Why Secularization Failed in the Muslim World

Mona Abousenna, Mourad Wahba

Secularization failed early in the Muslim world. It was a lengthy process that unfolded in four stages. The first stage began as early as the fourth century c.e., when Christians and Jews—not the Muslims, as popularly supposed—undertook the translation of Greek philosophy into Arabic. The Muslim Arab philosophers al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna benefited from these translations and formulated their own Islamic philosophy under the influence of the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle. These early attempts at critical philosophy by Muslim thinkers might have led to the formulation of an autonomous Arabic philosophy were they not single-handedly aborted by the Sunni theologian and thinker al-Ghazali (1059/58–1111). Al-Ghazali strongly attacked the Greek-influenced philosophers, accusing them of heresy (takfir) and apostasy in his famous book, The Incoherence of Philosophers. (Then as now, under Islamic Sharia law the penalty for apostasy is death.)

The second stage was the ultimate triumph of al-Ghazali. He destroyed philosophy and philosophizing within the Arab East, setting in motion a process that would later spread to the Arab West.

The third stage is marked by the advent of Averroës (also known as Ibn-Rushd, 1126–1198) on the philosophical scene. Averroës made a heroic effort to undermine al-Ghazali’s destructive influence on the Arab West. His efforts were doomed due to the overwhelming strength of al-Ghazali’s followers. They were known as the traditionalists; today we would call them fundamentalists. They turned the political authorities against Averroës, resulting in the burning of his books and a year of languishing in exile before his death.

The fourth stage came with Ibn-Taimiya (1263–1328), who undertook the task of reinforcing the fundamentalist trend al-Ghazali had initiated. Ibn-Taimiya, too, made it his policy to charge anyone who dared think critically in religious matters with heresy and apostasy. This stage marks the final failure of Averroës’ philosophy—and the ultimate triumph of the fundamentalism of al-Ghazali and Ibn-Taimiya, which between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries imposed itself throughout the Arab and Muslim world from East to West. And so things have largely remained into our own day.

The most conspicuous incarnation of Islamic fundamentalism today may be Wahhabism. Both a Sunni religious doctrine and a political dogma, Wahhabism constitutes the foundation of the first Wahhabi state, Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism was founded upon two major doctrines. The first was rejection of secularization and the Enlightenment—and its representative, the West, including Europe and America—rejecting also their byproducts such as modernity and the scientific worldview. The second major doctrine was the imperative to disseminate Wahhabism as the one and only true religion, fountain of the sole civilization that should be emulated and followed.

Wahhabism first took root in the eighteenth century. At about the same time, Edmund Burke published his book Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789). Burke condemned the Enlightenment, calling it a kind of barbarism and advocating a return to pre-Revolutionary ways of living. Burke’s thought can be viewed as the European counterpart of Wahhabism. This historic coincidence merits profound study, suggesting as it does an underlying unity of human civilization despite vast cultural diversity.

In 1928, Hassan al-Banna founded the movement of Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Cairo. To fully understand the religious ideology and political strategy of the Ikhwan, you should very carefully read its theoretical manifesto expressed by Sayed Qutb in his famous book Milestones (or Landmarks on the Road), published in Cairo in 1968.

In the 1920s, only a very few individual attempts were made, particularly in Egypt, to promote secular ideas and Enlightenment values, but they were all crushed by the Sunni religious authority of “Al-Azhar,” the one-thousand-year-old, worldwide, authoritative religious establishment.

We must mention just a few individual pioneering attempts to secularize Muslim society, foremost that by Sheikh Ali Abdulrazik, an enlightened Sunni theologian who, under the influence of Hume and Locke, had called for abolishing the religious rule of the Turkish Ottoman empire with its dependence on the divine right of rulers. Another one was Taha Hussein, another enlightened Azharite influenced by the French Enlightenment, who called for the adoption of the Cartesian method to criticize Muslim culture and religion. Mansour Fahmy, a Sorbonne graduate, wrote his PhD thesis on the liberation of women in Islam. All these thinkers’ seminal efforts toward secularization died in their cradles and are virtually unknown to younger generations who grew up amid overwhelmingly powerful Muslim fundamentalists.

Therefore, it is not going too far to say that the direction of Islamic history worldwide, from the eleventh to the twentieth century, has focused on rejecting the Western world and all it stands for, particularly secularization and the Enlightenment impulse.

Within this adverse cultural environment, the authors—two Egyptian academics—founded the Averroës and Enlightenment International Association (AEIA). The mission of AEIA is to establish a cultural bridge between intellectuals in the Islamic world and the West. AEIA held its first international conference in Cairo in 1994 with the partnership of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and its founder, Paul Kurtz. A follow-up conference was held at the CFI headquarters in Amherst, New York, in 1995.

AEIA was founded to pursue a dual mission. Among Western scholars, AEIA seeks to dispel the misleading view of the Muslim world that has been inculcated by the work of so-called Orientalist scholars. They marginalized Averroës and his defense of rationality, preferring to characterize the Muslim world as profoundly and irretrievably irrational. To them, Muslim irrationality was most perfectly manifested in Islamic mysticism (Sufism), whose sole purpose is to direct man toward God, to obliterate human identity by dissolving it utterly in the overwhelmingly divine Being. In this way God, not man, becomes the measure of all things, and the Muslim world can be understood as the absolute opposite of the West, making the much-touted “clash of cultures” seem inevitable. By contrast, we defend a more balanced view, recognizing that in fact a strong rational component informs the Muslim world and can provide a basis for more productive encounters between East and West. At the same time, in the East, AEIA strives to encourage awareness that human civilization is one at a profound level; the idea that the East possesses a specific and different identity is mere illusion.

Based on the above principles, our association organized six international conferences in Egypt, including the founding conference in 1994. The second one took place in 1996; its theme was “Creativity and Pax Mundi.” Its thesis: world peace (Pax Mundi) can be achieved only by seeking creative new solutions to the old and chronic problems inherent in globalization. In 1998, we held the third international conference on “Terrorism and Teaching Philosophy,” the purpose of which was to demonstrate how the effective teaching of philosophy, particularly Enlightenment philosophy, could counter the rise of global terrorism rooted in Islamic fundamentalism. In 2000, we held our fourth conference, “One Civilization, Many Cultures,” showing that though it contains many diverse cultures, human civilization is one and cultural conflicts can be overcome by applying r
ational scientific secularization and Enlightenment concepts. In 2002, we held AEIA’s fifth conference, “Cultures and the Enemy Image,” in Alexandria at the imposing New Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

We faced many profound obstacles in staging these conferences. Paradoxically, most of this resistance came not from the official authorities but rather from the Egyptian and Arab intelligentsia as well as the private and independent press, which was in turn goaded by certain fundamentalist intellectuals. We were severely attacked by this quarter during and after the initial conference. Among their accusations were claims that we were enemies of Islam and our intention was to destroy it, the proof being that we did not invite fundamentalist representatives to defend the faith; that we were agents of some foreign entity; and that we were traitors working for the benefit of Israel and Zionism.

With growing financial problems and lack of funding, we had to limit our activities to the local sphere. Therefore, we founded the Averroës Forum as a branch of the Averroës and Enlightenment International Association. It was hosted by old-time Marxist turned liberal philanthropist lawyer Ali Shalakany, who owned one of the biggest and most reputable law firms in the Middle East. Shalakany Law Office became our headquarters, and under its sponsorship, we started in March 2001 to hold monthly meetings to which we invited important Egyptians and international figures from all fields to explore subjects including democracy, secularization and enlightenment, religious interpretation, freedom of thought and expression, women’s social and cultural rights, creativity in education, and cultural pluralism. These meetings continued for five years; the average meeting attracted forty to sixty persons from a broad range of perspectives, including mild Islamic and Coptic fundamentalists, Marxists, and liberal nationalists.

In 2005 we were approached by a group of intellectuals and leftist political activists who were involved in establishing a liberal nationalist political movement. They were seeking to revive the culture of ancient Pharaonic Egypt on the grounds that it was a secular culture, a view we did not share—we often criticized ancient Egyptian civilization for its reliance on mythical thinking, particularly its glorification of death and the afterlife.

This intellectually diverse group offered to join forces with us based on our ideas on secularization and Enlightenment, which in turn were rooted in the work of Averroës. (Only later would we learn this was a false pretext.) They proposed to hold a series of conferences with us under the title “Founding Secularization in Egypt.” We agreed to the partnership, and the first conference was held in March 2005. Its subtitle was “Democracy and Secularization”; our partners left the choice of topics and the design of the program entirely up to us. We formulated the conference motto, “No Democracy without Secularization.” The event, held on March 1, 2005, drew a large audience, including some three hundred members of civil-society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Most of these NGOs were run by Egyptian Copts who called for the eradication of religious discrimination. A few representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood Organization also attended.

At this inaugural conference, one of us (Mourad Wahba) introduced his own definition of secularization, which was totally new and unprecedented. It runs as follows: “Secularisation is thinking about the relative in relative, and not in absolute, terms.” Wahba’s definition was inspired by the theory of Copernicus, who established in his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres that Earth is not the center of the world because it revolves around the Sun, not vice versa as Ptolemy had taught. Copernican theory negated the centrality of the Earth and, by extension, the centrality of man as well. The human illusion of possessing the absolute truth was thus shattered; in its place emerged a growing realization that our relationship with the outside world does not permit us to know Truth with a capital T. In the final analysis, then, secularization is an issue relating to reason and how we think and engage with the world. Reason allows us to think in a relative way in matters that concern human life on Earth. With this concept, Wahba freed the term secularization from the religious and political domains within which it had been traditionally defined, establishing it instead within the epistemological field of reason and understanding.

The reception of this conference was ambivalent and to some extent unexpected. To our surprise, the main official newspaper, Al-Ahram, announced the conference on its front page, hailing it as important and courageous, the first attempt ever taken in the Arab world to tackle secularization. We understood the message implied in this treatment: support on the part of the official authorities. We hoped this could be a first step toward a wider Arab secularization movement that could lead to modernization and progress.

Meanwhile, how did the independent press respond? There was the expected hostile response on the part of fundamentalist journalists. However, what we had not expected was the negative response on the part of so-called liberal and leftist intellectuals who consider themselves secularists. They engaged in what we can only call a conspiracy of silence. Not one single article was published by any intellectual concerning the secularization conferences. The clear implication was that these conferences did not merit any response. The conspirators hoped that by keeping silent about our movement it would wither and eventually disappear.

They almost got their wish. Four months later, our one-time partners turned adversarial by publicly announcing their dismay regarding the intellectual and cultural line we were taking. They demanded that we drop Mourad Wahba’s definition of secularization; they wished to turn the movement into a political party, seeking a politicized secularization whose impact would be limited to the ballot box. In effect, they launched a coup d’etat with the intention of dividing the movement.

Despite these adversities, we organized another conference on secularization in March 2007. To our great surprise, this time Al-Ahram said nothing—until it published a story the following month announcing that a group of Syrian intellectuals had founded a movement under the title “Founding Secularization in Syria,” totally ignoring our own work and claiming for themselves the precedence. Though the Syrian initiative was an exact replica of our own, Al-Ahram made no reference to us. This kind of passive-aggressive reaction to any new and untraditional thought is deeply rooted in Arabic culture generally and Egyptian culture in particular. It persists in an endless fight among intellectuals for the sake of self-promotion, leading predictably to a mutual exclusion that makes the genuine accumulation of meaningful influence—to say nothing of real progress—impossible. Thus, we could say that the paradox of Averroës is still very much alive in present-day Arab culture.

After these events we had to continue the conferences on our own without any partners. We organized and held two more annual conferences in March 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, the Averroës Forum continued to hold annual conferences on secularization, though with diminishing numbers in attendance. The direct support we once enjoyed in the official press had been withdrawn as a result of the conflicts imposed on us. Even so, the official press remained indirectly supportive of our work. We are currently preparing for the sixth annual conference on secularization in Egypt on the theme “Secularism is the Antidote for Fundamentalism.” The purpose of this conference is to clarify the difference between religion per se and religious fundamentalism as a religious-political movement and to show that it is fundamentalism—not personal religious faith—that secularism is fighting against. In this way, we hope to achieve some kind of normalization of the term secularism in order for it to be accepted and eventually become incorporated within the Arab and Muslim mind.

The real challenge facing those who would promote secularization in the Arab and Muslim world lies among the intelligentsia, not the political powers. This conclusion was recently reconfirmed in a report published in the independent weekly newspaper Voice of the Nation (Soat al umma). The report looked back at our first conference on secularization held in 2005, at which we had launched Wahba’s definition of secularization. A number of intellectuals were interviewed and asked for their opinions regarding the definition and its implications. Whether fundamentalists, leftists, or liberals, without exception they opposed the definition and the program to which it gave rise. The fundamentalists, of course, accused us of blaspheming against Islam with the intention of destroying it. Leftists accused us of being overly idealistic and opposing the more practical politicization of secularization. For their part the liberals accused us of being apolitical and dogmatic.

It is within this intensely adverse environment that we continue to fight for the cause of secularization and enlightenment. Wahba writes fortnightly articles in one of the most reputed weekly magazines, Al-Mossawir, at the request of its chief editor, who is also the chairman of a major press syndicate. He also contributes a bimonthly column to one of the most widely read independent daily newspapers, Al-Massri Alyoum (The Modern Egyptian), at the request of its chief editor and the head of its board of trustees. Mona Abousenna has written articles in the well-read semi-official weekly magazine Rosel-Youssef from 2005 to 2008, then shifted to the weekly leftist newspaper Al-Ahaly (The People) and another weekly newspaper, Watani (My Homeland), published by the Egyptian Coptic Church. Without exception, these articles advance the ideas of secularization and the Enlightenment, relate philosophical ideas to current social problems, and guide the reading public toward critical and creative secular thinking.

We therefore think that our efforts are finally starting to pay off as a result of the steps forward we have made during the past decade. The terms secular and secularization are no longer anathema, no longer culturally stigmatized. The taboo against them having been undermined, these terms are now frequently used in the press and other media despite the disapproval of Muslim fundamentalists. In a recent editorial, the editor in chief of the semi-official Al-Ahram daily announced the urgent need to revoke the second article of the Egyptian constitution, which provides that “The source of all laws and legislations must be derived from the principles of Shariaa,” which contradicts to the first article that stipulates that “Egypt is a civil state.”

We are hopeful.

Mona Abousenna

Mona Abousenna is professor emerita of English at the Faculty of Education–Ain Shams University and cofounder and secretary general of the Afro-Asian Philosophy Association and the Averröes and Enlightment International Association.

Mourad Wahba

Mourad Wahba and Mona Abousenna chair the Center for Inquiry in Egypt. Wahba is professor of education at the University of Ain Shams in Cairo and founder and honorary president of the Enlightenment Association and the Afro- Asian Philosophy Association. Abousenna is professor of English at Ain Shams and secretary general of the associations.


Secularization failed early in the Muslim world. It was a lengthy process that unfolded in four stages. The first stage began as early as the fourth century c.e., when Christians and Jews—not the Muslims, as popularly supposed—undertook the translation of Greek philosophy into Arabic. The Muslim Arab philosophers al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna benefited from these …

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