What Does It Mean To Be a Muslim Today?

What Does It Mean To Be a Muslim Today?

To be a Muslim today–or any day–is to live in accordance with the will and pleasure of Allah. Muslims often say, with joy and pride, that it is easy to be a Muslim since Islam is “the straight path” leading to paradise. What this means, in other words, is that the principles of Islam are simple and straightforward, free of ambiguities, confusions, inconsistencies or mysteries, and that comprehending them or living in accordance with them is not difficult. The assumption here is that if one somehow comes to “the straight path” by accepting Islam, which is Allah’s last and final revelation to humanity, one will fairly effortlessly arrive at the destination which is a state of eternal blessedness in the presence of Allah. I must confess that I am totally amazed, and overwhelmed, by this assumption. To me, being a Muslim today–or any day–seems to be exceedingly hard, for to be a Muslim one has constantly to face the challenge, first of knowing what Allah wills or desires not only for humanity in general but also for oneself in particular, and then of doing what one believes to be Allah’s will and pleasure each moment of one’s life.

To be a Muslim means, first and foremost, to believe in Allah, who is “Rabb al-‘alamin”: creator and sustainer of all peoples and universes. The Qur’an, which to me is the primary source of normative Islam, tells me that Allah’s creation is “for just ends”2 and not in “idle sport.”3 Humanity, fashioned “in the best of moulds,”4 has been created in order to serve Allah.5 According to Qur’anic teaching, service of Allah cannot be separated from service to humankind, or–in Islamic terms–believers in Allah must honor both “Haquq Allah” (rights of Allah) and “Haquq al-‘ibad” (rights of creatures). Fulfillment of one’s duties to Allah and humankind constitutes righteousness, as stated in Surah 2: AL-Baqarah: 177, which reads as follows:

It is not righteousness
That ye turn your faces
Towards East or West;
But it is righteousness
To believe in God
And the Last Day,
And the Angels,
And the Book,
And the Messengers;
To spend of your substance,
Out of love of Him,
For your kin,
For orphans,
For the wayfarer,
For those who ask,
And for the ransom of slaves;
To be steadfast in prayer,

And practice regular charity;
To fulfill the contracts
Which ye have made;
And to be firm and patient,
In pain (or suffering)
And adversity,
And throughout
All periods of panic.
Such are the people
Of truth, the God-fearing.6

A Personal Commitment

To me being a Muslim today means taking a stand against those who insist that being a Muslim means following the trodden path and sanctifying tradition without subjecting it to serious reflection or scrutiny. According to the Qur’an, Adam was elevated even above the celestial creatures on account of his capability to “name” things, i.e., to form concepts or to exercise the rational faculty.23 in one of the most significant passages of the Qur’an,24 we are told that Allah offered the “trust” of freedom of will to all creation but only humanity accepted it. What this says to me is that it is not only a right of Muslims, but also their duty–and indeed their glory–to think and to choose. As Iqbal has pointed out,25 freedom is a precondition of goodness and a person who is totally determined (whether by tradition or anything else) cannot produce goodness.

To me being a Muslim means knowing that the Qur’an is the Magna Carta of human freedom and that a large part of its concern is to free human beings from the bondage of traditionalism, authoritarianism (religious, political, economic, or any other), tribalism, racism, sexism, slavery or anything else that prohibits or inhibits human beings from actualizing the Qur’anic vision of human destiny embodied in the classic proclamation: “Towards Allah is thy limit.”26 Though it is necessary to set limits to what human beings may or may not do so that liberty does not degenerate into license, the Qur’an safeguards against the possibility of dictatorship or despotism and states with clarity and emphasis: “It is not right for a human being that Allah should give him the Book of Law, power to judge and (even) Prophethood, and he should say to his fellow-beings to obey his orders rather than those of Allah. He should rather say: ‘Be ye faithful servants of Allah by virtue of your constant teaching of the Book and your constant study of it.'”27

To me being a Muslim today means carrying forward the message of the Muslim modernists who have raised the cry “Back to the Qur’an” (which, in effect, also means “Forward with the Qur’an”)28 and insisted on the importance of Ijtihad–both at the collective level (in the form of “Ijma”29) and at the individual level-as a means of freeing Muslim thought from the dead weight of outmoded traditionalism. It is a profound irony and tragedy that the Qur’an, despite its strong affirmation of human equality and the need to do justice to all of Allah’s creatures, has been interpreted by many Muslims, both ancient and modern, as sanctioning various forms of human inequality and even enslavement. For instance, even though the Qur’an states clearly that man and woman were made from the same source, at the same time, in the same manner, and that they stand equal in the sight of Allah, men and women are extremely unequal in virtually all Muslim societies, in which the superiority of men to women is taken to be self-evident.30 To me a very important part of what it means to be a Muslim today is to acquire the competence to develop a hermeneutics for interpreting the Qur’an in such a way that its fundamental teachings, such as those pertaining to human equality of justice, are separated from historical and cultural accretions which-though they represent the biases or prejudices of specific Muslims or Muslim societies–are taken by the Muslim masses to be part of the Qur’anic message.

Living in the West, I am all too painfully aware of the fact that westerners in general–including many Christians and Jews who, like Muslims, are “People of the Book”–perceive Islam as a religion spread by the sword, and Muslims as religious fanatics who are zealously committed to waging “Holy War” against non-Muslims or even against non-conforming Muslims. While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine the historical roots of these perceptions, being a Muslim today means not turning away in hatred or anger from those who regard Muslims as adversaries but engaging in dialogue with them in a spirit of amity and goodwill.31 Being a Muslim today means paying serious heed to the Qur’anic teaching that Allah, universal creator and sustainer, who cares for all and sends guidance to all, has decreed diversity for a reason, as the following passage tells us: “O men! Behold! We have created you out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”32 What this passage says to me is that we should be mindful both of our unity and our diversity, that one of the basic purposes of diversity is to encourage diverse groups and persons to know one another, that a person’s ultimate worth is determined not by what group he or she belongs to but how Allah-conscious he or she is.

Being a Muslim today means taking serious note of the Qur’anic imperative, “Let there be no compulsion in religion,”33” knowing that the right to exercise free choice in matters of belief is unambiguously endorsed by the Qur’an, which says: “The Truth is/From your Lord:/ Let him who will/Believe, and let him/Who will, reject it.”34 Being a Muslim today also means realizing that by merely professing Islam we do not attain to Paradise, and that Muslims have no special claim upon Allah’s grace, for the Qur’an tells us:

Those who believe (in the Qur’an)
And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Christians and the Sabians,
Any who believe in God
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness,
Shall have their reward
With the Lord; on them
Shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.35

Finally, to me being a Muslim today–and always–means being on a journey, both external and internal, toward attaining a state of peace which is the goal of Islam. However, peace is not merely the absence of conflict, even as health is not merely the absence of sickness. According to the perspective of the Qur’an, peace is a positive state of safety or security in which one is free from anxiety and fear. It comes into being when human beings honoring the divine imperative to live justly, learn to be just to themselves and to others. Constant striving is required to overcome the fragmentation to which most human beings are subjected in the technological age and also to eliminate sexism, racism, classism, and all forms of totalitarianism which lead to the injustices and inequities which characterize the world in which we live. To engage in such striving (which the Qur’an calls ‘jihad fi sabil Allah”: striving in the cause of Allah) is the purpose of a Muslim’s life.


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