically contested.” The supposition of “‘alternative modernities’ then takes sides in these contests, by legitimizing the ‘cultural’ standpoint of patriarchal and traditional advocates as somehow more ‘authentic’ than that of the advocates of liberation and diversity.”[21]

When we examine the contestations over political control playing themselves out between “secularists,” “Islamists” and “traditionalists” in the period after the 2011 uprisings, in Egypt and Tunisia, we find that “Islamist” organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda declare their supposed compliance with “principles of sharīʿa,” “Islamic morality” and “Islamic values,” in constitutional drafting processes, as well as in legislation.

While they selectively repudiate certain attempts at the secularization of life when it pertains to for example, “the evolution of sexuality, the equality of women and the supremacy of science as a form of knowledge”—by insisting on a return to “pure scriptural dictates”—they are at the same time themselves in essence, “a phenomenon of secularization.”[22]

If we analyze Islamic jurisprudential and legal history, we do not find a continuous and homogeneous transhistorical thread running through the 1400 years of Muslim history. In fact, what we find is a multiplicity of schools of thought (mazhāhib), and accommodation of logic and reason in the enhancement and implementation of the jurisprudential, and ethico-moral  enterprise all through Islamic history. However, “fundamentalists” (i.e. those “traditionalists,” as well as Islamists who insist on literal interpretations of holy texts, hence they are referred to as fundamentalists), “reject such historicization, seeing it, quite rightly, as creeping secularization.”[23]

It has now become commonplace to compare groups like the Salafīs (those who claim to follow the pious and learned early ancestors, salaf) to the early Protestants. Such groups claim to rebel against scholastic traditions which they believe, have been corroded and corrupted through human agency over the centuries. Therefore, they advocate a return to “pure scripture.” However, “they draw their strength from the newly educated and deploy the tools of modern technology in support of a religious ideology that purports to be a return to the original purity of their faith,” all the same.[24]

The tendency to appeal to the revealed texts, over and above human reasoning as sources of Islamic law and belief, is no new phenomenon. It has its roots in the line of reasoning of the scholars of hadīth (prophetic traditions), and has been a persistent appeal “throughout Islamic history,” albeit in a variety of forms. While reason is supposedly superseded by revealed texts, logic and reason eventually “govern how the text is to be understood, the caliph in the realm of sacred text.”[25]

The reality however, is that all through Islamic jurisprudential history, logic formed an integral component of the training of students who were not destined to become philosophers, but preachers instead. The purpose for such instruction was to demonstrate “how words and meanings were related,” even though this was underpinned by the most basic supposition that the “law is to be deduced from religious texts,” and “not made by human legislators.” Islamic legal scholars had to mine out meanings from the outer shells of the ancient texts in such a manner that was based on logic and reason. This they accomplished by being fully aware of the fact “that Islamic law, as they expounded it, was not a system of unchallengeable truths but rather a tissue of informed conjecture (ẓann),” where absolute certainty was not guaranteed.[26] The entire corpus of fiqh (jurisprudence) literature testifies to the “secularizing” nature of Islamic jurisprudential practice.

To return to Scherer’s analysis, he believes that the “contests over the role of Islam in public life” as they are playing themselves out in Egypt currently, should be viewed “as one element within a larger process of secularism in which both Islamic practices and institutions, and the practices and institutions of political life are being transformed in concert.” It becomes utterly simplistic to view the current contestations over power in the MENA region as simply a contest between “secularists” at the one end of the spectrum, versus “Islamists” or “The Muslim Brotherhood” at the other end. That “Modernity” does not necessarily come about as a consequence of a decline in “religiosity,” instead, it “emerges along with the ‘becoming religious’ of people and places.”[27] He puts it very succinctly as follows:

‘Religions’ today, furthermore, are modern religions, which is to say that they are traditions that have been invented and re-invented in the modern world under the influence of global systems of capitalist finance, production, and exchange, and modern states.”[28]


In this article, I have tried to demonstrate that it cannot be denied that current contestations prevailing in the majority of Muslim polities in North Africa, as well as in other parts of Asia, are certainly polarized between “Islamists” and “secularists.” However, I have tried to shed light on the differing conceptions of what constitutes the “religious,” as opposed to what represents the “secular.” Often, certain persuasions among “Orientalists,” and Western observers of political and social developments in Muslim societies, fall into the trap of essentializing both of the twin-concepts of “religion” and “secularization.” Islamist groupings themselves fall prey to the very same essentializing tendencies of modernity, whereby, the religious is cast as a timeless and transhistorical phenomenon, which is necessarily opposed to, and contradictory to “temporal” understandings of the human condition. These twin-concepts are then absolutized as immutable standpoints, void of nuances of historical change and development.

When we look at the recent brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt as a case in point, we find that they tend to absolutize their literalist and fundamentalist positions as the “authentic religious/Islamic” positions that need to be imposed on the rest of society through the coercive power of the modern state, as the terrorism analyst and communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH) Raby Ould Idoumou states in the following report:

“Salafists want to take advantage of the situation after the Arab Spring,” notes Hamady Ould Dah, a terrorism analyst and specialist in strategic studies, … “The Salafists are benefiting from freedom of expression, … Meanwhile, they attack democracy and secularism … These calls for extremism must be condemned because if the Salafists make it to power, it will inevitably mean less freedom,” the analyst tells Magharebia.[29]

The idea is not to totally expunge religion from playing a role in shaping the consciousness of the polities of the MENA region, which are grappling with attempts at establishing liberal democracies in their region. The guiding philosophy should rather be focused on how to accommodate those principles of human rights, equality, fairness and justice, tolerance of people of other faiths, religious and political pluralism etc., that comport with modern notions of a similar kind. Islamist and “traditionalist” orthodox and Salafist groups need to move away from their obsession with issues such as, controlling women’s dress, their choices regarding their right to educate themselves, or their rights pertaining to freedom of movement, and the like, by way of example. They need to desist from absolutizing their positions with regard to these, and other similar issues, by cloaking them under the banner of “pure/true Islam.”

As Mirette Mabrouk states:

Viewed at distance, Egypt’s politics might look simpler and cleaner than they are. An Islamist – secular divide is an easy and not entirely incorrect reading of the facts, but it is not an entirely accurate or, indeed, a complete one.[30]

I have provided some valuable insights by notable scholars, that the religious and the secular, far from being totally apart, are intimately fused, and very much engaged in the production of meaning. Each “sphere” is tenaciously involved in the adaptation and transformation of the “other,” and at the same time adapting to, and being transformed by the “other.” The religious and the secular have never been two ultimately distinct conceptual categories. As has been demonstrated, where suitable, “religious” groups have the tendency to “sacralise” the “secular,” just as “secular” rulers tend to justify their “secular” objectives, by manipulating “religious” symbols and discourses. On the other hand, the liberal, modern nation-state itself owes its existence, and continued survival by appealing to the “sacralising” propensities that human beings possess, of “secular” concepts such as the nation, a commitment to liberal values, democracy, voting, etc., by way of example. Religions themselves do not confine themselves to matters pertaining to “the Holy.” They constantly espouse positions on temporal matters regarding matters of politics, economics, and society. The difficulty comes about when either sphere, be it religious or secular, absolutizes its positions, and renders them eternal, and hence immutable.




[1] William T. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Ibid. p. 9.

[3] Ibid. p. 59.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. pp. 12-3.

[8] Ibid. p. 62.

[9] Ibid. p. 70.

[10] Ibid. p. 80.

[11] Ibid. p. 104.

[12] Ibid. p. 81.

[13] Ibid. p. 119.

[14] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) p. 15. [Note: The pagination of the e-copy I am quoting from differs from the original print book]

[15] Cavanaugh, op. cit. pp. 120-1.

[16] Ibid. p. 121.

[17] Matthew Scherer, “Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: Secularism, Conversion, and Islamic Politics.” This is a paper delivered at the Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium. It is based on the author’s book: Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion. (Cambridge, 2013). Available online at: (accessed on: 07 October 2013) PDF Version, p. 1/5.

[18] Ibid. p. 2/5.

[19] Sami Zubaida, Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. (London: I.B.Tauris, 2011). pp. 1-2.

[20] Ibid. p. 4.

[21] Ibid. p. 8.

[22] Ibid. p. 11.

[23] Ibid. p. 13.

[24] John Walbridge, God and logic in Islam: the Caliphate of Reason. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) p. 28.

[25] Ibid. p. 43.

[26] Ibid. p. 138.

[27] Scherer, op. cit. p. 3/5.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “After the Arab Spring, Salafists are Moving Closer to Changing the Face of the Maghreb.” Website: CRETHIPLETHI (07 April 2012) Available online at: (acc: 19 October 2013).

[30] Mirette F. Mabrouk, “The View from a Distance: Egypt’s Contentious New Constitution.” In Middle East Memo. No 28, January 2013. (Saban Centre at Brookings) p. 8.

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