Secularism, what can we learn from history?

by Khadija Ben Hassine

(University of Tunis)

I always thought that words have a history. Sometimes I feel, in front of the pages of a historical dictionary, the same sense of intrigue which one experiences in front of an archaeological site. It seems to me that by digging a little, I could clear the vestiges of meaning. Moreover, some words have a more tormented history than others: they are charged, from birth, with a symbolic meaning that guides the manipulation that can be made of it. Unstable meaning, as is their empirical advance, that “ne suit pas toujours une voie où les moments particuliers se rangeraient paisiblement les uns à la suite des autres, se complèteraient de mieux en mieux en direction d’une unique conception globale”[1] but that would oscillate as oscillates the prominence of all things widespread because too desired.

The aim of the article is not to seek the true meaning of the secular, nor to decide on its conditions of possibility, but to follow, as far as possible, its oscillations from the date of its occurrence in the 13th century and to analyse its constructions and deconstructions until the end of the 15th century. Such a quest cannot go on without the help provided by a dictionary such as Le Robert historique. It inspired me to come up with the idea of this work, which took place in the light of Condorcet’s sentence, in Esquisse  d’un tableau des progrès de l’esprit humain: “les guerres entreprises pour la superstition servirent à la détruire”[2].

Strange story as in the case where the same concept goes from what must be avoided to what must be achieved, from object of prohibition to principle of claim. The article stops at two stages in the history of the concept: a medieval stage that begins in the 13th century and extends until the 16th century, a negatively charged stage where the concept is used to designate what must be disposed of to ensure the credibility of knowledge; and a modern stage – begun around 1690 – that took on its full meaning in the 18th century and which can be described as positive since secularism becomes a value.

The hypothesis of this work is that history does not make a leap, and that long before the concept of “secular” manages to take the well-defined and distinct form of moral, political and scientific value, the spiritual forces that led to it were already at work in European culture. No recognition can be made without conflict. Why has the West progressed while the Arab-Muslim world has regressed? A painful question that I ask myself and which refers me to myself, to this world to which I belong. Secularism is the end of a process and not its starting point. It was possible under a progressive path that began with the disenchantment of nature in Galilean and Cartesian science to reach a stage where the principles of theoretical reason affect those of practical reason, where speculation directs life and where both have only one goal: the happiness of man. The idea of an “unwavering and inalienable human right” is at the foundation of the American Declaration of Independence as well as that of the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights in France. Some Arab-Muslim thinkers, such as Al Fârâbî (10th century) have built philosophical systems that, well developed, could have engaged Arab-Muslim culture in the same process of rationality borrowed by the West. What has made one continue its rationalization process while the other freezes itself in the eternal restart of an unsurpassable starting point? One thing is to prove that man has a reason capable of encompassing everything, another is to get everyone to make use of that reason. In my view, this is where the difference between the Western world and the Arab-Muslim world lies. The philosophical landscape of the golden age of Arab-Muslim philosophy puts us in front of two categories of thinkers who have bet on the ability of human reason to access the truth on its own: the former has entered, from the outset, in the field seeking to enlighten Revelation by borrowing the method from Greek philosophy. The specific field of motivation for the first category is the demonstration, by reason, of the need for faith. Thus in the 12th century, Averroes took the concordant path: Revelation needed understanding and intelligence. The question that guided his interventions was not how to achieve humanity in man but how to help him become, in practice, a good believer.

Linked to the basis of politics, this category has positioned itself, from the outset, in the agora and has been an ideology for praxis. The reformers of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century are part of this lineage, those who, based on the reformer spirit of the Koran, had proposed projects for Muslim society emancipation: Tahtaoui in Egypt, Tarabbi and Haddad in Tunisia. The second philosophical approach was immediately in line with Greek philosophy; it was intended as a variant and a continuation of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. Unlike the Greeks from whom they were inspired, and the jurisconsults whose reason they share, these fathers of rationality have kept themselves away from the agora and have refused to make public use of philosophy: a use likely to make a “motif d’action”, “une raison d’agir”[3] to carry out or transform a political project. Apart from the comments of Plato and Aristotle, the own writings of these philosophers, when they are not scientific productions, often come in the form of utopias where the world represented is neither inhabited nor likely to be inhabited. The virtuous city of Al Fârâbî, the Hai Ibn Yaqdhan of Ibn Sina and Ibn Toufail, do not offer a character of generality under which it would be possible to place the singular action. Rational and abstract, these constructions are an endless reiteration of purely speculative theses made for a dialogue from self to self. Wanting to avoid tensions with the religious dimension, these thinkers missed the dialogue and, therefore, the possibility of corroboration of their theses. A variant of this movement continues to exist today, it claims to continue the tradition of Descartes, Kant and Rousseau, writes and speaks in the closed circles of Modernity and Enlightenment but, like its ancestors, it still stands outside the agora. The posterity of Arab-Muslim thought has therefore not been able or assured of the progeny of its forefathers. A normal cultural evolution would follow the theoretical yet audacious phase, begun in the 11th century, by a practical phase where philosophical ideas are transformed into social and cultural ideals.

[1] Aldo. G.Gargani, Le des-accord de la pensée, in la sécularisation de la pensée, direction de Gianni Vattimo, seuil 1988, p.20.

[2] Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, Vrin 1970.

[3] Paul Ricœur, Du texte à l’action, p.266.

Traduzione in inglese a cura di Maria Chiarappa

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