In America and across Europe, the business of government has been detached from religious faith.1 This detachment is made explicit in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the federal government from making any establishment of religion—in other words, from imposing on the people the beliefs and rituals of any particular faith. But it is also the norm throughout the Western world and is often considered to be part of the Christian legacy. The Christian church was compelled from the beginning to recognize that it occupied a negotiated space, in the larger realm of secular government. St. Paul urged his followers to respect “the powers that be,” and Christ himself had argued that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s—in other words, that we should obey the secular law and not claim exemption from it on religious grounds. Without those cautious pronouncements, the Christian faith would have entered into immediate conflict with the Roman authorities, who tolerated all gods, but only if those gods were as obedient to Rome as the people who worshipped them. As soon as Rome felt threatened by the Christian God, Christians began to be persecuted. And of course later, when Christianity had triumphed and taken on the form of spiritual government, nominally distinct from the secular rule of law but always breathing down its neck, heretics, unbelievers, and Jews were persecuted in their turn.
You can lose your faith without losing the values that derive from it or the spiritual orientation that it implanted in your soul. And you might retain those things and be all the more distressed by a secular culture that mocks or tramples on them.
In the time of the Prophet Muĥammad, the Roman Empire had fragmented, and secular government tended to be local, customary, and often tribal. Muĥammad was not negotiating a space for his religion within an imperial order. Instead, he was introducing legal order in a situation where power, rather than law, had the upper hand. As a result, Islam took on quite another character—a way of life, in which law is re-conceived so as to reflect the divine light that shone on the world through the words and deeds of the Prophet. In the seventeenth century, when Christians in Europe were fighting to the death for the sake of their rival doctrines, travellers in the Ottoman Empire were astonished to discover a form of government, which, while nominally Muslim, guaranteed the safety and religious practices of Christians and Jews. But it was not a government founded on secular law, even if it took over from the Byzantine Empire some of the principles of Roman civil law. The Qur’an recognizes secular law but within a framework established by submission to the law of God. Hence, in the fourth chapter of the Qur’an titled “Women” (al-Nisā’), verse 59 tells believers to obey God, and the Prophet, and their rulers.
All this means that we cannot rely on the history either of Christian or of Islamic civilization to tell us exactly how to negotiate the relation between secular government and religious belief today: the nominally secular law of Europe did nothing to prevent the religious massacres and genocides of the seventeenth century, while the nominally religious law of the Ottomans kept the peace between rival faiths for several centuries. But those old ways of reaching a compromise between rival allegiances are no longer trusted and no longer truly available. Hence, the tension between religion and secular government remains and has not diminished merely because so many people are losing their faith. For you can lose your faith without losing the values that derive from it or the spiritual orientation that it implanted in your soul. And you might retain those things and be all the more distressed by a secular culture that mocks or tramples on them, precisely because you have nowhere to turn in your desire to defend them.
On the other hand, scientific knowledge, both of the structure of the universe and of the evolution of the human species, has cast doubt on many of the intellectual assumptions on which traditional religions were built. Hence, many people dismiss the heart of religion, its legacy of moral truth, and its vision of a sacred order. Those things, they argue, are simply illusions, creations of our need for comfort rather than insights into the nature of being. They see nothing besides the material universe, organized by mathematical laws; and, even if the existence of this universe is a marvel that will always surpass our comprehension, we cannot deduce or divine from it anything concerning transcendental realities or maxims as to how we should live.
That understandable skepticism was not bound to lead to the desecrated culture that surrounds us today. It is possible to accept the disenchanted vision of a purely material universe without losing the sense that the world is also a field of moral endeavor, in which there are values, prohibitions, sacred moments, and an exalted sense of our own and others’ worth. Nevertheless, those residues of religious feeling are jeopardized when their metaphysical foundations crumble. For ordinary people, the materialist vision is rather seductive; they become obsessed by the vision of the human being as a merely physical object, a lump of flesh suspended between the two poles of pleasure and pain. And that reductive vision gives rise to all that is most repugnant in the culture that now agonizes us. Human beings are put on display as objects, deprived of their freedom and divested of their capacity for love, gift, sacrifice, and service. And many people spend their days gripped by images of this degradation, watching the physical destruction of fellow human beings in violent movies or their physical excitement in pornographic movies. These loveless images are tempting because they remove from the human condition all that is difficult and demanding, and all that makes life worthwhile—the love, commitment, sacrifice, and giving through which we cultivate our better natures and connect with the realm of sacred things. They are visions of hell and owe their charm to the ease with which we can embrace them, leaving all the difficulties of personal life behind. One of the most important lessons taught by Islam is that we must beware of images. The beauty achieved by a Botticelli or a Michelangelo should not blind us to the fact that the human form, represented in images, tempts us to objectify and degrade what is portrayed. The habit of seeing others as objects, of letting our distracted eyes chase the unreal and the illusory, is both addictive in itself and a fundamental feature of our consumer culture, in which the language of advertisements trumps holy words. Through images of the human face and the human form, we wipe away the true face of others and of the world.
I don’t have to harp on this matter for a Muslim audience. But I think it is important to understand two widespread and influential reactions to this state of affairs. They could be described, tendentiously, as the way of re-enchantment and the way of disenchantment. The first of those is my way; but the second is the way pursued by our culture and, in particular, by the university culture today.