January 28, 2018
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.
We are at that point in the semester that the non-Sunni Muslim students on campus despise. In my THEO 295 Introduction to Islam class, I require students to interview Muslims who are not part of their sect or denomination. Meaning, if you are a non-Muslim, you may interview any Muslim. If you are a Muslim, then you find a Muslim who belongs to a different school. The net result is that a whole lot of Sunni students go on the search for all the Shia students.
The point of the exercise is to enter someone else's world to learn their outlooks, while also reflecting on your own. So, by design, a goal is to get -- for example -- Catholic students to get a taste of Muslim life, and Sunnis to get a taste of Muslim non-Sunni life.
The risk of this type of assignment is the exotifying of another population. Western Imperialists depict Peoples of Color as noble savages, in need of civilizing because they all suffer from the same alleged problems: lack of technology, patriarchy/misogyny, traditional lifestyles that prevent "progress," hypo-rational, hyper-violent, and hyper-sensual cultures, tribal rivalries, and general naivete. On a side note, my use of the term "Peoples of Color" is itself a problem because it reinforces the notion that "White" is a default, or a base like with paint, or a non-color, or a starting point. "Color" then, is a divergence from the “White” default.
Incidentally, this approach is also the approach of many preachers, seeking to correct the misguided masses. Conversion for them is no different than conquest for the imperialist.
Thankfully, that has not happened with this assignment. Rather, as intended, the exercise has enhanced the experience of the interviewer by experiencing a bit of the humanity of the subject. Non-Muslim students have the chance to listen to a Muslim up close, and Muslim students have the chance to listen to a Muslim of a different sect up close.
In our campus community, we have students who self-identify as "Muslim" from across a whole span of theologies, including mainstream Sunnis and Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Nation of Islam, Druze, as well as students from mix parentage, meaning one parent is Sunni and the other is Shia. A large percentage of students on campus, however, self-identify as, "My parents are _____ but I don't know what I am. I am spiritual, not religious." As you know, I position myself as a Sunni, following Hanafi law on most matters, and I am the Muslim Chaplain for all of you, even if you do not self-identify as Muslim.
If we hold to the orthodoxies and orthopraxies of each of these different sects, then we acknowledge that some of these denominations regard themselves as the only true paths of Islam, and regard all or some of the others as outside Islam. That theological or legal exclusivism is not a problem on its own; it is a necessary consequence of belief.
When you are claiming to be on a path to the Divine, then you will have to define what is inside and outside your path. In much of Islamic Tradition, exclusivity is based on creed, not on action. Your beliefs inform your intentions, and your intentions define your actions. Thus, you can commit a mountain of sins -- and the pathway for repentance is open to you -- but you are still a Muslim throughout that process so long as your beliefs are those of Islam. If your beliefs are outside of Islam, then your intentions are outside of Islam, then your actions are outside of Islam.
This may sound strict, but faith tends to be more strict than we realize. There are two opposites: one is to define belief according to action, another is to ignore belief and action entirely and define membership in the Muslim community according to identification as Muslims.
Consider the Khawarij (aka the Kharijites). They were a tiny literalist puritan movement with presence even in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, though they reach full infamous impact a few decades after his death. One person came to the Prophet and scolded him to shield himself with God, even though the Prophet himself is the embodiment of a relationship with God. The Prophet warned us about this type extremism, equating its "faith" to an arrow flying through a hunted animal. It races in and out, tearing flesh along the way.
The Khawarij were labeled as such because they departed from the greater community, regarding them all as heretics. They chose a strict interpretation of text over humanity, allowing violence as a solution to solve problems. When they would pray, they would pray with such force that their faces and palms would have scabs. Soon, they turned against Ali, may Allah ennoble his face, accusing him of having left Islam. Their argument was that in a political conflict he agreed to allow a human to judge over a matter when God is the Judge of all. The argument was easily defeated but did not convince most of the Khawarij. As part of a long path of killings, they killed him.
Many associate ISIS with the Khawarij. It follows that if you are living in ISIS-controlled territories that you have to carry a "repentance" identification card. It is not merely an ID; it confirms that you repent for a life of sin, being the life you lived before ISIS-rule.
The Khawarij quickly splintered among themselves, accusing each other of heresy and were wiped out. The same will happen with ISIS. Such groups tend to vanish as quickly as they arrive while having torn so much flesh along in the process.
If the Khawarij approach is to regard scripture as primary and literal, then the opposite approach is to regard scripture as incidental and metaphor: include everyone who self-identifies as Muslim in the same family. At the national level, this is the dominant approach to Islam in our society: anyone who claims to be Muslim -- regardless of creed -- who gives Muslims good p/r is celebrated as a hero, while anyone who does not is hated. The easiest example is Muhammad Ali. Mainstream Sunnis and Shias would not have regarded the Muhammad Ali of the 1960s and early 1970s as a valid Muslim because of his beliefs in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, yet Muslims across the spectrum of doctrines celebrate his famous stances as the stances of a strong Muslim.
In this approach, there is no focus on salvation or upright conduct, except if it garners good press. There is something to be said about representation especially in our image-conscious society, but I wonder if the cost is integrity. In each of the high-profile cases of celebrity preacher misconduct I worked on, community members urged me to stay away from law enforcement and from the media because of the bad image it would give Muslims. In the most recent case -- after which I have had three other low-profile cases -- the most vocal criticism came from people concerned about our public relations.
Thus, we celebrate numerous celebrities because they self-identify as Muslim, even though we would not otherwise recognize them as Muslim or vice versa. Or, we celebrate their fame despite the fact that almost the entirety of their product is most un-Islamic by any and all viewpoints. This list includes numerous singers, DJs, writers, comedians, actors, and on-camera talent. You know my view on Muslim celebrities, just like my view on celebrity preachers: look at them all as performers in a theater, and "Muslim" is one of the many attributes in their costume. Better yet, look at all of them as clowns in a global circus.
So we have five approaches. A secular humanist approach is to see the humanity in every person and value it. An imperialist approach is to regard everyone as being in need of conquer because they are in need of civilizing. A belief-driven approach is to derive intentions through articulated belief, with focus on salvation and character. A text-driven approach is to override all, including the Prophet himself. A p/r approach is to welcome everyone, so long as they make you look good. Pick two. You know which ones.
And Allah knows best.