Primary Intellectual Crisis
Al walaa wal baraa is the primary intellectual crisis of generation Islam. The essential question being asked is, “What do we do as practicing orthodox Muslims living in secular lands, when our religion demands one thing and the land demands something else?” In Qadhi's opinion, the answer to this question has yet to be formulated properly. We do not have an answer. We cannot look up the answer in some medieval textbook because this situation has never existed before. Never before has there been no Islamic khilafah. Never before have there been 40-50 million Muslims living in western lands in “secular democracies.” Never before has there been a system of nation-states. Never before was there a concept of secularism. Previously, Europe was very Christian in nature.
On the one hand there are nationalistic identities (American, Pakistani, Somali) and on the other hand there are ethnic identities (Black American, Desi, Arab). Added to this mix are religious identities, asking what type of Muslim are you? These disparate identities can be challenging to reconcile, particularly for young people. As polling by the Gallup Center and recent events demonstrate, Muslim youth in the 18-29 age bracket are struggling in the post-9/11 era to reconcile their conflicting identities.
Before delving into the heart of the issue, a comparison between the common methods of human organization may prove instructive:
Comparison Between Systems of Human Organization
Tribal System: Quraysh, Igbo, Navajo
Nation-State: American, Canadian, Mexican
Tribal System: Dates back to earliest recorded history and is widespread around the world
Nation-State: Countries are a modern phenomenon, post-World War I. Nationalism is a product of the French Revolution, when for the first time people began to say, “for the sake of France”, let us do something. Previously, loyalty had been to the monarch or ruling family. This loyalty was not attached to a specific land, as geographic boundaries were not considered permanent. Wars for acquisition of territory were common and even in America, states were still being added into the 1950s.
Ummah: Began with Adam (alayhis salaam) and the Prophet Nuh (alayhis salaam). Each and every prophet came with an ummah. Our ummah was founded by the Prophet Muḥammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam).
Tribalism and the Ummah have been around since the beginnings of time while the nation-state, nationalities, and patriotism are very modern concepts.
Tribal System: Semi-mythical founder. Fihr founded Quraysh; he was known for being brave and generous.
Nation-State: The founding fathers are viewed in an almost superhuman light and as children we learn to revere them as great men so when we hear them mentioned, their names invoke feelings of awe and wonder. We are taught stories of Honest Abe, George Washington and the cherry tree, Thomas Jefferson as a great writer and statesman, and Benjamin Franklin as an amazing inventor while the human faults and frailties such as owning slaves and dalliances in the slave quarters are overlooked.
Ummah: Theologically, we believe that the prophets, while human, were the best of human beings. The best of mankind chosen by Allāh.
Allâh chose Adam, Nûh, the family of Ibrâhim and the family of 'Imrân above the 'Alamîn (mankind and jinn). [Al Imran 3/33]
And verily, you are on an exalted (standard of) character. [Qalam 68/4]
The Honor of Serving: Promotion in life and death
Tribal System: The greatest honor is to uphold the honor of the tribe, and ensure that the tribe has the upper hand. The reward for doing so is promotion in the tribe. In Arabian society, if one died while fighting for the tribe, legends and poems would be written about the person, which would then be hung on the Kabah. The Arabs were used to venerating their forefathers, so when the Arabs converted to Islam Allāh reminded them by saying, “Remember Allāh like you used to remember your forefathers but even more than that.” [Baqarah 2/200]
Nation-State: The greatest honor is to serve in the cause of the state. Medals, awards, ceremonies, and burial rituals have been concocted to commemorate sacrifice and service to the state. There are the omnipresent “Support the Troops” bumper stickers, and names inscribed upon marble walls on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Ummah: There are no awards, no medals, no ceremonies and no rituals; all rewards are spiritual. All deeds are done for the sake of Allāh. You will be rewarded in this world and the next. A legitimate martyr has infinite rewards.
Benefits after Death
Tribal System: How do poems and legends benefit you in the grave?
Nation-State: How does a 21-gun salute benefit you in the grave?
The rewards conferred by the tribal system and nation-state are limited because they do not encompass a spirituality or theology. The rewards cannot benefit you after your death, as you are dead. Instead, they can only pretend to benefit the living.
Ummah: A real martyr, his rewards are with him after death.
Shared Commonalities: Bonds between members
Tribal System: All members share a common ancestor. They are related by blood and can trace their lineage. Often, but not always, they share the same culture and language.
Ummah: Shared beliefs, theology, understanding of life, morality, code of conduct, rules of halal and haraam, code of ethics, vision of the purpose of life to worship Allāh, rituals such as fasting, 'Īd, and Hajj. There are shared seasons, a shared calendar, and the Arabic language is shared. The whole ethos of living is shared.
Nation-State: Far more difficult to define. What is shared by all members? Not language, not culture, not cuisine, not history. What makes an American different from a Canadian? The only thing, one can say academically, is your passport. This is a circular definition: you are American because you have an American passport, and what do all American share? Their passport. Muslims of America are closer to Muslims of Canada than they are to others in this country. Every single ethnicity, religion, and identity has more in common with people of the same ethnicity, religion, and identity in other countries than they do with other groups in their own country. There is nothing inherently shared by people in a nation-state.
But what about the values of justice and freedom? We must cut through the hype: justice and freedom are not distinctively western concepts. Everyone wants justice and freedom. These are universal human values; no one champions injustice and slavery. The lines of nation-states are largely imaginary.
Tribalism has some commonalities, nationalism has no commonalities, and the ummah has everything in common that deserves to be in common.
Treatment of Others: All systems treat outsiders differently
Tribal System: You could never be a member of a tribe if you were not born into that tribe. However, one could live amongst Quraysh as a client (mowla), which guaranteed some but not all rights and privileges, akin to being a second-class citizen.
Nation-State: Non-citizens are treated differently. Rights and privileges are based on citizenship. For example, in the U.S. health care debate, the question has arisen whether or not illegal aliens should be eligible to receive health care benefits and treatment.
Ummah: Muslims have certain rights and privileges. Non-Muslims, Ahlul Kitab and Ahlul Dhimmah have different rights and privileges and pay a different tax. Unlike in the tribal system and nation-state, you can upgrade your status in the ummah at any time, through your own personal choice; it is not controlled by anyone else. This is the system outlined in medieval Muslim books of fiqh.
Breaking Ties with Community
Tribal System: You could not break ties and remain in the land or you would be killed. It is recorded in the history books that a number of Arabs emigrated to Rome, Persia, and Syria. If you renounced the system, you could not live within it. When the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) began to preach against the full validity of some aspects of tribalism, the leaders of Quraysh wanted to kill him and attempted to assassinate him.
Nation-State: The worst crime is treason. Many countries that have banned the death penalty reserve it for treason, including England. As recently as fifty years ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for treason in the United States for giving government documents to the Soviets. The judge in that case said, “I consider your crime worse than murder.”
Ummah: In medieval Islam, the punishment for leaving the ummah was death as it was also viewed as treason. Even though this penalty exists in our books of shariah, we are not calling for it in our time. When Abdullah ibn Jahsh apostated in Abyssinia, none of the sahaba did anything to him, nor did the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) command anyone to kill him. In an Islamic state, the penalty for leaving the ummah is death. However, we are not allowed to take the law into our own hands and if a Muslim leaves Islam in a non-Muslim secular state, no action is taken against him or her.
Pros And Cons of Each System
Pros: There are clear boundaries and family ties. There appears to be a biological reason to support members of the tribe because they are related to you.
Cons: There is no right and wrong except in relation to the tribe and individuals may be taught to hate and fight others simply by reason of birth.
Pros: Attachment to a single geographic land
Cons: There is nothing binding members to one another. May lead to false arrogance related to your nationality. World Wars I and II were fought over nationalism. Europe has suffered greatly under nationalism in the 20th century, which is one reason their levels of patriotism rank lower than levels in some other countries.
Pros: Share a common morality, ethos, vision
Cons: None for a religious person but for an atheist, the ummah system may be seen as creating hatred between groups.
Can all three or two of the three exist together? Can you be a proud American Muslim citizen?
Islam began in a tribalistic environment. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) never disassociated from his tribe and was proud to be from his tribe. In one hadith, he is reported to have said, “I am the son of AbdulMuttalib.” Islam rejected elements of tribalism i.e. ultimate allegiance to the tribe and modified it, “…and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” [Hujuraat 49/13] You can be part of a tribe and be a Muslim.
Nation-State: Can the nation-state coexist with the ummah? The nation is far more difficult to characterize and describe, and not all nations are the same.
France: One of its founding fathers was Jean Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778). Rousseau had a bleak vision of the nation state and believed that a state could not exist with many different religions, each believing itself to be right. He said, “Whoever dares to say that outside the church there is no salvation ought to be expelled from the state.” France does not want to see overt symbols of religion, nor does it want to hear of religion. According to the current interpretation of the French concept of Laïcité, it is not politically correct to be religious.
The excesses of the nation-state can also be witnessed in the examples of Mussolini and Hitler as both demanded ultimate loyalty from their citizens.
America: The American founding fathers were heavily influenced by the 17th century writings of John Locke. Locke once said, “If I can be so bold and frank, even pagans and Mohammedans and Jews can live together in commonwealth.”
The first president, George Washington, once wrote to a governor of a province in Tunisia that, “I have no problem welcoming Mohammedans to come to Mount Vernon as long as they are good worksmen and honest people.”
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom (1779), said upon rejecting the insertion of the words Jesus Christ into the bill, “…that [the writers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” All people were to be accommodated.
Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address, he said, “Let us make sure that as we establish this republic, and as we banish from this land the religious intolerance that we were so accustomed to back home, let us make sure that we do not replace that religious intolerance with a political one.”
In the vision of the founding fathers, the government is a civic group of people coming together to take care of certain needs but it is not meant to replace religion.
Our situation today is not unique to us as Muslims, Catholics and Jews also faced similar issues. In the 1960s, mainstream America was afraid of what it would mean to have John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president, just as today we have Fox News trying to scare people about what it would mean to have Barack Hussein Obama as president. There was fearmongering questioning whether Kennedy would be more loyal to the Vatican or to America.
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a former professor at Yale, wrote A Religious History of the American People in which he spoke about the tension between religious loyalties and nationalistic tendencies. He called it the “American problem” as far back as the 1950s and 60s.
Richard Niebuhr, a theologian and also a former professor at Yale, wrote a book Christ and Culture, in which he warns that too much loyalty to the state will detract from loyalty to Christ. Many Muslims can relate to this struggle to find the balance between religious and nationalist loyalties.
Stephen Carter, an African American theologian and a professor at Yale, writes:
I should make my biases clear. I write not only as a Christian but as one who is far more devoted to the survival of my faith — and of religion generally — than to the survival of any state in particular, including the United States of America. I love this nation, with all its weaknesses and occasional horrors, and I cannot imagine living in another one. But my mind is not so clouded with the vapors of patriotism that I place my country before my God. If the country were to force me to a choice — and, increasingly, this nation tends to do that to many religious people — I would unhesitatingly, if not without some sadness for my country, choose my God.
If a Christian can write this, by Allāh, as an orthodox Muslim, I [Qadhi] could not agree more with this evangelical Christian. Every single religious person will toil between these loyalties, loyalty to God and loyalty to country.
So what do we do as conservative practicing orthodox pious Muslims living in a liberal secular America? Not just living, can we be identified with it and can we even be to an extent proud to be a part of it? To be honest, the answer is, it depends on what understanding of Islam you follow and what understanding of nationalism you follow.
If you have a narrow, black-and-white, theoretical, utopian vision of Islam, where either you are a Muslim or an American and there is no middle ground than obviously you cannot live in this country. You should go and make hijrah but know that you will never find the utopian state you seek.
That's not my [Qadhi's] understanding of Islam, at all, and I have given many evidences for that in my other lectures, towards formulating a vision for Muslims in the west, which are available on YouTube.
Likewise, if your understanding of America is like some right wing conservatives and Fox News, then living in America as a Muslim would also be problematic. And if we allow Islamophobes to define what it means to be an American, we will lose the battle.
I'm not being a romantic idealist or a naive patriot when I say a cursory reading of the vision that the founding fathers had for this country tells me, as an educated intelligent human being, that they did not wish for there to be a clash between religion and politics. They did not want to place people in an either/or scenario where one is asked, “Do you love your God more or your country?” They wanted you to be able to be a religious person in your own right and to realize that this is a civic country that has a certain modus operandi that does not challenge one's religious identity.
As I conclude, for all religious people, unconditional loyalty can only be given to the God that created you, who shall cause you to die and resurrect you, and who shall reward or (we seek Allāh's refuge) punish. That is the ultimate loyalty and we cannot ever allow that loyalty to be challenged. There is nothing that can or should clash with that loyalty, neither my parents nor my children, neither my wealth nor material possessions, and neither my country nor geographic land. But if my loved ones, wealth, material possessions, if my country allows me to express that loyalty and makes that loyalty flourish and does not hinder that loyalty, then in that case, I can give my love and my loyalty to my parents, my children, yes, even to money and possessions, and even to nation-states.
So the next time someone asks you, are you with us or against us, there is no simplistic yes and no answer. You answer them as a Muslim, as a proud Muslim and say, I am with you when you do good but I cannot be with you when you do evil and wrong and I will try everything within my legal means to oppose you when you do that wrong. And if this relationship is not acceptable to you, tell me, and I shall leave you, your friendship, your love, your possessions, and if it means leaving the country than so be it, I will leave that as well. But let me tell you, that you shall never find any friend better than someone who expresses his love to you in this manner. You will never find a better citizen than someone whose philosophy is as I have outlined, and you will never find any better brother in faith than someone who helps you when you are right and prevents you when you are wrong.
So can you be a proud American citizen? The answer is, it depends on what you mean. In sha Allāh, if we work together we can be proud American Muslims or Muslim Americans, it's a technicality to say which one should go first. It will require education, effort, patience, and a lot of dialogue, but if we simply shove our heads in the sand and pretend that the problem does not exist, if we do not dialogue with other Muslims and non-Muslims, then yes we are in trouble and the future is bleak. That is something that we do not want to happen so we need to begin the dialogue in public and in private and we pray that Allāh (subḥānahu wa ta'āla) blesses us to preserve this religion for our future progeny, wherever we may live.