The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 15


As I stared directly into the closet wall, I heard nothing in response. Of course I wasn’t going to hear anything. What would prepare dear mother for her educated, clean-cut, upper class son expressing a desire to go to the mosque on his day off? I imagined her drowning inside her mind. I imagined the waves of my words had crushed the pitiful foundations that propped up her world. I realized that I didn’t know if she could swim.

I didn’t want to go to the mosque.

I just wanted to get the hell out of the house. I left my stupefied mother in shock. I just walked out, with a cold satisfaction that to this day I am ashamed of. I walked into the bathroom, where I splashed some water on my face and sprayed on a bit of cologne (Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad if I bumped into Sophia). 

I grabbed the keys from the counter, said Allah Hafez Te to my father, and ran into the car. He didn’t know where I was off to, though I imagine the last place he’d think of was the mosque. I didn’t know if I should go, but I sat in the car and figured the Government Mosque would be just fine. Who would care? Government Mosques doled out harmless Khutbas. But then I wondered about the disparate elements of the resistance. Of course there was Hizb Fazilat and its philosopher-preachers, and intellectuals, all hidden underground... there were also the Sufis, the Salafis, the neo-Wahhabis, the street-preachers and the Islamic socialists. I imagined those groups gave much more interesting Khutbas. But I didn’t want to hear them, nor did I want to risk it.

Perhaps the risk of it prevented me, and nothing else. 

The Khateeb talked about oral hygiene. The crowd was mostly traditional Muslim types, wearing ethnic clothes - those who came from the countryside, those who still clung to traditional values and couldn’t handle the secularized life of the city. The mosque was, however, very full (which worried, surprised and delighted me. I could yell at the Christians [were I to ever see any]: ‘See, our religion is growing’!) and afterwards the Khateeb announced a donations drive for the construction of a new mosque and children’s Arabic program/school to be included. I was impressed. It must have meant there remained a large audience.

Why couldn’t we retain this kind of Islam? It didn’t hurt anyone. 

And then it struck me.

It was Islam on anesthesia. Harmless Islam. Defeated, tamed Islam. Who wanted it, but the harmless? The weak? The defeated? Islamists were people who took on the world. People like that could never be content to sit back and accept this nonsense. Traditional Islam... Kind of like those Tabligh (1) movements, which after fifty years are still teaching the same people the same things. Their dull sermons, their innocent lack of ambition -- it was Islam on sedatives. This kind of separation of church and state (2) produced an inept, weak and pointless religion.

Were church and state to be separated, the church would be co-opted by the state. Sure, the government could throw Allah’s name on flags and currency, invoke His blessings here and there, and build lots of mosques, but this would be an impotent, starved, decorative religion. Were I an Islamist, I would not wish my ideology an ornament (Were Islam to have Christmas trees, this analogy would’ve worked a lot better). The vitality, fervor and power of it would be gone. All the people at the government mosque were useless for the movement. They were not ones to change the world.

I liked being a rebel. I think most young people did. So I could sympathize with Islamists. They were being robbed of their chance to effect change. They were being asked to sit back and watch Islam become a mostly pointless pillar in the construction of a national identity.

But at the same time, I was perplexed. Democracy was then the way to go. We needed intelligent ethnic and ideological political parties - but not Islamic parties, because they were out to change government to a purely Islamic one. My sympathies with the Islamists were cut short then and there… after all, we all wanted voices, but why should one voice be superior to all others? Why couldn’t the Islamists accept being part of the game? They might get elected, and then voted out of office, replaced by a secularist party. This was far more fair and reasonable.

Thinking about this was a lot more interesting than actually listening to the Khutba.  

Suddenly, the Khateeb’s voice shot up in volume. "We must structure our lives as God has asked us to."

This caught my attention. My mind raced. I felt short of breath as I was dazzled by the consequences of that statement.

If God had asked for such a thing to be done - for us to structure our lives completely according to Islam - and I believed this wholeheartedly, well then I wouldn’t care so much for "democracy." Because I wouldn’t believe it was necessary. The pious Muslims believed Islam held sway over all aspects of life. Islam was, for them, life itself. Why then would they accept democracy, if democracy asked them to change their beliefs from true ones to false ones? After all, the Islamists were asking us to change our beliefs to work within the framework they held to be right. That was no different than what I, as a supporter of democracy, was asking the pious Muslims to do.

I felt my support for tolerance and democracy waver, but only for a second. Perhaps it was a fatal second. Perhaps it was here, with this Shaykh speaking, that I saw my fate. After all, tolerance and democracy. These are nice concepts. Very apathetic concepts. But what does apathetic democracy (the kind the West believed in, preached and fought for) mean if you believe you’ve found the truth? If I believed Islam was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then so help the fool who dared suggest a political compromise. It was a waste of time, wasn’t it? The fundamentalists weren’t so illogical after all. I admired that they could stand for something and believe it with such ferocity. I admired that they were not afraid of the world. And I admired them all the more, because the world was afraid of them.

I also understood the wisdom of the Government’s decision to run its own mosques, but a heavy wave of cynicism burst inside of me. The prayer ended quickly and I didn’t stay to offer any extra prayers.  

As I walked back to the shoe racks, an elderly gentleman accosted me. 

"You should wear Sunnat."(3)

I was wearing a nice full-sleeve shirt, dark blue jeans and nothing flashy. I had a watch on, but I didn’t imagine that would bother my new acquaintance here. Perhaps the lack of a kufi on my head was bothering him. He, on the other hand, was wearing pants and a long qamiz over them, which had me rather amused. He was dressed in the dress of our country (what our people wore before they became Muslim; and I knew Western people had also become Muslim so... um...).

I didn’t know Sunnat all that well - my memory was clouded by daydreams interrupting past religious lessons - but I knew the Prophet Muhammad was Arab.

"This is fine, isn’t it?" I struggled to remember from mandatory religion classes. "My clothes aren’t tight and... I’m covered all over.... They’re clean, too," I added, hoping cleanliness was one of the requirements. I imagined it was. It did fit into the scheme of things rather well.

"No, my clothes are Sunnat, you are not wearing it properly, you are dressed like a Westerner."

I got very angry. I wasn’t in a good mood. I hadn’t touched a girl in days and on top of that my parents had driven me off the wall. I didn’t care for his stupid excuse for philosophizing.

"Look," I said, "My clothes meet the requirement. Leave me alone."

I forced myself past him and he stayed there, stunned. He turned and said, "Sunnat is what the Prophet, alayhi salam, wore. We must live like he lived, and his life is our example, our sunnat."

I stared him down. "Are you thick?"

He didn’t understand, so I gladly added, "Muhammad was Arab, not like us! He wore Arab clothes. Try to translate more of the meaning of his actions and not just the outward appearance. I mean, damn, do you even speak Arabic?"

I didn’t speak Arabic either; after all, referring to speaking Arabic presupposes speaking Arabic. I hoped he didn’t know Arabic.

"Not much, but I read Qur’an."

"Why don’t you read some more?" I suggested sarcastically.

He looked very hurt. Suddenly a wave of regret came over me (I’m just drowning in waves over here), and I was gripped by that same sense of insecurity. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault I got mad, it was his stupidity that made me so upset and finally that I didn’t really mean to distress him. The poor man’s mind was narrower than the road to Makkah, and he could’ve never understood what I was trying to say.

"Look," I said, "Use your brain when you think about these things. As hard as that might be, stop adopting the post-Enlightenment model for Christian piety. If we wear special clothes in the mosque, and different clothes at home, that wouldn’t make much sense, would it? We should wear nice clothes in the mosque and outside it. The mosque is part of the world, not separated from it." 

I was saddened by this practice of wearing old-style clothes in the mosque and modern clothes outside, as if the two worlds were so different. This was the reason nobody cared about the Government Mosque, and why there were so many of them. The people in there were secularized Muslims -- they would just never know it.  


1. Jamat-e Tabligh is a movement founded in India sometime ago. It was created to revive Muslim practices among the local population, and quickly spread across the Muslim world. However, the group has completely failed to progress in any meaningful intellectual manner. They have remained at the same level of ideology they held during the movement's founding. They preach a return to basics, and a quietist practice of Islam which tends to completely ignore Islam's demands on its followers to change the world. Hence, the group has often been at loggerheads with other, more active Muslim groups. They have, in fact, reduced Islam to a form of post-Enlightenment Christianity, with its associated views on internalized piety.

2. Looking back, I know, I know... the analogy just doesn't hold. After all, how could it? Islam has no 'church', and hence there is no structure the State can legitimately co-opt. Furthermore, there should be no State (in the modern sense) without a firm Islamic basis. So Islam is at once the legitimization of the government, and also the opposition which keeps a check on it, because the State is not (nor cannot be) a god of any sorts. Islam must prevent the consolidation of power into the hands of the few (Islam stands against extreme centralization and totalization). These dangerous ideologies are created by a very un-Islamic hunger for arrogant power, which Islam, as the concurrent voice of opposition, must resist.

3. If we did a survey, I imagine the following conversation has happened to about 75 percent of all Muslims. The other 25 percent "wear Sunnat". Honestly, is the Sunnah so simplistic that we must reduce it to narrow-minded, literalist interpretations? I think the Rasul, peace and blessings be upon him, would be disappointed with that. Islam is a religion of action, confirmed by the right intention. Hence, when we look at an action, we must look at what is inside and what is outside and make sure both are correct.

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