EditorJuly August 2007

To be or not to be a European Muslim

Future Islam

 The other day I came across Sandy Thom’s ‘I wish I was a Punk Rocker with flowers in my hair’ and I was awfully amazed by the amount of nostalgia that had engulfed the song: ‘Ow I was born too late/ To a world which does not care’. That sweet world – When music really mattered and when radio was king/ When accountants didn't have control/ And the media couldn't buy your soul/ …When pop stars still remained a myth/ And ignorance could still be bliss/ …And the only way to stay in touch was a letter in the mail/… And the super info highway was still drifting out in space – is alas no more.

We Muslims are not generally trained to appreciate western music nor do we usually feel that the problems of western Man can be our own yet Sandy’s nostalgic cry of a sweet dying world deeply touched me. The invisible forces of globalization have demolished all the boundaries between the east and the west. Be it the materialist west or spiritual seers of the east they inhabit the same planet and hence share a common destiny. Today, the complete alienation of the individual, the emergence of directionless and ruthless capitalism, the much talked about ecological imbalance and the total media-engineered blindness that we suffer are not the specific problems of western man alone.

Muslim thinkers have so far shied away from any passionate involvement in the issues that confront the west today. Instead they have tried to create a world of their own, a sort of ivory tower, wherein we hear of Islamic music, Islamic economics and Islamic science etc. However, the last decade has witnessed a shift in our thinking. Partly owing to the implied smallness of the globe and partly due to the emergence of Muslim societies in the major capitals of the west, we feel, more than ever before, an urgency to speak out what we feel on issues of common concern. The Islamic ghettos that once we so effectively created by building mosques, establishing Islamic centres and Muslim schools have virtually become redundant. This has led some Muslim intellectuals to think of new alternatives. Isolation or ghetto living has been disastrous. It only helped our enemies create a web of suspicion around us. Should Muslims be integrated to the local societies and become German by culture and Muslim by faith, as one would argue? Or, is it ideologically possible to be a western Muslim?

In recent years, some scholars have been vociferously advocating for an all-out integration of Muslims into western society. They argue that the attitude of seclusion has placed Muslims on the margins, leaving almost no role for them in socio-political arena. If they reinvent themselves as full-fledged citizens and play a proactive role they will emerge as spiritual powerhouses and the west too will be enriched by high morality of its Muslim citizens. Some would even urge us to go a step further, from integration to ‘contribution’, participating fully well in all schemes of nation building. They also argue that, as the west is a new home to Islam – a radically different setting, western Muslims must fashion a different identity from their eastern counterparts.

The craving for a western Muslim identity based on integration, however, has created some traumatic intellectual crises. For many Muslims living in the west, Islam and the west are not always reconcilable. The national interest of the country of their citizenship often collides with greater interest of Islam. Recent Western interventions in the Muslim world; the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, as also the unflinching American support to Israel, has only reinforced the belief that the west is antagonistic to Islam. Reconciling Islamic faith with western national interest then becomes an impossible proposition. If the unjust policies of the western governments often prompt their erstwhile diplomats, retired politicians and even army personnel to come out against their own governments, how can it be possible for Muslim citizens to bury their conscience, and for how long? In recent years, millions of people have been marching in the western streets against the unjust, inhuman and immoral policies of their governments. However, if the Muslims organize a similar protest it is not taken as a mark of their belief in democracy, instead they are looked at as potential terrorists who have yet to be adjusted to the local society. In short, the western Muslim finds himself in a perpetual fix; to be or not to be westernized, and a Muslim, one and at the same time.

Is Islam all about spirituality and morality that could be integrated into any system? Probably, the advocates of integration have purposely ignored some essential ingredients of Islamic ideology to avoid issues that are more sensitive. Let me elaborate. Muslims believe that by virtue of being upholders of the last revelation they are entrusted to calling people to good and forbidding them from wrong. And in their efforts to create a just system they are enjoined to seek active participation from all believing nations. A conglomerate of conscientious individuals as the future Islamic society is envisioned; it has neither to bear the mark of an Arab identity nor seeking to establish western hegemony. True, the venture of Islam began in an Arabian setting but Mohammed was not essentially an Arabian prophet nor is Islam’s basic mould essentially Arabic. It was made plain and clear that the prophet had come to establish no new identity rather he was commanded to revive the religion of Abraham whom the Quran depicts as a role model for submitters of all time to come. To be a Jew or a Christian (Muslims of the prophet’s time) was not enough to assure one’s success in the hereafter. Instead, the Quranic revelation linked salvation with true faith (iman) and good deeds (عمل صالح). No matter which religious fold the faithful belonged to, if he qualified the essentials, he was assured a share in the hereafter:

Those who believe and those of Jewry, and the Christians and the Sabians, whosoever believes in God and the hereafter and work righteousness – shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (Q 2:62)

The Islamic social order is a healthy composition of varieties of faiths and ideologies singing in unison the glory of God, competing one another in righteousness. Ideologically, we Muslims are inheritors of a prophetic tradition that did not begin with Mohammed though it ended with him. As our faith incorporates all the prophets of all time and place it is natural that our society also bears a testimony to this great heritage:

Say: We believe in God and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them(لانفرق بين احد منهم): and we submit to God. (Q 2:136)

Believing in all the prophets without any distinction or preference is a precondition to one’s submission to God. For any possible deviation, the believers are thus scolded: “So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism” (Q 2:137). An ideal Islamic society must bear a trans-cultural identity wherein converges the essence of entire prophetic tradition. To this phenomenon the Quran terms as acquiring the colour of God, صبغة الله, which once was the hallmark of the Muslim community and which if revived to its full will make divergent faith communities feel at home in a Muslim society.

The Quran exhorts us to become rabbani and thus constitute a God-centred society which alone can guarantee an equal opportunity for all faith groups to flourish. There are recurring indications in the Quran that God wants us to forge a greater federation of faith communities. In surah Haj we are told of monasteries, churches and synagogues, other than the mosques, as there too the name of God is commemorated in abundance:

Had God not checked one group of people by another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure. (Q 22:46)

This then is a broad outline of Islam-for-all, a universal salvafic mission in which the followers of Muhammad have to play a pivotal role but the other faith groups too will not have the feeling of being left out. A mega project such as this cannot be executed in isolation or by ghetto mindset. Those who advocate for a life of seclusion by creating small Islamic ghettos have little understanding of the universal salvafic mission of Islam. The great fuqaha of the past who saw the world divided between the two opposing blocks of darul-Kufr and darul-Islam also missed this point. As for those who are exhorting us today to become a European Muslim or fully participate in schemes of nation-building and who, with all their good intentions, wish to create among us some Muslim Henry Kissingers or Jack Straws are no less ignorant of Islamic mission. Integrating to the western societies no doubt can send Muslims to the corridors of power and they can even prove themselves as better citizens than their Jewish or Christian counterparts, but there is no guarantee that their ‘integration’ or ‘contribution’ will also advance the salvafic mission of Islam. There are many nations and tribes on this planet working day in and out to foster their respective national interest. If Muslims are also absorbed in a similar projects, who will take care of the broader interest of humanity? Integration can be a viable strategy to penetrate into western societies and it may even be a shortcut to taking control of major western capitals by democratic means, but the salvafic mission that we Muslims are entrusted to, is far lofty to forsake it for the sake of power.

I am no advocate for isolation or ghetto mindset. Yet I feel that a mad push for integration without laying out a proper intellectual foundation will take us nowhere. The Islamic faith, ingrained as it is on the Muslim psyche, tells us that we Muslims do not have a national or communitarian interest of our own. We are supposed to work for a just order in which all nations of the world may find solace. Working solely for British or American national interest will pit us against our own conscience. For us the entire humanity is one nation, the children of same God who has entrusted us to take care of them all. Without giving up this lofty mission it is not possible for us to become a pawn in the hands of any system that cares only for its own people bothering little how adversely its policies affect other nations.

The integrationists are basically swayed by the success story of the western Jewry. The Jews lived in the margins of history for so long that Diaspora (galut) became their national identity. But once they decided to forsake, or at least downplay, their Jewish identity and got integrated into the local societies they emerged as a power to reckon with. The Jewish experience however was not all about integration. The Jewish revival owes much to the eighteenth century discourse about the nature of religious and secular knowledge. Integration too had its own share but its adverse effects cannot be downplayed. Moses Mendelssohn who is seen as the intellectual father of Reformed Judaism championed a European identity for the Jews. No doubt, on the personal level, Mendelssohn’s was a success story as he was appointed court philosopher by Frederick II, the King of Prussia. Nevertheless, integration had its own toll.  Mendelssohn's entire progeny left the Jewish fold; his daughters, Dorothea and Henrietta converted to Catholicism and his son, Abraham, induced his children to become Christians for he believed that ‘it (Christianity) is the conviction of most well-bred human beings.’ Forsaking Jewish identity in favour of a European one, no doubt, brought the Jewish nation at the helm of affairs; nonetheless, it also pitted Jews against their own redemption project. Today, despite so much power at their command, the Jewish nation is in a fix: the third temple is not feasible as a religious project.

There is much for us to learn from the Jewish experience. Without a proper theology of integration, Muslims will have apprehensions about this approach and the integrationists will be seen as mere apologists. What will distinguish a Muslim citizen from his/her non-Muslim counterparts if all of them equally work for the national interest of their country? To say that Muslim participation will add moral and spiritual elements in western society which badly needs them sounds not only apologetic but it amounts to reducing a great salvafic mission to morality. I believe that Muslims in the west, like other parts of the world, cannot play a positive role unless they rediscover the prophetic mission. Neither isolation nor integration or ‘contribution’ as Tariq Ramadan would put it, can ensure us the prestige attached to the mission of Muhammad. It is not Islam or Muslims that need to be integrated to the west but it should be the other way round. We need to integrate east and west, Europeans and Asians and other nations of the world to the comforting and salvafic mission of Islam. Muslims, no matter they live in the east or west, must present themselves as a salvafic nation who live for others and not for themselves. At this point of history when human freedom and liberty are at stake, when the individual is reeling under the tyranny of capitalism and when there is a widespread feeling that the world-system has gone out of hand, Muslims are duty bound to rescue all 6 billion human souls that inhabit the world today. This they can only do if they are able to recast prophetic Islam in modern setting; an Islam that is neither eastern nor western but only bears ‘the colour of God’ calling people to attain a God-centred identity. A mercy unto humanity as Muhammad is, recasting his prophetic message would certainly elicit a universal appeal. In short, what we need today is not to formulate a lame version of Islamic morality making it compatible with the ruthless capitalist system but to rediscover the universal message of Islam and employ it as an integrating thread for all nations of the world.  

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 July 2007

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