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Classics

The Inventor of Islamic Secularity

The civic state, in Arabic dawla madaniyya: for some people this is the Islamic alternative to Western secularity. During the new stage started with the Arab revolutions, this phrase has been very successful, from Tunisia to Egypt. However, it is not without ambiguity. If, as De Saussure teaches, every linguistic element is defined by opposition, here everything depends on the other term of the tandem. For some people, indeed, madanî is the opposite of ‘military’ and refers to a government made up of civilians, whatever the form of that government and whatever its ideology; for others, instead, it is the opposite of dînî, ‘religious’, and refers to a non-theocratic constitutional settlement of a liberal imprint.

 

 

In reality this concept goes back to before the Arab revolutions. Indeed, it was born in the Lebanon and spread during the civil war (1975-1990) of that country, principally because of the activity of the Shi’ite imam, Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine (Shams ad-Dîn). Born in Iraq in 1963, but whose ancestors came from the region of Jabal ‘Amel in southern Lebanon, Shamseddine belonged to a family of high religious dignitaries whose genealogy goes back to the Muhammad Ibn Makkî al-‘Âmilî, a famous theologian of the fourteenth century who is known as the ‘first martyr’ (al-shahîd al-awwal) because he was killed by the Sunni Mamluks.

 

 

After his studies in the holy city of Najaf, Shamseddine stayed for a number of years in Iraq. After returning to the Lebanon in 1969, Shamseddine supported Mûsâ al-Sadr in the creation of a movement of the disinherited, which laid emphasis on the subject of social justice, and took part in the creation of the Supreme Shi’ite Council. He was elected its first vice-president in 1975 and then its president in 1994, which he remained until his death in 2001. The author of more than thirty books, he was the initiator and the president of the Cultural Philanthropic Association. An association that was named after him and which today continues his work. Known for his progressive positions (for example he said that he was in favour of women being able to hold the highest positions in an Islamic State), Shamseddine was very active in intra-Muslim dialogue between Sunnis and Shi’ites and in Islamic-Christian dialogue. He rejected the doctrine of wilâyat al-faqîh (‘the authority of the jurist’) and supported the thesis of wilâya (‘authority, protection’) of the Muslim community on itself. During the stage of the occultation of the Imam, which for the majority of Shi’ites began in 874 AD and will end only with the end of the world, political responsibility is said not to be the task, as was argued in particular by Ayatollah Khomeini, of men of religion, but the responsibility of the Islamic community as a whole. Sensitive to the specific features of the Lebanese context, Shamseddine proposed the formula of the civic State as a ‘State without religion’ in a religious society. In particular, after the end of the civil war and the Ta’if agreement of 1989, this formula was advanced in order to strengthen national unity and gradually achieve an overcoming of the existing confessional regime.

 

 

At a time when in many circles the concept of the civic State is invoked, it is not without interest to remember that it came into being in an Islamic-Christian context in an attempt to manage a plural society characterised by the strong public presence of a variety of confessions. If one wants to remain faithful to its original formulation, one should, lastly, recognise that it assumes and implies the practice of religious freedom.

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