I have a confession to make. One that many others have shared, yet it is deeply personal. In the past, I strongly considered becoming an atheist. I have read atheist tracts, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, listened to presentations, attended programs and even argued with my Shaykh in the masjid for several hours. I distinctly remember sitting in my room in the dead of night asking, “Do I really believe Allah exists?” By the mercy of Allah, even after this deep exploration- I am a Muslim. But upon regaining my footing I stepped back and began to critically examine what factors brought me to question something self-evident and so innate to my soul. After careful thought and self-reflection, I concluded that I was indoctrinated with a distorted lens of the world that logically leads to the rejection of God. This essay explains how American Muslims are indoctrinated into a secular mindset, how this eventually leads to the rejection of the faith, and how we can resist.
Growing up in public schools, we are presented a narrative of history that states that the enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century had liberated the world from the mental shackles of religion. The product of this, so goes the popular narrative, was a type of political and social secularism that was limited to reducing Papal influence in the various European polities. But the secular project has historically gone far deeper. In reality, it meant jettisoning traditional patterns of life, economic processes, societal organization and even language for a secular replacement that is deeply corrosive to established wisdom traditions, including Islam. This hegemonic and aggressive ideology fashions itself with terms such as free thinking, objective and open-minded, but in reality is rooted in its own uncritical and dogmatic understanding of the world. This process was accelerated during the colonization of the classically central Muslim lands, so much so that Muslims analyzed their own religion from a secular perspective. The result was a type of Muslim who either internalized a sense of inferiority and sought the approval of and conformity with secular centers of power, as manifest by Liberal/Progressive/Reformist Muslims- or one who abandoned their faith altogether, as manifested in Western ex-Muslims.
Broadly speaking, there are two major influences that lead to mass secularism in the West. One is pseudo-intellectual, wherein the devotee uncritically adopts Nominalist philosophy and uses it to reject foundational concepts in religion. However, this is relegated to a highly select few and their exposition is outside of the scope of this essay. The latter is the conclusive products of the former, namely a mass culture and popular worldviews that give way to the profane.
Ask yourself, is homosexual marriage immoral or is it a consensual love that we should all honor and celebrate? The question is not about legality, the question is morality. Interestingly, one’s answer to this question is almost irrelevant. What matters is how one arrived at the conclusion.
Islam states that while we are afforded a broad degree of leeway, Allah has created a moral standard that we must adhere to. And while every commandment is rooted in wisdom even if one cannot rationally justify it, ultimately all commandments have a higher benefit. Further, Allah assigned us huqūq (rights, and by extension responsibilities), some to other people in relation to ourselves (huqūq al-‘ibād), some for non-human entities, such as environment (huqūq al-makhlūq) and some he has reserved for Himself (huqūq Allah). People are generally free, but there are limits set in the sharī’ah and Muslims are commanded not to transgress. Otherwise, we are violating the rights of Allah, other people or even ourselves. Allah has placed moral weight to certain actions, both positive or negative, and we are commanded to seek out what is good and abstain from evil.
There are exceptions, nuances, and conditions to almost every ruling within the Islamic tradition. There are even competing theories on how to formulate the jurisprudence particulars. Depending on the context and approaches to seeking the objectives of the sacred law (Maqāsid al-sharī’ah), the legalities may change or be modified. Thus, Islamic practice is not a rigid set of rules, but a flexible understanding of an ultimately principled tradition. Questions of practice have been schematically analyzed after centuries of constructive debate and review.
But generally speaking, Muslims in the West are not taught this model of rights and morality. Rather, we are presented with the commandments of Allah as dry, simplistic, arbitrary rules. Our understanding of the faith rarely goes beyond childhood education. The Islamic approach and conclusions to social and cultural issues are absent from the discourse. Conversely, we are indoctrinated with a very sophisticated secular framework of morality, namely Liberalism – not mean “Liberal” in the modern sense of liberal politics vs conservative politics, but the underlying ideology that both sides ostensibly appeal to. A student in the West may read about the ideas of John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the great debates of the Enlightenment, but may never even hear the names of Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali or Imam ‘Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni. Such a student may perceive Western secular thought as the proper, if not, the only way to analyze social questions to arrive at the best solution, while Islam is merely anachronistic rules that have no place in modern society. This ignorance breeds an inferiority complex in those who were indoctrinated with secularism.
But why is this ideology harmful?
The secular liberal ideology starts with an arbitrary premise, namely that people have natural rights. Where these rights came from or whether they even exist at all is subject to debate and has never been conclusively answered, but these important details are brushed aside. Next, they presuppose that maximizing human freedom – without any limits except violating someone else’s rights – is a laudable goal. Notice, God is not in the analysis. Why they target freedom as the objective is rarely justified, aside from the naturalistic fallacy. Again, brush that aside. Anything that reduces human freedom, even if the specific action is clearly harmful to the individual, is deemed immoral and should be stopped. For example, a consistently liberal stance on hard drug consumption is that the government has no right to tell someone what they can consume. When the question of pig meat consumption, or usury, or wanton public displays of sexuality arise, the liberal framework does not appeal to God, nor even the natural consequences from said actions. Rather, they cite freedom as the highest virtue. So if a Muslim consumed pig meat, he is merely exercising his natural rights and no one, not even God, can stop him.
This might not necessarily be a negative. Indeed, many Muslims defend the practices of the faith by appealing to individual choice. In that environment, Islam can survive and even prosper. The problem arises when broader culture assigns moral value to one action over another. For example, the issue of homosexual relations initially began as a question of maximizing freedoms and alternative lifestyles. Within a liberal framework, the proponents of gay marriage clearly have the stronger case. But the question went further. During the social debates culminating in the 2010s, proponents of gay marriage successfully placed positive moral weight on supporting gay marriage and a social stigma on the opposition. Nowadays, to even criticize homosexual relations, which is undeniably forbidden in all Abrahamic faiths, is analogized to racism, hate, and bigotry.
The slight of hand was rooted in convincing Muslims to analyze moral questions not from the perspective of Islam, but from the perspective of a secular framework. Western Muslims are effectively taught that certain particularities in the faith are not only “out-dated”, but are wrong — and they have no way to refute such arguments because the very framework of their response is not rooted in the belief in God, but an appeal to Liberalism. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why some Western Muslims “disagree” with aspects of their own faith and over time come to reject it.
As George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “He who controls the past controls the future.”
In high school and early college, I took several classes on world civilization, which really meant Western European History. For example, we spent months on the wars between England and France, Spain’s conquests, European philosophers and scientists, wars and religious development. When we discussed other civilizations, it was only in the context of its interaction with the West. For example, we studied Egyptian history in the context of its interactions with Rome. We learned about the central Muslim world in the context of the Crusades. We learned about the Persians in the context of the wars with Greece. We learned about Africa in the context of slavery. We learned about India in the context of British trade. We learned about East Asia in terms of colonization and the Cold War. A student who goes through this education is only presented with a Eurocentric view of history. He may subconsciously come to believe that the European narrative of history, its trajectory, and conclusions, is the only view of history.
Now consider Western Europe’s experience with religion. The period when Christianity played a deeper role in daily life was strongly correlated to the worst societal problems Europe had ever experienced, namely illiteracy, opposition to scientific inquiry, persecution of Jews and the oppression of women. Only when western civilization collectively pushed back on religious influence during the Renaissance did it gain its economic, scientific and social standing.
If this narrative is all we are taught, one may mistakenly conclude that religion is inherently detrimental to society and should be opposed or actively eradicated. The psychological association is, “religion is backwards, secularism is progress”.
This is a far cry from the experience of the Muslim world. To the contrary, the Muslim world’s Golden Age was in no way disassociated with the faith. Islamic civilization is not monolithic, but generally speaking, the Muslim world encouraged mass education, scientific progress, sheltered Jews fleeing Europe and promoted respect for women. Islam manifested as the Persian development of science and philosophy, the Turkic legal system of multiculturalism and religious acceptance that far surpasses the modern French Laïcité-style secularism, the peaceful spread of Islam in East Asia, and the excessively educated kingdoms of West Africa. Even heterodoxic groups such as the Mu’tazilia were deeply spiritual and sought to strictly adhere to the traditions of the Prophet ﷺ. Islam was not merely a creedal statement and arbitrary rituals, it was the undercurrent of every aspect of life and history testifies to its boon. In short, the Muslim experience of religion was unlike that of Europe.
But if Muslims in the West are not educated with the western experience, they will default, and demonstrably so, to the only historical narrative they know – one that associates religion with stagnation and regression. This is why many Muslims, in an attempt to find a middle position, fashion themselves “modernists” and articulating notions that make no sense within an Islamic historical narrative. For example, one may make deeply problematic statements like “preferring science and education over religion” and that Islam should “stay in the masjid”. Over time, such a person will be forced to choose between this perceived regressive belief or societal progress – and who would not choose progress?
Muhammad Syed, the founder of the the Ex-Muslims of North American (EXMNA), wrote an essay in 2007 on why he left Islam, in which he wrote, “I beefed up on my reading about theology and Islamic history, one of the best books I read during this period was Reza Aslan’s ‘No God But God’ which proved very illuminating.” He considers “beef[ing] up” his knowledge of Islam by reading a highly simplified pop-culture book on Islam by a CNN anchor who self-admittedly holds non-standard beliefs. This would be the equivalent of stating one “beefed up” his understanding of geology by reading a poorly written textbook on Young Earth Creationism, and thereafter rejecting the entire field of Geology.
As Muslims growing up in our highly educated society, our primary education lasts approximately 12 years, followed by a 4 year undergraduate program and possibly a 2-3 year masters program. Along the way, we will absorb information in our respective fields or gain general knowledge about the latest advancements through online articles, talks, and videos. Now consider Islamic education in the West. The average Muslim grows up with a folk understanding of Islam from friends and family. At best, one might attend a Sunday School program for a few months for 3 hours a week. That’s it.
Many Muslims have never heard the Sīrah (Biography of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ), know the fardh ‘ayn (obligations of action upon every individual Muslim) or even the basic practices of ritual purity. So when the Western Muslim is confronted with complex questions of theology, law, ethics, philosophy, or spirituality, he has no ability to answer nor even know to whom to field such questions. Some Muslims, even if they can defend their faith, in their innocent ignorance, do so in incorrect ways that may even appeal to the framework of their interlocutor. For example, if asked why pig meat consumption is prohibited, one may answer it is an unclean animal. That answer implies that clean or healthy pig meat from a pig raised in sterile conditions is permissible. Worse yet, many Muslims hold incoherent or false positions of their own faith, mistakenly articulate them and are forced to defend them. When they are unable to do so, it leads to a sense of inferiority and eventually rejection.
Thus far this essay has enumerated three social factors that lead to an inferiority complex in the faith and a gradual rejection of Islam. But Allah has not left American Muslims without guidance. It took me many years of deep personal questioning to break down atheist ideation, hold it at arm’s length and critique its arbitrary premises. Among many areas, there are three fundamental paths forward: Seeking the company of our scholars, meditative remembrance of God, and separating ourselves from negative social influences.
My Shaykh once asked our majlis (spiritual circle) where he felt that American Muslims had gone wrong. Each person gave their unique insights and possible solutions. In the end, the Shaykh said one of our main mistakes was to sever our connection from traditionally trained Islamic scholarship. Islamic scholars are far from the stereotypical uneducated backward simpleton. (For the Urdu speakers, think “Molvis”) These are men and women who have poured their heart and soul into gaining spiritual insights, understanding the Deen, and conveying it to the next generation. As the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets“.
The first solution is to seek out people of deep Islamic knowledge and spend time with them. For example, most masjids have an after-Isha short talk. Afterward, one may ask questions or discuss daily life occurrences. While small, this is among the best spiritual foods a Muslim can consume. Another option is to attend the myriad of regular seminars and programs that schematically teach the faith, whether the Al-Maghrib Institute or Madina Institute. These intensive programs disseminate knowledge and increase our spiritual connection to God and love of his Prophet ﷺ. And if even this escapes your ability, seek out the online lectures of great English speaking scholars, such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Ustadh Yasir Qadhi, Imam Zaid Shakir, Ustadh Omar Suleiman and related personalities.
The purpose of listening to their expositions is to help us see the world through a clean lens, rather than through our collective secular indoctrination. The various exponents of the tradition each speak of different aspects of our lives and explain the relevant guidance Allah has provided.
In a famous hadith, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of two men, one who spent time with a blacksmith and his clothes became soiled and one who spent time with a perfume dealer and he smelled of musk, while neither men themselves engaged in the business activity. This story shows us that our company has profound impact on our spiritual state. So seek out the company of the scholastic and spiritual masters of this faith. Even if we ourselves are not righteous, may we at least attain the fragrances of righteousness.
Spend time in your fleeting moments of quietude focusing on Allah. In particular, busy a part of your day with a regiment of sacred litany (dhikr). This means to chant an expression from the Qur’an or prophetic tradition, hoping that Allah accepts it from us and uses it as a means to clean our hearts. There are two encompassing remembrances that every Muslim should practice. First, submit salutations upon the Noble Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his pure household. This is commonly referred to as Salawāt or durūd sharīf. As Allah says in the Qur’an,
“Without a doubt, God and the Angels are sending their salutations upon the Prophet. O you who believe, send your blessings upon him, and send him much messages of peace”.
Additionally, regularly seek forgiveness from Allah for the multitude of mistakes that we have made throughout our lives. Both of these two can be done quietly to oneself while driving to school, work or while running errands. The importance is not the quantity, but the quality and consistency.
In Sūrah al-Kahf, Allah tells us of a story of a group of young people who were so distraught by the negative social pressures in their society that they sought refuge in a cave. Allah miraculously put them to sleep and they awoke centuries later to find that society had progressed towards Allah. One of the many lessons is that sometimes we must retreat from the harm, lest we be affected.
I am not suggesting people run away to caves. Rather, in modern times, this means to divorce yourself from deleterious social influences. We are not hypnagogia consumers of media, we can choose to disassociate from the harmful. At some point, we must recognize that there are some things we cannot change and it is best to just walk away. Each person knows their own situation and it is difficult to suggest specific examples, but this typically means celebrity gossip, adult cartoon shows, vulgar TV programs, profane forms of entertainment and even people who encourage you to commit sin. While one may perceive himself to be free from the harm, many aspects of popular culture contain subtle social messages, slogans, and influences that are corrosive to one’s faith. As an example, if you watch Family Guy, notice that the atheist dog Brian is well-spoken, cultured and presents clear solutions to problems, whereas characters of faith are dishonest, evasive when questioned and irrational. This is no accident. Replace this with positive aspects of life, such as spending time with our elders, taking care of the poor, visiting the sick, regular exercise, studying the faith, advancing one’s career and private spirituality. Once a man came to the Prophet ﷺ and complained of his hard heart. The Prophet ﷺ told him to “wipe the heads of the orphans”, an expression meaning “take care of the orphans who were unwashed and unloved.” This is our cave.
While there is a component of the mind, the belief in God is not purely an intellectual proposition. Therefore, the attacks against our faith are not merely rational arguments. Instead, they are cultural and social influences that gradually corrode our faith and replace our clear vision of the world with distortion that causes us to reject the faith. This brief essay enumerates three factors. If Muslims in the US wish to preserve Islam for future generations, the path forward is to reconnect with our intellectuals, return to the path of spirituality and reject harmful social influences.
We Muslims in the US are a precarious minority and the result of this generation’s decisions will have long-lasting consequences on generations to come. If we hold firm to our Deen, we will see a vibrant, thriving, self-confident American Muslim community that perhaps even spreads the faith. If we fail, the immediate generation of Muslims may survive, but it may result in a future of people who say, “My parents were Muslims, I am not.”
May Allah show us the truth as truth and bless us to follow it and see falsehood as falsehood and the ability to refrain.