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:
I have 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:
Whoever turns away from My Remembrance will have a wretched life and
We shall resurrect him blind on the Day of Judgment.
Ta Ha: 124
Whoever 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:
Because 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 behavioural 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:
‘Ali ibn Abi Talha relates from Ibn ‘Abbas (May be Pleased with them both) that Satan’s
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 aren’t 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:
What is 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:
Corruption 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:
Eat and drink from the provision of Allah and don’t go through the Earth working
Son of 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:
We have 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:
There is no creature on the Earth, nor any bird flying upon its wings, except that it
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.
(The writer (1915-1978) was an English convert to Islam who became a Shaykh of the Tariqa Chishtiyya, living a life of simplicity in Karachi, Pakistan, where his holiness gained him the love and devotion of thousands of Muslims from all walks of life. May Allah show him His mercy, and grant him light in his grave. Amin.)
It is mistakenly imagined by some that belief in a Supreme Being as the Creator and Controller of the universe is a mere emotional aspiration, a superstition of ancient times, irrational and illogical, and exploded by modern science. It is believed that scientists (physicists, biologists and others) have erected some theory which both refutes and replaces the traditional belief in God. Such ideas have only a very superficial grounding, and are the result of ignorance or an indifference to both the fundamentals of religious faith and the scope of the physical sciences. It is a significant fact in the history of world thought that very few people have ever made it their business to refute the existence of God. The views of the universe which are considered to be anti-religious are almost all agnostic, not atheistic, that is to say, they attempt to ignore the existence of God instead of denying it. This is true of certain views of modern science as well as of the ancient non-religious theories. The universe in which we live comprises an evident system of causes and effects, of phenomena and their results, and it is possible to discuss them indefinitely and construct theories about them, giving a superficial appearance of completeness. This is done, however, only at the expense of ignoring fundamentals or claiming that they cannot be known. If one were to search for a convincing statement based on firm principles that the existence of a Supreme Being is impossible, one would not be able to find it.
The reason for this state of affairs is that belief in God is at once instinctive, rational, evidential and intuitional, and it is only by deliberately neglecting to consider it that the non-religious attitude is maintained. It is instinctive in that man has an innate feeling of his own inadequacy and helplessness, which accompanies him from the cradle to the grave, a feeling accompanied by the complementary desire to seek refuge and support with a being who controls all those forces before which he feels himself inadequate. We put this feeling forward as instinctive, although it will immediately be perceived that it is also evidential. The weakness of man before all the uncountable influences over which he has no control is a fact so obvious as to require no discussion.
What is less well grasped by some who have claims to intelligence is that belief in God is fully supported by reason and logic, the principles on which all human intelligence stands. For instance, it is a basic requirement of reason that an effect cannot exist without a cause. However hard we press our mental faculties, we cannot conceive rationally of a causeless effect, and if we wish to postulate one we can only do so by temporarily putting our reason on the shelf. Reason leads us to the conclusion that just as the elements which compose the universe are effects of certain causes, the universe itself must be the effect of a cause, a cause which is itself mightier than and outside the universe. Non-religious thinkers have to ignore the origin of the universe and postulate something existing in the beginning without any known cause. This postulate is essentially non-rational and therefore unscientific, but it is a necessity for those thinkers who have unconsciously or deliberately decided not to consider fundamentals. Of these there are even some who openly proclaim their refusal to discuss or admit any metaphysical concept. This kind of attitude, however, can only be upheld by abandoning reason. Reason itself guides us inexorably to the conclusion that there is an ultimate cause, the Cause of causes, beyond this universe of time, space and change; in fact, a Supreme Being.
Another of the basic demands of reason is that diversity cannot exist without a fundamental unity. Whenever the human mind is confronted with diversity, it immediately sets to work to synthesise it into unities, then to synthesise these unities into higher unities and so on until it can go no further. The ultimate result of a rational consideration of diversity is to arrive at a unity of unities, a Supreme Unity, the producer of all diversities, but itself essentially One. Whichever fundamental of reason we select, if we follow its path we are led inevitably to the same goal – belief in God, the Supreme Being.
Besides the conclusion arrived at by purely rational processes, man is led to the belief in God by observation and experience. One of the principal reasons for man’s refusal to recognize the existence of God is the intellectual arrogance produced by his appreciation of his own powers of analysis and synthesis, of harnessing physical forces by his ingenuity, and of constructing complex machines to do his work for him. But pride is caused by concentrating too much attention on one’s own virtues and blinding oneself to one’s defects. What are the best of man’s mechanical inventions but a poor and crude imitation of what already exists in an infinitely finer form in nature? By copying in an elementary fashion some of the functions of the human eye, he has been able to evolve the camera; but what comparison has this machine, made out of lifeless materials, to the living stuff of the eye, and to the refinement, brightness, clarity, flexibility and stability of its vision, its immediate connection with the mind which sifts and appreciates all it sees, all without a complicated system and controls, and directly under the command of the human will? Take any organ of the body and study it – the heart, the brain – and it will immediately be obvious that it is quite outside the scope of man’s ability to conceive and fashion such an instrument. The petty imitations of man are attributed to his great cunning, artistry and intelligence. Is it then reasonable, logical or scientific to attribute the infinitely finer and more perfect instruments of nature to such vague and blind energies called by names such as the ‘life force’, or ‘matter in evolution’, and leave them undescribed and unexplained? If logic has any validity (and if it has not we had better stop thinking altogether and become animals), the intelligence which conceived and wrought myriads of such delicate and astonishing devices must be infinitely superior to the human intelligence (even the human intelligence is one of its products), and have control of all the materials and workings of the universe. Such an intelligence can only be possessed by a Supreme Being, the Creator, Fashioner and Sustainer of all things.
If we ponder our own place in the world, we find that we (as well as all other beings) are kept in being by a most intimate combination of forces and conditions, which is so delicate that even a small dislocation would cause our total destruction. We live, so to speak, continually on the brink of annihilation, and yet are enabled to carry on our complex existences in comparative immunity. We cannot live, for instance, without daily rest; both the human body and the human mind are constructed to need it. This fact is not in itself surprising, but what is surprising is that the solar system collaborates with us in our human frailty and provides us with a day and a night exactly suited to our needs. Man cannot claim to have compelled or persuaded the solar system to do so; nor can the solar system claim to have modelled human physical and mental energy to conform to its own movements. Both man and the solar system are evidently linked in a total organisation in which man is the beneficiary; the organiser of these inexplicable concordances can only be a Supreme Controller of the universe and mankind. Sweet water is a necessary condition of human existence; it is equally necessary for those plants which produce man’s staple foods, which themselves depend on each other. If sea water were to invade our rivers and wells or rain down from the sky, is there any doubt that we should all die of hunger and thirst in a few days and the whole world become an empty desert? Yet sea water is only held back by an invisible barrier over which we have no control, and the sun and the clouds co-operate in order to desalinate our water for us and so give us life. This linkage of interdependence and concurrence could be extended indefinitely by taking examples from the physical world, and to describe it as ‘fortuitous’ is only begging the question; moreover it is a contradiction in terms. Fortuity is the name for something which does not come within any known system or regulation, an apparently meaningless and haphazard occurrence. To call a system which is a balanced and cohesive organization fortuitous is obviously self-contradictory and fallacious. A ‘fortuitous system’ is, simply, an absurdity. If we observe carefully we can see that the whole of the universe is interdependent and interlinked and therefore not fortuitous but planned. Belief in God means, precisely, belief in a Planner of the universe.
A basic element in human consciousness – a suprarational element – is a sense of value and purpose in respect to life. Even the worst of men is prevented from becoming completely bestial by this feeling, and in the best of them it dominates their whole existence. The senses of good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, fitness and unfitness, truth and falsehood are such that however attacked by the missiles of constructive analysis, they remain intact within their intuitional fortress. In all ages and conditions, man has not been able to divest himself of the idea that behind its external effect, every action possesses a quality by which it may be judged and graded in the scale of final values. In addition to the consciousness of the existence of these values, there is the feeling that it is the purpose of man’s life to attain those qualities which reflect the highest of them, that not only are they excellent in themselves and worthy of being acquired, but that they must be acquired, and that he has been created to acquire them. The natural sense of qualitative purpose, if allowed to develop freely without the cramps of agnostic prejudice, leads him to the conception of an absolute good and an absolute truth as the ultimate standard of human existence, and from there (for a quality cannot exist except in a being who is qualified by it) to a being who is the possessor and author of these qualities, the Supreme Purposer.
The decisive vindication of the existence of God is evidential. At various junctures in world history and in widely distant places, certain men have arisen and proclaimed that they have been inspired by God to give His message to mankind. These men were not mad; we have historical records of several of them, including all or part of the message they insisted that they were called to deliver, and it is obvious that they were men who were intellectually and morally highly impressive. They did not come all at once so that we could attribute them to a sort of historical fashion. They came spaced throughout history usually at a time of great moral degeneration. If we examine their message, we find that apart from differences of expression, attributable to the milieu in which they lived, they not only bear remarkable similarities but are basically identical. They have stated that God had conversed with them in some inspirational manner, and had ordered them to proclaim His Existence as the Creator, Maintainer, Controller and eventual Destroyer of the world, to describe His Mercy and Justice, and to warn mankind that it is only by remembering and worshipping Him and following the moral and practical principles that He has laid down for them that they can achieve success and happiness here and hereafter. The last of these prophets was Muhammad of Mecca, who stated that there would be no prophet after him, and it is a demonstrable historical fact that no-one has been able to establish a claim to prophethood since. Now those who discuss or refuse to discuss the existence of God almost invariably rely on rational or anti-rational arguments and rarely, if ever, consider the evidential factor. The two basic elements in human knowledge are, firstly, our own observations and conclusions, and secondly, the evidence of others. Among the branches of knowledge the whole of history, for example, and most of the average man’s acquaintance with science, are only known from the evidence of others, unless he himself is a specialist in the subject. When specialists in a certain branch of knowledge continuously assert that a certain thing is a fact, it becomes a necessity for the rest of mankind, who are unable to acquire this knowledge directly, to accept it as such. In the field of direct inspiration from God, and knowledge of His qualities and works, we have the repeated evidence of people in history who have affirmed their apprehension of Him and that they have been charged with conveying His message; not only that, the realities of the divine and spiritual realism as described by these prophets have in various degrees been corroborated and confirmed by the spiritual experiences of an uncounted number of their followers right up to the present day. These corroborators have been the saints and mystics of their various communities. This continuous and widespread evidence of the existence of God, the central and original evidence of prophets, and the derivative and confirmatory evidence of their followers, all based on modes of direct and intuitional perception of His Being, cannot with any reasonability be denied or ignored. To deny or ignore them is patently illogical and unscientific, and against the basic principles of the acquirement and dissemination of human knowledge. In addition to being instinctive, intuitional, and logical, belief in God has irrefutable evidence to prove its verity.