Islam on Its Own Terms

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We Muslims have always been longing for a “return” to the good life for centuries now. And understandably so.

That’s why it is not only regrettable, but oh so sorrowful, that we are totally mired in trying to understand what we as a people believe through the ideas and histories of others.

There are many reasons for this. But the most important is the widening gap separating us-not from knowing Islam’s basic beliefs and rituals, but-from seeking to understand them and Islam’s major concepts on their own terms.

Not to wax political, but the easiest example of this is the question ever in the backdrop of the public discourse on Muslims: Why do Muslims not have freedom and democracy?

But think about these two concepts for a moment, and conceptually they are filled with problems. Democracy started in Athens, enfranchised the rich, and totally divested the poor, the slave, and the foreigner, of any rights. One need only look around today to see there is still nothing close to a standard for its application in the cultures that celebrate it.

The same can be said of freedom, an even vaguer notion. Are women who must uncover their faces to access the public square in order to appease cultural insecurities free?

Islam certainly upholds the concepts of participation and personal and public choice in shura and other principles. In fact, its notion of participation in public life and policymaking is significantly broader and its freedoms far more sweeping and protected. But the crucial issue is what concepts are given priority.

Islam’s prime social value-under which these two common concepts and all others are subsumed-is justice (‘adl), and excelling in good-doing (ihsan), or personal social responsibility borne of religious conviction. Allah says: Indeed, Allah commands the execution of justice among you and the doing of good to others… [16:90].

Hence, in Islam because of its emphasis and elevation of prescribed justice, as opposed to undefined notions of democracy and freedom, even if there were slaves, as in Athens, or if someone’s freedom was lost, as with a prisoner, there nonetheless could be no loss of justice. This has the virtue of preserving both participation and freedom because God has enshrined justice over these other concepts. You could not, for instance, in Islam deprive the slave or felon from voting, or the prisoner of war from sharing in your own food or clothing, even if you were yourself hungry and ill-clad.

The point is you cannot understand this if you are taking your conceptual framework-even for your own religion-from people fixated on certain ideas that have been developed in their societies and cultures as a reaction to their very distinctive histories. The result of this mixing can only be confusion. And values confusion, indeed, is what we Muslims are currently much about, in my humble observation.

We must learn and fathom the concepts of Islam on their own terms. In other words, as the Qur’an has defined them, as the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, has exemplified them, and as our scholars for the last 14 centuries have preserved, related, explicated, and translated them for our benefit.

That is not to say we should ignore and cannot learn from others. But wholesale importation of un-indigenized concepts and, especially, uncritically accepted frameworks from the historically shaped outlooks of others-this is disastrous. In fact, when it comes to Muslims, who are the prophetic community of the latter-day world, this is a dereliction of the highest order and communal cowardice.

Nowhere is what I’ve been talking about clearer than with the current environmental tragedy that is now literally threatening the entire planet and everyone and everything on it with annihilation. Could the stakes be higher?

Yet when it comes to the environment, Muslims are not merely voiceless, they are in a fetal posture of waiting to receive instructions from others-and the very same peoples whose cultural conceptions got us into this mess in the first place. How foolish is that?

Islam has everything to say and to give to the world when it comes to rescuing humanity from its current collective suicide, and rescuing the planet from humanity. This is because it knows that at its core the crisis of the environment is the spiritual crisis of man.

And, above all, Islam has the conceptual language and sources to reorient and re-inspire man to his humble yet gallant role as steward of the earth, khalifah. Islam understands that these concepts of preservation, conservation, protection, cooperation, abstention, moderation are not free-floating ideas, but Heavenly perspectives held together by two things: The divine decree of a single, solitary Master, God; and the human realization that He shall interrogate His servants, us, on that looming Last Day about the blessings-the furnished habitation, and the food, water, and air-He has bestowed to us, for both our enjoyment and our care.

Why not gift this, this perspective, this inheritance of ours, to the world, now, in its hour of need? Us. We Muslims. Forget about the power and the glory. Focus on conveying this panacea for humanity and its habitation to everyone.

We surely can do it, with the permission of Allah-but not before we ourselves come to fathom our deen by and on its own terms. Within lies the answer.


Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.

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