Two consistent themes in much of the contemporary analysis of world affairs have been the impending clash of civilisations and the need for the secularisation of the Muslim world.
Secularism seeks to make the temporal rather than spiritual the basis for all laws. It arose in response to a uniquely European Christian problem – the excesses of the church, the antagonism between the church and science, and the intra-Christian wars being fought at the time. The separation of church and state was a logical solution. In contrast, the periods of Muslim caliphate, particularly between 622 and 1492, were marked as periods of growth, intellectual advancement and social justice. The rights of minorities were protected, human rights were enshrined not just in law but in scripture, and a knowledge-centred society was fostered that was the intellectual well from which all of Europe came to drink.
Contrary to popular opinion, Islam, in its political manifestation, is democratic — if democracy means that people choose their own leaders and laws are passed through discussion and deliberation. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself refrained from appointing a successor, instead allowing people to choose the next ruler of the fledgling Islamic state. Umar, the second Caliph (ruler), said that the ruler can be chosen only through the consultative approval of the people. However, Islamic democracy differs from secular democracy in that the right of the people to legislate is limited by what they believe to be a higher law, to which human law is subordinate. There is no axiom that states that a democracy must be secular, in the same way that there is no axiom that states that a secular system is intrinsically democratic. The subordination of law-making to the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) made Muslim society immune to absolute tyranny and dictatorship. Such emphasis also prevented absolute tyranny by giving Islamic scholars more legislative power than the ruler. It was their word that was final on many matters. If the ruler made a decision that was contrary to that of the ulema (people of knowledge), his decision was to be rejected.
There is a stark contrast between past glories and current reality.
Whereas once the Muslim world was ruled by a single caliphate, its post-colonial manifestation is a collection of weak, mostly secular, nation-states. Termed “bunker regimes” by Samuel Huntington, their guns face their own people, ruthlessly repressing dissent and committing some of the worst violations of human rights. It is a sad irony that in many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice their religion in the secular democracies of the West than in the secular dictatorships of the Middle East.
In Islam, there is no conflict between theology and science, between the demands of the spiritual and the temporal. However, one can draw parallels between Christian Europe before Enlightenment, and the intellectual stagnation, reactionary impulses and conflict that characterises the Muslim world today. Yet, what is required is not a wholesale adoption of secular democracy, but a uniquely Islamic reformation. Is it then unreasonable that Muslims, who have their own culture, values and history, can be allowed to choose their own future? Those who advocate Western secularism as a universal panacea, are akin to the child with the hammer who thinks every problem is a nail.
Indeed, the call to secularise Islam as a means of averting a clash of civilisations is really the first salvo in such a clash. Huntington wrote that the problem for Islam is not the CIA nor the US Department of Defence. It is the West, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture, and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West. What is needed today is a revival of the tremendous energy that propelled Muslims forward in history; the energy that comes from a clear sense of purpose and direction.
Muslim society must subject itself to critical self-evaluation, recognising the principles that made it great in the past, as well as drawing on the positive aspects of the West and other societies, adapting and improving upon them. From this may spring a profound sense of empowerment and a realisation that Muslims can make their own future.
The call to modernise Islam thus becomes a call to Islamisize modernity.