Stop Recruiting Members and Start Saving Souls

The following is an excerpt from Prejudice Bones in My Body: Essays on Muslim Racism, Bigotry and Spiritual Abuse by Umm Zakiyyah:

When I feared I could no longer be Muslim, I just couldn’t take it anymore, all the pressure from every side. It was unrelenting, and it eventually became a part of me. I felt suffocated in my own existence. I tried to be safe, staying away from every “doubtful” matter possible. But it was never enough. I was drowning in a religious environment rooted in an ideology that I now think of as the “fiqh of what if?”

On a personal level, this “fiqh of what if?” is the endless doubting and questioning oneself while fearing (or assuming) the worst about nearly everything you do, particularly when you’re committing no apparent sin. What if it is wrong to visit my non-Muslim family during the holidays? What if it is wrong to exercise to music? What if it is wrong to attend a “mixed” university? What if Allah is displeased with me for wanting to work outside the home? What if it is obligatory to cover your face? What if I am a bad Muslim for posting a picture online?

So as to not be misunderstood, this doubting and questioning oneself is completely different from being sincerely convinced one way or the other regarding these controversial issues. In fact, it is the very opposite of being sincerely convinced. It’s beating yourself up because you’re not. It’s like being overwhelmed with waswas (the whispers of Shaytaan) without feeling even the inclination to seek refuge in Allah, precisely because you believe the incessant self-doubt is itself a reflection of your mindfulness of Allah. However, this “piety” is making you stressed because deep inside, you’re not convinced that this level of strictness is required (or even recommended) by Allah.

On an intellectual (i.e. religious justification) level, this “fiqh of what if?” is reflected in three beliefs regarding your practice of Islam:

  1. You have no right to decisions related to your own life, mind, and soul. This right belongs solely to those in authority over you, or those with more knowledge than you.
  2. Any issue you are ignorant about must be automatically cast into the category of “doubtful matters” in Islam, and thus must be left alone “for the sake of Allah.”
  3. Following the strictest scholarly point of view is always the safest point of view (i.e. religious strictness is synonymous with “staying away from doubtful matters.”).

I explain more about my personal experience with this concept in the blog “Walking Guilty: The Weight of Doubt and Sin.”

Religious Sincerity vs. “Following the Correct View”

The truth is, from an Islamic perspective, outside the foundational and clear matters about which our Creator permitted no differing views, there really is no such thing as clear “right” and “wrong” that can be applied to every believer in every circumstance. Even a rudimentary study of the Qur’an and prophetic teachings reveals that Islam inherently allows for personal circumstances, varying needs, and yes, diverse cultures and customs.

It is well-known amongst those who have studied even basic principles of fiqh that outside matters in which religious disagreement is not permitted, religious matters are not as black-and-white as many Muslims will have you believe. This is so much so that even scholars who strongly favor one point of view sometimes advocate for the exact opposite view depending upon the circumstances of the person actually living it. Therefore, debates regarding which point of view is correct, especially amongst laypeople, really have little place in environments rooted in encouraging believers to strive their level best to please Allah.

Naturally, a sincere believer would never trivialize the necessity of following what he or she believes is the correct point of view on any religious matter. Each of us has an individual responsibility in front of Allah to strive our level best to do what is most correct and pleasing to Him, even when there are varying permissible points of view. After all, we all have to stand before Him on the Day of Judgment and answer for our time on earth, and defending our actions by pointing to a “permissible” point of view is not going to save us in front of the One who knows the innermost secrets of our hearts.

Nevertheless, an essential part of authentic religious knowledge is not only respecting Allah’s clear limits, but knowing and respecting your own. In other words, the believer who knows the difference between Allah’s judgment and human judgment does not assume full knowledge of what another believer should and should not do—no matter how convinced we are that our point of view is correct.

In other words, in our dealings with other believers, our limit is pointing them to Allah’s clear limits. Outside of that, our greatest responsibility lies in encouraging religious sincerity, not in insisting that others follow every point of view that we do.

Yes, human disagreement is natural, healthy, and even necessary. However, there’s a distinct difference between sharing our point of view because we sincerely believe it will benefit someone, and implying that the person is a bad Muslim or bound for Hell if they don’t think or behave as we insist they should.

Censorship of the Soul

In the community I was part of as a youth, spiritual salvation was not a personal experience. It was a community experience, and it wasn’t an optional one. Either you showed complete allegiance to the group’s leader and community’s religious ideology, or you were punished severely. Even before I was mature enough to understand what any of this meant personally or spiritually, I was told who my religious leader was, what I was to think about myself in relation to him, and what I was to think about Muslims who didn’t follow him.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t fully process the group’s rules until I had broken them. As a recompense for my “affront” (as one community member called it), I was publicly humiliated, warned against, slandered and ostracized before I even comprehended exactly what I’d done wrong. At the time, my crimes were wearing a full khimaar (displaying only my face and hands), not listening to music, and no longer celebrating non-Muslim holidays.

Apparently, these were all signs of religious extremism, so they had to “save my soul.” Thus, like the social terrorists who inflict hate crimes on Muslims under the guise of rooting out terrorism in the world, my fellow brothers and sisters in Islam subjected me to verbal, spiritual, and emotional abuse with the “honorable” goal of rooting out misguidance in me.

And due to my believing that I had no right to my own life, mind, and soul (the first and most fundamental religious belief of the “fiqh of what if?” ideology), I continuously subjected myself to their torment because I genuinely believed that Allah had given them authority over me. It took some time before I realized that they, like many tyrants in history, were merely trying to censor my soul.

The “Crime” of Obeying Allah

You’d think something as counterintuitive (and outrageous) as Muslims punishing a believer for obeying Allah would be an anomaly in Muslim communities. However, my experience in various religious communities (in America and abroad) suggests the opposite: You’re hard-pressed to find a community that does not seek to micromanage a believer’s relationship with Allah. In most Muslim communities, the Qur’anic teaching “Let there be no compulsion in religion” applies to only non-Muslims. It is only those who disbelieve in Islam who have the right to diverging religious beliefs, while still enjoying Muslims’ unwavering kindness, tolerance, and support (socially and financially)—even in projects and ideologies that are clearly sinful.

It is only when a person shows evidence of emaan (sincere belief in Islam) that we feel a religious obligation to withhold kindness, tolerance and support (socially and financially) if they hold as much as a different point of view on permissible disagreement.

Remarkably, even the most religious amongst us are able to effortlessly enter into mutually beneficial social and business transactions with those who do not even share our belief in Allah, yet we are utterly incapable of befriending or even working with fellow believers who have a different point of view on issues like music and women’s dress.

After going through my own spiritual crisis and realizing how these contradictory ideologies contributed to this personal tragedy, I fear standing before Allah on the Day of Judgment with this blatant hypocrisy on my record. Now, I do things differently. If anyone deserves my agreement to continuously overlook what I disagree with while still finding a way to work together (socially and financially), it is my brothers and sisters in Islam.

Today, I have no attention span for someone telling me I shouldn’t attend a Muslim event or enter into a business project with a believer just because the participants or organizers are not carbon copies of myself. Yes, I still seek Allah’s protection from participating in anything that I genuinely believe will harm my soul (irrespective whether the project is facilitated by Muslims or non-Muslims). However, I no longer refer to the “fiqh of what if?” to make that determination.

Spiritual Salvation vs. Group Membership

Personally, I believe the solution to many of these problems is simple: focus on cultivating religious environments in which Muslims are encouraged to take personal responsibility for saving their souls, instead of religious environments in which they are taught that someone else can do it on their behalf.

After Allah alone, no one can save anyone’s soul except the person himself. In fact, no one is charged with that responsibility except the one who will stand alone in front of Allah and answer for it.

Therefore, outside matters that Allah himself has forbidden diverging interpretations, we must stop viewing diverse points of views and religious practices as affronts and challenges to authority and authentic Islamic practice. And we must stop defining “building a religious community” as recruiting as many members as possible to commit to our personal ideology, leader, or group.

READ THE BOOK: Prejudice Bones in My Body: Essays on Muslim Racism, Bigotry and Spiritual Abuse

Listen to PODCAST: Label Deep, Season 1 Prejudice Bones in My Body 


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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