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Secularism, Pluralism and Modernity in Islam Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: May 14th, 2020


Religion is a vital institution of society that provides spiritual growth of an individual, and thus it shapes societies. The 21st Century has been symbolized by the shift towards secularism where liberalism is encouraged.

The emergence of a pluralistic society due to cultural diversity seems to have an impact on religion as people accommodate new values, norms, and behaviors that are in line with the modern secular culture. In particular, Islam has been subjected to influences from the new trends brought about by modernity, thus posing a threat to its values in some cases. This paper will examine the harmony and incompatibility that exists between Islam and secularism.

Harmony of Islam and secularism

Modernization plays a central role in creating a balance and differences among various aspects of society especially on religion. Some compatibility exists between the Islamic religion and the secular society. Some aspects of pluralism and democracy seem to go in line with religious expectations, thus facilitating morality, which is a core feature of Islam. The changing nature of society necessitates the need for the abandonment of the conservativeness of some Muslims to embrace secularism (Engineer 136).

Therefore, the interpretation of both religion and secularism has a bearing on the compatibility of the two given that they are dynamic in nature. In this case, compatibility between Islam and secularism is attainable if the approach is not from a rigid perspective. Embracing flexibility is called for among Muslims for the intergradation of secular values into Islamic values where applicable (Jan 322-330). In this regard, approaching both religion and secularism from a liberal perspective enhances harmony between the two.

The Quran further highlights the harmony between Islam and secularism whereby it clearly asserts that groups have their law and way of worshipping God. (Engineer 139). In this case, Allah supports a pluralistic society where diversity should be respected. Consequently, accepting individuals from other cultures that might be more secularized than that of Muslims is encouraged for the sake of treating everyone equally regardless of the different socio-political backgrounds.

Respect for other people’s belief systems is thus essential for a peaceful coexistence between Muslims and other pluralistic cultures since human beings were not all created as a single people, but differently for the attainment of a fully structured unit.

Democracy is a core feature of modern politics. It advocates equal rights and respect for the rights of other people regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. Therefore, democracy is a political aspect of secularism that has a bearing on Islam. Although countries dominated by Muslim citizens such as Malaysia do not exercise equal application of political rights, the Quran is against such practice since it does not advocate territorial Islamic states (Engineer 140).

Therefore, human rights should be upheld and equally applied since religion should not to be confined in only one particular state excluding foreigners (Jan 322-330). The full integration of a democratic and pluralistic culture into Islam can be achieved when more Muslims shift to the West and experience equality from another perspective (Sachedina 309). Additionally, a liberal approach to the rights and freedoms of individuals from other political cultures should be applied for the harmonious coexistence of Islam and democracy.

Distinctiveness of the Islamic way of life and Secularism

Muslims have not embraced secularism fully, thus eliciting some polarized views on various socio-political and economic aspects of life. World politics has intensified today with every political move that seems to be detrimental to the subjects welcoming criticisms from various political and humanitarian agencies. The Western world seems to be inhibiting the establishment of staunch Islamic states rooted in religion, which according to some Muslim leaders, is interfering with their own liberty (Jan 319).

The differences have been propagated by the notion that the formation of Islamic states would lead to dictatorship regimes of governance, thus leading to the violation of fundamental human rights. Political interference from the US in the internal politics of countries such as Afghanistan has been perceived as a move to impose the Western political culture of democracy as if Islamic states do not have their understanding of politics. This kind of interference has evoked sharp incompatibilities between Islamic political attitudes and secularism in the name of political autonomy and sovereignty.

The notion that reformation needs to be done to the Islamic system for the attainment of democracy has resulted in incompatibilities (Jan 320). The argument here is that the Islamic states have elected their political leaders democratically, and there is no need for changing their political systems. The Western world tends to advocate the removal of Islamic principles such as those found it the Sharia, which are perceived to be extreme. In this light, differences emerge due to the feeling that the Western world is interfering with features of Islamic religion because Sharia is rooted in religious doctrines.

The Western world supports the removal of the “extreme laws” from the political system since they see it as a trigger for the suppression of opposition parties in governance. On retaliatory response, the Islamic states oppose the recommendations from the West through the formation of their political systems without considering the compatibility with the secularized ideas.

Democracy focuses on bureaucratic and representative structures in nature. On the other hand, the Islamic states uphold faith as a core ingredient for governance after which structures can be considered (Jan 322). The contrasting ideas lead to the rejection of westernizing the political institutions of the Eastern Muslim majority states.

Justice as one of the values observed in democracy has produced divergent views between Islamic and secular culture supporters. The formation of a just society through the democratization of the political institutions alone at the expense of the Islamic religion is seen as a cunning move by the US (Jan 325). Incompatibilities arise since Muslim leaders believe that democracy only provides a fraction of enhancing fairness in society.

The logic behind this argument is probably the view that corrections in religious doctrines for the sake of a new culture are not substantial for change towards a just society. Muslims are of the belief that the Quran has adequate provisions that clearly stipulate how justice needs to be administered, hence no necessary alterations to it.

On the issue of social justice, disparities tend to exist between Islamic and secular cultural ideas. Social justice entails upholding fairness in every aspect of social life in a bid to promote equality. Christianity aims at improving humanity only from the spiritual point of view (Qutb “Milestones” 105). The implication of these thoughts is suspected to be contrary to the expectations surrounding fairness since they downsize other human values by masking their religious ideas in the name of secularization.

Therefore, Muslims discern it as an unjust move aimed to serve their personal interests without regarding the social welfare of other religions. The morality behind such moves has resulted in suspicious attitudes towards pluralism and democratic ideologies as well. According to Qutb, the basis of morality, which is a core value of social justice, suggests morality, but in this case, Christians tend to drive their secular ideas for their selfish reasons (“Milestones” 106).

Similarly, communism advocates material gain, but not human needs unlike Islam, which addresses life from an all-round approach (Qutb “Milestones” 105). The feeling that communist ideas are geared towards materialization of the human life for desires of the world has raised questions about the applicability of social justice in that case.

Contrary to the communists’ agenda, which fosters class struggles, Islam integrates spiritual nourishment, bodily needs, and morality to achieve justice (Qutb “Social Justice in Islam” 50). The Islamic religion does not advocate economic equality since everyone is responsible for his or her acquisition or lack of property. The implication of unjust practices driven by the pluralists has made Muslims become conservative to their understanding of justice as stipulated in their religious teachings.

The activities of the Americans in the Arabian Peninsula were interpreted as a destructive plan on Muslims. Laden argues that the Americans invaded the Peninsula to exploit their resources, trouble their neighbors, and interfere with the local leadership (431). Consequently, any interference with the Arabic system by the Americans called for jihad against them. Laden’s comments must have taken effect due to his influence during that time leading to hatred between the West and the dwellers of the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore, his comments have influenced generations to be against association with the West, thus causing rigidity in accommodating secularism.

Assessment of the harmony and the incompatibility existing between Islam and Secularism

It is clearly evident from the discussion above that there exist some unity and discord between Islam and secularism. The various underlying issues have to be investigated in a bid to comprehend the situation from an objective point of view. In such a case, the ease of compatibility between the two concepts is due to flexibility and the adaptive nature of the involved subjects. Muslims that accept the new values, attitudes, norms, behaviors, and expectations are identified as modernists.

The issue of Islamic states and Islam as the state religion invites debate for the differentiation of the two. Incompatibilities arise when the declaration that Islam is the religion of the state. This aspect tends to cause differences as Islam is seen to be a superior religion to others, hence discriminative. The minority groups in the Islamic states experience unequal democratic rights leading to feeling of hostility to foreign political rights and social justice. Embracing democracy means that citizens can appeal for their leaders’ accountability (Sachedina 308).

Shifting from the Ulama’s political ideologies towards the democratization of the Islamic states, politics generates mixed reactions since conservatives perceive it to be interfering with their religious belief. In this regard, the application of the Islamic law discriminatively especially on democratic rights of minority religions is unjust. Therefore, the conflicts between secularism and Islamic beliefs that are rooted in the discriminative application of Sharia encourage inequality, which requires the intervention of secular ideologies for purposes of promoting equality.

The notion that Islam cannot be detached from politics causing rejection of democratic ideas among the Islamic states inhibits the acceptance of contemporary ideas that are beneficial. The Ulama and jurists ideas in the past provided that leadership must be rooted in religion, which tend to induce conservativeness. The fact that the modern world is dynamic means that socio-political aspects change and in order for people to change, they have to accommodate new ideas that would enable holistic grow.


The modern world exhibits enough evidence that change is constant. Institutions of society such as social groups, political agencies, and economic organizations have adapted to change in a bid to survive the new trends. The essence of religion is to enhance unity and provide spiritual guidance towards one’s success. Pluralism, secularism, and democracy are all products of the constant changes that surround the human life. Therefore, for the adaptive measures, a need for flexibility becomes essential.

Accepting secularism entails detaching religion from politics and acknowledging that harmony between the two is achievable. On the other hand, the friction arising from ideological differences between modernism and Islam is debatable.

The underlying issues portray conservativeness of the Ulama’s political ideologies that do not advocate the separation of politics from religion. Consequently, the West’s imposition of democracy on the Islamic states has evoked sharp conflicts, thus creating a rift. Although both religion and secularism have their justifiable reasons for or against secularism, the reasons for compatibility seem to be highly substantial from an objective point of view.

Works Cited

Engineer, Ali. “lslam and Secularism.” Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Ed. John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 136-142. Print.

Jan, Ullah. “Compatibility. Neither required nor an issue.” Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Ed. John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 319-330. Print.

Laden, Osama. “Text of Fatwa Urging Jihad against Americans: Islam and Contemporary Issues.” Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Ed. John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 430-432. Print.

Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones, New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2005. Print.

Qutb, Sayyid. Social Justice in Islam, New Jersey: Islamic Publications International, 2000. Print.

Sachedina, Abduaziz. “Why Democracy, and Why Now?” Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Ed. John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 307-310. Print.

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