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We live in turbulent times— there’s no doubt about that. Yet in this era of confusion, we’re witnessing a moment of revival for Muslims when it comes to religion— not just as individuals but also as communities. We see many returning to the faith, others entering the faith, and even more so, many are battling to understand where they fit within the faith. In an age where people of all faiths are seeking answers on how to balance the complexities of life and what role religion plays, Muslims are also increasingly trying to see how their faith can bring them such balance. When seeking answers to questions of how to balance life in a modern context, how can we stay true to the principles of our faith in its practice? The “R word” is often thrown around – relevance.
Oftentimes, these questions are more like reverberations of a deeper rooted scream of desperation to understand, “How do I live?” Let’s not lie, it’s a hard process. We’re all trying to stomach how we can be functional Muslims. Heck, even writing the first few sentences in this article spiked my blood pressure. We all have this anxiety. We all feel it.
But, maybe we’re not adjusting properly. Maybe our shortsightedness constantly blurs the bigger picture. Maybe in the process of focusing on mechanics, we lose functionality. And maybe, at other times, we delve into metaphysics to such an extent, we lose sight of workability. Maybe we collectively get so worked up over discrepancies, that we forget the purpose is to in fact … enjoy Islam.
Perhaps for many of us the practice of Islam we are following may not be based on a correct application of its essence, but rather has become a religion of complexes.
In the Pursuit of Islam
Islam is easy.
Come on, in how many contexts have we heard this statement? “Islam came to bring ease and remove hardship; Islam came to remove difficulty; Islam’s practice is meant to be simple.” What does all this really mean?
More importantly, how should we understand it?
Based on how Muslims go about seeking these answers, it is apparent that segments of our community do a poor job of empowering its members to understand their individual roles and responsibilities when it comes to practicing their faith. People often don’t have any guidelines about how, what, and whom to ask.
In addition, we as Muslims have a tendency to make Islam about “issues,” rather than impart a narrative so anchored in understanding that the issues are only a means to achieving the objectives of Islam, that the issues don’t become our theology.
For many of us, unfortunately, it has become the opposite. Our Islam revolves around a theology of complexes. A theology of arguing over issues These issues have become our faith rather than a means to fulfilling our faith.
I call this theology of complexes and the issues many have convoluted with the faith of Islam the 5 Ms of confusion.
The 5 Ms of Confusion
In our time where communication is built around constant social interaction, we’ve seen that this theology of complexes is magnified. It’s everywhere, among Muslims of different backgrounds, locations, and demographics. Year in and year out, we see the same complexes around the same issues. We see arguments, heated debate, trolling, sectarianism, and complete engrossment of said issue to such an extent that the purpose of Islam’s injunction behind the issue is completely lost. This is something we all witness (if you haven’t, just look at the comments section of any article, YouTube video, Facebook post, or Twitter discussion).
The 5 Ms:
- Meat – The issues of halal, zabiha, ingredients, and molecules. Does the pursuit of pleasing our Creator by wanting to digest what He’s permitted call for heated excommunications of Muslims who don’t choose to grill their burgers with meat from the same source we use?
- Mawlid – Does our love for the Prophet (peace be upon him) call us to hate others based on how we love him? Does this make sense to you?
- Marriage – Does the way we seek to balance our culture with our faith really call for us to have tribal/urban wars with families/parents/between genders on gender relations and marriage issues?
- Madhabs – Is the way in which we practice Islam according to a particular juristic school of thought call for us to harbor enmity toward others who follow a different, but just as valid, scholarly method?
- Moon-sighting – Does the approach we choose to commemorate our holiest of days call for disparaging those that don’t choose to sight the moon the way we do? As Ramadan nears and “moon-fighting” erupts, does this really embody the experience of this amazing spiritual month? Does it fulfill its spirit when we begin and end it in such tasteless discourse?
I’ve only chosen to include these 5 Ms, but there are definitely more. I chose to call them the “5 Ms of Confusion” because these particular issues are constantly highlighted in our communities as reasons why Muslims disparage one another. No doubt, there is an incredible amount of intra-faith disagreement, disparagement, and unneeded argumentation amongst Muslims over these issues.
The reality is that, for many, these issues have become Islam to the extent that there is an ideological war waged over them. Islam, in fact, is against this ideology of resentment and blame over issues with valid differences of opinion. Period.
Those who take part in any way, shape, or form in dividing Muslims along these issues have lost the plot, missed the boat, live on a different planet, need a new eye prescription, hit the tree and missed the forest, focused on the ink mark instead of the painting, failed the test, and undeniably… still don’t understand the objectives and purpose of Islam.
The blame, no doubt, goes back to all of us: regular people, teachers, and institutions. Although each of us have a portion of blame, there’s certainly more blame on those who should know better— teachers and institutions.
It’s a shame that any Muslim is involved in causing rifts based on these issues, but it’s a greater disaster when teachers of Islam, who should know better, who supposedly have gone through the formal training so as to not engage their congregations, students, and Muslims at large in this theology of complexes, do so.
Firstly, let’s not disregard people’s efforts. Much thanks, appreciation, and prayers are owed and go out to all those sacrificing and constantly striving to disseminate the message of Islam. Our moral standard doesn’t call for negating people’s achievements, sacrifices, and service to the faith due to some shortcomings or mistakes. Our ethos is above and beyond that.
In fact, it’s an integral part of our faith to address shortcomings with sincere advice and prayer and not question people’s sincerity and intentions. This advice goes to ourselves before anyone. Our purpose is to bring awareness of a collective responsibility. We are more in need of rectifying our mistakes before we look to the mistakes of others, especially those who have outlived us in service of the faith, sacrificed more than we can imagine, and been blessed by God. We may critique a few shortcomings only apparent to us, whereas their actions and deeds in the sight of God outweigh these shortcomings in spades. Let us not lose sight of that, let us remain humble. May God bless those working tirelessly in the service of faith, elevate their status, rectify their faults, and benefit others through them.
Criticism of a segment does not negate the good work that others are doing with excellence. God keep you strong and bless you. The criticisms that will follow are a way for us to build and grow as a community, and do not negate the appreciation and realization of struggles. With that said, some of the causes for these theological complexes go back to the following:
As teachers and institutions: We have a serious shortcoming in imparting true Quranic teachings of the holistic objectives of Islam in our message through the Prophetic example. We don’t emphasize the purpose of rituals in our teaching. We falter in highlighting what will increase the quality of our worship. We don’t stress enough the importance of the ethics of interaction and building upright moral character. We fall short in leading by example through our actions, in defining unity. In short, we teach the ‘how’ with the ‘why’, in an imbalanced way. So when the discussions come around teaching these particular five issues, we must impart the understanding that they are a part of a whole – the meaning of Islam isn’t fulfilled except by respecting what is valid, understanding what is not, and learning to deal with fellow Muslims over differences that are not reconcilable.
Some of us have lost people to the mechanics of Islam, where the infinite minutiae is taught but the objective is lost. Others have lost people in the metaphysics, seeking to instill the spirit of Islam without true practical guidance, causing people to follow a ghost, rather than the spirit they claim to be seeking. Both of these extremes have led to name calling, partisanship, and cult mentality among people who otherwise theologically agree on orthodoxy.
We struggle to teach and instill the proper Islamic concepts of discipline (tarbiyah) and self rectification (islah and tazkiyah). We lack true genuineness when it comes to disagreeing. We have instead instilled in our students and congregations a ‘movement mentality,’ where our Islam is according to a particular movement. Some of have even taught disparagement of those Muslims with whom they disagree.
And there’s much more.
A good example of how to correctly deal with the issue of the Mawlid was exemplified by a great scholar who taught the matter academically and discussed all the relevant evidence used to debate the legislative merit of holding a feast and celebrating the birth of the Prophet . He ended with one single beautiful comment, “It’s impossible that any person who has faith in Islam, love of God and His Messenger, and seeks to be in their companionship, that these days go by and they not feel that expression of love and sincere longing for the Prophet (peace be upon him), regardless of whether they attend a celebration. These days are unlike any other days when a person reflects over them and in the heart of someone who is attached to his beloved, the Prophet .’‘
As regular people, we need to learn how to ask questions. We need to learn how to have the patience and perseverance to seek out knowledge regarding our faith systematically as well as the etiquette in doing so. We need to invest in ourselves to build our characters and moral standards. We need to learn how to solicit our scholars, understand our roles, and know our responsibilities. We need to stop wasting energy complaining, being apathetic and negative, and constantly criticizing, with no regard to etiquette or understanding.
We need to know how to be instruments of change. We need to know how to empower ourselves so we do not live in the dichotomy of ‘masjid life’ and normal life. We need to reach out to our families, friends, co-workers, communities, and neighbors. When we seek to hold others responsible for their failures, we should also hold ourselves accountable. We need to understand how to define religious authority: who is a teacher, who is a scholar, and who is qualified to give fatwa?
Islam does not have a clergy. The faith, in fact, obligates seeking knowledge at an individual level and highly encourages fulfilling the needs of the community by seeking deeper scholarship. That said, most people are not qualified to have in-depth scholarly discussions on detailed issues. The reality is there is religious authority in Islam which must meet one condition – one must have the requisite level of knowledge.
The irony is, as a society, we accept the right to choose specialists in any field. We even seek to understand what’s related to our needs in their fields when we petition them, and we actively engage with them. Yet, we understand that there is a limit to our depth of knowledge. We realize that at some point in the discussion we don’t have the qualification to understand the minute details in the final recommendations they make for us. We do our research, ask them until we’ve established trust, and accept their recommendations. We do this with doctors, engineers, financial and psychiatric counseling, and more. Ironically, we don’t exercise this same process when it comes to Islamic issues.
We often don’t even know how to differentiate between those who are teachers and the scholars who should be petitioned. Not every person teaching Islam, preaching Islam, or representing Islam is qualified to give religious guidance on these issues (called fatwa). What’s even more ironic is that, in Islam, conditions of scholarship, etiquette of seeking answers, and the responsibilities and roles of the person asking as well as the one giving the answer, are all clearly defined. It’s just a matter of us attempting to understand ourrights and responsibilities.
Notice that in the first category I used the word teachers and not scholars. It’s become a habit for many of us to criticize all of scholarship and the work being done by all religious authorities with no-holds-barred criticism.
Not to exonerate scholars from their responsibilities, but the reality is that the burden scholars face in the sight of God outweighs all others. Islamic scholars (‘ulama) are defined as those that not only speak with outlined qualifications, but also lead by example when giving religious direction. They are people of God who balance the needs of people by directing them to benefit, and not taking them away from the essence of faith. They are those who direct people to application, never lose sight of objectives, take into consideration individual circumstances and social context, and cater to the specific and unique experiences of each individual. Most importantly, they have the requisite level of knowledge. Oftentimes we do not consider that the speakers and teachers in front of us are there to remind us of or teach us what is needed. If we, as a community, fail to seek appropriate scholarship, we are just as responsible for failure as those who answer our questions without proper qualifications.
The Way Forward
We have to recognize that the masses are led by ideologies disseminated by institutions and teachers. The source of the disarray that we see definitely has historical background outside the scope of this particular article. Some of the important factors nonetheless have been highlighted, and it is clear that we, as a community, should no longer accept a dissemination of a theology of disparagement, a theology of complexes. We, as a community, have to understand how to disagree. We have to understand the difference between valid disagreement and unorthodoxy — which should not be accepted regardless of who supports it.
This starts, first and foremost, with people understanding their rights, responsibilities, and how to solicit scholars who are qualified when asking questions regarding their faith. This is outlined by scholars in books dedicated to the Etiquettes of Soliciting Fatwa.
Next Page Ten Points for People Asking Questions: