The Rainbow Culture of Islam

Extracted from his article “British and Muslim” by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad

The initial and quite understandable response of many newcomers (to Islam) is to become an absolutist. Everything going on among pious Muslims is angelic; everything outside the circle of the faith is demonic. The appeal of this outlook lies in its simplicity. The newly rearranged landscape upon which the convert looks is seen in satisfying black and white terms of: them versus us; good against evil.

This mindset is sometimes called convertitis. It is a common illness, which can make those who have caught it rather difficult to deal with. Fortunately, it almost always wears off. The only exceptions are those weak souls who imagine that the buzz of excitement caused by their absolutist, Manichean division of the world was a necessary part of Islamic piety, or even that it has some spiritual significance. Such people are often condemned to wander from faction to faction, always joining something new, in an attempt to regain the initial excitement engendered by their conversion.

Most new Muslims, however, soon see through this. A majority of people come to Islam for real spiritual or intellectual reasons, and will continue with their quest once they are inside Islam. Becoming Muslim is, after all, only the first step to felicity. Those individuals who adopt Islam because they need an identity will be condemned to wander the sectarian and factional hall of mirrors, constantly looking for the perfect group that will give them their desperately needed sense of speciality and superiority.

But actions are by intentions. A hundred years ago the founder of the Anglo-Muslim movement, Imam Abdullah Quilliam, in Liverpool, was writing that those British people who convert for Allah and His Messenger would, by the grace of God, be rightly guided. Those who convert for any other reason are in serious spiritual trouble. Just as the salah (i.e. prayer) is invisibly invalidated if the niyyah (i.e. intention) at its outset is not correct, similarly, Islam will not work for us unless we have entered it in faith, out of a sincere quest for God’s good pleasure. If things are not going right for us, if we find no delight in our prayers, if Ramadan simply makes us hungry, if we cannot seem to find the right mosque or the right company to take us forward, then we would do well to start by examining our intentions. Did we become Muslims only, and purely, to bring our souls to God? Other reasons: solidarity with the oppressed, admiration for Muslims we know, desire to join a group, the love of a woman – none of these are adequate foundations for our lives as Muslims deserving of Allah’s grace and guidance. Imam al-Qushayri says that spiritual aspirants are only deprived of attainment when they neglect the foundations. So we need to look within, and if necessary, renew our faith, following the Prophetic Sunnah. Renew your iman, a celebrated Hadith enjoins.

So what are we? Statistically, perhaps, fifty thousand people. But once we have taken the plunge, and enjoyed the feel of Islam, and come to know through experience, rather than through reading books, that Islam is a way of sobriety, dignity, poise and rewarding spirituality, what exactly is our self-definition? When we meet family and friends who are not Muslim, how do we carry ourselves? Do we treat Islam as a great secret? A discreet eccentricity that we hope people will not be so crude as to mention? Or, on the contrary, something we wear on our sleeves, feeling that it is our duty constantly to steer the conversation back into sacred quarters, confronting people with Islam, that they might have no argument against us at the Resurrection?

More generally, what is our view of the wider world of unbelief, which, despite the breathless predictions of some of our co-religionists, continues to grow more powerful and more prosperous? How much of it can we affirm, and how much of it must we publicly or privately disown?

We can, of course, take the easy way out, and avoid engaging with these questions, by retreating from the mainstream of society, and consorting only with Muslims. But this is not so easy. We need to be employed, since this is pleasing to God; and we need to maintain good ties with our relations, since this is also enjoined in the Hadith. “Keep company with them both in the world in keeping with good custom”, (31:15) says the Qur’an to converts who have unbelieving parents. And the Hadith explains that non-Muslim parents have significant rights over their Muslim children.

But more significantly than this fact, to solve the problems thrown at us and at our identity by the real world outside the mosque gates, we need to engage regularly with non-Muslim society. But for this, there would be no effective d‘awah. People do not hear the word of Islam, generally, by being shouted at by some demagogue at Speakers Corner, or by reading some angry little pamphlet pushed into their hand by a wandering distributor of tracts. They convert through personal experience of Muslims. And this takes place, overwhelmingly, at the workplace. Other social contexts are closed to us: the pub, the beach, the office party. But work is a prime environment for being noticed, and judged, as Muslims.

There is nothing remotely new in this. Islam has always spread primarily through social interactions connected with work. The early Muslims who conquered half the world did not set up soapboxes in the town squares of Alexandria, Cordoba or Fez, in the hope that Christians would flock to them and hear their preaching. They did business with the Christians; and their nobility and integrity of conduct won the Christians over. That is the model followed by Muslims, particularly the Sufis, down the ages; and it is the one that we must retain today, by interacting honourably and respectfully with non-Muslims in our places of work, as much as we can.

If this is clear, then my initial question still begs a response. What is a British Muslim? What kind of creature is he/she? The public consensus has clear ideas about other British identities: British Anglican, British Jew, British Asian Muslim or Hindu: all these are recognised categories, and a certain community of expected response governs interactions between the majority and these groups. The Anglo-Muslim, however, is not a generally recognised type.

My own belief is that the future prosperity of the Anglo-Muslim movement will be determined largely by our ability to answer this question of identity. It is a question mainly for converts, but, which many of whose dimensions, will come to apply also to second-generation immigrant Muslims here, who have their own questions to ask themselves and this culture about what, exactly, they are.

To frame a response, I think it is useful to step back a little, and consider the larger picture of Islamic history of which we form a very small part. I mentioned earlier that Islam usually spread through the utilisation of commercial opportunities as opportunities for d‘awah. That picture is one of the most extraordinary success stories in religious history. Compare, for instance, the way in which the Muslim world was Islamised to the way in which the Americans were Christianised. Islamisation proceeded with remarkable gentleness at the hands of Sufis and merchants. Christianisation used mass extermination of the native Americans, the baptism of uncomprehending survivors, and the baleful scrutiny by the Inquisition of any signs of backsliding. A more extreme contrast would be impossible to find.

Perhaps no less extraordinary than this contrast is its interesting concomitant: Christianisation brought Europeanisation. Islamisation did not bring Arabisation. The churches built by the Puritans or the Conquistadors in the New World were deliberate replicas of churches in Europe. The mosques constructed in the areas gradually won for Islam are endlessly diverse, and reflect and indeed celebrate local particularities. Christianity is a universal religion that has historically sought to impose a universal metropolitan culture. Islam is a universal religion that has consistently nurtured a particularist provincial culture. A church in Mexico City resembles a church in Salamanca. A mosque in Nigeria, or Istanbul, or Djakarta, resembles only in key respects the patterns, now purified and uplifted by monotheism, of the indigenous regional patrimony.

No less remarkable is the ability of the Muslim liberators to accommodate those aspects of local, pre-Islamic tradition, which did not clash, absolutely with the truths of revelation. In entering new lands, Muslims were armed with the generous Qur’anic doctrine of Universal Apostleship; as the Qur’an says: “To every nation there has been sent a guide”, (35:24).

This conflicts sharply with the classical Christian view of salvation as hinging uniquely on one historical intervention of the divine in history: the salvific sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Non-Christian religions were, in classical Christianity, seen as demonic and under the sign of original sin. But classical Islam has always been able and willing to see at least fragments of an authentic divine message in the faiths and cultures of non-Muslim peoples. If God has assured us that every nation has received divine guidance, then we can look with some favour on the Other.

Those who believe that Muslim communities can only flourish if they ghettoise themselves and refuse to interact with majority communities would do well to look at Chinese history. Many of the leading mandarins of Ming China were in fact Muslims. Wang Dai-Yu, for instance, who died in 1660, was a Muslim scholar who received the title of Master of the Four Religions because of his complete knowledge of China’s four religions: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Many of the leading admirals in the navy of the Ming Empire were practising Muslims.

In China, mosques look very like traditional Chinese garden-temples, except that there is a prayer hall without idols, and the calligraphy is Qur’anic. In some of the most beautiful, you will find, as you enter, the following words in Chinese inscribed on a tablet:  “Sages have one mind and the same truth. In all parts of the world, sages arise who possess this uniformity of mind and truth. Muhammad, the Great Sage of the West, lived in Arabia long after Confucius, the Sage of China. Though separated by ages and countries, they had the same mind and Truth.”

In these examples from India and China, we see a practical confirmation of Islam’s proclamation of itself as the final, and hence universal, message from God. In a hadith we learn: Other prophets were sent only to their own peoples, while I am sent to all mankind.

It is not that the Qur’anic worldview affirms other religions as fully adequate paths to salvation. In fact, it clearly does not. But it allows the Muslim, as he encounters new worlds, to sift the wheat from the chaff in non-Muslim cultures, rejecting some things, to be sure, but maintaining others. In Islamic law, too, we find that shara‘ liman qablana, the revealed laws of those who came before us, can under certain conditions be accepted as valid legal precedent, if they are not demonstrably abrogated by an Islamic revealed source. And Islamic law also recognises the authority of ‘urf, local customary law, so that a law or custom is acceptable, and may be carried over into an Islamic culture or jurisdiction, if no Islamic revealed principle is thereby violated. Hence, we find the administration of Islamic law varying from country to country. If a wife complains of receiving insufficient dower from her husband, the qadi (judge) will make reference to what is considered normal in their culture and social group, and adjudge accordingly.

All of these historical observations have, I hope, served to make quite a simple point: Islam, as a universal religion, in fact as the only legitimately universal religion, also makes room for the particularities of the peoples who come into it. The traditional Muslim world is a rainbow, an extraordinary patchwork of different cultures, all united by a common adherence to the doctrinal and moral patterns set down in Revelation. Put differently, Revelation supplies parameters, hudud, rather than a complete blueprint for the details of cultural life. Local mindsets are Islamised, but remain distinct.

This point is obvious to anyone who has studied Islamic thought or Islamic history. I reiterate it today only because some Muslims nowadays reject it fiercely. Those who come to Islam because they wish to draw closer to God have no problem with a multiform Islam radiating from a single revealed paradigmatic core. But those who come to Islam seeking an identity will find the multiplicity of traditional Muslim cultures intolerable. People with confused identities are attracted to totalitarian solutions. And today, many young Muslims feel so threatened by the diversity of calls on their allegiance, and by the sheer complexity of modernity, that the only form of Islam they can regard as legitimate is a totalitarian, monolithic one. That there should be four schools of Islamic law is to them unbearable. That Muslim cultures should legitimately differ is a species of blasphemy.

These young people, who haunt our mosques and shout at any sign of disagreement, are either ignorant of Muslim history, or dismiss it as a gigantic mistake. For them, the grace and rahmah (mercy) of Allah has for some reason been withheld from all but a tiny fraction of the ummah (Muslim community). These people are the elect; and all disagreement with them is a blasphemy against God.

We cannot hope easily to cure such people. Simple proofs from our history or our scholarship will not suffice. What they need is a sense of security, and that, given the deteriorating conditions of both the Muslim world and of the ghettos in Western cities, may not come readily. For now, it is best to ignore their shouts and their melodramatic but always ill-fated activities. Our psychic problems are not theirs; and theirs can never be ours.

Islam is, and will continue to be, even amid the miserable globalisation of modern culture, a faith that celebrates diversity. Our thinking about our own position as British Muslims should focus on that fact, and quietly but firmly ignore the protests both of the totalitarian fringe, and of the importers of other regional cultures, such as that of Pakistan, which they regard as the only legitimate Islamic ideal.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad graduated from Cambridge University with a double-first in Arabic in 1983. He then lived in Cairo for three years, studying Islam under traditional teachers at Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world. . Since 1992 he has been a doctoral student at Oxford University, specializing in the religious life of the early Ottoman Empire. Shaikh Abdal Hakim is the translator of a number of works, including two volumes from Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al-Din He appears frequently on BBC Radio and writes occasionally for a number of publications, including The Independent; Q-News International, Britain’s premier Muslim Magazine; and Seasons, the semiacademic journal of Zaytuna Institute