|The perceived clash between the Western and Islamic civilizations is not a coherent metaphysical clash between secularism and religiosity. It is that they were historically the founding principles of each civilization.
The West experienced its dramatic civilizational advancements over the last five centuries as a result of severing its ties to the Church and escaping the clutches of religious dogma, which ushered the Enlightenment, the rise of reason, and the simultaneous development of democracy and capitalism as concomitants giving rise to the beginnings of— and thus defining— Western secular humanism as its metaphysical construct.
The Islamic world, on the other hand, experienced its civilizational apogee—its “enlightenment” that boomed between 800 and 1200 CE— as a result of its religious impulse. The Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to “seek knowledge even if it were in China;” to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” and an unauthenticated Prophetic teaching is that the ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr. Muslim scholars interpreted these Prophetic injunctions to mean that seeking non-religious/secular knowledge in other cultures was a religious mandate and avidly pursued, collected and advanced the world’s trove of knowledge during the first five centuries after the Prophet, developing the scientific method.
Because the West historically experienced religion as a hindrance to its growth and success, it therefore mistakenly fears religion as a cause of societal retrogression. And because the Islamic world historically experienced religion as the cause of its greatness and historic success, it therefore mistakenly fears Western secularism as a powerful corrosive of the norms and values that comprise an Islamic community’s existential anchors.
And fear motivates people.
When secularism is not anti-religious, and instead welcomes religion; and when religion embraces the benefits of secularism, the two can in fact happily co-exist.
The latter was the case during the classical period of Islamic history, where in “Houses of Wisdom or Knowledge” (bayt or dar al-hikmah or dar al-`ilm) from Cordoba to Cairo to Baghdad, any and all philosophical, scientific and literary works from Greek, Roman and Far Eastern scholarship Muslims could get their hands on were translated—separately from and in addition to traditional Islamic learning: studies of the Quran and its exegesis, Hadith, Arabic grammar, and jurisprudence. By and large, political power did not force ideology upon the people.
The former case, where secularism is not anti-religious, is best represented today by the United States of America, which therefore has an important—even providential— role in bridging this divide, simply because its social contract, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, blended elements of the European Enlightenment with core principles of the Islamic social contract.
The Authors of the American Declaration of Independence were not at all anti-religion: they expressed that intuitive sense of religiosity Muslims call din al-fitrah [natural religion]—the core definition of Islam and of what the Quran calls “right religion” [din al-haq]. They recognized unalienable human rights given by the Creator, among which were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as the “sacred rights of mankind” “written by the hand of Divinity itself”—clearly theistic language. And whatever might arguably have been the result of the Enlightenment in banishing religion— and specifically Christianity— from the boardrooms of European society, American political “secularity” defined itself not as anti-religiosity but as a distinct pro-religiosity based on the ethics and metaphysics of a divine and providential theistic religiosity, de-linked from Christian liturgy that allowed originally only Protestant and non-Catholic “Christian religions”; but later expanded this to other varieties of Christian religious expression, including Catholicism (and to Judaism in the 20th century) as part of the American societal contract.
America’s task in the 21st century is to expand the notion of the Judeo-Christian ethic to include Islam under the notion of an Abrahamic ethic, the common religious principles shared with among the three Abrahamic religions and founded on the following two fundamental commandments
- To love the [one and only] God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, and
- To love one’s neighbor as oneself,
altogether based on a concept of genuine human equality before God.
The Authors of the American Declaration differentiated between religion, which they appreciated, and control of government by a religious institution/church, which invariably leads to thought control when ideology becomes wedded to political power. This they avidly guarded against, thereby creating the space for embracing the rational principles of the Enlightenment: i.e. the values of what became known in Europe as secularism. This they did without going so far as to be anti-religious, a tendency that only percolated into the US in the 20th century.
This attitude in fact reflects the Islamic social contract which did away with a formal priesthood and the concomitant formal “church-type” religious organization but upheld the two commandments upon which, Jesus Christ asserts in the New Testament, hang all of the Law and all of the Prophets. Similarly all of Islamic law is built upon them: laws pertaining to worship of God [`ibadat] expressing the first commandment, and laws dealing with worldly affairs [mu`amalat] that express the second.
America’s capacity to resolve the West-Muslim world conflict involves recognizing America’s historical contribution in bridging the religion/secular divide in Western intellectual, constitutional and economic history, and in embracing secular humanism as essentially the ethical injunctions of the second commandment stated separately from the first.
It is now time for an America that will champion to Europe religion’s value, showing Europeans how filtering anti-religiosity out of secularism contributes to building the good society.
And to the Muslim world, America needs to demonstrate in the Islamic vernacular, especially Islamic jurisprudence, that democratic capitalism’s institutions—albeit birthed in the womb of secularism—best help fulfill the second commandment. The Muslim world will appreciate this.
1 The Quran states that monotheism and its social concomitants, as true or right religiousness, were embedded by God in human nature as part of human conscience and that God commanded humanity to honor it: “Be religious in accordance with your truest inclinations [literally, hanif-ly], the immutable nature (fitrah) of God upon which He created people—there is no altering God’s creation—that is right religiousness, but most people do not know” (Quran 30:30). The idea of this verse is that any person who listens to his or her heart and conscience would recognize that God is One, that humanity is one family, that humans should be free and should treat each other fairly and with justice.
since the attempts made in the early 20th century in Turkey, Egypt and Iran to secularize—i.e. strip their nations of religion— did not result in any advance in those civilizations, and failed in contributing to the people’s sense of improvement of quality of life.
Muslims have to fully incorporate the institutional expressions of democratic capitalism, defined as the combination of democracy and capitalism, into their various essential institutions: the rule of law (an independent judiciary), the separation of powers, human rights, a stable currency, business’ need to access competitive capital via capital markets, equal opportunity, free markets, social safety nets, and so forth. These principles are among the most important institutional expressions of the second commandment that the West has developed. By helping its masses enjoy greater economic well being and a better quality of life and by allowing them to participate in the decisions governing their lives, democratic capitalism has contributed to the betterment of the “neighbor”—humanity at large—thus fulfilling the second commandment.
In continuing to refine and perfect democratic capitalism, America should extend its idealism beyond the West, and more robustly encourage—and not fear— the rise of Islamic forms of democracy and proactively help evolve Islamic democratic capitalism.
The Muslim World’s rage is partly because it is excluded by the West as a full, welcome member in the family of humankind, meriting equal treatment from the West on its own cultural and religious terms. (For example, the Muslim world perceives that Turkey is denied admission to the European Union solely because it is a predominantly Muslim country.)
Finally by drawing from Islamic civilization’s historical experience in building pluralist societies, America could craft invaluable contributions to Western understandings of the ideal role of religion in building a global pluralistic multiethnic, multi-religious society and thereby mediate the differences blocking a wholesome relationship between Islam and the West