Islam and the Secular Age: Between Certainty and Uncertainty part 2.

By Khalil Abdurrashid

The Quest for Certainty in what it Means to be Human.
So what does all of this mean for the condition of Muslims living in a Secular Age? First, it means that we live without constant societal reminders of, or references to, God. Second, we live under social conditions where belief and unbelief are considered equal rivals, and this affects not only us, but the next generation. Third, the Nova Effect means that more and more options for alternative lifestyles that claim to provide a fulfilling life for the human being become available. The answer to what it means to be human and how to live accordingly become “all or any of the above” instead of merely “option a, b, or c.” We as Muslims live under different conditions from our predecessors. The difference between pre-modernity and modernity involves differences in not only the questions we ask but how and under what conditions they are asked. We ask moral questions just as our predecessors did, but the kinds of moral questions we ask are different because of the conditions that give rise to the questions push us to cast doubt on the answer even before that answer is produced.
Yet there is a solution to this apparent malaise. The solution is to ignore the options and search for certainty itself. In the first revelation of the Quran, we are informed of the paradigmatic state of the human being as one who learns – a prerequisite to exiting doubt. The Quran says, “He taught man that which he did not know.”[4] The Prophet peace and blessings be upon him said, “Leave that which makes you doubt, for that which does not make you doubt.”[5] Doubt, termed shakk in Arabic, is a stage that is two steps away from certainty in Islam. When one leaves doubt, one then enters into the stage of belief (zann). This is a thorny area because belief may or may not be properly justified. As belief increases in intensity it becomes conviction (ghalabat zann). Conviction is mathematically described by some scholars as being between 75-98% sure about the validity of one’s belief. When one reaches 99%, certainty (yaqeen) is achieved.
Reference to certainty appears in three different ways in the Quran. The first is certainty based upon knowledge and learning. This is termed in the Quran, ilm al-yaqeen.[6] Learning involves accurate conceptualization of and proper judgment about a thing. In order to accomplish this, we need to ensure that we understand and define the relevant constructs properly, a feature that is normally the central facet in any course on Aristotelian logic. The ability to properly conceptualize concepts leads to our ability to precisely define terminology, and this in turn enhances our ability to speak and formulate propositions and thereby reason correctly. This is central to knowing and understanding. We live in an era now in which the Nova Effect has produced so much uncertainty and doubt to the point where many no longer understand and reason. Essentially, we have become a society that no longer “knows” anymore. The Secular Age has conditioned us to think differently. Consequently, achieving certainty becomes a tall order of business.
The second form of certainty is based upon observation and is called in the Quran, ayn al-yaqeen.[7] This level of certainty arises from a high degree of conviction that emerges from witnessing a phenomenon. The overwhelming majority of sensory input is visual. Witnessing phenomena facilitates conviction in their validity or reality. However, if the environment and phenomena that we witness on a daily basis, such as architectural structures, social media, and even art are bereft of sacred references then we reduce ourselves to a certainty in only material phenomena. Furthermore, the problem is that the understanding of reality is actually undermined because in the Secular Age we have now become so skeptical that we scrutinize even our witnessing of things to such an extent that we lose any conviction about having witnessed something in the first place. Therefore, nothing but doubt remains and reigns. This goes back to the damage done by the Secular Age in taking references to God and the transcendent realm out of public spaces. It de-facilitates certainty based upon witnessing spectacular events.
The third form of certainty in Quranic terms is haqq ul-yaqeen.[8] This refers to certainty that arises as a result of personal experience. Our experiences have drastically shifted from those of our predecessors. The Secular Age has altered our reliance on spiritual and in many cases interpersonal and natural experiences. We go to see a horror movie to get scared because we crave the artificiality of a horror film. But people who believe in possession and Jinn don’t need to watch movies about paranormal activity. We struggle and even travel to obtain the simplest experiences that were daily phenomena for our pre-modern predecessors. We are cut off and detached from spiritual experiences and have traded them for rationalized routine. What’s worse is that we have accepted this condition of affairs of depriving ourselves from experiencing what is beyond this temporal life. We are content in living life to the fullest extent materially but not experiencing its spiritual depths. The Secular Age is an age in which self-sufficient humanism, defined by frequently shifting standards, is enough. This means that there has actually been a shift in the object of experience. The Secular Age no longer wants people to engage in spiritual, transcendental, profoundly intellectual experiences. The object of experience now is the human person herself. It’s a radicalized version of individualism. Not only am I concerned with me, but only the trinity of me, myself and I alone can suffice me. It is the ultimate inversion of the Islamic eschatological system: I reward myself and I punish myself. Life is essentially about me ascending into higher degrees of pleasing myself and finding comfort in myself – nothing outside of me matters anymore. Self-sufficing humanism not only is an option in the Secular Age, but it is a widely available and arguably the dominant option. Any goal or objective beyond human flourishing becomes very difficult to conceptualize. This shifts the goal away from certainty to something entirely uncertain, for the self is prone to instability.
We are now living in an age where these three forms of Quranic certainty have been eroded and this begs the following questions: How can we reclaim certainty and its forms, as articulated in the Quran, in the Secular Age? What are the possibilities and impossibilities of certain kinds of experiences in the Secular Age?
Islam and the Bulwarks of Certainty
Certainty is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Quran. The Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him, and by extension his followers, are urged in the Quran to “worship your Lord until what is certain (al-yaqeen) comes to you.”[9]What is certain, in this verse, indicates two things, according to scholars of Quranic exegesis.[10] The first indication is death.[11] Death is the ultimate answer for what it means to be human. For no matter what we build and what we do, we must all deal with death in general and individually we will all pass away. Therefore, the initial meaning is to be consistent believers and hold on steadfast to your principles, your practices and your convictions throughout your encounters with the deaths of others and until we ourselves pass away.
The second indication in the verse is certainty itself.[12] This means that the role of constant ritual worship (ibada) in Islam on a daily basis is to facilitate and reinforce certainty in all its forms. First, we must learn how to perform ritual worship, what validates it, what invalidates it, how we may improve upon the quality of our ritual performances, and the like. We must also learn about Who it is we are worshipping and why; what exactly it is that differentiates God from the world, and what the last revelation has to say about all of this. This facilitates certainty at one level. Then we must practice what we learn and witness others practice as well. This will bring about our witnessing a level of our own conviction and that of others that will inspire us as well, thereby facilitating certainty in witnessing spectacular events.
The Secular Age has shifted the focus from the afterlife to this present life. Al-Attas analyzes this shift very nicely, as he explains,
The term secular, from the Latin saeculum, conveys a meaning with a marked dual connotation of time and location; the time referring to the “now” or “present” sense of it, and the location to the “world” or “worldly” sense of it. Thus saeculum means “this age” or “the present time,” and this age or the present time refers to events in this world and it also then means “contemporary events.” Secularization is defined as the deliverance of man first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and his language. Secularization encompasses not only the political and social aspects of life, but also inevitably the cultural, for it denotes the disappearance of religious determination of the symbols of cultural configuration.[13]
This last sentence is important for us to reflect on. The effect of secularism being cultural means that it affects change in values that are constructs that define good and evil; that it affects identity and symbols; and that language itself is affected as well as our understanding of gender roles and now even of gender. Yet in addition to all of these, what is most serious is that consciousness itself is affected. American Muslims have a different notion from our predecessors of what it means to be Muslim. All of this is rooted in the fact that there has been a dramatic shift causing a change in the conditions of belief. Public spaces, a decline in belief and practice, and new conditions governing belief have contributed to our inward turn to humanism in order to navigate the numerous choices that currently exist which have slowly eroded our sense of confidence in faith and religion to determine our values for us.
The principles by which we determine what to believe or do must in the end, so it is often held, be principles of our own making. Once the Enlightenment has undergone the notion that they are imposed on us by a higher-being, and the Scientific Revolution shown that they cannot be read off the fabric of the world, which is now seen to be normatively mute and devoid of directives, the conclusion appears inescapable that we alone must be their sources. The authority of any principle of thought and action is an authority we bestow upon it ourselves.[14] Because we rely on ourselves, we doubt more and certainty becomes more distant.
Certainty is achieved through knowledge acquired from learning, not through sound bites, gossip, and rhetoric. Certainty is enhanced by proper religious practice, not from an idiosyncratic posture of disengaged-inclusion. Certainty reaches its zenith with truly profound, reflective, transcendental experiences, not episodic encounters with others on social media and productions of fiction. These forms of certainty and the pursuit
of certainty itself must endure, until our certainty meets what is ultimately certain about our existence – its end.
[1] Makari, George, Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, pg. xii-xiii.
[2] Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007, pg. 1-2.
[3] Ibid, pg. 302.
[4] Quran 96:5.
[5] Nawawi, The Complete 40 Hadith, London, 1998, Hadith 11.
[6] Quran 102:5.
[7] Quran 102:.7
[8] Quran 56:95
[9] Quran 15:99
[10] See the two views in Tafsir al-Tabari and al-Bahr al-Madid (Ibn Ajiba).
[11] Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Al-Jami al-Bayan fi Ta’weel al-Quran, Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, vol. 7, 1971, pg. 554.
[12] Ibn Ajiba, Al-Bahr al-Madid, Beirut, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 2005, vol. 3, pg. 414.
[13] Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib, Islam and Secularism, IBFIM, Kuala Lumpur, 2014, pg.17.
[14] Larmore, Charles, The Autonomy of Morality, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, pg. 1
Adapted with editorial modifications from

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