British & American Muslims: differences & ramifications

5 min read

A matter to highlight is that we are very different from our American brethren, and it doesn’t work well with our interests to assume that their issues are ours, or the same. The problems that arise from this is that we are unable then to address our own unique set of circumstances constructively that are shaped by different variables.

Of course, I have my own views on each of the following, but my point here isn’t to make value judgements about our cultural, political and social reality, nor to say anything about the variables that impact on the difference, but merely point them out for those who haven’t considered them:

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Stable and secure believing women and our future

6 min read

Anyone who cares about the present as well as the future of the believers, has to be concerned with the social conditions under which believing women live and their sense of security and stability. If the purpose of the Prophet’s polity was to provide believers with “security to replace their fear” (24:55), then in general, such objectives ought to also be our own. It was such security that not only allowed believers to grow and thrive but also facilitated the spread of the nascent faith. Women tend to be the pillars that hold up the structure of society, they are the carriers of culture, the (more significant) nurturers of today’s citizens, as well as the cultivators of future generations. The future isn’t bright if they’re not happy, and the future won’t be consequential if they’re not content (and resultantly committed). Yes, it requires women to be sensible and realistic in discovering contentment, but it also means that believing men need to provide the conditions for them to be able to do so.

If we think about it from the perspective of our communal interests and the cause of Islam:

Social and political progress tends to be slow. It does not predominantly occur through revolution (an idea that popular culture has come to embrace) but by gradually cultivating today and tomorrow’s citizens - it's the reason Gove was so happy to be education minister. For the sake of the future, we can only expect tomorrow’s people to be confident, faithful and educated folk IF they’re cultivated by equally confident, faithful and educated folk (and of course that includes men as well). Yet despite its demonstrable importance, the environment in which this might occur hasn't significantly developed. Rather than being supported and permitted to get on with it - to seek an environment that’d help to shape confident, faithful and informed believers, many Muslim women find themselves having to battle social and ethno-cultural pressures as well as reductive, condescending and unrealistic ethno-cultural assertions about their ‘place’. It wears them down and inhibits constructive activity. And no, rhetorically referring to Muslim women who are practically treated like mindless maids as ‘queens’ or ‘jewels’ doesn’t make them feel valued – and this isn’t lost on anyone with a semblance of intelligence. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t lead to the members we all need believing women to be.

Instead, what we regrettably continue to see is a milieu that produces countless restless beings with various worries, who frequently have their good and charitable nature exploited, who remain greatly unappreciated for their labours, whose views might be overlooked simply because they’re women, and who are given legitimate cause to be anxious about their prospects rather than thrilled at the opportunities and positive challenges the future ought to bring. Whilst some men might put it down to "women's nature", God tells men to challenge their own perceptions:

“Live with them in accordance with what is fair and kind: if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something in which God has put much good.” (4:19)

Of course, not all believing women find themselves in such a situation, but even they would acknowledge that the current environment promoted by most ethno-religious communities isn’t one conducive to high aspirations, or one that reflects a godly and productive lens that provides the holistic type of security and stability believing women desire. As believers, we are morally obliged to build an environment where women are able to flourish and become the best women on earth (and the same obviously goes for our men and children).

Some men suffer from protest fatigue. I accept that, as is the case with complaints in any setting, not all are always legitimate. But there needs to be a constructive way of discussing worries in a spirit of cooperation and reason, rather than falling into reductive arguments, belligerence, or retreating into silos and talkshops. I also accept that many believing women have some way to go to become substantial contributors to the future of an inspirational Islam in Britain, but so too do many men – it’s not a gender issue but one of general development. However, if women aren’t provided the space, opportunity and know-how to develop a holistic approach to īmān which improves the intellect with reason and knowledge, the body with vitality, and the spirit with civility and resilience, as well as an emotionally and psychologically sound atmosphere required to achieve all of these, then as a believing community we won’t get very far. It’s easy to put women down, which occurs in some cultures, and claim they don’t know much or that they’re 'slow', but if resources in many communities are mainly geared towards men, and women frequently infantilised, how can we expect them to be on level par? Studies show that where women are given the same educational opportunities as men, they outperform them. Evidently, a phenomenal human resource is being squandered, and in some cases, actively undermined. Is it any wonder that some Muslim women opt for Eurocentric feminism when it seems to offer them more equitable terms? “Islam gives women rights” becomes an empty slogan if not practiced by adherents to that Islam, not to mention that the use of this slogan can inadvertently suggest that if Islam hadn’t advocated such rights, such sloganeers simply wouldn’t bestow equitable treatment to women out of a sense of decency and some good old logic.

استوصوا بالنساء خيرا

The Prophet put it: “Treat women well,” (al-Bukhari) and ‘well’ is not only determined by the situation, but also in the context of being sensitive to the needs of women whilst simultaneously encouraging them to strive higher. In a gender-conscious verse God spells out the relationship between the two groups: “The believers, both men and women, are allies supporting each other (awliya)…” (9:71) and such support includes men cultivating their vital team members and expanding their capacities rather than simplistically putting them down. That’s actual leadership. Furthermore, as believers we inspire one another to be the best reflections of ourselves with the Prophet having put it, “The believer is the mirror of a believer”. So if some men hold the women around them in low stead then they must consider what they themselves actually look like!

As for believing women, it’s up to them to assert themselves and take the bull by the horns, and neither squander nor disregard the opportunities they’re availed by emerging opportunities. Complaints about lack of resources and/or access are often inaccurate or a pretext for some to veil their laziness or lack of commitment. In the end, the effort needs to be made by both sides.

Shar’ī therapists, counsellors, and murabbis

Over the years, I and many of my colleagues have come to experience that the vast majority of Muslims do not require scholars (and little do they know what a scholar and his/her remit actually is). What they’re really after: shar’ī trained therapists, counsellors, and murabbis (educator and shar’ī life-coach).

The reasons for this are:

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Ashura and the Hebrew Exodus

On the 10th Muharram we are encouraged to fast, not simply because Muhammad, the final messenger of God did so, but because the believers have been told to mark the Exodus which was when God saved Moses and his people from Pharaoh. When the Prophet arrived in Madinah after the great hijrah (emigration), he found that the Jews there fasted on the 10th Muharram who said, “This is a blessed day: on this day God saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and so the Prophet Moses fasted on this day giving thanks to God.” The Prophet responded, “We are closer to Moses than you are.” So he fasted on that day and commanded the believers to fast. (al-Bukhari)

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Imaan Boosters and Softeners: Replacing proper guidance

Amongst many, religious culture and cultivation tends to centre on imaan boosters: perceived short term-fixes that leave people on a religious ‘high’ for a few hours (or at least what they perceive the feeling to be), after which it evaporates and promptly returns the person to their initial state. Due to the superficial nature of such cultivation, there is a counter-productivity inherent in this way of doing things. Amongst them is that being interested in religion boils down to the amount of videos that are viewed on YouTube and the number of speakers being followed on social media. A few lessons that offer a basic commentary on al-Nawawi’s forty hadith offers the seeming notion of ‘higher’ religious education, or at least something substantial, and provides the consolation that an effort is being made to obtain some religion, or more egregiously, that it’s acceptable now to form and advocate personal religious opinions. For others, a few tajweed classes suffice, but learning how to make guttural sounds doesn’t exactly offer action-guiding principles. Additionally, given the status and/or capacity of local religious clerics and imams, people often turn to online outlets to look for something more substantial where they find consoling rhetoric that seems to resonate by offering something relevant to their lives. If lay personalities online offer what they propose to be major religious concepts in a tweet or three minute clips on YouTube, why would viewers assume there’s more to it? This all then reduces religious activity either to rituals or watching something, yet does little to identify and remedy the specific religious issues an individual distinctively faces.

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Moving forward and actualising faith today

I have written before that I believe today's believer can:

  • be committed to the Quran and the sunnah without being salafi;
  • benefit from a mad'hab without immaturely pledging allegiance to it, building an identity on it, or viewing everything through the lens of fiqh;
  • have an aqidah that isn't polemic and reactionary but inspirational and imaan based, strengthening rabbaniyyah (godliness) and wara' (piety);
  • be introspective and build a personal relationship with God where God is an active participant in one's life without ascribing to sufism;
  • be politically active/aware in a way that goes beyond anti-colonialism and without the baggage of last century's Muslim political movements;
  • be socially integrated in society without losing their faith or having their fundamental godly practices restricted.

Whilst I have already mentioned some usul (fundamental starting positions) from which I speak about the shariah or teach revelation, I understand that people continue to try and make sense of where I'm coming from. Why? Because we're so used to our actualisation of religion being framed in the past that the minute we speak of imaan or the shari'ah actualised for the modern era it seems alien to many. For some, it's as if they don't want practical faith - just something to mythologise. Yet simple logic tells us that the norm should be to functionalise revelation for today's world since we live today and not in the past - but for a number of reasons (colonialism, immigration etc) western Muslims find themselves in this bizarre situation.

Furthermore, most are institutionalised not only into thinking about Sunni Islam along reductive lines, but also one that is very much theoretical in practice, such as four neat schools of law and three schools of theology. So where someone is not being sectarian, or a scholar draws from the general corpus of Sunni thinking to benefit our approach for today we're somehow not being Sunni! Categorising Islam in this way is theoretical because the reality of big city living means we tend to be influenced by the multi-traditions that pervade British Muslims, picking up opinions and views across fiqh and aqidah lines. Yes you get your occasional staunch sectarians (who rarely know their actual school of law/theology), but in light of the number of Muslims in the western world, they're few and far between. To argue that we strictly follow only one school across the board is no less absurd as claiming that there's only one culture that influences the inhabitants of major cosmopolitan capitals like London or New York. Furthermore, the vast majority of laymen actually know very little about the school of law or theology they claim to ascribe to and the origins of the opinions they hold - in fact it's held amongst usulis that laymen have no mad'hab, that they merely follow their local clerics who have trained (usually out of convenience) in a particular legal and theological tradition.

A lot of people struggle, not with abandoning sectarianism or the arbitrary distinctions enforced on them by the ignorant - that's the easy part, but in conceptualising what they're meant to be moving on to. If I'm not a self-identifying Salafi/Sufi/Deobandi etc what am I? In ancient times, you'd simply be a believer truly committed to the one True God, on the creed of Abraham, and adhering to the shari'ah given to Muhammad as explained by your learned. Those are the key focuses. Beyond those, you'd simply enact shar'i principles in your everyday modern living - shar'i principles interacting with the modern age - as explained and explored by the capable and intelligent scholars of your city - those who resonate with your lived experiences and cultural outlook.

Yes, living amongst multi-ethnic communities that make up the Muslim populace can make this quite challenging: should a British Pakistani go to a Pakistani maulana, a British Arab to his/her Arab shaikh, and so on? Well rightly or wrongly, that's already been the norm for some time amongst immigrant generations, but Millenials (approx 38-22 years old) and those younger seem to be post-ethnic in this regards (something I'll considerably explore in upcoming posts) and as such a shift has already taken place and a unifying and mature culture seems to be crystallising.

Nearly everyone I have met, taught, lectured or spoken to are highly positive about, and deeply interested in, the progression I listed at the beginning of this post. And never have I met a metropolitan Millenial (or younger), that is Millenials who live in major cities, with whom this hasn't resonated. Not only do they find it highly liberating from the anxieties that come from factionalism, and a relief from the internal conflict that comes from following folk religion, or holding unreasonable beliefs and positions, they end up finding God and their deen, and profoundly connecting with what God wants on His terms which He has made very easy, and which intuitively resonates with common sense. They find a sense of security in how it is fundamentally grounded in the Qur'an and explained with some detail through the sunnah.

I believe in an undifferentiated whole - I don't seperate faith, rituals, spirituality or politics. I'm not necessarily arguing that it's illegitimate but while differentiating between different focuses in the past might have helped groups of believers, I don't think it's doing so in our modern western context.

As it ought to be clear by now (I hope), I come from within the Sunni tradition of law and theology and my intellectual commitments are very much to the Sunni approach to revelation. I deeply admire (and adore) the scholars of the past, and it's that deep-seated admiration that compels me to try and emulate what they did and achieved. Merely parroting them isn't doing what they did, that's merely unthinking and unintelligent mimicry, and they'd probably find it quite absurd and negligent that so-called scholars a thousand years in the distant future would mindlessly duplicate things from a very different past (they certainly wouldn't view it as scholarship!).

I appeal to people's reason because (1) that's the God-given faculty by which sensible humans evaluate things as God repeatedly points out in the Qur'an, and (2) it's what I found to be the way of the ancient scholars. Imam al-Shafi'i stated: "Do not accept everything that I have said if it does not resonate with your intellect, where the intellect finds it unacceptable and doesn't regard it to be true, for the intellect is compelled (by its nature) to accept the truth."

We live in an age of confusion and misinformation. Like the political scene, in matters of faith we're told things (or hold to practices and attitudes) that are either untrue or misrepresent the nucleus of the idea. Conversely, what we practice that is correct is articulated or taught in such a shallow way that the profundity and the wisdom of the shari'ah is lost. As a result, people try to fend for themselves going from pillar to post for individual details which leaves them with an incoherent whole that doesn't seamlessly work for the modern age nor helps to face its real challenges. Consequently, they're left with little but cognitive dissonance. In the end, some then leave faith at the back of their minds, some renege on it, and many use religion for social belonging (which then informs their ideas on society and politics) - often in the form of secular ethnic protest or ethno-religious solidarity.

But this isn't what God wanted of us humans, and it certainly isn't as clear, clean or surgical as it ought to be. It's just confusing. In our communal imagination God goes from being an active participant in our lives to an abstract idea at the back of our minds that we opportunistically refer to whenever we feel the need to do so. We become ritualists rather than seeking meaning for our acts of subservience. We position ourselves as Abrahamic no more, but as ethnic anti-colonialists. We aspire to (Muslim) empires rather than the paths of the ancient Prophets. We become fantasists and superstitious to combat materialism and capitalism. "Shariah" becomes a rhetorical term we simply throw out there when we've run out of rational arguments, although the vast majority really have no idea what the shariah is nor what it's about - we simply inherent the rhetoric of others.

And all of this evidently has got us nowhere. In the UK, demographic studies show that in nearly every marker of progression (education, socio-economic status, health etc) Muslims are at the bottom of the pile. And yes, even the way we do faith seems slapdash and erratic. So either the shari'ah is destructive (which of course it isn't), or Muslims are doing something seriously wrong.

It's time for a wake-up call and in my experience Muslim millenials are not only eager for it, they're actively calling for it. Internal political correctness amongst Muslims doesn't seem to be helping so some real talk needs to be the order of the day. If older generations (generation x and older) desire to remain clueless, that's up to them, we seek no argument. But the millenial generation needs to get its house in order and ready to lead for the productive future of British believers and the success of Abraham's creed for future generations.

Meditation Fads and Salah

God, in His infinite knowledge, created humans with particular strengths and weaknesses. He instituted specific core practices that'd keep the human mind, body and spirit in an optimum state. Amongst those things is the Salah, ordained for humanity since the earliest times.

Even over my own short lifetime I've seen a thousand fads and moral panics inconsequently come and go. It is the nature of humans that they move with schizophrenic tendencies from one hype to the next, "man is ever hasty." (17:11)

This is one of the reasons I rarely delve into an academic appraisal for the public on social media. Although it can be tempting to do so and I'm constantly requested for commentary on xyz, the influence of fads are usually fleeting and the engagement meaningless ten minutes later. Moral panics pass as soon as another rears its head. Stringently refuting fads (let alone ideologies) is time consuming and doesn't constructively imbue believers with something meaningful that'll afford them longevity - action informing guidance that'll direct them long in the future (which I'm more interested in). By engaging the latest ideological hype I feel I'd simply be running from pillar to post - the definition of firefighting rather than building. Liberalism, feminism etc all have their shortcomings, but rather than spend the limited time I have educating people about those ideologies I'd rather teach what God says and what operationalising His message might contextually look like. Anti-liberalism/feminism won't get you into paradise, but a meaningful conception of the shariah might (depending on your commitment and soundness of heart). And by knowing what to do, you'll intuitively and reasonably know what to avoid. Two birds, one stone.

But yes, I digress.

Even beyond ideological battles, fads are much the same. Let's take the fad of "mindfulness" and meditation as an example: Gurus and neuroscientists come out of the woodwork to teach us that "The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century." (See article here.)

Yet as with all fads, whilst they might have stumbled upon something pertinent, they always fall short of the complete picture and consequently end up out of vogue unable to produce what they promise. Unlike the author asserts, focusing for a few minutes on a single raisin IS silly, but focusing on God and your relationship with Him for a few minutes at intervals throughout the day is not only intrinsic to your existential purpose and a brilliant cognitive exercise, but also provides mental realignment and an opportunity to constantly reassess your commitments.

In this way, the criticism made in the Guardian article concerning meditation as merely a coping mechanism rather than a force for change is inapplicable to Salah, for Salah "restrains outrageous and unacceptable behaviour. Remembering God is greater..." (29:45)

Salah is not merely a subtle way of coping, it's transformative, encouraging radical action by addressing BOTH the causes of suffering inside us as well as the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. By causing us to repeatedly return to God, we're constantly reapplying a godly lens to the way we see the world and how we'd solve it's problems, regardless of the other spectacles we're having to pick up and put down throughout the day.

The revolutionary power of Salah to transform the individual and society is not merely the product of magical thinking: it is the rooting function that Salah has on the intellect and our emotional state that brings the best out of the believer. As such, one cannot reasonably conclude that God intended for Salah to be the mere utterance of Arabic phonemes and bodily positions (even the meditation gurus have figured consciousness is the essence of such activities). Every atomised aspect is an act for God, and to God. Every individual aspect of Salah is a particular way of engaging God, in the way He wants. "I am God; there is no god but Me. So worship Me and keep up the prayer so that you remember Me." (20:14)

And so, educating people and exploring all of this, for me, is far more productive for cultivating the resilience and meaning humans require than simply refuting the latest meditation fad, which will fade as quickly as people swipe past it on Instagram.

So call people to that faith and follow the straight path as you have been commanded. Do not go by what they desire, but say, ‘I believe in whatever Scripture God has sent down. I am commanded to bring justice between you. God is our Lord and your Lord- to us our deeds and to you yours, so let there be no argument between us and you- God will gather us together, and to Him we shall return.’
Qur'an 42:15

We ask the Most High for istiqamah and strong resolve.

Claiming the “understanding of the salaf”

“Understanding of the salaf” (salaf here meaning early Islamic scholars) is possibly the most misrepresented claim of authority amongst Muslims today, deployed by various groups across the board and usually against one another, from the Deobandis, Salafis and Sufis, to the Shi’ah and even militant Muslim secularists. Just this fact alone tells you that the term is not only used ambiguously, but also rather subjectively.

But beyond this there’s a conceptual issue at hand that’s nearly always overlooked - they speak of an understanding of the salaf but rarely do they (both clerics and laymen) actually draw on the salaf’s actual understanding. Instead they simplistically adopt the (1) contextual conclusions of (2) particular early Muslim scholars.

So there are two important points to explain here:

1. Early Islamic scholars reasoned phenomenally, nothing like the binary and uncouth articulations of many clerics today - and it’s as simple as picking up one of their books and reading it cover to cover to see this. They were highly intelligent and philosophical, and understood the sophisticated nature of operationalising revelation, identifying principles (أصول), operative factors (علل) and contextual variables (قرائن) that would lead them to specific conclusions for specific scenarios. They’d even discuss how these tools would determine their conclusions! But those today who claim to adhere to their “understanding” don’t actually seek to understand matters as they did, in an unschooled fashion they just look at what their concluded statements for an issue were, neglecting why they came to that conclusion for that scenario, what their methods of reasoning were, which operative factors they took into consideration and how they saw it as fitting into the bigger picture of the shariah, all of which serve to enlighten our approach to the issues of today.

But Umar/Ibn Mas’ud/Abu Hanifah/Malik/Ahmad etc said…” is not a complete way of thinking, it’s severely lacking. The question that ought to arise is why they said what they did - what were they speaking to? A response is that “Yes, they said it about that, but THAT is not THIS!

One point that certainly requires further contemplation is the problem with today's “traditional” Islamic studies: they offer a somewhat linear view of the history of fiqh or aqidah as a steady progress from the imams to contemporary manifestations of religious practice, passing over the many problems in transferring assumptions that were largely fashioned in the distant past and applying them today.

2. Early Islamic scholars differed on many issues, and studying those differences ought to be highly enlightening for a mufti - it’s a record of how the godly brought together reason and revelation to conclude what God might want from them.

Where they’d all agree on something, that’d simply be Ijma (juristic consensus) and invoking the “understanding of the salaf” in such cases would be pointless since juristic consensus is far more authoritative.

So when the clerics use the term “understanding of the salaf” they're not actually referring to a pervasive understanding back then, but an opinion of some scholars of the salaf, or one sahabi (prophetic companion), with other scholars seeing the respective issue differently. It’s a dishonest way of evoking the idea of widespread conformity amongst early Muslims in order to misleadingly establish a sectarian version of “orthodoxy”.

And which scholars of the salaf ought to be the focus for precedent differs amongst the groups - there were thousands of early scholars - one group will draw on a particular cohort from the salaf whilst the other has its own cohort. So in reality, whilst they all seem to be claiming the same thing it remains an appeal to authority that isn’t mutual.

[Of course, there are legitimate reasons for invoking the “understanding of the salaf”, an example of which is where a mufti is simply evidencing precedent for an opinion and staving off infantile or unschooled accusations of heresy or it’s like by showing that it was an established opinion from amongst the opinions of the salaf.]

Thoughts on refuting claimants to "traditionalism"

This post is a thread on the problematic ways in which we respond to religious refutations from so called traditionalists. Often it's pointless, and the 'traditionalism' many claim to espouse in our context is simply unschooled rhetoric coming from ethno-cultural anxieties.

  1. The way we construct responses often resorts to playing their game and inevitably fall into the quagmire we seek to free ourselves from. Our responses play the citation game rather than approach the topic from a perspective that explores the topic in a reasoned way. It plays up to the fallacious game and invites inanity.
  2. Such interlocutors neither debate nor explore, but present only that which is argumentative, concentrating on minutiae or picking apart an argument in a way that is irrelevant to the generality of the propositions presented. They resort to ad hominem and attacks which clearly exhibit their sectarian interests. They weaponise citations, imputing into past scholars their own sectarian intent.
  3. Their ‘brand’ of doing religion is the worst and most regressive: they butcher the efforts of the classical scholars, ignore what they were trying to do (or make up an alternative narrative) and consistently present us with a fiqh that leads nowhere or makes things worse, impedes the strengthening of the believers or the cause of God, and any other optimum outcome.
  4. It’s as if they are determined to hold the progressions of the believers back, often relying on explanations that mirror irrational Christian medieval doctrines that God has never advocated in the Qur’an. They are completely insular from wider society and even other Muslims, sitting in sectarian mosques, madrasahs and Islamic universities with absolutely no cognisance of what actually exists in societies around the world.
  5. The reality they relate to is some fairytale they have constructed in their minds, the complexities of modern post-industrial living is as alien to them as they are to us. In fact this is no religious battle but a cultural one, and their use of disparaging terms such as modernists etc isn’t really to do with one era or epoch against another (past vs present), but actually about regions - their problem tends to be that we’re not being Asian (or Eastern) enough either in our looks, practice or understanding.
  6. It’s a showcase of the worst of what knowledge can be used for; bickering, puerile name calling, and tearing down any attempt to actually operationalise what God has revealed. They want to force Muslims into disengaging with the world around them, often to legitimise their own disengagement which comes from their lack of understanding the shariah and consequent struggle to implement and apply revelation to today.
  7. It can be quite futile in engaging in a scholarly discussion because the mufti/maulana/shaikh (whatever mantle he claims to occupy) clearly does not know how to engage like one, nor do they seem to know what scholarship actually is. And our mere citing against their citations is not only pointless, its boring and circular, and a game we could play forever. This method to fiqh never resolves anything (I did it for years and learned my lesson) and only exists as a rhetorical tool for one-upmanship, something (may God guide us) we should have little interest in.