Islam and Secularism: A Primer

“When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”


One of the fundamental principles of democracy is the separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof.” In the New Testament, Jesus Christ arguably sets out an earlier version of this principle: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God, the things which are God’s.” (Matthew 22: 21). These two authorities, God and Caesar, deal with different matters and rule different realms, each with their own laws and institutions.

In Islam, Jesus is regarded as one the most important Abrahamic messengers. However, the principle of church-state separation which he established does not carry over into the faith. Indeed, there are no words in classical Arabic for the distinctions between lay and ecclesiastical, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal. To understand why this is the case, we must look to the founder of Islam – Muhammad. Muhammad was not only a prophet, but a statesman: he founded not just a community, but a state and a society. He was a military leader, making war and peace, as well as a lawgiver, dispensing justice.

In the establishment of Islam, the Muslims formed a community which was at once political and religious, with Muhammad as the head of state. The spectacular victories of the early Muslims proved to them that God was on their side. Thus, from the very beginning, there was no question of a distinction between sacred history and secular history, between political power and faith – unlike Christianity, whose followers had to suffer three centuries of persecution before the faith was adopted by Constantine the Great. Only then did Christianity become imperial, whereas Islam was imperial by design.

If Muslims living in the West are sincere in espousing the cause of democracy, then they must learn the profound reasons underlying the separation of church and state. They must then decide whether these principles are compatible with Islam, or whether they entail too many compromises with the religion – in which case, it would be best that they reconsider membership of Western society. The idea of secularism has been formulated by many Enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke and Baruch Spinoza. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke gives us two excellent reasons for adopting this principle:

[1] Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate [the state], any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel any one to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.

[2] There being but one truth, one way to heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led unto it, if they had no rule but the religion of the court and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, to oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of opinions on religion, wherein the princes of the world are as much divided as in their secular interests, the narrow way would be much straightened; one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the world put under an obligation of following their princes in the ways that lead to destruction.

In other words, it is not the business of the state to interfere with the freedom of conscience and thought of its citizens. The state cannot make people religious by force; at best, it can enforce outward observance, but at the cost of sincerity of belief. Locke’s second point is that by mandating belief in one religion, one is cutting oneself and an entire generation off from further enlightenment and progress. As Immanuel Kant put it in What Is Enlightenment?, “To unite in a permanent religious institution which is not to be subject to doubt before the public – that is absolutely forbidden.”

Locke further argues that we must discard the notion that we are “born Christians” or “born Muslims” and cannot do anything about it. We should be free to enter or leave any particular creed; otherwise, there would be no freedom, progress, or reform. Alliance of Former Muslims affirms these essential truths, and is committed to the absolute separation of church and state. We recognise that, when the principle of secularism is admitted, a free discussion of religion naturally follows – and thus, that only those with authoritarian tendencies would oppose it. To finish with a quote from the great Thomas Paine:

The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it has taken place, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, has so effectually prohibited by pains and penalties every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow.


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This article was written by co-founder Kareem Muhssin, with support from other Alliance members.

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Support network for Ex-Muslims in Ireland. Empowering apostates from Islam and raising awareness of the jihadist threat. Affiliate of Atheist Alliance International.

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