Who Defines us? Who are We?

March 6, 2014 by  


By Dr. Aslam Abdullah, TMO Editor-in-Chief

imagesA 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 Muslims’ various theological and sociopolitical schools of thought. These terms sometimes appear attractive, especially in the state of confusion in which we live. They provide us with different approaches to identify ourselves. However, when we look at these terms deeply, we begin to realize that they are meant to define us 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, political Islam, radical 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 U.S. 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 say that “moderate” or “progressive” Islam opposes violence, accepts the universal charter of human rights, promotes gender equality 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 the universal charter of human rights and that opposes the idea of gender equality and pluralism. If this is the basis of redefining Islam, then it is a weak premise.

Islam is a faith divinely 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 to accept them because they are responsible for their own actions. Islam does not advocate violence. 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 or progressive 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. Islam, that, after all, demands from every Muslim to be a witness to the truth.

The truth is clear in Islam. We cannot change it 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 falsehood? The truth will emerge from our quest of knowledge, experiences, wisdom and guidance from the Divine. The truth is not necessarily reflected in a few sound-bites of political or theological leaders.

In the case of Islam, the truth, as perceived by Muslims based on their general readings of the Qur`an, is that Islam is a divinely revealed faith that commands its adherents to follow the principles of monotheism, justice, progress, 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 Qur`an, the Divine tells us of people who would call themselves Muslims, yet, would do everything that is contrary to the teachings of Islam. Thus, it is not a prudent strategy to say that because of the deviations of others, we are changing our self definition and coining a new term to describe our relation with our faith. Our commitment to our faith is based on the criterion of right and wrong.

The propagation of new terminologies by various Muslims is leading our community into a bewilderment of confusing ideas without realizing that the principles of faith cannot be compromised for our understanding or lack of understanding of sociopolitical realities.

Thus, we have two tasks at hand. First, internally–we have to challenge those who are distorting and destroying 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 in Islam, we will notice qualitative change in our own attitude as well as the attitude of the people in our and others faith.

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