Secularism & Schism: Reformation, Enlightenment & the Birth of Islam

In today’s world of tumultuous politics, a burgeoning gulf is beginning to wedge opinion both internally and between the various parties. Yet I would hazard one feature of the contemporary world would unite both the left wing and liberals in astonishment; that of the return of politicised religion into the realm of global state affairs.

Traditionally, both left wing and liberal political movements have postulated that with the advancement of material, scientific and educational progress, religiosity would increasingly recede from political and civic affairs. For a time, this appeared to be the direction in which the world was oriented. Today, that this is the dominant trend in global affairs is less evident; even in the UK religion maintains a persistent and controversial presence in education, jurisprudence and politics.

How then, did we end up in this confounding state? A brief survey of the histories of Europe and the Middle East, the reformation, the enlightenment and the emergence of Islam are revealing and often steeped in irony. They are also histories which are deeply intertwined. A brief glance into the past soon dissipates the idea that history has been an unbroken progression into modernity.

The geographical land mass that we now associate as Europe, land of the secular, was once referred to as Christendom and was connected to the idea that the gospel was to be proselytised across the farthest corners of the pagan world. After the Roman Emperor Theodosius I effectively endorsed Christianity as the official faith, the cross was emblazoned as the escutcheon and the faith traversed along the sinews of the empire.

When the Roman Empire finally fell, an event usually thought of as marked by the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in the 5th century, the Greek Eastern and the Latin Western halves of the Empire were later to form the sites of the first great rift in Christianity, called the East-West schism. The Eastern portions of the Empire lived on as Byzantium, which after Muslim invasion became Istanbul; the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Byzantium had been long been warring with the Sasanian Empire of Persia. When the Ottomans conquered the territory, both forces were enervated and it was an easy taking. The Greco-Roman and Persian legacies of learning which were bequeathed to the Ottomans were nothing short of extraordinary and contained within them the nascent seeds which would spark the age of enlightenment.

Had the Ottomans not preserved this invaluable knowledge, history would have unfolded along a markedly different trajectory. Modernity may have been postponed for centuries, for during the dark ages classical learning had slipped from European consciousness into mental abeyance. This body of learning was transmitted to Europe through the re-conquest of Sicily in the 11th century and contact (both peaceful and otherwise) with the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain.

This was to provide both the kindling and the spark for the renaissance in 15th and 16th centuries, where interest in classical philosophy and architecture became insatiable. The enlightenment however, would have to wait until the Protestant Reformation had finished its turbulent unravelling.

It is from here that we can trace the processes that cleft the Church and State in Europe. Almost incipiently in the Reformation, there was division as to the role of the State in religious affairs and vice versa. Luther was willing to recognize Protestant monarchs as heads of Church in their own respective countries. In England Henry VIII and Elizabeth did just that and seceded further from Vatican control, bolstering the power of King and weakening that of the Church.

Revulsion at mounting death tolls brought about by the religious turmoil, particularly the Thirty Years War, resulted in a growing awareness of the need for religious co-existence and constituted one of the sources which fed into 18th and 19th century liberalism. This disgust also drove secular learning, particularly in the natural philosophies and mathematics, which due to Ottoman transmission of Greco-Roman knowledge into Europe now had rich sources to tap.

Ironically, according to the eminent sociologist Max Weber, it was Protestantism which facilitated the rise of advanced industrial capitalism. Religious asceticism and the idea of a following a ‘calling’ by pursuing earthly vocations, were said to have helped create a mindset whereby profits were re-invested (instead of frittered away) and labourers would submit to brutal factory discipline. The spread of the industrial system no doubt also catalysed secularising tendencies in Europe.

Whilst the Reformation convulsed Christendom, the Ottoman Sultans observed the events with a keen eye. Portuguese and Spanish Jews who had been expelled by Catholics were generously granted sanctuary in Ottoman lands, as were German, French and Czech Protestant refugees. Although both groups had to pay Jizya, the tax levied on non-Muslim citizens in the Empire, the escape route granted to Jews fleeing the appalling pogroms of the crusades should not be overlooked. Heedful of what had happened within Christianity, the Sultans and the Mullahs were keen to see that no such rift should emerge within Islam. Reformers or apostates were deemed heretics and ruthlessly silenced or dispatched. This tendency lingers on to the present.

Yet the formative years of Islam did indeed witness an efflorescence of creative interpretations. Perhaps the most extraordinary group (even by contemporary standards) was the Mu’tazilites who combined rationalism with monotheism. Some rejected the claims of divine Quranic revelation and maintained instead that it was a manmade contrivance. Others augmented their rationalist learning with fragments of Greek philosophy. Remarkably, the Mu’tazilites even attained state power for circa three decades.

Delving further back into Islam’s origins is just as curious. Although seldom mentioned in mainstream discourses on Islam, Allah pre-existed his Abrahamic incarnation as a pagan god alongside three other deities, his daughters: al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat. After eight years of uncomfortable toleration of the pagan gods, Muhammad dispatched a small group of horsemen, first to Manat’s temple at Qudayd (between Mecca and Medina) then to the shrines of al-Lat and al-Uzza to destroy the statues of the goddesses. After this incident, a Quranic verse which happened to referenced the three female deities was amended, a change which was subsequently explained to adherents of the faith by blaming that old rapscallion satan for spiriting the original mention into the holy text.

The very referencing of Islam’s pagan roots, albeit in the form of a novel such as Salman Rushdie’s, was enough to incense Ayatollah Khomeini into issuing a fatwa for the writer’s murder. If ever we were to need reminding, this event succinctly encapsulates why it is so crucial that nation states are constitutionally unfettered by clerical institutions. Incidentally, earlier this year the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head was upped substantially by a group of Iranian media organisations.

Furthermore, this is merely one example recounting theocratic contraventions of the basic human rights to freedom of thought, freedom of enquiry and freedom of expression. History records innumerable others. Another book to incur the wrath of the church was Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The text was listed under the index of forbidden books for having the temerity to discuss the heliocentric (where planets orbit the sun) model of the solar system, a theory then deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.

It is not only in literature and astronomy where state potentiated religion has exerted a stultifying effect. The ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland divide Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods into cantons, whilst the ‘separation barrier’ scars the West Bank in the Middle East. This is of course not to charge religion with being the root cause of all socio-political conflict in the world today. Rather, it is to iterate how difficult geopolitical altercations can become almost insuperable once theology is incorporated into the dispute.

All the great discoveries which have advanced humanity arrived in the world in the garb of heresy. Future discoveries will no doubt be robed in the same blasphemous attire. The idea that our leaders could be chosen by laity and just as crucially, be deposed by nothing more than a ballot box was a seismic shift in consciousness. It was an idea that was handed down to us by classical civilization, then fought for so that proprietor and pleb, man and woman, could all vote as equal citizens. Maybe in the future it is a principle that we will extend to the economy and to other parts of society.

Secularism, the division of church and state, is the social equivalent of splitting the atom. An explosion of intellectual freedom is unleashed when minds are no longer trammelled by the theocratic wielding of the state’s armies. This paves the way for not only freedom of religious beliefs, but also the corresponding right of freedom from religious belief. In the increasingly cosmopolitan composition of contemporary societies, the only viable social framework for peaceful coexistence is a secular democratic state and an emphatic reaffirmation of the right to freedom of speech for all.

This author has not submitted a biography yet.

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