I have written before that I believe today’s believer can:
- be committed to the Quran and the sunnah without being salafi;
- benefit from a mad’hab without immaturely pledging allegiance to it, building an identity on it, or viewing everything through the lens of fiqh;
- have an aqidah that isn’t polemic and reactionary but inspirational and imaan based, strengthening rabbaniyyah (godliness) and wara’ (piety);
- be introspective and build a personal relationship with God where God is an active participant in one’s life without ascribing to sufism;
- be politically active/aware in a way that goes beyond anti-colonialism and without the baggage of last century’s Muslim political movements;
- be socially integrated in society without losing their faith or having their fundamental godly practices restricted.
Whilst I have already mentioned some usul (fundamental starting positions) from which I speak about the shariah or teach revelation, I understand that people continue to try and make sense of where I’m coming from. Why? Because we’re so used to our actualisation of religion being framed in the past that the minute we speak of imaan or the shari’ah actualised for the modern era it seems alien to many. For some, it’s as if they don’t want practical faith – just something to mythologise. Yet simple logic tells us that the norm should be to functionalise revelation for today’s world since we live today and not in the past – but for a number of reasons (colonialism, immigration etc) western Muslims find themselves in this bizarre situation.
Furthermore, most are institutionalised not only into thinking about Sunni Islam along reductive lines, but also one that is very much theoretical in practice, such as four neat schools of law and three schools of theology. So where someone is not being sectarian, or a scholar draws from the general corpus of Sunni thinking to benefit our approach for today we’re somehow not being Sunni! Categorising Islam in this way is theoretical because the reality of big city living means we tend to be influenced by the multi-traditions that pervade British Muslims, picking up opinions and views across fiqh and aqidah lines. Yes you get your occasional staunch sectarians (who rarely know their actual school of law/theology), but in light of the number of Muslims in the western world, they’re few and far between. To argue that we strictly follow only one school across the board is no less absurd as claiming that there’s only one culture that influences the inhabitants of major cosmopolitan capitals like London or New York. Furthermore, the vast majority of laymen actually know very little about the school of law or theology they claim to ascribe to and the origins of the opinions they hold – in fact it’s held amongst usulis that laymen have no mad’hab, that they merely follow their local clerics who have trained (usually out of convenience) in a particular legal and theological tradition.
A lot of people struggle, not with abandoning sectarianism or the arbitrary distinctions enforced on them by the ignorant – that’s the easy part, but in conceptualising what they’re meant to be moving on to. If I’m not a self-identifying Salafi/Sufi/Deobandi etc what am I? In ancient times, you’d simply be a believer truly committed to the one True God, on the creed of Abraham, and adhering to the shari’ah given to Muhammad as explained by your learned. Those are the key focuses. Beyond those, you’d simply enact shar’i principles in your everyday modern living – shar’i principles interacting with the modern age – as explained and explored by the capable and intelligent scholars of your city – those who resonate with your lived experiences and cultural outlook.
Yes, living amongst multi-ethnic communities that make up the Muslim populace can make this quite challenging: should a British Pakistani go to a Pakistani maulana, a British Arab to his/her Arab shaikh, and so on? Well rightly or wrongly, that’s already been the norm for some time amongst immigrant generations, but Millenials (approx 38-22 years old) and those younger seem to be post-ethnic in this regards (something I’ll considerably explore in upcoming posts) and as such a shift has already taken place and a unifying and mature culture seems to be crystallising.
Nearly everyone I have met, taught, lectured or spoken to are highly positive about, and deeply interested in, the progression I listed at the beginning of this post. And never have I met a metropolitan Millenial (or younger), that is Millenials who live in major cities, with whom this hasn’t resonated. Not only do they find it highly liberating from the anxieties that come from factionalism, and a relief from the internal conflict that comes from following folk religion, or holding unreasonable beliefs and positions, they end up finding God and their deen, and profoundly connecting with what God wants on His terms which He has made very easy, and which intuitively resonates with common sense. They find a sense of security in how it is fundamentally grounded in the Qur’an and explained with some detail through the sunnah.
I believe in an undifferentiated whole – I don’t seperate faith, rituals, spirituality or politics. I’m not necessarily arguing that it’s illegitimate but while differentiating between different focuses in the past might have helped groups of believers, I don’t think it’s doing so in our modern western context.
As it ought to be clear by now (I hope), I come from within the Sunni tradition of law and theology and my intellectual commitments are very much to the Sunni approach to revelation. I deeply admire (and adore) the scholars of the past, and it’s that deep-seated admiration that compels me to try and emulate what they did and achieved. Merely parroting them isn’t doing what they did, that’s merely unthinking and unintelligent mimicry, and they’d probably find it quite absurd and negligent that so-called scholars a thousand years in the distant future would mindlessly duplicate things from a very different past (they certainly wouldn’t view it as scholarship!).
I appeal to people’s reason because (1) that’s the God-given faculty by which sensible humans evaluate things as God repeatedly points out in the Qur’an, and (2) it’s what I found to be the way of the ancient scholars. Imam al-Shafi’i stated: “Do not accept everything that I have said if it does not resonate with your intellect, where the intellect finds it unacceptable and doesn’t regard it to be true, for the intellect is compelled (by its nature) to accept the truth.”
We live in an age of confusion and misinformation. Like the political scene, in matters of faith we’re told things (or hold to practices and attitudes) that are either untrue or misrepresent the nucleus of the idea. Conversely, what we practice that is correct is articulated or taught in such a shallow way that the profundity and the wisdom of the shari’ah is lost. As a result, people try to fend for themselves going from pillar to post for individual details which leaves them with an incoherent whole that doesn’t seamlessly work for the modern age nor helps to face its real challenges. Consequently, they’re left with little but cognitive dissonance. In the end, some then leave faith at the back of their minds, some renege on it, and many use religion for social belonging (which then informs their ideas on society and politics) – often in the form of secular ethnic protest or ethno-religious solidarity.
But this isn’t what God wanted of us humans, and it certainly isn’t as clear, clean or surgical as it ought to be. It’s just confusing. In our communal imagination God goes from being an active participant in our lives to an abstract idea at the back of our minds that we opportunistically refer to whenever we feel the need to do so. We become ritualists rather than seeking meaning for our acts of subservience. We position ourselves as Abrahamic no more, but as ethnic anti-colonialists. We aspire to (Muslim) empires rather than the paths of the ancient Prophets. We become fantasists and superstitious to combat materialism and capitalism. “Shariah” becomes a rhetorical term we simply throw out there when we’ve run out of rational arguments, although the vast majority really have no idea what the shariah is nor what it’s about – we simply inherent the rhetoric of others.
And all of this evidently has got us nowhere. In the UK, demographic studies show that in nearly every marker of progression (education, socio-economic status, health etc) Muslims are at the bottom of the pile. And yes, even the way we do faith seems slapdash and erratic. So either the shari’ah is destructive (which of course it isn’t), or Muslims are doing something seriously wrong.
It’s time for a wake-up call and in my experience Muslim millenials are not only eager for it, they’re actively calling for it. Internal political correctness amongst Muslims doesn’t seem to be helping so some real talk needs to be the order of the day. If older generations (generation x and older) desire to remain clueless, that’s up to them, we seek no argument. But the millenial generation needs to get its house in order and ready to lead for the productive future of British believers and the success of Abraham’s creed for future generations.