Rethinking Secularism

Excerpted from chapter one of Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

We live in a world in which ideas, institutions, artistic styles, and formulas for production and living circulate among societies and civilizations that are very different in their historical roots and traditional forms. Parliamentary democracy spread outward from England, among other countries, to India; likewise, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience spread from its origins in the struggle for Indian independence to many other places, including the United States with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Manila in 1983, and the Velvet and Orange Revolutions of our time.

But these ideas and forms of practice don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are modified, reinterpreted, given new meanings, in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One such confusion comes from taking a word itself too seriously; the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.

This is evident in the case of the word “secular.” We think of “secularization” as a selfsame process that can occur anywhere (and, according to some people, is occurring everywhere). And we think of secularist regimes as an option for any country, whether or not they are actually adopted. And certainly, these words crop up everywhere. But do they really mean the same thing in each iteration? Are there not, rather, subtle differences, which can bedevil cross-cultural discussions of these matters? Continue reading →

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Ibn Taymiyyah’s Personal Account Of His Damascus Trial (Part 2)

The amir signalled that I not read the written creed myself, the better to avoid suspicion. He gave it, instead, to his secretary, Shaykh Kamal al-Din [al-Zamlakanl]. The latter read it aloud to those in attendance, word for word, while everyone listened. Those who had objections would stop him at various points to voice their objections. The amir would also inquire about a point from time to time. Everyone knew of the antagonism and undisciplined passions harboured by a party among those in attendance, some of which was widely known among the people. Some of this [antagonism] was due to theological differences, and some of it was based on other things. Continue reading →