Secularism does not mean atheism or la-deeniat


Here are two excellent articles on this topic. The first one has been written by Anand Krishan in Indonesian context, and the second one by Munno Bhai in Pakistani context.

Promoting faith-based secularism

Anand Krishna
Jakarta – 01/18/2010

When the British writer George Holyoake first used the term secularism in 1851, he likely had no idea that his brainchild would be so dreaded by so many prominent religious establishments.

In our country, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) issued an edict on July 29, 2005, declaring as haram (forbidden in Islam) the idea of secularism, saying it was “opposed to the teachings of Islam”.

But what did Holyoake himself think of secularism? “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others.”

“Christianity” here certainly does not pertain to the Christian church alone, but to all other churches and religious establishments as well. If we can read between the lines, what Holyoake is trying to say is this: Secularism does not question the pretensions of any particular religion, but also does not endorse any. It is open to all religions, and respects the pretensions of each one of them.

I see this as a sincere acknowledgement of diversity and its true celebration. And this is how the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, sees it.

In his remarks during the closing plenary of the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions Convention in Melbourne on Dec. 9, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate defended secularism as an idea not opposed to religion. Indeed, in his own words, “secularism respects all religions.”

He cited India as an exemplary secular state. Indians, however, are not nonreligious or faithless people. They represent all major faiths, including the faith of the minority Zarathustrians from Persia, persecuted in their own homeland.

The Dalai Lama sees secularism as a force and hope for a better world, where no one claims to be holier and better than any other. It is a force that can unite peoples of different faiths (not only religions) to work together for the betterment of their respective nations and the world.

Yes, secularism respects all faiths, and not just the established and well-known world religions.

Secularism equally honors the faiths of those who have been marginalized and often persecuted in the name of religion, and by the “religious” majority.

It was very disheartening to listen to the stories of Australian Aborigines and the Native Americans, where the faiths of their ancestors are seen as anti-development and anti-progress.

Bob Randall, an Australian Aborigine leader, questioned our sanity during the convention: “Your scriptures speak of love, but where is it in practice? Where is it in your daily lives?”

The Kanyini faith kept alive by “Uncle” Bob and his community may not conceive God as we, the so-called “religious”, do. But it certainly upholds unconditional love for one and all. The man, in his seventies now, holds no grudge against those who have deprived them of their basic rights. Instead, he invites them to harmonious living in the spirit of togetherness.

Must we first enforce our brand of religion or belief system upon people such as Uncle Bob, before acknowledging their basic civil and social rights?

What if someone does not believe in the concept of God as we do? What do we call them? Do we call them atheist or nonreligious?

Derived from the Greek a theos, the word “atheist” actually means “without any concept of theo, or god”. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, did not have any concept of God. However, dharma, the good and goodliness, was conceived by him as eternal (Esa Dhammo Sanantano), just as the god of our concept. So what do we call him? An atheist?

What is religion? From the Latin, re ligare means rebinding, reuniting or retying. One may very grossly define it as binding to a set of dogmas and doctrines, or tying to a certain church or institution. The Buddha called it sangha, or togetherness, coming together.

One may also understand this as returning to the self within — the spark of god (using our common and more popular term) within each one of us. The Buddha called it the awakening. Was the Buddha not religious?

Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan once met a young, intelligent and very well-mannered boy who claimed to be an atheist. The master commented, “But you must have some kind of faith.”

The youth answered, “Yes, I have faith in myself.”

“That is it,” the Sufi master chuckled, “we are both men of faith.”

Day after day, listening to the speakers at the Melbourne convention, I began to question our sanity in calling others faithless. I yet have to meet a faithless person.

It was very disappointing, therefore, to see many of the “big” world leaders gathered at the convention still clinging to their “little” boxes. The community night organized with the good intention of getting to know each other turned out to be more disappointing, as people belonging to certain religions remained in their respective boxes. Instead of interacting with others of different religions, they chose to stick together.

Our 12-member group, representing six religions and two indigenous beliefs, were mistakenly put in one of the boxes. We considered the mistake a blessing and looked forward to interacting with the people of that particular box. But alas, they were not willing to “host people belonging to different religions”. What a joke! And this was at the Parliament of World’s Religions Convention held every five years.

The Dalai Lama suggested that we, the so-called religious and believers, reach out to those we consider nonbelievers with equal love and compassion. The coming together of the entire world and all people is our only hope for a better and peaceful world.

One may follow a popular religion endorsed by the majority, or any other non-endorsed belief system or faith — we are all still one. Humankind is one. We need to develop a faith-based secularism that respects all kinds of differences among us. This is spirituality.

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books. He spoke on “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika for the World” at the Melbourne Convention (

Source: Jakarta Post

Secularism is not against Islam

An impression prevails among Muslims in general and ulema in particular that secularism is against Islam and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. There is, however, no written or historical evidence in Islamic literature or history to substantiate this view. This general belief is a result of deliberate attempt by the Islamic orthodoxy to create suspicion and hostile sentiments amongst Muslim masses against these concepts so that they are able to keep their hold over their minds and block the path of Ijtehad, progress and modernisation of Muslim societies.
Unfortunately, contrary to the vision of the founders of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam, and Allama Iqbal, who wanted it to be a multicultural, tolerant, democratic and progressive state, ulema who had opposed its creation want it to be a theocracy and even a mention of the word ‘secular’ in Pakistan’s context makes them react violently.
In this backdrop it is essential to examine the meaning of the word ‘secular’ to determine if it really means what our ulema think it means with a hope that it will lead to its adoption in Pakistan’s polity and end the problem of communal hatred and violence that has plagued Pakistan throughout its existence, particularly during the last 30 years.
The common and prevalent meaning of the word ‘secular’ in the dictionaries of all the major languages of the Muslims — Urdu, Arabic, Turkish and Persian — is “ladeenia”, “ghair mazhabee”, or irreligious and against religion. In contrast, none of the western dictionaries of English, French, Spanish and Russian, etc., give this meaning to the word secular. They all give the following meanings: (1) of or relating to the world or temporal as distinguished from spiritual, (2) of or relating to the state as distinguished from the Church and (3) not formally related or controlled by a religious body.
In practice, all western countries allow complete freedom and equality to all religions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees and followers of all other religions are allowed to build their places of worship and pray the way they like without interference from the state. This freedom is constitutionally guaranteed to them and protected by the judiciary.
To sum up, we see three main features of western secularism: (1) freedom of religion, i.e., no compulsion on beliefs; (2) equal status for all religions; (3) no interference by the state in religious matters or by the church in the affairs of the state or separation of the state and the church.
Now let us compare this with the 1400-year old teachings of Islam and the Sunnah of the holy Prophet (saw). In view of the constraint of space only one example of each is given here. As regards the first point, the Quran says in no uncertain terms “there is no compulsion in religion” (Al-Baqra 2: 256) and tell the non-believers “to you be your religion, and to me my religion”, (Surah Al-Kafroon 109). On the second point, it tells the Prophet to tell others that “we (Muslims) make no distinction between various prophets” (2: 136). On the third, it tells the Prophet and “those who believe (Muslims) and those who are Jews and Christians and Sabians (star worshippers)… all those who believe in Allah and do good deeds, will be rewarded on the day of Judgment (Al-Baqra 2:62). The Quran also repeatedly tells the Prophet that he had been sent only as a messenger and warner and not as the guardian of any one’s faith, “and you (O Muhammad) are not a guardian over them” Al-Shura 42:6.
Accordingly, one of the first major decisions the Prophet took as the ruler of the Islamic state of Medina was to sign a covenant “Meesaq-e-Medina” with the Jews and others, which guaranteed them complete freedom of religion and equality with Muslims. In his book The Spirit of Islam, Ameer Ali quotes the following from the book of Al Hisham: “The Jews who attach themselves to our commonwealth shall be protected from insults and vexations, they shall have an equal right with our own people to our assistance and good offices. The Jews of various branches shall form with the Muslims one complete nation. They shall practise their religion as freely as Muslims, their allies and clients shall enjoy security and freedom”.
Later when the Prophet conquered Makkah in 630 CE he granted amnesty to all its residents and did not force any one to convert or die. It is true that Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) declared war on the renegades of Hijaz who wanted to create chaos and anarchy on the death of the Prophet (saw) but he did not show intolerance towards the people of other faiths. And Caliph Umar (RA) declined to pray in the Church of Sepulcher, though asked to do so by the Archbishop of Jerusalem, on the ground that later Muslims may turn it into a mosque (The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong). Thus Islam is the first and perhaps the only religion to preach and practise secularism during the lifetime of the Prophet and Khulfa-e-Rashedin when it was at the height of its power and could have forced itself on the people of other religions.
Similarly in regard to democracy the western perception that Islam is incompatible with democracy is actually based on the fact that a few Islamic countries today practise democracy. But that has nothing to do with Islam which shows a preference for democracy over other forms of government. This is evident from the fact that the Prophet was chosen as ruler of Medina by its people. He had not conquered the city and imposed himself as a ruler. Then he never took the title of king even after he had conquered the city of Makkah and brought all of Hijaz under his rule.
Secondly, Allah did not instruct him to nominate his successor before his death as He had done, according to Torah/the Old Testament, in the case of Joshua before the death of Hazrat Musa (AS) and latter in the case of Saul and David (Hazrat Daud AS). Thirdly, the Prophet himself did not nominate a successor though he could have easily done so and left it to the people to select his successor.
Fourthly, the first four caliphs of Islam were chosen by the people or their representatives and none of them was anointed king or tried to establish a dynasty by appointing his son his successor. This practice was changed by Hazrat Muawwiya, who became the fifth caliph after Hazrat Ali (RA) and appointed his son Yazid as his successor in his own life time.
In comparison to Islam, the two other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, were highly intolerant of the people of other religions. The Torah and Jewish history is full of stories of killings of the people of other faiths by the believers who had even crucified Jesus Christ on the charge of blasphemy though he was only trying to reform Judaism which had been highly corrupted by its religious leaders.
In turn, the Christians, once they had gained power following the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine in 323 CE, began to take revenge and persecuted the Jews for over two thousand years until the Second World War (1939-45).
The Christians also acted with great cruelty and barbarity towards the Muslims during the Crusades. Western Christian historians have themselves given graphic accounts of the merciless killings and raping of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews and wholesale pillage of their cities. Even today, in this age of enlightenment and human rights, Israel has been killing tens of thousands of Palestinians irrespective of their age and gender and destroying their properties indiscriminately.
To sum up, Islam was the first religion to preach and practise secularism as far back as the 7th century CE when the law of the jungle was the norm of the day. Therefore, it is a great irony that the very people who consider themselves its guardians should denounce secularism as “la-deeniat”. Similarly, Islam is not incompatible with democracy and, though it has not prescribed any political system, it favours selection of rulers by people, which is the most important characteristic of democratic system .
Finally, the history of Christianity and our own history should leave us in no doubt that only secularism will help us rid of sectarian and communal strife that has played a major role in making Islam weak and ineffective as it is today.

Secularism aur La Deeni Nizaam – by Munno Bhai

Source: Jang




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