Secularism: The Basis of Religion

Article Summary
According to Ibrahim Gharaybeh, religion is best practiced within the context of a secular society. He divides religion into three distinct levels, limiting the “holy” to a small category of beliefs that form the basis of the individual’s personal experience of God. All else, he argues, ought to be subjected to reason and scientific enquiry.

Islam and [religion in general] can only be properly understood and correctly applied in a political, social, and cultural system that is based on secularism. A secular [political and social] system is congruent with the [spiritual tenets] advocated by Islam, and is the best environment in which to foster a proper understanding of Islam and [other religions]. [A secular system allows for the best kind of] implementation [of religious principles], because secularism may actually be the best guarantee for sound relations between Man and God.

The Qur’an and other holy scriptures basically constitute a set of messages from God to Man, messages that had nothing to do with power or communities. The authoritarian and social interference into the relation between Man and God has been corrupting religion and misleading the faithful.

[This interference] has also been introducing worldly and corrupted interests, passion and hypocrisy into religion, isolating it from its true message. [This has sometimes turned religion] into a tool for authorities or a financial resource for certain groups and social classes. On Judgment Day, Man will meet his creator alone - God has said in the Qur’an, {And all of them are coming to Him on the Day of Resurrection alone}. Every man will be held individually responsible for his actions, words, beliefs and ideas. The worldly authorities, whether they be religious or political entities, will offer him no help.

Human ideas and opinions have long influenced the application of many religious doctrines - including Islamic ones. [Men] have often claimed a true understanding of religion with the only right to such a claim being the trust of their believers and followers. In many instances, these [individuals’] applications of religious texts distorted religion, diverting it from its [true] goals and confusing the concepts of religion and goodness.

Religion would have remained purer had it remained part of the private affairs of each person. [It would be more true to itself] had each individual been allowed to base their understanding of religion on their own beliefs, peace of mind and [personal] nature, without the interference of the whims, impurities,[worldly] influences or intimidation of others. [Had this been the case] religion would also have stayed free from the influence of power, human community, heritage, and the offers of others to mediate between God and Man. Certain groups and regimes have claimed privileges that even the Prophet did not enjoy. According to the Qur’an, the Prophet was only tasked with spreading his message. The faithful know that believing and acting on ideas are purely spiritual steps - a genuine, instinctive effort to find the right path to redress their relationship with God. No one has the right to interfere in such a process. In turn, these steps are spiritually enriching for believers, helping them find their way along the path of ascendancy they had been seeking. Therefore, the only guarantee for the true [practice of religious observance] is secularism.

One clarification would be beneficial at this point. We need to differentiate between three structures, each entailing its own unique level of religious belief. First, the belief in God and the Holy Books, and the underlying tenets of worship as stated in [God’s] Holy Book.

These are personal beliefs of the relationship between God and Man, that Man wholeheartedly follow as they are preached by the Prophet. No one can dominate over this part of religion, as believers are individually responsible for it. No state or authority can interfere within this level [of belief], either with regards to its implementation or by forbidding people from certain practices and behaviors related to it. [Holy] Scriptures did not make reference to [earthly] authority when talking about [personal worship of God], and did not mandate [any authority] to judge the way people [interacted with their religious beliefs].

The second structure [of belief] is the “discourse,” that is, the application of religion in daily life. This level is prone to conflicting understandings and interpretations of “right and wrong.” This discourse has changed with different societies, eras and geographical locations, as well as diverging scientific, cultural and social beliefs [throughout history].  Therefore, at this level, it is harder to discern what is religious and what is humanistic, what is from God and what is not. However, it remains a discourse of believers. Believers could build discourse based on their own wisdom and the interests that they adhere to. Their own ideas of what is true, good and beautiful could come into play and mold their discourses. [It is up to the believer to make his own decisions on questions of] Truth, as in right and wrong, or justice and oppression; Goodness [in the sense of] benefit or harm, and the distinction between greater or lesser benefits, and greater or lesser harm; and Beauty, as in the distinction between what is ugly and what is fair.

The third [structure of belief] is the science involved in religious doctrine and interpretations within subjects like philosophy and theology. [Religious studies] are a part of the humanities, similar to subjects like sociology, language, philosophy and history, which most Muslims and believers either study or teach. [As a science,] religion is also subject to the research method that seeks to prove things either correct or incorrect. [On this level, religious study is taken as a science], and no scientific endeavor is shielded from disproof. 

These distinctions are necessary for people to [re-evaluate their relationship with religion]. Not every aspect of religion is of equal importance. Not every religious [disagreement] must lead to enmity and clashes. Not every explanation requires a cause, because in every discourse, there are many potentially correct interpretations. It is the people who should choose what they accept and what will [bless] them with peace of mind.

Religious studies are a purely human scientific endeavor. [In this context,] religious doctrine can be researched, proven or refuted in an institution of higher learning just like any other kind of scientific research. Religious studies are not of a religious, political, or social nature. They should not be the subject of partisan enmity or support - unless of course we are ready to organize demonstrations and incite people to support or oppose the theory of gravity, for example.

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