What does being a Muslim actually mean?

By Khaled Diab

In much of the world, ‘Muslim' is often used as a marker of ethnic origin rather than of . This must change.

Most ‘Muslims' are labelled as such long before they can make any kind of informed decision about their faith.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Islam is clearly a religion. People may disagree passionately about the nature of this faith, the validity of the various schools and sects, what is or is not ‘Islamic', but there is a consensus that it is a system.

But does the same apply to Muslim? Is being a Muslim about faith? Is it social or political? Is it about culture? This is a question I have pondered on numerous occasions over the years.

Recently, I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter to get a taste of what people regarded as the central pillar of Muslim identity. I also canvassed Facebook friends for their opinions. I asked whether being ‘Muslim' was founded on belief or whether it was a form of ethnic identity, or both.

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (63%) were convinced that being Muslim is exclusively or primarily a question of faith. And, indeed, this is what Islam was originally about. Muhammad's earliest followers were all presumed to be passionate believers and conversion was presumably the main source growth in the Muslim population for generations.

Of course, there are converts today but they constitute a negligible minority of the global population we classify as “Muslim”. Only an estimated 500,000 people converted to Islam between 2010 and 2015 (0.3% of the growth in the global Muslim population), according to the Pew Research Centre – which sheds a more telling light on why Islam is the fastest-growing major religion.

Although the criticises the idea of passing down the faith, the notion that religion is a hereditary identity was a pre-Islamic practice across the region that was continued into the Islamic era, according to Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, assistant professor of at McGill University. “Most religions, especially since the Axial Age, in the context of universalist religions, have created ethnic and cultural layers of identification,” observes Ibrahim.

Today, we live in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were born into the faith, and are labelled as “Muslim” by society, long before they can make any kind of informed decision for themselves. Moreover, we have little to no information on what the world's 1.8 billion notional Muslims actually believe and how many of them practise their faith.

If being Muslim is truly a question of faith, then it should be a top priority to find out exactly what each one believes, free of coercion, before taking a headcount (same goes for other religions).

In the absence of this, labelling all these hundreds of millions of people as Muslim is presumptuous, to say the least, even if the majority do turn out to be zealous believers. It also means that actual belief is secondary, or even irrelevant, to membership of this global “tribe” – as is the case with Christianity.

This means that “Muslim” functions, in my view, like a de facto “ethnicity”, or a super-ethnicity. At this stage, I should point out that I do not believe that Islam should form the basis for any kind of ethnic identity nor do I find this desirable. I am merely describing a reality which prevails across the world.

My assertion sparked a heated online debate. “Stop trying to Judaise Islam with this ethno-religious nonsense,” one critic asserted, in no uncertain terms.

But I fail to see any fundamental or radical difference between how Islam and Judaism are passed on from one generation to the next, except that one is believed to be largely patrilineal and the other matrilineal. The only real difference between Islam and Judaism are the issues of conversion and proselytisation – both of which are considerably less common in modern Judaism than in Islam, though far from unheard of.

Where Muslims are in the minority, the perception that their identity, like that of Jews, is primarily “ethnic” is at its strongest, such as is the case with Sri Lanka's so-called ‘Moors'. Likewise, the secular wing of 's pre- Muslim League was in little doubt that Muslim was more an ethnic than religious marker, and that South Asian Muslims shared more with each other than they did with non-Muslims from their own state, region, language or ethnic group.

“[Islam and ] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” claimed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. “Mussalmans are not a minority as it is commonly known and understood… Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory, and their state.”

Among Europe's more-established Muslim populations, they sometimes self-identified and were formally recognised as an ethnicity, such as in the former Yugoslovia, and there has been a long-standing dispute in China as to whether its Muslim minorities were an ethnicity or religious community. Unfortunately, this ethnicisation of Islam is occurring in Western Europe and America, where Muslim is often used nowadays as a marker of origin, rather than of a religion.

But when it comes to the sum of Muslim populations around the world, the “ethnic” label becomes more ambiguous and complicated to use. “There are hundreds of ethnicities in Islam,” one friend observed, echoing others who objected to ascribing the ‘ethnic' label to Muslims.

Some suggested that the fact that Islam is made up of many local ethnicities, referring to Muslim as a kind of ethnicity would cause considerable confusion – and argued that an alternative term was required. Mega-ethnicity, perhaps?

A couple suggested, instead, “cultural Muslim”. Cultural Muslim is a great term for those who self-identify with Islamic culture but do not practise or do not believe in the faith, as well as those who belong to a minority religion in Muslim-majority societies but feel a strong affinity to the mainstream culture. “ Christians are all more or less Muslims by culture rather than by faith,” observes Liliane Daoud, a prominent Lebanese TV personality who was born to Christian and Muslim parents.

In addition, the term “cultural Muslim” fails to capture the fact that the status “Muslim” is not just a cultural label. In many Islamic contexts, it is also a social, political, legal and jurisprudential category.

Moreover, a similar situation of multi-layered ethnicity afflicts other accepted ethnic markers. For example, ‘Arab' is accepted as an ethnicity, even though under this language-based umbrella stands a multitude of ethnic, national, racial, religious and tribal communities.

In addition, the multi-ethnic argument also applies to Judaism, which is also an umbrella label for numerous ethnic groups, including Mizrahim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, all of which have numerous sub-ethnicities, not to mention Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and more. The only difference between ‘Jew' and ‘Muslim' here is one of magnitude and numbers, given the much wider spread of Islam.

Describing Muslim as an ethnicity is “likely to have negative unintended discursive consequences by reifying made-up ‘race'/'ethnic' concepts,” in the words of Farrah, a friend and academic.

Of course, I am well aware of the dangers of conflating religion with ethnicity or race. One of the most destructive and infamous examples of this was the Nuremberg Race Laws, which defined Jewishness, not as a changeable religious allegiance, but as a fixed biological identity which could not be changed or erased, not even through conversion or total and complete assimilation.

And bad omens in this regard are appearing in the form of virulent anti-Semitism and a brand of Islamophobia that seems to regard Muslims as monolithically menacing, the kind of collective demonisation and essentialisation that informed Donald Trump's expressed desire to impose a freeze on immigration from Muslim lands.

However, whether or not we describe Muslim as an ethnicity does not remove the fact that it too often operates like one, and this has already caused considerable harm.

Numerous Muslim-majority countries, especially those whose personal and family laws retain a modern form of the classical ‘millet' system, have hereditary Islam codified into their laws. This means that a faith is imposed on before they have the chance to decide for themselves, and this shapes many of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

To add injury to presumption, and to place citizens in a catch-22, quite a few countries make it difficult and often impossible for people to remove or change the religion on their identity papers – and some states even punish as “apostates” those who reject their pre-determined Muslim identity or wish to convert to another religion. Some countries also limit to “Muslims”. This is the case in most of the Gulf states, which effectively disenfranchises millions of non-Muslim residents, some of whom may have been born there, while recent Muslim immigrants stand a greater chance of being naturalised.

If being Muslim is to become truly a question of faith and conviction, not a de facto ethnic identity, then the pious cannot have their cake and eat it. They must stop counting everyone born to presumed Muslim parents as an automatic Muslim. The ‘umma' of believers should only be as large as those who voluntarily associate themselves with it.

In addition, the ridiculous and harmful discriminatory practices common in some Muslim countries should end. Countries which do so must stop assigning a religious identity to their citizens, must not attach extra social, economic or cultural benefits to being a Muslim, must not punish Muslims who leave the faith, and must not discriminate against non-Muslims.

Ultimately, religion is a personal choice but society is for everyone.


This article first appeared in The New Arab on 11 June 2018.


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