The title of this piece should raise eyebrows. How could Islam be secular? Religion and secularism are generally thought to be contradictory to each other. More so with Islam, a religion which, in recent times, has been associated with so much intolerance. There is almost certainty in the minds of many that Islam is the anti-thesis of secularism.
This common belief is a result of misunderstanding secularism as godlessness. Juxtaposing this conception of secularism with Islam, which has been revealed to uphold the sovereignty of God, one naturally sees Islam and secularism at two opposite ends.
However, secularism can be understood as the neutrality of religion or tolerance, especially when it comes to State affairs. A secular State treats all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and avoids preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/non-religion over other religions/non-religion.
Can Islam allow this neutrality? The answer should be a resounding “yes!”.
The very opening verse of the Quran (the first verse of Surah Fatiha) refers to God as “the Lord (Sustainer) of all the worlds (Rabbul Al-Ameen)”. The very last Surah (Nas) begins by referring to God as “the Sustainer of men (human-kind)”, followed by “the Sovereign of men” and “the God of men”. Nowhere in the Quran is God referred to as the Lord or Sustainer of Muslims only.
The Quran even emphasises that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) was sent “as [an evidence of Our] grace towards all the worlds” (21:107). Thus, Islam is a universal religion.
These were the arguments our great leader Moulana Bhashani made to secularise the Awami League, which he founded as the Awami Muslim League.
The Holy Quran categorically states, “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256). It also explains the plurality of beliefs as a will of God, “Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life (Sharia). And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” (5:48).
We also find in the Quran, “for, every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works.” (2:148). This “unity in diversity” is frequently stressed in the Quran (e.g., in 21:92-93, 22:67-69 or in 23:52 ff.).
Islam prohibits explicitly abusing other religions or deities that non-Muslims worship. Allah is fully mindful of the risk that the abuse of other beliefs poses to peace in society and asked the Muslims to leave the final judgement to Him alone. Thus, we find in the Quran: “And do not abuse those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest exceeding the limits they should abuse Allah out of ignorance. Thus have We made fair seeming to every people their deeds; then to their Lord shall be their return, so He will inform them of what they did” (6:108).
The same message can be found in 2:114, “Hence, who could be more wicked than those who bar the mention of God’s name from [any of] His houses of worship and strive for their ruin…?”
In his commentary on the above verses, Muhammad Asad, one of the leading modern day Islamic philosophers, says that according full respect to every religion which has belief in God as its focal point is one of the fundamental principles of Islam. This principle was clearly illustrated in the Prophet’s treatment of the deputation from Christian Nazjran (then part of Yemen) in the year 10 H. They were given free access to the Prophet’s mosque, and with his full consent celebrated their religious rites there, although their adoration of Jesus as “the son of God” and of Mary as “the mother of God” was fundamentally at variance with Islamic beliefs.
Nowhere is the command for tolerance as explicit as in Surah Al-Kafirun (No. 109). “O you who do not believe! I worship not what you worship, and you are not worshipping what I worship; nor am I worshipping what you worship; neither are you worshipping what I worship. Therefore, to you your religion; and to me my religion!” (109:1-6).
In fact, the defence of religious freedom is the foremost cause for which arms may and, indeed, must be taken up: “For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed.” (22:40).
Islam permits fighting only for self-defence and to protect the oppressed: “And why should you not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us out of Your Grace one who will protect; and raise for us out of Your Grace one who will help!'”(4: 75).
“As for such [of the unbelievers] as do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity: for, verily, God loves those who act equitably. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth.” (60:8-9).
If Islam grants religious rights then how can one explain the special tax (Jiziya) on non-Muslims? Commonly, Jiziya has been understood as a protection tax or extortion aimed to convert non-Muslims by humiliating them as a second class dhimmi position in a Muslim land. Unfortunately, this is a misinterpretation. Many Muslim scholars are responsible for this misinterpretation, as they have failed to note that the Quranic injunction of Jiziya is mentioned only once in Surah Al Tawbah revealed when non-Muslims declared war on Islam and against Muslims. In the same context, the Quran also asks Muslims not to befriend non-believers or take them as their protectors.
Thus, Jiziya can be imposed only on the conquered until such time they accept their defeat. It is not intended to force others to accept Islam. It cannot be levied on a non-Muslim citizen living in peace. This is very clear from the Quranic injunctions contained in verses 8-9 of Surah Al Mumtahinah (No. 60), cited above, “to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity”. “Treating all citizens with full equity” is a fundamental principle for a civil or secular democratic state.
Muhammad Asad translates Jiziya as “exemption tax”, imposed on protected non-Muslims in lieu of their obligation to join the war (Jihad), while all able-bodied Muslims are religiously obliged to join the military. Non-Muslims are also exempted from Zakat (“purifying dues”) that Muslims must pay. Neither is Jiziya a poll tax as some critiques describe it. On the basis of clear-cut ordinances promulgated by the Prophet (a) all women, (b) males who have not yet reached full maturity, (c) old men, (d) all sick or crippled men, (e) priests and monks and (f) all non-Muslim citizens who volunteer for military service are exempted from the payment of Jizya. Furthermore, it is based on the ability to pay as implied by the expression ‘an yad’ (lit., “out of hand”) meaning “power” or “ability”.
In Abu Dawud, one of the authentic compilations of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), it is recorded, “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I [Prophet Muhammad] will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment”.
The Prophet emphasised in many letters to his emissaries that religious institutions should not be harmed. For example, we find in a letter addressed to his emissary to the religious leaders of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai who has sought the protection of the Muslims:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are declared to be protected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation [Muslims] is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day [end of the world].”
In a letter to his governor in Egypt, the Fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali (May God be pleased with him) wrote: “Sensitize your heart to mercy for the subjects, and to affection and kindness for them. Do not stand over them like greedy beasts who feel it is enough to devour them, for they are of two kinds; either your brother in faith or like you in Creation” (Nahju ‘l-Balagha, letter 53).
Thus, Islam does not pose any challenge to a secular State; rather it promotes a multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state, where all citizens are treated equally, and judged only on the basis of the degree of their good deeds.
Unfortunately, Islam nowadays has become synonymous with violence and intolerance due to the acts of some who are interpreting the Quran and Hadith in a very narrow way. Their citations from the Quran and Hadith are taken out of context. Artefacts and religious symbols (from both Islamic and pre-Islamic eras) are destroyed by this small radicalised fringe. They are using the Prophet’s destruction of idols in the Kabah to justify their attacks on the symbols of other religions, without realising that the Prophet’s act was to do with reclaiming the first house of worship to restore it to its original status after his victory over the pagan Arabs. He did not destroy any other houses of worship.
In the name of “purifying” Islam, they are killing more Muslims than non-Muslims, while Allah has decreed human life as sacred. Their purification campaign seems directed more towards Muslims than non-Muslims.
Let us reflect on the message contained “[And as for My messenger,] there is no [obligation] on him except to deliver [the message].” (5:99). “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them entirely. Then will you compel the people until they become believers?” (10: 99). “But if they turn away [from you, O Prophet, know that] We have not sent you to be their keeper: you are not bound to do more than deliver the message.” (42:48).
Anis Chowdhury was Professor of Economics, University of Western Sydney, Australia and held senior positions at the United Nations in New York and Bangkok. He can be reached at email@example.com