Pervasive Secularism


It would not be wrong to say that secularism is the fastest growing “religion” in the world today. Contemporary secularists are of two kinds: the “hard secularists” (to employ the term used by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture), are easy to characterise: they consider all religions to be a thing of the past, because these “dated systems” of belief and action do not conform to their standards of human rationality. The soft secularists, on the other hand, are wrapped up in the cloak of a religion, and hence difficult to clearly define. Most adherents of this variety do not even recognise themselves as secularists. This lack of recognition comes from the fact that apparently they continue to call themselves Christian, Jew, or Muslim and even observe the rites of religion, but they do so in partial or total neglect of the fundamental principles of their revealed religion.

Under the impact of this pervasive new “religion,” a new category of “Muslims” has now come into existence: “secular Muslims.” Some of them openly claim to be so, others would not like this label but they do not think that the Quran and the Sunnah–the two sources of Islam–are to be taken literally, or as they were understood fourteen hundred years ago. They would like to reinterpret the Quran and either discard the Sunnah all together or take from it what they consider to be applicable to the modern world.

One of the most important tenants of secularism is the belief in progress. Humanity has progressed on all accounts, it is maintained, and hence old revealed texts need to be reinterpreted in the light of the contemporary. Thus those injections of the Quran which do not conform to the modern concepts of personal freedom, liberty, equality, and progress should be reinterpreted. This especially applies to the Quranic formulations centred around the main concept of Boundaries of Allah (Hudud Allah). Thus, secular Muslims have great issues with all injunctions related to those who transgress the boundaries set by Allah for human behaviour. These range from corrective measures and punishments for theft, fornication, drinking, gambling, stealing, to the concept of hijab for both men and women.

Secular Muslims come in various varieties, hues and shades; some are more secular than Muslim, others are more Muslim than secular, and there is a wide range between these extremes. All of them accept the Quran as the final Book of Allah, but their Quran is a book that needs to be reinterpreted for the needs of “Muslim communities” living in the 21st century. They show a disdain for the Islamic tradition which, according to them, came to a grinding halt somewhere in the middle ages and hence, according to their reckoning, Islam is in need of a Martin Luther.

The most important area of interest for the secularist Muslims is Islam’s encounter with modernity. This is a wide open field which provides them the maximum leverage to propagate their beliefs. They appear as harbingers of a new version of Islam from which certain fundamental doctrines, such as Jihad, have been abstracted. They construct their version of Islam in relation to a dreadful caricature of Islam, stereotyped by the Western media to such an extent that it needs no further elaboration than the abbreviated sound bites such as mediaeval, reactionary, exclusive, narrow, madrasa Islam. In contrast, they attempt to propagate an Islam that is enlightened, that can coexist with almost anything, an Islam that, according to them, is just beginning to grapple with its Reformation through them.

There are numerous lines of attack that they pursue, but none is more important and devastating than their attempt to deconstruct the Quran. They find it impossible to openly challenge the divine origin of the Quran, but there are other ways to open this basic belief for “scientific inquiry,” as they like to it put. Here is a specific quote from one of them: “The first thing for me is the way Muslims today are reading our text. There are a lot of misconceptions within the Islamic communities. We have to come back to a very thorough understanding of what it does mean to have a text coming from God. This is an Islamic credo, and at the same time we have to know that some principles are universal and eternal, and some prescriptions should be understood in a specific context.”

At the deepest level, what sets secular Muslims apart from normal Muslims is a deeply engraved and thoroughly disguised pride–a disdain to submit to anyone, including the Creator. This disdain expresses itself in different modes, such as their lack of respect for any authority, their derision of tradition, of centuries of Islamic scholarship and their self-claimed role of re-interpreters of Islam.

For them, the past needs to be destroyed, in order for us to live in the present and prepare for the future. This means giving up concepts, practices and even laws that do not suit their vision of a 21st-century Islam. Thus, concepts such as Muslim Ummah, the community of believers as a distinct social entity rooted in the vision of Islam, is anachronistic. It is incompatible with the global village that the world has become, they claim. Left to their own understanding, and devoid of any integral links with the tradition, they attempt to understand Islam through their own limited and often flawed intellect, using personal whims, desires, fancies and interests as the primary criteria to interpret everything–from the Word of God to those of His Messenger, the Companions and later scholars. They reject what does not suit their needs, often through a circumvent process. For them, the only way to “progress” goes through a deconstructed Islam in which everything is
[Courtesy: The News, Pakistan,Friday, August 28, 2009 : ]

[Article By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal, the writer is a freelance columnist.Email:]



The message was poignant: “in your ‘Quantum Note’ of August 28, 2009, you have clearly pointed out the malady from which I have suffered for years, although you could have done so without the sarcastic tone. But you have not provided any solutions: what is the antidote to secularism from which millions of Muslims are suffering?”

Without pretensions and without a claim to exclusivity, I must say the antidote is sacred. Secular and sacred stand in opposition in so many realms of existence: the secular worldview makes the life of this world the focus and centre of all human activity; the sacred makes it a transitory stage to the real, ever-lasting abode; the secular worldview entices us to make short-term, ephemeral goals; the secular invites us to build lasting edifices which remain in this world after one departs and continue to influence generations of subsequent seekers of truth.

What distinguishes the sacred from the secular at the most fundamental level is one’s intention of living a life immersed in the sanctified realm of God’s time, rather than human time. This immersion can take place in a moment or it can take years, but the clearest and the surest path to it is the well-trodden path of the Noble Messenger who lived in the broad light of history for 63 years and left behind a well-documented record which has remained the most cherished and most practiced model of life for 1,400 years now.

What we know of that blessed life is unlike the life story of any other human being: we know what he said when he put a morsel of food in his mouth, how he put on his sandals, what he said when a new piece of cloth adored his blessed body and what he did when he was confronted with trials and tribulations of this world. All of this, and much more, form the core of all human activity, for all human beings essentially do a small set of certain same basic things: they all eat, drink, walk, talk, sleep, wake up, work, rest, have families and friends.

At this basic level, a life shaped by secular worldview is utterly devoid of sanctity and spiritual benefits that come with that sanctity. These benefits can be rationally understood, but their greatest dimension is supra-rational — they directly affect the heart, the seat of knowledge and gnosis, the sanctified inner cavity from which emerge all human volitions, and consequently actions. The heart (qalb) is that organ about which the Noble Messenger said that if it is sick the whole body is sick. Secularism has dried out this core and vital organ and left secularised Muslims with a mechanical life that revolves in a limited orbit of sensual pursuits, that is, gratification of the sense perceived hungers and wants.

The single most important antidote to secularism is, therefore, a fundamental reorientation of the heart toward the true centre of all existence: Allah, the most High. And the best way to do so is through a conscious internalisation of the message of the Holy Quran and an equally conscious willingness to reshape one’s daily life according to the model which the Holy Quran calls the best model—the life of the Messenger of Allah, upon him be blessings and peace. Easier said than done, for this is exactly where the biggest hurdles lie: secularisation of the Muslim mind has inserted a certain degree of pride in the heart which refuses to submit. Often hidden from the full view of the rational schema, there is a certain degree of arrogance in the heart that claims to hold knowledge and the best way to be and thereby incites secularised Muslims to remain their own self, rather than follow a prescribed path.

Another hurdle is the low and negative perception of the contemporary bearded and turbaned men who have become the ubiquitous symbols of Islam through a maverick trick of the media. What this demonic and pervasive image-casting has done is simple: it has made it difficult even for sincere Muslims to boldly assert their beliefs and practices in full view of public life. Instead, they prefer to remain closet Muslims. The consequence of this hiding is a certain degree of timidity toward religion as such. In our times, it has become a matter of courage even to wear an amama or a hijab in public and to grow a beard. This outward sign of supremacy of the secularism is, however, merely fluff, for as soon as one realises the vacuous nature of the external world, all hurdles disappear. In other words, as soon as one realises that one is afraid of what others would say or do, as opposed to what the Creator Himself would, one gains courage to stand against the tide or at least disregard it.

The antidote to secularism is not a rationalised construction of Islam, but a spiritual understanding of the matters of the spirit and an intellectual understanding of the matters of the intellect. The latter, however, requires a certain amount of training. One cannot simply read hadith and start using them to construct arguments. Likewise, one cannot simply start reading contemporary or classical exegetical literature in an effort to understand the Holy Quran. Just as one is trained through the contemporary education system to read secular texts, one needs to have a certain amount of minimum training to read source material, even translations of the Holy Quran. This does not mean long preparatory years but simply a basic understanding of how to read these texts. Thus, the oft-repeated statement that I have read the Holy Quran in translation and have not understood much of what it said is symptomatic of this lack of training.

By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal,  a freelance columnist. Email:

Monday, September 07, 2009,



In defence of  Ijtihad

This is in response to the article by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal (Aug 29) titled “Pervasive secularism”. What I fail to understand is why the writer is contemptuous of ‘secular Muslims’ when all that they are doing is adopting the concept of ijtihad? Why is there derision in his tone and arrogance in his interpretation of Islam as the only correct version, simply because he has chosen to tread the safe and tested path of taqlid?

The concept of ijtihad faded in the 12th century because a handful of scholars decided to do so. But today in the 21st century, with its inherent technology and dissemination of information at a click, it is but natural that ijtihad should resurface, especially in the current climate, where we are not legally or spiritually bound to follow the decision of Islamic scholars of 800 years ago. Every thinking Muslim has the prerogative to study Islam. They are not bound to only follow the interpretations by Islamic scholars of the Holy Quran and Sunnah. The scribe is incorrect in saying that secular Muslims are attempting to de-construct the Quran.

According to the writer, secular Muslims are destroying Islam’s past. This is incorrect since ijtihad keeps the spirit and soul of faith alive and makes its practice compatible with today’s world. How can this be taken to mean that the past is destroyed is beyond me. How can you adopt the benefits of today’s technology, live a life dependent on the use of gadgets developed in the west, receive education and earn a living as the result of today’s civilisation, even write on a computer and sending it via the internet and then condemn those who think that modernity is not something to be reviled and rejected?

What is against the peace-oriented grain of Islam is this vitriolic and harsh imposition of one’s interpretation of faith and clamping down the thinking of young eager Muslims born in the 21st century. It is this dogmatic rigidity that breeds intolerance and violence and has led to the creation of the Taliban, repercussions of which we are all living with today. It is not our fault that we were born in this century but it will be our fault if we blindly follow the decisions of 12th century scholars of adopting taqlid.

Dr Rubina Mumtaz, Islamabad


Pervasive distortion:

This refers to the article “Pervasive secularism” by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal (Sept 8). It seems that Dr Iqbal, while lamenting secularism, from his subjective and judgmental stand-point, is confusing secularism with atheism. How has Dr Iqbal determined and from what source that “millions of Muslims are suffering” from secularism?

Dr Iqbal goes on to inquire, in his words, “what is the antidote to secularism”, as if it were a poison. One is simply baffled by this distorted characterisation of secularism by the worthy writer. Secularism promotes peace and harmony in a pluralistic society, tolerance of a divergent point of view, right of an individual to practise his or her beliefs without persecution or fear, and freedom of expression, intellectual and creative pursuits.

In fact, secularism is the antidote to prejudice, bias, intolerance, bigotry, discriminatory attitudes, hatred and extremism. All that a secular person does is to make his beliefs a private matter and not bring them into the public sphere or foist them on others. How can that possibly be construed as bad?

M S Hasan, Karachi, Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Pervasive Secularism-Short Link: