Posts Tagged ‘Religion & Spirituality’

Towards a Definition of Islam Part 2:Approaches Yield Definitions

Image via Wikipedia

Towards a Definition of Islam
Part 2.
Approaches Yield Definitions

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

As we have seen in the previous article to this series, Islam is variously defined. I offered two theologically based definitions, one based on brief linguistic and etymological definitions as well as another theological definition rooted in aqeeda. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of peace, when on takes into account the linguistic meaning of Islam as Submission and couples it with etymological considerations lost in translation that suggest that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike  in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam(submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace).

Islam also is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed,  and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention is empty in Islam. Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner. Islam is all these things. The main theme of this piece will be to extend the discussion by introducing the theme that approaches to studying Islam, although coming to the study with operating assumptions of its own about how Islam is defined and should be defined, the approaches themselves also drive the definitions. In other words, approaches yield definitions.

Approaches Yield Definitions

I have divided the approaches I am most concerned with into four broad categories, for ease of discussion: Populist, Academic, Independent, and Insider/Believer approaches. Each of these main categories has many sub categories, and, as with any categorization that tries to avoid essentialism as much as possible, there is considerable overlap of categories. For example, an Insider/Believer approach, although seeking to affirm religious beliefs rather than critique them, can be academic; just as an Academic approach can be Independent, not affiliated with any official academic institution. An approach that seeks to affirm Populist notions of Islam by utilizing an academic veneer, can still be scholarly, even if faulty, and so on and so forth. An Academic approach can consist of many academic disciplines either utilized independently or through a multi-disciplinary approach. Increasingly, however, any approach that is academic has to have a multi-disciplinary approach to be effective. The main Academic approaches I will be focusing on are the previously mentioned Theological,  Typological,  Historical,  Philological,  Literary Criticism, Cultural, Sociological, Marxist, Psychological,  Philosophical,  Phenomenological, Feminist, Modernist(not to be confused with the Muslim Modernist Movement), Post modernist,  and Anthropological academic approaches. Each of these subjects deserve their own treatment so future article will deal with them topically.

The main focus of this article is to briefly introduce how approaches to studying Islam often yield definitions of their own. I briefly introduce this topic by way of an introduction to the Populist approach to Islam. This category of approach will have its own article so this will not be as comprehensive a discussion on the Populist approach to Islam as found there. The reason the Populist approach interests me the most is  this approach to Islam has yielded the most negative images of Islam, and is the main driving force behind Islamophobia as a Social Phenomenon. Its definitions have also found their way into the Mainstream Academic discourse, so it is most important, in my view, to deconstruct this approach, and analyze how the themes of the earliest form of Islamophobia were adopted in the Medieval Period, leaving a legacy to Orientalism, Historicism, Islamicism, Scholasticism,  Culturalisim, and contemporary Neo-Colonialism and neo-Orientalism; all major disseminators of Islamophobic ideas.

The Populist Approach

The Populist approach includes the Historicist/Islamicist, Orientalist/neo-Orientalist, Scholasticism, and Culturalist/Civilizational approaches. It should not be difficult to see how all of these approaches inform an overall populist approach. The populist approach differs from the academic approach in that it utilizes the non-nuanced, often pseudoscholarly, simplified, media-driven and media-reflected popular discourses surrounding Islam. The experience of the masses with Muslims determines their understanding of Islam and Muslims. It is Islamicist when it concerns itself primarily with differences of religion. Islamicism is also a specialty, thought of as preceeding official Orientalism, that dealt with all things Islam in a scholarly way, or what passed for scholarly in that time. It is a discipline regarded as the precursor to Orientalism proper, primarily because the latter utilized many of the themes of the former. However, I use it in a different sense here. I use the term here, primarily,  in the sense of extracting certain themes related to Islam, gained by a study of Islam that is concerned with differences between Islam and other religions, but differs from the work of Missionaries in that it does not seek to promote the truth- value of a particular religion vis a vis Islam.

It is Historicist when it analyzes Islam primarily from a historical perspective centered on relations with the West. It is Orientalist when it concerns itself primarily with Islamic culture, and neo-Orientalist when it combines secular Orientalist criticism, with religious missionary and Islamicist criticism. It is scholastic when it adheres closely to dogma and/or traditional methods of a particular school of thought or is pedantic in this adherence, and Culturalist/Civilizational when it postulates an inferior Islamic culture with respect to Western culture and an inevitable clash of civilization between these cultures.


I spend quite a bit of time discussing definitions of Islam and approaches to studying Islam because I would like readers to get a sense of how definitions and approaches not only yield definitions of their own, but how they drive the discourse on Islam. It should not escape the readers’ attention that Islamophobia flourishes and survives, albeit not completely in the mainstream yet, simply because Muslim definitions and approaches are rejected out of hand; usually with the the concommitant excuse that Islamic definitions and approaches are inherently biased.

It cannot be escaped that Islam is Din and Iman. Islam is both a faith and a religion(yes it is a religion).  In this regard Islam is ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed,  and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention(niyyah) is empty in Islam. Islam is also Sunni and Salafi(not to be confused with the various neo-Salafiyya movements), so Islamic traditionism cannot be ignored and replaced with Islamic neo-conservatism, liberalism, modernism, revisionism, progressivism or any other -ism such as Sufi-ism that seeks to obscure the Muslim mainstream in order to proffer an Islam more palatable to the West, or an Islam that exists only as a reactionary counterweight to the West.

Islam is moderation, by definition, so the term  “Moderate Muslim” is a divisive redundancy; and therefore useless.  The linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace” does not exist, unlike in in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). Therefore it is hard for some to understand that Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah and it is this submission/voluntary acceptance that brings one into a state of peace. It must also be understood that Islam is an ideology, a discursive tradition, and a complete way of life where the lines of sacred and profane are blurred. And finally it must be understood that Islam is not that inherently evil, ultimate “Other” , menacing the West in secret and/or out in the open. This is the beginning of the genuine dialogue.

In anthropology of Islam, Islam is mainly studied by observing and recording practice, placing these observations in a theoretical framework for analysis. This should, but does not always, involve ethnographic fieldwork. I critique this approach of focusing on practices rather than texts and beliefs. However, one major positive development to this approach to the study of Islam and religion in general is that the adherents of a faith, its believers, are given a voice that would otherwise be ignored in a supposedly dispassionate academic study of Islam. How Islam is defined by those who would control the discourse on Islam and postulate the myth of the “Muslim Problem” is the key to understanding Islamophobia as Social Phenomenon, and combating it. Muslims must take some measure of control of the debate and counter the mythologization of Islam as the ultimate enemy to Western civilization, until such a time as Islam’s detractors are willing to meet Muslims on a level playing field and become part of a dialogue between Islam and the West. We are being spoken to and told what our faith is, not spoken with. In order to counteract the echo chamber monologue-type discourse that is increasingly becoming mainstreamed, Muslims must not be afraid to call Islamophobia what is is: an intellectual cop out and a massive case of projectionism. We must educate non-Muslims until they internalize the difference between “threat”  and “challenge”.

Towards a Definition of Islam

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Towards a Definition of Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Islam has been variously translated by both Muslims and non Muslims alike. Some detractors of Islam have gone so far as to suggest that Islam is not a religion at all, but a “political ideology masquerading as a religion”. From the outset though, in terms of relevance, we need to understand that how Muslims themselves define Islam yields the most accurate meanings. With this in mind we can begin to discuss the various approaches to defining Islam, based in part on the varied approaches to define religion itself. In the academic arena, these approaches are:

1. Theological




5..Literary Criticism

6. Anthropological

7. Cultural

8. Sociological

9. Marxist

10. Psychological

11. Phenomenological

12. Philosophical

13. Feminist

14. Modernist

15. Post modernist

We will discuss each of these approaches and their conclusions and efficacy in yielding a viable definition of Islam. To begin we will link a decidedly theological definition with its etymological and linguistic considerations.

First and foremost, theologically, Islam is Din and Iman. Din is best understood in relation to its antinomian, dunya, as anthropologist Gabriele Marranci contends. Dunya is usually translated as “world”, but it also connotes “profane” or “mundane”, therefore, “secular”. So Din carries the meaning “spirituality” or “spiritual experience”, rendering Islam primarily an experiential religion by definition, even though belief and doctrine are eminently important. What many Westerners regard as “religion”, can properly be understood really as ibadat and aqeeda in Islam. Ibadat refers to acts of worship, which includes, but is not limited to, ritual. Aqeeda is a word that simultaneously means belief, creed, and theology. As a result of the compartmentalizing of religion into a separate, private sphere of life in secular Western societies it has became difficult for many, Islamophobe or not, to understand just exactly how Islam can be regarded as a religion. This is not just a matter of a culturalist ethnocentrism resulting from Western views on separation of church and state. It also translates into a disdain for a religion that deals with every aspect of human life. Indeed Muslims declare that Islam is a “total way of life”, while Western detractors call it “totalitarian”. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

As anthropologist Daniel MartinVarisco contends, haters of everything Islam disparage Islam or lack the ability to understand Islam quite simply because of a possible hubris, since Muslims are seen as not “enlightened” enough to relegate their religion into irrelevance through secular reform in the same way the West has. So quite simply when asked what is Islam, one can reply Islam is three things at once, even if the answer does not encompass all that is Islam. Islam is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat, aqeeda, and tazkiya (spirituality). Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner.

The Language of Islam

Another way to understand the meaning of Islam is to approach it from a somewhat (crude) linguistic analysis. The role of language, translations, and definitions is one of the major factors in shaping Western public perception and discourse on Islam. Quite often what occurs when words are translated from one language to another that doesn’t contain the same precise concepts is distortion. Many are opposed to the Muslim idea that it is necessary to read and understand the Qur’an in Arabic to fully understand it. Yet just from an analysis of the word Islam, we can see how meaning can be altered. Advocating learning Islam from Muslims is what we are doing here.

Many translate the word islam as either peace or submission, depending on their ideological loyalties.  But does either definition convey the true meaning of the word as embodied in the Qur’an through the Arabic language? I would argue that something indeed is lost in translation. In English the word submission directly connotes a sense of coercion. In reality the Arabic word istislam means surrender or more properly submission, so why is Islam translated as such as well. Is it simply because they share the same root?

In order to be a Muslim, one must accept Islam free of force or coercion. This is where the relational aspect is lost in translation. The word submission in English implies coercion on the part of one human to another. But in Islam the same word used to denote submission, when translated into English, refers to submitting one’s will to Allah. In Islam, there is a rejection of submitting one’s will to another human being over submitting to Allah.There is no word conveying this concept in English, so the same word, “submission” is used to mean both submitting to God and submitting to man.

The main issue with translating the word islam centers on the fact that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike in in Arabic where islam and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). This is an etymological relationship that should never be lost in translation, yet it is, as commonly held notions of the meaning of islam attest. Islam means “to freely submit one’s will to God’s, in pursuit of divine peace,” according to Ahmed Rehab. A simpler version that carries the same meaning is, as Professor Tariq Ramadan proposes, “to enter into God’s peace”. We can then propose a modified definition of Islam, along linguistic and etymological considerations. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of Peace. In this way the ideas of islam meaning Submission and islam meaning Peace are reconciled. So now we have two different but complementary definitions of Islam, based on theological understandings.

Moderate Muslims and Pluralism

Moderate Muslims and Pluralism

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

Many critics of Islam claim that Islam is not pluralistic. But what exactly does that word mean? Here is an example of non-Muslims controlling and defining the “debate on Islam”, as well as defining the terms of reference that I think applies also to the case of “pluralism in Islam”. In the anti-Islamic climate we find ourselves in today, you will find many Muslims clamoring to convince non-Muslims that they are moderates.

In the post 9/11 climate we also find many Muslims feeling compelled to choose between seemingly irreconcilable identities. Muslims feel compelled to choose between affirming a Western and Islamic identity or a “moderate Muslim” over a “radical Muslim” identity. But what exactly is a “Moderate Muslim”? For a Westerner, many times a moderate Muslim is defined by the degree to which Muslims reject the parts of Islam that they (the non Muslims) may find unpalatable or unacceptable. This, I am sure we can see, has nothing to do with actual moderation.

A non-Muslim may ask you “do you reject jihad and Shari’ah?, and use your response to determine whether you are a “moderate Muslim”. Likewise, in the same vein of non-Muslims defining the terms of debate with reference to Islam, it is often stated that Islam is a very intolerant faith, the opposite of pluralistic. Islam is seen as inherently intolerant, religiously, socially, culturally, and politically . And it is claimed that we will see this intrinsic intolerance manifest itself wherever we find Muslim societies, especially in Muslim-majority nations.

What I have tried to do is give an introduction to the subject of pluralism in Islam from an Islamic perspective. The three main issues I have identified and briefly explained are syncretism in religious practice, the ability of Islam to adapt to pre-existing cultures, and the treatment of non Muslim minorities in Islam and Muslim-majority polities.

Syncretism refers to adding religious practices into Islam from non-Muslims. Both practices seen as bid’ah and acts that are considered kufr fall into the category of syncretism. Some of these practices include saint worship, certain faith healing practices, sorcery and witchcraft, astrology, spirit possession, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), and honor killing. It can also include celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and birthdays. Muslims do not believe stoning to death as a punishment for adultery and death penalty for apostasy qualify, even though these practices are not found in the Qur’an.

I introduced the concept of “orthodox establishment” to show that the idea of syncretistic practice is rejected by Muslims. So in essence, theologically speaking, Islam is not pluralistic at all. But those belonging to other religions shouldn’t see this as a problem. All religions have tried to maintain a sort of integrity, an orthodoxy. So why is Islam singled out for being theologically “intolerant”? Something else is going on here.

Socially, ‘ulama as well as governments tolerate syncretistic, peripheral communities as long as they make an outward show of maintaining orthodox practices(orthopraxy). This is done to maintain a sort of political stability. As long as the government and the ‘ulama (religious scholars) who support them don’t interfere too much with the affairs of peripheral cultural groups their governance is tolerated, approved, or regarded indifferently. There is no incentive to rebellion. This does not deny that there have been numerous instances of abusive governmental regimes and authoritarianism.

Culturally, Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with. This has led many scholars to suggest that there are many types of Islam, religious expressions that are unique because of the way the existing sociocultural milieu shapes Islamic experience. El-Zein says that there are many Islams. However, Akbar Ahmed contends, and I agree, there is one Islam but many Muslim societies. Inclusive and pluralistic does not mean that all expressions and interpretations are legitimately Islamic.

The issue of religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies is the most important of the issues related to pluralism in Islam. The real question of concern is the idea of religious freedom for non-Muslims in an Islamic state. When looking at the state of Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority nations it is evident that they are treated poorly, regarded as second-class citizens, discriminated against, even persecuted in some cases. We see this happening to Christians and Jews in Iraq and Egypt and other countries of the Muslim world. It happens to Buddhists in Afghanistan, Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Baha’is in Iran, and Ahmadiyya and Hindus in Pakistan and Kashmir.

Many critics of Islam look at these realities on the ground and studies of history and conclude that Islam is inherently and uniquely intolerant of religious minorities. Opinions among Mainstream Muslims range from denunciation of this behavior as unIslamic to outright denial of these realities. I listed several quotes from the Qur’an that prove that Islam supports respect and fair treatment for religious minorities. Islam also rejects religious coercion and religious persecution, thus advocates religious liberty. This is more than just “tolerance” and exemplifies the Islamic concept of pluralism. However most Muslims do have the desire to see Islam as the dominant religion in the world, which is normal for any true believer of any religion.

As my conclusion I state:

“As we can see Muslims are supposed to not only protect themselves from religious persecution but also protect other religious communities from harm from those who would persecute them on account of religion. The phrase “and religion is only for Allah” means that no one is to be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs and everyone is at liberty to hold whatever belief they wish.”

We can now conclude three things in light of this information: 1.syncretism in religious practice is condemned as bid’ah and kufr in Islam, 2. Islam has the intrinsic ability to adapt to the various cultures it comes in contact with, and 3. religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority societies, though not realized in most Muslim-Majority countries, is guaranteed by Allah through the Qur’an. So Islam is theologically “intolerant”; socially,yet socially,culturally and religiously tolerant. The question I have deliberately avoided addressing is “Is Islam politically intolerant?” That deserves its own treatment, so I avoided giving it cursory attention here.

Allahu A’lam