Unveiling a new perspective with Sherman Jackson's The Islamic Secular

Unveiling a new perspective with Sherman Jackson's The Islamic Secular
Book Club: Sherman Jackson's book 'The Islamic Secular' redefines Islam's secular sphere, challenging Western misconceptions and sparking a fresh dialogue.
5 min read
17 April, 2024

Islam has its own pre-modern secularity that is distinctly different from the European Universalist understanding of secularism: This is the intriguing argument made by Sherman Jackson in The Islamic Secular.

His new book argues that secularism was widely practised in the Muslim world and the intention of Sharia — a body of religious law that forms a part of the Islamic tradition based on the scriptures of Islam — was to have a large secular space.

Jackson often produces fascinating work, whether delving into the history of Islam among Black Americans, tackling medieval Ayyubid-Mamluk law, or writing a book on metaethics about theodicy, slavery, and the Islamic response to African-American suffering.

With a pedigree of rich and engaging works behind him, the question I had when approaching The Islamic Secular was, does this book belong in the same pedigree as his previous excellent works?

Book Club
Live Story

Exploring Islamic Secularism: Sherman Jackson's unique perspective

The book is undeniably rich and comprehensive, offering a thorough perspective that prompts Western Islamic scholars and practicing Muslims to think carefully, as it challenges discourses in both groups. 

The Islamic Secular's central argument revolves around the belief that Sharia governs every facet of life — a perspective commonly held by both Western thinkers and many Muslims.

Jackson challenges this notion, stating: “Islam consists in not one but two distinct yet inextricably bound modes of religiosity; 1) a shar’i mode, whose ground is shari’ah, its sources, and dictates; and 2) a non-shar’i mode — what I refer to as a ‘differentiated,’ ‘secular mode’ — whose concrete substance is not a dictate or derivative of shari’ah or its sources.”

Here, Jackson suggests that Islam is characterised by its boundaries, Sharia has clear limits built into it, and most of daily life, religious life and devotion, falls outside of it.

Jackson illustrates this concept through examples such as the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, whose architectural masterpieces in present-day Turkey were driven by religious devotion but not influenced by Sharia.

Sinan thus represents what Jackson terms the 'Islamic Secular,' as his work existed beyond Sharia's boundaries. These boundaries even impacted moral questions, as exemplified by Taqi Al-Din Al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), a Mamluk chronicler, who, in 1403-1404, wrote disparagingly about an economic crisis that struck Egypt.

Book Club
Live Story

The crisis, known as the ‘silver famine,’ occurred when silver, used in everyday currency, ran out. In response, copper coins were issued. While this was happening, trade had been severely affected by the outbreak of plague, military threats, and political instability, exacerbating the economic fallout.

Al-Maqrizi criticised the corruption and poor economic policies of the authorities. While he cited multiple reasons for the dire situation, he specifically targeted the introduction of copper coins.

According to Al-Maqrizi this led to inflation, weakened people's purchasing power, and made basic necessities unattainable for many.

Al-Maqrizi further argued that the use of copper coins contradicted Sharia and advocated a return to judicially approved metals like silver or gold to alleviate the people's suffering.

In the book, Jackson contends that Al-Maqrizi blurred the boundaries between legal and non-legal matters by focusing solely on the negative consequences of economic policy.

Contrary to Al-Maqrizi's stance, leading scholars of the time considered copper coins permissible. Jackson demonstrates that the assessment of whether copper coins are a good policy falls outside the scope of Sharia and requires knowledge from beyond the tradition. 

To explore the boundaries of Sharia further, Jackson turns to Mamluk jurist Shihab Al-Din Al-Qarafi, who argues, "While it may be permissible for a man to engage in a particular act, such as building a house, buying a pack-animal, or marrying a woman, any particular house, pack-animal, or woman may be more or less beneficial or harmful to him. That their juristic status is equally permissible does not change this fact."

One interpretation of Al-Qarafi's statement is that an act’s legal status cannot be determined by its practical implications. That said, Al-Qarafi adds, "On the contrary, knowledge of the consequences of actions routinely lies beyond the hukm shar’i." Thus, the ethical framework for dealing with these issues has to come from outside Sharia.

Assessing the impact and significance of 'The Islamic Secular' 

Sherman Jackson argues that The Islamic Secular presents a unique perspective on secularism within Islam, contrasting it with modern-day secular ideologies.

He highlights how this form of secularism isn't antagonistic towards religion, but rather integrated within Islamic religious frameworks.

Jackson's work delves into the complexities of this concept, exploring its boundaries, worldly nature, and its role in Muslim devotional practices governed by Sharia.

Book Club
Live Story

Here we must now return to the question posed at the beginning: does The Islamic Secular belong in the rich mountain of scholarship Jackson is known for?

While readers familiar with his work will come to their own conclusions, The Islamic Secular is an invigorating and enriching text that will spark debate in both academic and Muslim circles.

It is also a work that readers may come back to time and again to grasp both the finer points and to investigate new questions that will come to mind.

The Islamic Secular is an important intervention in the study of Muslim law, which both researchers and those interested in Islam will find useful, interesting, and critical.

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter