Coming Out of the Closet as a “Secular Muslim”

This is a guest post by a Pakistani student pursuing his masters degree from Columbia University. He wishes to remain anonymous in order avoid any difficulties upon returning to Pakistan.

A few days ago I went to a Jewish musical event and had an interesting conversation with the organizer of the event. While describing her passion for Jewish music and food, she told me that she was a “secular Jew.” “For me, being a Jew is not necessarily a religious label, instead it’s an ethno-cultural label. I am secular in outlook and am married to a Christian, but I identify with and cherish the Jewish tradition, culture, history and community,” she said. This statement really resonated with me as it reflected my own conception of my identity as a Muslim. I have been brought up as a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country and my passport even says I’m Muslim. Therefore, the Muslim identity and label is something that definitely applies to me and I own and cherish it as well, but what does it mean when I define myself as a Muslim?

Caligraphy by MA Bukhari

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According to a recent survey, half of American Jews consider themselves to be secular . People don’t find it too surprising or contradictory when they meet “secular Jews,” as it is an identity that people are familiar with and understand. On the other hand, the term “secular Muslim” is not an identity that has been acknowledged, accepted or expected in today’s world. But guess what? They exist! There is a whole spectrum of Muslim identities ranging from various forms of sects and sub-sects to a rainbow of religiosity.

I am someone who isn’t really religious and my worldview isn’t necessarily informed by the religious text, but I participate in traditional Muslim celebrations, like Eid, I enjoy visiting shrines of Sufi Saints and I respect the Muslim traditions surrounding birth, marriage and death. I do not think I have to give up that label just because I am not religiously inclined as being a Muslim is. It can be a cultural identity rather than just a religious one, and I can not give up this cultural identity even if I tried—it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

Human identities are complex but they are important; how we define and label ourselves can have deep emotional and personal significance to us. Amidst the various labels and identities that define us, sometimes it helps to realize that the gray areas and seemingly contradictory juxtapositions are in fact the areas of our self that really make us the individuals we are, and provide us with the best tools to navigate and understand the world in flexible ways. So here’s me coming out as a “secular Muslim” and I’m sure there are numerous others out there!

What do you think of the secular Muslim identity? Can someone be an atheist and still be Muslim? How might secular Islam differentiate from secular Judaism or secular Christianity?  Why is secular Islam not discussed as much as secular Judaism or secular Hinduism, for example?

13 thoughts on “Coming Out of the Closet as a “Secular Muslim”

  1. I think it is definitely possible to be a secular Muslim, to an extent. For a majority of “born Muslims” it isn’t a big deal to fast during Ramadan, or to interject Islamic expressions that they’re familiar with. It’s the same as Christians who only attend a church on Christmas or Easter, or Jews on Rosh Hashanah.

    However, identifying as a Muslim isn’t always considered ethnic identity the way Jewish people view themselves as an ethnicity, it’s a religious faith, so I think it’s nearly impossible to 100% consider oneself a “secular” Muslim when a belief in God is necessary.

  2. Absolutely agree that it’s possible. But I’d also agree with Laith’s comment that “Muslim” is not an ethnic identity… “Pakistani Ismailis,” “Jordanian Salafis,” “Cambodian Chams,” and others are all “Muslim” but don’t even speak the same language and don’t look similar, let alone follow the same secular, or even religious practices!

    So keeping it at culturally “Muslim” may not be sufficient… another hyphen might add clarity!

    That being said, even when American Jews mean they are “ethnically Jewish” they tend to refer to the cultural practices and historical experiences of Yiddish, Ashkenazi Jewish culture, which are very different from those of Iranian, Indian, and other Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.

    But the notion of a secular or irreligious person who participates in Muslim-influenced culture and practices is certainly possible!!

  3. I am not a Muslim but I do understand the guest writer’s point of view. Why can’t one still pay homage to their God in a private way and participate fully in the traditions of that culture? For the majority of my life, I have been a secular Christian and many of my friends would consider themselves to be secular Jews. For some people, culture and traditions define their practices and social circles. I think it is important to discuss and identify oneself as a secular Muslim and not stay hidden in the closet. I am glad the guest writer has taken that step. There is so much work to be done in this country to educate our citizens about what it means to be a secular Muslim as well as a Muslim who also practices their faith. I appreciate an article like this as it opens up the possibility for conversations about who some of our neighbors or coworkers might really be instead of making assumptions about them based solely on the knowledge that they are Muslims. We are all people first and where we were born or what the religiosity of the family we were born into is does not necessarily dictate what our belief system is or is not as we begin our adult lives. It is my hope that other secular Muslims will begin to identify themselves as such so that in the future, with education and time, discussions about secular Muslims will be given as much credence as discussions about secular Christians or Jews.

  4. This is an extremely thought-provoking blog. I am not a Muslim or a secular Muslim so my reaction has to be taken with a grain of salt because of my limited knowledge. It seems to me that traditional religious beliefs is a part of being a Muslim, but is only a part. That is why when someone says they are a secular Jew, that statement is fully accepted and understood. There is no reason why referring to oneself as a secular Muslim should be treated any differently.

  5. I’m just the average Joe, but it seems to me that the writer needs to be a little braver. Come out and really say what you mean. You either believe in God or you don’t. That is the issue here, is it not? It doesn’t matter to me, and it is a private question, but since you posted it on a public forum, I’m writing this for you, privately, in the only way I can. Now, if you don’t believe in God, then why not just be ‘someone from Pakistan/wherever you’re from’? Is that not as nice sounding? I agree, it doesn’t sound as nice as Muslim. But here’s this: how many Muslims truly submit? Even those who believe, many do not submit in a way that they themselves find sufficient. They would have no problem, because they believe in God, saying that they are not very good Muslims, like I will often say to myself (not to others because these things are better left to oneself and private meditation)

    If you do believe in God, then what is it that prevents you saying the following: I’m a Muslim, I believe in God, I believe in the Prophet, but I’m not very deep into the faith as far as my understanding, knowledge etc. I’d like to get better in that regard. What is it that caps the bottle? Are you satisfied with your position or do you wish to improve in this regard? Cradle to the grave, improvement?

    Speaking of which, it is great that you visit Sufi shrines, I know you must have felt the atmospheres and beauty therein. I’d point out that one of the key concepts in that particular aspect of Islam is the ego and the focus on eliminating pride in oneself.

    Perhaps you do not feel like furthering your depth of knowledge in Islam (Sufism would be a great place for you to enter more deeply). If you did so, you might find contentment in that, instead of seeking to emulate a rather un-challenging and imitated title from our Jewish friends (and yes I have a very good friend who refers to herself as a secular Jew, also). What does that give you? The title ‘Secular Muslim’? Does it give you pride in the sense that you are not duped by the foolish notions of belief in a God? So that the seemingly ever-increasing groups of sneering, self-satisfied non-believing people you see around you may accept you as intellectually equal? If so, that is the same sort of pride that will hurt you and do you no good.

    One can go on and on about subtleties and nuances of identity as much as one wishes, the fact remains, you either believe in your heart that there is a Lord who made you, or you may cover and reject that idea. I think it would serve your life a greater tribute if you decided fully which of those two groups you belonged to before you tried to justify yourself as a secular Muslim or any other self-appointed title. That would be a braver, far more honorable and important thing for you than writing this short little article for the world to see. You are, after all, just a human being. And God knows best, doesn’t He?
    Yes 🙂

    Wishing sincere success to you on your forwards journey insha’Allah
    Peace.

  6. @ Joseph

    I enjoyed reading your comment and find much food for thought. I noticed that you and others posting heree seem to have an understanding that equates the word secular to a lack of belief in God. I see this orwellian juxtaposition of atheism and secular attitudes by both atheists and religious conservatives.

    Secular to me means relating more to worldly matters and explanations than spiritual ones in one’s daily life. It’s an attitude. It does not imply a lack of belief in a religion or a belief in the existance of God.

    I wonder if the author of this article was using the term secular Muslim to mean what I think it may mean.

  7. I agree that the Jewish identity is intimately tied with ethnic identity more than the Muslim identity is, but my point was whether it’s possible that the term “Muslim” can mean more than a religious identity? Some of you have raised the question in your comments, “Is it necessary to believe in God to use a religious title?” I will try to give my own personal take on this matter.

    Joseph has suggested that it would be better if I just use my nationality as a title if I’m just referring to cultural practices. I disagree with that suggestion because it’s based on the assumption that everyone in Pakistan is a Muslim or practice the same kind of cultural traditions that I do. Secondly, my nationality can change, I can immigrate and become a citizen of some other country but my religion-based traditions, heritage and practices won’t necessarily change. National identity is definitely not a suitable label to capture the aspects of identity that I’m talking about.

    Moving on to the question of believing in God, I personally am agnostic about it and don’t like to invoke supernatural explanations to explain things in this world. Therefore, the real question behind that question was whether I have the right to use a religious identity marker, like “Muslim” if I don’t even believe in God? The simple point of the original article was to challenge this idea and to claim that identities are complex, and just because it threatens a lot of people to acknowledge that non-believers can be within their community, doesn’t mean that they are any less socialized within that tradition.

    I am very much steeped in Muslim culture and it is part of my identity in numerous ways–there is no way I can divorce myself from that. Yes, I can choose to discard the label “Muslim” for something else but why exactly should I do that? The plain fact is that just because I don’t believe in the faith is not going to stop me from being pulled out and searched in the airports or people are not going to stop perceiving me as a “Muslim” (or at least an ex-Muslim—note still indirectly invoking the same label) because of my name, national origin etc.

    The contention here is basically whether a religious identity marker can be used by someone who is not a believer and my point is yes! Yes it can, because religious identities are never only about the faith, they are about the culture, they are about the history, and sometimes they are about the identities in and of themselves devoid of their original philosophy.

  8. I am not sure that the term “secular muslim” is acceptable for usage. It seems like a contradiction in terms. The word “muslim” refers to a person who submits to the will of God. A person who calls him/herself a muslim recognises this and bears witness to the declaration. If you are agnostic, you shouldn’t play around with terms that mean much to so many people-It is insulting.

  9. Yes indeed it is insulting to a lot of people for an athiest/agnostic to use the label “Muslim”, but so what? No body has a right to be protected from being offended! Offending people is and should not be a crime; you can be as offended as you want that doesn’t mean that my beliefs and speech should be censored in order to respect your sensibilities. I think the test of maturity for Muslims all over the world, in fact for all religious people, is to tolerate the fact that not everyone will respect your belief system and some people will subvert it and appropriate it according to their own purposes. You should be free to believe what ever you want, but let me repeat, you are not protected from being offended, but learn to deal with it! So I am very much a Muslim and there’s no way I will let go of that identity label even while I go about my agnostic evolution-supporting, pro-life, pro-gay, pro-legalization of all drugs, porn and prostitution, pro-secularism, free sex/love polyamorous ways.

  10. Why equate Muslim and Christian with bonafide nomenclature that belies their standing with the God they ID with? (Sorry to end my sentence with a preposition 🙂

  11. How about a “non-practicing Muslim” or “lazy Muslim” or “cultural Muslim”. Why make your personal beliefs out to be a political statement (which is what you’re doing, in addition to lecturing Muslims)? I don’t feel the need to identify myself in order to satisfy other peoples’ preconceived notions about identities—this goes for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I’m an agnostic if I were to dig within myself, but the question has never came up because I’m comfortable in being who i am. From reading your original writing and your comments, it seems you just wanted a platform to spew your inner political beliefs. You sound confused and reactionary. And FWIW, Muslims could care less about being offended, but a campaign of deliberate dehumanization and misinformation for very real confrontational political ends is not and should not be acceptable to anyone.

  12. This is a great conversation and much more civil than say the ones on major media websites. I find the use of ‘secular’ attached to a religion really interesting, however, completely unnecessary.

    Though I grew up with a religion I would personally never choose to identify as a ‘secular – XYZ’. I can participate with family and friends on their holidays, eat the meals, exchange gits, etc., just as I can with others of different religions.

    I don’t feel the need for a label in this regard. I have a nationality and an ethnic background. Aren’t those enough labels?