With everyone offering their opinion about what Islam is really about, with even far-right voices cashing in on the furore, Muslims are in danger of allowing the essential message of their religion to be drowned out in all the hullabaloo. And while it’s not always easy to essentialize the faith, to sort out Islamic principles from Muslim practices, this much has to be clear:
A Muslim, by definition, is anyone who has sincerely uttered the Declaration of Faith; the shahadah: bearing witness to the fact that God is One, unique, perfect, having no partner or associate, with none deserving to be worshiped except Him; bearing witness also that Muhammad is His final Messenger sent to all humanity. Since we cannot rip open hearts to read their secrets (unless they are explicitly or unequivocally revealed through word or deed), judgement about sincerity is left with God. These words of the Prophet ﷺ speak to the reality that la ilaha illa’Llah isn’t something to merely be uttered by the tongue, with no understanding of its meaning or sincerity to its demands: ‘The person most delighted by my intercession on the Day of Resurrection will be the one who says, la ilaha illa’Llah sincerely from his heart.’1 And this: ‘Whoever bears witness to la ilaha ila’Llah, sincerely from his heart, will enter Paradise.’2 Also these words: ‘Whoever dies knowing that there is no god [deserving of worship] except Allah, will enter Paradise.’3
Of course – and rightly so, few would consider this is sufficient in practice, unless such a Declaration is taken to include affirming the necessary consequences which flow from it. One of Islam’s early pietists, Wahb b. Munabbih, was once asked: ‘Isn’t la ilah illa’Llah the key to Paradise?’ To which he explained: ‘Indeed! But there isn’t a key, except that it has incisions (asnan, lit. “teeth”). If you bring a key that has [the right] incisions, the door will open; if not, it won’t!’4 What is meant by these “incisions” are the duties and obligations instated by the faith. In other words, while the Muslim believes in the One true God, in the angels, in all the messengers sent to mankind for their guidance from the beginning of the human saga, and in the divinely-revealed books – the Qur’an being the final Word of God, unaltered and unalterable; Muslims also believe in the obligation to uphold the religious obligations, at the head of which are the “Five Pillars” of Islam which are: the Declaration of Faith, the five daily prayers, the payment of zakat, the fast of Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Makkah by those physically and financially able to do so. A Muslim may, to their own harm or ruin, neglect to practice one or more of the pillars (except the first one), or fail to fulfil one or more of the religious obligations, and still be counted as a Muslim; albeit a sinful one. But if he denies their necessity; their obligatory nature, he has placed himself beyond the community of believers and outside the fold of Islam.
The world would indeed be a fine place if people only judged Islam by its clear, normative teachings, instead of how Muslims may or may not have practiced it throughout the ages. Nor does a writer have any duty to defend or justify the way in which Islam is practiced in any historical period by those of its followers whose blips show up on the radar of history. For when it comes to human beings, good men and women are by no means thick on the ground. And vice learnt a long time ago that it could pay its tribute to virtue by dressing in the garb of religion. Which brings me to my main point:
It wasn’t so long ago when Muslims would still identify a person by the religion they were born into, rather than their nationality or ethnicity. In such a weltanschauung, Europeans were habitually described as Christians, even if large swathes had forsaken their ancestral religion for no religion or for atheism. For their part, the ‘Christian’ West usually regarded anyone from a Muslim majority country to not just be Muslim, but to somehow represent the ‘Muslimness’ that Islam as a religious way of life extols – whether that person was an ordinary citizen, filthy rich playboy or tycoon, or shabby tyrannical head of state! During the latter part of the 20th century, the image of Islam was veiled behind the daily tabloid escapades of Arab tycoons, playboys, dictators or despots. But the faith has seldom been discoverable in the lives of such tycoons, leaders and official spokesmen – but those who seek it, will surely find it.
Of course, 9-11 changed that; not just in the West, but globally. Islam’s image would now be associated primarily with acts of terror and violence of the al-Qaeda or ISIS type. Some will say that this is the default perception of Islam’s image in the West. For if it isn’t the Muslim terrorist blowing up people, it’s Muslim fundamentalists on the rampage, burning some innocent book or publication. And if not that, it’s ruthless dictators; or even earlier still, the image of the Muslim Saracen with his menacing face, wielding his sword against the innocent ‘infidel’! The West, it seems, can’t stop caricaturing the entire global Muslim population in one negative way or another. Beneath the surface, however, and invisible to the media or to the wider public, are the countless ordinary men and women – exemplary Muslims, faithful and compassionate – whose lives could help redeem much of this false image, if godliness and humility were commodities that sold newspapers, made headlines or attracted social media clicks and likes!
Some Muslims will insist that image doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t bother us what the non-Muslims think of us. And that’s true: but only partially. It’s true in terms of the message and its content. We cannot change Islam or water down its teachings merely to please peoples’ whims or sentiments, or to better our liberal credentials. Islam is what it is, and that’s that! To this, the Qur’an states: Perhaps you might feel the inclination to omit part of what is revealed to you, and be distressed because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or why has no company of angels been sent with him?’ You are only a warner, and God is a Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] In other words, wisely and faithfully deliver the message as it is, then leave the rest to Allah. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad strikes the right chord when he explains: ‘[I]t’s human nature, given that we’re weak, to crave praise, and to have arguments that are publicly respected. And when we’re not praised, but despised – or the victims of Islamophobia, or whatever you choose to call it – where our arguments are not respected, the ego is dented. And that can be dangerous and that can lead to aberrant behaviour in our communities, or depression, or lead to a determination to change the religion in order to please the people who are regarded as having opinions which matter. And all of this is subversive. But the real Muslim really doesn’t care what people think; he only cares about what Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, thinks.’5
As for how the message and its content are to be delivered, then image – or perhaps we can say: presentation – does indeed matter. Here, one does have concern for form, not just content. The Holy Qur’an stresses: Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the contents of the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities necessary to make the call conform to the above Quranic description.
We ask Allah, the Gracious Lord, for His kindness.
1 Al-Bukhari, no.99.
2. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.7, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2355.
3. Muslim, no.26.
4. Al-Bukhari, in ta‘liq form, preceeding hadith no.1237; commencing the Book of Funeral Prayers. The complete chain is given in his al-Tarikh al-Kabir, no.261.
5. The citation is from a 2013 lecture entitled: Master Classes on Imam Al-Ghazali – 3. The clip starts at 34:55.