labels and sects.
leave off your battle calls
and self praise
and your carefully crafted fiqhi art
and when I ask
who you are
to be introduced
to your heart.
If you’re disheartened with the spiritual state of Muslims and would like to restore some form of meaningful unity and authentic practice, it’s important that you understand three faces of the Muslim identity today:
- the Muslim brand
- the Muslim ethnicity
- the Muslim faith
Group One: The Muslim Brand
The first Muslim identity is heavily favored by the media and serves only the purpose of promoting a very specific soulless extremist “brand” of Islam. The foundational image of this brand is the Muslim “boogeyman” who wishes to harm innocent people, is intolerant of different faiths and lifestyles, and wants to force Islam down everyone’s throats.
By far, this is the most powerful and important identity for those who are pushing it. And it’s not only because of the widespread misinformation and harmful stereotypes that feed into “Islamophobia” and anti-Muslim bigotry, but also—and most importantly—because it replaces God Himself as the *focus* of Muslims themselves when defining Islamic spiritual practice, interacting with other Muslims, and sharing the faith with others.
Or to put it in the words of Hamza Abdullah, former NFL player and author of Come Follow Me, who recently tweeted: “If Muslims spent the same time, money, and resources into Mental Health, proper education of the Deen, and community building as we do in ‘combatting Islamophobia,’ our Ummah would be flourishing. Instead we’re playing on their side of the field. Punt that sh*t and build.”
Group Two: The Muslim Ethnicity
The second Muslim identity is favored by those who are born into Muslim families, who come from predominantly Muslim countries, or who have ostensibly “converted” to Islam, but have no meaningful connection to the faith as an authentic spiritual practice. Nevertheless, they are eager and happy spokespeople and “PR reps” for the Muslim identity in America and worldwide—with their only goal being that of achieving acceptance by non-Muslim society.
These are the Muslims who tirelessly tout the “We’re just like you!” mantra, even with the expense of abandoning foundational principles and bringing harm to other Muslims. This, because their Muslim identity is merely skin deep: “I am Muslim because I was born into a Muslim family or culture” or “…because I can freely claim some connection to others with the same ‘Muslim family’ name.” In this way, their Muslim identity is more a pseudo “ethnicity” than a bond of faith.
Naturally, the foundational ideology of those with only the Muslim “ethnicity”—yet are self-appointed PR reps for us all—is not the Islamic faith itself, but the religion of “combatting Islamophobia.” And those who ascribe to this empty religious identity have only one pillar of faith: “Nothing has the right to be worshipped except Western acceptance alone.”
Group Three: The Muslim Faith
The third Muslim identity is that of those who sincerely believe in “Laa ilaaha illaa Allah” as defined by the Creator and His Messenger, sallaallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
This group’s primary focus is meeting Allah with emaan in their hearts and subsequently entering Paradise in the Hereafter. They understand that this spiritual path comes with continuous social suffering in this world, as they are perpetual strangers amongst both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The foundational ideology of this group’s identity can be summarized in a single sentence: Saving your soul is more valuable than any worldly acceptance.
While the “Muslim faith” group is by far the smallest and least powerful (worldly speaking) of the three Muslim identities, they are the only group with whom any meaningful unity and spiritual support can be built during these difficult times.
But do not misunderstand. This group is not filled with sinless, perfect believers. It is not even comprised of Muslims who love and respect each other, and this group most certainly is not united amongst themselves.
Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, they are not completely unaffected by the two other identities. In fact, for those of us who are in this third category, one of our biggest challenges in striving for meaningful unity and community building is convincing fellow believers in this group of two things:
- Unity is not in achieved through recruiting more and more members to your favored group, sheikh, or fiqh view. It is achieved through loving and supporting each other despite our inevitable differences.
- Worldly success is not achieved through gaining acceptance or “solidarity” in the spheres (public and private) dominated by the first two groups, but through building our own spheres independent of them.
‘But We Need To Work With Others!’
When I speak of building “independent spheres,” I don’t mean that we abandon working with others in an effort to build beneficial alliances with those of different faiths and worldviews. I simply mean that we must establish this independence without sacrificing the very identity we’re trying to protect.
Or to put it in the words of Khalil Ismail, a Muslim artist and community activist who said recently during a panel discussion: We need to take a lesson from the LGBTQ groups. They have garnered widespread support and alliances from the most unlikely places, and not through hiding who they really are and watering down what they believe in order to appear “just like” the groups they are working with—but through defining themselves by the *very thing* that others disagree with—that which represents the heart of their lifestyle itself. And then they made *this* their inflexible identity, and the condition that others must respect in order to be considered “true allies” to their cause.
They have been so successful with this, in fact, that droves of Muslims themselves are running from authentic Islamic spirituality to be labeled and celebrated as their allies. In this, many of us sacrifice the Muslim faith identity (as defined above) in hopes of being part of the media-celebrated “Muslim brand.”
Embrace Your ‘Muslim Faith’ Identity
We’ve obviously missed the point—and we’ve also missed the lesson in our own eagerness to join others’ causes:
Even in the realm of worldly success, you gain neither respect nor meaningful allies through apologizing for who you really are, watering down what you really believe, or eagerly pandering to others while saying, “We’re just like you!”
And you certainly don’t gain success by making your entire identity rooted in playing on someone else’s side of the field. If you do pour all your resources into building only the defensive, you ultimately exist only to respond to offenses thrown at you. Thus, even if you are successful, you have not a single win to your name.
Or to put it another way: Whether you are striving for worldly or Hereafter success, you need authenticity, integrity and self-respect. And you find these in embracing your own identity, not in hanging desperately to the coattail of someone else’s.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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