Becoming a Muslim is an act of choosing God. So when one hears the word “secularism”, it is only natural that some sense tension or conflict between the “Godly” and the “secular”, so to speak. Especially when the ‘working relationship’ between secularism and religion is often presented on the media as opposing forces in battle (and it may be Christianity being put in the dock).
Some of this tension stems from quite fixed ideas of what both Islam and Secularism mean or stand for. If we see Islam fixed as “God’s Prescribed Law” and Secularism as “non-God” or “anti-religion”, well then of course, we have ourselves a terrific clash! But neither represent a fair, full and informed grasp of Islam nor secularism. When we broaden our understanding of both, we create considerable space and flexibility, and as a result, a lot less clashing.
Academics and campaigners offer different meanings of Secularism, and the word is part of the political language surrounding us. To illustrate this, French secularism can look and feel quite different from British secularism. In a general sense, secularism actually refers to our everyday worldly lives. It is concerned with our lives crossing paths with the lives of others, and all that real life brings in its wake. Muslims believe the Qur’an was sent to guide our worldly everyday lives, and when we look at life in this way, we can see greater scope for harmonising the two.
However, some Muslim commentators (especially online) are constantly suspicious of what they see as an anti-God “secular agenda”. This can be bewildering. It is also true that secularism (much like a religion) can have healthier, and less-healthy, aggressive forms. Academics and Islamic scholars have explained that secularism can mean, and should mean, a more level playing field, allowing for voices, thoughts and influences to make a contribution to, but not dictate to or overpower, the laws of governance.
A healthy secularism allows for more equality and also for greater religious freedom for individual or minority practices of faith. This can also be understood from the broader purposive aims of the Qur’an for a harmonious and equitable existence amongst human society where differences are recognised and respected, including different religions.