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We’re Not Muslim Just Because We Say We Are

“I’m really worried about my brother,” the Arab woman said. “He’s Muslim, but he doesn’t believe in God anymore.”

Listening to her, I really didn’t know what to say. Before this moment, I’d had occasional encounters with people who labeled themselves “Muslim” but did not pray or fast or fulfill any other foundational requirements of being Muslim. However, it was rare that I met someone who had given up all belief in God and still identified as Muslim—or someone who viewed an atheist as Muslim.

However, I reminded myself that in many Muslim majority countries, being Muslim was more an ethnicity than a spiritual lifestyle. Thus, if your parents are Muslim, then you’re automatically viewed as Muslim—even if you have no meaningful connection to Islam in your heart or lifestyle.

This was a strange concept to me—at least until I realized my own culture’s version of this same type of thinking. In this, if I were completely honest, a similar mentality existed amongst American Muslims with regards to the Muslim identity.

In American Muslim culture, there were two prevalent ideologies regarding whom we counted as Muslim: Firstly, anyone who claimed to be Muslim was automatically Muslim, even if they maintained beliefs that contradicted Islam. This ideology was accepted mainly under our “Don’t judge” approach to dealing with others. It was also accepted due to our sincere desire to stay away from takfir (claiming that a professed Muslim is a disbeliever).

Secondly, anyone who we (as American Muslims) felt was a good person could be labeled as a “Muslim in their heart” or a “true believer,” especially if they identified as Jewish or Christian. We justified this based on the Qur’anic verses about the earliest Jews and Christians [who were actually Muslims who believed in Allah and the Last Day—a belief that necessitates avoiding shirk (assigning divinity to other than Allah) while affirming belief in all prophets without exception].

The harmful side effect of all of this was that in much of my own American Muslim culture, the terms Islam and Muslim had lost any real spiritual or practical meaning. Thus, being Muslim was gradually becoming disconnected from protecting our souls from harm in preparation for the Day of Judgment. Everything was becoming about how we should treat others instead of how we should treat our own souls.

So while in many circles in the “Muslim world,” Islam had become a meaningless ethnicity completely disconnected from spiritual responsibility in front of Allah, in many circles in American culture, Islam had become a meaningless identity completely disconnected from spiritual responsibility in front of Allah.

And one of the areas that this was becoming painfully obvious was in our culture’s growing acceptance of open sin. This deviation from Islamic spirituality was becoming culturally acceptable under the “Don’t judge!” banner that we’d previously used to stretch the definition of being Muslim itself. After we as American Muslims accepted open sin as a definition of showing compassion and suspending judgment, we then moved on to requiring the celebration of open sin as a testimony of “spiritual goodness” itself.

As a result, we went even farther than those from Muslim-majority countries who accepted the concept of a “Muslim atheist.” At least their culture still viewed someone as a “good Muslim” if they lived a moral life and strived to stay away from sin. But in American Muslim culture, living a moral life and staying away from sin was becoming a sign of not only being a “bad Muslim,” but a sign of not being a true Muslim at all.

And perhaps nothing makes this cultural shift more obvious than the article that the comedian Hasan Minhaj co-authored, saying that it is not sufficient for American Muslims to merely tolerate gay marriage; they must openly celebrate and support it also—if they are truly Muslims who believe in a Merciful God.

Sacrifice Your Soul To Celebrate Sin, We’re Told

A few years ago, the famous comedian Hasan Minhaj along with Reza Aslan, published what they called “An Open Letter To American Muslims On Same-Sex Marriage” (via religiondispatches.org). In this letter, they told American Muslims that it’s not sufficient to merely “tolerate” gay marriage, but we have to openly celebrate it also. Here is an excerpt from this letter:

To Our Fellow American Muslims,

Hey there. It’s two of your brothers. We’re writing to you about the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states…

[M]any of you are scandalized by the ruling…, and many more of you are equally perturbed but have chosen to keep it to yourself. With all the rainbow-flag waving and self-congratulatory pats on the back this country is giving itself right now, you don’t need another reason for Americans to dislike you.

…So you’re staying quiet. You may not like the Supreme Court’s decision but you’re willing to tolerate it.

We understand where you’re coming from…. But now that same-sex marriage is legal in America, it’s shaking up your faith. You’re afraid of the future and what this could mean for your kids. You recognize the growing acceptance of gay rights, but personally you just can’t bring yourself to embrace the shift…

But here’s the thing. When you are an underrepresented minority—whether Muslim, African American, female, etc.—democracy is an all or nothing business. You fight for everyone’s rights (and the operative word here is “fight”), or you get none for yourself. Democracy isn’t a buffet. You can’t pick and choose which civil liberties apply to which people. Either we are all equal, or the whole thing is just a sham…

That’s why it’s not enough to simply “tolerate” the Supreme Court decision… We have to embrace. We have to fight for the right of others to live their lives as freely as we want to live ours.

Bottom line is this: standing up for marginalized communities, even when you disagree with them, is not just the right thing to do, it’s the Muslim thing to do. Remember that whole God is merciful and compassionate thing? That extends to all people, not just those who are straight.

Celebrate. Don’t tolerate. Love really does win.

Yours Truly,

Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj

(Read full letter here: religiondispatches.org/an-open-letter-to-american-muslims-on-same-sex-marriage).

Muslims Should Have No Religious Freedom?

In other words, beneath all the emotional manipulation, spiritual blackmail, and political dishonesty of this “open letter,” Hasan Minhaj and Reza Aslan are saying this: If you’re Muslim in America, religious freedom is not your right, and neither is peaceful protest or peaceful resistance to something that you know is wrong or just personally disagree with (which happens to be a constitutional right).

Moreover, they are saying that it is only White Christian men (i.e. the political “majority”) who have the right to have their own personal spiritual beliefs that differ from anyone else. Therefore, if you’ve suffered discrimination in any form as a minority, your right to being a full human being with your own independent thoughts and beliefs is no longer allowed for you—especially if you’re Muslim. (Notice that this letter wasn’t addressed to secularists, atheists, Jews and Christians, or even gays and lesbians, seeking to manipulate them into fully celebrating Muslims practicing their faith in America—even when they disagreed with Islamic beliefs).

On a socio-political level, this letter is an open call for the dismantling of everything the United States claims to stand for with regards to personal and religious freedom (particularly as it relates to Muslims), and to put in its place a tyrannical government that criminalizes all independent thought and beliefs except for those of White Christian men.

But more seriously, on a spiritual level, this letter completely replaces the conditions of accepting Islam with the conditions of accepting democracy according to these men’s own concocted, fabricated standards (which are rooted in a religious inferiority complex and self-hate that is too deep to discuss in a single blog), hence their saying: “…democracy is an all or nothing business… Democracy isn’t a buffet. You can’t pick and choose which civil liberties apply to which people…” [Except when it comes to Muslims, of course. Because Muslims don’t matter, and Muslims don’t have civil liberties according to these two men. But I digress…]

Islam Is a Buffet Menu?

Reading the part of the letter that discussed the (fabricated) condition of democracy being an “all or nothing business” reminded me of a journal entry I wrote some time ago, along with the reflections that follow: Religion is not a restaurant menu, where you pick what you like and leave the rest, and where even what you pick can be altered to your tastes.

Have you ever wondered why most people will die as disbelievers—even as their hearts, at some point in their lives, recognized the truth of Islam?

Look inside yourself.

You’ll find the answer there.

Look at how the desires of your heart alter your own beliefs about Allah and His deen.

Look at how desperately you cling to the temporary comforts and tests Allah has given you in this world. Look at how you love your wealth, spouses, or children so much that you are willing to ignore the clear guidance of Allah—especially when an imam or sheikh tells you something you want to hear that contradicts this guidance.

But no worries, right? Because we view Allah and His deen like a restaurant menu. We can take what we like, leave what we don’t, and even what we do choose can be altered to our tastes.

So there’s no need to wonder why so many of humankind die upon disbelief after knowing the truth of Islam.

By Allah, many of us who profess Islam are already on the path to joining them.

No, many of us haven’t reached that point yet because we’re walking that fine line between “It’s just my opinion” and changing the rules of Allah. But be careful, dear soul, because the path of the believer is not walked on thin, shaky lines. It’s walked on solid ground—a spiritual grounding that stays far away from trespassing the boundaries of Allah.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “The only statement of the [true] believers when they are called to Allah and His Messenger to judge between them is that they say, ‘We hear and we obey.’ And those are the successful” (An-Noor, 24:51).

So it is Islam that in fact is not a buffet menu. As for democracy and any other Western “liberty,” these things are by definition a “buffet menu,” where I as an American in fact do have the God-given right to choose my own personal beliefs and lifestyle and disagree with whomever and whatever I want—and even actively and peacefully oppose them—no matter who dislikes it. This is the very essence of having political, personal, and religious freedoms in this country.

But even if the United States were to morph into the anti-Islam tyranny that Hasan Minhaj and Reza Aslan are calling for, a true believer would be more willing to give up their citizenship in this “democratic tyranny” than to give up their emaan (Islamic faith) in front of Allah.

Not Every Muslim Accepts Islam

Here’s something we need to realize as Muslims living in these “modern times”: Not everyone who calls himself or herself Muslim accepts Islam. In fact, not every professed Muslim even believes in Islam.

Read that again and reflect on it deeply.

It took me a long time to understand this reality, especially in our “modern times.”

Naturally, there are levels to this non-acceptance of Islam. On one level, a professed Muslim retains his or her emaan (Islamic faith) but does not accept part of divine guidance due to ignorance or sinfulness. On another (more serious) level, a professed Muslim falls into kufr (disbelief) while still calling himself or herself Muslim, even while genuinely imagining they have emaan (true faith) in their hearts.

The latter group will enter the grave and beg to come back to this earth because they’ll realize that they are in fact disbelievers (and thus Paradise is forever forbidden to them). May Allah protect us from this.

I mention this not so that we can reflect on the misguidance of others, but so we can reflect on the potential misguidance of ourselves.

So let’s remember: We’re not Muslim just because we claim to be. There are conditions required by our Creator that must be fulfilled to be counted as Muslim in this world and in the Hereafter. Moreover, even after we fulfill these minimum requirements, there are beliefs, speech, and actions that must be maintained daily to remain Muslim until our death.

In this, just as there are beliefs, speech, and actions that cause us to enter into Islam; there are beliefs, speech, and actions that cause us to leave the fold of Islam (may Allah protect us). Too often we forget this. Or perhaps we’ve never taken the time to actually learn our deen (the way of life mandated by our Creator).

This is no small matter.

What’s Required To Be Muslim in Front of Allah?

One minimum requirement of being Muslim is believing in the entire Qur’an, from Al-Faatihah to An-Naas—not just in the recitation of these Divine Words, but in the meaning and guidance of them also, specifically the understanding of them clarified in prophetic teachings. Rejecting even a single ayah (or letter) of the Qur’an is kufr (disbelief). No Muslim would accept, for example, someone saying, “I believe in all of the Qur’an except such-and-such ayah.” We would recognize right away that this contradicts emaan.

Why then do we not recognize the same serious transgression when someone rejects the established teachings of the Qur’an and then puts their own teachings in its place?

Often this involves some form of reinterpreting the Qur’an until the halaal (permissible) becomes haraam (forbidden) or the haraam becomes halaal. Yet Allah says what has been translated to mean, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords besides Allah” (At-Tawbah, 9:31). When ‘Adee ibn Haatim, a Companion who’d converted to Islam from Christianity, heard this ayah, he said, “We didn’t worship them.” The Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, responded, “Did they not make haraam (forbidden) what Allah had made halaal (permissible) and you made it haraam [too]? And did they not make halaal what Allah had made haraam, and you made it halaal [too]?” ‘Adee replied, “Certainly.” The Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, said, “That was how you worshipped them” (Al-Tirmidhi).

So dear soul, be careful.

In this age where there’s a new interpretation of everything from who can marry whom to what sexual “orientations” are permissible lifestyles, we could be walking headlong into kufr while thinking we’re Muslim—by embracing an entirely new belief system under the guise of Islam.

Don’t We Have a Right To Our Opinions?

In my blog, Does Your Pride Make You Honorable?” I discuss the following with regards to this “modern thinking” that allows us to accept the parts of Islam we like and discard the other parts, while introducing our own behavior codes and claiming, “I have a right to my opinion”:

In the Qur’an, Allah instructs us, “O you who believe! Enter into Islam kaaffah (completely and perfectly), and follow not the footsteps of Shaytaan (Satan). Verily, he is to you a plain enemy” (Al-Baqarah, 2:208).

The Arabic word kaffaah indicates an all-inclusive and all-encompassing submission. Thus, if we have entered into this merciful faith kaaffah, then we accept and obey all the rules, guidelines, and permissions of the religion, not just the parts we prefer in our own lives. Thus, anything short of a complete and all-inclusive submission to divine guidance—kaaffaah—is following the pathway of Shaytaan, instead of Islam.

Unfortunately, in our modern practice of Islam, many of us embrace the parts of Islam that bring us comfort, stoke our egos, and make us feel good about what we want and prefer in our own lives. However, we reject or trivialize anything in Islam that makes us feel uncomfortable, that offends our pride and egos, that threatens our social standing amongst disbelievers, or that causes us emotional pain.

For many of us, it is not enough that our Merciful Creator has given us the right to a personal preference of our own in our private lives; we become angry and frustrated that He has also given this same merciful permission to others. Thus, we seek to transgress His divine boundaries by attaching honor and nobility to only our halaal desires and choices, while attaching shame and wrongdoing to other believers’ halaal desires and choices. Sometimes this goes as far as outright forbidding what Allah has permitted and permitting what Allah has forbidden. Allah says:

“…So do you believe in part of the Book and disbelieve in [the other] part? Then what is the recompense for those who do that among you except disgrace in worldly life; and on the Day of Resurrection they will be sent back to the severest of punishment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do” (Al-Baqarah, 2:85).

Thus, there is no partial belief that is acceptable to Allah in this world or in the Hereafter, whether you label it your opinion or something else.

Claiming Emaan Doesn’t Equal Having Emaan

Today there is such a spiritual disconnect between claiming emaan and living emaan that we generally have no problem offering opinions on things that both the Qur’an and Sunnah already speak on quite clearly. And some of us are willing to introduce our own behavior codes, especially regarding sexuality and gender or who can marry whom, and then punish or slander others if they deviate from our way of life or opinions—as was made chillingly obvious in the “Open Letter to American Muslims” by Hasan Minhaj and Reza Aslan.

Meanwhile this attitude and behavior is one of the main gateways to not only major sin, but also to kufr itself.

As for all these “opinions” that our nafs, Shaytaan, and this “modern generation” have made us comfortable with, let’s keep in mind our Creator’s view on the matter:

“It is not for a believer, man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed in a plain error”(Al-Ahzaab, 33:36).

We can fool ourselves, but we cannot fool Allah.

Takfir and Kufr Are Two Different Things

In guarding ourselves against kufr (disbelief), it’s important to know the difference between falling into takfir and falling into kufr. Takfir is calling a Muslim a disbeliever, while kufr is when a Muslim actually believes, says, or does something that contradicts emaan and thus takes them outside the fold of Islam.

Regarding takfir, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If a man says to his brother, ‘O kaafir (disbeliever)!’ Then surely one of them is such (i.e., a kaafir)” (Sahih al-Bukhari 6103). Often this hadith, which is actually warning against takfir, is quoted to oppose or discount any Islamic teachings that draw our attention to the reality of Muslims falling into kufr. Not only is this spiritually incorrect, it is also spiritually dangerous.

In mixing the concepts of takfir and kufr, we are creating a generation wherein we are completely comfortable claiming to be Muslim, while having little to no concern with actually remaining Muslim in front of Allah.

“But no one has the right to call me a disbeliever!” we say in defense of this thinking. However, the topic of kufr isn’t about anyone calling you a disbeliever. This is about the very real, terrifying possibility of being one—even if no one knows this spiritually destructive truth, except Allah.

So let’s not get so comfortable in our claim of emaan that we begin to think that even Allah Himself has no right to say we’re not Muslim. Allah sees into our hearts better than we do. Thus, while we might imagine ourselves to be “sincere” and thus preserving our emaan while sharing our “opinions” that differ from the Qur’an and prophetic teachings, what is written in our Book of Deeds could be quite different.

So be careful, dear soul. Be careful.

Once your soul is taken, there will be no second chances or do-overs that allow us to try again at actually living the emaan we claim on our tongues.

Your time is now, and now only.

Spend it wisely.

O Allah! We beg You to protect us from self-deception, from the evil within ourselves, and from the plots of Shaytaan and his helpers! We beg You to protect us from misguidance, disbelief, and falsehood clothed as religious truth—even it comes from the tongue of someone who we love, respect, and trust! And O Allah! We beg You to write us down amongst the successful, who submit to You, saying “We hear and we obey!” even when our hearts desire the disobedience and kufr that others are calling us to!

Yaa Rabb, Ameen!

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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