The Great Fitnah: Secular Power and Muslim Future(s) – Part 1

The Muslim Umma finds itself in a world that is not of its own making—a world that can be characterized as a Secular Age. In this context, how are we to navigate an increasingly complex landscape beset by secularity? More so, how are we to think about Muslim futures? In particular, how are we to think and act towards Muslim autonomy? How are we to reclaim an Islamic political consciousness in a secular age? These are among the most important questions that confront us.

To reclaim an Islamic political consciousness, we must first come to terms with what constitutes consciousness. The fundamental feature of consciousness is not reducible to mere awareness but lies in its negating power: the capacity to negate things as given and assign new/different meaning to them. In other words, consciousness can make the distinction between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-ought-to-be. This is its critical posture. Thus, the essential characteristic of an Islamic consciousness is its capacity to negate the pre-packaged meanings given to us in a secular world and imbue the world with meaning that originates in our own values. An alternative move—taken up by an increasing number of scholarly voices—is the pragmatic strategy of accommodation. In what follows, I will argue that these strategies are examples of a paralysis brought about by the pervasiveness of secular power. Paralysis is that state wherein secular power has curtailed our critical consciousness and forced us into a posture of resignation and cruel optimism.

In establishing this, in the context of unpacking the question of how to reclaim Islamic political consciousness, we proceed in a few steps. In this first part, we first consider what it means to be part of a Muslim Umma and discuss the nature and pervasiveness of power in general, and the nature of secular power, in particular. This is followed in part two by zooming in on specific aspects of secular power, namely, its tendency to conscript, its ability to ‘reality-make’, its hegemonic language, and its metaphysical horizons. Finally, we end with an outline of the need for Muslim autonomy in thought and action.

What is an Umma? What is Power?

The word Umma, in contrast to the word ‘nation’, has “no racial or territorial connotations.” It stems from the root amm which as a verb means “to head for, to quest, to lead, to guide, or to mean and intend” and as a noun, it means “destination, purpose, pursuit, aim, goal and end” (Al-Barghouti 2008, 37). The Umma, as a derivative from amm, designates “that body which follows”, while the entity followed is called Imam. For Muslims, the Imam is ultimately the Qur’an. Thus, the essence of the Muslim Umma—or any Umma for that matter—is in its having a particular direction. The etymological and Qur’ānic definition of an Umma indicates that the Muslim Umma is not defined by numbers—for example, the Qur’ān states, “Surely Ibrahim was an Umma”—but by its having “an image of [itself] as a collective, and when this image is guiding [it] to do things in certain ways distinct from others” (Al-Barghouti 2008, 37).

As to power, it is pervasive because it does not operate purely through violence. In fact, the weakest form of power is violence because it exposes the fragility and illegitimacy of its origins. The violence enacted by a despotic state, for instance, exposes the absence of consensus amongst a populace. Power becomes pervasive and alluring when it operates in formative, constructive ways—when it does not directly impose itself on the subject but rather elicits a resounding “Yes!” (Han 2018, 2). Power does this in multiple ways. It does so by managing and delimiting the horizons of thought: what it deems to be possible and impossible. Power establishes an order. This order, and its foundations, however, become an unseen order which presents itself as simply as natural/normal, just the “way things are.” Thus, it becomes impossible to conceive of an alternative future because the present (in which the order dominates) becomes an eternal present and an insurmountable situation; it is ‘reality’ tout court.

In other words, power seeks to mask/conflate a particular historical situation with what we broadly refer to as “Reality”. This, in turn, curtails our critical consciousness. The fundamental characteristic of power is in its negation of the negating power of consciousness. We become beset by a sense of paralysis because the order has preemptively limited the threshold of dissent. It is, therefore, important to understand power. The way we think about power may serve to reproduce and reinforce regnant power structures and relations, or it may challenge and subvert them (Lukes 2005, 63). In failing to understand how power operates we become, as we shall see, prone to be appropriated by power structures, in this case, those of the prevailing secular order.

What is Secular Power?

To better understand just how pervasive secular power is, we must understand how it operates. Secular power operates on two levels. The first is through the state’s self-serving regulation of what it deems to be “political” and “religious.” This is carried out, not merely through legal and juridical processes (aiming to apparently keep church and state separate), but through a conversion of the individual, the community, and the narratives that inform both. This is carried out through a range of state institutions. The second is cognitive power: an underlying set of assumptions about man, God, and man-God relations. Here, the power of secularity lies in its insistence that its concepts and language are neutral and universal. An example of such is the idea of a neutral civil state. In particular, the illusion that, in the modern age, the public space is an open, horizontal landscape wherein multiple political actors can compete for political power without compromising their normative commitments. The problem with secular power is that it conceals how power operates through the secular state. It leads us to assume that, within the secular state, power is a positive social good that can be equally distributed amongst political actors within the so-called neutral space. As such, our experiences and naming of the world reinforce and reproduce the oppressive power relations. If we “aim simply for a change in the distribution of power” we end up “leaving intact the power-structure itself” (Irigaray 1985, 81).

Through power, ideas such as the neutral state and its fictive capacity to distribute power, conceal their true origins. Far from neutral, they are part-and-parcel products of a distinctly European project: modernity. How, then, are we to understand modernity and scholars who have succumbed to its assumptions? Talal Asad provides a useful tool: Rather than questioning the intentions of such scholars, we can think of them as “conscripts of western civilization” (Asad 1992). As Ebrahim Moosa and SherAli Tareen argue, “western colonialism transformed the discursive terrain in which Muslim actors and discourses could advance their projects of reform” (Bowering 2015, 2002). In other words, in combating the challenges wrought by modernity, we employ the language of modernity. This strategy of accommodation has taken up multiple forms and allows modernity to manage the threshold of dissent. The problem is that assumptions such as the neutrality of the secular state are more than often couched in Islamic terms. An illustrative example of this is the idea of fiqh al-waqi, or the jurisprudence of reality which is the idea that our jurisprudence must accommodate the “changing times”—a new “Reality.” The idea of working through a “neutral” state is part and parcel of this fiqh of reality. The question that this new “jurisprudence” fails to ask, however, is whose reality?  The second part of this essay will try to account for the origins of this conscription. 


Asad, Talal. “Conscripts of Western Civilization” in Dialectical Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, 1, 1992, pp.333-51.

Barghouti, Tamim. The Umma and the Dawla: The Nation State and the Arab Middle East. London; Pluto Press, 2008.

Bowering, Gerhard. Islamic Political Thought: An Introduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Han, Byung-Chul. What is Power? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View, London: Macmillan, 1974.

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