There are two kinds of Islam (and further thoughts)

There are two kinds of Islam (and further thoughts) December 23, 2015

and, no, I don’t mean Sunni vs. Shi’a.

I mean an Islam of “core principles” and an Islam of legal traditions.

This is emerging as the core difference in what I’ve been reading, both over the last week and in the past.  (I would have checked out A Battle for the Soul of Islam, by Zuhdi Jasser, to re-read as well, but it was checked out at my local library.  It fits in with Ali-Karamali and Manji, though.)

You might also label these groups “contextualists” vs. “transmissionists”; the former emphasize interpreting in context, based on core principles; the latter emphasize interpreting the way teachings have been transmitted down the generations.

And there’s not a hard-and-fast line between the two:  contextualists look to traditional interpretations as much as  possible, and trasmissionists, so far as I understand, use their judgement when there are multiple schools of thought on a matter, though they may not acknowledge that that’s what they’re doing.

But attitudes toward women’s headcovering point to this difference.  Contextualists say that Muslims should look beyond legal traditions as they’ve arisen over the years, to Muhammad’s fundamental message of equality of men and women, to see that the right way to interpret conflicting traditions is in favor of equality, and, hence, uncovered heads, though with acceptance of those who choose otherwise.  Transmissionists say that the long chain of interpretation requires women to cover their heads, so that’s that.

Having said that, both these approaches are “real Islam.”

The tolerant Islam that Ali-K. describes, is “real Islam,” yes, but the intolerant, combative Islam that Manji describes (and opposes) is also Islam.  I’ve said this previously, and I’ll harp on it again.  It is extremely important to recognize that there are two Islams (or more than two, if you split the transmissionists into Good Guys and Bad Guys), in order to make any headway in our thinking about the subject.

Is this Transmitted Islam necessarily extremist?  No, but I’d guess that young people who grow up in this environment are at risk of moving on to extremism because their understanding of Islam is that it’s all about listening to experts, and they come to believe that ISIS recruiters are more authoritative than the religious leaders they grew up with.  And in many cases, these leaders are already less moderate than they claim to be, making statements such as “I’m moderate, but Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t have published those cartoons,” or “I oppose violence, but the terrorists have valid complaints.”

Now, so far as I can tell, everyone in the ongoing debates about extremism, mainstreamism, and reform, have resisted applying labels, or differentiating between “types of Islam.”  Each side says that they are “true Muslims” and the other side(s) is/are not.

But this is getting us, and them, nowhere.  The fundamental starting point has to be to say, “anyone who accepts Muhammad as the final prophet of God, who revealed the word and will of God, is a Muslim” and work from there.

Instead we’re stuck with discussions that just replay the No True Scotsman claim over and over.

Ali-Karamali in her book, and others like her, take the position that the Bad Things that Muslims do have nothing to do with Islam; even if ISIS, for instance, thinks of themselves as Islamic, they’re really motivated by either a false understanding of Islam, or by political reasons that have nothing, really, to do with religion at all.  Likewise, honor killings, forced veiling of women, and the like are the result of tribal backwardness by people who just happen to be Muslim.

It’s an “am I my brother’s keeper?” sort of attitude.

And it’s wrong not just because it generates a persecution mindset among Muslims in America, but because the contextualizing Muslims, the “core principles” Muslims, are the only ones who can reach out to their fellow believers and call them to their path.  The world needs them to do this.

What’s more, they need to do this not just via blog posts, or youtube videos, or lectures or op-ed pieces, but through community.

When the Jews of 18th century Germany decided they needed to create a new kind of Judaism, they didn’t just decide, on their own, to stop keeping kosher at home.  They created communities of like-minded believers.

So far as I can tell, that’s what’s missing among Islamic reformers.

Ali-K. writes about coming to the belief that there’s nothing wrong with men and women worshiping together, rather than the women being relegated to a basement with a scratchy loudspeaker.  But she continues to worship in a community in which this is exactly what she experiences.

Manji writes about travelling across the country and, indeed, across the world to spread her message of reform, and of facebook correspondence with individuals who would like to escape the religious environment they feel trapped in.  But at home, her mother still worships in a mosque where the imam calls her daughter a heretic, and Manji herself doesn’t appear to worship anywhere at all.

Reform cannot come from websites, or twitter campaigns, or foundations.  Reform can only happen in community.

Perhaps it begins with a small group, even a group whose members drive long distances to pray together.  But that provides an opportunity for others to join and grow the community, and provides an identity and a structure that, ultimately, might mean an existing community could join together, perhaps based on a shared “statement of beliefs.”  And, as a community, the members can reach out to others, both Muslims and the wider society.  Plus, Christians and Jews who wish to reach out themselves, now have a better means of showing their support for their Muslim neighbors than simply calling up the largest local mosque, regardless of their beliefs, and taking it on faith that the imam who has assured them “I am a moderate,” truly is.

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