Islam and the Secular Age: Q&A with Dr. Khalil Abdurrashid

Traversing Tradition and Yaqeen Institute have collaborated to provide a question and answer follow-up to Yaqeen Institute’s research papers, allowing readers further engagement with the author. In this article, we had the blessed opportunity to ask Dr. Khalil Abdurrashid questions about his article, Islam and the Secular Age: Between Certainty and Uncertainty.

Dr. Khalil Abdurrashid is the first full-time University Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University, Instructor of Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and Public Policy Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He also served as Imam for several years in New York City and several years as Scholar-in-Residence at a major Islamic Center in North Dallas. He is the co-founder, along with his wife, of the Islamic Seminary of America in Dallas and worked as an instructor of Islamic Studies in the Graduate of Liberal Studies Program at Southern Methodist University. His full biography is available here

1) How has secularism affected the Muslim perspective on acts of worship, particularly fasting in Ramadan?

In many cases, secularism has affected our acts of worship by compartmentalizing and reducing the meaning of worship. So worship regarding the prayer is something done only at fixed times and afterwards, the consciousness of God, which is the purpose of the prayer, is lost. With fasting, the spirit is also lost, for the fast is reduced to weight loss or to gluttony during the night. We starve ourselves during the day and fill out bellies at night, not understanding that the secret in fasting lies in maintaining moderation and curbing our appetite for satiety. Secularism, therefore, strips us of the spiritual practices behind our rituals and leaves us, if we are not careful, with a hollowed-out perspective towards practicing Islam. 

2) A response to the secular approach to knowledge has been the Islamization of knowledge movement, which seeks to “practice knowledge-based activity (discovery, collection, composition, and publication) from an Islamic point of view.” How can we begin to practically rearrange the subjects we study to fit within an Islamic epistemology centered around tawhid and built upon yaqeen?

We must remember that Islamic epistemology incorporates four methods. Three of those four are empiricism, rationalism, and Divine revelation. All three are to be incorporated in the learning process. The secular age, again, compartmentalizes and separates each into a segregated realm – with a stark division between Divine revelation on the one side and empiricism and rationalism on the other. Yaqeen in the learning process emerges when all three mechanisms work together. The Islamization of knowledge is the blending of all three epistemic systems of acquiring knowledge into a harmonious symphony that reinforces and animates the notion that there is only one Creator and Sustainer of all things – Allah Himself. When the five senses (empiricism), the mind (rationalism), and revelation are employed by the human being to access the world and everything about it, then Truth (Haqq) emerges, and certainty (Yaqeen) behind that Truth begins to flourish. This is called in the Quran “ilm al-Yaqeen” or Certainty of Knowledge.

The fourth aspect of Islamic epistemology is knowledge derived from lived spiritual experience. This in the Quran is called, “Ayn al-Yaqeen” or Certainty of Experience (or experiential certainty). This emerges from encounters that a person has that fosters undeniable but oftentimes unprovable knowledge about a matter. Falling in love, for instance, is a good example. It is impossible to prove but nonetheless certainly experienced. It is not an empirical matter, nor rational, nor revelational per se but entirely experiential and can be quite spiritual as well. 

Therefore, the Islamization of knowledge, built upon Yaqeen incorporates all four methods of acquiring knowledge (reason, science, Divine revelation, and experience) into the learning and teaching process. 

3) How do Muslims living in a secular society embark on the exploration of certainty and at the same time, avoid the tempting myriad of alternatives presented to them? Would not leaving the plethora of doubtful alternatives immediately silence us from further certainty-seeking? 

We must first embrace our doubt, not deny it. In embracing our doubt, we must then embark on an Islamic approach to knowledge, and this is the meaning of Iqra, “read”. Remember the second verse though – “Read! In the name of your Lord who has created you.” Reading as an act is rational and empirical, and even revelatory when we read with an appreciation of searching for Allah. If we embrace our doubt, but fill it with secular approaches to “reading” and learning, we will never transcend doubt, but instead, just become more sophisticated doubters – glorified sophists. The glorified sophist produces a cacophony of noise thinking they have orchestrated a symphony. Sound is not harmony, and information is not knowledge. Knowledge removes doubt but many times we substitute information for knowledge and expect it to operate the same way. Muslims living in a secular age are inundated with information and add to that the digital age we live in and the access to information is compounded. Information is disposable, requiring neither practice nor intention or sincerity. It is divorced from history and morality and therefore the consumer of information is not taught to reflect and think deeply about it. It is consumed and disposed of soon after. Knowledge, however, is different. It requires practice that reinforces it, gives life to it, allows it to grow, and thereby becomes light for its practitioner. Light illuminates and therefore the person’s mind and insight are brightened, which produces new knowledge bequeathed to them. Allah in the Quran says that He is the Light of the heavens and earth. The light from knowledge is a gift from Allah and this gift of illumination is also a gift of knowledge. It erases doubt and replaces it with certainty. Information, on the other hand, just replaces information with new information. The best information is considered up-to-date, but being up-to-date is not like being illuminative. This is why the Prophet said, “Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim, male and female.” 

4) How do you think language–especially that of people of faith, is affected by permeating secular biases? How would you explain Ramadan to someone without falling into this?

Language is only a problem when it doesn’t produce the right concepts. The Prophet said, “Speak to people according to their intellect.” The Prophet spoke to people who were not people of faith. Finding the right concepts is important. But what unites us is that we are all human beings and Islam is for humanity and therefore all people are capable of understanding its teachings. Explaining Ramadan entails a proper conception of the importance of training the self (nafs). It also entails understanding the Quranic conception of what it means to be human. And so while language can obstruct no doubt, language is but an expression of our own conceptions and how well we are able to articulate those conceptions.  

5) What alternatives to the secular Nation-State model could we see arise in Muslim-majority nations in the near future? Do you think a Supranational Union of Islamic countries (akin to the European Union) could ever come to be?

Until Muslim leaders adopt new frameworks that deal with effective, sustainable, and just governance, instead of only “ruling”, there will be no consideration of alternative political structures. Currently, Muslim rulers view all alternatives through economic lenses, not political, religious, or social. The key to reforming political rule is to reframe it and the key to reframing it is the development of independent commercial enterprises and tax paying citizenry. When wealth is monopolized by governments, you get dictatorships (even in the guise of democracy). But when wealth is dispersed, and citizens pay taxes, their governments are held accountable and there are mechanisms to keep governments in check, when they rely on money from business and the public. The only alternative would be the revival of waqfs, the development of independent entrepreneurship at a major scale, and the independence of educational systems to train Muslim intellectuals.  

6) What are ways Muslims should respond when perceived as “extremists” for practicing their religious obligations and duties? I ask this on an individual level, but also in context of the detainment of millions of Uighur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps, many of whom (including scholars) were targeted by Chinese authorities for practicing Islam.

This requires a political and economic response. Political meaning Muslim leaders and rulers of Muslim-majority countries must begin to develop concerns for the plights of Muslim minorities who are oppressed. They alone can speak to oppressive rulers, but the problem is that many Muslim leaders themselves oppress their own populations in various ways. Economic in that boycotts and financial sanctions can be quite effective but you need wide-range support for it to be effective. As regular Muslims, our best recourse is dua, especially during the most blessed times and locations. The last ten nights of Ramadan, for instance, should be spent making dua for the Uighur Muslims in China and other oppressed Muslims globally.  

7) When the ummah was in a stronger position from a geopolitical point of view, the dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb paradigm helped in framing Islamic rulings and offering a worldview. Do you think this conception is still relevant in the modern world of nation-states? Is there an alternative way of looking at the world you suggest?

No, we require a new world today. I’m not saying that the classical model should be thrown out but it must be further developed. This is the work of Muslim political theorists. 

8) How do you recommend Muslims go about ridding themselves from attachments to -isms and begin to understand Islam independently of these ideas? Are there particular traditional disciplines you recommend?  

Read works like Ibn Khaldun for insights into sociology, economics, and systems of governance; Ibn Tufayl for insights into education and the harm of institutionalization of religion; Ibn Rushd for insights into philosophy and law as a means for better political governance; Ghazali for insights into the interdisciplinization of Islamic knowledge and practice; and Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz for insights into how faith is reimagined and strengthened for minorities.

9) You mention in the article that the Enlightenment’s embodied mind theory led to the jettisoning of the soul and the notion of the transcendent. Could you talk about the concept of the soul in Islam, as well as its contents? From that point of view, I ask the following: 

Allah tells us in the Quran that we have been given hardly any information about the soul. What we do know is that the soul is the life matter that animates the human being and that it has faculties in conflict with the ego (nafs). The soul runs off clean energy and this energy is the remembrance of Allah (called dhikr and fikr). Food and the following of desires feeds the ego but deprives the soul of its nourishment. 

  • How should Muslims perceive and feel their innermost being? 
  • How might some Muslims rebuild a richer understanding of their inward and outer experience of life? 
  • How might Muslims incorporate transcendent experiences into their lives and their religious observance?
    In answering these three altogether, in sum, we all have faculties inside us that alert us to ourselves. These faculties are most animated when we pray and fast. They are reanimated when we do good deeds for Allah’s sake. They are cultivated and strengthened every time we engage in remembrance of Allah. We enhance the richness of our inner life by strengthening our belief in Allah through actively reflecting on Allah’s power and presence in the world, and by actively remembering Allah during the day and night regularly. This is accomplished through reading the Quran, dhikr of Allah, making dua, visiting graves and bringing to mind our own inevitable end, keeping the company of those who are spiritual, regularly traveling to places and reflecting on the wonders of Allah; traveling for the major and/or minor pilgrimage; reflecting on the stories of the Prophets of the past, and finally, by doing as many good deeds as consistently as possible in the daytime and nighttime.

Photo Credit: Amanda Levete

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Leave a Reply