[Excerpts from “Islam and Secularism” by Sayyid Muhammed Naquib al-Attas]
Now we have said earlier that the progressive weakening of the Muslim world ‘as primarily caused by internal elements whose germs were discernible in the early periods of Islam; and we said further, with reference to these internal elements, that they created the condition of loss of adab. The chief characteristic symptom of loss of adab within the Community is the process of levelling that is cultivated horn time to time in the Muslim mind and practiced in his society. By ‘levelling’ I mean the levelling of everyone, in the mind arid the attitude, to the same level of the leveller. This mental and attitudinal process, which impinges upon action, is perpetrated through time encouragement of false leaders who wish to demolish legitimate authority and valid hierarchy so that they and their like might thrive, and who demonstrate by example by levelling the great to the level of the less great, and then to that of the still lesser. This jahili streak of individualism, of immanent arrogance and obstinacy and the tendency to challenge and belittle legitimate authority, seems to have perpetrated itself — albeit only among extremists of many sorts — in all periods of Muslim history. When Muslims become confused in their knowledge of Islam and its world view, these extremists tend to spread among them and influence their thinking and infiltrate into positions of religious leadership; then their leadership in all spheres of life tends to exhibit this dangerous streak and to encourage its practice among Muslims as if it were in conformity with the teachings of Islam. They who encourage this attitude pretend that what is encouraged is no other than the egalitarian principle of Islam, whereas in fact it is far from it in that what they propagate leads to the destruction, or at least the undermining of legitimate authority and hierarchy in the human order — it is the levelling of all to their level; it is injustice.
In our own times those who know cannot fail to notice that critics of the great and learned and virtuous among Muslims, who emulate the example of their teachers in the habit of censuring their own true leaders, are men invariably much less in authoritative worth than the lesser of the past; men whose intellectual and spiritual perception of Islam and its world view cannot even be compared with any of those of their teachers — let alone with those of the great they disparage, from whom their teachers did derive knowledge and guidance without due acknowledgement. Not a single one of the so-called Modernists and Reformers of our times, including those who masquerade as ‘ulamá‘ barely reaches the lowest level of the great ‘ulama‘ of the past and men of spiritual discernment who contributed so much to the knowledge of Islam and the Islamic world view, whether in terms of intelligence, virtue and spiritual knowledge, or in terms of volume in original, individual analyses, interpretations, commentaries and other written efforts, in fact, they never produced such works, their writings being largely of a journalistic nature and content.
They and their followers thrive where there is confusion and ignorance, where they can escape the relentless scrutiny and censure of knowledge. It is because Muslims in our age have become confused and ignorant and desperate that they see men who have, as if for the first time, opened their minds to Islam; they do not see that these men are poor imitations of the great of the past. They do not bring anything new that the illustrious Muslims of the past have not already brought nor do they clarify Islam better to the clouded vision than the immensely superior clarification accomplished by the masters of die past. Yet, it is such as they who have been most vociferous and vehement in disparaging and denouncing the past and its great the learned scholars and thinkers and jurists and men of spiritual discernment. Their conception of the past has been influenced by Western ideas on human evolution and historical development and secular science.
Because they were never really intellectually and spiritually profound, they preoccupied themselves instead with sociology and politics. Their experience of the decline of Muslim rule and the disintegration of Muslim empires made them take notice of Ibn Khaldun and they concentrated their efforts on the concept of ummah and of the state in Islam. They naturally neglect to lay as much stress on the concept of the individual and the role the individual plays in realizing and establishing the ummah and the Islamic state. Now it is true that the ummah and the Islamic state are paramount in Islam, but so is the individual Muslim, for how can the ummah and the Islamic state be developed and established if individually Muslims have become confused and ignorant about Islam and its world view and are no longer good Muslims? When they say that the decline of the Muslims was caused by corrupt leadership, their identification of cause with corrupt leadership is not quite correct. If we ask ourselves what is it that is corrupt about their leadership we will recognize at once that it is their knowledge that is corrupt which renders their leadership corrupt. Corrupt leadership is the effect, and not the cause; and it is the effect of confusion and error in knowledge of Islam and its worldview. If we accept this, then it ought to be clear that the root of the problem is no Longer to be seen as grounded in the ummah and the state. The identification of cause with the corruption of knowledge as here suggested, and not with that of leadership as they suggest, significantly shifts the ground wherein lies the root of the problem to that of knowledge, and knowledge is inherent in man as individual, and not in society and state and ummah. So, as a matter of correct strategy in our times and under the present circumstances, it is important to stress the individual in seeking a just solution to our problem rather than the society and the state. Stressing the individual implies, as a precondition for our ideas to be equipped sufficiently to enable us to grasp and present a solution to the problem, knowledge about the intelligence, virtue, and the spirit, and about ultimate destiny and purpose; for intelligence, virtue, and the spirit are elements inherent in the individual, and such knowledge is to be gained not from Western notions of psychology, which are irrelevant to us, but from Islamic tradition expounded and interpreted by our masters of time past, the men of spiritual discernment. Only in this way can we conceptualize and then realize au educational system within the Quranic framework and based upon Islamic foundations that would educate generations of Muslims to come to become good Muslims; Muslims no longer confused, but knowing and practicing and ready to realize and establish the Islamic state and to enact their proper role as a single, vigorous ummah. Otherwise — if the preoccupation is only with the ummah and the state—efforts to realize our purpose will be doomed to failure such as we have experienced; and our enemies and the ignorant intent upon confounding us will say, as they have said and are saying, that Islam is no longer ‘relevant’ today, and that the Islamic slate is merely an ideal that cannot be established and practiced in fact. The stressing of society and the state opens the door to secularism and secular ideology and secular education.