The Best of Both Worlds Islam, Secularity and Modernism – Rafik Abdessalem

A review by Yousuf Cajee

This inquiry does not affirm or deny Islam’s compatibility with secularity or modernism but examines the dominant narratives for their models. It limits the ‘secularism’ expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber and questions these thinkers’ belief in the certainty of secularism and weakening of religion. Although the term ‘secular’ is entrenched in intellectual tradition, it gained importance in Western and intellectual milieus in the mid-nineteenth century. The view that modern history is a cumulative process where the ‘sacred’ is irreversibly and inevitably eroded by the ‘profane,’ the ‘here and now’ came late in the theory of secularism.

Secularist claims are studied theoretically and practically, doubting that secularity goes with industrialisation and urbanisation and that the advance of secularisation is a feature of modern times. Further, de-secularisation in parts of the globe and Islamic hemisphere is evident.

It is argued that in certain socio-historical contexts, secularity proves to be a generator of despotism and social disintegration as in the Middle East. That greater attention be directed to secularity’s historical functions on the ground where it often displays many faces and roles.

It disputes Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas claims that secularity is a cultural condition for modernity and argues instead for the possibility of non-secular forms. The convergence of secularity and modernity in the Western experience is merely one possibility among many – and not a universal trend. This work accepts Habermas’ definition of modernity as an unfinished project.

Contrary to the conception of Islam as a rigidly defined religion, Islam has various perspectives, contains a rich interpretative and symbolic tradition that is nurtured in diverse historical conditions and schools of thought and through multiple strategies. Islam may be described as an interpretative, or ijtihādī way. Although Muslims generally agree on the great foundations (usūl)of Islam, including the five obligatory prayers, the fast of Ramadan and charity, other practices have various forms. This follows the Islamic understanding of difference in language, colour or religion as a condition of existence.

This interpretation of Islam as a contingent symbolic capital -using Bourdieu- permits insight into its relation to secularity away from rejectionist or reconciliatory approaches. Theoretically and factually, it is argued, the story of Islam and secularity is infinitely more obscure. The two overlap in certain respects, but separate otherwise. This rule applies to Islam with modernity too. Currently in the Muslim world, with the growth in violent Western military expansion, presents a challenge to Islam and modernism alike. Since the nineteenth century, the shocks of modernity in ‘untamed’ lands have not only opened-up Islamic discourse to new perspectives; they have also confronted ‘Western modernity’ with previously unknown theoretical and practical challenges.

This research questions the validity of the ideas in Western political thought – secularity and modernity. It questions the view of secularism in Western academic and intellectual situations, which sees the modern world as a secular home, where religion retreats from public life and is restricted to the private sphere.

It questions the zero-game of secularism, which maintains that the more extended modernisation is, the more limited the religious presence.

The focus is on Islam through which secularity and modernity are examined and that just as Islam was affected by conditions of the modern age, Westernised modernisation was also forced to look at new perspectives towards fresh ways by Muslims. The irony is that secularist claims are challenged by the most modernised sectors of Muslim society, the vanguard of the triumph of secularisation. For most sociologists and political thinkers, Islam is rigid and incompatible with modernity and its sacralised associate: secularity. An approach doubting all the theories of modernity and secularity is followed.

Modern Islamic reformism is treated as a complex relation between Islam and modernity. Both interact negatively and positively. Reformism looks at Islam and consciously or not, remoulds modernisation regionally and questions the alleged ‘catholic marriage’ between secularity and modernity. While reformism admires modernity, its processes are in a non-secular Islamic framework.

Usually, Islam is considered by ready-made theories of secularity and Western modernity. However, rarely examining themselves through other cultures or religions. Islam is most often regarded either as the antithesis of secularity and modernity or as the triumphant prophecy of modernisation and secularisation.

This study goes beyond rejection or endorsement of secularity and modernity and instead dismantles the frameworks of the two. The attention of sociologists and intellectuals is on the advance of modernisation with its elements, the urbanisation and industrialisation into social structures, ignoring the religious within these. If modernisation alters religion’s position in modern society, this does not mean religion is a passive receptor of what modernity imposes. Islam, as diin, can be an active actor and has the power to change the structure and direction of modernity itself.

Limited excerpts from the book, Islam and Modernity: An unfinished project by Rafik Abdessalem, will appear in coming issues. Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC),

Biography: Rafik Abdessalem is director of the Centre for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies focusing on Tunisia’s political security and economic concerns with a regional focus on the broader Middle East and North Africa region. He founded the Tunisian Students Union in the 80’s and after a government crackdown on dissent took exile in England for twenty-one years. There he established the Maghreb Centre for Research and Translation and chaired the London Forum for Dialogue, a platform for Arab political figures in the United Kingdom. He later worked at the Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha, Qatar as director of research. From 2011 to 2013, he served as Tunisia’s foreign minister in the country’s first democratic government after Z.A. Ben Ali’s fall in 2011.


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