A Muslim by any other name

A Muslim by any other name

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

“I have now publicly denounced God…I am an atheist at heart,” says Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her writings about herself and her self-proclaimed struggle to reform Islam. “We Muslims must help each other,” she elaborates.

Muslims reading these two statements side by side may be scratching their heads in confusion. In theological terms, a Muslim is one who states simply that “There is no diety but God, and that Muhammad is His (last) messenger.” The public avowal of these words - of believing in God - is sufficient to be counted as Muslim. The strength of belief and practice that lie behind them is immaterial. To be a Muslim in this sense is black and white, you say that you believe and you are considered a Muslim, or you say that you don’t, and you’re not.

But Miss Hirsi Ali peppers her writings with the phrase “we Muslims”. She insists that she speaks as a voice from within the Muslim community. As a matter of faith and religion, her position in Islamic terms is quite clear - it is not possible that she is a Muslim since she does not believe in God. But she defines herself as a Muslim by virtue of her culture, ethnicity and upbringing. This, she believes, makes her a Muslim, because the separation of culture and religion in her view is a false dichotomy.

Irrespective of the clarity of the Islamic criteria for being a Muslim, it seems that the wider community consider such individuals nevertheless as Muslim. More perplexingly these individuals also consider themselves to be Muslim. Perhaps ten or even twenty years ago, nationalism would have been the grounding for identity, and Hirsi Ali would have defined herself as Somalian. Today, she sees being Muslim as a cultural state, not one of religious belief.

Is being Muslim now a cultural identity? For practising Muslims the only definition of a Muslim is that of the shahadah, but all sorts of voices are now singing at this party and it seems the common denominators of a Muslim are now up for discussion.

Hirsi Ali, or even a character like Saira Khan of The Apprentice infamy, feel that being a Muslim is not a matter of faith, but rather of cultural heritage. Muslims may have influenced their upbringing, which is why they retain the Muslim nomenclature, but they themselves admit that practice is another matter.

I relate these examples not as finger-pointing, but to bring to life the fact that opinions on what it means to be a Muslim these days are multi-coloured and multi-faceted. Is it acceptance of the creed? Is it a certain level of declared belief, irrespective of practice, “I’d like to be more practising” or “I’m a lapsed Muslim” (if you can have a lapsed Catholic, then why not…?), or is it belief and a certain observable level of practice? Or is it none of the above? Is it to be a cultural Muslim (whatever that means)? Is it to be born to Muslim parents? Or is it enough just to declare oneself to be a Muslim, and no further questions asked?

Islam is broad and robust enough to accommodate a plethora of views and the tensions that brings, despite what people may say, and the shrill voices that beg to differ both inside and outside the Muslim community. But it is indeed important that we address ourselves to the issue of what does it mean to be a Muslim? Such a question has inherent theological and human value, but it is critical at this time for other more urgent reasons.

There is a push to “reform” Islam, in the same way that Christianity underwent a ‘reformation’. And just as the Christian-tinged name suggests, Islam is expected to ‘reform’ in line with modern day Christian-European values. Hirsi Ali, in her role as Muslim-beyond-Islam, is quite open about the motives and loyalties of voices such as hers: “Present-day Islam is not compatible with the expectations of Western states…We will need the help of the liberal west whose interests are greatly served by a reform of Islam.”

And so the question of “who is a Muslim?” becomes critical in driving the debate and development of any organic changes that come from within the Islamic fold, or more jarringly, any forced changes that are imposed on it. Who is to create change and direct it? Whose voices should be promoted (if any)?

Genieve Abdo writes thoughtfully in the Washington Post: “The secular Muslim agenda is promoted because these ideas reflect a Western vision for the future of Islam…Everyone from high-ranking officials in the Bush administration to the author Salman Rushdie has prescribed a preferred remedy for Islam: Reform the faith so it is imbued with Western values - the privatisation of religion, the flourishing of Western-style democracy - and rulers who are secular, not religious, Muslims.”

And so it comes as no surprise when such views are promulgated victoriously in the political arena. The favoured Muslim voices selected by politicians will reflect their own views about which kind of Islam fits best. The politics of which Muslim voices are heard, which are favoured, changes with the wind. Yesterday, in the UK, the Muslim Council of Britain were having tea at Downing Street, today it’s a different flavour of Muslim buttering the scones.

What does it mean to be a Muslim? It is a deceptively simple sounding question that is laden with complexity and pitfalls. Who should decide what a Muslim sounds like, looks like, what she says, what she eats, what she wears, what values she holds, what she believes?

Given the current discussions in the political and social spheres we need to ask ourselves these most incongruous of questions. This is not a drive to create an inflexible and exclusivist private members’ club. Quite the opposite. There needs be a common baseline of affiliation and understanding. A little bit of definition and agreement is very liberating as it creates the possibility for shared vision and mutual benefit and understanding. I don’t feel the need to agree with every Muslim out there, and the reality is that I won’t. But as a collection of communities we need to be able to point to the very basics and say, “this is what holds us together, this is the essence of being a Muslim.”

The clarity of the theological foundation of the shahadah once made the definition of a Muslim simple yet robust. It then freed everyone to have their own opinion. Before Islam and Muslims can engage in any kind of ideological or political evolution, we need to clarify these basics. The stability of the groundwork will then allow a myriad of voices to engage in lively, heated and fruitful debate. As a Muslim, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has her own blog at where you can post your comments and feedback http://www.spirit21.co.uk