Friday, June 3, 2011

What Defines A Muslim? (1) An Introduction

(I'll be as clear-cut and to the point as possible today. Please do not be offended and if you have any comments you’d like to make after reading this piece, feel very free to comment below or contact me on my Twitter handle @TheLogicker.)

Okay, let’s get on with it. Today’s blog post shall be about the definition of a Muslim. Simple, right? You believe in God and that Muhammad is His Prophet; pray five times a day; fast for a month once a year; give to charity; and of course make the pilgrimage to Makkah. The five pillars of Islam, basically... But no.

Two conversations with two excellent people, both on Twitter, brought an opinion contrary to mine (dubbed the traditional viewpoint) to my attention, and which they agree upon: that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you identify as a Muslim. Basically, as long as you introduce yourself as “I’m Muslim” you can be doing whatever you want, five pillars optional. Just “be a good person” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and you are welcome to the club.

No doubt their opinion is shared by many, but not by me.

I do see where they’re coming from. An isolationist, self-righteous, “we’re the only ones who are right” technique, an exclusive club in which only self-proclaimed members can join is not the way to go. We see it a lot today in Muslims and I guess that’s what spurred this small but growing movement on. Let us not abandon, isolate, hate. Let us embrace, let us love. But my lack of acceptance of this stems from my belief that there is quite a difference between loving someone and accepting them, and condoning what they do - and that is the difference which concerns us here. Melting into society, to the extent that there are no truly unique people anymore, is not the way to go either. It stands for something not good that it has started happening now.

Because we ARE different. God tells us that He has created us “in different peoples and tribes that you may get to know one another” (Qur’an Hujurat- ), and we should celebrate that difference. No, we do not want to go back to rampant racism, and superiority because of religious or ethnic background. We do not want to go back to “I’m right and you’re wrong” to be settled at the tip of a sword, and a world in which we fight over faith. We have come too far to return to that. But what we most certainly do not want to do is to water our faith down into a name, a label (is not the very worst thing we can do to ourselves is to self-label?), until it means nothing at all.

Let us begin with something I think we can all agree distinguishes a Muslim: belief in the Qur’an. If you’re going to disagree with me on that, really… Stop reading now, please. The Qur’an is what began identification of Islam as a distinct religion, is the revelation sent to the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, may peace be upon him - so to beat around the bush with anything resembling “I’m a Muslim but I don’t believe in the Qur’an” is going a tad too far. Really. (Any other opinions, of course, disagreeing with my previous statement I’d be glad to hear.)

Okay, the Qur’an. I’ve gotten into arguments with people (yes, it would be more polite to call it ‘a discussion’ but I’m being honest) when I tell them MUSLIMS FOLLOW WHAT IS IN THE QUR’AN: they say, “but who can determine what the Qur’an says in the first place? There are so many interpretations!” They are right, and that is the beauty of Islam: the multiple interpretations. The possibilities left open.

I’ll go off on a tangent here: the beauty of Islam is that it is a modern religion without having to be modernized. Islam does not truly need ‘reform’, or change, which is why I distrust any self-proclaimed reformation movements. I think a belief that a religion really needs such a thing would contradict the belief of its being from an all-Powerful, omnipresent, omnipotent Creator. If a religion so desperately needs to be changed from its core, it’s a clear sign to me that it’s just not the right thing to believe in. I’d abandon my faith in that religion - without a single qualm, I hope - because I refuse to belittle myself to the point of attaching myself to a belief system that’s been concocted by human hands.

Because really - would we ever need to teach God anything? Would we need to change anything that comes from He of the Ninety-Nine Names, a system we have been ordered to follow? No. All we can do is cut away the man-made trappings that’ve been draped on it over time - and boy, how those mundane trappings have obscured the crystal brilliance in this religion. The stem of this entire argument - of my entire professed belief as a Muslim - is that whatever discrepancies or faultiness we may see in Islam is nothing but the errors of people. Therefore we should have no qualms in accepting Islam as a whole: mind, body, and soul: the farthest thing possible than merely a label.

Gah. I’ve overstepped myself. Time to cut this off here and continue later - and, I assure you, God willing this will be continued. Like I said discussion is welcome. I’d love to hear your thoughts as I continue with this, so you can help me formulate my own ideas. Nothing in our heads is set in stone unless we deem it to be, and to deem anything in my head solid or beyond doubt is beyond naïve (aka: you of the opposite viewpoint, you have the chance to convince me yet ;).

I’ll see you soon.

(NEXT: The Interpretation Question)


  1. a pertinent borrowed quote, 'i defend the teachings of Islam but not the actions of Muslim'

  2. I'm not Muslim, but I'm just sharing this because I think it's interesting (as is your post): A friend of mine who refers to himself as a strong "reformist" says he is such not because he doesn't believe in the whole of the Qur'an, but because to him, reform means re-interpreting popular conceptions. To him, it also means NOT believe in any of the Hadith.

  3. as-Salaamu Alaikum,Em D. I haven't communicated in a long time. and this seems like a good opportunity.

    Actually, I hadn't been aware of any of your posts since March. I kept refreshing that page each morning, expecting any new post to show up - but it never did. It didn't occur to me until today to look on the right side of the page under "Blog Archive" to see if there were any more recent articles. What a pleasant surprise to find the ones in April, May, and June.

    I still don't fully identify as a "Muslim" (meaning the distinct religion known by the name of Islam) because I don't practice the rituals within the "5 pillars". By your definition, I'm not a Muslim therefore. My view is that rituals are not ends in themselves, and therefore are not absolutely necessary. The rituals are given as "means" to an end: to achieve and maintain awareness and consciousness of God. They can be very useful; but a person who can achieve the end using other means has fulfilled the purpose for which those rituals were given - even if he uses no rituals at all. When the message of "submission to God" is carried to someone of Buddhist culture who sits in a 'lotus' position and chants "Om" while meditating in order to achieve and maintain awareness of the One, he can accept the message without altering his ritual practice to prostration in prayer and reciting prayers in Arabic. But that's my idea, and God knows best.

    I believe you're quite right that Muslim practices may need to be "reformed", but there's no need to "reform" Islam itself. Muslims sometimes (or perhaps frequently) do things that are quite contrary to Islam; and that's what needs to be reformed.

    Keep up the good writing.

  4. thanks, mazlindamakhzan and anonymous for the comments!

    long time no see, Mr Parker! thank you for the comment as well, it was a pleasant surprise and much appreciated. Hmmm. Thing is, I'm more inclined to go with the 'go with what God ordered us to do', rather than qualify ourselves as 'not needing' whatever it is. Personally I think the regimented quality in Islamic prayer, the unification of body and mind, the meanings of the invocations themselves, all contribute to helping to create a focused reminder of God in our daily lives. Rather than argue for and against the usefulness of Islamic prayer in life, though, I go with the perhaps oversimplified attitude that as long as I believe God sent Muhammad with the Quran, in which is specific instructions, let's just do what He told us to do. :)