Islam basically, is a secular religion which means it allows freedom to other religions under its canopy. Secularism is neither atheism nor socialism. It is a concept that stands for freedom to all the religions and denominations to practice their faith and traditions. The society and the Islamic government in Spain were secular as Christians, Jews and Muslims were treated as equal citizens. They were free to pursue their religious obligations without any let or hindrance from the state or the society.
Two episodes from the life of the second caliph of Islam Hazrat Umar amply illustrate the close interconnection between Islam and secularism in matters relating to the freedom of expression. One was the explanation of caliph to the objection of a Muslim about the longer size of his apparel than given to others from the war booty.
The second is about the esteem for other religions shown by Caliph Umar when during his visit to Jerusalem (637 A. D.). He declined to pray inside the Christians’ church, on the grounds that his action might not become a tradition. Such was the level of tolerance or reverence for other faiths by the founding torch bearers of nascent Islam.
The entire West and both North and South America and the Far East are essentially secular as in these societies, there is no ban nor any restriction over other religions to survive and adhere to their faith. Even Islamic countries like Jordan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Turkey, Lebanon (50 % Muslims), Kuwait, Tunis, and Morocco are treading on the path of secularism.
The religious minorities in these countries are not coerced or harassed to follow their religious rituals and customs under certain conditions. The understandable conditions, equally applicable to even Islam and other minority religions are respect for law and not to smear or deride other religions.
To interpret secularism with a godless culture, faithlessness or atheism is simple ignorance or gross misconception about the creed of secularism. If Christians and Jews worshipped and practiced their religious obligations with complete freedom during the time of Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and four caliphs, what other name can be given to this laudable liberalism and tolerance towards other religions than secularism.
From the conquests by Islam to the time of Renaissance (14th century onward), the Muslim states were monarchies, hereditary successions, family dynasties, or with a strong man at the helm. The distinct concept of a nation state with attending halls marks of democracy, equality and freedom had not developed or evolved till the French Revolution (1789-1799). Thereafter, while the western world turned into nation states, the Islamic world continued to hold on to the theocracies with the same paradigm of suzerainty by monarchs, kings and dictators.
Even in theocratic Muslim empires such as Omayyad’s, Abbasids, the Ottomans; the non Muslim populations were seldom forced to abandon their faith and become Muslims. During the Mughal Muslim rulers period (1526- 1857) in the undivided India, we have no evidence that religious minorities were forcibly converted to Islam, constrained to go to their temples or inhibited from observing their religious chores or festivities.
The resurgence of the Wahhabis, a fanatic band of Islam, during the middle of the 19th century, was not supported by the Muslim majority in India. As a result it was brutally crushed both by the British and the Sikhs. That demonstrates that Muslims were not extremists even during their hay days. The isolated attempts to impose or enforce orthodoxy have never succeeded because of the secular outlook of other Muslims.
During the last days of the Ottoman orthodox caliphate, the caliph Abdul Hamid the second, with the help of Britain tried to crush the liberals, the seculars, the nationalists with most inhuman, brutal machinations but failed. He used the ploy of saving the caliphate by declaring the opponents such as Kamal Ataturk as heathens and apostates. After the defeat of Germany in Second World War, Turkey being the ally of Germans was penalized by occupation of its lands by Greek and the British forces.
While the caliph ordered the Turkish armies to surrender before the foreign invaders, the chief religious authority called Sheikh-ul-Islam issued religious decree to kill seven persons including Kamal Ataturk who were fighting against the Greeks, Britain, with a an assurance to the killers of an abode in paradise. But no one paid heed to his hypocritical calls. Finally the religious sovereign fled Turkey on board the British ship with his hollow fervor for the religion Islam.
For the last several decades, Turkey is a secular liberal country. But it is also one of the most trenchant Islamic states where Islam has been flourishing ever. It is the model of secular Islam that ordains liberalism, tolerance, humanism, equality and fundamental rights. Religious freedom with Islam as the supreme religion of the country can be witnessed in Turkey. The Turkish religio-political dynasties came to an end with the rise of modern Turkey and the abolishment of the sultanate and caliphate on March 3, 1924.
The military coup d’état of July 15 this year against the incumbent government of president Erdogan was effectively put down. The exiled Islamic cleric and Erdogan’s former ally Fethullah Gulen, was accused of calling for the dismantling of the secular Turkish state in favor of an Islamic Republic.
One can also see a prototype of the same egalitarianism and openness with the Islamic genre in Malaysia and Indonesia. These are progressive, secular Islamic states firmly founded on Islam’s temporal and ecclesiastical codes.