Saturday, 6 November 2010

To Be a Muslim

Pa Bismillah,

I extend my welcome to all Muslim and non-Muslim, old and new. Salaam and Marhaba.

There is the way it is - and the way it is supposed to be. These are very different things.

To be a contemporary Muslim is to know that we live in an imperfect world and that there are many pulls and distractions. Muslims must navigate their faith through the issues that test us daily. That is the way it is.

And of course there is the matter of image. Muslims don't get it easy in the press. Sometimes, Muslims are drawn towards apology and it can be exhausting attempting to apologise for every error made by every Muslim that is reported. Personally speaking, I sometimes feel that I am right out of apology.

I recognise the disappointing reality of inequality - that Muslims make up a good proportion of the world's poorest people who live in the grip of disinformation and confusion. This is not the way it is supposed to be but the way that it is. The modern media feeds on this and the bad press feeds bad policy, the unnecessary wars and continual confusion within.  

Sitting in the Gulf, I see examples of how it could be but also how it should not be. Local Arabs, living off the oil boom, are anything but poor. The state apparatus is supportive of the basic needs - the way it could/should be. In Islam, our system of zakat and charity should mean a distribution of wealth and food to the poor and a natural trickle down effect. And yet amongst Muslims globally, we still have serious abject poverty, despite our systems to protect the most vulnerable - like, I say, the way it is supposed to be versus the way that it is

The good thing is that despite the bad press, Islam remains strong in the hearts of many Muslims and that Islam continues to draw people to the faith. I think therefore that the way it is supposed to be, is a good place to start. Lauren Booth's decision to become a Muslim is significant because of the profile of her famous brother-in-law, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is often perceived across the Muslim world as an antagonistic crusader who knowingly brought misery to Muslims. Lauren Booth's story of simpler, less dramatic approach, is a timely reminder that Islamic civilisation at its political and cultural height offered its subjects, Muslim or not, a genuine peaceful path. The way that it is supposed to be. 

And, Allah, of course, knows best.


  1. I appreciate the need to tolerate religious beliefs, even if one does not respect them - provided the consequences of those beliefs are restricted to the personal. i.e. they do not guide public policy, or impose anything on other people.

    But a word of warning about the "moderates" versus the "fundamentalists".

    Religious moderates still teach their children that it's OK to believe things without evidence; that there are holy men with whom it is heresy to disagree; and that the words of the holy books must be obeyed without question. If those things are condoned and encouraged, then the line between moderate and fundamentalist is extremely fine.

    All it takes is a shift in the way the holy men interpret the words of the holy books (and the words of god as spoken directly to them), and suddenly all those faithful "moderates" and their children are duty-bound to follow, regardless of where the path leads...

    The problem with a religious opinion (versus, say a political opinion), is two-fold.

    Firstly, there is an obligation never to change one's mind. God (whichever one it may be) is an authority who should never be questioned, let alone renounced, regardless of the absurdity of the argument. Compromise, by definition, is a betrayal of the god.

    Secondly, there is no price too high to pay in order to prevail. Invariably religious beliefs extend beyond the real world, with rich rewards promised to the steadfast and faithful. So once again, neither a change of mind nor a compromise is likely, since that makes the difference between eternity in paradise or purgatory.

    Christianity, in the main, has become very watered down over the past few hundred years, so the urgency to implement strict and institutionalised christianity on entire populations has abated somewhat. The rise of science has shown us things can be understood and managed better by rational thought, experiment, and discussion, rather than by reliance on a deity and the words of ignorant tribesmen who lived thousands of years ago.

  2. Thank you for your comments Michael G.

    The decline in the power of Christianity has not necessarily meant that 'western' prejudices towards the Orient have gone, just that contemporary prejudices are justified somewhat differently.

    You are right - there are parts of the world where religion and other ideologies continue to be used as tools to steer people blindly. Isn't the blurring of the lines you define as 'moderation' and 'fundamentalism' part of this? I think that a balanced education in the Muslim world is therefore important so that people are empowered to reach a rational view of their own cultures and faith. One doesn't need to be anti-religion to be balanced, however.

  3. I agree - Western prejudices towards the Orient (and vice versa) are still very much present. I was just pointing out that there much less "christian law", where the church holds the reins on government, than there used to be some centuries ago. (Christian activists still wield a lot of power in the USA and elsewhere, but we don't have many christian states any more).

    The line between moderate and fundamentalist IS blurry, but I think the blur is inevitable because of the very nature of religious beliefs themselves. You appear to be a rational person, but your religious beliefs are ultimately grounded in faith, not reason. Ask yourself what evidence it would take to make you renounce your faith? Or, for that matter, why you adhere fervently to the set of beliefs specific to islam, rather than christianity, or hinduism, or Norse mythology? I bet your parents were muslim...

    It's not entirely irrational to believe in a creator, perhaps, but there is no reasonable evidence pointing to a specific set of characteristics as attributed to him by christians, muslims, ancient Romans, ancient Egyptians or any other theistic belief systems - all of whom assertively exclude each other.

    Faith means, at best, believing in something without evidence, or worse, having certainty about something in the face of contrary evidence. As long we - humanity - approve of "faith", as a valid approach to truth, we open ourselves to ANY beliefs. After all, in the absence of evidence, on what basis can anyone say that one belief holds merit and another doesn't? If one irrational and arbitrary belief system says it's a sin to eat fish on Fridays, and another says that one should sacrifice a goat once a month, what should our attitude be?

    Since both of those are harmless enough, we can all agree to live and let live. But what about the guy that believes that god commands us to sacrifice a virgin once a month, or that all homosexuals should be put to death, or that stem-cell research should be banned? Of course, if it's just one guy we can laugh it off, but what if those beliefs became mainstream? What if the majority wanted to enforce god's laws?

    The point is that the last sentence of your reply to me is, sadly, not competely true. One may not need to be anti-religion to be balanced, but certainly one cannot truly believe in the teachings of any specific religion and be balanced. That's implicit in the definition of faith.

  4. Salaam Michael G, and welcome back :).

    On the matter of faith and whether people should be open to scientific logic then clearly the answer to that is 'yes'. You are right, I am defined by Islam culturally because I was born into it, however, beyond labels it is also something that gives me a safety net and direction. I understand though that for others that they may make a different connection with the ethereal.

    My interpretation of religion may not fit with others (Muslims, Christians etc.) To that end, religion is very personal - each to his/her own. I don't believe that there is anything dishonest about broadly adopting that approach to religion or life in general. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything around me, but there are ways to affect change should I wish to make it.

    Essentially, as you have noted, that change/belief starts with the individual and often stays there. However, in a pluralistic society that defines itself as multi-faith and multi-cultural, faith communities may seek a voice - at least that is my understanding of how it may work within a democracy.

    As for 'balance'. I think it is possible - it is about being comfortable with your religious identity and the challenge to this, your sense of faith and that of others. In post modern societies, people will pick and choose, so balance is possible. Again, it is a personal diplomatic approach to life in general.

    On the first point that you made about prejudice between the Orient and the Occident running both ways. There are clear examples of both, but honestly, I believe that the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that Western Europe in all its guises - Christian, Reformist, Agnostic, Socialist, Capitalist, Colonial (post and pre), Liberal/Democratic etc. - none of these outlooks have found peace with their own equation with the Muslim world. Hence the reasons, I believe, that we see what we see.

  5. Merhaba, Tor_Khan, and thank you for the reply.

    I have no argument with your approach to religion, as it is obviously and explicitly a personal set of values that helps you live the life you wish to. However, yours is not the usual approach to religion, which generally quickly becomes institutional, and tries to impose specific values and rules upon its own adeherents first, and sooner or later, everyone else. (I suspect this evolution is inevitable - a religion cannot survive generations without certain key attributes, such as dedicated faith, exclusivity, a ban on heresy and blasphemy, etc.)

    I suppose I have a slight aversion to the very principle of knowingly holding irrational views, although I would be hard pressed to defend that aversion. Part of the human condition is that we are not entirely rational, and the effects range from creative, to harmless, to dangerous.

    Religious views are a special case of irrationality, however, and I believe they are inherently dangerous, for the reasons stated in my previous posts. I have yet to hear "moderate" Muslims stand up and say "The Qur'an is wrong to demand death as the penalty for apostasy. Every man has a right to decide for himself what his beliefs are". Why don't Muslims renounce that part of the Qur'an? The xenophobia and such calls to violence contained within the Qur'an are central to the conflict between Islam and infidels. They provide an excuse for the fundamentalists to do crazy things, which fuels the fear and prejudice of non-Muslims, which in turn gives Muslims all the more reason to take extreme positions.

    The Old Testament, of course, is just as bad. Christians are equally weak in their condemnation of the absurd extreme laws their "god" imposes in, say, the Book of Leviticus. While most Christians nowadays would say that the Messiah's arrival rendered the OT obsolete, that has never stopped them from quoting to the old scriptures when they want to start a war or ban homosexuality etc.

    And this all backs up my previous points: religious beliefs have an inherent problem that any departure from the canon constitutes heresy and a violation of faith - even when the canon is obviously morally or factually wrong.


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