Transcending Idiosyncrasy: The Appropriation of Islām by Muslims

[This is the first of four instalments of my MA thesis “Transcending Idiosyncrasy: An Investigation into the Appropriation of Islām by Muslims”, submitted to the Islamic College for Advanced Studies in collaboration with Middlesex University in September 2015].
“May God veil you from the exterior of the religious law, and may he reveal to you the reality of infidelity. For the exterior of the religious law is a hidden idolatry, while the reality of infidelity is manifest gnosis.” –Mansūr  Al-Hallāj

There appears to be a battle brewing whereby strands of the Muslim collective have, knowingly or unknowingly, applied a policy of exclusivity and monopolization with regards to the Islamic creed. In particular, whilst much emphasis has been placed on the need to fight any and all attempts at the dilution and misapplication of the Islāmic faith by external agents, the constant need for wariness of the internal attack has been neglected, despite the reality, which tradition has often emphasized, that the “internal enemy is more dangerous than the external enemy.”1

Since this investigation is concerned with the seizure of Islām on the part of various Muslim cohorts, it is important to firstly discern what the term Islām denotes in order to comprehend the process of appropriation that has taken place. Islām is an Arabic word derived from the root-verb aslama, which means “to surrender oneself [to God]”,2 and it has been recognized by few scholars and Qur’ānic translators in particular, that it is in light of this original denotation that the term is ought to be understood throughout the Qur’ān.

Expanding on his translation of the term muslimūn (singular: muslim), which first occurs, chronologically speaking, in Chapter 68 (verse 35) of the Qur’ān, Muhammad Asad explicitly states the following in his exegesis of the Qur’ānic test: “It should be borne in mind that the “institutionalized” use of these terms [islām and muslim] – that is, their exclusive application to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad – represents a definitely post-Qur’ānic development and, hence, must be avoided in a translation of the Qur’ān.”3

As such, there is a necessary distinction to be made between the verbatim meaning of Islām, and its systemized counterpart. Muhammad Shahrur’s refreshing rereading of the Qur’ān also contributes to this stream of thought, whereby he exposes the various fallacious conflations committed by traditional scholarship in what ought to be revered as an essential work that has arguably carved a novel approach to Qur’ānic sciences. One of his main conclusions, which inform this brief study, is “to demonstrate the distinct universal nature of the term al-muslimūn, which can be (generically) applied to all believers in this world.”4  Shahrur goes to great lengths in separating the two, often synonymized, terms, namely that of al-muslimūn, which he defines as “those who assent to God”, and al- mu’minūn, describing a particular breed of believers, a term that Shahrur subsequently identifies as being specifically reserved “for the followers of Prophet Muhammad.”5 The reason for this distinction is rooted in the Qur’ān itself, which refers to each as separate, and therefore distinct, categories of believers:

“Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women…”6

This explanation as eulogized by the likes of Asad and Shahrur can be further compounded through the study of Chapter 114 of the Qur’ān, entitled An-Nās (‘Men’), which begins with the following proclamation: “Say: “I seek refuge with the Sustainer of men”7 (“Men” denotes humankind, and is not limited to the male gender). Assuming that the Qur’ān is the descriptive blueprint of the Islāmic prerogative, and the purest indication of what constitutes a Muslim, and Allāh’s self-described role is that of Creator and Guardian of men in the collective, the case could be made that Islām was decreed for the masses, even those who may not profess to be Muslim, or practice as one, but all those who ultimately bear witness to God as the “Sustainer of men”. Kenneth Cragg has suggested that “the ‘trinity’ of descriptives” contained within it [Chapter 114 of the Qur’ān], namely that of Allāh as the ‘Sustainer’ (Rabb), the ‘Sovereign’ (Malik), and ‘God’ (Ilāh) of men is a cue for the reader to “know these capacities on the part of Allāh as the solidarity of humanity in such inclusive care.”8 When recited, one cannot help but be moved by the poetic emphasis of God’s stature that this triadic expression reflects, as the “triple use of the one noun Ilāh […] to the one repeated an-nās, brings us all – and none uniquely – under the governance and jurisdiction of Allah as One.”9

In fact, this observation can be traced throughout the Qur’ān. God speaks of humankind and to humankind in the universal, accentuating his address in somewhat Marxian terms as “folk in their endless multiplicity.”10 He does not make distinctions, nor does He express favour towards any particular race, nationality, or religious grouping, including that of Muslims. In a similar vein, Cragg insists on an understanding of ‘men’, as translated by Asad [an-nās], as “all of us in an undiscriminating plural.”11 In light of this combined understanding, it is easy to acknowledge why many have suggested that Islām as analyzed through the Qur’ān has, for better or for worse, interpretation as the key determinant to its materialization. On the one hand, it leaves the door open for anyone and everyone to explore and engage with its contents, but on the other hand, it also means that ‘meaning’ can and has been monopolized by certain echelons of power, and vis-à-vis the institutionalization of Islām the religion.

Indeed, a final point to be made here is that whilst Muslims, who also happen to be followers of the Prophet Muhammad (a classification that has already been discussed), have mistakenly appropriated the meaning of Islām, and all that is contained within the ideology, it is important to refer back to the Qur’ān to confirm this error. Once again referring to Chapter 114 of the sacred text, Allāh refers to Himself as Ilāh al-nās “God of men”, not Ilāh al-muslimīn “God of Muslims”. This is hugely significant when emphasizing that God cannot be reserved simply to those who submit to His testimony. He is the ‘Sustainer’, the ‘Sovereign’, and the ‘God’ of humankind, not of the Muslims solely. This paper cites the appropriation of Islām as being demonstrable through the scope of a mentality that presents itself “as if Allāh were only Malik al-muslimīn.”12

This investigation seeks to build upon existing studies by opting to examine the fundamental causes of the appropriation of Islām, which has, historically and presently, hindered the necessity towards the harmonious (“…harmony being nothing other than “unity in multiplicity” (al-wahdah fi’l-kathrah) and “multiplicity in unity” (al-kathrah fi’l-wahdah)”13) transcendence of idiosyncrasies – idiosyncrasies that have plagued the human condition but which can and ought to be bypassed. This transcendence, it is hoped, would give rise to an argument in favour of a pluralistic ecosystem vital in sustaining critical yet progressive encounters across humanity – a social structure that recognizes that “cultural diversity is richness.”14

The attempts by European scholars to fracture the notion of the Ummah – “the entire, global community of Islām”15 – and of a universal Islām, vis-à-vis the expression Black Islam, as though it is an ideology in and of itself is significant but not directly relevant to this study. Diagne notes that “this category of a “Black” specificity within the Umma, the Islāmic community of believers, was politically and ethnologically constructed in derogation of the notion of the Islāmic Umma.”16 In light of the fact that history concedes that there have been continual and deeply penetrative attempts to segregate various Muslim communities from one another, and in particular that the micro-label Black Islam “was needed by the colonial system for political purposes, mainly to shield the sub-Saharan areas from the so-called pan-Arabic or pan-Islāmic threat to Western colonial domination”,17 Muslims do themselves a great disservice by exacerbating these colonial legacies through an ‘othering’ of their own. As such, one ought to be wary of compartmentalizing fellow believers. It is a cause for dismay that what Diagne refers to as ‘ethnologism’ is something that is practiced within the Muslim community, namely “as a form of tribal thinking – something that Islām is meant to fight – [but] that considers the Arab peoples to be at the center of the Umma.”18

Thus, a categorical and uncompromising distinction between the act of islām, which forms the basis of every religion that recognizes a Divine Entity to whom the human being is advised to surrender to, and the institutionalized religion of Islām are two separate concepts that, whilst not necessarily mutually exclusive, have been utilized interchangeably when they should not be. This erroneous synonymy has contributed to what shall be referred to as the ‘appropriation’ of Islām: that is to say, the hijacking of the act of islām, which is not exclusive to the religion (institution) of Islām, but has been mistakenly assumed as such. In so doing, a series of four intermediary discussions concerning the constituents that are collectively responsible for the appropriation of Islām shall be discussed.

The first is the rejection of epistemic doubt, or the refusal to adopt a healthy dose of scepticism, which has been identified by a multitude of philosophers and epistemologists as absolutely essential to the growth of knowledge and the fortification of belief systems. The permanence of human fallibility necessitates the utilization of doubt in dethroning dogmatism, building upon existing knowledge, and responding to authority and intellectual dictatorship. Tariq Ramadan has noted that “doubt about self is thus allied to deep trust in God. Indeed, trials of faith are never tragic in Islamic tradition.”19 As such, the exercising of doubt is of paramount importance in the regulation of religious conviction, for to doubt is to recognize one’s fallibility, which is a constant reminder that the quest for truth is not straightforward, and that the appropriation of anything in this context, but particularly of Islām, is mistaken. The second alludes to the unchecked embrace of institutionalization and the damage it has done in terms of constricting an ideology that is by its very nature universal, as well as the interplay of power and legalistic authority. The third constituent cites the dismissal of intellectual humility as an accompaniment and a quintessential hallmark of Islām. A willingness to accept defeat and refutation at each and every stage of one’s journey is of critical importance, yet largely underestimated. Indeed, Islām hinges itself upon an overwhelming humility, which not only steers the human’s ability to surrender to God, but also has the power to reconfigure the entire human paradigm. The fourth and final constituent refers to the defiance towards transcendentalism within some elements of the Muslim tradition, which manifests in a number of ways, shedding light on sub-chapter topics pertaining to the feasibility and necessity of pluralism, and the scope for inclusivity contained within it.

What is of primary concern here is the subtle yet substantial attack on Islām, ironically and unknowingly perpetrated by Muslims themselves. This attack should not be underestimated. Yet, the intention is not to antagonize the followers of the religion of Islām, nor is the objective to entirely denounce the institution itself. Rather, the aim is to release Islām from the reins of dogma and the echelons of powerful jurisdiction that have suffocated its grace, bound its subscribers, and excluded everybody else. Ultimately, this should be looked upon as an overwhelming defence of Islām as a truly inclusive outlook geared towards God-consciousness, humility, and goodness, and which has the unique capacity to leave no one behind.


1- Shomali (2010) Religion and Freedom, p.141
2- Asad (2003) The Message of the Qur’ān, p.31, note 91
3- Asad (2003) The Message of the Qur’ān, p.1011, note 17
4- Shahrur (2009) The Qur’an, Morality & Critical Reason, p.21
5- Ibid, p.21
6- 33:35, Al-‘Ahzāb (The Confederates), p.724
7- 114:1, An-Nās (Men)
8- Cragg (2005) The Qur’an and the West: Some Minding Between, p.17
9- Ibid, p.17
10- Ibid, p.16
11- Ibid, p.17
12- Ibid, p.20
13- Eaton (1994) Islam and the Destiny of Man, p.220
14- Diagne (2004) Islam in Africa: Examining the Notion of an African Identity within the Islamic World, p.381
15- Cragg (2005) The Qur’an and the West: Some Minding Between, p.211
16- Diagne (2004) Islam in Africa: Examining the Notion of an African Identity within the Islamic World, p.376
17- Ibid, p.377
18- Ibid, p.377
19- Ramadan (2008) The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad, p.5


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