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The Idea of a Universal Muslim Identity

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The Idea of a Universal Muslim Identity

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

The idea of an anthropology of Islam is potentially very beneficial, but in the wrong hands, potentially useless or even dangerous in certain circumstances, as previously stated in another essay article. The difference between what Islam teaches and how it is understood and manifested among Muslims, that is to say how it is believed and practiced in history as well as contemporarily, are not the only major issues at stake. The origins of religious beliefs, the impact of secularization, westernization, and European colonialism on Muslim societies are important to understand. Also the control of the transmission of the original Message, the impact of Muslim governmental regimes, as well as key definitions and concepts, are important. Common approaches tend to obscure not only the truth of Islam, but the truth about Islam.

Clifford Geertz in his book “Islam Observed: Religious Development in Indonesia and Morocco” has attempted to analyze how the experience of Muslims and the practice of Islam in these modern nations helps to conceptualize a tension that exists between a universal Muslim identity and divergent, nationalistic, almost heterodox manifestation of Muslim identity.

Language usage in the study of Islam is the key factor in perpetuating and originating misconceptions. The concept of “us” versus “them” that pervades even academic discourse in Western societies has filtered into the Muslim world and into studies concerned with Islam. How Islam is perceived defines the approach, and in some cases, the conclusions of any study of Islam. How does Islam  impact pre-existing social structures and shape them, Islamicize them, or reform them?

The imposition of correct, orthodox ideas by assumed authority figures is a prominent feature of the tension between clerically authenticated and dominated Islamic discourse and the practice of Islam on the ground. It is definitely true that Islam must be studied as a discursive tradition that grew out of a specific context of experience. Islam in some sense is monolithic, but is not so rigidly legalistic, as imagined by its detractors, that it cannot be expressed in multiple ways based on the sociocultural milieu in which it finds itself; ways that are all authentically Islamic. Islam offers as range of possible “interpretations”, as long as the original meaning of Islam; the original message of the Prophet Muhammad(saws); and the original objectives of the Qur’an are not overturned in order to create an Islam that is more palatable to non-Muslims.

Geertz raises the issue of orthodoxy in Islam, and I will raise it here. Although many scholars, most of them non-Muslim, have suggested that there is no real orthodoxy in Islam, making it a most fluid religion, I would suggest, as studies of aqida demonstrate, there is an orthodox view in Islam. However the main concern seems to be with orthopraxy, right practice. The idea of a state-sanctioned Islam which we find throughout the Muslim world and which I argue is evidence that currently there are no Islamic States in the world, creates the societal tensions that give rise to the Muslim identity crisis. Many of the “clergy” in these regimes, whether monarchic like Saudi Arabia, theocratic like Iran or Secular like Turkey or Tunisia, have been co-opted by the state. And the ‘ulema, eager to exercise the influence that previous generations of Muslim scholars have had on the Muslim world have allowed themselves to be co-opted. For this reason we see many practices  in such countries as Indonesia or Morocco labeled as unIslamic. Curiously, very few prominent people will also publicly declare what is believed to be uniquely Saudi Arabian Islam(so-called Wahabbism) to be unIslamic.

Globalization in the face of long-standing cultures, which were themselves transformed or “converted” by or for Islam, has created the need to define Islam in ways that established an orthodoxy and passively or sometimes aggressively enforced orthopraxy. Geertz believes, in the interest of avoiding a monolithic definition of Islam, that defining a “global Islam marginalizes non-conforming local groups, with respect to defining orthodox practice and dogma”. This may not necessarily be the case, as there is something about being Muslim that connects me to my brothers and sisters in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Bosnia, Albania, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, and everywhere Muslims are found. If there is a universal Muslim Identity then there must be a Global Islam, so what exactly is it that connects us as Muslims? I will not attempt to answer that question in this essay, but it is an important one to consider if we are to consider the idea of a universal Muslim identity at all.

Is this identity to be found in sociocultural, religious or political contexts? It seems with the varying cultures found all over the Muslim world, and with the utter rejection of Arabism as Islam by a majority of the world’s Muslims, a cultural universal identity among Muslims is problematic. A religious universal identity is more feasible and more realistic, but we will not elaborate on it in this article as the subject deserves its own full treatment.

According to Geertz “it is not much easier to conceive of Christianity without Gregory than without Jesus…then Islam without the Ulema than without Muhammad”( Geertz ). This remark illustrates the important role the ‘ulema have in shaping the Muslim identity, so ‘ulema around the world, collectively, it will be posited, must contribute somehow to a universal Muslim identity. We can already agree, in general if not specifically how, that this universal identity is primarily religious by definition. But as Muslims are scattered around the world is it possible to talk of political unity among Muslims?

The modern nation state and specifically pan-Arabism has eclipsed the idea of a universal Muslim identity that would inevitably create this political unity that I am speaking of. If there can be one difference between extremists and mainstream Muslims that will always escape Islamophobes, it will be their understanding of the differing ideas about the Caliphate and it’s revival among groups of Muslims. Many extremists do in fact believe in a realization of a  Global Caliphate in which they envision Islam as the dominant if not only political entity in all the world, spread by any means necessary. Many more extremists have more ephemeral, difficult to discern goals, and their actions are primarily a reaction to neo-colonialism and Western military occupation of Muslim-majority lands. Many, if not most, Mainstream Muslims, even if they will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled as “Islamic Supremacists”, envision a day when Islam will indeed be the dominant religion in the world. The Qur’an seems to say that the world will never be entirely Muslim, so how would this religious domination translate politically?

Various “types” of Islam, from the emphasis on saintliness and moral character found in Morocco, to the reflective, sometimes syncretistic form found in Indonesia, may present as obstacles to a political unity of Muslim states. In response to sociological pressures the approach to consolidating Islam in Morocco has been “rigorism and aggressive fundamentalism, an active attempt to impress a seamless orthodoxy on the entire population”, according to Geertz,(Geertz 16). But in the era and context of Modern States I take the middle position of stating that a revival of the Caliphate would in fact be a political unity among Muslims where a federation of Muslim-majority states is formed in order to secure Muslim self-determination in the world.

It would not be some sort of global empire forged through religious or holy war designed to subjugate, convert, or kill all non-Muslims in a bid to take over the world. This political unity when joined with a sort of religious unity(after all Sufis and some Shi’a are still Muslims), is what is necessary to create a universal Muslim identity. Although the Qur’an does not specify a particular form of government, a confederation of Muslim-majority states adhering to the governmental/political principles of the Shari’ah as found in the Qur’an and the authentic Sunna of the Prophet(saws) is extremely realistic, in theory, in the contemporary context of Modern Nation-States that we find ourselves in. How feasible is it though, in practice?

In short, the  origins of religious beliefs, the impact of secularization, westernization, and European colonialism on Muslim societies are important to understand why Islam is in fact flexible and not monolithic and legalistically rigid. Although many will argue that certain tensions in Muslim societies creates a need to define a “global Islam”, historically Islam has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable to local cultures and sociological conditions. Whether this Islam is more dogmatic or authoritarian in form as a reaction to Western encroachment, or a more peaceful, integrative Islam is entirely up to the mainstream Global Muslim Community. Just as we cannot let extremists or Islamophobes define Islam, we cannot let them shape the Universal Muslim Identity either, whatever that turns out to be.

Categories: Anthropology of Islam
  1. February 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm


    • February 6, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      What for?

      Allahu A’lam

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    April 3, 2012 at 8:35 am

    The Spirit of the Lord is with them that fear him. 946227

  3. April 4, 2012 at 6:27 am

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  1. February 2, 2011 at 1:14 am
  2. March 31, 2012 at 8:56 am

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