“On the Day you shall see the believing men and the believing women their light running forward before them and by their right hands. [Their greeting will be]: ‘Glad tidings for you this Day! Gardens under which rivers flow (Paradise), to dwell therein forever! Truly, this is the great success!’”
—Qur’an (Al-Hadeed, 57:12)
A few years ago, I was in a conversation with a woman, explaining to her my desire to strive my level best to be a sincere, practicing Muslim without attaching myself to any sect or specific religious group. I told her that I wanted to be Muslim as defined by Allah and taught by His last messenger, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
“You’re living in a fantasy!” she declared. “You have to be part of a religious sect or group. Everyone does,” she said. “You can’t be ‘just Muslim.’ It’s just not possible.”
I then asked her, “According to you, or Allah?”
She had no response.
Spiritual Authenticity vs. Religious Labels
When I have conversations like the one I had with the Muslim woman who believed I had to attach myself to a specific religious group, I am reminded of why religious labels make me uncomfortable.
I realize that so long as our spiritual life aligns with the guidance of the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, it is not sinful to attach a religious label to oneself, or to even affiliate with a specific religious group. For this reason, I do not take issue with anyone preferring a religious label or group for themselves. I just do not prefer this for myself.
I know my discomfort is partly due to how I was raised and partly due to the spiritual lessons I learned from my studies of Qur’an and prophetic teachings, and from my personal life experience.
My father and mother grew up Christian, and after spending some years in the Nation of Islam, they converted to orthodox Islam the year I was born. Growing up, I remember how they would always tell us, “If someone asks you what type of Muslim you are, tell them you’re just Muslim.” They would explain that technically speaking, our family would be defined as ‘Sunni Muslim.’ However, since this term simply meant following the life and example of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), it was sufficient to say you’re just Muslim, because no one could be Muslim without following the life and example of the Prophet.
These early spiritual lessons taught me to focus on the truth of who I was in front of Allah instead of the “truth” of who I was in front of people. These early lessons were further instilled in my heart after I spent over fifteen years studying the Qur’an and prophetic teachings in the United States, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
Naturally, these studies revealed that there are indeed different types of Muslims, some whose beliefs and practice aligned with the Qur’an and prophetic teachings and others whose did not. However, every Qur’anic and prophetic lesson regarding this reality pointed right back to what I’d been taught as a child: Focus on how Allah defines you, not how people define you.
My personal life experience further instilled in me the spiritual urgency of centering your religious beliefs and practice around what Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) have defined as Islam and right guidance, instead of what your preferred label or group defined as Islam and right guidance.
Throughout my life I’ve met and become closely acquainted with Muslims who identified as nearly every religious label out there today: Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi, progressive, secular, feminist, etc. And for each and every one of these Muslims, their religious label served one of two purposes: Either the religious label dictated how they defined and lived Islam, or Islam dictated how they defined and lived the label.
In most cases, it was the former: The label dictated their beliefs and practice, irrespective of what Allah or His Messenger actually taught.
And this scared me—and it continues to till today, hence this reflection I wrote in my personal journal as a reminder to myself and my soul: Drop the label. Drop the prefix. Who are you to ALLAH?
Our Soul’s First Responsibility Is To Allah
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And verily, this is My Straight Path, so follow it. And follow not [other] paths, for they will separate you away from His path. This He has ordained for you that you may attain taqwaa (piety and God-consciousness)” (Al-An’aam, 6:153).
The famous Companion Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said that one day the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) drew a line in the sand with his hand and said, “This is the straight path of Allah.” Then the Prophet drew lines to the right and left [of this line], and he said, “These are other paths, and there is no path among them but that a devil is upon it calling to its way.” Then the Prophet recited the ayah [from Al-An’aam, 6:153], “Verily, this is the straight path, so follow it and do not follow other ways” (Musnad Aḥmad 4423, sahih by Ahmad Shakir).
Furthermore, Mu’aawiyah ibn Abi Sufyaan (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) stood among us and said, ‘Those who came before you of the People of the Book split into seventy-two sects, and this ummah will split into seventy-three: seventy-two [will be] in Hell and one in Paradise, and that is the jamaa’ah (main body of Muslims)” (Abu Dawood 4597 and others; sahih by al-Haakim and Ibn Taymiyah).
As we strive to be amongst the “main body of Muslims” whose Islamic spirituality and practice align with the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, we need to focus more on learning actual spiritual truth and falsehood, as opposed to finding safety in alluring religious labels and groups. In doing this, we need to differentiate between religious sects as defined by Allah and His Messenger, and religious sects as defined by people. They are not one and the same.
Humans can and certainly will adopt religious labels and descriptions that define their specific label or group as being rightly guided, or as being the only ones embracing “traditional” Islamic spirituality. However, no matter how sincere these claims are (amongst both scholars and worshippers), this claim in itself does not automatically mean that this group or person is rightly guided or living authentic Islamic spirituality.
Every Group Has Truth In It
In realizing how easy it is to fall into spiritual self-deception with regards to our manmade religious labels and groups, I wrote this reminder to myself and my fellow sisters and brothers in faith:
If you find yourself defending (or criticizing) something based on the group you are part of (or not part of), be careful. Spiritual truth and falsehood are not defined by labels and groups. They are defined by the Book of Allah and the teachings of His Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
No group has a monopoly on guidance, and no group has a monopoly on misguidance. If a group is within the fold of Islam, they will inevitably get some things right (otherwise, they couldn’t be counted as Muslim). And if a group is within the fold of humanity (i.e. they haven’t ascended to an angelic, non-human status), they will inevitably get some things wrong, as this is what it means to be human.
So what is upon us is to know our deen, no matter where we are learning it and whom we are learning it from. Beautiful explanations of forbidden things don’t make those things okay, and offensive labeling of those who uphold the Sunnah don’t make these people wrong.
Yes, Islam recognizes the existence of guidance and misguidance, as well as Sunnah and bid’ah (sinful religious innovation). And yes, the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, taught us about the group of believers who will remain upon the truth until the Last Day—and about those who will break up into sects.
But here’s the thing: Those who are upon the truth have certain beliefs and characteristics that we can strive toward. However, whether or not we are ultimately counted amongst them remains a matter of the unseen, and thus known only to Allah.
In truth, even as we strive upon this noble spiritual path, sometimes we’ll get things right; other times we’ll get things wrong.
So stay vigilant, and guard your soul from harm, no matter how content and rightly guided you feel in your favored religious group—or in your religious practices that you assume are harmless, beneficial, or good.
Islam Is Perfect and Complete
As we strive upon spiritual authenticity and seek the pleasure of Allah during our time in this world, here is something to remember: Islam is holistic and balanced, and it nourishes the whole person, not just parts of who we are.
When humans fixate on certain spiritual needs to the exclusion of others, we become imbalanced and spiritually fractured or broken. This “brokenness” then chips away at our personal spiritual practice, resulting in deep spiritual wounding and religious misguidance, which sometimes amounts to kufr (disbelief). Furthermore, this brokenness ultimately chips away at our collective spiritual practice, as we share our fractured and broken spirituality with the world. In this way, religious sects are born, even if unintentionally.
The Results of Fractured Spirituality
The more we invest in our fractured spirituality, the more attached our hearts become to it, and the more defensive we become of our imbalanced, broken way of life. Because fractured spirituality is rooted in actual spiritual truth (albeit partial), it becomes both easy and self-serving to fixate on the merits of the single spiritual truth that we actually live.
In this state, if we are called to authentic Islamic spirituality, which upholds holistic spiritual truth as opposed to merely partial spiritual truth, we justify and deepen our spiritual brokenness by focusing on the brokenness of others, as well as on the merits of our singular spiritual practice. In this, we are often able to correctly identity the faults and misguidance of other Muslim groups and sects, while being blind to our own.
As a result, in our fractured state, we feel spiritually healthy and religiously superior to other Muslims. It is this feeling of self-contentment and pride that incites us to rejoice in the “fractured Islam” of our desired Muslim group or sect. Of this, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “…And be not of those who associate partners with Allah, of those who split up their religion and become sects, and followed their vain desires, each sect rejoicing in that which is with itself” (Ar-Room, 30:31-32).
This Is Bigger Than Us vs. Them
In my blog, “Why I Write What I Write,” I discuss the spiritual phenomenon of fractured spirituality in comparison to holistic Islam:
Islam is based on definite concepts about Allah, proper belief, and authentic worship. However, in today’s world, no physical Muslim group encompasses all that authentic spirituality entails.
Some [groups] have correctly identified Islam’s core beliefs but are tragically disconnected from the soul-enriching experience that defines Islam as a lived experience. Others have correctly identified the need for soul-enriching spirituality but are tragically disconnected from the foundational concepts of Islam itself. Some are so fixated on identifying with the “authentic” Muslim label that they have lost sight of what authentic Islam is supposed to actually mean. Others are so fixated on what authentic Islam is supposed to mean that they spend their entire lives sifting through books and attending classes, searching for the path to Paradise on the printed page or on the carpet or chair in a scholar’s lecture.
In practical reality, this translates into one Muslim group, for example, upholding the authentic spiritual need of constant dhikr (remembrance of Allah), tazkiyyatunnafs (purification of the soul), and respect for the Islamic guidance of scholars and spiritual teachers. Yet they abandon the soul’s need for correct foundational beliefs about Allah, tazkiyyah, and Islamic practice itself. Consequently, they often overpraise or blindly follow their favored scholar or spiritual teacher until they fall into bid’ah and/or shirk (associating divinity to other than Allah), wherein the teachings of a sheikh take precedence over the teachings of Allah and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
Meanwhile, another Muslim group upholds the authentic spiritual need of having correct foundational beliefs about Allah, tazkiyyah, and Islamic practice. Yet they abandon the soul’s need for constant dhikr, for heart-softening spirituality, or for respecting truthful scholars and spiritual teachers. Consequently, the beautiful, soul-nourishing “spirit of Islam” is lost in their quest for truthful Islamic beliefs sans nourishing Islamic spirituality. In this state of fractured religiosity, their practice of Islam lacks both self-compassion and compassion for others. Thus, their lives are filled with arrogant self-importance and cruel fault-seeking of fellow Muslims. Meanwhile, they genuinely imagine that they are the only Muslims living upon the right path on earth.
The spiritual solution for both of these groups is to attain authentic Islamic knowledge and thus recognize their fractured spirituality, which incites them to fixate on very specific spiritual needs to the exclusion of others. In this space of spiritual self-honesty, they can then (bi’idhnillaah) embrace the entire deen of Islam—i.e. holistic spirituality—instead of only those parts of Islamic spirituality favored by their preferred group or sect.
The ‘Fantasy’ We All Must Live
“Oh, so you’re part of the ‘I’m not part of any group’ Muslim group!” a man once mocked me after I explained my desire to identify with Allah’s definition of Islam instead of any particular Muslim group or sect. Like the woman who’d claimed that my desire to be “just Muslim” was a fantasy, this man was unable to conceive of a spiritual reality beyond his human perception and manmade religious labels.
Furthermore, he, like the woman, had associated Islam with manmade groups for so long that he’d forgotten that being Muslim was only about you and Allah.
As I listened to his sarcastic mockery of my desire to do only what Allah required of me, my heart was filled with both sadness and conviction. I was saddened by his ignorance and what it implied, but I was also inspired with a deeper conviction to strive upon spiritual truth as defined by Allah.
I did not want to turn out like this man or the woman I’d met previously—unable to understand the human’s spiritual responsibility to Allah outside the context of manmade religious labels and groups.
Yes, I fully understood that humans would always categorize me (and every other Muslim) into some group or another, thereby placing a host of labels next to my name—some truthful, some not. But none of that changed the fact that I would be standing before Allah alone on the Day of Judgment. On this momentous Day, I would have to answer for how well (or poorly) I fulfilled my spiritual responsibility in this world, independent of any group and label.
On that Day, the only group or label that would ultimately matter is the one defined as “Islam” by Allah. Therefore, I couldn’t afford to be concerned with any description of me in this world—except what was written next to my name in front of Allah.
If this focus meant that I would be living a “fantasy” in this world, as the woman claimed, then I fully embraced that “fantasy.”
Because if being a true Muslim as defined by Allah is actually a “fantasy,” then it is a “fantasy” that our Lord has obligated upon every believing soul.
O Allah! Help us see truth as truth, and help us follow it; and help us see falsehood as falsehood, and protect us from it! And O Allah! Remove from us the diseases of the heart that make us love what You do not love and that attach our hearts to that which harms our souls, even if we imagine we are pleasing You or honoring Your Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, through it. And O Al-Ghafoor, forgive our sins and take our souls as believers who are rightly guided and living upon the Sunnah of the Prophet—holistically.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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