Secular Islam: Is it Feasible?, Athens, 25 June 2004 (Text and Power Point)


Athens, 25 June 2004


The title of this lecture is slightly misleading. If we define secularity as the separation of the State affairs from the religious affairs, a religion cannot be secular; because it is one of the parties that secularity divides into two. However there may be a secular State where State affairs are kept separate from the religious affairs. This religion may be Islam, Christianity, Judaism or non-monotheist religions.

Secular Islam may not be feasible, as will not be feasible secular Christianity. Instead, “Islam and secular State” or “Christianity and secular State” could be an excellent subject for discussion. Therefore, it will be more sensible to ask the question in the following manner: Could secularism function satisfactorily in a Muslim society or Muslim State? This is the question that I will try to discuss during the present presentation.

Historical background

Secularism is an innovation of the Christian culture. It emerged as a reaction to the acquisition of extensive powers by the church. It is sometimes defined as a reaction or protest movement, as a doctrine or ideology. Secular State was expected to prevent the church from controlling public institutions. It was not an attempt to reduce the importance of the religion in the mind of individuals. It was directed to organised efforts of Catholic Church to play a bigger role in public affairs. As a result of this, religion was restricted to the private life of individuals. However this initiative enabled the religion to be more effective in the organisation of the civil society.

Religion in Muslim Society

Since secularism was imported in the Islamic Society from the Christian world, it may not be appropriate to try to explain secularism with reference to the evolution of institutions in the Islamic societies.

 Puritanical Muslims regard the religion as an integral part of the State. They also believe that their State has to be a Muslim State. They would not accept that man-made laws be superior to divine laws. For this reason, they considered secularism as a declaration of war against Islam. Because they believed that Islam was a religion whose values and principles are aimed at liberating mankind, establishing justice and equality, encouraging research and innovation and guaranteeing the freedom of thought, expression and worship. For this reason they believed that secularism was not needed in Islam. Such a puritanical approach is bound to lead to theocracy.

The supporters of a more pragmatic attitude in this subject believe that there is more room for secularity in a Muslim society than in the Christian society, because Islam dismantled a strong institution that existed in Christianity, namely priesthood and human claim to represent divine entitlement. There was more compelling reasons in the Christianity to devise secularity, while such a need did not arise in Muslim societies. The authority acquired by the clerical class was one of the major reasons for devising secularism as a remedy. Islam rejects priestly functions. Sharia (Islamic law) divides the jurisdiction into two main parts:

a)                   Prayer: Relations between God and human beings;

b)                   Public life: Inter human relations

Supporters of this flexible attitude in religious matters point at this important element in Sharia and conclude that not only secularity does not contradict Islam, that on the contrary it almost makes the secularity a compulsory element in Islam.

 The truth is perhaps somewhere between these two extreme approaches. If a society has become sophisticated enough, it will find a way to meet its daily requirements. People will find a satisfactory interpretation for the religious precepts, if the strict implementation of these precepts does not meet the requirements of their daily life.

Some scholars in Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic world point out that that Christianity made Reformation at the fifteenth century. Islam is at its fifteenth century only now. Therefore, now is the time to reform Islam, if there is a need to interpret and adjust certain religious precepts in Islam to the requirements of the contemporary life. However this idea is launched at present only by a small number of timid theorists.

The Experience in the Region

Eastern Mediterranean or the entire Mediterranean region is rich in variety of Islamic practices. There is a wide spectrum of countries practicing Islam differently from each other according to their historical past and evolution of their societies and institutions. Egyptian Constitution provides that no law in Egypt could be in contradiction with the provisions of the Holy Koran. However it reflects differently on the daily life and the majority of the Egyptian people are secular minded. Lebanon is a member country of the Islamic Conference Organisation, an international organisation that claims to bring together “Islamic” countries.  However Christians play a predominant role in all institutions of Lebanon. Lebanese are one of the most secular minded people in the region. Islam is practiced in Tunisia and Syria with much tolerance and many State institutions function in accordance with secular principles.

There may be other distinguished speakers in this hall who could comment with more competence than me on the experiences of such countries. I will confine my comments to how secularism functions in Turkey.

Turkey’s Experience

Secularism is a constitutional order in Turkey. No law in Turkey could be based on the religious precepts. There is a strict separation of the religious affairs from the State affairs. Religion is a matter between individuals and their God. State is not supposed to interfere in the belief of individuals, neither try to regulate it.

Some scholars argued that in Turkish version of secularism, the government goes sometimes as far as imposing secularism on individuals and on the whole society. This is a criticism directed also by scholars from other Muslim or non-Muslim countries. One western scholar, Broomly, says that Turkish version of secularism is a “Militant secularism of the State amounting to rigid State control over religious life, and strict secularism in public affairs, rather than the institutional separation of Mosque and State”.

The European Union approaches the question of secularism in Turkey from another standpoint and says that Turkey has yet to demonstrate that the State is at equal distance to Muslims and Christians. Turkey is also criticised sometimes for not being equidistant even to various Muslim sects in its own country. In other words, secularism in Turkey is too perfect when it is looked at from one standpoint and in default from another standpoint.

With the ongoing reforms carried out in Turkey within the framework of harmonisation with the European Union political standards, I believe that remaining discrepancies will be eliminated and adherents of various sects of Muslim or non-Muslim confessions will be able to practice their religion without any hindrance.


It may be misleading and imperfect to assess a religion exclusively in terms of the text of its respective Holy Book, Koran or Bible. We do not know whether the modern societies will be better governed if the religious precepts contained in the Holy Books are implemented in the strictest possible manner. Religious dogmas will be perhaps more useful to the societies and peoples if they are understood in their symbolic meaning. The Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses in order to improve the society o         f the 15th century BC. They will have to be adapted to modern requirements as symbols. Islam was revealed in the 7th century AD. If these revelations do not fit, one to one, to the requirements of the modern societies, they have to be taken as symbols and adapted to the modern requirements.

This approach is also valid for secularism. The answer to the question whether secularity could function satisfactorily in a Muslim society, depends to a great extent on how Islam is practiced in that society.

Similar question may be asked for a Christian society. Can a society be good Christian and secular at the same time?

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