The Myth of Muslim Homogeneity

February 6, 2007 § 4 Comments

liberty-1.jpgIt 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

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§ 4 Responses to The Myth of Muslim Homogeneity

  • abdulghany says:

    Salam,

    Excellently expressed, Hakim. It is hard enough as it is for Muslims to get a proper grasp of the idiosynchrasies of each and every group within Islam, and then of each and every culture within Islam. For the non-Muslim to do that is probably impossible.

    So they should, as you suggest, at least RECOGNISE that differences exist and that these differences, whether relating to religious beliefs or culture, or both, can be and are often substantial. They should not put all Muslims into one basket and believe they are all alike. Every Muslim on earth is sick of the clichés.

    You write:
    “believing in Shari’a, thus being an Islamist,
    does not necessitate a theocratic state”

    And I agree fully. Who needs a theocratic State to profess belief in Islam by way of the Kalima? Who needs an Islamic State to say prayers? To fast? To give charity? To be kind to parents, relatives and neighbours? To make an Islamic will? To go for Islamic banking? All these things can be fully practised in the West. Even polygamy is tolerated if the second wife is considered a mistress in the eyes of the Law in many Western countries. And many refugees or immigrants arrive ALREADY married to several wives, and this is also tolerated as a special case in many countries of the West.

    Although they clamour for many things under what is often called Muslim Personal Law in the West, it would seem that the main thing Muslims have been militant about – and that a non-Islamic State does not provide for – is punishment for crimes as prescribed by the Qur’an. Without wanting to sound oversimplistic, it would appear that Muslims are impatient to have their crimes punished ‘the Qur’anic way’!!

    The problem, as you have so succinctly put it, is: Who is going to IMPLEMENT the Shari’a laws?

    I am not at all sure what is meant by Muslims seeking to get engaged in politics in the West. What can they ever achieve? At the very most, some Muslims – it will NEVER be all Muslims – might be able to get their voices heard a little better. There are Muslim MP’s in Britain and in high positions in Canada, for instance. They do offer an Islamic perspective on things and they do get listened to by both Government and the media. But from there to implement Shari’a is quite a step.

    Let’s say we want to follow the Shari’a to the full, anywhere in the West. What will we achieve that cannot be achieved already? In the West, only Hudood punishments are lacking – we are allowed to follow every other Qur’anic commandment within the limits of reason, eg. we can’t slaughter animals in our backyards in the West, but can do so in controlled environments within the limits of the Law. The same goes for polygamy, where loopholes in the Law can be found; but at any rate polygamy is not the norm, it is an exception. The bottom line is: We can practise Islam in everything except Hudood punishments in the West.

    Now if we want to have advisory boards to help and guide ordinary Muslims on how to make a will, how to get an interest-free loan, etc., that is another matter. Such boards already exist within established Islamic communities.

    Perhaps a board of truly well-versed scholars is what is being asked for, who can deal with giving guidance on these day-to-day issues on a much larger platform: nationwide, or if we are very ambitious, internationally.

    Well, without wanting to come across as too pessimistic, I think it can be safely said that this simply will not happen. The differences in opinion are so great on even minor issues, and the mutual jealousies and long-standing Takfir issues are potatoes so hot that no-one will be able to tackle them successfully.

    What is seen to be haram by one will be ok by another. Take, for instance, the case of Muta’ or temporary marriage as it is practised by Shi’ites. I have myself seen the results of Muta’ all over Kinshasa, so I have a very grim view of it. According to certain Shi’ites, temporary marriage – even for one night – is fine as long as the father of the ‘bride’ is consenting and that an agreed dowry is paid. The man gets a Mollah to pronounce his ‘talaq’ in the morning and each party goes their own way. I have seen, as I said, the children of Lebanese Shi’ites that they had begotten with Congolese women, and whom, when they leave the country, they promptly get divorced from and abandon.

    This is an issue that is impossible to resolve. Sunnis will never accept it.

    I was just giving an example, even though it probably happens rarely – maybe our Shi’ite friends could shed more light on this practice and on how it occurs in the West – to show that we will start off with a group of erudite people to advise on matters of Shari’a, but that very soon people will break away, not being able to come to terms with the extreme divergence of opinion.

    Another case – but this has to do with Hudood – is flogging versus stoning for adultery. Some will point out that stoning is nowhere to be found in the Qur’an; others will show strong Ahadith to prove that it is part of the Sunnah; but there will be no unanimity. And as it is a matter of life and death, the fate of the guilty party will depend entirely on that unanimity. So, Shari’a is no joke.

    Also, as you have rightly stated, who will we find being asked for advice on Shari’a if not the so-called ‘Ulama: the half-baked, poorly-educated, culture-bound ‘Ulama? Maybe it’s not their fault for being how they are, but the fact remains that Muslims are better off not entrusting their affairs – especially their lives – in the hands of such incompetent and often bigoted ‘scholars’.

    So what are we left with? Intellectuals who, sincerely, no doubt, want to do something for the dispersed Ummah by methodically studying the Shari’a in the light of Western science and learning, and by seeking its implementation as much as possible in the West.

    But the unsurmountable hurdles mentioned earlier will still be there:

    -What will be deemed to be proper acquaintance with Shari’a? Who will emit the diplomas and degrees? Who will regulate its study? Will this regulatory body not perforce be biased towards one scool of fiqh fiqh or another? Or will they swallow proper nikah and Muta’ as a joint pill, to return to just one example cited earlier?

    – How will any two Muslim groups be able to agree on their rulings?

    -How, therefore, will these experts in Shari’a be representative of all Muslims – even of any TWO Muslim groups?

    The basic problem in all of this is painfully simple. It is one of LEADERSHIP. All Muslims today are like a crew of sailors of equal rank whose captain and other senior officers have died.

    If any sailor stands up and says: Look, for the sake of the unity, peace, prosperity and well-being of all, let’s choose a leader among us.

    But the problem is, each one considers every other to be of equal standing to himself. So each one thinks: Why should I forego my own plans and agree to follow his plans? He is no better than me.

    Or, in the worse scenario, which indeed is the one Muslims are stuck in, he might say: Why should I listen to him, WHEN I AM CLEARLY BETTER than him. Again we are thrown back to that damned old problem of Takfir: of thinking one is better than the other and declaring it for all to hear.

    I can safely say, again without wanting to sound pessimistic, that this issue will NEVER be solved as long as someone does not come whom ALL can recognise as having authority over them and having divine approval. Only God can send such a one, and I believe that efforts made by individual Muslims, though intrinsically sincere and well-intended, will never succeed in resolving the issues – even the small ones – that divide Muslims.

    And as long as Muslims remain divided, there can be no meaningful or lasting progress by Muslims in the West or elsewhere.

    It is not surprising that the Holy Prophets s.a., when speaking of the dire problems that Muslims will face in the latter days, said that an Imam will be divinely appointed to guide the Muslims back to their former glory. This Divinely Guided Imam – the Imam Al-Mahdi – will have full authority from God to opine on the jurisprudence of all Muslim groups. Those who follow him will automatically have all their issues of contention solved by him.

    As long as this does not happen, Muslims, through their love for Allah and His dear religion of Islam, will of course try to do something; and may Allah reward them for it. But no one can supercede the plan revealed by Allah to His Messenger s.a.

    All the hurdles will remain, and Muslims will refuse to be led or even guided by people who have no divine authority and who therefore unsurprisingly cannot solve even minor issues of fiqh by sitting together.

    I know this might have sounded quite depressing, but it is the truth and it cuts my heart to have had to say it.

    Muslims should be wondering why Allah has left them in this terrible state, a state where they are trampled upon by all nations, where their children, their women and their men are being massacred every single day with no one to help them, where their wealth is being bled out of their veins into the bellies of non-Muslim superpowers, and where they cannot find true peace.

    Many Christians and others are saying: “Look how God is punishing those Muslims. What greater proof is needed to show that God hates them?”

    Innaa lillaahi wa innaa ilaihi raaji’oon.

    Muslims should seriously ask themselves why Allah has not yet fulfilled His promise, the promise that He made to Seyyidna Rasoolullah s.a. that He would send the Imam Mahdi. Why has he not yet appeared before the end of the 14th Century Hijri according to the calculations made by the great Islamic Saints and reformers of the past?

    If we Muslims want to be united, our differences have first to be solved.

    If we want to solve our differences, no man on earth will be able to help us, for the reasons mentioned above.

    If there is a solution, it can only be solved by Allah and the Holy Prophet s.a. as Allah says:

    “Fa in tanaaza’tum fee shay-in farud-doohu ilallahi war-rasool”
    “So if you differ in anything, refer it back to Allah and the Messenger.”

    And the solution predicted by the Holy Prophet s.a. was: Allah will send the Imam Mahdi who will reunite you, andhe will come Hakaman ‘Adalan, as a Judge and with Justice.

    No one will remove our thousands of difficulties but the one predicted by the Messenger of Allah s.a.

    I humbly invite all to take another look at the world of Islam and at Muslims in the West, and to see if they honestly think that this situation can be redressed by anyone other than the one promised by our beloved Muhammad Rasoolullah s.a.

    If we want to resolve our issues of Shari’a, politics and disunity, I humbly and sincerely repeat: let us refer this matter to Allah and His Messenger instead of hoping for a solution elsewhere.

    You rightly stated that:

    “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)”

    That is very true. But this is not our weakness. Au contraire, THIS IS OUR STRENGTH. We DO have something in common, and that is ALLAH. Alhamdulillah.

    We can only find unity by holding on to Allah, all together. And what does holding on to Allah mean? One of its meanings is that when we have differences and problems requiring urgent attention, the whole Ummah must not seek for solutions other than those given by Allah through HisMesenger Muhammad s.a.

    And Allah’s guidance has already come. The terrible state and anguish of the Muslims of our times have been predictyed and the solution given was only this: the coming of the Divinely-Guided Leader: Al-Imam Al-Mahdi.

    I would be very interested in hearing the thoughts of brothers and sisters on this crucial issue.

  • abu ameerah says:

    Wow. That was a loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong post.

  • Hakim says:

    “Wow. That was a loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong post.”

    Yes it was, good to hear from you Abu Ameeriah.

  • R. T. Lindsey says:

    Thank you so much, authors of both the original post and the reply. As a non-Muslim (also non-Christian and non-Jew), I am often pummelled with incoming email concerning the alleged absolute homogeneity of Islamic belief — homogeneity within a distinctly terror-inclined mentality. When I respond to my friend (he who sends such emails), arguing that human nature alone makes it impossible even in theory for such a degree of homogeneity to exist across so great a range of circumstances, this theoretical argument carries little or no weight. And my friend can always find another Christian or Jew willing to attest online to their personal observation of this homogeneity — a fact that had begun to make me wonder if I might be mistaken.
    Your intelligently composed and lucidly stated posts will sustain me in my belief and provide me with a source other than myself for the assertion that Islam varies almost as widely as humanity itself.
    Again, thank you — from one ordinary American vainly wishing for a sane world, and grateful for every ray of light that peeks through.

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