Saturday, 3 October 2015

Islam is revelation, not a race or culture

Why Islam should not be conflated with race or referred to as a set of "traditions"

Imam Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān al-Būṭī, may Allah have mercy on him, in his book Fiqh as-Sīrah[1] states:

Third: The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, took his people to task for enslaving themselves to traditions that they had inherited from their forefathers without giving thought to how valid or invalid they might be . He called upon them to free their minds from the habit of blind obedience and bigoted attachment to traditions[2] which are not based upon a foundation or sound reason.

This, in turn, serves as evidence that the underpinning for this religion, in both its theology and rulings, is none other than the intellect and reason, and that the aim behind adherence to it is the best interests of mankind, in the life and the next. Hence, one of the most important conditions for the soundness of one’s faith in Allah and whatever other beliefs are associated with this is that such faith rest on a foundation of certainty and free thought, unrestrained by convention or tradition. The author of Jawharat at-Tawḥīd says in his well-known poem:

If one just mimics others in the Oneness of Allah (tawḥīd)

His faith has not been freed of redundancy (tardīd)

From this it becomes clear that the religion of Islam came to declare war on traditions insofar as they arise from blind mimicry, since this religion – in all its principles and rulings – is based on the foundation of sound intellect and reason, while “traditions” in this sense are founded on nothing but the desire to imitate and follow, that is, without any role being given to the element of inquiry and independent thinking. After all, the word taqālīd means, according to the scholars of the Arabic language and social scientists, the sum total of the customs which have been inherited from former generations, or which maintain their validity simply by virtue of the social contract which takes place in a particular environment. As such, the element of sheer imitation is the central nerve which extends through such customs, both giving them life and enabling them to survive.

Everything people have grown accustomed to in their societies – ways of life, the forms of entertainment they engage in during times of happiness, and how they express mourning in times of misfortune and sadness – is part of what has been handed down from times of old, or what has been adopted unthinkingly through influence or contact with others; and it is all these things together which are referred to by both linguists and sociologists as “traditions”.

Once you know this, you realise that Islam cannot possibly contain anything by the name of “traditions”, whether they have to do with theology or various rulings and regulations, since the theology is based on the foundation of sound reasoning while its rulings rest on the foundation of temporal and eternal interests. Although some interests might not be comprehended by some people for this reason or that, they are, nevertheless, understandable through thought and careful reflection.

This, in turn, reveals the serious of the error committed by those who employ the phrase “Islamic traditions” to describe Islam’s various forms of worship, legislative rulings and moral precepts.

The propagation of this unfair designation may suggest to people that the value of Islamically sanctioned morality derives not from its embodying a divine principle which contains the secret of happiness for the human race – as, in fact, it does – but rather, because the Islamic law and system of morality are customs which were inherited from previous generations. If this suggestion is taken seriously, it is bound to cause people to feel oppressed by this “antiquated” heritage which others wish to impose on society in which everything is highly developed, advanced and modern.

The application of the term “Islamic traditions” to the various rulings of Islam is not, however, an innocent mistake; rather, it is one link in a series of attacks being waged on Islam by means of empty, misleading slogans.

The primary aim behind the promotion of the term “Islamic traditions” is to produce an association in people’s minds between the meaning of “tradition” in its negative sense and Islam’s various rulings and precepts. When this occurs, people forget that these precepts are, in essence, principles based on sound reason and enquiry, and they become a weak point that is vulnerable to the arrows and spears of Islam’s foes.

All the precepts and legislation that Islam has brought are, in essence, principles, and a principle is something which is founded on sound thought and reason and which aims to accomplish a specific end. Now, although principles of merely human origin may or may not hit their mark due to misconceptions on the part of their originators, the principles of Islam never miss their mark, since the One who established them is the Creator of all minds and thoughts. This alone is sufficient rational proof for one to be convinced of these principles and be certain of their correctness and soundness.

There is no doubt that if Muslims wake up from their slumber they will find that most of Islam’s principles and rulings, such as marriage and divorce, a woman covering and being maintained, and other issues of morals and manners, have been clothed in the garb of “traditions”. Therefore, it is only natural that they should find some people calling for the repudiation of such “traditions” and emancipation from the “slavery” which they impose, especially in this age of ours that is dominated by the quest for freedom of opinion and thought.

However, the reality is that there are no traditions in Islam.

Rather, as we have seen from our examination of the earliest days of the Prophet’s mission, it is a religion which came to deliver the mind from the grip of tradition.

As for traditions, they are simply behavioral trends in which people get unthinkingly swept away out of the human desire to imitate.

It is principles which must regulate development over time, not vice-versa.

As for traditions, they are just a gathering of parasites that develop by themselves in the midst of society’s intellectual fields. These are the weeds which must be uprooted, and from which sound thought must be freed.

[End of Quote] 

[1] ML: Based on the translation by Nancy Roberts and revised by Anas al-Rifāʿī (Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 2008), p.144 to 146 (p.114 to 116 of the 2009 Arabic edition)
[2] Ar.  taqālīd, which can also be translated as customs or conventions

From the Imam's statement we can learn the following:

1) Islam has to be separated from culture. The former is revelation while the latter is simply customs and traditions that have been imitated over time; the only defense offered by those who engage in them is that they found their parents and ancestors engaging in them. One can look at Surat al-Maidah 5:104 and several other examples in the Qur'an. Culture not only has to be separated but must be completely abandoned when it goes against revelation. As one of my teachers eloquently put it, "Culture must die so that we can live."

2) We have to be wary of referring to Islam as a culture or set of traditions because it clouds Islam's revelatory source. If Islamic theology and rulings are merely part of a culture or set of traditions, i.e. something passed on from generation to generation for no apparent reason other than it being practiced by people before, it can be easily attacked and subjected to calls for its reformation or outright dismissal. Here is an example of disbelievers dismissing and castigating Islamic rulings because they are said to be part of Islamic "culture". I would include in this the term "Traditional Islam". Ahl us-Sunnah wa al-Jamaa'ah is Orthodox Islam, and they are the people who follow the Sunnah, have the correct theology (i.e. the theology that was revealed) and they are the majority. Sunni Islam is not something that is simply passed down over the years and centuries; it is revelation. Is is rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.

3) Islam is not a race, and therefore it is certainly not a wise idea to attempt to conflate race with religion. Racism is so abhorrent and indefensible because one's race can't be changed. It's entirely Allah's will and therefore completely involuntary. Religion, on the other hand, is a voluntary matter and one must have one's own conviction. Faith that is based on mere imitation, as the quote from Jawharat a-Tawheed demonstrates, is worthless. Therefore, the way that one might defend their race by saying they were born that way simply won't do when defending one's faith. One can't say that because they were born and raised a Muslim that their religion should be above criticism or reproach, or even mockery

And, as mentioned in this post, as Muslims carry on down this route of demanding legal protection after legal protection, they too will be beaten with same stick. If this is taken further, to the extent that all religions are protected because they are conflated with race, and religion is seen as an even deeper part of one's identity than one's race, then preaching Islam, and indeed any religion, will be illegal, and if Muslims in Dar al-Kufr can't preach Islam then they have no justification for being there. Is it not obvious that inviting someone to Islam can be taken offensively, as one is implying that the one being invited is wrong and unsaved, and not just the individual but their family as well?

Let us therefore heed the late Imam's advice and understand that our religion is revelation, and we must treat it as such and present it as such. It is not a race and it is not a culture.

And with Allah is every success.

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