Who Defines What Islam Is?

 
 

Many Muslims have been either silenced or ignored when it comes to their views of their own faith. As we grapple with the legacy of 9/11, we need to listen to these voices if we are to understand the religion they practice.

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Today marks the eighth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and as such is an occasion to remember the victims of these horrific attacks and their surviving family members. Today also marks the eighth anniversary of the catapulting of Islam into America’s public discussions. Such discussions show a troubling trajectory, namely the insistence by some non-Muslims that they know better than Muslims themselves what Islam really is.

Who defines what Islam is? Even among Muslims, this is a complicated question. Some simply argue that Islam is whatever good-willed Muslims say it is; others defer to Al-Azhar (even though it has become, for the most part, a political puppet of the Egyptian regime); others to Qom in Iran; others to others, and so on. Far-reaching intra-Muslim discussions about Islam are underway today, and in the question of who defines Islam, the voices of Muslims deserve, at the very least, a hearing.

An array of American and Europeans who are not Muslims are eager to explain to you what Islam is.

For example, Robert Spencer from the United States insists, “individual Muslims may genuinely regard their religion as ‘peaceful’—but only insofar as they are ignorant of its true teachings.” He asserts, “Islam today is what it has been fourteen centuries: violent, intolerant, and expansionary” and “Islam is intrinsically violent.”

In the United Kingdom, Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) has asserted that Islam is “a wicked, vicious faith.” (Recently the Muslim anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation in the U.K. issued a thoughtful analysis and refutation of such BNP claims.)

Yet when non-Muslims insist that they know better than Muslims what constitutes Islam, a key perspective is lost: namely, the views of Muslims themselves.

The issue of outsiders trying to monopolize God to set the boundaries of Islam is not just an issue for Muslims. It has implications for other religious believers who seek to articulate publicly their own perspectives on who they are, and how they understand their own faith.

Consider the position of Christians in Europe, who face more than a few opponents who are outright anti-religious. Should such anti-religionists be the ones to define what religion is and even who the “God” is whom Christians worship? Richard Dawkins attempted to do just that in his book The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Just because Richard Dawkins offers a jolting, bestselling picture of who the God of the Old Testament is does not mean that when I as a Christian pray that I pray to such a monstrosity.

This is not to say that we cannot comment on or gain knowledge of faiths other than our own. There are not only good reasons to pursue scholarly inquiry into other faiths, there is a pragmatic necessity to gain knowledge of them if we wish to have peace and meaningful toleration. There is also a role for critical challenges to faith claims. Fortunately, our society protects freedom of the press for all, Richard Dawkins included, thus assuring robust and open engagement between people of different faiths or no faith at all.

Ultimately, however, those seeking to understand other faiths need to consider how the believers themselves understand their own faith. This includes recognizing the perspectives not only of those who hold power in a faith community, but also the believers in day-to-day life trying to live out their faith.

An example of this is in a stunning new novel set in Saudi Arabia, The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia. In this story an Eritrean Muslim falsely accused of adultery sits in a Saudi jail cell, after being “convicted” with no witnesses, no lawyer, and no trial. He anticipates his punishment: having the lower part of his body buried and then, incapable of moving, being publicly stoned to death. His cellmate is a Nigerian Muslim whose circumstances suggest another miscarriage of justice. When the Eritrean resists his jailers’ attempt to force him to attend prayers at the jail mosque, the Nigerian tells him not to resist, saying, “Remember that Allah is not theirs alone.” The same could be said of those who insist they alone offer the definitive declaration of who the God of Muslims is when they do not even practice that faith.

Consider the perspective of Country-Western singer Kareem Salama, a Muslim from Oklahoma. In the song, “Rise Up,” he directly challenges those who try to monopolize by means of violence the definition of who God is. He says that they “swear they take life in the name of God / but they lie they take it in their own name.”

In Salama’s song “Get Busy Living,” Salama understands his life as a Muslim this way: “So that when the fateful day does come / When I’m six feet in the ground / The poor and the weak and the orphan and meek will miss having me around.”

Granted, Salama’s gentle, tuneful perspective is far from the lone voice of Islam in the modern world. His songs compete with the shrill cries of some of his coreligionists for suicide attacks. Salama’s voice is significant because it is one of many similar voices, all of them seemingly minor and unheard, but numerous enough to form a considerable chorus.

It would be unwise to forget that those who attacked us were motivated by religious concerns. At the same time, we should not, by adding more shrill cries to the cacophony, place hurdles in the path of the efforts of Salama, the Quilliam Foundation, and other Muslims to offer a “Generous Peace.” Indeed, the memory of the victims of September 11 attacks and our national interests will be best served if, when some Muslims tell us they worship a God who cares about the poor, the weak, the orphan, the meek, we take time to listen.

Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project. She is a contributor to Public Discourse.

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