What is this ‘Islam’ that people claim to subscribe to?

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Is it a religion, a way of life, a belief system?

Everyone has their own idea of what it is and what it ought to be. But for the most part, I would say that many ascribe to what operates for most as a social construct.

But how so?

We take the Arabic verbal noun islam (which means “subservience to God”) from the Qur’an, and instead of translating it as we would along with everything else, we write it out as Arabic in the English language (transliteration) and use it as an English proper noun, like John, Adam, Christianity, etc. This causes many people then to view what should simply be understood as the Abrahamic take on subservience to God as an eastern theistic culture that contains a number of (sometimes outlandish) directives and stories rather than a description which is what it’s supposed to be.

As a result, it ceremonialises guidance from God illegitimately putting most things down to ritualisms and producing uncultivated minds willing to do bizarre things rather than inspiring contemplative beings equipped with critical thinking and godly intuitions. As a result, many Muslims believe loads of things that inform their daily choices/dilemmas that have little to do with what God has actually wants or is far removed from the spirit of what He has said. Actions become mundane and lifeless and serve as identity markers rather than divinely ordained mechanisms towards constructive objectives, where purpose and desired beneficial outcomes are neglected leaving us in a substandard state in various facets of life.

We then frame this with using the modern term ‘religion’, a term which in its wider usage (beyond Islam) tends to represent weird and wonderful views beyond the purview of reason and common sense. Just as reactions against irrationality take people towards atheism, an unchecked reaction against materialism and adopting beliefs from other faiths often leads people to superstition. We might ask how this has happened amongst Muslims even though they have revelation. Put simply:

  • The abandonment of reason has been legitimised by constantly pointing to a host of metaphysical rewards without the ability to explain why they are rewarding, putting it down to the idea of God’s unknowable motives although God and His Messenger informs us of His motives and what He wants explicitly. Sincere people, in their righteous desire for God, are understandably drawn to such promises.
  • Many groups of Muslims are caught up in ideological or cultural battles between themselves whilst the rest of us are caught somewhere in the middle of it all. As a result, much of the (oft-referred to) ‘community’ engage like sufferers of PTSD and many sincere people have now become jaded with associating with other Muslims.

This state of affairs not only betrays what God intended by what He revealed to us but undermines the amazing outcomes that are meant to result from shar’ī adherence and the purpose as to why God spoke to us. So how do we get back on the track to that which we’re actually committed? Must we hold on to what we’ve inherited or has been forced on us? Of course not. We must re-enliven the religion (millah) of Abraham (see Quran 16:123), and for the majority of those wanting an accurate subservience to God (the way God expects), regardless of the religion, denomination or sect they ascribe to, it means productively starting from the beginning. Not just from the basics, but from first principles.

What do I mean by ‘first principles’?

We need a coherent and robust story of humanity, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. How did we get here, why are we here, and what does God consequently want from us? How then do we understand the things He says? Even in our everyday lives, it’s not just about following the Qur’an and sunnah as the popular phrase goes, but how we do so. How do we make sense of the revelatory sources? What outcomes are they meant to produce and how do we judge the validity of our understanding? A complete and coherent story helps to contextualise things, to locate profound meaning in the things God says and tells us to do (such as the aḥkām), and to know what the basic premises of life are – in faith, society or politics. It offers us an interpretive mode and a normative state of being. Of course, sometimes situations force us to react, but knowing the default state of being helps us to go back to default rather than remaining reactionary when there’s no longer a need to be.

Does this mean we have to sign up to something new? Not at all, in fact what I’m calling for is so ancient that it’s often overlooked by many followers of all Abrahamic faiths which is why God repeatedly calls back to it. When we have a fully contextualised lens, we start to see the sharī’ah of God in all its glory and wisdom, the millah of truth to every messenger sent by God with a divine message, that which universally resonates with the God-given intellect, and a great islāh (edification) for all.

But rather than starting from the beginning, why can’t we just go through particular things and clarify/rectify where things have been misconceptualised or misrepresented? This is what I term ‘Band aid Islam’ where we simply try to plug the leaks that spring up. The reasons these holes appear is because the system isn’t working, and the attempt to put together a patchwork religion has led to positions that are inconsistent with one another, leaving us with an incoherent and severely lacking representation of what God wants. This is why there’s so much dissonance/confusion amongst Muslims, as well as why non-Muslims find it hard to accurately get ‘Islam’. Not only are most default positions and primary assumptions skewed, much of the various aspects of the sharī’ah are interrelated (reflecting the complex nature of life) so thinking that we can easily unpick or compartmentalise issues without it having ramifications on other matters is incorrect. And where you talk about things in the abstract rarely do people actually get what you’re trying to do or how it relates to the bigger picture. It reduces godly subservience to a few proscriptions rather than speaking to the soul and spirit of what’s been revealed. It overlooks how minutiae speak to the general propositions. I’ve personally noted the difference in learners of any field between those who get the bigger picture and those who don’t, and the gap is very clear.

God shows in the Qur’an that it’s always good to have a healthy scepticism, to question our own assumptions, and show a willingness to renege on those things that aren’t convincing or nonsensical. Of course, much of this is bound up with being deeply learned or informed by those who are, but when even the seemingly ‘learned’ can’t coherently explain themselves then clearly something is amiss. We are judged based on how we individually engage with what God wants, and not whether we unquestioningly followed what some random has told us to do.

What does it suggest about those who disagree?

I don’t believe that we need to prove anything by tearing others down or via polemic debate. The cogency or compelling nature of this approach which God has pointed to in the Qur’an is in the substance itself. It stands as a beacon on its own without having to lean on the failure or weakness of other beliefs or views. This approach leads to robust and meaningful guidance, the faith sincere seekers of God and truth intend, as explicitly set out in revelation. It provides the qualities, virtues, and positivity required for success, and leads to outcomes that are tangible and inspiring to witness.

In matters of faith, He has laid down for you the same commandment that He gave Noah, which We have revealed to you and which We enjoined on Abraham and Moses and Jesus…So call people to that faith and follow the straight path as you have been commanded. Do not go by what they desire, but say, ‘I believe in whatever Scripture God has sent down. I am commanded to bring justice between you. God is our Lord and your Lord – to us our deeds and to you yours, so let there be no argument between us and you – God will gather us together, and to Him we shall return.

Quran 42:13-15

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