Rethinking Thinking : Thoughts on the Secular in Islam

After a conversation I had recently with a professor, for whom I have a great amount of respect, I have been inspired to literally re-think my thoughts on a whole range of ideas that I have held to to be true, for most of my life, in particular the role of religion in my world.

No, this does not mean that I am now suddenly an atheist, rather I am beginning to ask what role Islam plays in my everyday life. Islam has shaped my worldview, from the way I live my life (what I eat, how I pray, how I greet others, etc), to the way I intellectualise and reflect on the nature of existence (what I write, who I read and identify with), for as long as I can remember. For a brief period, in my early teens I rejected religion for a while, thinking it was too restrictive (more so because of my parents putting their foot down on certain things), and then I found it in a big way later on, when I got involved in politial activism. I felt that God wanted each and everyone of us (particularly Muslims) to strive towards social justice in the world, and so I felt a calling, both political and religious to work towards this goal.

I don’t think I’m a particularly good Muslim in the traditional sense (ie, I don’t wear a scarf, except on religious occasions, I mingle freely with men, other than mahrams (hmmm….this is not necessarily unIslamic per se) and I sometimes miss offering the prayers at the times they are meant to be offered. But then what does it mean to be a Muslim, even a good Muslim?  Who sets the standards for judging this, and is there a blueprint for measuring “Muslimness”.  I was forced to revist these questions, after my somewhat provocative discussion with the good professor.

Here is what I think about these issues, however my ideas continue to evolve on these questions. I think that you can actually be a good person, without believing in a God; every human being has the capacity to be moral and good towards others and the world in general. Believing in the existence of a God however, grounds and redefines ones desire to be good, ie, there is an incentive for being good, which is the expectation, that there is a God, who will reward one for the goodness. Of course, the expected rewards don’t necessarily always come, so what to do in that case? Does one abandon goodness / morality  in frustration, and opt for a life of vice, being somewhat disillusioned that despite being good, one doesn’t always get what one wants. Well this is where the religious notion of patience (sabr in Islam), is meant to kick in, in the HOPE that someday, the rewards will appear. Sadly though, most human beings are not very patient beings. The next stage then in the religious continuum is suffering, ie, that one is not sure if the rewards are going to come, and so one agonises about being good, and things could in fact get worse in ones life, despite being good. Hmm…enough said about this.

In the case of not believing in a God, what’s the point of being moral and good, unless its just for the sake of maintaining some kind of peace and order in the space one occupies, or to feel satisfied with oneself. One might as well, go and live a life of vice, and not feel guilty about it, when there are no expectations of rewards for goodness. Ahaa, guilt, that most complex of emotions, that can really throw a spanner in the works. When I was younger, I was a guilt ridden child, and I guess that makes parenting easier….if you feel guilty a lot of the time, you try to behave better, and make your parents lives easier. Now that I am older, guilt is a Freudian notion, that I have relegated to the sphere of emotional baggage that is of no use, and is actually counter-productive in our lives.

I could easily not believe in a God, but then I don’t want to. I could maybe convert to another religion, where I could do things that are prohited in Islam, but I don’t want to. So these basics, of my faith, ie belief in a God, and Islam as the way to express it, are for me, here to stay.  Suffice to say, I am very familiar with the concepts of patience and suffering, which go with the territory of believing in a God.

What I do want to interrogate however are the various aspects of a “lived Islam”, that are for me fascinating and say a lot about how there is actually not just one kind of Islam, but “multiple” Islams.  So the first question I am asking is, can there be a “secular” Islam (emerging out of my conversation, I mentioned earlier), and what does this mean? If secular means, a seperation between God and State / society, then surely there is a contradiction with the idea of a secular Islam. In my understanding of Islamic practice, if a Muslim declares / has the intention of, doing something as an act of faith (ibadat), then that is no longer a secular act, but one done for the pleasure of the Almighty. So then the second question arises, must we bring God into everything ? For example if a Muslim businesswoman / man declares that s/he is undertaking a new business venture, as an act of ibadat, and asks God for blessings and success, is the act for her/ himself or for God? After all what does God get out of the business being successful ? Perhaps the business person takes a vow that if the business is successful, then s/he will give some of the profits to the poor (over and above compulsory zakaah). Is this about blind faith or a gamble with the fates? Should God feature in any of this, and if so, why?

I’m not sure I can argue with any measure of confidence that business transactions, can be considered acts of faith. But this is where the complexity of Islam appears. The assumption in “being” Muslim is, that all aspects of a Muslim’s life are about submitting to God,  from ones form of income to the way in which we interact with each other as human beings. There is meant to be a halaal (good) and haraam (bad) in everything, and this is perhaps where the secular is irrelevant in the equation.

As far as I am concerned, I claim aspects of secularity in the way I live my islam, but does that make me a “secular” Muslim ? I’m not sure. What I am sure about though is that I don’t want to always be confined by the “religious”, such as some interpretations of the faith telling me, whether something is Islamic or not, such as taking permission from a male mahram about whether I can travel or not, how far I can travel, and who I can travel with.

No doubt, these are complex questions, and I don’t always have the “correct” answers. I can only do what “feels” right, within the context of what I believe. If that makes me a “secular” Muslim, so be it. I’d rather not be labelled though. I’m just Lubna, a girl trying to find her way in the big bad world out there.


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