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CIRIS’s Tobias Müller’s MPhil Thesis on ‘Contemporary Islamic Thinkers’ Understandings of Secularism’ Now Available

CIRIS research associate Tobias Müller’s Cambridge University MPhil thesis on Contemporary Islamic Thinkers’ Understandings of Secularism is now available online. Müller’s abstract summarises the thesis this way:

Tobias MPhil cover“The public and academic debate on the relation between Islam and secularism has been forcefully revived since 9/11 and the “Arab Spring”. Especially essentialist and monolithic depictions by Western scholars have claimed the incompatibility of Islam with secularism as a prerequisite for democracy. Another strand of literature claims that evidence of Islam’s democratic essence (Esposito and Voll 1994) offers a wide variety of indigenous Islamic concepts and institutions such as Shura (consultation), ijmaʿ (consensus) and ijtihad (independent reasoning) that provide a tradition with strong reasons for Muslims to adopt “modern” democratic principles and even to a secular state organization. However, these accounts of the “secular potential” in Islam often ignore the conceptual differences and contexts when Islamic thinkers talk about secularism. Moreover, secularism is often only dealt with as a universal by-product or precondition for democracy rather than a distinct multidimensional discursive element. This essay contributes to filling this gap by analysing the understandings of secularism of two eminent contemporary Muslim thinkers, Rachid Ghannouchi and Abdolkarim Soroush. Informed by Dallmayr’s framework of “Comparative Political Theory”, this essay demonstrates that both Ghannouchi and Soroush argue in favour of democracy in Muslim societies with a certain degree of secularism in the sense of a primacy of popular collective decisions over religious rules. Both their visions meet the criteria of Stepan’s “twin tolerations” and thereby prove the possibility of an Islamic doctrinal argument in favour of secularism. However, it is only possible to apprehend their understandings of secularism by relating it to their conceptualizations of modernity and democracy in the postcolonial situation.”

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