The rise of secularism is leading many Muslims away from the Islamic faith. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey of American Muslims reveals that about 24% of those raised in Islam have left the faith.
This trend is not just a Western phenomenon, as The Telegraph explains: “Islam is facing a wave of desertion by young Muslims suffering from a crisis of faith … Even deeply conservative countries with strict anti-apostasy regimes like Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan have faced desertions.” It concludes, “The trend has been described as a ‘ticking bomb’ with a new generation of educated Muslims starting to question the fundamentals of their faith.” This includes Arabs, many of whom (according to Facebook), are atheists. Incredibly, Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, is the most downloaded book in the Middle East!
A similar pattern emerges throughout South Asia and Africa. For example, former Muslims in Kerala, India have recently marked January 9th “Kerala Ex-Muslim Day.” It is the first-ever platform in India for ex-Muslims. Even though leaving Islam is not a crime in India, many ex-Muslims experience social pressure and violence from their own communities, but that does not deter them. It is quite surprising to see that about as many Tunisian youth (47%) as American youth (46%) view themselves “not religious.”
Another survey shows still higher rates of apostasy: “Across the Middle East and Iran, almost half the population is loosening their ties to Islam”iv According to Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle Eastern Forum, “Atheism among Muslims is spreading like wildfire.” He references a 2012 Gallup survey where 19% of Saudis identified as “not religious.” Among Turks, Pipes says it is much more (73%). In Iran, a 2020 survey states that less than a third (32%) claim to be Muslim, while 30% identify as either atheist (8%), or non-religious (22%) and the rest ascribe to a variety of beliefs. In short, there is a revolution of faith affecting Muslims everywhere.
Islamic Scholars Respond
In August 2014, Dr. Yasir Qhadi, a popular speaker on Muslim YouTube channels, put this question to millions in his listening audience: “Why are Muslims leaving Islam?” He goes on to say that all the doubts and questions facing young minds are completely new. The troubling issues are modern ones, emerging from a specific culture that previous generations never even thought about–let alone had to deal with.
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a highly respected Islamic scholar, goes further in responding to questions Muslims ask on YouTube. He says Islam is central and authoritative to all of life, therefore secularism and Islam are incompatible in a Muslim-majority country. He then argues that Christianity and Islam are different in reference to the separation of religion and state. Whereas Islam “represents an inseparable unity in a life ruled by God alone …” secularism subordinates religion and reduces it to the corner of one’s life. Relativism, he maintains, runs counter to Islam’s irrefutable truths.
Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas also weighs in on the topic. Though his book, Islam and Secularism came out in 1974, it is still popular and quoted by Muslim scholars. This is the man who suggested an Islamic University at the First World Conference on Muslim Education in Mecca (1979), and who founded the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur. Through these remarkable achievements, he has succeeded in educating many other Islamic scholars. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. It is not surprising that he is listed as one of the most influential Muslims on the Muslim 500 website.
Attas maintains that the Muslim community is ignorant of what the secularizing process implies. He suggests it has roots in Westernization, and corruption of Biblical revelation, due to cultural relativism. To understand his point, one must be aware of traditional Islamic views that Jesus was only a prophet of Allah, who brought the Gospel to Christians. The argument goes that the Gospel was later corrupted, and this in turn led to spurious teachings like the trinity, incarnation, and salvation.
The Islamic accusation of a corrupted Injeel (New Testament) is not at all new, but what is new is how Attas uses it to refute secularism. He sharply criticizes modern Muslims for opening the door to such philosophy and smuggling alien Western ideas into the Muslim world. He also uses it to uphold the past, maintaining that traditional ideas are far superior to contemporary ones. Thus, Attas deems modern and liberal Muslim scholars inferior to traditional ones, and therefore a grave danger to Islam’s wellbeing. For Attas, only this kind of Islamic education can stop the spread of secularism and keep it from corrupting Muslim minds.
Insight from Charles Taylor
After analyzing responses from key Islamic scholars, one wonders if they understand the complexity of secularism. For this, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is helpful. While Attas and other Muslim scholars see unbelief due to secularization, they should realize that Islam is only one of many options. For Taylor, the secular age is first a plurality, where individuals get to choose for themselves. A hallmark of secularism is constant doubt and skepticism where everything is up for grabs. The question is always: what is believable? In contrast, Islam discourages doubt and disallows questions. In secularism, Muslims find space to express their doubts and escape the rigid walls of religion. It is often on YouTube where Muslim apologists hear questions and challenges to Islam. In conservative contexts, questions are not welcome, but on YouTube, Muslims break free.
Second, it is the Age of Authenticity, described as “expressive individualism.” It is the place where everyone “has his/her own way of realizing our humanity,” and the supreme virtue is tolerance (2007:46). This includes the lifestyle of rich young Muslims in Abu Dhabi, fancy-dressed college students in Lahore, or secret beach parties in Jedda, attended by bikini-clad girls. All are expressing their individualism. Third, Taylor’s “exclusive humanism” lies at the heart of secularism. Here, people search for no higher meaning and purpose than to flourish and find fulfillment (2007:28). It is the belief that the ability to accomplish anything lies within each person. YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram are unstoppable forces for humanism with the beliefs and lifestyles described above. To say such things are at odds with Islam is a complete understatement. In Muslim communities, conforming to the group to avoid shame is expected, and there is little room for tolerance if one’s individualistic lifestyle goes against the norm and current of Islam.
Islamic scholars are conscious of certain tenets of secularism, but in light of Charles Taylor´s work, it would appear they are ignorant of its major tenets. They seem oblivious to secularism’s pillars, such as religious plurality, authenticity, the ability to question things, expressive individualism, and discovering “what works for me.” All are evident in the Islamic world, especially among young people leaving Islam. Due to failures in Islamic settings, Muslims are tired and fed up: ISIS, the harsh rule of Islamists, civil wars, broken economies, corruption, and poverty are troubling them. Hence, they are looking for new answers because the old ways are no longer satisfying. Secularism promises success, untethered to religion, where people can realize their dreams and rid themselves of religion’s oppressive burdens.
In conclusion, this is the scene of the cultural and religious battlefield that must be apparent to every Christian worker seeking to win Muslims. Workers should engage Muslims in areas where Islamic scholars underestimate the depth of secularism and its effects on Islamic society. As noted above, the rate of Muslims leaving Islam is not a trickle. It is a flood. What in fact looks like a formidable challenge, however, can provide unique opportunities for Christian witness to Muslims. God can even use secularism to draw Muslims to Himself and there is evidence this is already happening. Muslims are coming to Him as never before. Who could have imagined that Iran would one day have the fastest growing church in the world, with Afghanistan in second place? Many workers have discovered that when Muslims grasp the concept that Jesus (also a prophet in Islam), loves them and welcomes their questions and doubts, they are drawn to him. Words that come from his heart, “Come unto me all you who labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest …” (Matthew 11:28-30) are the most precious words they have ever heard.