Categorized | Syria

The Alawais and their place in the Arabic world: the history of secularism and its relationship to Islam




The author Seyyed Hossein Nasr referred to in the last post traces the forms of secularism, which have influenced Islam through the centuries: this entry is a adaption of his work.

I’ve chosen this theme for 3 reasons:

It’s interesting

I refer to the concept repeatedly in my writings

It relates to the Ba’ath Party, the ruling party of Syria for the past 4 decades and of course to Iraq.

The separation of state and religion

The separation of state and religion is an anomoly in the Islamic world and the advent of Arabism has many critics for instant the mercenary forces, that constitute Islamic State. Throughout the 20th  century the incorporation of secular methods of governance was deemed necessary and practical as Arabic and Turkish nationalism marked the end of the Ottoman era. This meant security for millions but also enforced geographical and ideological boundaries, which are unacceptable to many Muslims.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains how there is no separate term for secularisation in Islam as religion is the ”divine guide” through which ordinary people find God. All Muslims have the potential to achieve a divine state thus secularisation is contradictory as it relies upon earthly concepts. Where Muslims adhere to the word of God, the Prophet Mohammed, the Hadiths and the Imams, secularist ideas are purely man made.

Philosophy, the Kalifa and colonisation

From the very beginning Islam was influenced by pagan practices and tribal and family feuds but as these influences were subdued other forms of secularisation began to permeate. Mr. Nasr refers to the Umayyad  period when the divine principles took a back seat to power politics and ”human ambition”. The Umayyad dynasty was formed after the Battle of the Siffin where Ali ibn Abi Talib was defeated by Muawiyah 1st, for more about his rule 2015/07/29/alawais-and-their-place-in-the-islamic-world-an-intro-and-brief-recap-the-next-stages-of-the-civil-war-peace-arrives-and-new-ideas-emerge/

The author further describes how Islam encountered the Persian and Byzantine customs and procedures and even though these former empires absorbed the religion, fields such as taxation impacted on Islamic law and produced a heterogenity, whereby secularisation flourished.

He discusses the weakening of the Khalifa, (the Arabic word for one who replaces a person who dies but in Islamic terms is the successor to Prophet Mohammed’s position as the administrative, political and military leader). I didn’t realise fully the significance of this particular form of secularisation and how it relates to recent events in Syria i.e. the declaration of a Khalifa by the mercenary group I.S. in Raqqa.

This impacted during the Abbasid era with the subsequent emergence of the Turkish Seljuk empire and the authority of the Sultan alongside sacred law and the Khalif. Though the authority of the Sultan was secular, or even pagan being associated with the Sassanid period and in opposition to the principle of divine Islam, its authority was accepted by many scholars as necessary to preserve the Muslim religion in certain regions.

Among all this there had emerged the Amirs or princes who were interspersed through the regions, which constituted the Khalifas.

Maths and the social sciences

With regard the mathematical and social sciences, in Islam the former sat comfortably with the Greek and Hindu forms as new branches of the science were created and older mathematical theories developed. The author does state, that mathematics is not considered as secular thanks to the esoteric qualities promoted by Pythagorus. Islam was not touched by many philosophical tenets but absorbed a version of the rationalist principles derived from the Aristotle’s peripatetic school.

Mr Nasr explains how intellectual pursuits enable Muslims to achieve a state of divinity and how this coupled with the fact it was to be the last religion of mankind, meant all previous religious knowledge had to be understood and those elements, which were considered acceptable assimulated into the Islamic faith. Both Plato and Aristotle had maintained, that all knowledge be given careful attention prior to being disgarded; none were to be ignored.

Whole philosophical tracts were translated to Arabic and debates were held between the various scholars often in front of the Khalifs and the Shia Imams. The Alexandrian school of alchemy and Corpus Hermeticum was derived from the work of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus and compiled into a single work in the Byzantium period, which marked the synthesis of the Greek and Egyptian traditions. Despite their pagan roots Islam embraced these ideas as it identified Hermes with the pre-flood descendent of Noah; the prophet Idris.

This is an incredibly interesting and involved part of Islamic history as and may well have caused a further rift between the Sunni and Shia strands of the faith as well as adding to the heterogenity of the religion as a whole. Hermes introduced the seven esoteric principles, which are said to be immutable laws of nature and thus cannot be reversed. Though adherence to the seven principles requires a degree of meditation to enhance growth and development, they are to an extent fairly common sensical and even scientific.

Western secularisation

The author describes the ”devastating forms” of secularism, which hit Islam in the 13th/19th century and how they were combatitive and  derived from western value systems. Being political and economic in character they affected all the institutions  including the legal system. The Tanzimat introduced by the Ottomans introduced European codes to supplement Quranic legislation, /2014/05/26/the-history-of-syria-the-ottoman-empire-restructures-the-impact-on-their-colonies-mercenary-speke/.

Mr. Nasr admits, that Islamic religion was weakened internally by not only by western secularism but by Muslim philosophers, who tended to deny or even ”belittle” its more spiritual aspects. To this there was a backlash and a ”puritanical rationalism” emerged e.g. in the of form of the neo Wahhabiz-Salafiyyah movement, which inspire groups like Islamic State.

Next time the al kalam, broadly translated as theology


Orthodoxy v heterodoxy

As expressed in earlier posts the succession issue is just the tip of the iceburg in relation to the polarities between Sunni and Shia Islam. The last entry in this series referred to orthodoxy and esotericism, this entry seeks to explore the significance of these concepts further, in order to cast light on a rift, which refuses to heal.

The post draws on the theories of Luis Alberto Vittor and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. In his work, Mr. Vittor critiques Orientalist methodology, which in his view, interprets the eastern way of life, religion and culture in relation to western value systems, he claims also to give Shia Islam a perspective, that is not ”over-shadowed” by its Sunni counterpart.

Mr. Vittor supports the view, that in spite of its esoteric qualities Shia orthodoxy exists simply because, as is true of other strands of the religion, there is no formal institution to determine what constitutes orthodoxy; adherence to Islam is dependent on Quranic teachings rather than to religious practices. Further he argues, that all it requires to be an orthodox Muslim is to adhere to the 5 pillars of Islam.

The five pillars in brief (there will be a fuller account soon)

Briefly these are the tawhīd, a belief in divine unity, the nubuwwah, a belief in prophecy and the mī’ād, a belief in resurrection. It is the last two, wilāyah, guardianship and ‘adl, divine justice, which are a source of dissent between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam as both concepts are associated with the role of the Imamate.


Mr Vittor claims, that the divisions which occur between Sunni and Shia Muslims inevitably centre on the question of heterodoxy or more precisely esotericism. He cites Nahj al-balāghah (The Path of Eloquence), a collection of sermons, epistles, and aphorisms compiled by Sharīf al-Razī (406/1015) and’written by ibn Abī Tālib, the first Imam, which refer to a spiritual freedom given by God.

The passages describe how, regardless of the different schools of religious thought, which pertain to the Islamic faith, it was the religion God had chosen for his own and thus was unbreakable. In the light of the various inter-factional tensions both present and past this has proven to be a pipe dream and shows people are driven often by political dogma and economic factors rather than their faith.

Shia heterodoxy and Sufism

Though the entry has explored in the main, the heterodoxy of Shia Islam, which appears to exist in contrast to the Sunni strand of Islam, it is worth noting, that Sufism is equally important to the philosophical development of the Islamic religion. Sufism or the tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism), though some claim it is neither Shia or Sunni, is widely associated with the Sunnism. The tasawwuf is considered heretical by those Sunni Muslims; who believe an earthly path is the only way to achieve enlightenment; or reject certain Islamic philosophies.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book ‘Islamic Life and Thought’, describes how, during the Abbasid era, the philosophies of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers were translated into Arabic by the Islamic scholar, Hunayn ibn-Ishaq, an Assyrian and convert from the Nestorian faith. This is a source of pride for all Muslims but prior to the Abbasid period the author describes how the 6th Shia Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq showed an interest in pre-Islamic studies, such as alchemy, which sits less comfortably for those who are more earth centred.

Nevertheless it is likely, that scholars had an interest in all sorts of possibilities, like today when the wetern world is so science orientated, governments continue to show an interest in Astrology and the paranormal. People are simply curious and unwilling to dismiss ideas out of hand.

Next time language and theology.

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