Saturday, June 4, 2011

What Defines A Muslim? (2) The Interpretation Question

Okay all, here's part 2 of this series: my bound-to-come-short attempt at the definition of a Muslim. It was brought on by discussions on Twitter as well as, believe it or not, walking through a Saudi mall!

One thing that must be stressed here is that this is NOT meant to represent that I'm walking around with a checklist of Criteria To Be Met if someone Claims To Be Muslim - "or else". I'm just kind of annoyed at the extent the 'Muslim by name' phenomenon has reached. Here in the Arab world specifically, Saudi Arabia especially, it's getting kind of ridiculous. I once was speaking to a girl in my class; she mentioned that she didn't cover her hair when she traveled. I asked her, "Do you really believe that you should?" She said "Sure!" – and, when asked further about why she didn't back up her beliefs with actions, simply shrugged.

So is this a case of words not matching up with actions? Beliefs not translated into real, live, factual stuff? I think it is. I think it's an attitude of carelessness, a kind of laissez-faire picked up from the general attitude about religion nowadays. "It's what in your heart that counts." Of course it is – but what is in your heart and words and intentions are NOTHING without deeds to back them up, as well as vice-versa. That's just common sense. Why else is "those who believe" always, always directly followed by "and do good deeds" in the Qur'an?

So I really detest this attitude of "I know what I'm going to do but I'm too lazy to do it"… which is the first category of non-practicing Muslims. Frankly, if the girl had told me "no, I actually don't believe I should cover my hair" because she had researched the actual subject and had come to the conclusion (as many have) that covering one's hair is indeed unnecessary, I would've respected her far more.

This brings us to the second category: Muslims who claim that their interpretation of the sacred texts has enabled them to follow Islam as they see fit. Naturally and as a matter of course there are different understandings of how Islam ought to be practiced. As mentioned in Part 1, that's the beauty of it, and re-interpretation MUST be done if a true Islamic Reformation is to be accomplished. It's part of Islam and refuting the, unfortunately, all-too-often outdated, misogynistic, patriarchal, *insert synonym of BAD of your choice here* system and edicts Muslims have been following blindly for centuries because someone told them the door of interpretation was closed and that's it. I'm of the opinion that the decay and downfall of the Muslim world was in part caused by that cursed idea. It needs to be rectified, immediately – and responsibly. Let's not get carried away here.

So excuse me if I regard with a jaundiced eye the claims of people who drink, who don't pray, who have sex without being married. It's just, how exactly do you 'interpret' (impolitely: 'twist around') direct orders? Nothing ambiguous, just "do" and "don't do"?

Don't drink alcohol.

Direct punishment for those who have sex outside of marriage.

PRAY, for God's sake!

Do I really need to get verses in the Qur'an to back this up? Really, guys? (As always, I'd love to hear if you've got an interpretation that says it's OK for any of the above.)

(continued in Part 3 - I'd get sued for length otherwise.)


  1. Excellent series of posts. I enjoyed them very much.

    Personally, I have more sympathy with the girl who doesn't wear hijab, but doesn't know why...but knows she should vs. the one who is convinced that the stipulation of hijab is just a "misinterpretation" of Qur'an/Sunnah/culture/whatever. I find that the person with the latter point of view is more likely to view themselves as a "true scholar" regardless of how little comprehensive knowledge they have, and will have a definitely harmful impact on people interested in the true scholarship of Islam.

    The first type is usually a person who is struggling with the right thing, for whatever reason, while the second type is often a "preacher" who *must* get others to their way of thinking so that their intellect and power is validated.

    This is just my opinion based on exhaustive interaction with both types of people. I've ultimately walked away with a sense of disgust for the pseudo-scholar, and intense sympathy for the ones who lack the ability to do the right thing.

    Again, great posts, and thanks for the opportunity to sound off!

  2. You know, most studies indicate that say-do relations aren't as direct as we like to think. So just because I say "I am a Muslim and I should pray" doesn't mean the direct consequences will be praying.

    We all operate different. Some of us are more sensitive to rule-following than others. It's a myth that people 'outta wana shoulda' because that's not how we operate. Certainly that's not how God has created us or our worldly system.

    There are direct and indirect consequences. To follow the basic commandments of God many of the consequences are described in the Quran. Some are worldly while others aren't! So it's to be expected the variability in people's behavior. It's rather idiotic to expect everyone to follow the commandments straight or consistently.

    For this very reason, the Quran and many of the Sunnah traditions refer to different levels of Jannah, reward, etc. We aren't all the same.

    If someone claims to be a Muslim and their intentions is to be a Muslim, their follow-up actions as a Muslim is none of our business UNLESS it directly affects us (inheritance, stealing, marriage, etc). All other personal behavior should be left for God to judge.

    I think if you stepped down to our human level for a minute, you will realize that you don't follow EVERYTHING just because God stated it. Isn't it enough that God has said to do it?

    That's why God is forgiving. Let's be kind so God will be kind with us?