Is Islam Against Secularism?


Thijs Wester

Secularism is a principle which applies to many facets of modern life. The
notion may have started as a political one, but it quickly expanded its influence
to personal-, educational-, and even capitalist- spheres. In the political sense,
however, a secular nation is one which does not derive its authority from God,
but rather from naturalistic or humanistic considerations


. Needless to say, sec-

ular notions are not always well-liked by religious authorities in control of their
own states. Historically, the various churches have reduced in power, influence
and adherents after their host countries started employing secular ideas. This
essay will focus primarily on Islamic views on secularism, in particular, the ways
in which Islam may be seen as incompatible with secularism.

When we speak of secularism in the political sense, it often goes hand-in-

hand with talk of liberal democratic values. In other words, secularism is not
only about moving away from the divine as a source of authority, but also about
the replacement of the void left by the church. This void is often filled with cer-
tain liberal values, values which may be perceived as incompatible with Islam.
Values such as human rights, political autonomy, civil liberty, freedom of reli-
gion, and others are often seen as incompatible with Islam when one observes
how modern Muslims practice their religion.

Laws forbidding heresy may be seen as an infringement on human rights,

particularly article 9 on Freedom of -thought, -belief and -religion. Laws forbid-
ding the schooling of women go against liberal values of equality and autonomy.
In general, there are many Muslim countries that go directly against democracy
by employing dictatory rule. Despite these seemingly obvious violations, it
should be pointed out that human rights and human rights laws are susceptible
to broad interpretations and much debate. The freedoms guaranteed by article
9 may, for instance, be discounted in favour of public -safety, -health, and
-morals (according to the human rights declaration) (Assembly, 1948). One may,
in such a scenario, interpret the human rights declaration in such a way that
even the most abhorrent acts can be read under the guise of “public safety”, as
has been done for many years by the Christian church(es) as well as the Muslim

Furthermore, staying on the issue of compatibility with liberal democratic

values, one may ask whether the perceived incompatibility is due to the doc-
trines of Islam, or due to some external influence on Muslim countries. In other
words, one may posit that the practices of contemporary Muslims in Islamic


While this is certainly not the only way in which the term “secular state” is used, this is the work-

ing definition that will be used for this essay.



Thijs Wester


countries do not define the essence of Islam in general. This can best be shown
by (reformed) Muslims living in secularized countries without problem, practis-
ing their religion in a largely unmodified way.

There are certain political applications of Islam active in the world today

that are deemed incompatible with secular democracies. Clear examples are of
course those groups who lean towards religious fundamentalism. Afghanistan
under the rule of the Taliban is clearly incompatible with some liberal values,
even if it is not directly incompatible with democracy as such. In general, coun-
tries applying the law of Sharia are often judged as incompatible with “enlight-
ened-, secular-law”. This applies in particular to countries on the Arabic
peninsula as well as various countries in Western Asia.

It is often the case that these political applications are taken as a sign of

incompatibility between Islam and secularism. The same could, however, be said
for medieval and late-ancient Christianity, which pursued heretics in the name
of public safety with similar rigour as we see in the Islamic world today. Fur-
thermore, one may point out that the Quran says surprisingly little about poli-
tics and statecraft to begin with (though perhaps more than other sacred texts
such as the bible). As pointed out by philosopher and reformist Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū
Zayd (Zayd, 2006), many so-called “Islamic” laws and political doctrines are
either pre-Islamic fabrications by early Muslims, or late-medieval and modern
not originally included in the Quran. The question thus changes from: “Is Islam
against secularism?” or “Is Islam against democracy”, to something along the
lines of: “Are contemporary Muslims against secularism and democracy?”.

Even if we take secularism to include liberal democratic values, I do not

think that Muslims in Islamic countries are necessarily against secularism. Take
the values of freedom and autonomy as an example. In the west, we claim to
value these principles, the Unites States even made the freedom of speech the
first amendment of its constitution. However, you will be hard-pressed to find
many people living in such countries who believe that freedom and autonomy
have no limits.

There are in the west many laws in place to protect one against one’s own

decisions, thereby limiting their autonomy. Even in the aforementioned United
States, there are large groups of people (including ex-president Donald Trump)
who believe it should be illegal to burn an American flag (even though a court
ruled this action as “symbolic speech”). Similarly, I think many Muslims would
not take issue with people exercising their freedoms in non-Islamic ways, ways
that may be seen as heresy, as long as these exercises happen in private. This is
of course not the end-all argument of the discussion, especially since we are yet
to define what constitutes a private act, but I nevertheless think it important to
recognize that not wanting certain actions in the public sphere is separate from
general disapproval or outright persecution.



Thijs Wester



Assembly, UN General. 1948. “Universal declaration of human rights”. UN

General Assembly 302, no. 2: 14-25 New York, NY, USA:.

Zayd, Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū. 2006. Reformation of Islamic thought: A critical

historical analysis. Amsterdam University Press.