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There Are No Secular Arab Countries

There Are No Secular Arab Countries


You spoke at my school today and you were really interesting. There wasn’t enough time for me to ask my question. My question is: what did you mean when you said that there are no secular countries in the Arab world?

I hope that’s a good interesting? How did you find this tumblr, by the way? Anyways, to your question:

The reason why I said there are no secular countries in the Arab world is simple, secularism is defined as the separation of “Church” and State. I think even when I give that definition, people do not exactly understand what that exactly entails.

In more specific terms, that is where governmental institutions and bodies (Presidents, legislatures, judiciaries) do not have control over the structures, practices, or finances of religious organizations.

In plain English, that means, that the government and religious organizations are not intertwined. This is primarily problematic when the government controls religion, rarely does religion control the government, but it obviously can happen.

Today we were speaking specifically about Egypt, and in Egypt, the most important religious organization is Al-Azhar, which is the most important Islamic University in the world. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar is essentially the “leader” of Sunni Islam, and his importance should not be underestimated. Al-Azhar’s curriculum is mostly free from governmental intervention, but it’s endowments (it’s money) is completely controlled by the government.

To make matters worse, for the vast majority of Al-Azhar’s history, it’s Grand Sheikh was always elected by his peers. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, this was changed to a governmental appointment and has continued ever since.

So, the governmental controls who Al-Azhar’s leader is, and they have complete control over their financial situation. That’s terrible, don’t you think?

The reason I said that no country in the Arab world is secular, is because nearly all Arab countries (I think Lebanon is the exception) ultimately control religion to a degree that is unacceptable, and that is why I find people’s characterization of countries like Tunisia of being “secular” to be actually hilarious.

In Tunisia, the Grand Mufti is appointed by the government. Mosques must be closed unless for prayers or other religious functions (historical Mosques are kept open for tourists). Once a new Mosque is built, it becomes the property of the government. The restrictions upon women wearing Hijab in governmental facilities and offices is ridiculous (this should change with the new government), but the fact that the government controls the main Islamic University (University of Ez-Zitouna) is also problematic.

The point of all this is that, when people say they are afraid of Tunisia or Egypt becoming less “secular” I laugh, because, how much worse could things get? The countries are not actually secular to begin with! So what are they really talking about?

It becomes clear that what they associate with “secular” they are simply associating with what is “Western.” Which is unfortunate. What is even worse is that they clearly don’t realize that in classical Islamic history, the religious institutions were ALWAYS separate from the governmental ones.

I know what you’re saying, “Uh, Osama, isn’t Islam famous for not separating the two?” Yes, Islam is “famous” for this, but the reality is that, historically speaking, Islamic institutions were always separate from the government and this was how Islam separated institutions, I cannot stress that enough, the separation was on and institutional level.

The legal codes of these polities were derived from Shariah, but the institutions which produced Shariah rulings, which trained the people who produced Shariah rulings, were independent from the leader, whether that be the Sultan or the Khalifa (Caliph). These are the people we call “scholars,” known variously as Sheikhs, Imams, what have you. The title Qadi is simply a judge, a “referee” type of Sheikh to officiate cases. The title “Mufti” is an administrative position.

So really, when we call the Ulama, the “scholars” we are actually making them something they weren’t. The translation of Ulama into “jurist” is far more accurate. These guys (and many times, women) were the equivalent to the lawyers of our society (in America, at least). They were high-status, they were educated in institutions that were not controlled by the state, and they functioned both as part of the governmental system but independent of it.

The majority of the people Muslims think of as “scholars” were indeed “scholars,” but that was not their primary job. They were jurists, first-and-foremost, and were used by the government, as per their profession, to staff the judicial system that their specialty (Islamic law) was structured upon.

That was how they would be able to make money, plain and simple, otherwise, if they were just “scholars” they would have to depend on other ways to make their money. They would most commonly use their ability to write to copy books, since there was no printing press, this was the only way that you could have multiple copies of something. People would pay for journeys by copying entire works, and the famous works we have today were simply the works that were copied the most.

Back to the point:

So, in Islam you technically had “secular” institutional structures but you had people we think of as “religious scholars” (but were actually more like lawyers) as the people who would staff the judicial system and ensure that the court systems were just and fair.

I’m going to stop there, as I hope that explains my reasoning behind what I said. If someone has more questions about Islamic institutional structures, I’d be more than happy to answer them.

Insha Allah I hope you found this helpful and please don’t hesitate to ask me more questions.

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