One of the most bemusing, humoring, and concerning tendencies amongst many Muslims, especially in the West, is the tendency towards a form of secret secularism. To proceed, I will need to define what I mean by “secret” and “secular”. For the former, I am referring to the biggest secrets we all harbor – those that are even kept from ourselves, due to either pride or ignorance [something the author is not wholly pure of by any means!]. And by secular, I am alluding to those dreamy, Utopian constructs that many Muslims speak in today. On initial glance, the latter may not seem like either secular or even an issue, but I will attempt to make my point clear here: I am referring to iambic narratives where Muslims attempt to relieve themselves [and us along with them] of any need or obligation for God [in a sense, this is at the heart of all secular attempts]. How so? In the very fact that they think that any system that they could install would require no upkeep or management. This is a quandary for a group of people who are religious to be sure, but we must never kid ourselves that whatever system we try to put in place [I’m not saying we shouldn’t be putting systems in place], they will most certainly require updates, upkeep and maintenance as well as management. The nature of Islam in its early days, during the life of the Prophet [s] proves this to be true. So while we aim high, let us not think that we are working towards the [and read here, final] expression of Islam, that will be perfect in all times and all places without having to shape and mold it ourselves.
Before delving too much further into how we arrived at such a practice, we should first reexamine the very idea of secularism and what it means for Muslims, with our ability to embrace it or lack thereof. Let me first state that this is not an attack on secularism per se, but rather to draw attention to the secular methodologies and philosophies and how they have effected modern Muslims, in an attempt to shed light on how some of those practices may be damaging at the heart of their arguments and articulations.
To dive right in, the biggest issue that the Muslim intellectual tradition will have with secularism is its desire to supplant and or replace religion and its role in either private, and most certainly, public life. Muslims, under pressure to articulate an expression of Islam that they feel the dominant culture may approve of, have not even examined whether or not secularism as it is defined by the dominant culture, is even something Muslims should commit themselves to. There are certainly aspects of Muslims life, that, if we were to allow non-Muslims to define our stance on secular commitments, would render things such as wearing hijab [headscarf], the objection to selling of alcohol, growing of the beard, and so forth, moot, or at worst, impermissible. But it is precisely through the pressure to commit to an expression of secularism [that Muslims don’t own], that Muslims commit acts of “secret” secularism. Its vernacular is often replete with words such as “pure” and “true”, or worse yet, “I pray in my own way”. Apologetics and Puritans alike harbor many of the same notions of creating a pure “Islamic” expression or culture, either free of history or free of obligation. And neither one needs any tending to.
The issue here is not simply that there are a few aristocratic, elite Muslims with too much education in their back pockets for their own good, but that these philosophies undermine stability in the community as well as robbing Muslims of the more intricate and subtle natures of their own intellectual heritage [not to mention, turning a blind eye to history, the biography of the Prophet [s], etc.]. Muslims will turn on each other because they perceive others as not holding to their juvenile and shortsighted hypotheses. I would spend the rest of my thirties recounting the number of conversations I’ve either been privy to or directly accosted of, regarding the need to establish shari’ah [Islamic law, but what is really being called for here is to erect a state-model based on the nation-state model in modernity so we can “keep up with the Joneses”], because their perception is that Muslims are lacking in their Islam. And while Muslims may indeed be lacking in their Islam, there could not be a more secular response to this issue then trying to erect an idol [for the nation-state in modern times as come very close to looking like an idol] for Muslims to center their religious identity and life around. At first glance, this seems very close to becoming a bid’ah [see definition], and at second glance – we already have one of those, namely the Ka’abah. But the fancy is not lost on me that so many Muslims seem to think that once shari’ah is established, Islam will be “ok”, and Muslims will be “ok” until Prophet ‘Issa comes back [as], and then things just wrap up nice and tidy from there. As usual, things could not be further from the truth or implementation.
Part of the reason for this is that, one, many Muslims are just simply ignorant by circumstance of their own religious history. They are also unfamiliar with the intricacies of shari’ah, and that a huge component of that is what we can dub “family law” in modern times. I am not saying that state building and state playing are not involved, but so much more of it is law that rules or governs family life [incidentally, this is that is being called for in the UK and other parts of the world where Muslims live as a minority – this call for shari’ah is a call for family law adjudication – not state law]. While many masajid and Muslims institutions focus on teaching people Qur’anic recitation, basic fiqh [b-a-s-i-c…], and maybe a dash of siyrah [biography of the Prophet Muhammad], there is almost no mention of history. This has produced two problems for the Muslim community:
One: we don’t know our history, collectively.
Two: this has led non-Muslims, because of our ignorance, to deem themselves our historians, and thus, their revisionist historical accounts wreak havoc on the psyche of many unprepared Muslims, who in return become utopist/myopic or apologetic.
In short and in closing, we must endeavor to recover our intellectual heritage, learn our history, and become masters of our own destinies. And in that mastery, we must be cognizant that the helm can never be unmanned – it always requires human input. No ship steers itself. We must come to own our Islam, on its own terms, and not solely on the terms of outside forces, that even if benevolent, cannot have our best interests at heart. This does not mean that we do not have joint, cooperative activities with non-Muslims. But it does mean we have to get serious about ourselves and get down to brass tax.
In 1981, TSR Hobbies published a module adventure for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gaming system titled, “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull. Its descriptive line read: “Desolate and abandoned, the evil alchemist’s mansion stands alone on the cliff, looking out towards the sea. Mysterious lights and ghostly hauntings have kept away the people of Saltmarsh, despite rumours of a fabulous forgotten treasure. What is its sinister secret?”. Simply put, I was inspired by memory of playing this game as a kid, and reflected on that very same tag line and came up with my own answer: Our treasure is our intellectual heritage and history. Modernity abounds with all sorts of rumors as to what is and isn’t Islam [both from the mouths of Muslims and non-Muslims]. And the mysterious lights and mansion on the cliff? Well, I think you can figure that one out on your own…