The Sinister Secret of Secularism

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…

4 Replies to “The Sinister Secret of Secularism”

  1. I have a couple of thoughts regarding the “learning history” point.

    One – history regarding the Muslim world as the West is full of plenty of “facts” yet there has been a deliberate means of telling it. Sadly, many Muslims if not most are ignorant as to what the last 150 to 200 years has looked like. And hence, many of the practices that Muslims have today, as byproducts of that history, are taken for granted and not questioned as to their legitimacy in our current condition as well as understanding how and why certain Muslims in certain parts of the world reached their conclusions and asking ourselves: “Do we need to keep perpetuating this? Is this good for us?”

    Two – it will be highly problematic for Muslims to effectively give da’wah and live cohesively in this part of the world while they are ignorant of the history of the land they live in. It is difficult to have sympathy and empathy for a people you don’t know – and you don’t know a people very deeply if you don’t know something of their history.

    Three – there are real gems to still mine out of the past of Islam. Why Muslims made certain mistakes and how we might not repeat them; learn from them. And of course, for our own psychological benefit, if we are to become the owners of ourselves we must learn our history so we cannot be taken advantage of by those who would seek to pray on our ignorance.

    That said, I think the biography of the Prophet [s] is a critical place to start. Taught in such a way that the historical backdrop it took place in [the Revelation] becomes but intricate but not temporally dominant in the overall scheme of things. In other words, the fact that Islam started in 7th Century Arabia is critical to understanding how the Prophet acted, how those around him reacted to him, and the interplay therein. However, we must remember that the Divine Commandment was not for us to live as 7th Century Arabs. Hence, Arab proclivities are rendered just those – hummus is no more sacred then a hamburger and fries if you take my meaning.

    Let me know if you need further examples and may Allah bless you and reward you in your teaching endeavors,

  2. Salaam Brother,

    I was wondering if you could expand on the ‘learn history’ point.

    We should learn history, very true.

    I’ve tried teaching Islamic History classes myself, down here in Texas. It was really a short-intensive thing that tried to focus on the big events/lessons to learn just so that the students know what major events happened and what we can learn from them.

    But which aspect, in your opinion, should we focus on most? Or should we just study it ALL?

    Please email me to let me know you’ve replied,

    wa salaam

  3. Adam,

    I do not mean the last 200 years and then that’s it! Ha!, that would be short sighted indeed. Rather, a peeling back the layers, as it were, with the first layer being the most recent history – that most recent history that has informed our most recent understandings of the religion. And I do mean recent understanding. It has been my observation that a large number of Muslims have never and are currently incapable of seeing Islam outside of the last 200 years. Of course here I am talking about Colonialism and post-Colonialism and its impact on modern Muslim thought.

    wouldn’t it be easier to talk about the meaning of custom in Islam and include examples of the seerah?

    Your point only brings to the surface half of what I’m saying. While I wouldn’t agree that it would be “better”, but I will grant you the part about the meaning of custom in Islam. But in order to do so, we must look at the historical landscape at the time of the Prophet in order to determine what was transcendent value and what was circumstance.

    Personally, I don’t like the word “Islamic” and if I had my way, I would ban its use. It has no meaning. A plastic word, with a good sounding connotation but with no denotation to provide substantial meaning and course of obtainment. There is no “Islamic World View” – perhaps a cosmology, but that is about God and the nature of God and that is completely beyond the world and beyond history. And if you need proof, regarding the “Islamic” statement, look at the books of the Muslim intellectual tradition. Except for the last 200 years, you won’t find this word “Islamic” in it. It didn’t crop up until non-Muslims began to encounter Muslims, and thus described and ascribed whatever they found Muslims doing as Islamic.

    More on this later, in sha’Allah.


  4. So you believe we need to study the history of the past ~200 years to find out what’s really going on?

    Do you mean Western history, Muslim world history or both?

    Your last point about studying seerah: instead of studying seerah and focusing on the differentiation between custom/religion wouldn’t it be easier to talk about the meaning of custom in Islam and include examples of the seerah?

    There’s a subject that is taught in many islamic universities called ‘thaqafah islamiyyah’ – heard of it? It literally translates into English as ‘Islamic Culture’ but I like to translate it as Islamic Worldview…

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