As Obama comes into office this month, Muslims can learn an important lesson from his approach. He mobilised the widest level of support by moving out of the comfort zone some would have expected of a ‘black politician’. Instead of making his key message one of race or inequality of minorities, he went for issues that would resonate with all, such as welfare and the economy, taking a more universal, rather than parochial, approach.
Some Muslims today seem to have locked themselves into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ position. Or on a more benign level, some seem to only care about others if it means that somehow they will come closer to Islam or join the club. The message of Islam strikes me as very different to this. The Qur’an is critical of previous religions that become too parochial; instead it speaks to humanity at large. How many of its verses start with, “O Mankind”?
Abraham, who lived long before Muhammad and the advent of ‘Islam’, is described in the Qur’an as a Muslim, a righteous person. We are also reminded that all of creation – animals, plants, celestial bodies are considered to be ‘Muslims’ meaning that they exist in accordance with the natural order. Giving our will to God – the verb ‘to submit’ is one of the roots of the word ‘Islam’ – therefore, should bring us into harmony with creation – peace (the other root meaning of Islam).
But too often we look upon ‘Islam’ as the name of a religion to which people belong. This has its place, but when taken out of context risks undermining the universal dimension of the Islamic message. If the values of Islam are to be relevant to those outside its boundaries, as the Qur’an tries to reach, then the boundaries need to be porous – in both directions. When Islam taught that wisdom, wherever found, should be embraced it articulated a vision for an open-minded, respectful approach to the world, in which Muslims are not the sole carriers of truth. And this presents a fundamental challenge to religious people. How do you communicate with others, without condescending preaching, and give recognition to the immense wisdom that exists in the world outside your own bubble?
Are we even communicating in the same idiom? An interesting exercise is to momentarily remove Arabic jargon from our everyday discourse of Islam – how would we then articulate the essence and meaning of Islam? This exercise may sound strange. It flies in the face of initiatives that have tried to ‘islamise’ knowledge, by bringing Arabic terms into the mainstream. Arabic is no doubt important to the history and traditions of Islam, after all it is the language of the Qur’an. But it is a medium of communication and no single temporal medium can have monopoly over a message that claims universality and, more importantly, transcendence. If we follow this train of thought, my hope is for example that we can talk of aspects of justice – legal, social or economic – without getting bogged down in debates of what the word Sharia means or implies, or even the notion of ‘Islamic Law’. This is not to be apologetic, but to simply sidestep a confused and confusing debate.
Likewise we could address issues of Human Rights, as human beings. That was surely the intention behind the UDHR (60 years old last month) – what aspirations and needs do we all share by virtue of our common, universal humanity? Muslims believe that God created human beings with a natural instinct for good (fitra) and that Islam – the act of giving ourselves to God – simply affirms that fitra. This has profound meaning for the way we look at the world around us. What makes something Islamic? Is it the Arabic terminology associated with it, or because it is inherently good? What makes economics ‘Islamic’ or ‘unislamic’? Is it because a sharia board calls it thus or because a financial product either gives people opportunity to grow and flourish or is rooted in exploitative and unfair measures?
My purpose here is not to present a conclusive position; this is not a call to discard Arabic terms, but to encourage a more reflective debate, so that we can think afresh of our purpose and role as a community. If Islam is to resonate with people today and is to be seen as something more than a quaint, Eastern oddity, it is time that universal aspiration of Islam reconnects with the universality of humanity.