Secularism is not just a political event, it is a mental state where God is isolated and exiled, only popping up from time to time when we require it.
By Dr. Nabi Raza Abidi
We often think of secularization as political process. It is easily defined as the separation between something we call religion (whatever that is) and government. But everything that manifests itself politically originates in a cultural change, for better or worse. If we are faithful to this principle, then it follows that the secularization of politics is a manifestation of a deeper cultural problem; a cultural problem that is rooted in a particular vision of the world that individuals have collectively made normative.
Secularization is thus a mental process. It is not necessarily a rejection of God or claim to the truth of atheism, but a compartmentalization of God into a separate sphere. Think of a two-storey house. On the main floor that’s where everyone is, but on the second floor, you have an empty space where people go up for privacy. The idea of secularization is the compartmentalization of God to the second floor where God is absent in the first floor and we wonder if He’s in the second one. It is a loss of consciousness of God; it is exiling Him to the second floor.
The classical conception of God in Islam posits that God is present everywhere. The Qur’an says:
NOW, VERILY, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his neck-vein. (17) [And so,] whenever the two demands [of his nature] come face to face, contending from the right and from the left, (18) not even a word can he utter but there is a watcher with him, ever-present. (Qur’an 50:17, Muhammad Asad translation)
The Islamic understanding of God is that He is present in all aspects of our lives. Secularism is to compartmentalize God and religion into autonomous components that are unrelated to our lives. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, but that He is on a second floor, or some place that doesn’t affect other aspects of our lives.
But this mental compartmentalization has consequences, it slowly leads to the total exclusion of God altogether where we live a life where we act as is if God is absent, doesn’t matter or doesn’t even exist. This is what I would call Muslim atheism, that is, a functional atheism where we live as if God does not exist all the while holding the belief that somewhere, on the second floor, that He exists.
The fundamental battle of a Muslim is to integrate the Truth of God’s presence (that He is closer to us than our jugular veins) into our consciousness and overcome this compartmentalization of God. The compartmentalization of God, or secularism, did not begin with the Enlightenment; no, it simply took another form. But the basic separation of God from our awareness is an age-old problem.
We can see this with the people of Shuʿayb (as) in the Qur’an. God says:
Said they: “O Shuʿayb! Does thy [habit of] praying compel thee to demand of us that we give up all that our forefathers were wont to worship, or that we refrain from doing whatever we please with our possessions? Behold, [thou wouldst have us believe that] thou art indeed the only clement, the only right-minded man!” (Qur’an: 11:87, Muhammad Asad translation).
The message of the people of Midyan whom Shuʿayb was sent to was simple. When asked to be conscious of God and pray, they answered: what does prayer, or religion, or God, have to do with business?
From a Qur’anic perspective, it is not God who separates Himself. No, He is always there but it is us who shut Him out and becoming heedless and indeed forgetful of His presence. Perhaps this is why one of the root meanings of the word “human” (insān) in Arabic comes from the word nisyān, meaning “to forget” and hence why the Qur’an is considered to be a reminder (dhikr) so that we may come back to the truth of God’s all-encompassing Presence.
Our compartmentalized world is a world of delusion. We take our limited understanding and perceptions and create a world we want, one which we can predict and control. Yet when calamity comes, the illusion breaks – even if momentarily – and we lose control of this carefully constructed illusion.
This is why suffering is sometimes essential for it breaks the illusion and brings us back into reality. The Qur’an says:
(12) For [thus it is:] when affliction befalls man, he cries out unto Us, whether he be lying on his side or sitting or standing; but as soon as We have freed him of his affliction, he goes on as though he had never invoked Us to save him from the affliction that befell him! Thus do their own doings seem goodly unto those who waste their own selves. (Quran: 10:12, Muhammad Asad translation).
It is with pain that our illusions break and God comes back to the first floor, at least for those who know how to react properly. For those who cannot react properly, the opposite comes about, their hearts harden when suffering is increased:
(42) And, indeed, We sent Our messages unto people before thy time, [O Prophet,] and visited them with misfortune and hardship so that they might humble themselves: (43) yet when the misfortune decreed by Us befell them, they did not humble themselves, but rather their hearts grew hard, for Satan had made all their doings seem goodly to them. (Quran, 6:42-43, Muhammad Asad translation)
Life without God’s Graceful Presence is a life of despair. It is a life of struggling with nihilism. These dark emotions (and way of viewing the world) are masked by our quest for unceasing distractions.
The rise of social media, Netflix, youtube, drugs, etc. are not just the consequences of a more interconnected and technologically advanced world; they are the consequences of an ever-increasing need for distractions from despair caused by inner emptiness as our minds become more secularized. We can pray, fast, observe the haram and halal, but we can still be functional atheists in which God’s Presence is only restricted to rituals and a few rules here and there but His Presence is not as a fundamental condition for our vision and engagement with the world and reality as a whole.
How tragic is an Islam that sees God only having a brief role in our lives where God is only involved in prayer times and perhaps during Ramadan? The real way to the Truth, as Islam understands it, is the path to real freedom from illusion and finding inner peace in God. It is a vision of reality that all events of life is imbued with God’s presence and even the minutest of acts are part of a choreography of salvific meaning. When we really see God as being Present in all aspects of our lives, how can there be emptiness?
Nabi Raza Abidi
Resident Imam of the SABA Islamic Center
San Jose, California