If we carefully understand what the Secular Age is, then I believe we take one step closer to understanding exactly how it is that, although our Muslim predecessors before modernity possessed less knowledge about the material universe and resources than us, they had more conviction about their faith and deen, which enabled them to establish and leave a legacy of a profound civilization; and why, despite our currently having more knowledge and resources, we are plagued with less conviction about ourselves and our faith, and therefore contribute less to our communities and to civilization as a whole.
Most people understand secularity to mean different things. In Europe, the word “secular” indicates state control of religion and religious institutions. In the US, however, secularity indicates merely the separation of church and state. But this does not help us in comprehending what secularity exactly is. When we state that we live in a secular age or a secular time, what does that mean? It’s helpful to consult Charles Taylor for a penetrating answer to this question. He indicates three components that comprise the secular age we live in. The first is that our public spaces have become stripped of any and all references to an ultimate or transcendent reality. This has produced devastating consequences for Muslims in particular and people of faith in general. In pre-modern societies, Muslim civilizations contained public spaces where seeking fulfillment beyond immediate human gratification was normal; where living meant being immersed in social, economic, political, and intellectual conditions that were conducive to a moral and spiritual life, and not simply theories that were subject to yearly and quarterly revisions. In those societies, people were actively and constantly engaged in the reinforcement of certainty in a moral and spiritual worldview that was externalized into various concrete manifestations such as art, architecture, clothes, motifs, literature, poetry, and even to a certain extent, music. Living with an active reference to God and the transcendent realm existed as a framework or a condition for living for which there was no real alternative. Secularity has evicted God and any reference to Him or any ultimate reality for that matter, from all public spaces. As Taylor points out,
whereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed based on some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection...Or taken from another side, as we function within various spheres of activity - economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational - the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the “rationality” of each sphere - maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political arena, and so on.2
Spaces and even time become stripped of the sacredness that for millennia had functioned as a reminder of the life to come. Because of this, the Secular Age is one in which humanity no longer searches for fulfillment outside of this world or beyond the human condition. Humanism itself is the locus of the search for meaning and goals. All drive and pleasures are reduced to the Quranic concept of the self and its whims, the nafs and the hawa.
The second component of secularity is an overall decline in belief in God and in religious practice among believers themselves. This phenomenon is a consequence of the first component. Belief itself has become subject to scrutiny in the “rational” sense and as a result it becomes juxtaposed with disbelief not only in theory but in practice. This does not mean that there were no disbelievers in pre-modern Muslim societies. It means simply that disbelief in Muslim societies in the past was not normalized at all. I am using disbelief here to indicate not diversity in faith, but the rejection of the notion of God or a transcendent, ultimate reality. Even in Western Europe, there was no conception of atheism until the 17th century. It was inconceivable in pre-modern Europe that someone would not believe in God. In the Secular Age, belief and disbelief in God not only is equally conceivable but equally acceptable. The mass acceptability in society of unbelief and of uncertainty of belief is normalized now. The Secular Age produces so many viable options for what it means to be human that Muslims themselves have accepted the multiplicity of options rather than questioning the options. Our engagement in a multiplicity of manners of thinking and being have pulled us into doubt. There are so many alternatives that certainty (yaqeen) in belief is no longer a given. We doubt certainty even exists because the majority of people are uncertain and appear perfectly happy living in conditions of doubt. Enter component three of the secular age: new conditions of belief.
This final ingredient is the presence of this doubt coming home to roost. Secularity involves living under conditions where doubt is the norm, and because it is normalized it becomes acceptable and okay. As Muslims, since the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) from Mecca to Medina to just after World War I, we have always been a people who have lived in a society where belief in God was never seriously challenged. Now, there are few places on earth where that is the case. Faith in a higher power has simply become one of many possibilities. This phenomenon has been called the Nova Effect.3
Because the Secular Age has ushered in the equalization of the polar opposites of orthodoxy and disbelief, a multiplicity of other options have emerged to fill in the gap.
I like to illustrate this with the analogy of going to the grocery store to buy cereal. In the past, there were simply two to three options of cereal. Today, in all grocery stores, there are so many options for cereal that all stores now have entire aisles for cereals. When you walk down the aisle and examine the options, the presence of literally dozens (and hundreds if you add the family sizes and small packs) of options is enough to either keep you dazed and confused for minutes on end, or to turn you off to the point where you walk away. Our predecessors would be horrified to find that the Secular Age has complicated things that used to be insignificant such as what to eat for breakfast. Insignificant matters have become so complicated that we are conditioned to reject simple submission to and acceptance of divine authority. The Nova Effect pushes us to explore new things based on the myriad of alternatives before us and thus the level of certainty behind the correctness of our choices is reduced.