Islam and Secularism
Last week we discussed the introductory part of an article written by Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim titled “God Save Us from ‘Religious’ Laws.” We highlighted the two areas of agreement and the overwhelming load of contradiction that characterized it. The next section of his article titled “The Secular and the Profane” compels us to examine closely today the concept of secularism, its evolution and results.
One thing interesting to note is that both Islam and Christianity do recognize the existence of the secular domain in human affairs, if not in doctrine, at least in history. But Dr. Ibrahim should note that the issue of secularism as essentially a Christian doctrine goes beyond the religio-political polemic in Nigeria. I strongly feel the need here to revisit the origins of secularism.
There are about five reasons responsible for the rise of secularism, all of them sequential. Some of these reasons are mentioned in a review under “Church and State” in Encyclopedia Britannica. The first is the scripture itself which as in Mark 7:17 has formed the basis for separating the secular (“what is Caesars”) from the spiritual (“what is unto God”). According to the encyclopedia,
“a theory of two powers came to the basis of Christian thought and teaching from earliest times.”
The second is what we can adduce to the separation between the Old and the New testament, as a result of the rejection of the Messiah-hood of Jesus (may the peace of God be upon him) by Jews. The Old Testament or that part of the Bible that includes the Law (Torah) contained comprehensive rules for secular affairs as revealed to Moses (may the peace of God be upon him!). The message of Jesus was to confirm and to make soften the Law in the Torah, and to particularly emphasize the spiritual rejuvenation of the Israelites. The two books were meant to remain one: the Torah for secular matters and the Injil preponderantly for the spiritual. Thus, in describing his mission statement, the Quran reported Jesus the Messiah as saying:
“And (I come) confirming that which was before me of the Torah, and to make lawful some of that which was forbidden unto you. I come unto you with a sign from your Lord, so keep your duty to Allah and obey me.”
Unfortunately the Jews rejected Jesus and persecuted his followers in Palestine. Christianity had to grow elsewhere, in pagan Rome, under the Caesars. Here lies the third reason for growth of secularism. The encyclopedia recounted:
“During the 1st century AD the Apostles, living under a pagan empire, taught respect for and obedience to the governing powers so long as such obedience did not violate the higher, or divine, law, which superseded political jurisdiction.”
The fourth reason was when the Roman Empire collapsed and the responsibility of maintaining a civil society fell squarely on the Church. The encyclopedia continued:
“With the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, civil authority fell into the hands of the only educated class that remained – the churchmen. The church which formed the only organized institution, became the seat of temporal as well as spiritual power. In the East the civil authorities, centered in Constantinople, dominated the ecclesiastical throughout the Byzantine period.”
The Church was involved in struggle for state power for centuries. Numerous controversies caused division in the western church until ‘discipline was relaxed, and the church prestige fell in all parts of Europe.” Reformation did further damage.
The Enlightenment had a profound effect. A politically weak church had to contend also with challenges which technicalization posed on its fundamental beliefs and worldview. This is the point to which Dr. Ibrahim referred the origin of secularism, when he talked about the increased functional differentiation of knowledge.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong said:
“This new confidence in the natural powers of human beings meant that people came to believe that they could achieve enlightenment by means of their own exertions.”
This apparently innocent effort led to the conclusion that was unfortunate for the Christianity in Europe. Armstrong continued:
“They no longer felt that they needed to rely on inherited tradition, an institution or an elite – or, even, a revelation from God – to discover the truth.. The new scientific spirit was empirical, based solely on observation and experiment.. The western sciences could take nothing for granted in this way and the pioneers were increasingly ready to risk a mistake or knock down established authorities and institutions such as the Bible, the Church and the Christian tradition.”
The effort by some scientists to find a place for God gave rise to a number of problems. Scientists like Blaise Pascal, Descartes and Newton have professed the conviction that the existence of God could be proved through the various methods they adopted. Even philosophers like Spinoza and Kant were not bold enough to profess absolute atheism. The nineteenth century scientists and philosophers declared their independence from God. Thus Ludwig, Marx, Freud, Darwin and Nietzsche all could not find a place for Him in their thoughts. Armstrong said:
“The idea of God which has been fostered for centuries in Christian West now appeared disastrously inadequate and the age of reason seemed to have triumphed over centuries of superstition and bigotry..”
Lastly, the fifth reason has to do with what we may call ‘the minority syndrome.’ Whenever a minority population feels threatened by the political domination of another group, the former sees its survival as a direct function of secularization of political power. This has happened at various times in the history of nations but most especially after the French Enlightenment.
People of various groups and religions have thus supported secularism. The Jews in Europe and America, conscious of the centuries of the persecution they underwent in the Old world have supported and propagated the argument of secularism in Europe and America, though knowing very well that it contravenes the Mosaic law. Even in some parts of the Muslim world, some women feel that it guarantees them social freedom from male dominance. Baptists in the United States and other established churches promoted the “secular concept of government” as a means of guaranteeing their survival against the hangover of puritanical influences of the seventeenth century. The article in Encyclopedia Britannica explained that:
“The great wave of migration to the United States by Roman Catholics in the 1840s prompted a reassertion of the principle of secular government by state legislatures fearing allocation of government funds to parochial educational facilities. The 20th century saw the First and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution applied with considerable strictness by the courts in the field of education.”
If you want to grasp the extent of commitment of the US government to secularism please read this excerpt from America on the Brink:
“In November 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Ten Commandments could not be posted on the wall of a schoolroom in Kentucky because seeing the words of the Mosaic law on the wall “may induce children to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and to obey the commandments”
The ‘minority syndrome’ was what Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim used to justify his theory that only secularism is the answer to the religion-cum national question in Nigeria.
To be fair however it is important to say that it will not be surprising if a Christian like Dr. Ibrahim ordinarily feels repugnant to secularism because it is a concept deeply rooted in his scripture as well as his history. If it were so in Islam, Tilde would have behaved the same way. We shall see that next week.
Meanwhile, I still believe that Dr. Ibrahim, despite being Christian, should have sympathized with the tribulation which the faith in the West is right now undergoing as a result of secularism. There, the concept of secularism has so much weakened the stand of the church in secular matters and is currently depriving it of any right even in the spiritual domain. This has led Europe and America into the agony of violence, desperation and decline. Let’s listen to the expression of sorrow from one of their churchmen. In America on the Brink, Jim N. Black (he is white), quoting from The American Hour of Os Guiness, said:
“Americans with a purely secular view of life have too much to live with and too little to live for. Everything is permitted and nothing is important.” Thanks to the secularization of our age and the degree to which Christians hide their faith (in order to avoid embarrassment), the marks of character have grown soft, often invisible. Many people today have traded their faith in the eternal verities for the cheap substitute of material possessions, and predictably the soul of the nation has grown weak.
“Secular answers to society’s problems are hollow and unfulfilling, and Guiness warns “once growth and prosperity cease to be their reason for existence, they are bound to ask questions about the purpose and meaning of their lives: Whence? Whither? Why? And to such questions secularism has no answers that have yet proved widely satisfying in practice.
“The human spirit requires more than mere physical food for its deepest hungers. It needs spiritual meat. And the soul of the nation cannot survive when greed, lust, selfishness, and ambition are our only criteria of value. Whether in Europe, in the Soviet Russia, or in modern America, materialism is a disease that destroys character. The only cure for our spiritual emptiness is a return to the moral values that made this nation great. And such values only come through faith in God..
“Character must be built on a foundation of moral values, and without religion there can be no genuine morality..”
There are additional developments in the West that would frighten the religious in other parts of the world, whether Christian or Muslim. That is while people like Guiness and Black publicly lament the decline of spirituality in American institutions and public, the church itself is inflicted with unbelievable influence of the moral decline in the larger society. Those of us living outside the West, Muslims and Christians alike, lament how the European and American churches appear impotent in the face of secularism so much that even morally degenerate groups like homosexuals have the courage to fight for recognition by the church. They are getting that. Now they are pressing for priesthood. And the churches in many countries are yielding to this unholy pressure.
I have always held the view that our christian brothers in Nigeria would closely examine the effects of secularism on western society. They should work out a way on how the nation can continue to enjoy economic growth and political harmony without risking the deteriorating effects of secularism. Certainly they do not need to see their survival as guaranteed by secularism just because Muslims are dominant in some parts of the country. It is encouraging to note that some church leaders have started to take up the challenge.
I am saying so because the end result of secularism would deny the church its influence even in the spiritual domain as it is happening now in the west. No doubt the twentieth century and perhaps the first few decades of the twenty-first are American. Anything American sells like a hot cake. But we need to use our senses and pray to God for salvation. I once listened over the NTA to the Archbishop of Abuja saying that Christians should not give the impression that they do not care about morality. He emphasized that the Shariah issue has provided the opportunity for them to come forward and contribute in raising the moral aptitude of the nation. This is encouraging.
In an international forum organized by the Anglican Church to address such issues two years ago in Britain, the BBC Hausa Service interviewed a representative from Nigeria on the accommodation of homosexuals by the church. He lamented and despised the western society. He implored that we in Africa should pray that our society should never deteriorate to such levels. I absolutely agree with him and furthermore understand that the virus that brought that predicament in the West is secularism – the concept that denied religion any participation in state affairs. That is why Friday Discourse, just like our Anglican priest in the BBC interview, would continue to open and close all our articles in this series with the prayer that may God save us from secular laws.