Sunday, February 5,  2023


The Secular Essence of Islam

BY Yasser Abou-Ouf

Starting with the uncontroversial proposition among Sunni Muslims that Islam knows no Church, Yasser Abou-Ouf argues that the notion of an "Islamic Society" is essentially meaningless, although the notion of a political commitment motivated by one’s Islamic faith is emphatically not

A good friend of mine is a devout Muslim whose liberal instincts, like mine, were cultivated by a substantial dose of western education.  She recently shared with me a certain uneasiness she seemed unable to resolve: while she sincerely wishes for a secular liberal state to emerge as the political order of a new Egypt, she also finds it awkward to be a citizen of, let alone potentially serving public office in, a political state where activities such as selling alcohol and gambling enjoy legal protection.  I write the following words as a reflection on her dilemma. 

The dilemma can be formulated as a set of closely related questions that has forced itself upon the thinking Muslim, with increasing intensity, since the fall of the last Islamic Caliphate in Istanbul: to what extent, if at all, is it true that part of what it means to be a Muslim is to be living in an "Islamic Society"?  And if there is any truth to that proposition, then what exactly is an "Islamic Society"?  If, on the other hand, we contend that there is no truth at all to that proposition, are we also contending that one’s faith, as a Muslim, imposes no political obligations?

This set of questions became, for the thinking Muslim, a live political concern (rather than an academic thought exercise) fairly recently. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, most Muslims had always lived in political units where the political legitimacy of the ruler derived from his profession of Islam and his anointment (imposed or conceded or both) as Commander of the Faithful; indeed derived from little else. And while the vast expanse of Muslim lands often contained many competing political units at any given time, these units all shared in common this notion of political legitimacy, often conceding nominal allegiance to a symbolic supreme Commander of the Faithful sitting in Baghdad or Cairo or Istanbul or some other imperial metropolis. To be a Muslim and to live in an "Islamic Society" was thus one and the same thing. "Islamic societies" were those lands where the sovereign was called, or called himself, Commander of the Faithful and where the law, which was whatever Muslim judges did, was called to most everyone’s satisfaction the Sharia (the Law [of God]). 

The European modern colonial projects in Muslim lands, among many other things, precipitated two complications pertinent to our discussion.  One: after the post-Ottoman, post-colonial dust had settled, formerly Muslim lands were all now made up of political units where the political legitimacy of the ruler was derived primarily from his membership in some narrowly-defined community (the "nation") rather than from a profession of faith.  Two: manyCould we not regard Islam as effectively perhaps a “Fatherless Church”; having no ecclesiastical authority but still having an official definition of what it means to be a Muslim and an official body of “Islamic law”?
 Muslims, seeking better education or jobs or generally better life prospects, immigrated to the old colonial metropoles. In other words, modern nationalism and large-scale immigration (not to mention the conversion of non-Arabs to Islam) created a new reality where to be a Muslim didn’t necessarily coincide with living in some easily-definable "Islamic Society."


The awkward question was bound to arise in the minds of many thinking Muslims: How should the Muslim respond to this new political reality? Seek to turn his new nation-states into a more recognizable form of "Islamic Society"?  Perhaps even seek the grander goal of reestablishing the Caliphate as an Empire of Islam? Or dispense with this notion of "Islamic Society" altogether as simply incidental, and unimportant, to what it means to be a Muslim?  It is painfully obvious to the thinking Muslim (and to those living nervously in close quarters in Arab and non-Arab lands) that each one of these propositions gives rise to radically different, and potentially momentous, political commitments.

To what extent, if at all, is it true that part of what it means to be a Muslim is to be living in an "Islamic Society"? 

I will argue that not at all.  I will argue that the notion of an "Islamic Society" is essentially meaningless, although the notion of a political commitment motivated by one’s Islamic faith is emphatically not.  To do that I will not start with some clever interpretation of the Holy Text or some creative recital of a pertinent Prophet quote.  This sort of argument so often reduces to a frustrated confrontation because it typically requires one to assume exactly what’s being contested in the conversation.  I will start instead from what I think is a blissfully uncontroversial proposition among all Muslims, at least in the Sunni tradition I am familiar with.  This is the proposition that Islam knows no Church.   This proposition always comes in handy when a Muslim is boasting that which sets Islam apart from other Abrahamic faiths.  I think, however, that it is a proposition that deserves a much more serious attention than some shallow pride of distinction.  Indeed, I will develop my argument here by working out what I consider to be necessary, and very serious, implications of the proposition that Islam is a faith without a Church.


The Church, as a Christian social institution, defines a society with a particular membership, leadership, and law; a "Christian Society".  The Church is made up of all believers in the faith and, modeled after a paternal family, is headed by a Father who derives his legitimacy by direct assignment, through a holy line of succession, from God.  The Father of the Church defines the Dogma: what exactly should one believe for one to be counted a believer.  He can thus always decide who qualifies as member of the Church and who no longer belongs.  The Father of the Church also lays down the Law (the "Canon"): exactly what it is that God wants the faithful to do and not to do.  


Note: this account of what a Church is makes no claims that Christianity is made up of one Church or even that all Christians accept the Church as the defining structure of their faith.  Like Islam and other world religions, Christianity is a social phenomenon of exceeding variety.  Where a Church is found, however, the above describes what a Church is.  


Another note:  Europe, in fact, never experienced the much-cliched "separation of Church and State" (which the user of the cliche will tell you is not applicable to Islam) because Church and State were never one (except perhaps in some imaginings of the Holy Roman Empire).  What Europe did experience, after many violent spasms of struggle, was a subordination of the Church Canon to the law of the State: one’s religion finally had little to no bearing on one’s legal rights and obligations in the polity where one lived.

A faith without a Church is, by definition, a community of believers without a Father. A faith without a Church is, in other words, a community of believers without a Dogma and without a Canon.  If we are to take seriously the idea that Islam is a faith without a Church, we shall have to finally dispense with the stubborn idea, unchallenged for centuries, that Islam has an official Creed and an official body of law, the Sharia.  This might seem to many like moving too fast: could we not regard Islam as effectively perhaps a "Fatherless Church"; having no ecclesiastical authority but still having an official definition of what it means to be a Muslim and an official body of "Islamic law", a Sharia?  


The difficulty with that position becomes apparent as soon as we consider any situation of disagreement or controversy around matters of faith or law. A good example is the notorious case of the late Nasr Hamed Abou-Zeid, a brilliant scholar of Arabic studies who was accused to have transgressed the ‘bounds of faith’ in his studies and was deemed, by an Egyptian court of law, to be a non-Muslim and required to legally separate from his Muslim wife even as he insisted he is a believer.  The reason this is awkward (let alone morally repulsive) is that we have here all the elements of a Christian ex-communication carried out by Muslims who will tell you there is no Church or a Father in Islam.  If we concede that there is no Father, then we simply have to concede that there is no one – not a living soul – who can decide what one should believe to qualify as a Muslim.  A Church-less Islam is a faith without a Dogma, without a Creed.  You are a Muslim only if you say you are.

Sharia seems like a tougher one to argue away.  We all know verses of the Qur’an which seem to come down strongly on certain social transgressions -like theft, usury, and adultery - and to require the meting out of punishments which are laid out in more or less details.  If one subscribes to the notion of Sharia as a Canonical Islamic Law, these verses would be interpreted as setting out Divine Statutes (hodoud): legally-binding statements of disallowed behaviors and the corresponding penalties.  This is certainly a possible interpretation, but let’s see if it’s the best one. If we decide, on the Canonical interpretation, to take those admonitory verses of the Qur’an in a literal legal sense, we soon run into all sorts of practical and moral paradoxes. Take theft, for instance. As a legal offence, it comes in many different forms with a broad range of social consequences (from the petty to the severe) and with a deep hierarchy of evidence (from the conjectural to the confessional).  One can steal from aIf we concede there is no Father, then we simply have to concede there is no one - not a living soul - who can decide what one should believe to qualify as a Muslimpoor widow, a rich man, or from the coffers of the state; one can steal to eat or steal to buy a country house; and one can steal a few pennies and confess or steal millions with only an electronic log of transactions as evidence. The Qur’an leaves theft undefined and admonishes that the thief is to have their hands cut, a punishment that is both severe and irreversible.  If this is to be interpreted as legal text, how can we make sure we are correctly applying the "Divine Law." There is no Islamic Father of Church to make the necessary distinctions and qualifications when the need arises.  


Look, for another instance, to the verse which admonishes the husband not to beat his rebellious wife until all other means of conciliation have been exhausted.  If this is to be interpreted as legal text, then we are to understand that Muslim males are given Divine prerogative to beat their wives if needed, a moral atrocity by today’s standards. Or take the injunctions of the Qur’an to Muslims that they are to fairly treat their slaves. A legalistic interpretation would suggest that the Qur’an sanctions an institution which almost all of humanity has come to regard as a terrible moral crime. And after all, when we have taken stock of all the admonitory verses of the Qur’an we are very far from having something that even approaches a full body of law which can organize the many evolving affairs of society. There is no Islamic Father of Church to expand and revise the Canon when and as needed. A commitment to the idea of Sharia as Divine Law literally coded in the Qur’an is clearly fraught with serious difficulties.

If instead, we keep with our commitment to the idea that Islam is a faith without a Church, and so without Father, Dogma, or Canon, we are rewarded with an interpretation that shines much brighter and longer.  For we would then read the admonition-and-punishment verses in the Qur’an the way we should read the whole of the Qur’an: in a diligent, and ever more refined, search for moral principles.  Words and imagery are linguistic, therefore human, devices which cannot escape their imperfection of boundedness to a particular culture, a particular time and place. The thinking Muslim, committed to the universality of his faith and to the unboundedness of its Text, must therefore maintain that the Qur’an used the words and imagery of nomadic Arabia only to advance timeless covenants, not to promote a rigid legal code with vague and limited applicability.  (It’s curious to note here incidentally that those who search for legal code in the Qur’an are often the same people hunting after scientific laws in the same text; it is almost as if these people have an irresistible urge to make a holy book ‘even holier’ by measuring it against the banal affairs of Man, a self-defeating quest of fools). 
If we accept the fundamental secular nature of Islam then it becomes clear that the ideal political order for the Muslim is indeed a liberal order.

If we thus approach the Qur’an as a book of moral covenants, it becomes easy and obvious to read the "theft verse" as an admonition against taking that which is not "rightfully yours," a term which societies will define anew over and over.  Instead of crudely taking the Qur’an to be giving male Muslims a license to beat their wives, it becomes much more plausible that the Qur’an orders a husband to try to reason with an antagonistic wife before he should think of resorting to "extreme measures," a term which in modern societies would perhaps refer to divorce, certainly not violence.  Or again, instead of the naive (and recent) interpretation of the "Riba verse" which claims that God had categorically ordered Muslims not to lend money, one would find it much more sensible to see there an admonition against "excessive" profiteering in any trade (Riba means "excess") where "excessive" will always be understood differently in different societies.  It’s clear that it’s very possible for different Muslims to derive different moral lessons from the same verses, but that’s exactly the point.  


The point is that if we seriously commit to the idea that Islam is a faith without a Canon, we find that it is a faith which offers its believers, not a rigid legal code, but ample material for reflection and an expectation  that the believer will hold herself up to the highest standards of moral reasoning and behavior available to her mind, time, and place.  "Consult your heart, even if told what’s the right thing to do", is how The Prophet (PBUH) put it.  And in his last speech to the believers, the Prophet  (PBUH) summed up his Message thus: "I was sent but only to make complete that which is most decent in moral conduct." Islam is a faith without a Church, and so without a Father, Dogma, or Canon.

Of course, Sharia exists as a compelling historical fact.  As a historical reality, Sharia is the name we give to the mixed set of practices and modes of speaking and reasoning employed by Muslim judges in the vast geographical and chronological expanse of Muslim lands.  These practices make up a substantial body of legal traditions which tell us a lot about the cultures and customs and intellectual habits -as well as the prejudices and biases and power relations – of the societies where these traditions flourished.  But there is nothing sacred about these traditions.  I happen to think that Sharia traditions have been cut for so long from the modern practices of society and have become obsolete in terms of the conceptual categories they employ, their standards of evidence, and their rules of procedure, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that it would be fallacious to infer from the fact that the practice of law in Muslim lands, until recently, has always been referred to as “Sharia" that this name refers to some essence, a Divine Law, or that it is part of what it means to be a Muslim to live in a society where law is practiced in keeping with one of these historical traditions.  Just as it would be fallacious to infer from the fact that Muslim lands have always been governed as military dictatorships that it is somehow part of what it means to be a Muslim to live in a military dictatorship.  The fall of the Ottoman Empire was a watershed in many ways with a mixed bag of consequences.  To my mind, though, the most redeeming consequence has been to jolt the political imagination of Muslims out of habits acquired over centuries.  Having lived for so long in “Islamic societies" of sorts, we failed for so long to realize that the notion of an “Islamic Society", for a faith that has no anointed Father, no official Dogma, and no Divine Law, is a notion that can mean anything and so means nothing.

With no ecclesiastical authority, Islam is a fundamentally secular religion.  It is a religion which requires from its believers to exercise independent judgments for which they will be individually accountable.  The implication of this result is that the question of political order for the Muslim is not a question of aligning the law of the state with some Divine Law, for Islam has no such notion.  It is rather a question of being able to live in congruence with one’s moral convictions, derived from one’s faith, by one’s own reasoning.  


It is also a question of being able to promote these same moral convictions in free and public debate. These two, living with integrity and speaking up one’s mind, are the political obligations of the Muslim, not the wild and bloody hunt after some imagined Divine utopia. And because each Muslim is thus entitled, indeed each person is thus entitled, it becomes obvious that the ideal political order for the Muslim is one where all are equal before the law and enjoy a minimum set of rights.  


In other words, if we accept the fundamental secular nature of Islam then it becomes clear that the ideal political order for the Muslim is indeed a liberal order.  The liberal order guarantees not that the Muslim will be living in a society where all have his very same moral sensibilities, for that’s impossible.  What the liberal order does guarantee is that it will always be possible to have a conversation.  For a Muslim who believes in no Church, no Father, no Dogma, and no Canon, that’s the only guarantee of a continually renewed faith.  I hope this brings my friend some peace of mind. 


Yasser Abou-Ouf is an independent Egyptian writer who studied in Egypt and the US. Currently based in Canada, he is a Director in Trading Risk Management at CIBC Bank

READ MORE BY:  Yasser Abou-Ouf






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Removing the word "civil" from the Constitution will result in
 A military state
 A theocratic (religious) state
 A civil state
 Don''t care
Do you support holding football matches with fans attending?
 Don''t care