The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Living Faith in Secular Societies

largeThese are some reflections based on a presentation I delivered at an Interfaith forum in  November, 2011; arranged and hosted by al-Noor school. The discussion was about how the practice of one’s own faith is affected by the secular landscape of our society. How far my thoughts on the subject convey or represent the voice of the Muslims is definitely contestable and open to debate. For the simple fact of the matter is that the Muslim journey into secular modernity has birthed, not a monolithic voice, but divergent conversations.

As for my conversation; my reflections, I shall endeavour to root them in mainstream, orthodox Muslim scholarship. This is the voice – the majoritarian voice – which holds that adapting to the ever-changing world comes about only within the confines of well-established juristic mechanisms and spiritual foundations, embedded in Islam’s shari‘ah. This is the voice which also insists that, as a rule, the meta-principles guide and direct the shari‘ah details, but do not eclipse or erase them. I have not attempted to flesh out the theological or juristic nuances in these reflection; precisely because they are just that – reflections.

1. It will be helpful if, at the outset, we remind ourselves what we mean by secularism. The American sociologist Bryan Wilson described secularism as: ‘the process in which religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose social significance.’1 For Roger Scruton, the English philosopher and political analyst, secularism entails: ‘the process whereby religious offices, institutions and ceremonies are extruded from public life – in education, law-making, administration and government.’2 Secularism, explains the French Islamicist Olivier Roy, ‘comes about when religion ceases to be at the centre of human life, even through people still consider themselves believers; thus the everyday practices of people, like the meaning they give to the world, are no longer constructed under the aegis of transcendence and religion.’In secular societies, then, religion no longer articulates the common good as it once did. Instead, religion is relegated to the private sphere that may have to be curbed for the greater good. For a secular society is one that looks to a rational or civic consensus on the best way to order itself. At least, that is how it is here in the West, and how it is exported around the globe.

2. How did secularism come about? Secularisation is a complex process, taking place across three or four centuries, and occurring over several different dimensions of life and society. Many factors – historical, sociological, technological – have gone into the recipe of secularism. One of its ingredients stands out above others: religion. That is, at some point in time in the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that ravaged Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, this question was asked: How may people committed to different beliefs co-exist convivially under one political arrangement, without any religious faction co-opting state power for its own political ends? The answer: religious tolerance, as well as the removal of religion from political decision making. Here was birthed the secular idea. Secularism was not set into motion by atheists or irreligious people, or those indifferent to religion; but by those with deeply held religious convictions. Separation of Church and State was their way of preserving faith; not destroying it.4

3. Speaking about the differences between the essence of religion and that of politics, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, writes: ‘Religion and politics speak to different aspects of the human condition: the one binding people together in communities, the other to mediating peaceably between their differences. The great tragedies of the twentieth century came when politics was turned into a religion, when the nation (in the case of fascism) or system (communism) was absolutized and turned into a god. The single greatest risk of the twenty-first century is that the opposite might occur: not when politics is religionized but when religion is politicized.’5

He also notes: ‘Religion binds, politics mediates. That is why, what in politics, may be a necessary virtue – compromise, ambiguity, diplomacy, coexistence – are, from the point of view of religion, usually seen as vices.’6

4. Secular societies are not monolithic; there are differences. Contemporary Western societies are secular, either because separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution (United States); or because society no longer defines itself via religion or religious practice (Britain, Germany, the Scandanavian countries); or because secular constitution and the retreat of religion converge to support each other (France). Such nations use two different models to manage their minorities: multiculturalism (as per Britain, United States, Canada and most of Western Europe), and assimilation (as in France). The multicultural model – now being called into question by countries such as Britain and Holland – sees some religions as embedded in distinct cultures that are handed on from one generation to the next; here one can be a good citizen without identifying with the dominant culture, but with one of the many minority cultures. In the assimilationist model, all cultural backgrounds (be they religious or ethnic) are erased from the public space; citizens are given everything as individuals, but nothing as minority communities.

The two models are very distinct. The French see Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism as ultimately eroding national cohesion, and even a path to ghettoisation. The French “resistance is futile” model is considered to be authoritarian and infringing the rights of minorities. Roy dubs the two different embodiments of secularism as ‘Anglo-Saxon indulgence’ and ‘Galic suspicion’, and that the former needs to be ‘less naive’ and the latter ‘less pathological.’7

1. Wilson, ‘Secularization,’ in The Encyclopedia of Religion – in Sacks, The Persistance of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 2.

2. Dictionary of Political Thought (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 622.

3. Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 7-8.

4. See: The Persistence of Faith, 1; Williams, Faith in the Public Square (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2012), 52; Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 129-79.

5. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London & New York: Continuum, 2003), 42-4. His tenure as Chief Rabbi ended in September 2013.

6. ibid., 42.

7. Secularism Confronts Islam, 94.

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7 thoughts on “Living Faith in Secular Societies

  1. Very well constructed intro. Part two will be interesting!

    I think the following sentence deserves an article in itself as it has many parallels to today:

    “Secularism was not set into motion by atheists or irreligious people, or those indifferent to religion; but by those with deeply held religious convictions. Separation of Church and State was their way of preserving faith; not destroying it.”

  2. Salam,

    I have a personal question to ask. Would it be possible to leave your email address in the ‘About’ page?

  3. Great piece! Looking forward to the next installment!

  4. Greetings,

    Thank you for this article.

    I look forward to the next article, as this one provides a well researched (very well done) foundation.

    As a Muslim in America, and very much a child of this American culture, I find this topic interesting.

    All good wishes,


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