The Andalusi Secular by Nazry Bahrawi

Somewhere in the Gobi desert lurks a wormlike creature so elusive that no one can fully describe its attributes properly. Some say it spews acid when threatened. Others allege that it dispenses electric charges, or even explodes at will. While it has not yet been proven to exist, the Mongolian death worm is nevertheless ‘real’ to many who live in that part of the world.

Despite the multifarious, often fabulous accounts of this mythical animal, one thing that those who believe in it can agree on is its uncompromising lethalness. A similar paradox afflicts traditional Islamic discourse on the secular. It is a great many things to a great many thinkers: colonialism, Godlessness, and moral degradation, to name a few. Like the Mongolian death worm, those who believe in it can only imagine it as deadly.

The Malaysian scholar Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas aptly summarised the normative perspective of Muslim traditionalists on secularism. In his Islam and secularism, he suggests that expressions of the secular were not only westernised beliefs ‘opposed to the worldview projected by Islam’ but in fact ‘pose an immediate threat to us’ – Muslims. The secular can spew acid, discharge electricity, explode, or perhaps even do all three. But in vocalising this threat to the Muslim world, al-Attas is not alone. The popular Sunni cleric Yusuf Qardawi also regards the secular as toxic. As political scientist Nader Hashemi points out in his book Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy, the al-Azhar-trained cleric had written in his 1977 book tellingly titled al- Hulul al Mustawradah wa Kayfa Jaat ’alaa Ummatina (or, How the Imported Solutions Disastrously Affected the Muslim Community) that ‘secularism may be accepted in a Christian society but it can never enjoy a general acceptance in a Muslim society’ because ‘secularism among Muslims is atheism and a rejection of Islam’.

Such vitriol only serves to entrench what Hashemi calls the ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ thesis, or the postulation that Islam is uniquely incompatible with notions of secularism and liberal democracy because of the faith’s ‘inner antimodern, religiocultural dynamic’ (ibid. xi). Islamic exceptionalism is a twentieth-century phenomenon that carries the baggage of European colonialism.

It is an all-inclusive hypothesis: Sunnis like al-Attas and Qaradawi subscribe to it, but so too the Shi’ites. Hashemi points to Iran’s Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei who reminded his colleagues at the Assembly of Experts in 2002 that ‘colonialist powers have always advocated a separation of religion from politics’. To relieve their ‘death worm’ fear of the secular, Muslims need to return to al-Andalus, where philosophy, or falsafa, thrived and philosophers and polymaths such as ibn Tufayl, ibn Rushd and ibn ‘Arabi had already tamed the beast.

But what exactly is the secular? Talal Asad, son of the famous translator of the Qur’an Muhammad Asad, makes an important distinction in his Formations of the Secular: the secular must be differentiated from secularism. The former is an ‘epistemic category’, the latter a ‘political doctrine’. Thus, Khamenei’s chastisement gestures to the second sense of the term – one that signals an anti-colonial stance against the oppressive expeditions of Europe to conquer vulnerable societies under the disingenuous pretext of civilising barbarians. However, intimations of the secular in Andalusian philosophy appeal to the first sense of the word – the secular as ontology. As a way of framing the world, the secular ontology is built on several themes and dichotomies, most particularly reason and human agency that are fuelled by the binary oppositions of faith/reason and freewill/determinism respectively.

The Andalusian philosophy is associated with a certain type of philosophical disposition in Islamic thought, typified by a commitment to conclude Islamic thought’s engagement with Neoplatonism – either by incorporating it, denying it, or proposing it altogether as new way of viewing metaphysics. All three positions are represented in the personages of ibn Tufayl, ibn Rushd and ibn ‘Arabi respectively.

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