In The Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful
The Changing Face of Secularism
and the Islamic Response
Imam Zaid Shakir
If we are to intelligently discuss issues related to secularism it is imperative that we first define the term. Secularism is the divorcing of religious belief, religious ritual, or a sense of community based on religious affiliation from the moral life of society. Secularism has manifested itself historically in both a subjective and an objective sense. Subjectively, or at the level of individual experience, secularism involves the disappearance of religious thought, feeling and imagery from the understanding of worldly things. At this level of experience, many people who may appear outwardly extremely religious, may in fact be thoroughly secularized as their thought processes, sentiments, and worldview are void of any truly religious referents.
At the objective level secularism involves the exclusion of religious offices, institutions, and ceremonies from public life. All modern states are thoroughly secularized. This reality also includes the states of the Muslim world as our countries are ruled by elites who have adopted the secular institutional and bureaucratic structure of the Western Kafir state. Even those states, which have undergone some degree of Islamic reform, have done little to alter those structures.
The roots of secularism have been variously identified as emanating from Hellenic rationalism, the civil and communal values of Greco-Roman life, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Calvinism, and most prominently the moral and empirical philosophies spawned by the Enlightenment. Regardless of which of these developments we view as being pivotal in the development of secularism, we must return to one salient fact: Secularism constitutes open rebellion against Allah.
We are informed that the rationale for the creation of the human being is to worship Allah, and that the Islamic polity and the principles, which underlie it, are instituted to facilitate that worship. Hence, Islam is fundamentally anti-secular. Allah informs us in the Qur'an:
only created the Jinn and Humans that they worship Me.
He also informs us that the rejection of that worship involves grave consequences. He says:
turns away from My Remembrance will have a wretched life and
We shall resurrect him blind on the Day of Judgment.
Ta Ha: 124
rejects the Remembrance of his Lord, He [Allah] will lead him
into a severe, unbearable punishment.
Having thus defined secularism, we turn to the second theme introduced by the title of this lecture: secularism's changing face. If we understand that secularism initially involved a struggle between its advocates and the European Church, we can see that it has indeed undergone significant changes. The first major change occurred during the latter 19th Century when the struggle between secularism and the church was replaced by a struggle between two competing versions of secularism: the Marxist/Socialist version and the liberal version. With the victory of the liberal version, a victory finalized by the falling of the "Iron Curtain" and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union, a set of circumstances was created which led to the return of the debate between secularism and religion. Secularism was to indeed change faces, or more precisely to reveal a new manifestation of an old face.
In the new debate between secularism and religion, Islam emerged as the standard bearer of religion. The reason for this is that Islam is, as admitted by Ernest Gellner, Zbigniew Brezinski and other leading Western intellectuals, the last true, or normative religion. The current secularist assault against Islam is thus assuming the intensity that characterized the earlier attack on Christianity. It is our contention that the origin of this assault lies in the rebellion of Satan against Allah, and his subsequent declaration of war against the descendants of Adam. The Qur'an describes that declaration in the following words:
you have caused me to stray, I'm going to lie waiting to ambush them [humankind]
along your Straight Path. I'm going to assault them from in front, from
behind, from the right and from the left; and you won't find most of them
thankful [for you blessings].
It is interesting to note that the earliest Muslim commentators as producing all of the psychological and behavioral traits that characterize the contemporary secular individual have understood this assault of Satan. Ibn Kathir relates the following passage in his commentary on this verse:
Abi Talha relates from Ibn 'Abbas (May be Pleased with them both) that
assault from in front means he will cause them to doubt about the Hereafter. From behind
means he will make them excessive in their craving for the World. From the right means he will cause them confusion concerning their religion. From the left means he will make sin
appealing to them. (This quote is from memory thus there may be slight changes from the
When one views the damage which has been wrought by secularism in the Christian world, and the nature of the damage which is currently manifesting itself in the Muslim world, one can readily see the accuracy of Ibn 'Abbas' explanation. In the Muslim world, the reality of a life after death seems the furthest thing from many people's mind. The obsession with the World, which drives Muslim participation in a new globalized consumer culture, is too clear to warrant further comment. Increasingly large numbers of Muslims feel deprived if growing arrays of labels and logos arenít plastered over their clothing. The confusion in the Din is apparent in the expanding ranks of the religiously noncommitted, and the increasing pettiness of the issues being vehemently argued by the committed. The appeal of sin can be gauged by the ubiquitous nature of the satellite dishes which adorn the rooftops of houses throughout the Muslim world and the increased viewing of soft and hard pornography which those dishes facilitate.
The need for an Islamic response to an increasingly pervasive secularism is all too clear. The destructiveness of man's effort to orchestrate the social, economic and political life of society has to be arrested if we are to conceive of a meaningful future for this planet. At the individual level, the insecurity, rootlessness, and anomie resulting from the elimination of religiously informed traditional institutions provides the conditions which encourage gangs, ethnically-based hate groups, and an oftentimes violence-prone religious fundamentalism. The legions of willing recruits for extreme Zionist groups, ultraconservative armed militias in the American Midwest, chauvinistic Hindu nationalism, and increasingly inflexible "Jihad" groups in the Muslim world are all the direct or indirect result of secularism.
At the family level, the disintegration of traditionally ascribed roles, rights, and responsibilities for men, women, and children is leading to stresses that many families cannot survive. In the Muslim community, the familial stability which made spouse and child abuse rare occurrences has given way to a volatile instability whose presence can be gauged by the rapidly escalating numbers of battered women, homeless children, and divorces.
Environmentally, secularist ideals have led to what Professor 'Abd al-Hakim Murad has referred to as the "gang rape" of the planet. The toxic byproducts of an ill-conceived developmental model poison our land, air, and the seas. Untreated sewage chokes and defiles our rivers and streams. Whole communities in coastal areas are rendered economically unviable due to overfishing so severe that in some areas even the hardy, once abundant codfish has disappeared. Even in remote areas of the planet which are presented by the tourist industry as "island paradises" the destructiveness of man's economic hubris is all too clear.
In Oahu, the most populous of the Hawaiian islands, a ceiling of smog hovers over the densely populated downtown area and the airport/American Air Force base during still summer days. Beaches are often closed due to sewage spills. The countryside is littered with garbage dumps and junkyards. Large areas of the island have been transformed into treeless wastelands, abandoned by the pineapple industry, which has moved on to greener pastures in the Philippines and elsewhere. What few forested areas remain rapidly disappearing as developers throw up acres of new "ticky tacky" condominiums. Keeping golf courses green uses up a disproportionate percentage of available fresh water, while pesticide residues from those same golf courses poisons scarce ground water.
The above-mentioned victory of the liberal version of secularism has meant the victory of what Francis Fukuyama, one of the leading advocates of that version, refers to as free market capitalism and liberal democracy. These twin forces have worked to ensure that the ethics of profit replace the ethics of the Prophets (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon them). Corporate profits determine if potentially privatized schools will teach children to think or to mindlessly consume. Profits determine if our rivers and lakes are swimmable. Profit determines if genetically engineered food grown in warehouses will eliminate the small farmer throughout the "developing" world just as corporate greed and agribusiness giants have practically eliminated the family farm in America. Furthermore, the relentless pursuit of profit has been the primary impetus behind the oppressive provisions of the recent Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the associated WTO (World Trade Organization). This will allow massive transnational corporations to dump cheaply produced junk food, junk products, and a junk culture on any nation of the world, with the right to declare any opposition to that process -no matter how principled that opposition- as an impediment to free trade.
In terms of liberal democracy, the corrupt implications of this arrangement are epitomized by one of its leading philosophical schools -deconstruction. This school elevates a form of literary criticism and linguistic analysis to inform social action. It posits that just as language is the product of a set of subjectively experienced "deep structures" which don't admit the existence of any universal referents for meaningful objective knowledge, so too social and political reality is subjectively formed and experienced. Hence, there are no universal or objective referents for meaningful transcending social or political action. Whatever, social or political action does unfold in this intellectual climate, unfolds along fragmented ethnic, cultural or gender lines. The spiritual strength and philosophical principles necessary to challenge the destructive hegemony of transnational capitalism disappear before they are created leaving both pseudo-liberated woman and a growing array of multicuturalisms united by a single unchallengeable characteristic: consumerism.
This dangerous school of thought, of which the more fundamentalist wing of our current Islamic reform is in many ways an unwitting agent, eliminates the possibility of meaningful social and political action leaving a void in the human soul which is filled by consumerism. It is no accident that McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, two symbols of the emerging global consumer culture, have appeared in Mecca, the Holiest place in Islam, under the auspices of the most fundamentalist of all Muslim governments. Taken to it logical end, this consumerism will destroy the Earth.
Islam obviously opposes this arrangement. Although deconstructionalists don't admit the existence of universal principles such as tolerance or compassion, which make ethnic, cultural and gender politics possible, Islam contains no such internal contradiction. Let us consider one of numerous examples. Allah declares in His Noble Book:
wrong with you that you don't fight in the way of Allah and the oppressed;
men, women, and children who say, "Our Lord deliver us from this town whose people are oppressors. And raise up for us from yourself one who will protect us, and raise up for us from yourself one who will help!"
Assisting the weak, working to eliminate oppression, and protecting the defenseless are higher principles the knowledge of which is made possible by the existence of an ultimate, objective reality from which all else derives its existence, and upon which all else depends for its continued existence -Allah. Hence, Islam admits an ultimate reality. It admits a higher purpose to life, the worship of Allah. It similarly presents a set of principles and ideals that serve as the basis for meaningful collective action.
Reflecting on the state of the world, one cannot help but be struck by the penetrating words of Allah in His Glorious Book:
has appeared in the land and sea because of what the hands of men have
wrought [by their sinful recklessness] This is so that We may give them
a taste of what they have done, in order that they may return [to the
way of Divine Guidance].
If man is to return to the way of the Divine, it will be the Muslims who will lead that return. Islam presents a viable critique of contemporary atheistic thought and it is also the only major socio-religious force with a viable ecological philosophy. The thoughtless abuse and waste which characterizes our contemporary secular world is roundly condemned by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Allah declares in the Qur'an:
drink from the provision of Allah and don't go through the Earth working
Adam! Adorn yourselves at every place of prayer; eat, and drink, but don't
waste. Surely, He [Allah] doesn't love those who are wasteful.
Allah says concerning the mercy which His Messenger (Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him) exemplified:
only sent you as a mercy to all the Worlds.
It is interesting to note that in the opening chapter of the Qur'an, Al-Fatiha, after mentioning his Lordship over all creation, Allah immediately mentions the vastness of His Mercy. He says, "Al-Hamdu lillahi Rabb al-'Alamin, Al-Rahman Al-Rahim (All Praise is for Allah the Lord of All the Worlds, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful). Allah similarly reminds humanity that all living creatures comprise organized communities which have many of the basic rights possessed by humans. He says:
is no creature on the Earth, nor any bird flying upon its wings, except
comprises communities like yourselves.
Muslims must honor the rights of those creatures as part of our custodianship over the Earth. However, petty little Islamic groups cannot exercise that custodianship. If Muslims are to provide badly needed direction for humanity we will have to transcend the divisions, which in many cases are the byproducts of the ill-conceived schemes of small men. In his insightful book, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century, Zbigniew Brzenski clearly implies that Islam can potentially offer a viable socio-political alternative for humanity. However, that Islamic alternative is generally unknown because unlike the failed communist alternative it hasn't been articulated at the state level. Such an articulation must occur before Islam can respond seriously to the challenge of secularism.
In order for Islam to be a viable international actor, state or nonstate, Muslims will have to move beyond the petty political divisions which have afflicted the Ummah for much of the past century. In the West, we will have to prevent the emerging "Traditionalist-Salafi" division from becoming a fundamental, irreconcilable split. One way to do this is to define Ahli al-Sunnah w'al-Jama'ah as broadly and as inclusively as possible, instead of the narrow, exclusive definitions, which dominate current discourse. One such definition is provided by Tahir al-Bagdadi (d. 429 AH) in his book, al-Farq bayn al-Firaq (The Difference Between the Sects). He mentions Ahl al-Sunnah w'al-Jama'ah as being comprised of eight basic groups. These groups accommodate all of the orientations, which serve as the basis for the thought of informed Traditionalists and Salafis. He then mentions an objective standard (Dabit) which distinguishes these eight groups from the adherents of the sects such as the Khawarij, M'utazilah, and others. Adopting such a broad view, which represents the best of a rich academic tradition, is essential if we are to move forward as a unified community.
I have chosen to close by emphasizing the need for Muslim unity because the tremendous challenges confronting humanity and our Ummah require our collective action. Secularism, doesn't have to be the enduring socio-political legacy of humanity. Islam, as we have tried to show, offers something a lot better to humanity, to a ravaged Earth, and her creatures. It is up to us Muslims to demonstrate to humanity through our unity, our love, our spiritual elevation, our sacrifice, our living, and our dying that Islam is truly the "solution." If we can understand and take up the challenges of the day humanity will be able to see the first rays of a new dawn after a long, dark, and difficult night.