Is Islam Secularizable?

The following is a reprint of an article by Sadik J. al-Azm from the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion Volume 2 Number 2 Fall/winter 1997 , published by Prometheus Books.  The article is especially poignant in the light of events in the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa.  The article sheds a fascinating pre-9-11 light on events that have transpired in the Islamic world in the last decade.



Sadik J. Al-Azm, emeritus professor of modern European philosophy at the University of Damascus, is visiting lecturer at Princeton University. Al-Azm’s research specialty is the Islamic world and its relationship to the West, and he is known as a human rights advocate and a champion of intellectual freedom.


The question of whether Islam can be secularized has been on the agenda of modern Arab and Muslim thought and history since Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt in 1798.

Arabs have been attempting to settle the issue since at least the last quarter of the nineteenth century; i.e., since what we Arabs often refer to in our recent past as the Arab Renaissance, the Arab Awakening, the Islamic Reformation, or what the late expert on the period, Albert Hourani, aptly called the “Liberal Age” of Arab thought.

Response to Change

In my attempt to formulate a realistic answer to the question Is Islam secularizable?, I shall start by raising another question: was the simple, egalitarian, and unadorned Islam of Mecca and Medina (Yatherb) at the time of the Prophet and the first four Rightly-Guided Caliphs (chosen by the then-emerging Muslim community as his successors) compatible with the dynasties of such complex empires as Byzantium and Sassanid Persia at the time of their Arab-Muslim conquest?

The accurate answer is No and Yes. Yes, the two became very compatible in an incredibly short period of time. But the early Muslim purists were absolutely right at the time of the first Arab conquests to insist that nothing in the Muslim orthodoxy of the day could make the Islam of Medina, Mecca, and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs compatible with hereditary monarchy.

Similarly, in Christianity the movement of Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre and his followers in Europe and the United States was an excellent example of the Church’s persistence in response to purism evolving into secular humanism, religious pluralism, mutual tolerance, freedom of conscience, a scientifically based culture, and so on. The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, is an equally excellent example of triumph over classical dogmatism.

By the same token, I would argue that the accurate answer to our primary question, Is Islam secularizable?, is also twofold: dogmatically, No; historically, Yes. I would contend that without a good grasp of the ups and downs of the secularization process of contemporary Islam, no explanation of the ferociousness of the current fundamentalist reaction can be adequate.

Islam, as a coherent static ideal of eternal and permanently valid principles, is of course compatible with nothing other than itself. As such, it is the business of Islam to reject and combat secularism and secularization to the very end. But Islam is a dynamic faith and has responded to widely differing environments and rapidly shifting historical circumstances, proving itself highly compatible with all the major types of polities and varied forms of social and economic organization that human history has produced.

Similarly, Islam as a world-historical religion stretching over 15 centuries has unquestionably succeeded in implanting itself in a variety of societies and cultures, from the tribal-nomadic to the centralized bureaucratic to the feudal-agrarian to the mercantile-financial to the capitalist-industrial.

Doubters that Islam can be secularized should consider the evidence coming from the most unlikely quarter of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian Ayatollahs, in their moment of victory, did not proceed to restore the Islamic Caliphate-and there was a Shi’i Caliphate in Muslim history-nor did they erect an Imamate or vice-Imamate, but proceeded to establish a republic for the first time in Iran’s long history. The republic had popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament (where real debates take place), a president, a council of ministers, political factions, a constitution (which is a clone of the 1958 French Constitution), a kind of supreme court and so on, all of which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam as history, orthodoxy, and dogma, but everything to do with the practices and institutions of modern Europe. What makes this phenomenon doubly important is the fact that the Iranian clerics and guardians of Shi’i orthodoxy have always been ferocious opponents of republics, denouncing them as absolutely un-Islamic. They had successfully frustrated all previous attempts at declaring Iran a republic by earlier reforming rulers.

Note also that, in spite of the Islamic idiom, the politico-ideological discourses of the Iranian clerics and guardians of correct belief are substantively dictated by the historical “Yes” of the present socio-economic-political conjuncture rather than the exigencies of the dogmatic “No” of orthodoxy. This is why we find the public discourses of Iran’s ruling mullas dealing not so much with theology, dogma, and the Caliphate and/or Imamate, but with economic planning, social reform, re-distribution of wealth without forgetting such issues as identity and modernization. Consider the following words of admonition addressed by a Third World leader to the country’s religious schools:

If you pay no attention to the politics of the imperialists and consider religion to be simply the few topics you are always studying and never go beyond them, then the imperialists will leave you alone. Pray as much as you like: it is your oil they are after-why should they worry about your prayers? They are after our minerals, and want to turn our country into a market for their goods. That is the reason why the puppet governments they have installed prevent us from industrializing, and instead establish only assembly plants and industry that is dependent on the outside world.

These could have been easily the words of such secular leaders of the sixties as President Nasser of Egypt, President Sukarno of Indonesia, and/or the very early Fidel Castro of Cuba, but they are in fact the words of Ayatollah Khomeini himself.

The clash between traditional dogmatism and new ideas tends to work itself out in human affairs and societies quite violently with all the attendant destructions, dislocations, and innovative outcomes. This is attested to historically by the ever-recurring inter-Islamic civil wars and insurrections and at present by the current violence of fundamentalist Islam.

To be noted in this connection is the fact that in such key countries as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Turkey hardly anything is run anymore according to Islamic precepts, administered along the lines of sharia law, or functions in conformity with theological doctrines and/or teachings. Outside the realm of individual belief the role of Islam has unquestionably receded to the periphery of public life. In other words, inspect, in any one of those states, the factory, the bank, the market place, the officer corps, the political party, the state apparatuses, the school, the university, the laboratory, the courthouse, arts organizations, the media and you will quickly realize that there is very little religion left in them.

Split Personality

Even in a state like Saudi Arabia where the ruling tribal elite wraps itself so conspicuously in the mantels of strict Muslim orthodoxy, moral purity, bedouin austerity, and social uprightness, the contradiction between outward official pretense on the one hand and real life on the other has become so wide, sharp, and explosive that those still taking religious pretenses seriously staged an armed insurrection at a Meccan holy shrine in 1979, shaking the kingdom to its foundations in the process. The declared goal was no more than rectifying the schizophrenic condition, i.e., putting an end to that ludicrous discrepancy between official ideology and reality by bringing the substance of Saudi life again in strict conformity with religious orthodoxy.

In the above-mentioned countries, the modern secular-nationalist calendar, with its new holidays, symbols, heroes, and ceremonies has come to fill the public square, relegating the old religious calendar and its landmarks to the margins of public life. This is why the truly radical Muslim fundamentalists complain not so much about the unsecularizability of Islam, but rather about the absence of Islam from all realms of human activity, because it has been reduced to mere prayer, the fast, the pilgrimage and alms giving, about how “Islam faces today the worst ordeal in its existence as a result of materialism, individualism and nationalism,” about how “school and university curricula, though not openly critical of religion, effectively subvert the Islamic world-picture and its attendant practices,” about how “the history of Islam and the Arabs is written, taught and explained without reference to divine intervention causal or otherwise,” about how “modern and nominally Muslim nation-states, though they never declare a separation of State and Mosque, they, nonetheless, subvert Islam as a way of life, as an all-encompassing spiritual and moral order, and as a normative integrative force by practicing a more sinister de facto form of functional separation of state and religion.” Obviously these radical fundamentalists have a superior appreciation of the nature of the modern forces and processes gnawing at the traditional fabric of Islam than the social scientists, and mainstream mullas who keep repeating the formula: “Islam is unsecularizable.”

Consequently, these radical insurrectionary Islamists keenly resent the fact that contemporary Islam has allowed its basic tenets to turn into optional beliefs and rituals. To reverse this seemingly irreversible trend they literally go to war in order to achieve what they call the re-Islamization of currently nominally Muslim societies.

They also resent the extent to which traditional gender hierarchies continue to be altered in contemporary Muslim societies. There is slow erosion of the traditional power of males over females accompanying such major social shifts as urbanization, the switch to the nuclear family, and the wider education, training, and gainful employment of women; the steady growth of opportunities attracting women from strictly traditional roles; the tendency towards egalitarian gender relations in marriage and life in general; the reproduction of society, through the socialization of children, according to norms that they regard as totally un-Islamic. There are militant demands for such measures as the re-imposition on women and children of the norms of traditional respect, obedience, gender segregation, and undivided loyalty to the male head of the household.

Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy of novels date the collapse of the male-dominated and dictatorially run traditional Muslim household in Cairo at exactly the moment of Egypt’s revolution against British colonial rule in 1919. The Muslim Brothers—the mother of all Islamic fundamentalisms in the Arab world—was founded a few years later as a reaction to the secularizing forces and processes unleashed by that revolution.

An excerpt from one of Naguib Mahfouz’s articles describes the murky and confused condition of a typical Cairene Muslim struggling with the paradoxes, generated daily by a long-term historical secularization process, glimpsed by most only intermittently and through a glass darkly:

He leads a contemporary [i.e., “modern”] life. He obeys civil and penal laws of Western origin and is involved in a complex tangle of social and economic transactions and is never certain to what extent these agree with or contradict his Islamic creed. Life carries him along in its current and he forgets his misgivings for a time until one Friday he hears the imam or reads the religious page in one of the papers, and the old misgivings come back with a certain fear. He realizes that in this new society he has been afflicted with a split personality: half of him believes, prays, fasts and makes the pilgrimage. The other half renders his values void in banks and courts and in the streets, even in the cinemas and theaters, perhaps even at home among his family before the television set.

This account feels so genuine and true to the actually lived experience of Muslims everywhere that no a priori unsecularizability formula should ever be allowed to obscure it.

The Political Plunge

One source of confusion concerning this question of unsecularizability lies, as it seems to me, in the fact that Arab societies never witnessed a high dramatic instant where the state is declared from the top secular and officially separate from religion as happened with the emergence of modern Turkey from the ashes of the First World War. This process attained its climactic moment in Mustafa Kemal’s (Ataturk) famous abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Now, to sensitize Western readers to the enormity of Mustafa Kemal’s act and the great dismay and shock it spread throughout the Muslim world at the time, all that is needed is a moment’s reflection over what would have happened had the triumphant Italian nationalists in 1871 proceeded to abolish the papacy-after annexing the papal domains to the Italian kingdom-instead of recognizing the pope’s sovereignty over the Vatican City and his spiritual leadership of all Roman Catholics everywhere. We know, of course, that in 1922, Ataturk did toy with the idea of an “Italian” solution to the problem of the Caliphate, but he ended up rejecting all such compromises to cut at the root all future legitimist claims and restorationist movements.

In contrast to the Turkish example, the secularization process in key Arab societies has been slow and hesitant. The same sort of climactic point could have come to pass at the hands of President Nasser of Egypt soon after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (a heroic and immensely popular act all over the Arab world). But Nasser never took that step and the real high drama arrived with Islamic fundamentalism and armed insurrection.

The subscribers to the unsecularizability of Islam thesis, both East and West, should have received a rude shock from the way in which the Soviet Union collapsed. Some were expecting the break up of the “Evil Empire” to come at the hands of its Muslim people and components.Homo Islamicus will always revert to type under all circumstances and regardless of the nature and depth of the historical changes he may suffer or undergo.

The main components of the union that brought it down were Christian and in the European part of the empire. The Muslim republics inclined to the last minute in the direction of saving the communist union. Even after its collapse they did their best to attach themselves to its remnants, in spite of the neighboring models of revolutionary Islam in Iran and of armed insurrectionary Islam in Afghanistan.


(c) 2011 The Institute for Science and Human Values

The Council for Critical Studies in Religion is a Research Project of ISHV

3 thoughts on “Is Islam Secularizable?

  1. The very voice of reason. Thanks. I edited the journal this was published in; any credit however goes to Al-Azm.

  2. The article is very good and brings out several facts that we tend to ignore. I liked his example of Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate, whereas the Pope still exists. It is very interesting. I congratulate Prof. Al- Azm and you in bringing out this article. His quote of Ayatollah Khomeni was a pleasant surprise. Then is this reaction of orthodox Islam in way anti Imperialistic and against neo-colonialism?

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