Can a Muslim be Secular?

Disembodiment, Critique, and Redemption in an Unsettling World

Whether discussing the proper role of religion and politics or the menace of jihadist violence, internal Muslim debates often revolve around what it means to be a “Muslim” and how that meaning is policed within the broader community.

One manifestation of this debate is the growing trend among Muslims to hyphenate their religious identities as ‘Secular Muslims.’ While this identity marker signifies somewhat contrasting worldviews and commitments, its growing use represents how some Muslims are responding to a constant battle of defining Islam while grappling with prejudice and the anxieties of secularization in their social environments.

We can begin unpacking these dynamics by first interrogating the term ‘secular’ itself, which was not originally as juxtaposed with the category of religion as we understand this tension today. The term has undergone a process of change since its inception as an ecclesiastical term that referred to members of the Christian clergy who were not bound by the religious rules of the monastic order.

Over time, contemporary notions of secularism became closely connected to the rise of the modern nation-state. Anthropologist Talal Asad explains that with the emergence of the nation-sate from the conflict of religious wars in Europe, the ‘secular’ came to provide a “lowest common denominator” for citizenship by establishing “a political ethic independent of religious convictions altogether.” Today, the ‘secular’ has come to represent an epistemic category that claims to provide a theoretically neutral way of validating knowledge and evaluating between our various notions of what is “good” for the societies in which we live.

This conceptual framework of the “secular” facilitated what we refer to as the political doctrine of “secularism,” which mandates that public discourse and statecraft be conducted according to the neutral, non-religious standards of secular reason. Therefore, the formative myth behind the modern nation-state functions to make a nationalist citizenship the primary identity that transcends all other competing sub-identities (ethnicity, race, class, religion, gender etc.).

According to this myth, when politicized and de-privatized religion is brought into public life, war, intolerance, destruction, political upheaval, and maybe even the collapse of the international order will ensue. To prevent this dystopian outcome, dominant notions of modernity uncritically assume a moral commitment to preserving the international order that post-enlightenment secularization has produced. This commitment continues to endure despite the resistance of what sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer aptly captures in the title of his book as the “Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al-Qaeda.”

Unfortunately, those resisting top down post-colonial secularization in Muslim societies, ranging from religious political parties and social movements to violent militants, and the state militaries fighting to stop them have all resorted to tremendous forms of violence and marginalization to achieve their goals. As a result of this violence, modern Muslims have grown up in fractured societies where their religious identities are endlessly politicized.

Secular authoritarian regimes and their allies enforce their “moderate” version of Islam, neutered of the capacity to critique state violence and oppression on religious grounds. Jihadi proto-states enforce their ruthless, exclusionary, and apocalyptic version of Islam, robbed of any notions of human compassion. Theocratic regimes rule by relying on their “traditional” version of Islam, deprived of its historical diversity and innovative methodologies of interpretation. It is this complicated and morally confusing environment that informs how modern Muslims negotiate their identities.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that even in predominantly Muslim majority societies many Muslims do not pray five times a day, rigidly fast the month of Ramadan –if at all, or make arguments about their political views and social values from theological premises. In his chapter titled Hidden Bodies in Islam, Professor Richard Martin writes that while such individuals retain “…some form of Muslim if not Islamic, identity, they lead secular lives and think through most of life’s problems and challenges by means of secular world views, though they may not necessarily renounce their faith or think ill of family and friends who are religious.”

Yet, he also cautions readers that what it means to be a ‘Secular Muslim’ is itself quite difficult to pin down based on a static criterion because these identities are “…perhaps best seen in the more fluid and dynamic sense of tapestries or variations of broadly distinguishable patterns of secularism and Muslim identity woven into the fabric of Muslim societies.” Martin then goes on to outline two poles on a spectrum of how these Muslims attempt to embrace the ‘secular’ while retaining some sense of their Muslim identities.

His first category is the hard secularist who denies the validity of traditional Islamic belief and practice while also professing atheism or agnosticism. Interestingly, Martin contends that the basis for retaining some form of their religious identity may be found in a desire to resist non-Muslim criticism and ignorance about Islam –“to set the record straight about Islamic history, society and culture.” Such an impulse provides a sense of ownership over aspects of Islamic civilization and its cultural heritage in the face of secular disembodiment.

Reconciling secular and religious identities involves negotiating the degree to which one is willing to divest what he or she regards as “essential to themselves” in order to assimilate into the ‘secular.’ Even in the case of hard secularists for whom the metaphysical is of no concern, they have chosen not to divest themselves completely and retain some sense an Islamic identity.

These individuals still find pride in the scientific and cultural achievements of the Abbasid empire, the relatively peaceful and symbiotic relationships with non-Muslim religious communities in Spain and elsewhere in the middle ages, the poetry and spiritual lives of Sufis, and even the daily rhythms hearing the call to prayer or Qur’anic recitations on special occasions.

Martin’s second category consists of soft secularists who do not openly deny religion but choose to be silent about or simply not focus on their personal religious commitments or lack thereof. This group of individuals construct their Muslim identity in a more political sense and are seriously concerned about the socio-political tendencies of Muslims who choose violence as means of political resistance. This means that secularist affiliations, primarily liberal democratic institutions, are viewed by them as providing “…a defense against radical and absolutist tendencies among Islamist groups.”

The authors of a collection of essays which attempt to distance ‘Secular Muslims’ from what they perceive as dominant trends in Islamic thought argue that:

As “secularists,” we believe in the separation of earthly and spiritual powers. As in many other faith traditions, we hold that a Muslim can be both pious and secular. Thus, the leader of a democratic government can believe in God, but derive authority from his/her surrounding society and voters. Islamists, in contrast, interpret Islam as an all-encompassing system of life, which governs family relations, politics, economics, business, and culture.

However, Islamists, are not the only factor affecting how individuals in this softer secularist variety construct their Muslim identities. They are also reacting to how Islam is being perceived from the lens of western modernity. For example, Twefik Allal, a French trade unionist originally from Morocco, who published a secularist manifesto regarding Islam, asserts:

We are of Muslim culture; we oppose misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and the political use of Islam. We reassert a living secularism. Some of us are believers, others are agnostics or atheists. We all condemn firmly the declarations and acts of misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that we have heard and witnessed for a while now here in France, and that are carried out in the name of Islam. These three characteristics typify the political Islamism that has been forceful for so long in several countries of origin. We fought against them, there, and we are committed to fighting against them again –here.

While some of these authors problematically conflate the complexity between Islamism and violence, this line of argumentation demonstrates that their ‘Secular Muslim’ identity is as much redemptive as it is polemic in nature. For these ‘Secular Muslims’, redeeming Islam, or the Muslim identity, from being perceived as anti-modern is just as important as critiquing the Islamic tradition itself.

Hanif Kuresihi, a Marxist British writer and public intellectual, reports a conversation with his uncle that captures the complexity of relating horizontally social and vertically metaphysical aspects of his religious identity. He writes:

I have often been asked how it’s possible for someone like me to carry two quite different world-views within, of Islam and the west; not, of course, that I do. Once my uncle said to me with some suspicion: “You’re not a Christian, are you? “No,” I said. “I’m an atheist.” “So am I,” he replied. “But I am still Muslim.” “A Muslim atheist?” I said. “It sounds odd.” He said: “Not as odd as being nothing, an unbeliever.

Thus, when the ‘secular’ is understood as an absence, it leads one to search for how best that absence can be filled. Perhaps, it is most effectively filled by the social aspects of religious identities that connect an individual to a deeper historical rooted sense of community.

This connection to a broader community is further solidified by our tendency to subtly promote the racialization of religion, which makes it almost impossible to really separate and transcend religious identities entirely because they become intrinsically associated with one’s physical appearance. Whether its social discrimination or government surveillance, even secularists who may want nothing to do with Islam are faced with the reality that, for better or for worse, some element of this inherited identity is inescapable.

Religious identity is very much contextually determined since there are certain contexts that forcefully require us to identify with, or stay away from, a religion, ethnic group, or national citizenship. Akeel Bilgrami, a hard secularist Muslim philosopher, confronted such a scenario when he was asked whether he was a Muslim by a landlord in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood in India. Reflecting on his “I am a Muslim” response to the landlord, Bilgrami writes:

It seemed hardly to matter that I found Islamic theological doctrine wholly non-credible, that I had grown up in the home dominated by the views of an irreligious father, and that I had for some years adopted the customary aggressive secular stance of those with communist leanings. It still seemed the only self-respecting thing to say in that context. It was clear to me that I was, without strain or artificiality, a Muslim for just about five minutes. That is how negotiable the concept can be.

Such challenges make negotiating religious identities in the modern world a significant social dilemma. Those who identify as ‘Secular Muslims’ are trying to strike a balance between the competing impulses to secularize in the modern world and maintain a more deeply rooted, indigenous, and socially connected sense of who they are. One could say that their identity sits right on the hyphen between secular and Islam since neither their secularity nor their ‘Muslim-ness’ are mutually exclusive. Rather, they each inform one another.