The Debate on Islam and Secularism in Egypt

By Najjar, Fauzi M. | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Debate on Islam and Secularism in Egypt

Najjar, Fauzi M., Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


The intellectual crisis agitating muslim minds today centers on the relationship between modern Muslims and their past. For the last two centuries, Muslims have found themselves caught up between authenticity (attachment to their values and culture) and modernity. They view most Western ideas, ideologies and institutions as a threat to Islamic law, values and culture. Among these foreign imports, secularism seems to represent the greatest danger. As separation of religion and state, secularism was first championed by Christian writers like Ya'qub Sarruf, Faris Nimr, Nicola Haddad, Salama Musa and others. Except for Salama Musa and Lewis Awad, these Christian immigrants were Syrians, who had found refuge from Ottoman rule in British-occupied Egypt. The first Muslim religious scholar to advocate secularism was Shaykh Ali Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966) in his al-Islam wa 'Usul al-Hukm, published in 1925. In that famous and controversial work, Abd al-Raziq asserted that Islam was a religion and not a state, a message not a government, a spiritual edifice not a political institution, a proposition that led to his defrocking by the Azharite Committee of Ulema.

Abd Al-Raziq's book has been the most momentous document in the crucial intellectual and religious debate of modern Islamic history. This is not the place to detail the controversy generated by the publication of this work; enough has been written about it. Suffice it to say that while the debate maintained its course between secularists and Islamists, modernization and secularization filtered into Egypt and other Muslim countries, paying a little more than lip service to Islamic concerns. The recent Islamic resurgence with its call for "return to Islam" or "Islam is the solution," has rekindled the debate between secularists and Islamists, giving it an urgency and intensity previously unknown. Capitalizing on the failure of the various political and economic systems to solve society's problems, Islamists have, one may say, encapsulated the Muslim world's problems into a struggle between religious and secular forces. The seriousness of the current debate arises from the fact that Islamists have converted the terms "secularism" and "secularist" into slogans of opprobrium, in order to discredit, silence or liquidate those who oppose their struggle to establish a true Islamic state. Outspoken secularists have been vilified, threatened, beaten and even murdered by militant Islamists. To the Islamists in general, secularism is equivalent to jahiliyya (paganism), a slogan resurrected by the Pakistani scholar, Abu al-A'la Mawdudi, and propagated by Sayyid Qutb in his book Ma'alim fi al-Tariq, charging modern society with kufr (unbelief). Equating secularism with kufr has forced some writers to shun the use of the term "secular," replacing it with "civil," as in civil society or state.

An acrimonious debate, aptly described as "secular fundamentalism vs. religious fundamentalism," has been raging between the secularists and the Islamists. Entrenched in opposite camps, they hurl accusations and charges against each other, with no promise of a constructive dialogue. Secularists have been accused by the Islamists of being apostates from Islam, and agents of Western powers and culture. In turn, they accuse the Islamists of being ancestral, reactionary and obscurantist. The arguments and methods used by both sides are so contrary, warranting the delineation "two cultures," with hardly any communication or connection between them.(1)


The Arabic term for secularism is 'almaniyya. According to the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, the term is derived from 'alam (world), and not from 'ilm (science), as some think, thus giving the wrong impression that science is opposed to religion. Some writers suggest the Arabic term 'alamaniyya in order to avoid the confusion. Others prefer dunyawiyya (worldly) in contrast to dini (religious).

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