Religious bond, political commitment, and the issue of secularity in Islam
The nexus between Islam and politics is highly contentious, forming part of the larger debate on the nature of Islam. The notion that Islam is an all-encompassing, ‘seamless whole’ (A. Maududi), comprising all fields of human thought and action, has been propagated by modern Islamic thinkers and Islamist activists, but it is also held by some of their fiercest critics. In contrast, I argue that it is heuristically productive to distinguish between certain fields and concerns, and at the same time to look for entanglements rather than separation.
In the pre-modern period, Muslims did in many instances distinguish between a variety of intellectual and social fields, such as religion, law, morality, business and trade, the empirical sciences, and state craft, governance, or politics. The common reference to din wa-dunya (‘religion and world’) is a case in point. However, they did not theoretically undergird these distinctions in a way that would correspond to modern conceptualizations of the secular, and of secularity. These distinctions were more firmly drawn, and at the same time more strongly contested, in the modern period. (With a view to transregional comparison it is important to note that for large parts of the Middle East, the modern era, marked by state-led modernization policies, is not identical with the colonial era.)
In the course of intensified encounters with Western critics, observers, and colonizers, and more particularly after the abolition of the caliphate by the Turkish National Assembly in 1924, local scholars, intellectuals, and bureaucrats began to rework local discourses, including those touching on ‘the political.’ The formula according to which Islam is din wa-dawla (‘religion and state’) articulated a political claim and for that reason, it is prescriptive rather than descriptive, calling for a critical evaluation of its implications. More intriguing is the distinction between the stable and the flexible, roots and branches, or values and techniques ʿin Islam,ʾ suggesting a certain room for manoeuvre in matters of politics, economics, and the arts, one contingent upon time and circumstance, provided the ‘core’ of Islam and its ‘values’ are left intact.
At ICAS, he will focus on the remarkable decision by prominent Arab Islamic thinkers-cum-activists to formally separate their political from their religious activities and by the same token, to draw a clear line between politics on the one hand and piety, law, and morality on the other. The distinction can be seen as an expression of ʿIslamicʾ secularity, with obvious relevance to discussions of the political and its metamorphoses well beyond the Arab-Islamic context.
Gudrun Krämer is professor emerita of Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and former director of the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, the Tunisian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the German National Research Council (Wissenschaftsrat). She has published widely on the history of the Middle East since the early modern period and on modern Islamic political thought, with a focus on democracy, human rights, and secularity.