Saturday, October 24, 2009

Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences



Iran, Islam, and Secular Social Sciences

Ali Asghar Kazemi

October 2009



In our previous commentary on the problem of Iran’s recent social turmoil after the presidential elections of June 12, 2009, we alluded to the issue of “Social Sciences” that  has caused widespread alarm among conservative hard-liners.

In that article  the emphasis was made essentially on the question of religion in general and Islam in particular as an ideological dynamic, influencing the function of  society in the domain of human actions and interactions. It was argued that religion has to do with human mind, ideas, the belief system, values, attitudes, and behavior. While politics as an interdisciplinary branch of social sciences deals essentially with the pursuit of power and to some extent the distribution of values in society. Thus, the marriage of the two may inhibit man from his choice between the rational and the spiritual. This is indeed a major dilemma on the way of an ordinary citizen who wants to remain aloof of the impact of official creeds, unless he lets himself dragged by the formalistic rituals of  the dominant religion.

Secular Approach to Social Sciences

As we know, social sciences are not “science” as we understand in the field of hard or pure sciences, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy etc. They form a body of knowledge accumulated during times from the antiquity to the present that comprises everything that relate to the study of human beings in their individual and collective interaction. This even encompass the subject of religion in its entirety as well as philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, economics, politics and the likes, that in one way or the other entail man’s life in his natural and artificial environments.

Once our knowledge of the spiritual and material world was limited to a range of dogma inherited from holly books as well as classical philosophers and scientists’ traditions. Some of these were later endorsed by the Christian church through sanctifying Aristotelian teachings, which had to be accepted blindfolded, and no one was permitted to pose question on their truth. Renaissance changed the methodical knowledge of the world by scientific inquiry and the domain of metaphysics became restricted to the inner-self in the Christian world. Amazing discoveries, inventions and innovations in all fields of sciences are the propitious outcomes of this period.

Of course, the Christian world had to pay dreadful price for this transition. Beside the horrifying experience of persecution and harassment of scientists and intellectuals, protracted wars among sects and nations ended up with some sort of balance between the Church and the State or the temporal and spiritual powers. The hundred years war of fifteenth century resulted continuous conflicts over the distribution of power between religious and temporal sectors, church and the state or popes and the kings. In the seventeenth century the same issues provoked the thirty years war. The resurgence of secularism replaced the medieval theocratic paradigm and ushered the age of enlightenment.

Religion and Secular Conception of Power

The secular consideration of power began its reappearance with Machiavelli’s doctrine of pragmatism in political theory. The basis of this doctrine was to answer the question of what needs to be done by a ruler to remain in power. That is to say that the necessity of political life often required the breaking of moral law. [1] Machiavelli’s princes, unlike Plato’s philosopher-kings, ruled because they were shrewd in manipulating power. Thus, power became devoid of virtue. For Machiavelli, good and evil were traits of all human beings and a successful ruler had to be “part lion and part fox.” [2]

Bertrand Russell wrote that faith, ideology and religion as a whole are undisputed elements in forming the power of a state.[3] Indeed ideas influence the development and use of command over power and violence. In cases were nations are not fully developed from a political-democratic standpoint and party politics as well as other social institutions lack the necessary appeal to unite people in the pursuit of their objectives , religion can fill the gaps. Translated into ideology when put into motion, religion may assume a determinant role in a society, provided it is properly used.[4] It can also weaken a state, and deteriorate its internal and external relations if its potential power is not directed toward constructive path and is used in the pursuit of evil objectives.

Secularism in the Christian World

In the turn of twentieth century it was the general feeling of most learned social scientists that everywhere in the world, religion was in the decline. The argument stemmed from the fact that religion was “opposed by powerful forces.”[5]Some even argued that religion was under the most serious threat that it had ever been in the past centuries.[6] The magnitude of the threat was even compared to the advent of Reformation in Europe but the change was characterized as an anti-religious trend rather than a crisis within the sphere of religion.

Humanism, which was commonly an alternative to theism, developed in Europe chiefly from a belief in the science and an exaggeration of human power and freedom. It was an intellectual movement that opposed the “religious institution.” In the nineteenth century the reaction to religious norms and institution was negative and the emerging idea antagonistic.

The main trend away from religion during the past centuries is considered as the growing sense of secularism[7]which Christianism had put in the doctrinal concept of church and state separation. This was probably an inevitable and necessary complement of the processes of social and political adjustment after the scientific discoveries and revolution in the field of industry and technology.

An immediate consequence of the industrial development was the emergence of a new social class called urban industrial proletariat, which led to the rise of socialism and Marxism as an ideological means for social adjustment. Among these latter ideologies, some did not negate religion and were ready to coexist and cooperate with it and others, which were antagonistic to any religious institutions. Marxism-Communism and its derivatives are examples of the latter type.

Secularism requires that all matters pertaining to man-to-man relationship be determined by representatives of the people, while relationship between men and God be determined by religion.[8]  This position, however, was not endorsed by those who believed that all aspects of life without exception be governed by religious principles formulated many centuries ago and whose interpretation is solely in the hands of the ruling clergies.

The issue of secular state as opposed to a state governed by religious principles has become a fundamental problem of many traditional countries with diverse ethnic and religious background. Religion, in fact, serves both as a divisive and uniting factor in various countries. Practice of secularism also is not easy in territories of multiple religions such as e.g. India. This country has been subject to territorial partition and numerous turmoil because of religion. The peculiar aspect of Indian secularism is that religion and politics get mixed up taking advantage of the democratic system, while the evolution of a common civil law is blocked in the name of minorities’ right in a secular state.[9]

Islam and Secularism

The Islamic conception of religion and its evolution rests upon principles different from Christianity as regards social, economic, legal, political and the way of life in general. Hence a comparative study on the impact and influence of religion in social and political affairs may be obscured by the fact that for example, Christianity and Islam are evolved from and founded upon different conception of religion. Thus a discussion on the subject of secularization of political power can naturally not be based on similar sets of assumption and elements contributing to it. The Islamic conception of religion is more or less what religion has been through most of the course of human history.[10] The secularization process in the Islamic world, thus, shall be viewed and judged against its own distinct evolution.

In this sense, secularization is defined as the process by which political and social activities, explicitly controlled by the religious institution, come under the power of non-religious or temporal body. The definition, however, does not explain the whole conception as interpreted in Christianism and Islam, two major monotheist religions of the world.

It has been suggested that, for example, secularization in the Middle East has had the effect of substituting the European conception of religion by the Islamic doctrine.[11] There may have been such understanding in times among Moslem scholars, but this does not seem to be representative of a general belief. This was the fact and apprehension of a minority fundamentalist Moslems who opposed to that conception and nowadays seems to reemerge throughout the region.


While secularism is considered as the main characteristic of Western conception of religion, in the world of Islam no elaborate and widely endorsed philosophical expression of the subject can be found. Thus, various attempts by rulers or intellectuals to establish a secular system of government, political institution and social tradition in predominantly Islamic nations have not proved to be fruitful and practically possible. Kamalism movement in Turkey, Nasserism in Egypt, Pahlavism in Iran and other cases are typical example of such failure, which in the long run worked even against the very viability of the political system. In most cases cited above, the trend was not merely a process of secularization but it was viewed by conservatives as an all-out offensive against the religious institutions which otherwise meant an anti-religion movement. This has given rise to some misunderstandings that still persist in our own country and elsewhere in the region. Islamic fundamentalism is a direct consequence of this misapprehension.

The contrast between the secularization attempts and processes, particularity in the Christian world and Islamic community will be further discussed in our future commentaries. [12]

Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. See:

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[1] . See e.g. David E. Apter, Introduction to Political Analysis. (Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 1981, p.77.

[2] .see: Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism. (New Haven: Yale University press. 1962), Quoted in David E Apter, Ibid.P.78.

[3].CF. Bertrand Russell, Power, A New Social Analysis, (New York: Norton, 1938), PP.145-156.

[4]. This is especially true in the case of the Third world states where political parties as key organizations for uniting people of different and rather immature opinion can not perform social and political results. A party, said, Edmund Burke, is a group of men united to promote, the common good in accordance with a principle upon which they are agreed. In the Third World the most widely accepted principles belong to religious teachings.

[5] .CF. Montgomery Watt, “Religion and Anti-Religion”, in: A.J.Arberry ed. Religion in the Middle East, (London: Cambridge University Press .1969), vol. 2. PP.605-639 at 605.

[6]. Idem.

[7].The process of secularization is sometimes distinguished from the idea of secularism, which is defined as an attitude of mind or set of beliefs with its focus in the assertion that there is nothing beyond this world. In this respect scientific materialism, humanism, naturalism and positivism are all considered forms of secularism. See Ibid. 609-610.

[8] .K. Subramanyam, “Norms and Interests,” in Strategic Analysis, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, February, 1985.p.1035.

[9] .Idem.

[10]. CF. Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti -Religion. Op. cit. p. 609; see also: Hamilton A.R. Gibb. Religion and politics in Christianism and Islam. (Persian translation) passim; Modern Trend in Islam. (Chicago:1947)


[12].see my earlier writings on the subject in: Ali Asghar Kazemi, Religion and Politics...    Monograph, Tehran 1985.

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