Historical Social Research

Florian Zemmin: Validating Secularity in Islam: The Sociological Perspective of the Muslim Intellectual Rafiq al-‘Azm (1865-1925) [Abstract]

Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s book al-Islam wa-usul al-hukm (Islam and the foundations of power), published in 1925, is conventionally considered to be the first Islamic argument for secularism in Arabic. Two decades earlier, however, Rafiq al-‘Azm had made the same core argument for the separation of religion and politics in the journal al-Manar, the mouthpiece of Islamic reformism, which would later come to fiercely attack ‘Abd al-Raziq’s secularism. This article focuses on selected writings by al-‘Azm to illustrate the possibility of validating secularity from within an Islamic discourse. In addition to outlining his argument for the separation of religion and politics, I show that al-‘Azm reformulated Islam as a societal order that is conceptually distinct from Islam as a religion, and that he gave primacy to a sociological perspective on religion. Al-‘Azm was part of an elitist intelligentsia who discussed the issue of the modern order in the transcultural public sphere of colonial Egypt. In a period of conceptual transformations, individuals from the Islamic discursive tradition, like al-‘Azm, used islam and related terms to convey both religion and secular society. The use of islam to refer to both of these concepts might blur the distinction between religion and the secular but should, in al-‘Azm’s case, be read as an Islamic validation of secular order and thus as an Islamic contribution to multiple secularities.

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