Defining Islam

In an earlier post, I talked about what I see as polarization in the Islamic world. This post is just a continuation of this rather half-baked theory. Sometime back, I came across this interesting talk show featuring many prominent Indian Muslims, discussing various aspects of being Muslim.

15 minutes into the video, the interviewer asks Dr. Zakir Naik, a renowned Muslim public speaker, about the origins of the ‘construct of the [Muslim] image’ that a lot of people of this modern generation ‘find offensive’ (such a sporting a large mane, wearing a skull-cap, etc). To this question, Dr. Zakir Naik said that ‘first we need to understand what we mean by a Muslim.’ According to Dr. Naik, a ‘Muslim is a person who submits his will to Almighty God.’ Dr. Naik further goes on to say that ‘to understand Islam, don’t look at the Muslims… go to the original scriptures.’

Islam is what is written in the Qur’an and Ahadith (Sayings and Actions of Prophet Muhammad). That’s it. Whatever Muslims believe in or however they choose to act is irrelevant. It’s like Islam is a car and Muslims are drivers. You should not judge the car itself based on the ability of the driver. In fact, it was Zakir Naik himself who has given this driver-car analogy in one of his public lectures.

Kabir Khan, the film director, on the other hand, finds Dr. Naik’s views as ‘too narrow a definition of Islam.’ Khan rejects all rituals. But Islam is a part of his culture and ethos. He is as proud a Muslim as anybody else and does not believe that he needs to wear it on his sleeve. Therefore, according to Khan, Islam is not just confined to Qur’an and Ahadith but the whole spectrum of socio-cultural values and norms fostered under the aegis of Muslim societies.

This, in my opinion, is the fundamental difference between liberal and orthodox Muslims. Whereas orthodox Muslim scholars would insist on defining Islam purely on the basis of and derivative from Islamic scriptures, liberal Muslims see scriptures as just one aspect of Islam and not the whole of it.

This is also very similar to what Ghamidi said while analyzing the works of Karen Armstrong. He says that there are two ways to do research on Islam. One approach is to gather information on how Islam is practiced in different parts of the world, what has its history been so far and what do the sacred Islamic texts say. Once one has acquired all the information, one can basically form any logical narrative and present a certain picture of Islam.

The other approach, according to Ghamidi, is to start with the most important aspect of Islam, which is the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an should be used as a base reference, as a point of departure for understanding Islam. This difference of approach, along with other factors, on how Islam is defined and subsequently practiced, sows the seeds of polarization.

In 2008, a book was published titled “Who Speaks For Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think?”. A discussion about this book is available on YouTube.

Around 11:13 in the video, Reza Aslan says that ‘the simple answer to this question of who speaks for Islam is nobody speaks for Islam.’

The interesting point to note here is that since no one speaks for Islam, no one who claims to speak for Islam and all of Muslims should be taken seriously, according to Aslan’s statement. This condition for Muslims is, therefore, both a blessing and a bane. The good news is that there is no final, authoritative word on Islam and it’s a constantly evolving religion, with myriad beliefs and practices centered around perhaps some vague core concepts. The bad news is that lack of authority makes Islam somewhat anarchist. Anything goes, basically. The result is that on one hand, we have Al-Qaeda and ISIS and on the other we have LGBT-supporting Muslims.

The future of Islam is uncertain. However, that certain interpretations of Islam breed violence is certain. What also seems fairly certain is that violent Muslims will not compromise on their politco-religious ideology. And anyone who disagrees with them will have to face dire consequences.

I, therefore, believe that it is important to carry on critiquing the fundamentals of Islam, in a hope that more people see the problems with Islam and less people adopt the rigid, fundamentalist ideology of the extremists.

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