European Transition to Secular Thought

[] This is the FIRST in a sequence of posts, where I will discuss and explain my article on this topic — European Transition to Secular Thought — chopping it up into small pieces and explaining each piece separately. The General Introduction below explains what the paper is about.  Then I replicate the first paragraph of the paper, and explain what it says and why it is important.

GENERAL INTRODUCTION: Over the 16th to 18th Century, a dramatic transition took place in European ways of thinking about the world. One aspect of this was the emergence of secular thought, which created fields of knowledge outside the scope of religion. Today, Western educational syllabi and curricula have spread these ways of thinking all over the world. Muslims absorb Western education without being aware of the strong conflicts between these ways of thinking and Islam. This article (pdf linked below) provides historical details of the process by which secular thinking emerged in the West, in order to create awareness among Muslims about how this happened, the damages it has caused, and how we can try to prevent this process from being replicated in the Islamic World.


A dramatic transition in ways of thinking took place in Europe between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century. Tawney (1930) describes this transition to secular ways of thinking as follows:

The theory of a hierarchy of values, embracing all human interests and activities in a system of which the apex is religion, is replaced by the conception of separate and parallel compartments, between which a due balance should be maintained, but which have no vital connection with each other.

An essential ingredient of secular thought is the idea that there are spheres of human life and intellectual effort which are not connected to religion. Islamic teachings match pre-modern European thought that religious considerations are of paramount importance in all spheres of life. In dramatic contrast, eighteenth century European thought treats social, political and economic thought without reference to religion or the spiritual aspirations of man. Tawney (1930) has documented this revolution in thought, and also provided the complex and subtle historical details of how it came about in England. (end of first paragraph of paper).

EXPLANATION:  The West developed ways of thinking about the world we live, which are radically different from traditional ways of thinking taught by all religions — Islam and Christianity included. We all learn these ways of thinking because Western methods of education have spread all over the world. We, as Muslims, are completely unaware that these ways of thinking are strongly in conflict with Islam. Therefore, our minds are full of contradictory and conflicting ideas — one set of ideas comes from our Western education, while the other set comes from our Islamic background and training. In order to cleanse our minds of these anti-Islamic poisons that we have absorbed without being aware of them, we must FIRST learn to recognize what these thoughts are. Then, we must learn to understand how these thoughts emerged in the West, and what impact they had on history. As we will see, this impact has been extremely harmful. Then we can see how to protect Islam and Muslims from the damaging effects of these ideas, which have now been spread and accepted widely — without conscious awareness – throughout the Islamic World.

The CENTRAL idea of SECULAR thought is the idea that there are AREAS of KNOWLEDGE which are outside the scope of religion. The quote from Tawney explains that in Europe, before the transition to secular thought, religious thought believed in : The theory of a hierarchy of values, embracing all human interests and activities in a system of which the apex is religion. What does this phrase mean? It means that there is a hierarchy of values — some values are at the top, high priority, most important, while other values are lower. For example, “thou shalt not kill” is top level value, while maintaining cleanliness is a lower level value. All human activities and interests are governed by this system of values. We try to do the best, according to the highest values, and, even if we fail, we try to keep within the system of values. Our interests are also governed by these values — we try to learn and do things which are of high value, and are not interested in things of no value. But where do these values come from? These values are all given by religion “in a system of which the apex is religion” — the apex is the center or the highest point. So religion gives us all the values, and then we act according to these values, and develop interests in direction which will allow us to practice and achieve these values. THUS all of our knowledge is governed by religion. The idea that there are bodies of knowledge independent of religion does not make any sense.

This pre-secular European idea, based on Christian religion, matches closely Islamic concepts. Islam goes further and distinguishes sharply between USEFUL knowledge and USELESS knowledge. Useful knowledge helps us to achieve goals and objectives defined by Islam as the purpose of human existence. Useless knowledge distracts us from this purpose. For details and further explanation of this distinction, see my earlier posts on “Islamic Approach to Microeconomics“, “Guidance for Research to M.Phil/Ph.D. students“, and “Statistics: An Islamic Approach“. The point is that ALL of knowledge must be judged within the framework of Islamic values to assess whether it is useful or not. After this judgment is made, we can decide whether or not it should be taught. So Islam must be at the CENTER of all knowledge, and must be used to decide the worth and value of all types of knowledge.

The OPPOSITE idea is the SECULAR idea which emerged and then REPLACED this idea. According to the secular idea, there are domains of knowledge (like mathematics, chemistry, physics, economics, politics) where religion plays  NO ROLE. The idea that religion is central, the apex of all human activity, was REPLACED by the conception of separate and parallel compartments, between which a due balance should be maintained, but which have no vital connection with each other. That is, in the secular conception, religion is one compartment of knowledge, and science is a separate and parallel compartment. We need to maintain a balance between these two compartments, but there is no important connection between these two compartments. This is the central secular idea, which is RADICALLY in conflict with religion — both Christianity and Islam. UNFORTUNATELY, today the vast majority of Muslims have come to believe in this idea. This is because we have been taught in Western systems of education, and we are taught mathematics, biology, physics, and economics, without any mention of religion. This automatically teaches us that these fields of knowledge have no connection with religion. Once we believe this, we have already absorbed the central poison of secular thinking and rejected the Islamic ideas and conceptions of useful and useless knowledge.

One of the MOST IMPORTANT AND URGENT problems facing the Ummah is to re-integrate Islamic teachings with the knowledge that has been acquired by the West over the centuries. Whereas the West has developed secular methods for teaching biology (and all other subjects), we need to develop Islamic models. One of the inventors of the DNA theory, Crick, said that an honest man would say that how life comes about is a miracle – it is so strange, wonderful and complex — see my earlier post on The Big Bang.  Similarly, in Physics, Chemistry, and all other fields, we can see the SIGNS of Allah, as Allah T’aala tells us in the Quran — that HIS signs (ayat) are visible and stamped all over the Creation. However, our Western education completely ignores these signs and fails to make the link between the miracles of creation – which are there for all to see – and the Creator. By failing to make the link, the ILLUSION is created that these areas of knowledge have no connection with religion, and we Muslims come to the DISASTROUSLY wrong secular belief that mathematics, statistics, etc. are areas of knowledge which have no connection with religion. This is why I have developed courses like “Statistics: An Islamic Approach?” to show why even an apparently purely numerical and mechanical subject will be dramatically changed — both in subject matter, and in pedagogical approach — when an Islamic approach is taken.

Below, I provide a link to the full article on European Transition to Secular Thought. This post explain in great detail the first paragraph of the first section, and also the PURPOSE of writing this article. In later posts, I will pick up more pieces from the paper and explain them further. Many Muslim scholars have made a deep effort to understand and refute Western philosophy, which is radically opposed to Islamic ideas on many fronts. However, most of this writing, both the Western Philosophy, and why it is wrong, is extremely compicated and difficult to understand — see my note to Omar Javaid on “The Need for Simplicity in the Critique of Western Philosophy“. While it is essential for Muslims to understand why modern Western knowledge is based on fundamentally wrong ideas, this has to be explained in a simple way, so that all can understand it. Experience with teaching shows that even the article below is not simple enough for most students, and accordingly, I am trying to simplify it further in this series of articles. The problem is that full explanations become quite lengthy, and are not acceptable in academic articles — which would turn into books.

Full Article: European Transition to Secular Thought: Lessons for Muslims

This entry was posted in Eurocentric History, Islamic Knowledge by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

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