By Khaled Aljenfawi
26 January, 2014
THERE is a tendency in some parts of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) to describe secularism as one form of sacrilege, or a “violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred.” In fact, the term secular comes from the Latin “saeculum” which means an age or a generation. Being “secular” refers to being “civil” rather than being ecclesiastical.
Moreover, secularism may also refer to “pertaining to this world or the present life” (Webster 1138). One of course does not suggest that secularism is a simple dichotomy between what is worldly and what is ecclesiastical.
However, anti-civil discourse around the Islamic world introduces secularism as another Western wickedness directed against the Islamic world! We as Muslims continue to have the option to create our own version of civil society; yet, this Islamic civil society has to abide by the universal principles of justice, equality and universal human rights.
Secular thought does not pose a clear or present danger against our Islamic heritage. In previous Islamic eras, tens if not hundreds of Muslim scholars did not find it troubling to their consciences to hold philosophical and intellectual discourses with Western secularism.
That international interactive stage in our Islamic history produced some of the most enduring scientific and philosophical productions. Yet today, it has become quite easy for religious fanatics in Islamic societies to describe those Arab and Muslim intellectuals with liberal tendencies as being secular; therefore attempting to ostracize them from society. Liberal Muslim and Arab intellectuals seem to pose a serious threat against the exploitation of religious discourses in society.
Religious fanatics fear that liberal Muslim intellectuals will dismantle their historical monopoly on Islamic religious discourse. Extremists and religious fanatics have always used Islamic discourse to manipulate ordinary people; exploit their genuine spirituality for the sake of achieving extremist’s political ends. An Arab liberal thinker, a Muslim intellectual who believes in tolerance, equality and in freedom of expression only poses a danger against ignorance.
Secularist Arabs and Muslims contribute to the advancement of their societies by encouraging their fellow Arabs or Muslims to be more accepting and more tolerant toward religious and racial differences.
However, due to the spread of fabricated misconceptions about secularism in the Arab and Islamic worlds, any individuals wrongly associate secular thinking with non-religion. Nevertheless, one can remain a devoted Muslim while at the same time continue to ask for the separation of religious institutions from the political arena.
Religion and spirituality are very private domains of human activities. One’s faith, religion and spiritual leanings should have nothing to do with fulfilling their roles as law-abiding, peace-loving and civilized citizens.
Extremists and fanatics will always insist on distorting perceptions against those who disagree with them. Liberal intellectuals do not necessarily ask for a dramatic shift in the general psyche in regards to the establishment of civil society. Liberal intellectuals will always insist that one needs to free himself/herself from historical misconceptions about the “Other” inside and outside Islam.