Secularism, Islamic

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Islamic secularism is a movement seeking to limit the scope of religious authority, parallel to similar movements in other faith traditions. The limitation may be ideological, as in secularist movements to remove religious authority from state institutions or from social relations; or it may be experiential, as in the encroachment by consumerism and mass media on activities previously regulated by religious authority. Ideological secularism arose in the nineteenth century, when atheists such as Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzada (1812–1878) rejected Islam as inherently incompatible with modern ideals of progress. In the twentieth century, ideological secularism gained adherents among devout progressives as well. Major statements were drafted by Muhammad Husayn Na˒ini (1860–1936), who warned against "religious despotism"; ˓Ali ˓Abd al-Raziq (1888–1966), who argued for a separation of religious and political authority; and Nurcholish Madjid (b. 1939), who called for the "secularization" of worldly matters so as to leave the divine to God.

A generation of military leaders in the middle of the twentieth century, beginning with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), forcibly secularized many Muslim societies, subjugating religious authority to increasingly intrusive lay supervision and stripping it of institutions it previously monopolized, such as courts and schools. At the same time, experiential secularism spread in the daily practices of Muslims. For example, alcohol consumption and interest-based bank accounts increased despite widespread prohibition by Islamic authorities. Nonetheless, secularism remains a taboo concept in many Muslim communities, where it is associated with atheism and Western cultural imperialism.

See alsoModernism ; Modernity ; Secularization .


Adelkhah, Fariba. Being Modern in Iran. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. 2d ed. London: Hurst & Co., 1998.

Charles Kurzman