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?
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?