In the eleventh century, the conservative Arab philosopher Ibn Ghazali wrote a book called “Incoherence of the Philosophers”. In this book he bitterly criticized the progressive minded Muslim philosophers. In reply, a Spanish Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, wrote a book called “ Incoherence of the incoherence”. The eminent historians thought that he clearly expressed secular ideas in this book. The debate between Ibn Ghazali and Ibn Rushd was about the study of philosophy. But secular thoughts were quite apparent in Ibn Rushd’s book. Though in the ideas of ancient philosophers like Protagoras and Marcus Aurelius, secular thoughts were there, Ibn Rushd was the first philosopher who clearly gave expression to secularism. Ibn Sinha of Iran, a world renowned physician, was also a wise philosopher and believed in secularism. Ibn Rushd was a follower of Ibn Sinha. It seems that Muslim philosophers were the pioneers of secular ideas. But, unfortunately, because of the Crusades Muslims went backward in their intellectual activities.
It has been seen in history that when a particular idea gets stagnant with time then it is replaced by new ideas. The leading figures of the old thoughts do not realise their own shortcomings and try to stick to their outdated ides. In situations like this the leaders of the old schools get aggressive against progressive thinkers. We can find many examples of these in history. Following the ideas of Copernicus and through his own observation Galileo found that the earth moves round the Sun. He did not have any intention of fighting against the church authorities. He only wanted to present the proof of his findings. But the religious authorities were not interested in new scientific findings.
According to them, whatever was written in the Bible was the absolute truth. They put Galileo in prison, where he died. Michael Servetus, a Spanish scientist who described the blood circulation system in human beings, was burnt to death by the church authorities. Giordano Bruno talked about the eternity of the universe. He said that the Sun was among many stars. Bruno was also burnt to death by the religious establishment. Charles Darwin was given a hard time by priests for revealing a scientific truth. We now see that the truth arrived at by secular scientists is universally accepted and conservative superstitious doctrines have been flung into the dustbin of history. But in spite of that the forces of darkness show their muscle power every now and then and obstruct the progress of history.
The term “secularism” was first coined by an English philosopher called George Jacob Holyoake. He was a follower of a school of philosophy called “agnosticism”. This school of philosophy was established by Thomas Henry Huxley. He said that agnosticism is not a belief system but a process by which one can test whether an idea is true or false. Holyoake said that secularism was not against Christianity. Secularism takes the cause of truth forward. He said that secularism was not the only way to establish the truth but definitely secularism helps in knowing the truth. In his opinion, our life is the foundation of secularism. He believed that human welfare was deeply related to this ideology. We can test the validity of this ideology with the experience of our life.
We believe that there is a need to discuss secularism in our country. Even the people who introduced secularism in our constitution did not explain secularism to our people. The political parties whose ideology is secularism also did not explain the ideology to the people. Because of these reasons conservative forces tell people that secularism is nothing but atheism. The fact is, with the progress of time circumstances change. To adjust to these changing circumstances is a necessity. If we try to stick to the circumstances of the long ago past, then our quality of life will remain poor. This is a reality. Secularism will help us get adjusted to our life’s situations. Here is an example . Women’s whole life used to be spent in giving birth to babies and to bring them up. They could not do anything else. Now because of modern scientific birth control methods women are contributing to the welfare of society. If we go back from here then tremendous harm will be done to our society.
Secular thoughts were disseminated widely during the Renaissance. The Renaissance started in Florence in Italy in the 14th century. The pioneer of the renaissance was Francesco Petrach. The Renaissance then spread all over Europe. It brought a new awakening in Europe. It exerted its influence on art, literature, science and politics. Roman Catholics had brought stagnation in the lives of Europeans. The Renaissance brought about a new revolution. The Renaissance encouraged free thinking. It helped people acquire knowledge in all spheres of life.
Now let us look at the history of our own country. Perhaps William Hunter’s book The Indian Mussalmans will help us. During British rule the Muslims of India felt as if they had lost. Even though during the period of Muslim rule they were nowhere near the centre of power, they felt as if they had some kind of relationship with the rulers. Because of these reasons there was some kind of distance between the Indian Muslims and the British rulers (according to Hunter, the Indian Muslims did not learn the Persian language during Muslim rules). The Hindus learned the English language and got themselves educated. The Muslims stayed backwards. When the English wanted to spend money to promote Hindu religious education, Raja Rammohan Roy opposed it. He demanded education on scientific and other modern subjects. The Hindus benefited from his foresight. The backwardness of the Muslims was the reason behind the demand made by Pakistan. The religious basis of Pakistan was soon proved futile. The book Pakistan: between mosque and military” by Husain Haqqani will help us to understand this.
The disillusioned Bengalis demanded self-autonomy and when it was suppressed they fought for independence and got it at a very high price. The four pillars of this new state were “nationalism”, “democracy”, “socialism” and “secularism”. The backward thinking people could not accept it. Under the leadership of two army generals they turned the wheels of history backward. As there was ignorance in our people about the four pillars of our constitution, the reactionary forces did not get any resistance in changing the constitution. Due to various reasons it is now difficult to come out of this unwanted situation. The only way out of this situation is wide discussion about secularism. Mass awareness about secularism is the only way out of the impossible situation we are in.
Waheed Nabi is a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain.