Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Islamic Secularism”?

 By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Reformulating the Ground Rules
The definition of modernity expressed in political science terms is a system of state and society whereby social justice is aspired to, freedom of belief, ideology and conscience is fully protected and where rule of law reigns supreme.  As the Islamic World increasingly finds itself confronted with modernity in these terms, there are two responses that have been recorded  as two opposing currents – first response is to accept modernity without any discounting for Islamic principles or any attempt to reconcile the Islamic identity of the Muslims world -wide and the second response is to reject it so completely that the room for negotiation between this response and modernity ceases to exist.  Both these responses ignore one basic fundamental contention that most Muslims have i.e. Islamic principles are universal in so much as that they can be adapted to the time and age through the internal process of Ijtehad. Therefore the standoff between Islam and modernity that seems to preoccupy the intelligentsia of the Islamic world need not be a zero-sum game. Indeed there is enough room to incorporate the fundamental perimeters of modernity within an Islamicate culture without compromising either.
Unfortunately no real attempt has been made to formulate Islamic jurisprudence as a code of public conduct where jurists not clerics cull universal principles from Quran and Sunnah, classify them and expound them as a civil law or a criminal code.  The efforts of the imams in the 8th and 9th century have over time ossified and have been cast in stone as the final word. Where attempts have been made at codification, these have been limited by an orthodox approach which has been too dogmatic to evolve a practical system. The consequence has more often than not been regressive laws such as the blasphemy laws and hudood laws in Pakistan. In Iran, the other ideological Islamic Republic, reactionary straitjacket interpretations of Sharia has crept into the penal code primarily due to the influence of Qom based officially sanctioned Shia clergy. One notable exception in this regard is the Pakistan’s Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 which has played an important part in codifying principles to family affairs to There has not been however any instance anywhere in the Islamic world to evolve a modern universal code applicable equally to every citizen of a state without discrimination.  The main reason for this of course is the inability of scholars and jurists studying Islam to distinguish between Islamic Law and Islamic jurisprudence as a system governing secular conduct between human beings, all equal before law, and Islam as a faith and pillar of spiritual strength for the believer. The former requires that Islamicate as a whole be viewed as a social and civilisational construct which is both evolving and dynamic.
For this to happen of course scholars and practitioners of Islamic jurisprudence and law would have to make clear distinction between their field as being limited to the secular/temporal sphere alone and not applicable to the spiritual plane which should be recognized as inviolable personal space of an individual. Therefore having created the distinction between legal principles applicable to society and religious principles applicable to the individual, Islamic Jurisprudence may be applied to criminal law, civil law and the law of contract. Once the spiritual is taken out of the picture, regulation of private conduct is taken off the table. It may be remembered that Islam endorses this separation of spiritual from the secular. For example the punishment for adultery i.e. stoning to death requires evidence of four pious and righteous individuals who have seen the deed by their own eyes. Needless to say no pious and righteous individual will breach privacy of a home which Islam recognizes as sacred.  In other words, while allowing this pre-Islamic punishment, Islam was raising the bar of the evidence to make conviction impossible. If we were to then apply analogical reasoning, it would be fair to say that the punishment of rajm or stoning to death does form an essential part of the Islamic law which seeks not to regulate personal conduct but public morality.
Having thus separated the spiritual from the secular, it may become possible for one to conceive the possibility for a non-Muslim to be an equal citizen of an Islamic state in all possible ways. Perhaps an oxymoron, this is the logical extension of the idea that Islam is a civilisational construct and not a religion in the ordinary sense of the word. If it is a construct that purports to govern human conduct and not just Muslim conduct, it must treat human conduct in the non-spiritual and temporal sense equally and without distinction of religious beliefs of the individuals. Once these positions are conceded, it becomes easy to conceive of another oxymoron i.e. Islamic Secularism or the extraction of those universally applicable humane principles from Islamic tradition for guidance in conduct between human beings at large. In other words, perhaps less shocking to our established perimeters of mental activity, this would mean a secular system that draws its inspiration from Islamic traditions, principles and civlisational experience of the last 1400 odd years.
So what are those features of human conduct that such a state might govern? Economics might be one.  The idea of Islamic finance and banking – as already mentioned- has been well developed by jurists and scholars both in the west and in the Islamic world itself. The State Bank of Pakistan has often applied key Islamic principles of finance and banking through its circulars, albeit selectively and under influence of orthodoxy, emphasizing instead on form instead of substance, often limited to merely effecting changes to nomenclature. An interest-bearing account thus becomes a “profit and loss account” and interest is termed “mark-up”. There is of course another word in the English language that might apply more precisely to this situation: hypocrisy. Instead of developing a fair and just economic system in modern conditions, as was the spirit behind Islamic regulation of economy, in Pakistan at least we have sought to put the old wine in new bottle. The alternative to this might have been allowing conventional banking with all its “offensive” nomenclature to continue side by side a more honest Islamic banking system and letting them compete in an open market.  In the process both streams would have tried to modify their practices to ensure a competitive banking industry which caters to the needs of the common consumer. 
Other spheres of public life that such a state might impact would perhaps include public morality. Presumably such a state will not allow public acts of sexuality as this would be hit directly by the Islamic criminal code.  Beyond this however regulation of the individual conduct should fall out of the purview of state authority.
Finally we must address the question as to why is this exercise necessary? For one thing Islam is such a substantial part of the Muslim landscape that there seems to be no escape from the question of a harmonious construction of faith with modernity and secularism. Islam, it may be remembered, continues to define people and  inform their world view and it is unlikely that this hold is going to recede any time soon. All the same it is important to reconcile modernity – as aforesaid-with Islam which is for most people the central feature of their identity. As a deep structure of identity the Islamic identity defines even those who are not particularly religious. At other times in the Islamic History, non-Muslims associated themselves with the idea of Islam as a civilisational construct instead of religious one. To give an example, the two most reviled of the Muslim kings in South Asian history,  Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb Alamgir, both had  as their leading generals Hindus who fought often against their co-religionists for their Muslim king respectively, who in both cases thought that they were forwarding the mission of Islam. Similarly the Islamic civilization has produced several non-Muslim writers, philosophers and men of science. Some of the most celebrated of the Muslim scientists from the golden age of Islam were openly atheist and still considered part and parcel of the Islamic whole.  In the strictly temporal sense an Islamic state thus is distinguishable from a normal democratic state in so much as that it would be bound by a basic structure given to it by universal principles extracted as aforesaid from the Islamic tradition, history, culture and civilization. Beyond this, the state would have to be a perfectly democratic state that would elect representatives from within its people without distinction or bar.

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