Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #1 – What is Islam?

This is the first in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

QUESTION #1 – WHAT IS ISLAM?

There are presently 1.6 billion Muslims globally, making Islam the world’s second-largest religion, and there are probably as many answers to the question, “What is Islam?” as there are adherents. The many individual expressions of the faith are valid experiences that give us insight into the lived reality of Islam. Qureshi says, “For that reason, it will be useful to start by sharing my personal experience of Islam while I was still a Muslim.”

QURESHI’S EXPERIENCE OF ISLAM AS AN AMERICAN MUSLIM

People often speak of religion in terms of beliefs and practices, and many introductions to Islam focus on the basic beliefs of Muslims, as represented by the Six Articles of Faith, and the mandatory practices of the Five Pillars of Islam. Yet that approach seems too distant and aloof to describe Qureshi’s experience as a Muslim. He says, “Islam was my identity, my culture, my worldview, my pride, even my raison d’être. For me, Islam was more than just a religion; it was my entire way of life.”

This passionate, comprehensive embrace of Islam was not unusual in Qureshi’s childhood environment. His great-grandparents were Muslim missionaries to Uganda, his grandparents were Muslim missionaries to Indonesia, his great-uncle was one of the earliest Muslim missionaries to the United States, and his uncle built one of the first mosques in America. While these relatives are idiosyncratic to Qureshi’s story, the convictions of his parents are reflective of many devout American Muslims. They were wholly dedicated to raising him as a pious Muslim child in what they perceived to be a morally permissive Western context.

What this means in essence was a constant remembrance of Allah and the teachings of Muhammad throughout Qureshi’s day, from waking to sleeping. Literally. Upon waking, he was taught to recite an Arabic prayer thanking Allah for giving him life; when lying down to sleep he prayed another prayer, affirming that his living and dying were in the name of Allah. Ceremonial washings and memorializing prayers filled his daily routine. His parents even taught him a standard prayer to recite on every occasion for which there was no other scripted prayer.

In addition to acts of ceremonial devotion, there were dozens of legal commandments intended to protect the community and glorify Allah. Men were forbidden to wear silk or gold, women were required to maintain modesty and veil themselves accordingly, and all Muslims were prohibited from usury and interest in their monetary transactions. Some commands functioned as identity markers for the Muslim community, such as the proscription of pork and alcohol, and the mandate to fast during Ramadan. Community was, of course, incredibly important for American Muslims as a minority. The majority of Americans did not understand them, and they felt it all the time, whether it be in the innocuous mispronouncing of their names, or the suspicious sideward glances at their women’s burqas. The mosque served as a haven where they could gather with others who experienced life in the same manner. Grievances from foreign lands were often laid to rest within the American Muslim community, as the local mosque was open to Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Ahmadi, Indian and Pakistani, rich and poor, black and white. Qureshi’s parents were focused on affirming Muslim unity and identity.

More importantly to Qureshi than all of this, Islam taught him to lower his gaze before women, to refrain from lust and other desires of the flesh, to respond to temptation by fasting, to consider the less fortunate and oppressed, to restrain himself from anger, to always tell the truth, to honor his parents and elders, and to follow countless other virtuous morals that he and his fellow believers often saw lacking in the amoral world around them. Through it all, what drove them ideologically were Allah and the prophet Muhammad. God, in his mercy, had sent guidance to mankind time and again, though man in his ignorance had rejected the messengers of Allah. Ultimately, Allah sent his chief messenger, Muhammad, to guide people as the perfect exemplar. Unparalleled in wisdom, character, and spiritual devotion, Muhammad led the new Muslim community from ignorance, through oppression, and into glorious victory for the sake of Allah. Since Muhammad was the perfect exemplar, Qureshi and his fellow Muslims followed his practices as best they could.

SO WHAT IS ISLAM?

But is Islam simply what Muslims experience, or is it something more? The sociologically inclined might say that Islam is simply the sum experience of all Muslims, but Qureshi says he would disagree, as would most Muslims. Islam is an entity beyond its people. Even if there were no one to experience it, we could still talk about Islam. Islam exists beyond experience. Qureshi says, “In my opinion, religions ought to be defined by the identifying characteristics that distinguished the earliest community from all others. For Islam, this boils down to exclusive worship of Allah and obedience to Muhammad. This understanding is verified by the shahada, the proclamation that every Muslim must recite in order to become Muslim: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger.” Even the prophet of Islam taught that this was sufficient to make one a Muslim.

There is much more to the religion of Islam, but at its core are the teachings of Muhammad and the worship of no other god than the one he proclaimed, Allah. These teachings are contained within Muslim scripture, the Qur’an, and in isolated traditions of Muhammad, often referred to collectively as the hadith.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND DENOMINATIONS

Yet Muslims interpret Muhammad’s teachings very differently, often along partisan lines of authoritative interpreters and cultural boundaries. That is why, in very broad strokes, Shia Islam looks different from Sunni Islam, why Bosnian Islam looks different from Saudi Islam, why folk Islam in the outlands of Yemen looks different from scholarly Islam in the halls of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Although the core of Islam is centered on the person of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, the expression of Islam reflects local customs. That is one reason why it is important to remember that Islam is not primarily a religion of Arabs. [This is something that was quite new to me.] The country with the most Muslims in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, India, and then Bangladesh. None of those nations are Arab, and local customs manage to find their way into Islamic expression.

In addition, no two Muslims are exactly alike, and that is another reason why the expression of Islam is so varied. Qureshi said, “My sister and I were raised in the same sect by the same parents, but her practice and interpretation of Islam looks very different from how mine looked. Her leanings were far more Western and pluralist than were mine. I was more interested in learning about Muhammad and his teachings than she was, while she was more interested in American pop culture than I was.”

MUSLIMS ARE NOT ISLAM

Especially because of the great diversity of Islamic expression, it bears repeating that Islam is not Muslims, and Muslims are not Islam. Though Muslims are adherents of Islam, and Islam is the worldview of Muslims, the two are not the same, as many uncritically believe.

On one end of the spectrum, many assume that if the Qur’an teaches something then all Muslims believe it. That is false. Many Muslims have not heard of a given teaching, some might interpret it differently, and others may frankly do their best to ignore it. For example, even if it were demonstrated through careful hermeneutics that the Qur’anic injunction to beat disobedient wives (Qur’an 4:34) is meant to apply to all Muslims today, it would still have zero bearing in one particular family. Qureshi said, “My father would never beat my mother.”

On the other end of the spectrum, criticism of Islam is often taken to be criticism of Muslims. That is equally false. One can criticize the Qur’anic command to beat disobedient wives without criticizing Muslims. The accusations of Islamophobia, discussed in Question 12, often fails at this point. Islam is not Muslims, and one can criticize Islam while affirming and loving Muslims.

CONCLUSION

Thus Islam is defined by obedience to Muhammad’s teachings and worship of no other god but the one he proclaimed, Allah. Although there are as many as 1.6 billion expressions of Islam in the world, Muslims are not themselves Islam. Qureshi says, “In my experience as an American Muslim, there was absolutely no emphasis placed on violence, but a great deal of emphasis placed on morality, legality, community, and spirituality. For me and all the American Muslims I knew, Islam was a religion of peace with God and peace with man. But my experience of Islam is not the only one, and it cannot define Islam. For other Muslims, violence is a part of their expression of Islam, but their experience is no more definitive than mine was. To answer whether Islam truly is a religion of peace, we must consider what Islam teaches, not just what Muslims practice.”

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