Monday, September 27, 2021

Formations of the Secular: Secularity, Secularism, Secularisms

In evaluating the universality of secularism, we can think of the fundamental imagination in the Islamic tradition that human behaviour and activity generates metaphysical impact. Hence, what we do in this world is reflected back to us through natural events. Accordingly, earthquakes are not simply seen as consequences of tectonic plate shifts, even though this is acknowledged and appreciated as the material explanation, but in fact are the results of a higher ‘spiritual’ reason, which is our godless human behaviour. This is something that, according to Charles Taylor, is regarded by us as an old, quaint, superstitious idea from an age of ‘enchantment’. I would argue that the construction of the two categories of ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ in European societies was facilitated by an ostensible non-complementarity and contradictoriness between the explanations offered by these two realms on what happens around us in this world, which makes a clear-cut distinction between the two, an invention of Latin Christendom. 

A universalisation of this exceptional historical trajectory however can lead to an European ‘Enlightenment-based narcissism’, as Yolande Jansen puts it, often at the expense of the freedom of powerless, ordinary minorities. José Casanova, who to me is one of the key contributors on the formation of the Secular, his main concern is the particular historical genealogy contextual to the theological discourse in Latin Christendom that has led to the emergence of the dyadic categorisation and binary classification of ‘the secular’ and “the religious”. ’The secular’ soon came to be perceived as a universal, natural human achievement, without taking into account that both ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ were two categories that do not necessarily have analogues in non-Western societies. He goes on to say that the ‘secular’ therefore is equally in need of critical analysis and reflexive interpretation. He pays attention to the ‘historical stadial consciousness’ and dangerous self-understanding that presupposes the universal validity, legitimacy and superiority of the process of secularisation. His recognition, that the conceptualisation of the category of “secularisation” as a universal process that needs to be exported into non-Western contexts characterises a Eurocentric discourse, merits appreciation. It goes without saying that while fleeing from ‘the religious’ (that is considered as sacred and to be overcome), this discourse can create a secularist ideology that quasi-sacralises, quasi-absolutises ‘the secular’ as a universal historical process towards an unthought, taken-for-granted reality that is inevitable, and profanes religion. This new sacralised secularism has the potential of becoming a ‘new religion’ that in turn represses, demonises and marginalises the ‘old (now profaned) religion’. Given the complexity and exceptional genealogy of the term ‘secular’, Taylor proposes a redefinition of the term: If secularity aims at the harmonious coexistence of different religious communities; societies, that have ensured peaceful coexistence among various religions without utilising the Western antithetical approach of pulling out ‘the religious’ from ‘the immanent’, should be examined. 
The ‘good’, ‘pure’ or ‘rational religion’ that was advocated by Philosophers such as Locke or Kant is another issue that merits attention. In the earlier years of Western enlightenment, religious institutions and beliefs were expected to rationalise themselves and meet the requirements of the ‘supreme morality’. Religion was perceived as good and acceptable as long as it was relegated to the private sphere and subordinated itself to a self-sufficient, independent social morality and is devoid of any external, transcendent relevance. What brought this idea into being was, as Jansen rightly stresses, the ‘context of search for a common denominator helping to end the religious wars (Jansen 2010: 73), while this search ended up in new differences and social fault lines, along which new power hierarchies emerged. Protestantism was celebrated while Catholicism and Judaism were considered as cults and statuary confessions, providing a similar grounding that is susceptible to the abuse of power and the marginalisation of some ‘other’.
Casanova, José (2011) ‘The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 54-74.
Jansen, Yolande (2010) ‘Secularism and Security: France, Islam, and Europe’ in Linnell Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds., Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 69-86.
Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth (2011) ‘A Suspension of (Dis)belief: The Secular-Religious Binary and the Study of International Relations’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 166-184.
Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth (2008) ‘Varieties of Secularism’ in The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 23-45.
Taylor, Charles (2011) ‘Western Secularity’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-53

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mohsen Kadivar's New-Mutazilism, Human Rights and the normativity of Qur'anic injunctions


When contemplating the traditional Islamic discourse on human rights(1) and legal philosophy and when trying to reconcile traditional islamic exegesis with modern judicial interpretation, we have to my assessment a perennial problem that I would delineate as non-complementary paradigms. Akin to the dissimilarity between Newtonian Physics and Quantum Mechanics (both having a certain way of viewing the world and working at a certain level), both traditional Islam and modern legal philosophy attempt to address things that have different theoretical bases, underlying principles, epistemological and ontological frameworks and presuppositions and thus require the use of different languages. Having said that, I need to stress that I still consider myself a ‘harmonist(2), advocating a ‘reverse cultural relativism’, by utilising the traditional doctrine of maqāṣid and the ‘margin of appreciation’ on the side of international human rights, without idealising either the modern notion of human rights by presupposing its conceptual superiority or the prevalent traditional islamic discourse on Shari’ah injunctions.
Mohsin Kadivar, a post-revolutionary Iranian intellectual, traditionally trained in Islamic Law in both of the preeminent seminary centres of Shi’ite intelligentsia, Qom and Najaf, is one of the outstanding scholars of our time trying to reconcile human rights norms with modern Islamic thoughts and practices. It is these above-mentioned philosophical and epistemological differences and their distinct way of defining the essence of human beings, according to Kadivar, that are underlying the current incompatibility between internationally recognised human rights and traditional Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic law.
In this essay, we will firstly examine how Kadivar demonstrates why traditional fiqh is incapable of overcoming the fundamental conflict between the notion of human rights and Shari’ah precepts in traditional islam. We will go on by outlining his proposed way of elevating the authority of collective reason in imposing time limits for Shari’ah ordinances concerning interpersonal social transactions and of rethinking and reassessing their eternality, fixedness and continuity. We will then discuss critically his premises such as the possibility of such a collective reason, the rationality of Shari’ah ordinances and the utilisation of the concept of abrogation.

Methodological framework of Kadivar’s ‘New Jurisprudence’

Kadivar’s starting point is the fundamental conflict between the traditional interpretation of Islam(3) and the notion of modern human rights (Kadivar 2004) and the insufficiency of traditional Islamic jurisprudential tools to tackle the conflict and to face the challenges posed by the modern period. With the advent of modernity, Kadivar argues, several commandments, prohibitions, rites and precepts of the conventional traditional exegesis that were considered as perpetual and fixed and beyond time and space were obviously conflicting with certain norms, achievements and phenomena of modernity that have become the “manner of the reasonable people” (sīrah-yi ʿuqalā’) (Matsunaga 2011: 364). Even exhausting all potentials of traditional jurisprudence will therefore not solve six critical areas of conflict between traditional islam and human rights norms: The legal distinction between Muslims and Non-Muslims, between men and women, slaves and human beings, commoners and jurists on the public space; freedom of religion and belief and lastly violent extrajudicial punishments for apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, theft, illicit sexual relations, false accusations of illicit sex and the consumption of intoxicants. For him, the conflict does not lie in minor issues of traditional jurisprudence, but is deep-rooted. Traditional islam is a paradigm, as is the case with modern human rights, having their own distinct epistemic framework of theoretical and philosophical underpinnings, making a harmonisation between the two sides of the conflict nearly impossible.
Kadivar argues, that traditional Islam needs to rethink its fundamental criteria and foundations; particularly the role of reason and the eternality of the injunctions of the textual sources and their practical implications. He is opposed to the Divine Command Theory of the Ash’arites that became the mainstream theological position; the epistemological premise that reason is limited in its capacity to discern what is good and evil (al husn wa al-qubh), that revelation is the primary normative reference(4) for universal truth and moral perfection and that whatever God decrees is justice because He as the Absolute Sovereign of the universe decrees it and not because it is in conformity with independent standards of ‘justice’ and ‘goodness’, discerned, ratiocinated and formulated externally by human beings(5). So from a traditional perspective, Shari’ah precepts and duties are unquestionably just and wise, even if they differ depending on one’s religion, creed, freedom or slavery or gender.
It is worth noting at this juncture that Kadivar is what we may call a neo-Mu’tazilite(6) in this respect.  His proposed “intellectual”, “spiritual”, “goal-oriented” Islam, which is an end in itself (Kadivar 2011: 459), or ‘Islamic intellectuality’, is for him a ‘continuation of Mu’tazili rationalism’ (Kadivar 2004). He asserts that Qur’anic and prophetic injunctions could be justified rationally at the advent of Islam. They were compatible with that time’s ‘rational custom’; in fact non-believers were challenged by the Quran with the rationality, logicalness, superiority and validity of its commandments and prohibitions (Kadivar 2004). Therefore, an ordinance can nowadays only be attributed to religion, if it is rationally justifiable and logical according to today’s rational custom; if it contradicts today’s understanding of justice is doomed to rejection.
The second fundamental criterion of traditional Islam that constitutes a problem in the modern period is the eternality, timelessness and fixedness of all of the ordinances of the sources. Kadivar points out that all of the problematic regulations of the Sharia that are considered to be in violation of human rights norms are anchored in Qur’anic verses and are reliable, authentic (and manifest in their meanings) traditions and narratives about the acts and words of the Prophet. He advocates a teleological theology (Matsunaga 2007: 326)  that focuses on the final goals of the Shari’ah as opposed to the traditional ‘formalism’  according to which the commandments in the religious sources are considered as constant, perpetual and unchanging. Whilst maintaining the commitment to this true, spiritual side of Islam by reconstructing a new anthropocentric theology in contrast to the theocentric approach of the traditional exegesis (Matsunaga 2011: 371), Kadivar argues that the timeless eternal message of Islam has been mixed with customary practices and habits of the time of revelations, which is the part that actually causes the conflicts between traditional Islam and the modern age (Kadivar 2009: 65). Under consideration that the overall aim of the Shari’ah is the commonweal (maṣlaḥah or maṣāliḥ-i ʿibād) of human beings, Kadivar argues that clear texts (qat’ī) in the Qur’an or the Sunnah prescribing punishments or death penalties could be overridden in the name of the doctrine of maṣlahah through the use of reason alone. He distinguishes between two kinds of sharīʿa precepts: (1) Precepts that will permanently remain valid and binding regardless of time and place and are therefore eternal. Commandments on fairness and justice, prohibitions on betrayal, injustice and lying are among these precepts. (2) Precepts that are conditional on the continuation of relevant conditions. They may serve a specific goal in a given set of circumstances but might change into mischief once new conditions have emerged. Kadivar goes on to say that most of the non-devotional sharīʿa injunctions on social and interpersonal transactions (aḥkām-i sharʿī-yi muʿāmalāt) are of this second type. He points out that conflict between human rights norms and Qur’anic injunctions always relates to this second type of precepts (Matsunaga 2011: 373)(7). Accordingly, a non-devotional injunction that does not meet the three criteria of being reasonable, just and better than alternative solutions must be rejected. Non-correspondence to these three criteria indicates the temporariness and non-eternality of that precept. 
He thus redefines the function of the concept of abrogation (naskh) of traditional exegesis. Contrary to the traditional understanding, according to which the abrogation of rules has ended with the demise of the prophet and for a verse to be abrogated, it needs an abrogating text from the sources that is either similar or higher in authority (i.e. is stronger in respect of meaning (dalālah) or authenticity (thubūt)), Kadivar asserts that definite reason is in fact capable abrogating the precepts of the second type. Thus, the rational conventions of our day are strong and capable enough to determine the time limits and to reevaluate the temporariness of narration-based injunctions.

Critical discussion

As examined above, in dealing with the fundamental conflict between accepted Islamic accounts and modern human rights norms, Kadivar proposes a ‘New Jurisprudence’ that employs an ‘ijtihād in bases and principles’ (ijtihād fī al-uṣūl) (Kadivar 2012a: 213) which aims at extracting the unchanging, permanent message of the Shari’ah from the ordinances that were set according to the demands of the conditions of the age of revelation. Several theoretical questions arise with this methodology: 
Firstly, as a starting point, the mere possibility of a universal collective human reason, to which sharīʿa precepts should be adapted to, is highly questionable. Kadivar does not take cultural differences in understanding human rights into account, which could lead to a dangerously Eurocentric universalist conceptualisation of justice and human rights(8). Paradoxically and inconsistently, he also advocates a temporal meta-ethical moral relativism and a loosely utilitarian consequentalism, which goes beyond the general Mu’tazilite approach. The Mu’tazilites believed in an absolute framework of justice beyond time and space that can be acquired by reason and which is particularised by the normative injunctions of the revelation (Leaman 2004: 165). Kadivar asserts that justice should be defined by the norms of a particular time period and runs - from a mainstream traditional perspective - the danger, to disclaim and deconstruct the normative authority of scripture utterly. As Matsunaga rightly points out, he locates the issue of human rights into an external context outside of the religious sources and hence detaches it from religious textual references, which will be difficult for conventional Islamic circles to relate to. Maṣlaḥah is the only jurisprudential concept that Kadivar refers to, but the extent to which it is supposed to be applied and utilised remains relatively vague, unsubstantial and abstract.
Secondly, Kadivar argues that the collective rationality in the first generation of Islam was limited, making a revelation and direct assistance of God particularly necessary in a time of countless social tribulations (Kadivar 2009: 72). This claim undermines the idea of a revelation as a guidance for all human beings at all times, which is likely to encounter serious difficulties and objections within conventional and traditional circles. Furthermore, it is a inconclusive attempt to evade the question, why humanity would be left to their reasons in developing legal norms while the first Muslims where assisted by the revelation of God. At the same time he argues - again paradoxically -  that religious precepts were rationally justifiable and compatible with the rational custom of the time of the revelation (Kadivar 2004). The Qur’an did not challenge its audience with the rationality of its injunctions (aḥkām) (or of its own concept of justice), but with the rationality of the existence, unity (tawḥeed), transcendence, uniqueness and infinitude of God(9), i.e. its ontological principles that it introduced to the world, and the immeasurable profundity of its articulation and inimitability of its eloquence(10). The Qur’an in fact questioned the normativity of such a collective reasoning(11), established a new ontology of justice and therefore challenged the perception of justice that was predominant at the age of revelation. The Qur’anic objection against customs like tribalism (‘asabiyyah), female infanticide, interest rates,  the prohibition of consuming intoxicants, that may had well been perceived as reasonable and just in pre-Islamic Arabia, could be given as a few examples. Early Muslims did not accept these precepts (or even became Muslims) because of their rationality, but because they considered the Qur’anic ontology and the prophetic claim to be reasonable, stimulating them to accept these precepts instantaneously and intuitively. In fact, the opponents of the prophetic mission of Muhammad rejected the revelation because of the normative standards it propagated, stipulated and advocated.
Thirdly, Kadivar proposes to exhaust the traditional exegetical tool of abrogation (naskh) to repeal several sharīʿa precepts that are considered eternally obligatory and are generally accepted as such by mainstream Islam. Indications in the textual sources for a conditionality of its prescribed precepts or for the possibility of such an abrogation based on reason alone would certainly substantiate Kadivar’s argument to find resonance and approval in traditional circles. Kadivar points out that despite the absolutistic, clear, definitive wording the Qur’an uses in prescribing its injunctions, the precepts of the second type (those that are incompatible with conventional human rights norms) should be treated as non-eternal, conditional and time-based precepts. Therefore, it seems that the textual evidence operates rather to the contrary.
To be more grounded in Islamic traditional thought and enhance its Islamic legitimacy, Kadivar’s methodology would have benefited from the traditional doctrine of maqāṣid al-Shari’ah (the ‘main objectives of the Shari’ah’, as advocated by Kamali [2009; 2011]), which is not burdened with the technicalities and literalist details that uṣūl al-fiqh is preoccupied with and is - even though developed through an intense reading of the clear texts (nuṣuṣ) and derived by way of inference (istinbat) - inherently more dynamic and more open to innovative approaches and changing conditions of the 21st century than the uṣūl methodologies. It requires a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an and the Sunna, focuses on the generalities instead of the particularities, prioritises the purposes of the ordinances as identified by the nuṣuṣ itself and provides a more pragmatic approach to contemporary human rights concerns.


Kadivar’s project of “spiritual, goal-oriented jurisprudence” tries to reconcile Islamic thought and practices with modern human rights norms and provides a new framework for future theoretical discussion and will be an inspiration for heated debate in the human rights discourse. He unequivocally emphasises the current incompatibility between internationally recognised human rights and traditional Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic law. He criticises the traditional understanding of human reason as limited in scope and ability, he disclaims the eternality of the Shari’a injunctions regarding interpersonal transactions (mu’āmelāt) and suggests to utilise collective reason more intensively in defining a modern islamic notion of human rights. 
Given the Iranian post-revolutionary context(12), his courage to put in writing what is conventionally considered as taboo, merits appreciation. However, his bypassing of traditional thought and his weak connection to the textual sources neglect the reality on ground and make it difficult for his substantial efforts to be heard and acknowledged by his main audience, traditional Sunni and Shi’ite scholastic circles, and to be a catalyst for change instead of reducing its influence to the bookshelf.

  1.  Contrary to the predominant misperception, Şentürk argues that there was indeed an islamic traditional discourse on basic human rights. Since its formative period, Islamic law and Muslim jurists introduced the two key concepts of ‘ismah (or al-darûriyyāt) and ādamiyyah (or haqq ghair muktasab), characterising axiomatic inalienable natural rights, that each individual person has been born with (Senturk 2002).
  2. Harmonisation requires reconciliation and compromise and implies and presumes a degree of “compatibility and concordance between two substantially distinct” corpora juris, as there is no need to harmonise identical components. (Kamali 2007: 392)
  3. i.e. “the dominant interpretation of the Qurʾān and the Sunna that is characteristically found in the opinions (ārāʾ) of the theologians and jurisprudents and spread generally in the form of customary knowledge of the learned (ʿurf-i ahl-i ʿilm) in the Islamic world.” (Kadivar 2008: 184) in which the culture and exigencies of (and the form and appearance of Islam in) the age of revelation are considered as sacred, desirable and idealised. (Kadivar 2011: 459)
  4. The grundnorm, as Kelsen (1967) puts it, or the ‘ultimate rule of recognition’ according to Hart (1994).
  5. According to traditional usul al-fiqh, the authority, validity and binding force of the Qur’an, Sunnah and Ijma’ (i.e. the transmitted proofs; adillah naqliyyah) is independent from their conformity with the dictates of reason and rational justifications, even though most of them are in harmony with reason. The function of reason in jurisprudence is limited to discovering and deriving rules already indicated in the divine sources (Kamali 2003: 12).
  6. The Mu‘tazilites ‘believed in a system of universal truths that can be grasped by individual reason.’ (Cicek 2014) To them, good and evil was therefore intrinsic (fī ḥadd-i dhāti-hi), not relative (nisbī), and dependent on reason (aqlī), not on revelation (shar’ī). Thus, they were commanded or forbidden by the divine will accordingly, not vice versa. Revelation therefore particularised the injunctions that facilitated moral perfection. 
  7. Kadivar’s discussion of gender equality in traditional Islam is one example of how he tries to contextualise revelation. He distinguishes between ‘deserts-based’ justice (al-‘adālah al-istiḥqāqiyyah) based on proportional equality and egalitarian justice based on fundamental equality. While the former constitutes the notion of justice in traditional Islam, the latter represents the epistemological basis of modern human rights norms and gender equality. Hence, the verses in the Qur’an, that attributed fewer rights to women in shaping and participating in social life, were revealed based on the collective perception of justice and equality in that particular historical moment. (Kadivar 2012a: 223).
  8. There is an obvious tension between strict universalism and cultural relativism in modern human rights discourse. The universalist approach that considers western-rooted human rights norms as fait accompli that need to be imposed on and accepted by objecting cultures is often perceived as a new form of cultural colonialism by those cultures. Cultural relativism on the other hand is prone to the abuse of human rights violations. A more inclusive multicultural interpretation of human rights principles that embraces cultural diversity will help to overcome this paradox. See (Baderin 2001b).
  9. see Qur’an 52:35-36, 67:3-4.
  10. see Qur’an 17:88; 2:23; 10:38; 11:13; 52:33-34.
  11. see Qur’an 7:187; 30:30; 12:40; 6:111; 29:63; 43:78.
  12. The doctrines of velāyat-e faqīh and marjaʿ taqlīdī that are pushed through by the religious establishment in Iran should be recalled at this point incidentally. 

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Baderin, Mashood A. (2001b). ‘Dialogue among civilisations as a paradigm for achieving universalism in international human rights - a case study with Islamic Law’. Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law 2001, Vol 2, No 2, pp. 1-41
Baderin, Mashood A. (2003). International Human Rights and Islamic Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baderin, Mashood A. (2005). ‘Human Rights and Islamic Law: The Myth of Discord’, European Human Rights Law Review 2, pp. 165-168. 
Baderin, Mashood A. (2007). ‘Islam and the Realization of Human Rights in the Muslim World: A Reflection on Two Essential Approaches and Two Divergent Perspectives’. Muslim World Journal of Human Rights 4 (1)
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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Faith and Reason in the writings of Sayyid Qutb


After perpetual continual wars of religion up until the Peace of Westphalia, Europe underwent a philosophical paradigm shift in the 17th century, from scholasticism, which tried to embrace reason as long as it would go in accordance with the Christian doctrine, to the idea of scientific reason: Philosophers of the Enlightenment period were ambitious in paving the way for the liberation of man from “religious and metaphysical control over his reason, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols”. The disenchantment of nature was trumpeted in Western philosophy, through the intellectual mastery of the world and the rationalisation of natural events; people were supposed to be freed from the magical image of the world. 

Even though Islam is widely characterised as a religion based on revelation, rational methods and reason have always been central to most fields of Islamic sciences, Islamic theology, philosophy, eschatology and education. Both modernists and fundamentalists have always been loath against this intellectual tradition. This tradition throughout the history has employed reason in the service (and for the explication) of a revelation, “a non-rational revealed code of conduct”, the Shari‘a. The extent to which human beings should trust their reason has always been controversial, drawing a broad spectrum of attitudes. Some scholars have rejected and condemned the rational tradition of early Islamic scholarship by emphasising the need for submitting and accepting the superior authority of Hadith like Ibn Taymiya. Some others (generally known as the Mu‘tazilites) believed in a system of universal truths which can be acquired by individual independent reason alone and the revelation being a complementary tool which completes and particularises the norms that lead to moral perfection. A third category, which I argue constitutes the bulk of Islamic intellectuals, includes prominent Mutakallimun, thinkers, historians, sociologists and theologians such as Al-Māturīdī, Al-Ghazāli, Ibn Khaldun, al-Fārābī, Muammad Shīrāzī (also known as Mulla Sadra), Said Nursi, who were ambitious to synthesise, reconcile, dovetail the three types of fountains of Islamic knowledge in an epistemic unification, seeing no contradiction between these domains of knowledge and believing in their complementary nature: revealed knowledge (qur’an), discursive reasoning (burhan) and spiritual realisation (irfan).
Sayyid Qutb, who is considered to be one of the most distinguished thinkers and figures of Islamic fundamentalist movements of the 20th century, has undoubtedly made a solid and substantial contribution to this philosophical discourse. In view of his 41 published books, 30 unpublished works and mass of articles in journals, his works are still waiting for a serious critical study and theoretical discussion by Western academia. Even though his influence on Islamic fundamentalists and Islamic resurgence is recognised by both Western and Islamic scholars, this very limited research may be due to a political distaste against Islamic fundamentalist movements, which refuses to inquiry the key theoretical elements of this new modern stream and narrows them down to their political functions  of mobilising people and embodying anti-imperialistic and nationalist ambitions.  More objective and substantial contributions are necessary for a better corresponding understanding of their ideological and philosophical presumptions. 
In this essay, we will examine the tension between faith and reason in the writings of Qutb. We will begin by providing the general conceptual framework of hakimiyyah upon which Qutb’s ideas on the status of the human intellect is built. We will then ponder his attitude towards the human intellect and the aims of science in accordance to Islamic conception of being. Finally we will explore his understanding of religious knowledge as a dynamic experiential revelatory process interwoven with action and struggle.

The concept of hakimiyyah

The writings of Sayyid Qutb revolve around the concept of hakimiyyah, of which his widely known idea of jahiliyyah represents the antithesis. Undoubtedly, every discussion on socio-political theory and ontology will eventually revert to the question of what is considered to be the chief source of knowledge or (political, economic, scientific and philosophical) justification. Qutb’s position on the relationship between rationality (al-‘aql) and revelation should be examined within the conceptual framework of hakimiyyah. Examining the idea of hakimiyyah, upon which the concept of jahiliyyah was built, will help us to understand the status of the human intellect in the thought of Qutb.
The term hakimiyyah indicates that the ultimate sovereignty and regulation over the universe and all kinds of political and legal authority belong to Allah, that the entire universe came into being and its existence is maintained by the absolute will of God. There is an integral unity (al-wahdah al-kubra) and harmonious interdependence and interconnectedness of all parts of the universe. Hakimiyyah is closely connected to the theocentric ontological concept of tawhîd, which includes the principle of tanzîh, namely the negative part of the sentence of tawhîd. This negative part (nafy, Lâ ilâha) rejects all kinds of other sources of transcendence and sovereignty, whereas the positive (ithbât, illa Allah) part excludes the sovereignty of God from this rejection. Any kind of deification of created beings, formation or existence of mediating entities between God and Man thus destroys the ontological hierarchy between Allah and Man and is therefore considered to be idolatry or the attribution of ‘partners’ besides God (shirk). 
Qutb rigorously contrasts the concept of hakimiyyah to that of jahiliyyah. For him,  unlike the traditional understanding, jahiliyyah is not restricted to the pre-islamic society of the Arabian peninsula, but rather a set of socio-political circumstances and conditions resulting in an essentially unislamic social order, in which the sovereignty of Allah is usurped by men or worldly powers and institutions and which is the main cause for human pain and societal corruption and misery . The whole world is stuck in jahiliyyah, since all societies submit to an authority other than God’s and attribute the absolute power to legislate laws and articulate moral codes of conducts to human assemblies. The Jahili system is utterly antithetical to the Islamic conception and contrary to the human fitrah. Thus, establishing the divine islamic order based on obedience to hakimiyyah  and eliminating this prevailing jahiliyyah should be the essential and main goal for Muslims living under such a jahili system, since the absolute will of Allah in the universe should be manifested in social norms and political legislation. This would create a harmony between the different spheres of divine Sovereignty at the micro-, meso- and macro-level. The divine islamic order is in total harmony with the natural order and contains no exploitation of man by man. The struggle (jihad) for such a system is another act of worship according to Qutb. 
There are questions remaining unanswered within Qutb’s conceptualisation. Qutb argues that the Shari’ah (the Islamic constitution according to Qutb) was revealed after the paradigm shift in the Meccan period and the creed of hakimiyyah penetrated the conscience of the first generation of Muslims. As a legal implication, he concludes that the power of the islamic government is constitutional and limited to its function of administration and executing this given divine authorised constitution of Shari’ah. However, the confession of the concept of hakimiyyah and  the shari’ah as the compact, competent, authentic and authorised law requires an external epistemic source that supports and sustains the reasonableness of the revelation’s claim to be arising from a divine source. Qutb seems to be ambivalent concerning the question, what the role reason and the human intellect plays in obtaining this essential ontology. Furthermore, the limitedness of the divine sources, the nass, and the emergence of new problems to be solved in accordance to that divine revelation require at least an intellectual reasoning that engages critically with this sources and implements its essence to new circumstances.

Revelation and the Human intellect (al-‘Aql) and Science

For Qutb, the human intellect (al-‘aql) cannot replace revelation (al-wahy) in establishing the foundations of a consistent socio-political system for human beings due to its limitedness. The revelation is the primary and superior source of knowledge and the supreme yardstick for right action and belief and has the predominant legitimacy in guiding human affairs. For him, it is another kind of blind jahiliyyah, to try to measure God’s Will (mash’ah) and determinism (qadar) in the universe based on the narrow-mindedness of the human intellect or to attempt to understand the relationship between God, the creation, the universe, man and the purpose of his existence merely through philosophical reasoning. Contrary to the general Mu’tazilite position or Avicenna’s concept of reality and reasoning, he muqawwamat al-tasawwur al Islami, the fundamental components of the Islamic conception, which is a term Qutb used to refer to the epistemological foundations and principles of the Islamic creed, cannot be obtained by theology, philosophy or the use of the human mind. While confirming reason as an act of God in this world, he is against the ‘deification of reason’ and argues, that reason needs to acknowledge its limitedness and admit what is beyond its grasp.
Qutb was totally opposed to the idea of positivism, which elevated intellect and science without taking their limitations into consideration and sought for materialistic and psycho-social explanations for natural events, human behaviour, societal conflicts and developments and consequently paved the way for secularisation. Even though he thinks that positivist science underrates the ethical individual responsibility of our actions and deeds, he is not opposed to scientific progress and technological improvements. Science is neutral in itself, Qutb argues, it can be used for both good and evil. As the vicegerent of God on earth, human beings need to treat nature justly and responsibly, recognising the absolute sovereignty (hakimiyyah) of God, and create harmony between God, nature and themselves. He criticises Western materialistic science for commodifying nature, reducing it to a mere object of utility for scientific research and technological progress, depriving it of its cosmic and ontological meaning as the Book of Creation and highlighting material development and worldly power, disregarding spirituality and morality. Without rejecting science per se, Qutb is opposed to its use for evil, and philosophical theories such as Rationalism, Positivism, Idealism and dialectic materialism that attempt to explain our existence, ethical values, principles of law and political theories through the authorisation and legitimation of reason alone and its recognition as the superior tool to truth.

Qutb’s Theory of Religious Knowledge

For Qutb, in order to rebuild and revive principles and foundations for an Islamic epistemology, Modern muslims need to rethink and refashion their approach towards the Quran as a foundational text. Thus, he argues:
“The real problem in grasping the significance and the spirit of the Qur'anic teachings does not lie in understanding its words and sentences, that is to say, its exegesis, as is often claimed. This does not constitute a problem at all. The problem lies in the capacity of our minds to reconstruct feelings, ideas, and experiences like the feelings, ideas, and experiences of the first generation of Muslims when they received these revelations from the lips of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the thick of the struggle. Theirs was a struggle of jihad, of striving within oneself and striving with other people.”
True quranic knowledge for Qutb is therefore a constant self-renewing revelatory process based on action and struggle. Knowledge and action are defined as two inseparable interconnected dynamic entities. Only experiencing similar struggles with those of the first Muslims and thus sharing the same atmosphere of experience would make it possible to truly comprehend the meanings and messages of the Qur’an. He draws attention to the connection of the first generation of Muslims to the Quran. Theirs was not a relationship aimed to gain more academic knowledge or acquire culture and information, Qutb continues, but they constantly translated the revelation into action. Simply gaining cultural or philosophical knowledge, that lacks this ‘experiential meaning of knowledge’ interwoven with dynamism and action, is characterised by Qutb as ‘cold knowledge’. He disregards seeking the truths of the Qur’an for the sake of gaining knowledge, but invites his readers to get away from ‘intellectual rubbish’, but to bring the contents of the Islamic concept into realisation. Knowledge and intellectual endeavour is therefore not rejected or underrated by Qutb, but it is constricted to its positive function and pragmatic significance of creating a new reality and guiding people from the condition of the ‘darkness of jahiliyyah’ to the ‘light of hakimiyyah’. He limits the function of reason to a single mission: spreading the message of the divine revelation and understanding the message through effort, action and struggle. 
Greek and Roman Philosophy is incompatible with the Islamic conception and the method of understanding the Qur’an, Qutb says. Thus, the translations of Greek philosophy into the Arabic language during the Abbasid period ‘introduced deviations and foreign elements into the original Islamic concept, which had come originally to rescue mankind from such deviations and speculations’, polluting the purity in the minds, hearts and souls of the early Muslim generations. The attempt to raise Islamic thought to maturity and perfection with the acquisition of the cold logical terms of rational philosophy narrowed the Islamic concept and rendered it ‘superficial, dry, complicated, and incomprehensible.’


We have firstly explored Qutb’s concept of hakimiyyah and its antithetical idea of jahiliyyah. We have seen that Qutb’s understanding of the hakimiyyah, which is deeply embedded in the Islamic theocentric belief of tawhid, is a given conceptual framework. The question however, what role reason and the human intellect play in obtaining this essential ontology, remains unsolved. Furthermore, the limitedness of the divine sources, the nass, and the emergence of new problems to be solved in accordance to that divine revelation require at least an intellectual reasoning that engages critically with these sources and implements its essence to new circumstances. Qutb does not really touch upon this problem.
We can sum up as a conclusion that Qutb neither rejects nor underrates knowledge and intellectual endeavour, but constricts it to its positive function and pragmatic significance of creating a new reality and guiding people from the condition of the ‘darkness of jahiliyyah’ to the ‘light of hakimiyyah’. He limits the function of reason to a single mission: spreading the message of the divine revelation and understanding the message through effort, action and struggle. 


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Saturday, January 31, 2015

‘Post-secularism’ - Did secularism and the Enlightenment project fail?

In Europe, due to continued religious wars, civil peace and stability could only be ensured by a separation between state and church, which resulted in the end of state-pursued religious goals. The European state system became based on the separation of religion from state affairs, which made secularism modernity’s constitutive feature. Starting from this European experience, scholars and philosophers such as August Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx prophesied beforehand an inevitable shift from the traditional to the modern; a transformation from religious superstitions to the superiority of rationality; from a deeply hierarchical status-based society to a rights-based and impersonal society, with the inclusion and integration of the people as citizens into political processes of decision-making.

The secularisation thesis however faced a serious crisis with the unforeseen and perplexing development of the so-called „resurgence of religion“, i.e. the rise of political actors wanting to fashion their own political, economic and social systems based on - again, their own - ethico-social heritage and ontological and epistemological foundations.

Momentous historical events in international relations such as the Iranian Revolution, the rise of solidarity and the Polish Revolution, and the tragedy of September 11, 2001 led scholars to rethink the “illusion” of the secularisation project that reduced the world to what can be perceived and controlled through reason, science and technology and excluded the sacred, the religious, the spiritual and the traditional. The new term ‘post-secularism’ entered the fray, challenging the too narrow Eurocentric – or rather absolutist - perspective of the secularisation theory as a universal teleological process of human and societal development, analysing and explaining the genealogy of the secular, and opening up the possibility of multiple paths to secularity. 

The Origins of Secularism in the Enlightenment Period

The term secular, which is derived from the Latin saeculum, implied a marked dual connotation of space and time, referring to ‘this time’ or ‘now, present’ and ‘this world’ or ‘worldly’. The existence of a sacred-profane division in Latin Christendom, the two spheres of ‘this world’ – ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ - both claiming to dominate an autonomous sphere, often caused and opened tensions and conflicts between the two realms – the ‘investiture’ conflicts being the unambiguous manifestation of these omnipresent conflicts - so that necessarily ending this dualism by subordinating the one under the other was the imperative for centuries. Additionally to this horizontal and spatial division of ‘this world’ into two autonomous categories, there was also a vertical temporal division between ‘the other world’ (heaven) and ‘this world’, drawing a tripartite division of what we perceive as reality. This division was politically translated into the transcendental City of God (Heavenly Kingdom), its ecclesiastical clerical embodiment on earth (Church, Papal Kingdom) and the City of Man (the Holy Roman Empire). Secularization was the historical process of the breakdown of this dualist horizontal division of ‘this world’; ‘the other world’ was left to the convictional choice of the individual and was therefore repressed into the private sphere.

Having suffered from perpetual religious wars up until the Peace of Westphalia, Europe went through a historical turning point both in philosophical as well as political terms in the 17th century, referred to conventionally as the Age of Enlightenment. Authoritarian religious institutions and rulers were regarded as weakening or at least stagnating scientific research and development. Thus, determined to fight religious bigotry and indoctrination, prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant were ambitious in creating a philosophical foundation for “secular” moral values. 

During the period of enlightenment, several meanings were added to the term “secular”, so as to refer to a condition or value that was independent from “the religious”, including rationality, individual autonomy and progress. In the 19th century, seminal social thinkers – Friedrich Nietzsche, August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud – trumpeted the “death of God”, believing that religion would gradually lose significance and the sacred would disappear altogether, since rationalisation, industrialisation and values such as individual sovereignty, democracy, tolerance and economic progress permeated all spheres of life. The institutional and philosophical secularisation and the ultimate demise of religion were strongly assumed to be intrinsically interrelated components of a single universal teleological process of human development.

Concerning the definition of secularism (or we should rather use the term “secularisation, as an analytical conceptualisation of modern world-historical processes”), different types of categories were subordinated to this concept. Having the broad body and multidimensional formation of the concept of secularism in mind, we can disaggregate it into three different constituents as Casanova does. Politically, the term implied the removal of religious domination from the public sphere and political authority and the transferral of political functions and institutions from the church to that of state (de-sacralisation of politics); socially and entrepreneurially it suggested a this-worldly orientation and the supremacy of individual reason and science in constructing society (de-consecration of values); and philosophically, the liberation of man from “religious and metaphysical control over his reason, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols” and an intellectual disenchantment from the magical image of the world through the theoretical mastery of nature with rationalisation (disenchantment of nature). 

The resurgence of religion – towards the post-secular

As to the last few decades however, the term “resurgence of religion” has entered the fray of Western academia and international relations theory. Religion, religious beliefs, practices and discourses, religious individuals, NGOs, institutions and political parties have acquired growing significance, visibility, saliency and persuasiveness in personal and public life and appear to have begun to play an increasingly greater role in mobilizing people. A de-privatisation of religion muddled through the modern world; religious traditions rejected the marginal role that secularisation and modernisation theories had imposed on them. The growing trend of globalisation, the subsequently increasing migration flows of peasant societies into urban areas, the urbanisation of rural societies through the rise of media and technology have turned traditions – that seemed to be doomed to extinction – into a significant component of the modern secular age as opposed to the historical conjuncture in which the secularisation model was built. These traditions have now made their own claims on man’s status in this world and its political implications, demanded appreciation as equal active participants of democracy and challenged the teleological, ontological and philosophical presumptions of secularism. Separating the secularisation theory from its ideological roots in its critique of religion in the Enlightenment period became possible. Scholars now began to question the causal relationship between the subordination of the spiritual sphere under the worldly sphere - i.e. the secularisation theory as functional differentiation of the secular and religious spheres - and the on-going indispensable decline and eventual disappearance of religious beliefs and practices. The US presents an extraordinary example: While being one of the world’s most developed and modernised countries and one of the countries to be separating state and church, it also embodies a high proportion of practicing Christians. 

The resurgence of religion is since considered to be almost factual. However the question remains unclear and controversial, whether this resurgence has entered as a result of social, cultural and political transformations with a new significance, or whether religion is a phenomenon that had existed all along but just became visible over time. Dirlik argues that religion, being forced to invisibility for decades, has been there all along and merely became visible. For him, religious movements complemented or even replaced “struggles against colonialism, the search for national identity and cultural coherence, and demands for social justice and equality that cut across national and civilizational boundaries.” This question still needs to be examined empirically and discussed theoretically.
From the Iranian revolution to the post-socialist Buddhist revival, from religious extremism or the politics of the headscarf to the fruitless “Arab spring”, considerable trends and developments in the last few decades make it easy to understand why religion has regained its central place in scholarly discourse in the recent past. 

But what exactly is meant by ‘post’ in post-secularism? I argue that the term neither implies a rejection (or refusal) of nor a replacement for the secular, it does not indicate a teleological failure of secularism either. It helps religion to negotiate intimately with the secular. In Saba Mahmood’s terms, it frees itself from the manacles of “certainty” and pledges itself to the precarious “space of risk”, showing the eagerness to re-evaluate its own presumptions in the light of the others´. Post-secularism is concerned with the question whether secular states can defend their commitment to non-religious and neutral principles, without falling into the trap of ideological and coercive authoritarianism by excluding religious actors from the public sphere of which they initially intended to free themselves from. It recognizes the limitations of its positions, criticizes the presumptuous overreach of its claims of truth, while still articulating unshakable conviction. It tries to raise awareness that justifying or attacking any pole of the religious-secular dichotomy has the potential of polarisation and fragmentation. It is rather a modification, revision, adaptation, re-conceptualisation of both the secular and the religious. 

This attempt of re-conceptualisation is evident from José Casanova`s emphasis, that secularisation consists of three independent hypotheses: (1) the decline of individual religiosity and religious belief, (2) the functional differentiation of religious and secular sub-systems and (3) the privatization of religion. He rejects the decline and privatisation theses by questioning their empirical and normative validity and confirms the differentiation thesis. Thus, new concepts of religion such as ‘lived religion’, ‘believing without belonging’ and ‘invisible religion’ emerged vice versa in this context. As Talal Asad points out correctly, the terms “religious” and “secular” can only be understood in relation to each other; each new definition of the secular accompanies and requires a new definition of the religious.
Due to its characteristic historical and philosophical exceptionality, recent scholars have criticised the secularisation theory for its blindness to non-European contextual frameworks. For them, secularism was formed within the European context of conflict between Catholics and Protestants and worked fairly well in their respective regions and societies. Thus, the decline of religious beliefs in the last three centuries is claimed to be a European exception with the American trend being the norm. They argue that secularism was dominated by the problems arising from the aforementioned internal inconsistency of its epistemological disorder and institutional disorganization and that it prevents us from understanding the demands and claims of other traditions that are currently muddling through the integration process into the European environment. Taylor rightly points out that there is an interpenetration and dynamism between “the secular” (state, economy, art, entertainment, science, welfare) and “the religious” (ecclesiastical institution and churches) within the Islamic imago mundi and – in contrast to Latin Christendom – ‘the secular’ realm cannot be understood without reference to the transcendent. Inasmuch as secularism is deeply embedded in the imagination of post-secularism which maintains the polarization between religion and reason and the illegitimacy of the authority of the sacred by expecting religions to develop a hermeneutical self-renewing, post-secularism still cannot claim to be implementable on different contexts or to overcome its Eurocentric presumptions.

Habermas on the ‘post-secular’

Habermas has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in post-secularism theory. As many sociologists have paid attention to the limitations of the traditional secularisation thesis, he particularly, among others, has rethought the place of religious contributions in the public sphere and the idea of a post-secular world. For solving the tension between radical multiculturalism, which interprets secularism as freedom of religion, and radical secularism, which is often associated with the French model of Laïcité and upholds the idea of freedom from religion, he proposes a dialogic interaction based on an inclusion of foreign minority cultures into civil society. He questions the legitimacy for the secular state to expect its religious citizens to use a secular language in the public sphere and to act as if they were devoid of religious beliefs. Such a demand would make it impossible for religious citizens to “undertake such an artificial division within their own minds without jeopardizing their existence as pious persons.” He thinks that secular citizens can learn from religious contributions, since religions have the notable power of articulating moral truths. To make this contribution possible, he splits the public sphere into an ‘informal public sphere’, in which religious language and reason can be used, and the ‘institutional public sphere’, where only secular reason counts and into which religious contributions have to be translated. Participants in the informal public sphere, whether secular or religious, should show ‘cooperative cognitive effort’ based on reciprocity and mutual respect, each side willing to accept the possible truth of his counterpart’s arguments.

Habermas uses the term post-secular to identify the challenge secular societies face where religions remain a significant public and cognitive substance. Imposing a democratic order on Muslim communities, he argues, will not lead to a responsible internalised acceptance of the secular legitimation of constitutional principles. Thus, they will have to go through a ‘learning process’. He agrees with the necessity of a reformed historical-hermeneutical approach to the Quranic doctrine, which is exactly what Mahmood criticizes and argues to signal a fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Islamic resurgence and accuses of marking a “normative secularity”. Habermas proposes a reform in epistemic attitudes equivalent or at least similar to the theological transformation of the Western Reformation period for the long run, while discouraging from governmental intervention (laissez-faire). Habermas further presupposes an implicit link between religious extremism and piety, which shows that the secularist epistemic framework remains still anchored in his imagination of post-secularism.


I have tried to outline the theory of post-secularism by first examining the historical and philosophical framework in which secularism initially emerged and asserted its claims. We have seen that the philosophical, political and societal constituents of the secularism thesis were perceived as intrinsically interrelated components of a single universal epistemological process of human development. This holistic imagination has been subject to a serious review and reconsideration in the last few decades. However, the idea of post-secular neither implies a rejection of the secular, nor a teleological failure of secularism per se. It rather tries to include religious voices, terminologies into the hitherto secular public sphere, and it re-conceptualises, modifies both the secular and the religious, re-evaluates and abstracts its own presumptions and finally recognises its own limitations, while still sticking insistently to its inevitable secular epistemic framework, by recognising ‘the religious’ and encouraging and facilitating its way to gaining a secular episteme. Post-secularism is the process from a polemical, thoroughly ideological distaste for religion, to a more including, embracing, self-critical and respectful attitude towards religion.


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