A native of Bangladesh, Tarik M. Quadir received his doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, and currently reside in Turkey where he teaches about the work of 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi.
I think it would be wise for us to focus on the notion of dharmoniropekkhota, which signifies “neutrality in the choice of religion,” and not get entangled in the concept of “secularism” as it is understood in European countries. In Bangladesh, we tend to translate dharmoniropekkhota as secularism, though dharmoniropekkhota refers to only one of the many meanings of secularism current in the world today. This problematic translation initiates many unnecessary debates.
The idea of secularism entered the European consciousness during the Renaissance. Early use of the term “secular” in Europe referred to the duration of a situation. For example, there were “secular priests” in France whose job was to temporarily visit towns away from the monasteries in order to preach their orthodox Catholic message. The concept of secularism evolved over the next few centuries as Europe went through a huge transformation of consciousness primarily propelled by rationalism.
It is important to understand that rationalism is distinct from rationality. Rationality in thought does not exclude revelations (the Quran, the Vedas, and the Bible) as sources of objective truth. Hence, Krishna, Buddha, and the prophets Muhammad (PUBH) and Jesus were rational. In contrast, rationalism excludes revelations and visions of avatars, prophets, and saints as sources of objective truth. Hence, a rationalist understanding of secularism is opposed to the fundamental doctrines of every religion and the vision of every saint or wali. The problem with the term “secularism” is that in many circles the meaning is based on rationalism and not on rationality.
If secularism is understood to mean “the separation of the church and the state,” we must understand the intent of that idea. The Muslim imam and the Hindu purohit do not have the same function as a Christian priest who can absolve the sins of a person. Christianity did not come with a Divine Law in the sense of shastra or the shariah; the Christian church got into the business of making laws. Unlike the case with the Catholic Church, the power of mosques and temples is decentralized, and they do not make laws; their main work is to encourage followers to abide by the existing Divine Laws.
In post-Renaissance Europe, especially during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the separation of church and state was pursued to prevent the abuse of power by the all-powerful Catholic Church. Even more so, this separation of church and state was sought to prevent the church from legislating against the development of a rationalist science as well as against the wanton pursuit of commercial interests by the rich and the powerful.
The mosques and temples never exercised nearly as much control over our Muslim or Hindu societies as the near total control over European societies exercised by the medieval Catholic Church. Also, neither the central Islamic doctrine of tawhid (unity of god/truth/reality) nor the Hindu Vedantic doctrine of advaita (non-duality) permit the dichotomy of the world into the sacred and the profane.
In other words, the concept of the separation of the church in the European sense does not really apply to our Bangladeshi context. I believe that in dharmoniropekkhota our concern should be mainly to prevent religious discrimination against any person based on religious affiliation. Also, it would be wise for the government and the public to encourage, wherever possible, the universalist elements within each religion without either denying the differences between religions or suppressing the expression of any religion. I believe that this universal understanding is identical in meaning and intention to what Bangabandhu meant by dharmoniropekkhota.
However, in personal practice, we do have to be careful about how we understand dharmoniropekkhota. A religion must, by necessity, consist of a doctrine regarding humankind’s ultimate purpose as well as a corresponding method for reaching that goal. Even if we understand that all religions teach the same fundamental values, we cannot practice more than one method, for each path has an integrity in the ways its different elements complement each other. I believe that the image of the same mountaintop being reached by distinct paths applies to the reality of the diversity of religions in the world.
People can shape their own lifestyle but cannot make their own religion, for religion by definition is given from a higher dimension for a purpose that reaches beyond the material plane. Therefore, in our choice of practice we cannot be niropekkho (neutral). However, in the spirit of Islam, the religion of 85% of our people, we must allow adherents of other religions to follow their own paths in complete freedom. Islam does not urge us to restrict others from following their religions.
If we want others to follow Islam, we must first lead by our own good example, and not step on the rights of others. Only Allah can determine whether others will accept Islam — no human being, whose vision is necessarily limited, can determine another’s choice of religion or force Islam upon another. I believe that this is not only the spirit of Sufism (tariqah) but also of the Quran and of the Prophet (PUBH) himself.
I believe it is completely wrong to quote, as some people do, only the verse “Verily, the religion with Allah is Islam” (Quran 3:19) to argue that Islam is the only true religion while ignoring other Quranic verses that say that Allah has sent different revelations to different people which they should follow (Quran 10:47; 14:49; 2:62; 5:69; 5:48).
In fact, there is no scripture in the world that affirms the universality of Divine revelation as explicitly as the Quran does. Moreover, the Arabic word “Islam” means “submission to the Truth.” In that sense, the above verse (3:19) validates the essential intention of all religions, which is to make people “submit to the Truth,” rather than restricting it to mean only the religion of Islam and its particular shariah.
If we follow the spirit of the Quran, we can build an exemplary religiously tolerant nation in Bangladesh. Let it be known that the children of Lalon Fakir, Tagore and Nazrul still have much to offer to a gravely ill world that has too often forgotten or abandoned its deepest spiritual Truth: God is One, humanity is One.
What does the word secularism mean to you—does it bring up comforting, threatening, neutral, or other feelings? Can one find “The Truth” through a secular lifestyle?