EditorMay June 2006

Wither Muslim Identity?

Future Islam

 Some forty years ago when Wilfred Cantwell Smith laid his claim on Islam, which Muslims believe they have long patented it for themselves, few could realize that by claiming to be a Muslim he was igniting a major ideological debate in the religious hemisphere. Smith was no ordinary Christian. He was a great scholar aware of the entire spectrum of the theological debate in Islam about Muslim identity. And as he believed that the essence of Islamic teachings was submission to God, he felt, perhaps genuinely, that he too, being a devout Christian, was a Muslim per se. For Smith Islam was an attitude of submission and not an ideological badge to put on. Islam as espoused in Mohammedanism was not acceptable to him, nonetheless, it was not possible for him to say in Arabic lastu bi Muslim, i.e. to say I am not a submitter. A God-fearing man as he was, how would he dare say that he was not a submitter or a Muslim?

Smith’s era was marked by a post-colonial impulse. Muslims around the world looked at Islam more as an ummatic identity than the universal salvific mission. Smith’s claim on Islam therefore then received only a lukewarm response from ulema of the time. Even his trusted pupil like Mushirul Haq who on many occasions deliberated on Smith’s definition of Islam always tried to maintain a distance. As a student at the Temple University Mushirul Haq had had the opportunity to see Smith from close quarters and there is no doubt that he was deeply moved by his devotion and piety. But was Smith really a Muslim in the linguistic sense of the term? Clearing the air on this issue was not only a dangerous proposition, for Haq it was a theological dilemma too. By claiming to be a Muslim in Christian tradition, Smith had in fact re-ignited an age-old debate which Muslim theologians had spearheaded in the early centuries of Islam; what makes one a Muslim, faith or practice?

Measuring one’s faith is always fraught with dangers and so any attempt at seeking its definition. Fiqhi or legal definition of religion can be as misleading and inconclusive as its apparently conflicting manifestations. Almost all the major religions, with only exception of Islam, are known today with the names that were not originally assigned to them by their founders. Jesus never thought that one day his followers would be called Christians and his salvafic mission will be termed as Christianity. The same is true with Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and other great religions. Most of these terms were coined by the outsiders and hence they do not reflect the essence of these religious traditions.

The early orientalists tried to make sense of Muslim religion in Christian parameters. Initially they called it Mohammedanism. It was quite lately when serious scholars of Islam in the West realized that Islam was no cult of Mohammed as it lay claim of being the continuation of the great Abrahamic tradition. Smith belongs to that enlightened era. He was rather surprised to know that the term Islam used in the Qur’an in broader sense encompassing all kinds of submitters have been patented by the Muslim nation. Smith was also witness to a fierce battle in Pakistan between the Qadianis and mainstream Muslims over the same issue. In fact the anti-Qadiani movement had brought the entire identity issue to full focus. As recorded in Munir Commission Reports, the ulema were unable to provide a conclusive and mutually agreed definition of who was a Muslim. If Islam is an attitude and if one’s Muslimness depends on his/ her submission to God, can Muslims be found outside the traditional House of Islam? This was a natural question that Smith and other serious students of Islam grappled with. For Smith claiming to be a Muslim might have been an intellectual chivalry, but for us any redefinition of the term would certainly cause a paradigm shift.

Who is a Muslim, then? Is Islam a religious patent for the Muslim nation alone or there can be some other equally deserving claimants to this Abrahmic heritage? I think any attempt to provide a conclusive or authoritative answer to this highly complex issue will betray the nature of the question itself. Let me elaborate. The human mind employs language as a tool of thinking and perception. Man has a unique ability to name a phenomenon and this is what distinguishes him from other creatures. But the words as tools of thinking and expression have their own limitations, especially when the words are not dead words, they keep evolving. While on the other hand, for God language is a mere tool of communication. God can no doubt perfectly translate the sublime intent into a human language but then the language will bear divine stamp of perfection making little sense for the humans. To bridge the gap between the divine intent and the human language God does not humanize himself either. Rather, He wants us to appreciate the sublime intent in a humanly comprehensible language: ‘Read! In the name of thy Lord whom you owe your existence.’ Man is reminded time and again of his lowly origin yet he is encouraged to make his own motivated reading of the text: ‘Read! For thy Lord is bountiful’ (Qur’an, 96:1-3). This motivated reading has to acknowledge at the outset that the Qur’an is no ordinary book and that no humanly comprehensible language can fully absorb the divine intent nor any exegete can lay a siege around its meaning. At most what Man can do is to appreciate the thrust of the intent thereby finding a direction for his spiritual journey. On the contrary, if one approaches the text as a legal draft inferring all possible dos and don’ts, it is very likely that he ends up without getting any wiser. The Israelites, we are told in the Qur’an, were asked to slaughter a calf. But instead of obeying the divine command instantly they raised many questions to narrow down their search for a calf. This approach to get to this much of precision is certainly against the hermeneutics of the divine text.

In the Qur’an, a fiqhi mind is at a loss to find no precise definition to the Muslim identity. Instead, God wants us to be a submitter per se, to be called as people of God (rabbani). Here the attitude itself is the identity. Claiming to be a Jewish or a Christian are no acceptable propositions. The faithful has to acquire the colour of God as this is the only valid identity: ‘the color of God and whose color can be better than God’s. It is He whom we worship.’ (Al-Qur’an, 2:138). Schism and Tawhid do not go hand in hand. Submitters to God cannot be true in their claims unless they shed their respective group identity to form a universal brotherhood of rabbanin, the people of God. The Qur’an keeps us reminding, oft and on, that Abraham and Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob or Moses and Jesus were neither Jews nor Christians. They all belonged to one group of submitters whom the act of submission had given an identity and a name: هو سماكم المسلمين. The Qur’anic exhortations such as  كونوا ربانيين, (be the people of God) and صبغة الله (take the color of God) are enough indications that the Qur’an wants to create a universal society where small group identity are merged to create the universal identity of submission to one God. This universal brotherhood which the Qur’an terms as Ummah Muslimah is a broader term encompassing all the prophets and their true followers. The Abrahmic prayer, ‘O my Lord raise from amongst us a nation of submitters does not include those transgressors who otherwise may claim to be his offspring:  لا ينال احد الظالمين;.

A redefinition of Muslim identity is no academic luxury for us. In fact on this depends our future. Today, in the twenty first century, when the patented Muslims find themselves on a slippery slope and when the so called revivalist movements appear to be a finished phenomenon, it is high time to do some serious soul searching. Imagine! Yesterday, we were the liberators, upholders of the last salvafic mission. Today, we are so helpless that we are unable to arrest our own decline. What has gone wrong with us? How this all happened? Probably, it requires a lot of courage on our part to be truly self-critical and certainly no less than the bluntness of an idiot to speak it out. True, we claim to be the upholders of a universal mission but in reality we are no better than the Jews and Christians of the prophet’s time. And like them we too, instead of calling people to God, work tirelessly to expand our social base, urging people to convert to our cultural identity. And if that be the case, I wonder, why do we expect others to be attracted to such a purely communitarian project?

Unlike the communitarian Muslims of today, the first generation of Muslims were endowed with a universal vision. In their appearance they were like other Arabs of their time; speaking the same language, donning the same kind of dress and spotting a similar beard. But in their outlook they were citizens of an entirely different world working for a bias-free global society of submitters. Their appearance being the same, Islam had radically transformed them from within. For them accepting Muhammad as the prophet of God meant leaving behind the old world of clan-identity and for that they needed no external face-lift. Despite their intellectual and spiritual transformation they were not required to dress differently or undergo a name change. In those days there was neither such notion as Islamic names nor any institutionalized process of conversion or specific formula for declaring one’s faith as we know it today. Coming to Islam basically meant that the person had thrown his full weight in the camp of Muhammad and joined the prophetic struggle against all odds. Verbal declaration of faith or beautifully constructed rhyming formulas had little relevance then, as faith was more a matter of deeds than words.

The early Muslims were also aware of the fact that as upholders of the Last Revelation they were entrusted with world leadership, however, this did not mean that the role of other faith communities was over. They in fact felt obliged to seek their willing participation and for that matter chart out a common program of action or kalimatun siwa, as the Qur’an calls it. As long as Muslims were open to other faith communities and they took them as their natural allies they were a power not to reckon with. However, owing to some political upheavals things started changing in Abbasid Baghdad. With the rise of the mawalis, the naturalized Arabs, on the social scenario and the domination of ahle-kitab and other groups in administrative services, some Arab tribes felt as if they were gradually being pushed on the margin. This was the time when many stories were fabricated and floated to weaken the pluralistic social fabric. The fabricated, never-happened incident about Banu Quraiza which tells that the prophet was so much against the Jews that he personally ordered and witnessed the annihilation of 600 member strong Jewish tribe surfaced for the first time in this era only. During the same period we also hear people talking of  Omerian stipulations about the people of the book possibly  attributed to Caliph Omer, or some other Omer we are never sure which later came characterize our attitude towards other faith communities. Traditions that establish the supremacy of the Quraish tribe and the call for establishing an Arab hegemony can also better be explained against this historical background when Arabism or Arab Asabiyah rather than Islam came to dictate our identity. From the universal brotherhood of submitters we shrunk into Arab-Muslim identity as Islam became ideology of the new fast emerging Arab Empire. Previously, it were the Muslims who came to serve Islamic mission, but with the establishment of the empire, it was Islam that had to serve the empire. Then, there were the crusaders who were locked in fierce battle with Muslim army for almost two hundred years. This certainly had to affect our perception of the Christian nation. And it did. As a result the entire Islamic discourse changed. The world appeared to us as divided between the abode of Islam and the abode of kufr. Traveling through and settling in kufr-land was considered abominable. This attitude eventually led to the closing of the Muslim mind. Closed in our own environs we knew very little what changes were taking place in other parts of the world. With the sudden rise of colonial powers when we finally woke up to the new reality, it was already too late.

For a restart we need to travel back, from cultural Islam to pure Islam. A re-evaluation of the entire corpus of exegetical writings on the various conflicting shapes and forms of Muslim identity is urgently needed. A humble beginning can be made with the following basic premises:

1.      At the heart of Islamic mission lies the call to create a global society of submitters (rabbanin). As the color of God is the hallmark of the followers of Mohammed, they are expected to sing the glory of God in unison with the other faith communities. We should not lose sight of the fact that Mohammed is the converging point of the entire prophetic tradition as he came to establish no knew Ummah but revive the Abrahmic religion. The Qur’anic concept of Ummah Muslimah is a broader term which encompasses all the prophets of God and their true followers.

2.      The concept of wala and bara’ as explained in the Qur’an is essentially to convey that the ideological realm is divided between the submitters and the rejecters. Nevertheless, this does not mean that submitters are not to be found outside the cultural House of Islam. Unlike other nations, Muslims are no cultural group nor are they supposed to grow in isolation.. The Arab culture that unfortunately in course of their centuries journey has transformed the followers of Mohammed, from the Ummah Muslimah into the Ummah Muhammediyah, is not to be taken as the integral component of Islam.

3.      Owing to the influence of exegetic literature the Muslim mind has been confused about some of the seemingly conflicting verses of the Qur’an that determine our attitude towards the people of the book. Usually our exegetes have employed suitable historical contexts to resolve these contradictions that appeared to them pointing to different directions. I strongly feel that studying a verse in isolation or in a given historical context is a flawed methodology. History, if allowed to supersede the Revelation, can only produce disasters. What is required is to reconsider all such seemingly conflicting verses in the general revelatory atmosphere of the Qur’an. My own study of such verses has made me believe that the followers of Mohammed, by virtue of being the upholders of last revelation, have a clear edge over other faith communities. They had to lead the prophetic struggle till end time. And as this global leadership in itself is a daunting task the policy making has to be well-guarded and at no cost should be allowed to get influenced or diluted by the ‘other’. Despite their recognition as faith communities the people of the book are not to be inducted in the inner circle or be allowed to affect our policy making: لا تتخذوا الأولياء من دون المؤمنين . However, this does not mean that we have any grudge against them or consider their faith inferior: ليسوا سواءَ من أهل الكتاب أمة قائمة يتلون آيات الله آناء الليل وهم يسجدون. Having assigned to world leadership the Qur’an tells us what to expect from the other believing nations, who can be helpful and to what extent:  لتجدن أشد الناس عداوة للذين آمنوا اليهود والذين أشركوا ولتجدن أقربهم مودة للذين آمنوا الذين قالوا إنا نصارى ذلك بأن منهم قسيسين ورهبانا وأنهم لا يستكبرون. But the Jews too are not to be ignored either: ومن قوم موسى أمة يهدون بالحق. Given such clear Qur’anic guidelines there can be little doubt that the remnants of earlier prophetic communities are crucial for us. Based on kalimatun siwa we have to forge a working relation with them The members of the faith communities have to be judged individually and on their own merit; for among them are also people who pay no heed to the divine guidance. Such rowdy elements should not be allowed to determine the direction of our joint struggle: ولن ترضى عنك اليهود والنصارى حتى تتبع ملتهم .

4.      Be they the remnants of earlier prophetic traditions or the communitarian Muslims of today, what distinguishes them in the eyes of God is their worldview (iman) and good deeds (amal saleh). No body is a born kafir. Like iman, kufr is also a worldview than can enslave any individual no matter which nation or culture he or she belongs to. In the Qur’an mention is made of the kuffar of ahle kitab who were desirous of clear evidence for their journey back to faith. The journey from the realm of faith to the realm of kufr and vice versa is basically a change in one’s worldview, a paradigm shift. It is a possibility open to every body and at all time. Whenever there would be any serious attempt to reconstitute the society of submitters, its addressee would not only be the Jew, or the Christians or the communitarian Muslims of today, rather, it will be open to submitters of all hues. When the trumpet will be blown, all those who come forward to sing the glory of God in unison will be accepted as the valid member of the Ummah Muslimah. In the past, people who responded to this call and gathered around the prophet came from divergent believing and non-believing nations. Bilal of Ethiopia, Salman of Persia, Sohaib of Rome, the Muhajiroon of Makkah and the Ansar tribes of Ythrab, all came together to share the new worldview that became the hallmark of their identity; the submission to one Lord God. This intellectual and spiritual revolution had transformed the remote village of Yathrab into al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, the City of Enlightenment. Today too, if the followers of Mohammed can rediscover what once made them Muslim per se, it is very likely that they find themselves, once again, amidst a new Enlightenment.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 May 2006

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