A Monolithic Islam? Forget About It!

People trouble me, sometimes. Why are people so judgmental, I often find myself wondering? Perhaps, it is because a judgmental heart lacks introspection. I think that’s it. Yes, lacking introspection!

One of the most troubling trends I see within the Muslim community is the amount of hatred and suspicion towards Muslims who adopt different approaches and interpretations of Islam. With the Takfeeri ideology (ex-communication) on a rise, nearly every Muslim considers himself to be “rightly guided” and others, even if they differ on minor issues, to be “deluded by the devil” or a “Fitnah”, greatly hindering co-existence and mutual respect between Muslims. Sectarianism, which for this very reason has been severely discouraged in the Quran, has destabilized the Muslim community from within, resulting in every group happy with their version while looking down upon others.

We must realize that Islam is not a monolith, and that it’s impossible for nearly 2 billion Muslims to share the same interpretation of it. There is no “true” Islam, I would argue. Rather, what we have are Islams. At best, the “true” Islam, in my opinion, is relative to the person and is the interpretation that allows you to grow and evolve the most as a person, provided—a very important distinction to make–provided that the core of the Quran is not tempered with. And the Quran makes the case for this on the basis of the following verses:

“Who listen to the Word and follow the best of it. Those are the ones Allah has guided, and those are people of understanding.” Quran, 39:18

“And follow the best of that which is sent down to you from your Lord, before the torment comes on you suddenly while you perceive not!” Quran, 39:55

These verses, which definitely demand more attention and pondering from the mainstream Muslims; speak against a monolithic, institutionalized Islam as they ask the reader to follow the “best” from what is revealed. If there was supposed to be one “official interpretation”, there would absolutely be no point in asking us to follow the best therein. How do you follow the best of what’s already best, anyways?

Most people are unaware of this, but the Quran itself talks of a plurality of paths to Islam:

Through this Book, God guides to paths of Islam (peace), those who seek His Approval. He brings them out of darkness into the light of His grace, and guides them to the straight path. Quran, 5:16

This is because God acknowledges our diversity, calling it one of His Signs (30:22); and unlike the clergymen, does not want us all to be identical robots.

Combining these points together, the Quran provides a comprehensive rebuttal to the idea of there being a “true” Islam that is supposed to be shared by all of its adherents.

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Dealing with differences

Naturally, when we talk of nearly 2 billion Muslims, there are going to be theological differences. What matters though, is how we deal with these differences. We may have intellectual disagreements within the diverse Islamic thought, but we must not foster hate towards this diversity. Either we can acknowledge our differences and embrace them for the common good, focusing rather on the fundamental values that Islam teaches us, or we could continue with the “my way or the highway” ideology that is the main cause of sectarianism, again – which is severely discouraged in the Quran. (I delve on this further here)

Not being honest and true to ourselves, I believe, is at the root of sectarianism. We condemn others for their views, knowing full well that there was a time when we, ourselves, didn’t know what we know today. The problem, then, is that we’re overly critical of others, and fairly passive of ourselves, when it should totally be the other way around! We are quick to judge others because we only see things from one perspective–our perspective–which is limited and biased. We don’t try to analyze the reasons why people are the way they are because that is a hard task, requiring effort and broad mindedness.

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Now, there is this weird idea people have that being blunt is the same as being provocative, insulting, and demeaning. Some people, who like to think of themselves as being “straight-forward” believe that speaking “truth” to a person with a different point of view doesn’t require you to be polite, understanding, and reasonable. No, these characteristics are seen as attempts of “sugar-coating” or being “diplomatic” (as if that’s a bad thing). Well, guess what? Even if you’re right, no one would bother listening to you sincerely if you come off as snobbish and condescending. Doesn’t that negate the whole point of dialogue? If you are so keen on spreading your truth, don’t be in it to praise your ego and making a fool out of others. Because ultimately, you’re only fooling yourself!

There are some ethics of dialogue, and the Quran lays them down most wonderfully:

Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good advice, and argue with them in the best possible manner. Your Lord is fully aware of who is misguided from His path, and He is fully aware of the guided ones. Quran, 16:125

Socrates once said, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” In other words, when there are no intellectual points left to make, people resort to ad-hominem attacks to get the impression of superiority. Again and again, we must remind ourselves the purpose of Islam. It is not to look down upon others, but to bring yourself up. It is not to criticize others, but to prime yourself. Islam seeks to suppress the ego, not to magnify it. In fact, the Quran repeatedly reminds the reader that he is not sent as a “guardian” or “watcher” over the people (6:107, 88:22). Why then, is the focus not on ourselves, but on others?

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Conclusion

Gradual as it was, I realized over the course of my journey as a Muslim that there are many spiritual paths leading to the same destination: peace and serenity.

Just because I disagree with X and Y on some points, does not mean that I discount their spiritual journey as “invalid”, or that I start calling them other derogatory labels. The important thing, rather, is that you keep on treading the path you have chosen for yourself, growing with each step. Growth should be the priority, not the means by which you grow. Yes, we can all help in correcting each other by having a dialogue on a variety of theological and spiritual aspects, but the only person who’s utterly wasting his time is he who himself won’t move, but will block the way of others; advising them that they’ve taken the wrong path.

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As the Quran beautifully puts it:

Each of you chooses the direction to follow; then strive together toward all that is good. Whatever stand you take, God will bring you all together. Indeed, God is Able to do all things. Quran, 2:148

 

A monolithic Islam? Forget about it!

An inclusive and pluralistic Islam? Yes! And much more Islam will come to you that way!

 

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The 4 Major Factors That Fuel Religious Fundamentalism

I have a mantra on life that I wish to share with you, dear reader. Ignorance restricts and breeds hatred and extremism; while knowledge liberates, and breeds compassion and understanding. Fundamentalism stems from ignorance, and thus only breeds negativity. It is a venomous disease that kills positivity and growth, and needs to be identified and cured, on a very personal level.

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As a Muslim, who in his earlier days had adopted quite a fundamentalist approach, I have come a long way by internalizing a basic yet painful truth: I definitely do not have all the answers, hence different point of views are not only necessary for my own growth and evolution (which to me, is the prime purpose of life) but also that respecting diversity is the only solution of progress and co-existence. I have come to realize that only those who hold a shallow outlook are afraid of diversity in thought, for it threatens ungrounded and un-researched prejudices and beliefs. Bertrand Russell, very wisely, puts it as:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

  1. Lack of independent study and exposure to different schools of thought

In my humble opinion, the biggest factor of fundamentalism and dogmatism is that most people do not critically examine the philosophy on life they profess to accept and believe in. Naively believing whatever is told to them by their family/friends and scholars, they lack the exposure to different schools of thought that has the tendency of humbling one’s self down. So, when a blind belief is threatened by an opposing point of view, such people, unable to prove their point by reasoning, resort to insults and bad language; or in extreme cases, resort to violence in order to protect that belief and to gain a feeling of supremacy and self-worth. This, in medical terms, is also known as cognitive dissonance.

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  1. Inconsistency in approach

Whether it be theism or atheism, dogmatism and fundamentalism exists on both sides of the coin. This is a bitter truth that I’ve observed over the years. One would expect atheists and “progressive religionists” to be more open-minded towards those who differ from their perspective, but this unfortunately is not the case with all of them. Ironically, they become what they detest the most: hardliner preachers of their “religion”, looking down upon anyone and everyone who differs. Of course, I do not mean to imply that every atheist or theist behaves like that, which brings me to my next point: avoiding generalizations.

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  1. Generalizations and thinking in absolutes

Generalizations play a key role in fundamentalism and dogmatism: All Muslims are terrorists. All atheists are proud and arrogant. All Shias are Kafirs. Every black person is a thug; every white person a racist. Fundamentalists perceive everything in a black and white manner, refusing – or simply uninterested- to observe the many shades of grey within. This, again, brings me back to my point: exposure! The more you are exposed to a diversity of people: their way of living, their way of thinking, their way of worshiping (or the lack thereof), the more you broaden your mind and cease thinking in absolutes.

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  1. Possessing the key to “the sole truth”

Religionists are brought up believing that their path to God is the “only” correct path worthy of salvation, and this brainwashing turns some (if not most) of them into bigots. Atheists believe that atheism is the “only” rational approach, and this brainwashing turns some (if not most) of them into bigots. What needs to be eliminated is the personal belief of having a monopoly on truth, even the idea of there being a sole truth out there. But it’s challenging – it’s challenging because having a monopoly on truth and looking down upon others is a great boost for the ego and a major source of self-worth for some. In addition, this feeling of superiority due to having the key to “the truth” may well be the most defining part of their personality, making it even harder for them to abolish this self-centered belief.

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However, sincere people in all walks of life eventually realize the need for pluralism and tolerance. A sincere person analyzes the contradictions in his own approach and works on continually reforming himself, instead of always finding faults with others. A sincere person strives for consistency in approach. If he detests something in others, he makes it incumbent upon himself that that negative trait is not a part of his own personality. And when he does this, he automatically becomes more tolerant, more compassionate, more humble, and above all, he is able to acquire peace within himself which ultimately is the prime purpose of any philosophy on life. All in all, he is more interested in his own evolution instead of proving others wrong.

As Gandhi said, be the change you wish to see in the world!

 

Related article: United Sects of Islam: A different perspective on unity and sectarianism

 

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United Sects Of Islam: A Different Perspective on Unity and Sectarianism

A popular argument employed by atheists (and other like minded people) against people who subscribe to a religion is that religion has split mankind into factions resulting in much violence; therefore religion is evil and must be abolished. Obviously a valid point, though  blaming it all on religion is quite biased, I think. It’s not religion, exclusively, that divides people; rather people fight over all sorts of things, race being an example. Should we, or rather, can we get rid of the diversity of our colors?

I believe things are neutral. Religion, too, is neutral. It’s your attitude towards it that determines whether you choose to unite, or divide with others. Shifting the blame doesn’t solve anything. Therefore, we need to identify the problem and look for solutions.  Education, as with everything else, is required to curb oppressive ideologies like racism and sectarianism, which is what the Quran aspires to do.

The Quran stressing on Unity:

You must hold fast, all of you together, to the Bond of God and be not divided into sects. Quran, 3:103

And do not be like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs had come to them. And those will have a great punishment.Quran, 3:105

Those who break the unity of their Deen and become sects, you have nothing to do with them whatsoever. Their case will go to God and He will then tell them what they had been doing. Quran, 6:159

(And do not be) of those who have divided their Deen and become sects, every faction rejoicing in what it has. Quran, 30:32

Steadfastly uphold the  Deen (Way of Life), and do not break up your unity therein. Quran, 42:13

What went wrong?

Despite these very clear and straight-forward commandments, the “Muslim World” is quite the hub of violent sectarianism that causes much bloodshed within those regions. We have this nasty habit of cherry-picking the verses we choose to follow. So, the verses that call for unity often get ignored and are replaced with scholarly opinions that promote sectarianism. Furthermore, fundamentalism and bigotry play a part as well.

Let me take you through the mindset of a sectarian, as I myself have been through that phase. It is the unshaken belief that my sect is the only ‘right’ version of Islam and worthy of salvation, while all others are misguided and headed for doom. Instead of compassion, there is a strong sense of fear and hate for them. Assuming infallibility for one’s self, religion becomes a tool to satisfy the ego by calling others infidels and other derogatory labels. All in all, it is either my way, or the highway.

If we were to measure spiritual maturity in terms of our biological growth, then fundamentalism is the childhood. A natural phase, but something you must grow from. (You may read my full piece on stages of consciousness here.)

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What a beautiful saying, isn’t it? Unfortunately, a sectarian might even have a problem with why I shared a “Hindu” proverb!  You see? So, forget that. Let me show you verses in the Quran that completely shatter sectarianism. Contrary to popular opinion, there is not only ONE “correct” path to Islam (Peace), rather there are MULTIPLE paths:

Through this Book, God guides to PATHS of Islam (Peace), those who seek His Approval. He brings them out of darkness into the light of His grace, and guides them to the straight path. Quran, 5:16

As for those who sincerely strive for Us, We surely guide them onto PATHS that lead to Us. God is with those who do Good. Quran, 29:69

How can we Unite?

Let me start by clearing a misconception. Unity does not equate to uniformity. Some people have the view that unity can only be achieved among people who have the same (or identical) set of beliefs, cultural practices, and paradigms. This is not only highly improbable, but is also flawed conceptually. See, human beings are complex creatures, having unique experiences that shape their paradigms. Forget billions of Muslims, you would not find two people who are exactly the same.

To me, unity can be achieved regardless of the beliefs of others. It is the internalization that God has created people with a free will of their own, and that they may choose whichever spiritual path which makes them the closest to God, turning them into a better human being. I am not discouraging rational debate, I must add. Indeed, debate is crucial for growth and reform. However, you stop playing God, as you realize that judgment belongs to God alone (13:40). All it takes is spiritual maturity and broad-mindedness from your side.

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Dropping the labels does not solve the problem.

One of the solutions put forward to achieve unity is to identify yourself as only a Muslim instead of a Sunni Muslim, a Shia Muslim, a Quranist Muslim, or a Sufi Muslim. For a long time, I agreed with this notion. However, now I think that it’s superficial at best. Labels don’t create sects; sectarian behavior does.The problem with identifying yourself as only a Muslim is that sectarian behavior may still exist within. You may consider yourself a “true Muslim” and others “not so true Muslims”. I have experienced this first-hand, so I’m convinced that this is not the answer.

Let’s face the reality here. You simply can’t expect every Muslim to share the same interpretation of the Quran. Therefore, labels help us identify one another. And, identification is a crucial factor in dialogue. Let’s take an example. If you were to ask me about my country of origin, and I responded by saying that I am a “citizen of the world”, would you expect the conversation to evolve from there? Possibly not. There is a lack of information, so it might stop there and then. However, if I say I’m an American, you may share your personal stories that are relevant, and the dialogue furthers.

So, the problem doesn’t lie in the labels, it lies in sectarian behavior which is a psychological construct and can be eradicated through education. The sectarian ideology is the real culprit here, which needs to be addressed. The ideology that since X and Y are different from me, they must be my enemies. Different approaches to Islam are not a threat to unity, bigotry is!

The key word in those verses, as we saw above, is to “not divide into sects”. You can be a Sunni Muslim who does not discriminate against Shias, for example. In this case, you find that Sunni Islam makes the most sense to you, but for others, it might be Shia Islam or Quranist Islam. Realizing that freedom of belief is a gift of God, you not only unite with other Muslims, but also free yourself from the negative energy of hate.

In a nutshell, sectarianism causes division. Division causes hate. Hate causes extremism. Extremism causes bloodshed. Hence, this becomes the perfect recipe for an unstable society and precisely why sectarianism has been severely discouraged in the Quran.

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Final Thoughts

O Muslims! We must stop dividing over petty issues and instead unite to fight the power-mongering psychopaths that seek to cause disharmony between us.  Disunity can never bring about any good! Let us put all the barriers of race, gender, sex orientation, religion, and politics to rest and respect people for what they are, provided they are not harming another human being. I call for unity! I call for Islam (Peace)!

The question is, will you respond?

 

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Stages of Consciousness: My Journey as a Muslim

Spiritual people pass through certain stages of consciousness on their journey to God. I write this to share my journey with you all.

For me, it started off as an unexpected interest in Islam, the religion I was “born” into. I started reading the Quran, and I was hooked. This is what I would call the first stage in the journey – the introduction. You come to know about the stark differences between what God says in the Quran, and what is widely believed by your community and your religious peers. You are judgmental. You take great delight in debating, and proving other people wrong. A sense of superiority reigns over you. You want to save people from the endless doom of the fire. Unfortunately, and I say this with my deepest regrets, most religious people just do not grow past this stage: a judgmental bigot who annoys anyone who holds even a slightly different point of view.

Then, if you’re lucky (and I sure was!), you meet people who challenge your beliefs and ask you logical explanations of why you believe certain things. This is new to you, certainly! Does belief warrant a logical explanation, you think to yourself? You ponder, and come across the many verses from the Quran that advocate skepticism and critical thinking. Now, you have to unlearn the things you have programmed yourself to believe in, and look at it from a rational perspective. It’s very difficult initially, mind you! You’re in tatters! Could God really allow men to beat women, for example? Your inner voice immediately says no.

This is the second stage. You realize that perhaps you, yourself has a lot to learn from others. Differences of opinion are now regarded as food for thought, no longer a front where you could correct others. It is a stage of uncertainty; you feel a hollow void within yourself desperately asking God to provide answers to your endless questions. This agony lasts for a while.

Suddenly, you have a eureka moment. Everything starts falling into it’s place. You no longer accept the translations of the Quran as perfect; instead you interpret the Quran for yourself through a range of different exercises. You realize the inconsistencies that lie within these translations, and thank God for opening your eyes towards Truth.

Fear is no longer a motive for believing in God, unconditional love is. You no longer help other people to get rewards, but simply because they are your brethren in humanity and are in need. And this is where the soul really blossoms! You no longer behave as an “I know it all” bigot, for differences are God’s signs (30:22)! Labels don’t matter, anymore. Only character does. Needless to say, you are no longer interested in endless debates, for you realize that they are only a clash of egos. An inner serenity overwhelms you. This, I believe is the third stage. The farthest I have walked yet.

Perhaps the butterfly is proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness yet become something so beautiful!

Be water, my friend. Evolve!

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