The Future of Secularism: Introduction

Bismihi Ta'ala, al-Rahman, al-Rahim
In the name of the one and only God,
I beg Him for His help, and pray for his Mercy, Love and Forgiveness
-- For this life as well as the next. 
I must first mention Adnan Zulfiqar, who gave me the idea for this book in the first place. In August of 2000, Adnan asked me to write something for an anthology of young Muslim writers he had been working on. Unsure what to do, and not in the mood to write anything academic, I produced a short satire, which (with his encouragement), was gradually expanded into this novella.

I received help from many people throughout the months I spent typing away.

I would like to thank, above all, Ameer Shaikh. He has been my closest friend, always ready to lend an ear and always ready to help no matter what the problem was. His advice helped me with this story (and with so many other things in my life). Our interest in philosophy blossomed together. Ameer and I often stayed awake till the earliest hours of the morning, debating Western and Muslim philosophy... and a path towards the creation of a new Muslim philosophy able to stand up to the challenges our world faces. I see in Ameer a spirit of change, a spirit of resistance. I believe this is the call to the Muslims of our generation: the creation of a new, moderate Islamic discourse.

Thanks also to Daanish Masood Alevi and Ali Hashmi, the “dynamic duo” – both listened patiently to my ideas, asked for clarification, and then laughed at the whole enterprise. Thanks to Faiz Vahidy and Zeeshan Memon, both of whom read over some drafts and gave me helpful comments and criticisms.


Salman Rushdie got the death sentence for blaspheming Islam and the last, and greatest, of the Prophets (peace be upon them all).

We won’t go into that1. But Salman is a pathetic human being, who will never have any respect in the eyes of any decent person, because he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. He deliberately set out to attack (from a secular perspective) the beliefs of a people and their most sacred ideals; (or, from an Islamic perspective) he set out to attack God and God’s faith.

(And for those of us who wonder, his book isn’t so great2). In fact, I had no time to be offended by it... I was asleep well before the blasphemy even began. God bless Khomeini, for having had the strength to read through that thing).

I bring up Mr. Rushdie; however, to draw attention to how easily Muslims are offended. In Rushdie’s case, Muslim rage was justified: Our faith is our homeland, our Prophet (peace be upon him) is our founding father, the shahada is our declaration of independence and the Qur’an3 is our constitution4.

But we as Muslims cannot be so easily let off the hook. We often dismiss people, and ideas, without even considering them with a fair and open mind (Did I dismiss Salman by falling asleep while reading his book? That’s another debate…). But we have become, as a nation, hard and intolerant – it is both a symptom and a cause of our current malaise. It is important for us, as Muslims, to think carefully about why certain things are said, before we jump the gun (and, in our case, load it and then fire it. Many times). Let us take the advice of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib5, Allah be pleased with him, who once said: “Judge what is said, not him who speaks.”

Before you read, you should know something about the one who has written.

I am a Muslim who believes in the separation of secularism and state. You might label me an ‘Islamist,’ though I hate the term – it implies a division in Islam that has no basis in the shari’ah6. (In the world of those who have created these terms, a ‘Muslim’ can be secular, just like a Christian can. An Islamist, by this definition, makes his Islam ‘different’. Since when has Islam permitted secularism, I wonder? So wonders the Muslim who is labeled an Islamist for following his faith as God wishes it to be followed).

I have written because we must learn how to Islamize modernity. The pathetic quest for the “modernization of Islam” is the domain of people who remain thunderstruck by the colonization of the Muslim world decades and decades ago. I thank these people for their time and effort, and urge them to leave my religion the hell alone. In revolutionary ages, boundaries have to be more clearly drawn. Revival cannot be half-hearted or hypocritical. These “modernizers of Islam” – who possess neither any clear idea of modernity nor Islam – will be sidelined by our era’s war of ideas.  So, let us commence with the sidelining.

I write to bother you, to make you stop, to make you reflect – perhaps also to make you angry. I do not write to say ‘this behavior is okay’ or ‘that behavior isn’t so bad’; whatever I write, I wrote because I believe it is time we had the courage to face up to reality. Revival is not easy. Revival is not quick.

My idea is to say: “This is the world we live in. This is our challenge, our enemy, our partner, and our reflection. This is what we struggle with. We must see it. We must understand it. But, brothers and sisters” – and now you should picture me standing in front of millions, with green banners waving defiantly in the wind, fists pumped into the air, and voices screaming furiously in Arabic – “We must not yield to it!”

 - Cairo, August 2001
(In what is also the calendar of our colonizers)


1. Well actually we will.

2 I?m not a good writer, either, but nobody goes around saying I am.

3 The Islamic faith is based on five pillars, which constitute the most central elements of the Islamic way of life. The shahada is the first of these and has a profound influence on the Muslim?s worldview. It states, in Arabic, ?la ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah? (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God). The Qur?an, meanwhile, is the Muslim Holy Book. It is the direct, unaltered word of God, as transmitted to Muhammad (peace be upon him) via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years. It consists of 114 chapters, or surahs, which are of unequal length. The Qur?an?s scope is all of existence. It covers matters sacred and mundane (mundane, at least, from a secular perspective).

4. Is that possible, you ask? Well don?t ask too many questions. That?s what led a certain people before us astray.

5. The cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who married the Prophet?s daughter Fatimah (May Allah be pleased with her) and ruled as fourth, and last, of the ?Righteous Caliphs?. His rule was from 656-661 in the Christian calendar. Ali was one of the first converts to Islam, and the youngest of them, as he was raised by Muhammad, peace be upon him, in his household and hence had a profound perspective on Islam and life. He is considered by Shi?a Muslims to be the designated successor to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the fact that power was transferred to Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) after Muhammad?s death has long been a source of contention, though Abu Bakr?s Caliphate was supported by the majority of the Community (which later came to be called the Sunni, or ?Ahl-e Sunnah? [People of the Path]). Despite the dispute over ?Ali between Shi?a and Sunni Muslims, he is respected, admired and honored by all Muslims, regardless of their view on history.

6. An Arabic term that literally means ?path to the watering hole.? The term also refers to the entire corpus of Islamic Law, the code that governs the behavior of the Muslim from an individual, social, economic and political perspective. The shari?ah is flexible and contains within it a mechanism for the acceptance and celebration of differences of opinion. The shari?ah is Law proper; it is based on several sources, foremost among them the Qur?an and then the life (SUNNAH) and sayings ([A]HADITH) of the Prophet Muhammad. Those who are allowed to interpet the Law are the ?ulama, the learned ones, who have a combination of extensive knowledge and piety. The ?ulama are often also referred to as mullahs, imams, mawlanas, ayatollahs, muftis and so forth. However, this class does not represent a formal class as in other religions, and has no special religious function akin to a priesthood. Rather, these scholars form an informal body of educated men and women who do not occupy any special status (other than receiving the respect of pious Muslims) and are not given any special privileges (the Catholic idea of a bifurcation between the laity, and the priesthood, is wholly rejected. ?Before God,? Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ?All men and women are as equal as the teeth of a comb.?)

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