Western Muslims: Prophetically-Inspired Voices of Dissent
This is a companion piece to the previous blog I wrote, called: British Muslims & their Strategies for Living in the UK (which can be read here). Here, I will discuss a few of the principles which ought to animate our engagement with wider society and our fellow citizens; and how, in the time honoured tradition of Abrahamic monotheism, we are called upon to hold a mirror up to society and help steer it away from self-harm.
One Qur’anic verse is particularly telling on this point, for it says: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] Thus this ‘community of the middle way’, distant from all types of extremism; this ‘best part of everything,’1 has been tasked with the burden of being witnesses over mankind: witnesses to the truth of God’s Prophets and to the monotheistic message they each came with, and witnesses to the truth that a life lived in hedonistic pursuits will not bring about human happiness.
Muslims are called to witness that: Indeed We have created man in hardship [90:4]; that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments. We must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown them out with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.
To be a witness is to be actively engaged. Isolationist policies that some Muslims have chosen stifle such witnessing. And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God, does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’, states the Qur’an [41:33] In another verse, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is told to declare: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to God, clear-sightedly, I and those who follow me.’ [12:108] Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation and to monotheism’s lights being veiled from reaching others. The call need not be verbal: ‘actions speak louder than words’, and doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk undeniably has its place and can help win arguments. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and sacrifice tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects.
Let us also recall that the uncompromising monotheism of God’s Prophets, peace be upon them, didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civilisation or civic life. We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness, exiled there, or taken refuge there for a while. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city-centred.
Prophetic cries from the wilderness there have been. But Prophets offer us something practicable and liveable; something people may actualise in their urban worlds which would help them to be recognisably human and spiritual. Along with an unflinching monotheism, the history of the great monotheistic epics were rooted in impassioned protests against corruption, tyranny, social iniquity or ‘the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings as in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.’2 Historical records show that what we now refer to as the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith. Such is the energy of the monotheistic call and the prophetically-inspired voices of dissent. Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than a monotheistic religion of sacred discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
So what are we Muslims to be or to do here in the West; in the place where most of us call home? What is it that we can offer? We can’t be mere armchair critics of society, that’s for sure; nor can we continue to moan from the fringes. We could, I suppose, settle as comfortably as possible into the consumerist culture and live our lives mostly for material pursuits. But that would be to shirk away from the commitment we have made to Abrahamic monotheism, to la ilaha ila’Llah, and ignore the demands it makes on us in terms of working for a more just, compassionate and ethical society.
We could, as some of us do, wallow in self pity and a culture of blame, accusing others for our woes and predicament, unable to move beyond past grievances. But that is to be ignorant of faith and the sense of personal responsibility, empowerment, hope and optimism that the monotheistic belief injects into individuals. ‘Monotheism makes a difference to what we believe and do,’3 and to the way we see our lives unfold and our responses to it. It is impossible to be moved by the prophetic call and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: worship God alone, and take responsibility. For the world will not get better of its own accord.
We could opt for a browbeaten facsimile of monotheism, having nothing to say about our ever-growing social ills or the downwards spiral of spiritual decadence; content to pander to corporate agendas and the money markets; desperate to confine religion to the home, vexed whenever it enters the public space; servile to the monoculture; and in homage to the modern liberal state. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop, says that ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’4 Theology aside, the above applies equally to Muslim liberals as it does Christian ones; those who see the Qur’an as little more than a social manifesto which wholeheartedly endorses the liberal orthodoxies of our age. A privatisation of religion, no doubt; but a publicisation of a shameless defeatism too.
As explained before, Islam’s monotheism calls upon us to be witnesses; it equally calls upon us to be healers too: We send the Messengers only to bring good news and to warn. So those who believe and set things aright, no fear shall come upon them and nor shall they grieve. [6:48] This setting things aright; this healing, rings out in the next passage too: Have you seen him who denies the religion? Such is he who repels the orphan and who does not urge others to feed the poor. [107:1-2] This monotheistic spirit of healing has been eloquently expressed by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes: ‘We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.’5
Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.
In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.
Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’6
As to the rather tiresome question of whether or not Muslims can truly be at home in the West, then this is answered by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Western Muslims with a resounding “yes”. Millions of Muslims who live in the West continue to demonstrate that they are, with different degrees of accommodation, at home with the realities of life in the West. Those bread and butter issues which concern Western Muslims are concerns for everyone else too. Their specific challenge, however, is how to remain conscientious believers whilst being responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus we need a theory to shore up the practice, and that theory must have at its centre the idea of Muslims being: shuhada ‘ala’l-nas – “witnesses over mankind”.
The hubris of the secular humanist system has placed undue strain upon life on earth. The urgent need from Muslims, therefore, is dignified dissent from the monoculture. But these prophetically-inspired voices of dissent must be infused with great wisdom, sacrifice, service and humility.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Sardar, Reading the Qur’an (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 111.
2. Hazleton, The First Muslim: the Story of Muhammad (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 102.
3. Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 175.
4. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.
5. To Heal a Fractured World, 5.
6. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.
I think this is a very helpful and thought-provoking piece, but please excuse me for balking at something its outset: for a point of Qur’anic commentary, even Arabic lexical meanings, you cited Ziauddin Sardar!
Even though Sardar’s liberal re-readings of Islam are part of the problem I briefly touched upon in the article, his description here was very apt. So it was a case of “taking the truth from wherever it comes.” I was also trying to avoid Arabic sources in this particular discussion (Qur’an aside).
You may have noticed in this and my other blog pieces, I often quote those with whom I may not totally agree with.
I hope you recover from the initial shock: man ‘arafa sabab, batala ‘ajab.
This is one of your best articles. Every point is important for westerners. Remembered the call of Ibrahim (AS), “Oh, Allah how shall my voice be heard to so many people?” And Allah told him (AS) that his duty was to make the call and Allah would make it reach to people.
This shows that Islam would reach to the ends of this world. It’s our duty to call people to Islam irrelative where we are, by our obedience to Allah, our conduct, our everyday dealings, our speech & our actions. Everyone cannot start giving lectures, it’s our character and conduct that is seen and noticed.
May Allah cause us all to be of benefit to a Islam and the Muslims, and not a harm or hinder acne to them. May Allah help us all find our own niche or area of reaching out to people, with the rifq, rahmah, character and concern that the Sunnah inspires us to embody.
I am not into Thought provoking pieces, how about Heart provoking pieces. Allah speaks to the heart more than the thought. Rumi speaks on how he would converse with Allah constantly. Via ilham and inspiration, still the water in your heart and you shall reflect Gods voice. Much of his work speaks on constant engagement with Allah. If you truly want to change things then start by asking Allah want he wants of you and not want you selfishly want. There are many saints who converse with Allah you only have to read some of contemporary books. That shows some people are clearly conversing with Allah, not as some magical story for yesteryear and carrying out his will. Dont be so selfish become selfless
Curious, it almost seems you are wagging your finger at someone, my friend. I could be wrong, and probably am, but do I detect a tone of agitation or annoyance in your comment? If so, why? Perhaps we are trying to “still the water in our hearts”. What makes you sure that we are not? Perhaps the person who wrote the comment about the article being thought provoking also finds it heart provoking too? Perhaps the path you so passionately refer to requires that we avoid being too assuming in such matters? Perhaps.
If you do find time from yourself, may be you’d like to read some of the articles written under the category section of sufism & spirituality, on this blog. They could be more what you’re “into”.
I ask Allah to cleanse my nafs of its selfishness and stench, and to illumine it with the rays of ma’rifah and mahabbah. Whatever good is in the article, I acknowledge that it is from Allah. Wherever it has fallen short of the mark or is wrong, then it is from myself and shaytan. May He also guide us all to His acceptance and good pleasure, and grant us the grace of gazing at His blessed Face.
Jazakallahu khayran, curiosity, for taking the time out to comment.
I am not wagging my finger, are things both heart and thought provoking are you sure. Is the heart not rooted in the alam amr and the thought in alam khalq, thus tajalliat that affects the heart does not affect the thought. Surely they are not rooted in the same worlds and thus a thought provoking piece resides in the material realm and a heart provoking piece resides in the unseen realm.
>>Perhaps we are trying to “still the water in our hearts”.
And just out of curiousity exactly how is one to “still the water”?
Jazakallahu khayran curiosity. I need to think about that (although I’m wondering if the distinction between the two is that clinical).
As for “stilling the waters”, then I’m sure you have a better idea about it than I do (you may recall that you were the one who mentioned it first).
As for this simple, ignorant faqir, he is just trying to hold on to the tailcoats of the ahlu’Llah – who possesses neither spiritual virtue, rank or works; hoping only to be raised up with “those whom you love”.
The following blog piece from early this year may be of interest to you:
Your brother, at your service and who thanks you for your contribution,
Surkheel Abu Aaliyah
BarakAllahu feekum for the well-written article.
To be quite frank, I tend to agree with your message and I actually try to implement in my own life. But when I do, I usually come across two criticisms from those who would fall in the Isolationist camp. Perhaps you can say a few words about each:
1.) do not be so concerned about the state of others, especially the non-Muslims, for don’t you see you must first perfect yourself before you can open yourself to advise or interact with others. This is an era of shunning the dunya.
2.) We have been told to be different than them. So do not try to relate to them in hopes of conveying the message because eventually, if not already, you will have imitated them. And imitation of them is haraam.
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
Truth be told, if those are the objections being raised at the need for engagement, I’m afraid they are terribly flimsy. A few words then to explain:
The idea of perfecting oneself before reaching out to others with the message of tawhid is certainly not an obligation. And who can say when one truly has “perfected” themselves. To suggest otherwise requires a proof from the Book and the Sunnah and the understanding of the ‘ulema. Furthermore, the need for zuhd, to responsibly detach oneself for the dunya, in no way contradicts the obligation to invite others to Islam. Zuhd is more an action of the heart than a physical removal of oneself from the material world.
As for the second objection, again it is highly misinformed as well as being irrelevant. The duty of differing or being distinct from non-Muslims applies primarily in matters of religious observance. That is, we must not imitate others in their religious dress, celebrations or acts of worship. The idea that giving da’wah to them would involve imitating them is, frankly, absurd.
If people really do have such understandings, they seriously and urgently need to sit with qualified scholars to gain right guidance on such matters. The idea of wanting to safeguard one’s faith is indeed admirable: but the following of what seems to be like DIY fatwas is certainly not.
Could it be that such an isolated mindset has caused them to be insular and isolated from authoritative scholarship too?
This, in brief, is what I can say about your questions at the moment. And Allah knows best.
As salaamu alaikum,
Shaikh, I love your writing and find them to be helpful in my own religious journey. However I am concerned with a particular line in this piece:
“Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation…”
While tending to prefer “your own people” to others may come off as isolationist it’s a normal phenomenon that is virtually uniform across people of every color and creed. In the U.S. we have places in cities that are almost entirely composed of single ethnicities forming major cultural centers outside of their countries of origin. These are places where people of similar backgrounds are comfortable living life the way they would in their home countries (wearing traditional clothes, eating traditional food, speaking their own language at home, in businesses and at school). These places are hardly ghettos or isolated from the wider community.
That’s not to say that the mentality that people unlike one’s own self should be excluded from the group is not dangerous, and probably is a major factor in ghettoisation. Yet I think it’s important to take a more nuanced look at what is going on with Muslim communities in relation with the wider communities before implying that desiring a space where one can practice their way of life free from or with minimal hostility (economic, social and political) is an isolationist tendency.
What I’m trying to get at is that everyone wants a safe space. For most people freedom to live in accordance with their beliefs can’t be done in isolation from people of similar beliefs. Where is that safe space in the West? Where is that safe space outside of the West?
You mentioned the paradox quite eloquently “In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent.”
From personal experience and observation I find it’s easy to get overwhelmed being part of wider society when you don’t have a safe space to return to, your own cave Hira so to speak. I think many “lay Muslims” like myself feel the same. We just want an anchor, whether it is physical or spiritual, to ground ourselves before jumping into the sea of chaos that is the wider world around us. Can our Ulema help us find that anchor so that we can engage with wider society?
May Allah bless you for your efforts, please forgive me if I have misunderstood anything.
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments, JustaBrother. The proverbial “birds of a feather” will and should flock together to create that safe space which helps to nurture iman and keep religious norms and practices alive. This, however, is not what I mean by ghettoisation. And I’m sorry if my words were unclear on this matter and caused you confusion. The attitudes the previous comment highlights, from abuu salmaa, is what I mean by ghettoisation.
Suhbah, or good spiritual companionship, is an essential part of our religion. It is, in fact, one of the great “anchors” of faith and of spiritual growth. It is not unusual for those Muslims who choose to move away from Muslim “neighbourhoods” or “areas” and live away from mosques and Muslim communities – especially when it is for material reasons or wanting to climb the social ladder – to have a shaky grasp of faith and even shakier religious practice and commitment.
Integration where one’s faith is harmed, or where one’s religious morality is impaired is, from one perspective, far more damaging than ghettoisation. That should be clear to anyone who has the slightest grasp of the realities of Islam. Nonetheless, living in Muslim neighbourhoods must not involve driving others out, or to drag the area down in terms of education, service to others and overall social cohesion.
Muslim populated communities or “areas” need to be beacons of light and beauty, welcoming to all others, not insular, engage with wider society, whilst providing a space for faith and it’s adherents. In this regard, there is a lot of work to be done. The above blog sketched some contours of how we may best go about achieving this.
And Allah knows best.
I’m glad to have come across this discussion. The issue of “engagement vs isolation” is an important one and certainly not an easy one.
I personally don’t hold any firm position at the moment but I agree that engagement doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Those who opt for more engagement with the wider society can always consider engaging with their own community proportionally.
Also, I believe if some people choose to take the safer path, it should be respected. Therefore, in stead of a “one size fits all” solution, it might be better to have multiple packages for different personalities or situations. It is the duty of the scholars to fill the packages, as it would be too heavy a burden for the laymen.
And if no such packages are offered, more young men will resort to either zealotry or estrangement, both of which come as rather straightforward packages.
God knows the best.
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah,
Thank you for your thoughts.It’s a tough job for scholars, who have been trying hard to provide some sort of practical clarity to us all. That more young men are veering into zealotry; I wonder if that is because of a lack of scholarly clarity or because such young men are simply bypassing the scholars all together?
Assalam o Alaikum,
Please allow me to publish this article in my journal ‘Australian Journal of Humanities and Islamic Studies Research’. Article may be modified a little in terms of headings and structure. I would be grateful if you can grant this permission. Our peer-reviewed journal is accessible from the following website: http://www.australianresearchjournals.com.au
(There are no fees associated with this).
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
I’m very honoured that you wish to publish it. So please feel free to do so, along with the usual academic courtesies.
May Allah bless you in your endeavours and cause such work to be of benefit to one and all.
Your brother, at your service,
Surkheel (Abu Aaliyah)
Reblogged this on The Fahlito Brigante Blog and commented:
“Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.”
May Allah bless you for the reblog, fahlito.
Assalamu alaykum. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi had warned against westernized forms of liberal Islam.
Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah. Yes he did indeed, rahimahullah, as did a number of other righteous scholars down through the decades. May Allah reward them well for their service. Their words weren’t aimed at the liberal culture, as we understand it today, but at a broader secular culture.
Today, however, we need a fresh and robust critique of liberalism and how much or how little of it can be squared with orthodox Islamic teachings. The works of earlier scholars, though useful, have their limitations for today’s audience – something that they themselves would have readily acknowledged.