Between Theology And Pragmatism: Traversing a Slippery Path

Dr Shadee Elmasry examines big tent inclusivity in Muslims

Everyday, Muslims are walking a tight rope with our deen on one side and the realities we face on the other. We can’t ignore the world, and we can’t lose our deen either. We are all traversing this through trial and error. The most recent trial is ‘Islam as identity.’ It works well politically, but it is fatal for the deen. I came upon a Quartz article from a while back, in which Haroon Moghul, in his usual eloquent and easy-to-read style, applies this idea of Islam as identity to the actual definition of ‘Muslim.’ He suggests a new way to define it:

“One option is for American Muslims to acknowledge a second definition of Islam, which might be called Cartesian: “I think I’m Muslim, therefore I am.” Call yourself a Muslim, and you are. I might not agree with how you define Islam, but I can acknowledge your right to define yourself as Muslim, not least because the wider world treats you the same way. When Ben Carson says Muslims are “schizophrenic,” he’s branding Muslims generally.”

More recently, Mikaeel Ahmad Smith released an article on the rise of anti-intellectualism and the abandonment of any expertise outside oneself. He cited Brandon Gregory and his “Kingdom of Whatever” in which “all opinions are equal and truth is extremely relative. All of this is a result of a hyper pluralistic culture.” Alex de Tocqueville wrote “in most of the operations of mind…each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” In America today, individual will overrides any form of authority, including age-old necessary logical principles such as the rule of non-contradiction.

For all of Islamic scholarly history, a ‘Muslim’ has been defined as, “One who believes if Muhammad as the last and final Messenger and confirms all that has been transmitted unequivocally (bit tawaatur) from him (i.e. Quran and Mutawaatir hadith) and disbelieves whatever contradicts that.” Basically, it is the logical rule of non-contradiction. You cannot believe in two mutually exclusive things. You cannot believe a woman is pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. You cannot believe Jesus is a true prophet and a false prophet at the same time. You cannot believe Muhammad is the last prophet then believe in another prophet after him.

The dangerous consequence of this is as follows: by obfuscating the rule of non-contradiction, we promote arbitrariness, which is a double-edged sword. Haroon’s relativism justifies takfiri thought too: “I think I’m Muslim, therefore I am. I think you’re not Muslim, therefore you are not.”

Despite the theological consequences, I do recognize that Moghul isn’t making a theological statement here. Rather, it’s a pragmatic one. Basically, we are now politically up against a group of people who will attack whoever calls themselves Muslims. They equally attack Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis and non-observant heritage Muslims (as well as Sikhs and Hindus). So doesn’t it make sense for us all to stand together in the face of this? He says:

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“That doesn’t mean all Muslims have to subsume their differences, or share their institutions. But we must also cooperate across differences. How else are organizations that represent Muslims politically, or fight back against hate crimes, going to function? Are we going to hold inquisitions over whether or not the mosque attacked for being a mosque has any right to call itself a mosque?”

In this regard, his argument has merit: if you don’t say something when a Shia mosque is burned down, then don’t be surprised when a Sunni one is. You saw evil, and let is spread. It’s the story of the red bull, the white bull and the black bull.

I would navigate it differently, though. Firstly, I wouldn’t blur the line between theology and pragmatism. I cannot push aside a matter of historical consensus, common logic and damning textual evidence. If I need to do something practical, then I have to be creative and navigate a different route. Muslims have done this forever. (Muslims got so good at calligraphy, florals and geometrics because of the prohibition on drawing living forms; they had to find something else to draw.)

Secondly, why do some think that Muslims can only defend Muslims or Sunnis can only defend Sunnis? Rather, a Muslim can (and must) stop oppression against all people, including those who are not on the trodden path or believers in anything at all. “I have prohibited injustice upon Myself,” our Lord said, “And I have made it upon you prohibited. So do not oppress one another.”

If a known prostitute was being beaten and robbed in front of your eyes, you’d be obligated to fend off the aggressors and return her wealth (even though her wealth was not lawful in the first place). Now just because you defended her, do you have to justify her occupation and the validity of her wealth? Of course not, likewise, if an Ahmadi establishment was burned down, I would seek justice against the perpetrator because private property was aggressed upon in the name of hate. A Muslim can’t stand for that be it Ahmadi, Sikh or Scientologist. Allow crime to go around, and it’ll doubtless come around to you. I don’t have to love the victim or approve of their theology. I just have to fend off their oppressors.

In sum, we as a community are continuing to learn how to balance these two delicate things: the truth of our deen and the socio-political tight rope over which we traverse. While I agree with Moghul’s appeal to unity in the face of injustice, I must warn against parting with unequivocal (daruri) matters in the religion and the blurring of theological principles.

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5 responses to “Between Theology And Pragmatism: Traversing a Slippery Path”

  1. Avatar Maryam says:


    I agree with Moghul. If the Ummah responded with unity to injustice, the Muslim world in general and Arab Muslim world specifically would not be in a state of doom and destruction.
    Enjoining good and forbidding evil is a sublime practice that requires wisdom and living by example. Let Allah be the judge.

    • Avatar Imran Ahmed says:

      I’m not sure why you wrote, “I agree with Moghul”. There is nothing in this article contradicting a unified response to injustice by the Ummah. Who is accepted as part of this Ummah is a matter of theology and not practicality.

  2. Avatar Ashley says:

    Marryam, We leave Allah to judge people and their motives but as for the religion of Islam itself, Allah’s judgement on it is already there. We know clearly from the Quran what Islam is and what it isn’t. If it wasn’t clear, we couldn’t follow it.

  3. Avatar Ahmed says:

    Spot on. As much as i might dislike a people i cant allow that to stop me from standing up to justice.

    “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” Surah 5:8

  4. Avatar hussein says:

    Unfortunately what the author writes is easily said than done. Muslims in the west, a significant numbers of them particularly Sunnis can’t seem to shake off three very ingrained unIslamic habits; one to judge others, be they Muslims or not, an inherent sense of superiority of religion and three tendency and two to look down on other Muslims, especially if they are Shias or Ahmadi. Add to this teh perpecual mindset that anything remotely fun is haraam (an idea actively promoted by And Muslim Matters in its articles in Halloween and Christmas!). These attitudes and mindset will prevent Muslims from fully integrating in the west. Pity

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