Who Are We? Who Defines Us?
Creating further divisions and categorizing ourselves in terms that refer to our own political expediencies will not serve the real purpose of the faith.
By Dr. Aslam Abdullah, December 22, 2004
A debate has been going on within certain circles of the Muslim community about defining or redefining Islam and its followers. Several terms have been designed to make a distinction among various political schools of thoughts of Muslims. These terms, at times, appear attractive and in the state of confusion in which we live, provide us with a different approach to identify ourselves. However, when we look at these terms deeply, we begin to realize that they are meant to define ourselves in the mold of our thinking influenced by our social and political milieu.
Terms, that are in fashion currently are moderate Islam, progressive Islam, enlightened Islam, modern Islam, extremist Islam, liberal Islam, conservative Islam, reformed Islam, orthodox Islam, fundamentalist Islam, medieval Islam and obscurantist Islam, etc.
What is interesting is that these terms emerge from the limitations of our own readings of Islam controlled by our own social political experiences. For instance, in the context of the US and the West, it is now fashionable to use terms such as progressive Islam and moderate Islam.
When asked to define these terms, their proponents argue that moderate Islam says no to nonviolence, accepts the universal charter of human rights and recognizes the idea of pluralism. Dialectically, what they are saying is that there is an Islam that does not recognize the value of non-violence, that rejects universal charter of human rights and that opposes the idea of pluralism. If this is the basis of redefining Islam, than it is a weak premise. Islam is a faith given to human beings to live their lives according to certain values originally defined by the divine. People have a choice to reject them or accept them because they are responsible for their own actions.
Islam does not advocate violence and those who use violence as a means to achieve their goals, however noble their goals may be, are essentially in violation of their faith. They are the ones who are deviating from the path of Islam. Why should their deviation cause some Muslims to redefine Islam and form a separate category of moderate Islam in order to make a distinction between the two?
There are always people and groups who use their faith to promote their own political and economic agenda. This is true with all religions. The most effective way to confront such people is to develop a sound argument on the basis of a comprehensive understanding of the divine values and prophetic teachings. This is a struggle that we all have to carry on within ourselves and in the society at large.
Creating further divisions and categorizing ourselves in terms that refer to our own political expediencies will not serve the real purpose of the faith. The faith, after all, demands from every Muslim to be a witness to the truth. The truth is out there. We cannot change this truth for our political purposes.
Thus, the coinage of these terms is primarily a weak strategy that defeats the very purpose of the faith.
The questions that ought to be raised, then, are: what is this truth and how do we discern it from the falsehood?
The truth will emerge from our quest of knowledge, experiences, wisdom and guidance from the divine. The truth will not be dictated by a few second bites of President Bush or Daniel Pipes or people like them.
In the case of Islam, the truth is (as perceived by Muslims based on their general readings of the Quran) that Islam is a divinely revealed faith that commands its adherents to follow the principles of monotheism, justice, equality and peace in all aspects of their life.
We have to understand our world in the context of these divinely revealed truths and develop suitable instruments to ensure that they are shared with the rest of the world.
Thus, our struggle is to be a witness to these truths and to challenge all those who are in violation of these regardless of what label they assume. In the Quran, the divine tells us of people who would call them Muslims, yet who would do everything that is contrary to the teachings of Islam. It is not a right strategy to say that because of the deviations of others, we are changing our self definition and coining a new term to describe our relations with our faith. This means abandoning our own commitment to our faith as the criterion of right and wrong.
Due to our lack of understanding of our faith, some of us are trying to lead our community into the bewilderment of ideas without realizing that the principles of faith cannot be compromised for our understanding or lack of understanding of political realities.
Thus, we have two tasks at hand. First, internally, we have to challenge those who are deviating from the foundation of Islam and second we have to communicate to the rest of the world the real foundation on which our faith stands. It is better that we spend our time and resources in these areas, rather than wasting our energy in coining and re-coining terms that confuse us and others as well. When we do what is expected of us, we will notice qualitative change in the attitude of people to our faith.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah is the editor of the Muslim Observer, Director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, and founding director of the Muslim Electorates’ Council of America.
see also our Research Topic of LABELS - Moderate-Liberal-Secular-Progressive-Fundamentalist-Militant-Reconstructionist-Wahabi-Salafi, etc.