With all their blessings and immense spiritual experience, Ramadan and Eid still tend to remind us of the sorry state of Muslims and how we cannot even agree on days of public holiday. But actually, if one considers the ethnic, cultural, denominational and class differences within the Muslims of the British Isles, it is little surprise that this ‘group’ of people cannot find common voices. It is indeed a community of many different communities. What is dangerous is to reduce this amazing diversity down to narrow blocks of identity that can be lazily represented and then pit against each other in identity politics. The real question is how the diversity is managed, for it will not simply go away. And in this regard we Muslims can learn lessons of toleration from others around us.
It is heart wrenching to see the apparent ‘blood-thirst’ in the way some tend to manifest disagreement in the Muslim world. From violent riots against cartoons, or the latest ‘insult to Islam’, to the assassination of leaders, to terrorism; these desperate acts seem to hearken back to the intolerance that ravaged Europe some centuries ago.
The Prophet Muhammad (s) pulled a fractured society, ridden with petty clan disputes, together by his tender examples of respect and tolerance. When his companions differed in their interpretation of his instruction, he endorsed both views urging that the one who is ultimately correct will have two rewards and the one who was incorrect would still bear a reward for his mental energy that had been invested. When he was challenged by his enemies to strike out his title as ‘Messenger of God’ from the treaty of Hudaibiya, he obliged, keeping his eyes on the bigger picture. Even when he knew of the hypocrisy of some in his own community, he kept their identities secret.
The pursuit of unity of purpose can only hope to succeed if we embrace the differences we see around us, and not pretend that we are all one monolithic bloc. There is no such thing as ‘the community’ in abstract form. Such collectives are formed of groups and sub-groups of real, fallible, diverse human beings. We often hear the statement, ‘the community will not accept this’ – but perhaps this more accurately refers to that minority of people who go to the mosque regularly, have quite long beards or wear headscarves, etc. Yes, the bearded person that attends a mosque and prays regularly is very important, but also the lady that does not wear a headscarf, the man who is clean-shaven, the one who has never been to a mosque, the person who does not perform the ritual prayers, and many others, all come together to make up the Muslim community. It was always thus, and always thus it will be. These differences are not to be embraced with a grudging acceptance, but with humility and with the dignity accorded to each person by God himself, by the fact that the divine breath lives within each of us.
Most attempts to unite people tend to either cause more fissures, or create a ‘lowest common denominator’ position, which is not unimportant but is about as interesting as driving though the M25 in rush hour. So perhaps what we really need, rather than a drive for ‘unity’ is actually a culture of dissent. We need to learn to disagree, not just agree. Because disagreement is a fact of life and will always exist.
And so, when we are presented ideas that may seem a little on the edge, out of the box, the reaction should be a welcome (even if cautious) rather than one of great fear and trepidation. Will this new ‘liberal’ idea undermine the very fabric of our religion?! In fact, looking at the breadth of Islamic thought and philosophy you could argue that today we are not nearly liberal enough. In reaction to Colonisation and the loss of territorial power, we have passed through one of the most conservative periods of our history. We proudly hail the achievements of scholars of the past such Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd in medicine and philosophy, yet today’s conservative ‘orthodoxy’ would raise serious question marks over some of their ideas. Email after email about their ‘dodgy beliefs’ would plague cyberspace. The great thinkers of earlier Muslim history were able to flourish because of the confident spirit of intellectual inquiry that allowed people to think, experiment, and God forbid, even make mistakes.
Thus, what the situation today actually requires, rather than a defensive posture, is a more confident approach that allows challenging ideas and thoughts to be debated, and learnt from or indeed rejected if necessary – the Prophet taught us that his ummah “would never agree on an error”. This requires a culture of free debate and dissent. Even if it is sacrilege we fear as a most extreme case, rather than censor ideas and try to stifle debate, perhaps the best approach in our age is to discuss, debate and if necessary stare sacrilege in the face and stick your tongue out at it.