Theology In Service Of Secularism: The Case Of John Locke And Sir Syed Ahmad Khan
Elite groups of Western thinkers had successfully proliferated John Locke’s ideas among the polity, but Sir Syed’s ideas could not break out from the fold of Muslim intellectual elites, writes Nadeem Farooq Paracha
South Asian Islamic scholar and one of the pioneers of ‘political Islam,’ Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979), often described secularism as “la din” or religion-lessness. Maududi was critiquing secularism for relegating religion to the private sphere and giving the state the power to regulate the public sphere with religion-neutral ideas of morality. To Maududi, the idea of morality cannot be divorced from religion or from the laws ‘ordained by God.’ And even though he worried that secularism could erode the influence of religion, he never called it anti-religion. “La din” is the absence of religion. But some of his followers interpreted it to mean anti-religion.
Secularism is not anti-religion. It is religion-neutral. It encourages the state to remain neutral and impersonal in matters of faith as long as the matters do not threaten the stability of the state and society. Interestingly, the first address to the Constituent Assembly by the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in August 1947, was inspired by the idea of religion-neutrality. In the address, Jinnah had insisted that the state of Pakistan will have nothing to do with the faith(s) of its citizens. He said faith was a private matter (and not that of the state).
Maududi was not amused. He was of the view that Jinnah would sideline the role of Islam in politics and in the public, just as the founder of the Turkish republic Kemal Ataturk had done. The ulema were dismayed by the manner in which the state in Muslim-majority regions such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and Albania, were trying to eliminate the role of religion in state and public affairs in the early 20th century. This also meant undermining the political and public roles of the ulema and the clergy. But if one was to closely study the contents of Jinnah’s speech in this context, it becomes clear that Jinnah was echoing ideas formulated by the British philosopher John Locke (d.1704) and the 19th-century South Asian intellectual Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (d.1894).
Locke is considered to be one of the founding fathers of political secularism. Sir Syed, on the other hand, pioneered the South Asian variant of ‘Muslim Modernism’ and the ‘Nechari’ school of thought. The origins of modern political secularism are rooted in Locke’s book A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). This book (and Locke’s other writings) went a long way in informing and influencing the evolution of political secularism in Europe and the United States. But it also influenced the thinking of men such as Sir Syed, who creatively placed and localised Locke’s ideas in the context of the Muslim condition in 19th-century India.
As mentioned, in the 20th century, Maududi’s critique of secularism had mutated to the point of seeing it as an ideology that aspired to destroy religion and even promote atheism. Maududi understood secularism as an attempt to depoliticise religion and relegate it to the private sphere. To him, politics was inherent in the theology of Islam and therefore, the faith’s teachings had to be implemented by the state.
Maududi had studied Locke. Thus, he could not have missed the fact that secularism did not appear from a void on the backs of anti-religionists or atheists. As an idea, initially, secularism was the result of intense tensions between Christian groups. In the 16th century, German priest and theologian Martin Luther rebelled against the ‘corruption’ and political power of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
Luther was a staunch Christian, but one who accused the Church and the Pope of exploiting their powers to grow rich. He also lamented that the common people were kept away from reading the holy scriptures because the scriptures would negate the political and priestly exploits of the Church. Luther began to translate the scriptures into simple German from Latin, so that they could be read by the common folk and without the need of having an intermediary (such as a priest) between Man and God. Luther believed that the powers of the Pope and the Church were so deeply embedded, that only the ‘sword’ of a prince or a king could sort them out.
According to Luther, power needed to be invested in princes. He admitted that the princes were vain and arrogant, but to him, they were the ones who could weed-out the corruption of the Church and thus restore the prestige of Christianity. Luther was suggesting an alternative authoritarian set-up to curb the overwhelming powers of the Church and, in the process, build a pristine ‘Christian state’ ruled by the sword (of princes).
Maududi understood secularism as an attempt to depoliticise religion and relegate it to the private sphere. To him, politics was inherent in the theology of Islam and therefore, the faith’s teachings had to be implemented by the state
This is remarkably similar to how Maududi would envisage his idea of an ‘Islamic state’ hundreds of years later. Maududi was an opponent of the ‘traditionalist’ ulema. He could not see how, with their ‘frozen minds,’ could they construct such a state. So he encouraged the ‘Islamisation’ of the society by a new breed of astute Muslims. The Islamisation would create a polity which would bring to power a modern-day caliph who would create an Islamic state. Maududi was willing to ally with powerful authoritarian figures for this purpose. He was sure that the end result would be the emergence of a pious caliph and a pristine Islamic state.
John Locke — unlike Luther, who wanted to eliminate the Pope and the Church with the aid of a tyrant who would then go on to create an incorruptible Christian state and society — emphasised a ‘rational’ reading of Christian scriptures. To Locke, Christianity was first and foremost about tolerance. He wrote, “tolerance should be the chief characteristical (sic) mark of the true Church.” To Locke, any aspiration to create a Christian state was antithetical to the teachings and spirit of Christianity. He wrote that a government that claims to be Christian was undermining the fact that Jesus was impersonal towards power and worldly things. To Locke, ruling in the name of Christianity was thus, an ‘un-Christian’ act.
Locke’s commentaries were the outcome of the devastating impact that religious and sectarian wars in Europe had had on the Christian realms. Millions were killed in these conflicts (especially in the early-and-mid-17th-century), leaving vast populations and regions in ruins. That is why Locke had an issue with monarchs and priests wielding the sword in the name of Christianity, or in the name of one Christian sect or the other. Locke found this to be ‘un-Christian,’ and the result of an emotional and uninformed understanding of Christianity. He believed that such a disposition becomes destructive when the Church is conjoined with the state. Violence and intolerance follow.
Locke wrote that toleration was one of the central tenets of Christianity and that to best achieve a ‘state of toleration,’ it was important to separate the functions of the Church and the state. The American academic Jacques Berlinerblau notes that instead of using the word ‘the Church’ (a single dominating power), Locke increasingly began to use ‘churches,’ mainly to emphasise the diversity within Christian societies, and the need for the churches to be tolerant towards each other and in general. According to Locke, this would put the state in charge of ‘outward things,’ such as upholding laws, collecting taxes, maintaining public health and safety, resolving issues between citizens, protecting property and staving off foreign invasions.
Locke wrote that the churches, on the other hand, needed to only look after ‘inward things,’ such as tending to the ‘salvation of souls,’ and guiding the believers how to communicate with God through prayers. He insisted that under no circumstances should the churches be allowed to rebel against the state, or use force or violence against other churches, or against their own members. He was of the view that the separation between the state and Church should be demarcated with fixed boundaries, stopping one from crossing into the domain of the other. Locke was sure that this would result in stability, progress and peace.
However, whereas Locke advocated toleration between sects, and between the state and the Church, he was adamant that the Church needed to be ‘disarmed’ because it did not have ‘compulsive power.’ This is interesting, because Muslim Modernists such as Sir Syed would use the same idea to promote toleration, and then demonstrate that the Islamic scriptures speak of the same by decreeing that “there is no compulsion in religion” (Quran, 2:256).
The ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers, of which Locke was a prominent figure, often used the Bible verse, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mathew, 22:21). They did it to theologically rationalise the separation of faith and state. To Locke, force belonged solely to the state, but the state could not use force to impede religious ceremonies, obligations or beliefs, nor could it enforce them. States could only interfere in religious matters if they step out of their designated boundaries or become politicised.
Locke, the father of modern political secularism, would continue to go back to the Christian scriptures to demonstrate that Christian doctrines eschewed politics, and that the gospels of Jesus were agreeable with the ‘genuine reason of mankind.’
The era Locke was writing in was yet to fully embrace modernity, even though thinkers like him had already begun to lay the foundations of the ‘modern world,’ by advocating the primacy of reason, science, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Locke existed in the first half of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — a period whose intellectual, political, economic and social products would shape post-19th-century Europe and the US; and plot the decline of the pre-modern era. But during Locke’s time, pre-modern religious beliefs and politics were still present. He had to use religious scriptures as a conduit to communicate ideas that were attacking various established traditions and dogmas.
Almost 150 years after Locke’s demise, when society, economics and politics in the West were being transformed, and the pre-modern was slowly giving way to the modern, a 40-year-old Muslim sub-judge (Munsif) in India, Syed Ahmad Khan, was struggling to come to terms with a failed (and violent) uprising against the British East India Company. The rebellion was triggered by a mutiny in 1857, by groups of Hindu and Muslim soldiers in Meerut where they were on the payroll of the Company. The rebellion quickly spread to many other regions of India. It became anarchic when the rebels began to attack the families of the British employees of the Company.
Britain shipped large numbers of soldiers and military equipment to India and brutally quelled the uprising through mass executions and arrests. The Company’s mandate in India was nullified by the British monarch and government, and India was brought under the direct control of the British Crown. Syed Ahmad Khan had refused to support the uprising. To him, it was a desperate bid by the old centres of power in India to revive their fortunes in the face of the challenges posed by the British occupation of India. Ahmad could not see how disorganised and spontaneous rebel battalions of Hindu and Muslim Indians could ever overpower the technologically superior and disciplined British armies.
There was to be no meeting point between the ulema and him, simply because both were viewing the Muslim condition in India from different lenses. However, Ahmad did try to meet them by dissecting their theological critiques of modernity
After the rebellion was crushed, the British in India began to devise a two-pronged strategy to negate the possibility of future rebellions. Whereas plans were drawn to include Indians in some decision-making processes, the British also introduced policies that looked to enhance the religious differences between the region’s Hindu majority and its Muslim minority. The Muslims had ruled India for over 600 years. Their last empire in the region began to crumble from the early 18th century. The British East India Company began to make inroads in the region from the mid-18th century. By the time of the 1857 rebellion, the Company was in control of most regions of India. After the British Crown took over the country, it exiled the last Muslim emperor, even though his position was entirely nominal and he was surviving on a pension doled out to him by the British.
The British set out to investigate the tensions that had led to the uprising. The British government had already been critical of the Company’s affairs in India, bemoaning its corruption, decadence and greed. Ironically, it would be a pamphlet, The Causes of the Indian Revolt, authored by Syed Ahmad Khan that would greatly contribute in aiding the British to understand the triggers of the uprising. In it, Ahmad lambasted the rebels for behaving like mindless beasts. But he also took to task the British, criticising them for making no effort to understand the cultures and customs of the Indians, and insulting their centuries-old religious sensibilities and traditions.
But Ahmad was not exactly a traditionalist. When he focused his attention on the condition of India’s Muslims, it dawned on him that he was investing a lot of his effort in romanticising past glories of the Muslims, when the fact was that the contemporary condition of the Muslims had greatly deteriorated. He lamented that Muslims had allowed themselves to be bypassed by the many new ideas and technologies that had emerged in Europe, strengthening European regions and turning them into global powers.
The ulema, especially in the Indian city of Deoband, disagreed. According to their analysis, it wasn’t Europe’s new sciences and technologies that had uprooted Muslim rule in India. To them, it was the simple case of the Muslims corrupting their faith by fusing it with the rituals of India’s other belief systems. They also censured Muslim rulers of yore for not enacting Shariah laws. Ahmad found such conclusions amusing. Because if this was the case, then the global Muslim empires that, till the early 18th century, were economic, political and military superpowers, would have disintegrated hundreds of years before the 19th century. For example, the last great Muslim empire in India, the Mughals, had turned India into one of the richest regions in the world.
The wealth of the Mughal Empire around the year 1700 would translate to a staggering $21 trillion today. To Ahmad, the issue was thus not theological, but of the empire’s disposition. The empire became complacent, and was sluggish in its approach towards adopting the breakthroughs in knowledge (especially in the sciences), and military and naval affairs in Europe. To Ahmad this was what brought the eventual downfall of the Mughal empire: it failed to keep up.
Ahmad explained Islam as a religion that was inherently a progressive and modern one, and which had inspired the creation of some of the world’s biggest empires. These empires had encouraged the study of philosophy and the sciences during a period in which Europe was lurking aimlessly in the so-called ‘Dark Ages.’ Ahmad also asserted that the scientific and military prowess of the West was originally inspired and informed by the scholarly endeavours of medieval Muslim scientists and philosophers, and that the Muslims had been left behind because this aspect of Islam stopped being exercised by them.
According to Ahmad, after reaching the heights of imperial power, Muslims had become decadent and lazy. When this led to them losing power, they became overtly nostalgic about past glories which, in turn, solidified their inferiority complex. This caused a hardening of views against modernity, and the emergence of a dogmatic attitude in the Muslim community. He castigated the ulema for forcing the Muslims to reject science (because it was ‘Western’). He warned that such a view towards the sciences will keep Muslims buried under the weight of superstition and dogma. When the ulema responded by accusing him of creating divisions in a community which they were trying to unite, he wrote that since he was a reformist, his job was not to unite, but to jolt members of his community by questioning established norms.
He asked the ulema: “The Greeks learned from the Egyptians; the Muslims from the Greeks; the Europeans from the Muslims […] so what calamity will befall the Muslims if they learned from the British?” Here, he was using an evolutionary model of history to understand how knowledge flows between civilisations. Whereas, to most of his Islamist critics, history was a set of traditions passed on by one Muslim scholar to another and disseminated among the masses by the ulema and the clerics.
There was to be no meeting point between the ulema and him, simply because both were viewing the Muslim condition in India from different lenses. However, Ahmad did try to meet them by dissecting their theological critiques of modernity. He wrote that a man’s spiritual and moral life cannot improve without the flourishing of his material life. Writing in a journal which he launched in 1870, he reminded his critics that not only were Muslims once enthusiastic patrons of science, but the Qu’ran too urged its readers to ‘research the universe’ which was one of God’s greatest creations.
To further his argument that Islam was inherently a progressive religion, and, in essence, ‘timeless’ (in the sense that it was easily adaptable to ever-changing zeitgeists), Khan authored meticulously researched and detailed commentaries on the Qu’ran. His Tafslr Qu’ran was published in 1880 and for its time, was a rather original and even bold interpretation of Islam’s holiest book because it tried to construe its text in the light of the 19th century.
Khan insisted that decrees passed by ancient ulema were time-bound and could not be imposed in a changed scenario of what was taking place in the here and the now. He wrote that the Muslims were in need of a ‘new theology of Islam’ which was rational, and that rejected all doctrinal notions that were in disagreement with common sense, and with the essence of the Qu’ran.
He wrote that the ‘codes of belief’ and spirituality were the main concerns of religion and that cultural habits (pertaining to eating, dressing, etc.) are mundane matters for which Islam provides only moral guidance because they change with time and place. He believed that if faith is not practiced through reason and wisdom, it can never be followed with any real conviction.
He wrote that ancient scholars of Islam were not infallible. He insisted that the ulema were devising their worldview and that of Islam by uncritically borrowing from the thoughts of ancient ulema.
Ahmad was taking the same path as Locke had taken. Like Locke, Ahmad too kept going back to the scriptures to furnish the idea that an unadulterated and rational study of the scriptures can establish that Islam and modernity were not opposed to each other, and were compatible. However, unlike Locke, Ahmad did not suggest the separation of religion and the state. To him, the separation between the sacred and the profane was inherent in Islam. The sacred in this case was to guide the profane, but not regulate it. This, to Ahmad, was the function of the state and the government.
To Ahmad, it was counterproductive to address issues through an emotional and/or dogmatic understanding of Islam. In 1861, when the Scottish theologian and Orientalist William Muir published Life of Mahomet, the Muslim community in India was greatly offended. Many ulema accused Muir of committing blasphemy and insulting Islam. Ahmad was offended too. But in an editorial, Ahmad wrote that Muir’s book required a logical rebuttal instead of rowdy protests which would further weaken the Muslim community in India. He added that those protesting must let the state handle the issue.
As outrage against Muir’s book continued, Ahmad quietly retreated to formulate a rational rebuttal. He spent the next eight years closely examining the sources that Muir had used in his book. In 1870, Ahmad published his response, in which he tried to demonstrate that Muir had largely used sources that suited his jaundiced views on Islam. Ahmad systematically debunked the many claims made by Muir, but he was also resolute in positing that blasphemy did not call for a violent response, rather, it needed to be tackled in an informed and rational manner.
Ahmad pleaded for the complete freedom in discussing theological matters (Ijtihad). He lamented that ‘closed minds’ were against doing this because it was not in their interest. To Ahmad, lack of open debate in this context was why the Muslims had become dogmatic and prone to emotional responses. He posited that there can be no contradiction between Word of God (Qur’an) and Work of God (Nature). And he held that to understand and fully appreciate God’s creations, one needed to study them through science and philosophy and by having a rational disposition. He was of the view that when there appeared a contradiction between a scientific fact and a religious rule, then the latter must be reinterpreted according to scientific evidence. According to TA. Parray, Ahmad advised that in secular matters where Islam is silent, Muslims should emulate modern practices.
His Islamist critics dubbed him as a ‘nechari,’ or a worshipper of nature (and thus a heretic). But he also had critics in the non-Islamist camp. For example, in the early 20th century, some progressive Muslim scholars found Ahmad’s reformist ideas contradictory because of his views on women. Apparently, even though Ahmad was pushing the Muslim community to gain modern education and to rationally understand their faith, he was not in favour of Muslim women acquiring the same education.
Ahmad had enthusiastically studied the works of the Enlightenment philosophers. And he understood how tensions between different Christian groups led to some of these groups reform Christianity
The famous Urdu poet Hafeez Jalandhari (d.1982) once wrote that he was told by the son of Syed Mumtaz Ali that Ahmad tore the manuscript of a book that Mumtaz had written on Muslim women’s rights. Mumtaz was close to Ahmad and respected him as a mentor. The book, Huquq-e-Niswan, firmly argued that Muslim women needed to acquire modern education so that they could not only be able to make rational and informed decisions, but also excel in vocations outside the four walls of their homes.
The book was published soon after Ahmad’s demise in 1894. Even though, it carried a note of dissent written by Ahmad, nowhere does Mumtaz mention that Ahmad tore the manuscript of the book. Shafey Kidwai in his 2020 book Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Reason, Religion and Nation, demonstrates why one should take Jalandhri’s claims with a pinch of salt. He asks how can Ahmad, a man who had written against female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage and the practice of burning widows (sati), be against female education?
In the note that Ahmad wrote for the book, he explains the reason why he was asking Mumtaz to delay its publication. Ahmad was of the view that in a patriarchal and conservative society, women will face problems if they become more educated than the men. Ahmad wrote that in such a society, men needed to be educated first and their mindsets changed, before women be given the same opportunity.
Of course, more than a hundred years later, this narrative can be mocked as an apologia for patriarchalism. Locke, who went on to be considered as one of the founding fathers of political secularism, was often referred to as a Christian apologist. Yet, one should be conscious of the times and milieus that Locke and Ahmad were operating in. Both were already going against the grain by challenging established traditions and mindsets. That’s why they needed to work with and within the sacred texts of their respective religions, so that they could reach a larger audience that was still being influenced by the ‘old ways.’
Ahmad had enthusiastically studied the works of the Enlightenment philosophers. And he understood how tensions between different Christian groups led to some of these groups reform Christianity. Reformed Christianity disenchanted the scriptures, and then grounded them in the context of the here and the now instead of leaving them hanging in an intangible sphere that was outside the realm of tangible history. Locke’s reformist Christian apologia eventually evolved into giving birth to not only political secularism, but they also strengthened the idea of the modern state. Christianity did not vanish from the European nation-states that emerged four hundred years after Locke’s demise. It simply retreated to places of worship and in homes, away from state institutions and affairs.
Ahmad wanted to do the same with a reformed Islam. Indeed, unlike Locke, he didn’t suggest the separation of the Church and religion, simply because he concluded that there was an inherent separation between the sacred and the profane in Islam. Locke’s ideas continued to be evolved by other thinkers until, from the early 20th century onwards, modern political secularism became a constitutional norm in various European countries.
Ahmad’s ideas gave birth to a Muslim nationalism in India that was secular in the sense that, even though, it put Islam in the public sphere as a nationalistic and even ethnic entity, it relegated the faith’s more theological aspects to the private sphere. It looked to escape Hindu majoritarianism by creating a Muslim-majority nation-state. Islam in this state was to be progressive and ‘modern.’
But whereas elite groups of Western thinkers had successfully proliferated Locke’s ideas among the polity, Ahmad’s ideas could not break out from the fold of Muslim intellectual elites, nor could they trickle down enough. So much so, that by the 1970s, the modernists began to switch sides and find a place for themselves in the overwhelming and surging sea of populist Islam as well as of the faith’s more theo-political expressions that stormed the public sphere.
One of the reasons this happened was because despite Ahmad’s endeavours to create a modernised variant of Islam, it was still a theology that he was constructing. And once this new theology began to struggle in the face of the challenges posed by other theological ideas, it lost. Ahmad’s theology was dispassionate, pragmatic and had no room for things like miracles, jihad or any kind of emotionalism.
He needed to chart a political course for it as Locke had done. A path on which religion was not absent, but was just one of the many signposts. A religion-neutral state should have been emphasised more by Ahmad and his followers. Instead, in trying to theologically demonstrate the compatibility between Islam and modernity, Ahmad and those who followed his lead, ended up fighting a losing battle with theologians who were never fully relegated to the private sphere. After all, how could one get away by allowing one set of theologians to exist in the public realm, and pushing another set of theologians in the private sphere?