The Myth of Muslim Homogeneity
February 6, 2007 § 4 Comments
It is well known by now that the overall state of Islam as a world religion and the people who follow the religion, the Muslims, are often misunderstood, misappropriated and/or misrepresented in the Media. This occurs as a result of many factors not just bigotry and journalistic incompetence but a genuine lack of knowledge. Time and time again we see Muslims being lumped into one big homogeneous group and its rank of dissenters (i.e. terrorists), but are Muslims really a homogeneous group?
On the contrary Muslims are and have been a pluralist society rich with varying degrees of opinion and interests. And in order for there to be some success in the near future an overall understanding of Muslims as a global community must extend beyond religious and cultural superficiality. This is where the problem understanding the Muslim identity lies, in assumptions about superficiality (religion and culture) – superficial not to belittle the importance of religion or culture but to suggest that perhaps more than race, religion and a persons position on the war should be considered when defining Muslim identity – as if race, religion and politics were the extent of the Muslim community’s depth.
To gain some insight on this issue lets take a very generalized but useful glance at Muslims in the West. Over the past two decades a dynamic presence of Muslims has grown in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia and with this upsurge comes a need to understand and accommodate the population of Muslims (pointblank that is what government does in a democracy, it services its citizens). Yet time and time again we find the government and popular political figures making a call for average citizens to speak-out and regulate dissenters. Then when no progress is made toward the needs of Muslims or appeasing the requests of government Muslim leadership is condemned by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Recently in an article entitled, Living Apart Together, in this article British Muslims discuss the paradigm of Multiculturalism and Muslim Leadership in Britain. The authors M.Mirza, A. Senthilkamaran and Zein Ja’far write that,
“In November 2006, the newly formed, cross-ethnic group, New Generation Network, criticized existing policies towards ethnic groups. The founder, Sunny Hundal, argued that the Government is failing to engage with ethnic groups properly and “want so-called community leaders to do the job for them.”
Hundal’s argument is a good one, and can be applied to a broader spectrum of Muslims in the West as opposed to just Britain. But even if the government were engaged with Muslims, Muslim leadership by today’s design is not equiped to satisfy the social grievances of the greater community of Muslims in the West. The truth of the matter is that Muslim leadership today is not organized in the fashion that it was to be most successful and instead Muslims leaders find themselves localized in groups amounting to meager successes by addressing local issues and outing small; controllable fires. Take notice to this condition as described in the Qur’an,
“And surely this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, therefore be careful (of your duty) to Me. But people have cut off their affair (of unity), between them, into sects: each party rejoices in that which is with itself.” (23: 52-53)
I’m sure nothing good can come of the disunity described above. On the other hand perhaps it would not matter if either condition were met – the government’s engagement or a well organized leadership infrastructure – because the ‘ulema are no longer competent to manage the affairs of Muslims. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf has implied that top students among Muslims target the higher paying jobs such as Medical Doctors, Engineers, Chemists, etc. and the class of mediocrity aim toward Islamic Studies. Likewise, Khaled Abou El Fadl suggests that “puritan” factions of Muslims were “deprecating Islamic tradition” by enabling people uneducated in Islamic Law to become self-proclaimed Islamic scholars (a’imma, ‘ulema, or fuqaha): experts in Shari’a. Abou El Fadl also writes that the “vacuum of authority” created with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – in the Post Colonial Age – also gave rise to condition where ‘virtually every Muslim with a modest knowledge of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet was suddenly considered qualified to speak for the Islamic tradition and Shari’a’s law’. As a result these experts – many engineers, medical doctors and scientists – became the voice of Islam (some of which include such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qa’ida and the Taliban).
Therefore, we have a condition where the curators of the Islamic body of knowledge have become second rate overall and without an authority to centralize the schools of Islamic thought (Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali and Shi’a Schools such as such as the Ja’fari School) into a working entity, Shari’a the sacred path to God, the superior legal system and symbolic representation of everything authentic and legitimate in Islam is left vulnerable to corrupt interpretation and more importantly implementation of that corrupt interpretation. But who is to blame for this?
Actually, it is a compound problem but I suggest that the solution to this compound problem extends beyond any resources that Western Society can offer. In fact the solution for Muslim leadership lies within the issue which brings non-Muslims the most angst, and that is Islamism. But let me explain as this proposition needs a careful and precise presentation for the sake of clarity.
Firstly, you must understand that all Muslims are Islamists, unless one can be a Muslim and not believe that Islamic theology and Shari’a should serve as an authoritative frame of reference in all social and political conditions. Secondly, one must note that believing in Shari’a, thus being an Islamist, does not necessitate a theocratic state or forcing draconian laws on its citizens. Thirdly, there has been a widespread campaign against Islamist thought – which is essentially traditional Muslim thought – thus suggesting that Islam should be practiced privately a suggestion that robs Islam of it central position in the lives of Muslims only to be replaced with what?
The pressure to remove Islam from the public sphere is challenged by some who would like us to believe that this is the case for religion across the board in a democracy. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that this position is completely hypocritical, particularly of the United States (see more on this). In addition, the problem with removing Islam from the public sphere has a castrating and crippling effect on the inherent social structures that have allowed Muslims to achieve the best communities on Earth during its height. Removing Islam from the public sphere also further distances the ‘ulema and laypeople which I am certain will result in even more egregious acts of violence than have been committed.
In conclusion, I think this article shows, at least in part, that the body of knowledge found in authentic Islamic jurisprudence is being threatened. Threatened by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and this is the greatest threat to the Islamic Community. I think that demonized terminologies like Islamism have a wealth of merit and deserve an opportunity become a useful platform for independent thought as Susan Buck-Morss, Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory, Cornell University suggests,
“By attempting to silence Islam as a political discourse, by reducing it to a religious practice, Bush is in effect closing off public discussion of how the many varieties of Islamism are challenging and extending the discursive field of political resistance.” (S. Buck-Morss, Critical Theory and Islamism)
Buck-Morss among other critical theorists identify the provincial engagement of Western thought within the global public sphere to be more of a threat than giving Islamism a platform. To her credit she obviously sees that the Muslim community is not homogeneous despite what critics and hypocrites might say. Indeed, the Muslim Ummah is a vast array of people: ethnicity, customs, theory and interests. And the governments that intend to engage Muslims must also keep this in mind and refrain from looking only at superficiality as the whole of “the Muslim identity”.
As a group, from a religious perspective Muslims seemingly form an apparent uniformity in comparison to other religious groups. However, if one is able to delve into the world of Muslims you will see that this uniformity is superficial in many respects. Though it is true that the superficiality of these religious beliefs are what differentiate the people from being considered a non-Muslim it is an egregious error to assume that any two Muslims agree on anything besides la ilaha illallah (there is no Deity except the God). Muslim’s current state of affairs (globally) and the needs of Muslims can be related from a hadith as told by Abu Huraira saying that,
“Abdur Rahman bin ‘Abdul Qari said, “I went out in the company of ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab one night in Ramadan to the mosque and found the people praying in different groups. A man praying alone or a man praying with a little group behind him. So, ‘Umar said, ‘In my opinion I would better collect these (people) under the leadership of one Qari (Reciter) (i.e. let them pray in congregation!)’. So, he made up his mind to congregate them behind Ubai bin Ka’b. Then on another night I went again in his company and the people were praying behind their reciter. On that, ‘Umar remarked, ‘What an excellent Bid’a (i.e. innovation in religion) this is…”
Photograph Courtesy of Ammar Muhammad