This is a follow up from my previous article. You can read it here.
The harmony and beauty of existence perplexes and strains the mind. Being alive is a conscious stress. And as we sway and flow around the slings and arrows of life, we often build psychological walls around us as coping mechanisms. These walls often create mirages out of our invented and protective identities, in the end suffocating us. Humans are arguably ‘tribal’ by our nature, identifying with ‘in-groups’ against perceived enemies. We often place our egos inside these mirages of identity, one of these identities is being a “Muslim”. In this article, I will explore the traditional ‘Muslim’ in comparison with what a Muslim might actually be.
Around a year ago, I was working for a London firm. I was responsible for a number of people including a department. A very serious fiasco occurred regarding some staff issues. Heated discussions ensued; stress and tempered thinking were at optimum levels. I believe that when we are under pressure, our true selves show. My boss, white, European and English, became angry and in a sudden strike, perhaps without thinking, fired incisively at my heart in what I still recall traumatically.
“you must know this! You hang around in mosques and you’re from that culture, from those people!”
Such was the shock, that the effects of depersonalisation had occurred within me, in later months this allowed me to register the event from an outside perspective. The cards we don’t show, the masks we hide behind show themselves in moments of stress when we lose focus. He had showed the card of cultural superiority and racism. I was left crippled and silent. I ruminated and explained that I no more ‘hang around in mosques’ than you ‘hang around in office buildings’. To his credit he immediately apologised as he realised the weight and sharpness of his words, which, like a guillotine, had sliced my body. As he apologised, I decided in my mind that I no longer wanted to work there. This relationship was over. However, it became worse. Later that day, he came into my office to discuss matters further. This time with a white, heavyset, pernicious silent woman, who with her folded arms, cowered down at me whilst he talked. She silently stood there, looking at at me silently, a mood of impending doom stagnated the air. What was her purpose being there? As witness? A threat? Intimidation? I reached a point of no return with my employer. After 5 years of working there, I had to leave due to the trauma this had caused me.
It hurt because in his mind I was not an equal colleague. I was defined by my skin colour and associated negatively with my religion. He didn’t see me as a human being first. He perceived my dominating identity as being a Muslim. As if the ‘taqiya’ accusations from Islamophobes wasn’t enough. In his mind, I was clearly hiding behind a larger conspiracy hatched by Muslims to take over his pristine landscape by hiding secrets of Muslim hordes taking over his culture. I felt betrayed by the society I had invested so much in. I felt ethically obliged to leave a place where I was considered the ‘other’. In time, I forgave this by rationalising his behaviour as ignorance or madness. However, what it did do was cement my worldview of what it means to be a Muslim.
I’ve never really looked like the orientalists view of what a Muslim should look like. No turban, beard and a long dress. I’ve always tried to look like my contemporaries. Not to appease my western fellows, just not to attract any attention. So the idea of what it meant to be a Muslim to myself struck a deeply entrenched soliloquy in me.
Coming into the world as conscious human being takes years. Everybody has a lot of pain to carry through childhood, teenage years and then adulthood. Eventually, as the blood cools and you begin to reconcile your trauma, you start to see inside and outside of yourself. For me, coming to terms with what I was taught about my religion as young person has had a disastrous effect on my psyche, and I believe my experience is not unique in the UK.
What is a Muslim?
The literal meaning of the word Muslim is the one who surrenders unconditionally to the will of God. Of course, one can only surrender to something willingly when the heart accepts it and bows to a realisation that unites everything.
As Muslim in the UK, we were taught throughout our establishments and at home that critical thought was not allowed. We were taught that imitation of the Prophet (saw) was always preferable to our own reason. We were taught that all Hadith (reports/sayings of the Prophet) were unquestionable, and to reject them would be an act of unbelief. From our Masjids (Mosques) we also internalised cultural idioms that reinforced a certain zeal and rigidity that was oppressive. The most damaging aspect of our education was the omission of our own history in favour of hagiography. This led me to question whether being a ‘Muslim’ meant identifying with a false demagoguery of our past figures and tumultuous history.
Was it the fact that the early empires were despotic, totalitarian, cruel and corrupt? Was it the fact that so many of these madhabs (schools of Islamic thought/law) were lost in a quagmire of constant legal theory? Have we forgotten in our zealous slumber their discourteous attitudes towards each other? Have we forgotten the oversexed poetry of our empires courts, the poetry of young boys, men and illicit entangles? Have we forgotten the barbarity of our early empires, the slavery, the conquests and constant assassinations of any perceived threat? More pressingly, have we ever thought that our secondary texts of Hadith, Tafsir (Quranic commentaries) could have possibly been compromised by the climate of corrupt leaders and their political mechanisms?
For the sake of brevity I shall concentrate on one of our key factors that we identify in making us ‘Muslim’. It is the corpus we call Hadith. Due to the information age, every Muslim has easy access to the variety of reports in every Hadith book at their fingertips. It creates a divergence of consciousness that was never within our community before. Effectively, we can split the Hadith debate between Hadith Relativism (Hadith Literature isn’t all equal, it is relative to a process of checks/methodology) vs Hadith Absolutism (a literal acceptance of all Hadith). For the sake of disclosure, the two schools of thought I adhere to are the Hanafi and Maliki schools of thought. Largely, described as being Ahlul Rai (people of opinion), we can generalise that they are Hadith relativists.
We’re lambasted with loud noises shocking our ear drums, shouting that these are Sahih (authentic). Inferring, that they cannot possibly be wrong, the diligence and checks that took place were in a way divine providence, even though the Almighty himself never guaranteed their safety, nor did he speak about them coming as a religious obligation. The compilation was indeed a great feat, as it helped us contextualise history, laws and ethics within the Quran. Comparatively, it can also lead the Muslim to a regressive hermeneutic trajectory of the Quran. Ultimately, Hadith Relativism should lead the debate, however it does not. This is self-evident in the average mind of your Muslim in Europe today. Does this Hadith I quote below have limitations on its usage, how should it be taken – circumstantial or contextual? I shall let the reader ponder it’s meaning.
“I and Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) happened to pass by people near the date-palm trees. He (the Holy Prophet) said: What are these people doing? They said: They are grafting, i. e. they combine the male with the female (tree) and thus they yield more fruit. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: I do not find it to be of any use. The people were informed about it and they abandoned this practice. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) (was later) on informed (that the yield had dwindled), whereupon he said: If there is any use of it, then they should do it, for it was just a personal opinion of mine, and do not go after my personal opinion; but when I say to you anything on behalf of Allah, then do accept it, for I do not attribute lie to Allah, the Exalted and Glorious.”
Without looking at the chain of transmission and its authenticity, I propose the Hadith above is an example of not taking everything simply because it is written.
Indeed, Sahih does mean authentic. However, Sahih (authentic) is not the same as divine ordinance. It’s authentic in as far as something can be authenticated as far as human documentation goes. The same goes for your dissertation at university or report to your manager. It’s “authentic” as far as human endeavours and error. The dissertation will be complete to your fullest potential, with references and appendices to relevant evidence to back your writing. It is by all accounts authentic and true, but it is not free from error and further diligence. A peer review would put that work into further scrutiny and further correction.
Hadith were often written approx. 200 years after the death of Prophet, therefore it is possible that time had already reduced tone, linguistic nuance and some of the time even humour. People need to get their heads around this very fact. Hadith are “reports” compiled with some due diligence. However, because hadith collection is a human endeavour, they always need to be reasoned with and scrutinised. Even revelation comes with a precursor that encourages scrutiny and context. Hadith is not revelation, yet it is treated as such by some of our community. It comes with all inconsistencies of any written reporting mechanism. This ‘science’ of Hadith, as with all its historiography has limitations. Indeed, one could say about the Quran and our Islam (as we understand it) is historical. It doesn’t liberate us, rather it situates us. The Hadith should venture to do the same. It is however, a reporting mechanism, and as expected contradictions, fabrications, shameless sexual details and sometimes downright illogical Hadith. Many hadith reports, irrespective of their authenticity contain wisdom, exquisite narratives and in keeping with the teachings of the Quran. However, their agreeable content does not amount to prima facie evidence, that they were actually said by the Prophet. Do you really want to attribute things to the Prophet you claim to love and admire?
We’ve relegated the Quran to the background, instead concentrating on secondary trivia. Conjecture and legal theory dominate the dialogue. The idea of islam has become institutionalised – the very idea the Quran warns against. The Hadith doesn’t add value to the Quran, the Quran adds value to the Hadith. In other words, we should view the Hadith corpus through the eyes of the Quran and validate the Hadith through it.
Furthermore, the purists with their myopic absolutism have adulated the actual actions of the Prophet to mere superficial imitation. They want to be like him. However, mimicry isn’t the same as inspiration. Indeed, the Prophet was the model of the best in human manners and beauty. However, dressing like a 6th Century Arab doesn’t make you more Muslim, having a beard, using a Miswak (cleaning twig) doesn’t make you more Muslim, wearing attar (perfume) doesn’t make you more Muslim and so on. It’s the principle behind these actions that make you more Muslim, for example, dressing from head to toe humbly is the key principle, brushing your teeth is hygienic, having a beard is a protection against the torrid desert climate and sun, smelling nice is a wonderful thing to do. Our literal understanding of these things have made us like cult. Imitating and not taking inspiring principles of human interaction and beauty is the sign of a mindless drone.
If the Prophet was the complete and perfected Muslim ideal – How do we reconcile that the perfect Muslim had married a 6 year old, or took a slave and ordered the death of people in the most vicious way? They have to be rejected or at the least ignored through the lens of what it actually means to be a ‘Muslim’.
Furthermore, we have a maelstrom of legal theory, much of it dated and not applicable. Our fiqh(legal theory) doesn’t all apply today, indeed it needs some revising. We have legal rulings where one is allowed to marry their biological daughter. Imagine if somebody was looking from the outside, they would be confused. We even have early rulings (later abrogated, however still standing as a valid opinion) of being allowed to drink alcohol as long as it does not lead to intoxication. There are myriad of these crazy fatwas. Can we just reason with them? Or is it easier to say they were mistakes? Clearly, they were mistakes. Again, I reiterate by saying this is not a black mark against the Islam that the Almighty has ordained with us. This is legal theory that people get defensive about and conflate with the institution that they call Islam.
This elusive interpretation of law, which we call fiqh, is outdated and frankly misinterpreted. Shariah (The Almighty’s divine law) is the search for beauty because it is the search for God. The interpretation of law is fiqh. Fiqh is our human tool to make sense of Divine Shariah. Shariah also literally means a path to life giving water. By that literal definitions token, it is supposed to create ease for the individual. Ergo, for it to be beautiful, it has to make sense. It has to be epistemological in body and soul. We are searching for the Truth through a cacophony of secondary text and polysemy.
If being Muslim alone will get you to paradise, then the burden of responsibility on the Muslim is to seek knowledge and act in the truest human form that the Almighty intended. The Almighty didn’t intend for you to be become a complete Muslim. The Almighty intended for you to become a complete human being as he envisioned through being a Muslim. i.e. being a Muslim is just a conduit into evolving into mans’ final form; a complete human being, the form exemplified and praised in the Quran through the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
In my humble opinion an honest heart that is looking for the truth yet dies, has more of a value than just being a “Muslim”. Being a true Muslim means understanding the unity of all creation (tawhid), compassion, manners, patience in good times and bad, kindness and self-sacrifice. Not just having a beard and shaving your pubic hairs.
Right and wrong have been inspired in every soul. We all know this by our natural state. “those who corrupt their soul, fail, those who purify it, succeed. (Q. 91.8-10). This fitra (human instinct/nature) exists in all of us. The path to perfecting that fitra is the ideal and coalescing of man into his final human form – Muslim. Being Muslim is not who you are, being Muslim is a description of who you can be. Being Muslim is a verb, not a noun of tribal identity.
However, when your islam is a supremacist, political hegemony obsessed with legal theory trappings. That islam is merely another religion, a binary absolutism that just wants to rule. If you truly want “God’s law” on the land. Then your Islam (capital I) is outside dogmatic religious identity. The identity that flows is the unifying principle of oneness of every living thing that breathes. It is an Islam of the environment, humanity and peace. Your Islam embodies the values of peace, emboldens the surrender of your ego at every turn to enjoin and not destroy. Keep bowing your head, even to your enemy. Offer your heart and if their last resort is still destruction, only then can you fight to protect for the greater good. Violence is only applicable when you’ve exhausted all avenues of peace. Until then, your Islam isn’t a religion. It’s a coalescence of the finality of becoming a completed, exemplary human being. Being a Muslim isn’t belonging to a club, where “Muslim” is just another identity. Being a Muslim isn’t the same as being a believer. It is the essence and completion of God’s plan of uniting his principles of completing you. Your journey should end in completion. Outside of institutional hierarchy, dogma and legal theory.
Each soul shall be judged accordingly. Each soul is born “Muslim” and its journey is leading to finding out what being a Muslim actually means. A complete human or just a ‘Musalman’? None of us have a guaranteed promise of a good end.
Islam does have a universal message outside of dogma and conjecture. If Almighty is the ultimate truth and light, everything else is a shadow. You can be ismaili, Shia, sunni or Ibadi – ultimately all truth becomes subjective if you’ve failed to grasp the meaning of peace, unity and humanity. If non-muslims are better humans, what does that make Muslims who are bad humans? Would it be ironic to say many muslims would be better human being had they not been muslims?
So the question remains. If you’re a Muslim and haven’t used your resources for greater spiritual wealth, intellectual growth, helping the poor and the environment, are you a better being than a non-Muslim who has dedicated his/her life to humanity, charity and kindness?
We have Christians, Jews and other who are guaranteed paradise according to the Quran. Are they not the coalition called ‘Muslim’? Or is the club of being Muslim exclusive to those who utter a fews words and follow a few rituals?
Before you accuse me of perennialism. I don’t think people understand perennialism. The critiques of perennialism are rather silly. The faith taught by Prophet Muhammad actually embraced Jews and Christians as mu’mineen (believers) and affirmed that Jews, Christians, Sabians and other monotheists were eligible for salvation along with the Believers of Muhammad’s community if they worked righteousness. Two Qur’anic verses bear clear witness to this fact – 2:62 and 5:69. The naysayers and the purists, will say – yes, but they changed their religion to something unrecognisable, away from the actual core belief. And we haven’t?
Paradoxically, I am not arguing for a transcendent unity between all faiths. I am arguing that being a ‘Muslim’ or following Islam means affirming the kalima (declaring faith) that there is nothing other than the Almighty himself, and Muhammad (saw) is the manifestation of the completion of man’s final form. The problem is that we have confounded all this reality, with what every institutional religion does – corrupted everything to the most base and degrading literalism. Being the ‘Muslim’ in the context of finality of message – means that you need to be that bridge of unification of all mankind. A coalition calling for all mankind working towards betterment for themselves and their society. Indeed, ‘they have their way, and we have ours’ – is relevant only when they work against you with their false ideas of transhumanism and secularism. We need God in our lives to unite and grow, without the Almighty, we become the very definition of those who deny goodness.
Finality of revelation and Prophethood doesn’t make sense if it’s not a unifying force for mankind. It would be stark contradiction. Why would one religion have any use for God. God’s religion for you is beyond a mere name. Why do you believe the Quran is the final revelation if its aim is divide the world into Muslim and Kaffir?(for a better understanding of the term kaffir, please read my hyperlinked article)
005.048 “…To each among you have We prescribed a law (Arabic: Shir-atan) and an OPEN WAY (Arabic: waminhajan). If God had so willed, He would have made you a SINGLE PEOPLE, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. THE GOAL OF YOU ALL IS TO GOD; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute”
Finally, when it’s all said done. I have to rest my words and surrender to the Truth. I am equally as guilty as the tropes I criticise. All this legal pedantry and conjecture disguises the Truth even further sometimes. My beloved who knows my sighs before I sigh, I surrender my head in defeat of the one who created my heart, full of pain and angst. I have to be the Muslim I claim to define, the Muslim who surrenders in prayer, searching for peace. The only thing amongst all this noise that makes sense. Not words, nor fiqh, nor intellectual notions. Just a quiet surrender to the Truth. That is what a Muslim is.
That Truth lies in Salah(prayer). In this Salah, this particular gift that gives the human peace. It’s an exercise to touch base with something we cannot define in words, yet it is something we know. We do not offer prayers. We do not offer anything. God doesn’t need our worship. Food doesn’t need us, we need food. Worship offers us an enlightenment, a moment of introspection throughout the pain of the day and pain of existence. A moment of clarity to seek what every single human being is searching for; contentment and recognition. We’re all vying to be noticed amongst all our crutches of identity, some are poor and ugly and cry to be rich and beautiful. Some of us are rich and beautiful, yet cry for health. All that identity becomes extinguished in the realm of tranquillity that we call Salah. It’s in in that moment of tender peace, when the heart is resting, we realise that being Muslim is to be nothing in front his deafening embrace. That oneness you feel, that absolute destruction of your identity, making you realise that being Muslim is being recognised in all the fragments of mirrors that we reflect through. These tribes and cultures we hide behind in pride, are all split into diverse mirrors, that we can see ourselves in and eventually bow to his majesty. When you only see yourself, you are only seeing a perishable being. How can you see yourself, that is the whole universe in a solitary being?
All this talk of sense and rationality is good, but it is of no consequence if the heart does not surrender.
It all comes down to that unquenchable thirst for love. I say love in the broader sense of each humans innate need to be recognised and accepted. I say love because that’s all that drives us to survive. With all our baggage and all the crutches of destiny, we are constantly failed at by reality and humans to provide the required sustenance of love. We will let you down. Let your heart be defeated so it can surrender to the one who created and knows your pain better than you do. We cannot calm the other’s souls due to our limited patience. Even a mother cannot always calm her child. And yet, when I turn to you, my beautiful, beloved unseen, invisible, indivisible , unconquerable source of all things. My Lord, my beloved. Words lose me and all else is conjecture. I lose myself in this ecstasy of salah (Muslim Prayer). This magnificent movement of breath and motion. Alas, when it comes to the Truth, all trappings of language and theory get confounded when confronted by the grace of love at every prayer. I swear by all the tears I’ve shed, that affirmation of faith doesn’t lie in words or a declaration. It lies in the affirmation of love. I swear by the coolness of prayer in my heart, that surrender in Islam isn’t submission to interpreted law, but it is a surrender to Allah’s love being at around every corner,and every time I’ve come back trembling my wretched being to his memory, I find the Almighty has embraced me. I swear by his presence that submission, surrender and affirmation is compelled upon me every time I cry in his presence and his acceptance at every turn, at every corner. The grave mistakes I’ve made, the sins. Only I know the seriousness of them, and yet, I am forged by nature to accept the Truth through his love and remembrance. I have no choice but surrender in Allah’s compelling beauty and constant acceptance. All else is conjecture, only love and beauty remains supreme. And that is the prism through which I view the world and his words. That is what makes me a Muslim.
All mistakes are mine, all perfection belongs to him.
“God is busy with the completion of your work, both outwardly and inwardly. He is fully occupied with you. Every human being is a work in progress that is slowly but inexorably moving toward perfection. We are each an unfinished work of art both waiting and striving to be completed. God deals with each of us separately because humanity is a fine art of skilled penmanship where every single dot is equally important for the entire picture.”