Arabism, Islamic history, religion

The Alawites and their place in the Arabic world, part 6: the history of secularism and its relationship to Islam


The author Seyyed Hossein Nasr referred to in the last post traces the forms of secularism, which have influenced Islam through the centuries: this entry is a adaption of his work.

I’ve chosen this theme for 3 reasons:

It’s interesting

I refer to the concept repeatedly in my writings

It relates to the Ba’ath Party, the ruling party of Syria for the past 4 decades and of course to Iraq.

The separation of state and religion

The separation of state and religion is an anomoly in the Islamic world and the advent of Arabism has many critics for instant the mercenary forces, that constitute Islamic State. Throughout the 20th  century the incorporation of secular methods of governance was deemed necessary and practical as Arabic and Turkish nationalism marked the end of the Ottoman era. This meant security for millions but also enforced geographical and ideological boundaries, which are unacceptable to many Muslims.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains how there is no separate term for secularisation in Islam as religion is the ”divine guide” through which ordinary people find God. All Muslims have the potential to achieve a divine state thus secularisation is contradictory as it relies upon earthly concepts. Where Muslims adhere to the word of God, the Prophet Mohammed, the Hadiths and the Imams, secularist ideas are purely man made.

Philosophy, the Khalifa and colonisation

From the very beginning Islam was influenced by pagan practices and tribal and family feuds but as these influences were subdued other forms of secularisation began to permeate. Mr. Nasr refers to the Umayyad  period when the divine principles took a back seat to power politics and ”human ambition”. The Umayyad dynasty was formed after the Battle of the Siffin where Ali ibn Abi Talib was defeated by Muawiyah 1st, for more about his rule 2015/07/29/alawais-and-their-place-in-the-islamic-world-an-intro-and-brief-recap-the-next-stages-of-the-civil-war-peace-arrives-and-new-ideas-emerge/

The author further describes how Islam encountered the Persian and Byzantine customs and procedures and even though these former empires absorbed the religion, fields such as taxation impacted on Islamic law and produced a heterogenity, whereby secularisation flourished.

He discusses the weakening of the Khalifa, (the Arabic word for one who replaces a person who dies but in Islamic terms is the successor to Prophet Mohammed’s position as the administrative, political and military leader). I didn’t realise fully the significance of this particular form of secularisation and how it relates to recent events in Syria i.e. the declaration of a Khalifa by the mercenary group I.S. in Raqqa.

This impacted during the Abbasid era with the subsequent emergence of the Turkish Seljuk empire and the authority of the Sultan alongside sacred law and the Khalif. Though the authority of the Sultan was secular, or even pagan being associated with the Sassanid period and in opposition to the principle of divine Islam, its authority was accepted by many scholars as necessary to preserve the Muslim religion in certain regions.

Among all this there had emerged the Amirs or princes who were interspersed through the regions, which constituted the Khalifas.

Maths and the social sciences

With regard the mathematical and social sciences, in Islam the former sat comfortably with the Greek and Hindu forms as new branches of the science were created and older mathematical theories developed. The author does state, that mathematics is not considered as secular thanks to the esoteric qualities promoted by Pythagorus. Islam was not touched by many philosophical tenets but absorbed a version of the rationalist principles derived from the Aristotle’s peripatetic school.

Mr Nasr explains how intellectual pursuits enable Muslims to achieve a state of divinity and how this coupled with the fact it was to be the last religion of mankind, meant all previous religious knowledge had to be understood and those elements, which were considered acceptable assimulated into the Islamic faith. Both Plato and Aristotle had maintained, that all knowledge be given careful attention prior to being disgarded; none were to be ignored.

Whole philosophical tracts were translated to Arabic and debates were held between the various scholars often in front of the Khalifs and the Shia Imams. The Alexandrian school of alchemy and Corpus Hermeticum was derived from the work of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus and compiled into a single work in the Byzantium period, which marked the synthesis of the Greek and Egyptian traditions. Despite their pagan roots Islam embraced these ideas as it identified Hermes with the pre-flood descendent of Noah; the prophet Idris.

This is an incredibly interesting and involved part of Islamic history as and may well have caused a further rift between the Sunni and Shia strands of the faith as well as adding to the heterogenity of the religion as a whole. Hermes introduced the seven esoteric principles, which are said to be immutable laws of nature and thus cannot be reversed. Though adherence to the seven principles requires a degree of meditation to enhance growth and development, they are to an extent fairly common sensical and even scientific.

Western secularisation

The author describes the ”devastating forms” of secularism, which hit Islam in the 13th/19th century and how they were combatitive and  derived from western value systems. Being political and economic in character they affected all the institutions  including the legal system. The Tanzimat introduced by the Ottomans introduced European codes to supplement Quranic legislation, /2014/05/26/the-history-of-syria-the-ottoman-empire-restructures-the-impact-on-their-colonies-mercenary-speke/.

Mr. Nasr admits, that Islamic religion was weakened internally by not only by western secularism but by Muslim philosophers, who tended to deny or even ”belittle” its more spiritual aspects. To this there was a backlash and a ”puritanical rationalism” emerged e.g. in the of form of the neo Wahhabiz-Salafiyyah movement, which inspire groups like Islamic State.

Next time the al kalam, broadly translated as theology




One thought on “The Alawites and their place in the Arabic world, part 6: the history of secularism and its relationship to Islam

  1. Pingback: Pan Islamism |  SHOAH

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