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Conference Report: The Formation of the Concepts of Secularity/Secularism in the Arab/Islamicate Worlds

By Housamedden Darwish

The panel “The Formation of the Concepts of Secularity/Secularism in the Arab/Islamicate Worlds”, was held at University of Osnabrück from 16 to 18 September 2021, in hybrid format. It was organised and chaired by Housamedden Darwish, as part of the 27th International DAVO Congress, which was jointly organized by the Institute for Islamic Theology, and the German Middle East Studies Association for Contemporary Research and Documentation (DAVO).

In Arab and Islamicate cultures, a distinction is rarely made between secularity as an analytical or descriptive concept, and secularism as an ideological or normative one. Furthermore, the genealogy and the conceptual history of these concepts on the one hand, and their etymology on the other, have often been confused. Equally, understandings of the genealogy and history of the concept of secularism do not always take its two different, somewhat contradictory, but nonetheless widely used senses into consideration. The panel aimed at exploring key historical moments and processes that contributed to the formation of the different conceptions of secularity, in order to study the different incarnations of the concepts of secularism and secularity that have emerged in the Arab/Islamicate worlds from the beginning of the 19th century. To this end, the various contributors examined the problematic relationship between the concepts of secularity and secularism, as well as their formation and formulation in the modern and contemporary Arab/Islamicate worlds.

Papers by Sima Baidya (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Housamedden Darwish (Leipzig University), Amany A. Alsiefy (Free University of Berlin) and Rafique Wassan (Bern University) were presented in the first of two panel sessions.

Baidya presented a paper on “Polemics between Secularity/Secularism and Islam: Why Secularity Never Dies Down?” The paper problematises the polemics between secularity/secularism and Islam, and argues that, unlike liberal order, the ideas of secularity and secularism receive only marginal attention in the governance of the Islamic region. It argues that the concept of secularism has never captured, occupied, or replaced Islam as a system of governance. The paper explores different shades of secularity, to show that it emerged at different times, and in different places, whether as a spark or in response to local situations, without taking the shape of secularism. By examining the historicity of these concepts, the paper stresses the marginality of secularity and secularism in the Islamic world. Unlike the role of religion in the emergence of secularity in the Western world, in the Islamic world the historical origin and establishment of Islam as the governing principle of the state diminished the strength of secularity and secularism. Here, as a result, neither concept has been able to establish itself as governing principle of the state. Despite this marginality, and the sporadic, sudden, and localised emergence of secularity, it is hypothesised that secularity has never disappeared from the Islamic world.

The paper by Housamedden Darwish deals with the pioneering formulation of the concept of secularism in Butrus al-Bustani’s text The Clarion of Syria. In the Arab and Islamicate world, the concept of secularism is widely used in two contradictory senses – positive and negative – and is thus treated in the paper as a “thick normative concept”, i.e. a concept that contains both descriptive and evaluative components. The paper aims to investigate the initial Arab and Islamicate formation of the ideological concept of secularism in a positive sense. It argues that, while Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī’s book Refutation of the Materialists can be considered a “founding text” of the Arab/Islamic formulation of the negative sense of secularism, Butrus al-Bustani’s text The Clarion of Syria constitutes the first clear and firm textual formulation of its positive sense. Al-Bustani’s book can also be regarded as a textual and epistemic source or basis for the current dominant use of the positive sense of secularism in Arab and Islamicate cultures. The paper shows that al-Bustani’s concept of secularism takes the form of a repetitive distinction between what is religious or spiritual and what is non-religious (civil, moral, and political affairs), and includes a call for, and a promotion of, the necessity of a clear separation between the two, especially when they emerge as authorities. In this specific case, al-Bustani talks about religious and political authorities as “distinct and contradictory spheres of action”, and warns of the negative consequences that can result from their combination. The paper aims to depict and analyse the main descriptive and normative features of al-Bustani’s concept of secularism.

Amany A. Alsiefy presented a paper entitled “Dressing the Feminine Body, the State and the Formation of the Concept of Secularity in Modern Egypt”. Secularisation is considered one of the main features of modern society, where the spread of education and scientific discoveries are expected to lead to a gradual decline of the belief in supernatural powers and the role of religion in everyday life – in favour of rational thinking, based on scientific reason. The waning of religious influence, at the level of the individual, goes hand in hand with the decline of religious authority in the public sphere. However, the paper argues that most countries worldwide seek to adopt secularism by separating the state from religious institutions as a prerequisite for their modernisation process. The paper discusses the shifts in Egyptian women’s attitude towards dress and clothing, as an expression of modernity and secularity, and their entanglement with nationalism, faith, and the state’s political and economic orientation, starting from the 19th century. The term “clothes” has mainly been used here to refer to the use of the veil, with unveiling being seen in contemporary Egypt as a symbol of the emancipated modern and secular woman, as opposed to the subordinate traditional religious veiled woman.

In the last presentation of the first session, Rafique Wassan offered reflection on the “Progressive Political Sufi Polemic of G.M Syed and the Reconstruction of Secular Civil Islam in Postcolonial Pakistan”. This paper critically engages with the assumption that Sufism is otherworldly and anti-secular, and calls attention to the progressive secular political formulation of Sindhi Sufi heritage, by way of the intellectual political Sufi polemics of G. M. Syed (1904–1995), founder of Sindhi secular nationalism in postcolonial Pakistan. In the heyday of Hindu-Muslim religious communalism in pre-partition British India, G. M. Syed was an ardent voice for, and supporter of, Muslim religious nationalism, and for the creation of Pakistan. In the early years of the independent Muslim nation state of Pakistan, he parted ways with the leadership of the Muslim League. In his ensuing political modernist project, G. M. Syed creatively cultivated a Sufi critical agency to counter the centralised, hegemonic religious state nationalism of Pakistan. The paper shows that, through his progressive political Sufi cultural production, G. M. Syed brought out the firm distinction between Sufi Islam and Mullah Islam, and polemically called for the separation of religion and politics in Pakistan. Informed by G. M. Syed’s Sufi critique of theocracy and the state ideology of Islamisation in Pakistan, the paper reveals the role of the dialogical and argumentative tradition of Sufism in the development of secular and civil discourse on Islam.

The programme for the second session had to be adjusted at short notice. It eventually included two papers: “The Religious Secularity and the Shariatisation in the Iranian Decision-Making Process“, by Reza Hosseini (Shahid Beheshti University), and “Dismantling Secularism In the Arab World Context”, by Maher Massoud (former guest scholar at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO)).

Reza Hosseini’s paper examines the concept of “religious secularity” in the Iranian political structure, in light of Carl Schmitt’s theory of “decisionist sovereignty”. Secularity, as an analytical concept, can show the intertwined relationship between religion and state. By contrast, secularism, as a paradigm or ideological concept, indicates the distinction between these two. The paper argues that drawing a distinctive line between the two concepts is controversial, or even impossible, particularly in some political structures, such as in Iran. Basically, secularity refers to a human state whereby religion loses its dominance in the public sphere; this term is closely related to worldliness and social customs in the modern era. Conflicts between religion (Sharia) and social customs (urf) in the decision-making process of the Iranian political structure emerged after the 1979 revolution. To reconcile this conflict, Khomeini, as a Guardian of the Jurist (vali-ye faqih), established the Expediency of Discernment Council (EDC) in 1988. This raises the key question: What is the relationship between secularity and the EDC’s function? The main hypothesis is that, since the decisionist sovereignty of the Guardian of the Jurist extends his religious authority beyond Sharia law, and since the EDC was established based on his state ruling, the decisions of the EDC are therefore religious. In other words, if the EDC decides on customary and non-religious matters, then these decisions are ultimately religious and legal. The concept of “religious secularity” therefore applies. It is derived from two corresponding components: first, the EDC identifies customary and non-religious matters as an input. It then shariatises them as an output.

Finally, Maher Massoud spoke about the necessity of dismantling the concept of secularism in the Arab context. In the Arab world, secularism is mainly defined in three distinct ways, all founded on one epistemological position: “the separation of religion from the state”, “the separation of religion from politics”, and “the separation of religion from sovereignty”. Religion, in these definitions, is seen as the problem, and is thus the subject to be separated from the state, politics, or sovereignty. The paper argues that understanding secularism through these narratives is an inversion of the concept. Rather than religion, it is the state that is the essence, subject, and source of authority in the Arab world; the problems of the Arab world do not stem essentially from religion, but rather from the state, since religion is subordinate to it, not the source of its authority. Therefore, the paper considers, the challenge of secularism must shift from an encounter with religion, to an encounter with the state – meaning separating the state from religion, rather than the other way around. The separation in this sense has two meanings: splitting the state from its own religion – the state as a religion for its people – and setting the state apart from the religion, or lack thereof, of its citizens. The aim of the paper is to show that the insistence of Arab elites on positioning the secular problem essentially against religion, lacks an understanding of where in society power truly lies, and, henceforth, provides both a false problem and a false solution. The state is what stands in the face of secularisation in the Arab world, given that it has supremacy over all powers, while religion has only a subordinate role, similarly to all other institutions.

The lively discussion revolved around many empirical and theoretical aspects. The main theoretical points addressed different approaches towards distinction between the two concepts. Empirical details and theoretical clarifications were discussed, to show the different forms the relationship between secularity or secularism and Islam takes, and can take, in the Arab and Islamicate world(s). The papers presented offer stimulating input with regard to the genealogy and conceptual history of secularity and secularism. However, most of the speakers and participants agreed that there is still a need to inquire further into this conceptual history, with its ruptures and continuities.