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Towards a Definition of Islam

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Towards a Definition of Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

Introduction

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

2.Typological

3.Historical

4.Philological

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.

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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