Islam vs. Secularism?

A popular question for our times has become the incredible contrast a secular state has with one idealising Sharīʿah. The increasingly caustic nature of the issue can be construed from the actions of the Western right wingers, which in their mildest forms involve posting images on social media depicting a fist crushing Sharīʿah, with their Muslim counterparts having similar if not more violent views for the ideology of secularism. This in addition to the recent attempted coup in Turkey, claimed by some as the natural conclusion of the rising friction between Kemalists and their increasingly popular “Islamist” countrymen. While the two groups continue to get polarised, increasing their enmity towards each other, they also continue to ignore the simple incontrovertible fact that a vast majority of laws under either ideology overlap with each other.

In the list of the wrong questions, asking which leads people on a path away from the solution rather than towards it, is which one of the two ideologies is right and which one, wrong. While on a philosophical or theological plane, there is obviously little to no reconciliation possible, but on a more practical level things are strikingly different; especially in today’s world of a comparatively uniform morality and our capability to judge or argue particular laws as beneficial or harmful on a purely objective basis through research and statistics.

At the core of the problem, lies the presumption that the two systems are absolutely and in all forms, a contradiction to each other. If we were to imagine a scenario in which Pakistani people decide to form a secular state (if the reader can muster that active an imagination), the elected representatives will still have to come up with laws which they believe to be the best for the society. The only thing which changes are the sources that guide what that “best” is; while before it was Qur’an, Hadith and then objective rational logic, this time Islamic scripture is taken out of the equation.

Among the primary and most non-controversial methods that derive consensus for particular laws in the secular world is using research and statistics. Through these sources governments are able to objectively apply the principle of risk/benefit ratio (i.e. whether the potential risk of some allowance/prohibition is greater than its potential harm) which ironically, is mirrored by the Islamic principle of benefits outweighing the harms.

So how will this seemingly massive transformation actually effect some of the most ingrained and strictly followed Islamic laws such as the prohibitions of non-marital intimacy and intoxicants? These along-with the prohibition of swine meat have probably been the three most firmly followed legal principles and have continued to be representative of the Muslim communities from the very beginning – in explicit contrast to other more general ones, like prohibitions of cheating, lying etc. and even some specific ones, such as the prohibition of usury (incidentally Erdogan had also recently drawn criticism, by the secularists, for trying to limit alcohol sales and criminalise adultery) The outlawing of non-marital intimacy has been especially ubiquitous in Muslim societies, forming the basis of many secondary restrictions ranging from the trivial, like prohibiting handshakes between opposite genders, to the untenable, such as being used as justification for disallowing girls from going to schools.

While alcohol consumption is known to have some benefits, its harms are all too obvious in the scientific community. A concise description of the evidence available indicates: alcohol increases risk of 200+ diseases; WHO ranks it as the third largest risk factor for premature death; in the US, it is a factor in 40% homicides by convicted murderers; a factor in 40% of all violent crimes; 70% of alcohol-related incidents of violence occur in the home; two-thirds of victims who were attacked by an intimate partner reported the involvement of alcohol.

In the case of criminalizing promiscuity, supporters can direct attention towards some harrowing US college statistics. Different US polls concluded that on average up-to 20% women reported experiencing sexual assaults in just their four-year stay in college. For some colleges the figure was even as high as 30%. According to the Post/Kaiser poll, two of the principal risk factors for these assaults were alcohol – two-thirds of victims said they had been drinking alcohol just before the incidents – and “casual romantic encounters known as ‘hookups’”. Women uninvolved in hook-ups were less likely to report completed or attempted assaults. 77% of the respondents considered drinking less alcohol and 63% avoiding casual hook-ups as effective preventive measures.

Like all studies the ones used above also get criticized from one aspect or another, but the negative effect of such indulgences, whether small or larger, remains undeniable. While Western societies might be too far along and these prohibitions on a legal level may be untenable for them, their implementation in Muslim societies is practical and considering the risk/benefit ratio, it is the logical path to take, regardless of whatever the Qur’an and Sunnah have to say on the matter.

Certainly arguments and debates become much more complicated when it comes to additional laws labelled as Islamic but which: in some cases, do not find consensus among Muslim scholarship itself (like in the case of half testimony); at times, the difference from a secular law makes no practical difference, like the non-acceptance of female testimonies (by conservative interpretations) when determining Hudood punishments as these harsh penalties are already unacceptable in secular states; or cases where Western philosophy itself has been unable to satisfactorily conclude the question (like in the case of capital punishment).

Like the two test cases mentioned previously, similar reasoning constructed on entirely secular foundations can be, and in-fact is commonly used by the supporters of Sharīʿah for other Islamic laws too. But somewhere along the line, gap between the two Muslim factions becomes unsurmountable when they double down on their fears (some justified but mostly just paranoid) – the left, with their fears of female oppression, devolution of Muslim societies back to 7th century Arabia etc. and the right, with their apprehensions of letting loose “Western decadence” and godlessness among other things.

A major cause for the increasing polarization has been the instinctive knee-jerk presumptuous reactions Muslims respond with, which are riddled with incorrect inference and straw man fallacies. Just because one group dares to question the blasphemy law, does not automatically imply that group is supporting blasphemers, they might be promoting the classical Hanafi interpretation on the matter. Similarly, just because another group questions the length of a woman’s skirt does not incontrovertibly infer they want to stand in the way of women’s “freedom”. On this regard, interestingly, the “bane” of Muslim women freedom: Saudi Arabia, also happens to provide tens of thousands of foreign scholarships to its women, in-fact the number of female students availing such funding exceeds men by 12.9%. In case after reading the last sentence your mind swiftly and effortlessly jumped to other additional points of harsh criticism for the Saudis, you might need to read this paragraph one more time.

Core of the problem lies in natural human cognitive biases and the solution in the acceptance of their existence. As much as most people would like to believe that their way is the only way, the fact is: there are many ways leading to the exact same destination. What Muslims need to learn, is to accuse less and understand more, to talk less and listen more, to believe less and study more

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field, I’ll meet you there

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī


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