Reflecting On Islam And Secularism

Dr Manta Drammeh (founder Timbuktu International Research Centre)
Dr Alhagi Manta Drammeh

Going Beyond Dichotomy Of Theocratic And Secularist Ideologies

The relationship between religion and secularism is both thorny and complex. Many utter both concepts without being able to deconstruct their philosophical and conceptual undertones. Some claim that religion is a set of dogmas that gives no room for thinking and rationalisation on one hand. On the other, others claim that secular values are liberal and rational.

The fact of the matter is that secularism is not monolithic but it has different manifestations in different parts of the world. While the UK has a secular government, the Queen is both the Head of State and the Head of the Anglican Church. France has a different historical context as the Republic was born due to a revolution that curtailed the authority of the Church in public life if not completely thwarting it. However, you have political parties in Europe that have religious backgrounds although the countries are labelled secular. This seems to suggest that secularism does not mean necessarily cancelling religion altogether in social and ethical issues. In the West we know that the Church is involved in ensuring that ethical concerns about some medical and scientific issues are dealt with by politicians, for example things related to human embryo, stem cell and In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). It is a question of the interface between the two, where they intersect and where they diverge. The fundamental difference is probably the reference point of both which is referred to as epistemology and that is theory of knowledge. Epistemology deals with knowledge and sources of knowledge. While secularism derives its sources from rationality and experience (rational and empirical knowledge), religion derives its source from revelation in addition to rational and empirical knowledge. In that sense, religion seems to have a more holistic approach to knowledge.

Secularism purports that religion and the mundane are of two opposing realms. It is also defined as an attitude of mind or a set of beliefs which is focused on the assertion that there is nothing beyond “this world”. Others define secularism as a process in which control of social space and resources was lost by religious authorities in Europe during the Renaissance within certain historical and political circumstances.

Religion is the most universal activity known to humanity, practised across all cultures and societies. It is about the history of humankind and touches their feelings and emotions in various aspects. Religion has arisen to give an ultimate meaning to life. It entails many aspects, including, belief, ritual action, ethical action, and formation of religious communities and the formulation of doctrinal systems. Islam is both submission to Allah and the development of peace with oneself and the entire universe. People accomplish themselves in a web of relationships, economic, political, social and religious. They acquire the religious links in order to satisfy the quest for spiritual values in which they find perfection in order to live a good and stable life. More importantly, religion directs us and connect tom our Creator the Ultimate Truth and Reality.

Islam looks at the relationship between religion and secularism against the background of its monotheistic worldview (tawhidic) that calls for an integrated approach to knowledge that is the complementary relationship between the textual based knowledge and the rational-based knowledge. Some reject Islam wholesale on the assumption that it is anti-science and anti-reason and that it is a set of dogmas that cannot be subject to scientific methods of authentication. Actually, if we understand the history of Islamic thought, we will then be able to notice that there is no contradiction between religion and science in Islam. Religion in Islam is not only based on emotions (wujudan), it is indeed embedded in observation, critical thinking and the refusal of conformism or blind following.

I contend that the relationships of the secular and the religious are both complex and require profundity; and thoughtful deconstruction. A holistic view of the cosmic reality and human nature requires a kind of convergence if not unity between religion and “science”.

Regardless of diversity of nations, languages, and regions, the core of Islamic culture remains uncontestably theological, metaphysical, and philosophical. The triangular perspectives have played their role from the early Islam in the debates, like those of Avicenna, Ibn Arabi and others in responding to the deepest human concern to understand existence and truth.

It is therefore important to overcome the inadequacies and shortcomings of the reductionist and subjectivist theories that have dominated modernist secularist studies of religion and religious phenomena across the different disciplines of social science. In fact there is a need to have insights from various disciplines and branches of knowledge in order to develop a new method to the study of religion in general and the Qur’an in particular. This approach draws on philosophy, archeology, history, astronomy, sociology, philosophical anthropology, comparative religion and psychology, among others. I contend that religion is the ultimate source that gives birth to the social relationship in the form of a moral ideal and it inscribes itself in human transformations. According to an Algerian Muslim thinker Malik Bennabi, religion seems to be the only source that can provide the necessary and most enduring catalyst that brings about the essential synthesis of human civilization by integrating into a coherent, dynamic whole its primary factors, namely man, soil, and time.

On a final note, one can claims that the spiritual relationship between God and people determines the social bonds that link every individual with their fellow humans.

By Dr Alhagi Manta Drammeh Founder and Managing Director of Timbuktu International Research Centre UK and Associate Professor of Islamic Theology and Philosophy at The Muslim College London
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