Public/Private distinction in Islam

The distinction between the public and private spheres is at the heart of modernity. Western political systems jealously guard and uphold this distinction. The Western political thought is organised around this duality and the debates typically focus on which aspects of individual, social and political experiences of the society are to be assigned to public sphere and which ones to the private. So secularisation emerged when the religion was consigned to the private sphere. What is rightfully private and public remains a matter of discussion and debate, but the basic organising duality is taken for granted. Citizenship is separated from religion in secular societies by making the rights and responsibilities of a citizen a matter of public concern while consigning the individual rights to particular religious practices to private sphere.

What to make of the public/private distinction in Islamic societies? several scholars claim that the Islamic doctrine does not permit this public/private duality. There are no terms for “private” and “public” in Muslim religious literature. Nor does the distinction appear in Islamic jurisprudence. So “private” and “public,” do not seem amenable to a simple definition from the perspective of Islamic traditions.

What do you think? and are there cognates of pubic and private in Islam that may be similar to this distinction in the West? How do we think the Islamic world has responded to an encounter with this distinction as part of its broad encounter with the advances of Western political thought?

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

2 Responses to “Public/Private distinction in Islam”

  1. I have studied the rise of secularism before and I find your take on it thoughtfully articulated! It is interesting how religion used to be such a public expression, but now has be forced into the private sphere. I think that people should be allowed to practice their religion and express it publicly. It is a shame that some people of faith do not feel comfortable outwardly expressing their faith.


  1. Public Sphere as transient and contingent on action | Just questions! - 06/03/2012

    […] this time from Hannah Arendt [HA]. [The other related posts that you may want to see are this, this, this, and this.] HA deliberated much on public sphere and the idea of […]

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