There is no Islam, only ‘islams’. Likewise, there is no definition of who is and who is not a Muslim, anyone who says that they are a Muslim, is a Muslim, each practicing an equally valid interpretation of what Islam is. Islam is not a monolith.
By all likelihoods, you have probably heard the above catchphrases circulated by Western Muslims on social media or elsewhere. Such thinking has become a norm in modern society, infecting and sweeping through our communities like a plague. We are facing a fundamental crisis in iman, the likes of which has rarely been glimpsed before on such a massive scale. Muslims are confused, not on the minute aspects of fiqh that perplexed our forefathers, but on what the basic tenets that ground Islam itself are, and on what makes one a Muslim.
“la ilaha illallah muhammad-a-rasulullah”
This is not a casual statement to make. It is a binding testimony to the absolute unity of God (swt), Muhammad (sws) as a Prophet, and the Quran as the divine and infallible Word of God (swt). This (in a nutshell) is what makes one a Muslim. You cannot be an”atheist Muslim”, or a “cultural Muslim”. Islam is not a racial or cultural identity, it is a religion and way of life, and to believers, the only acceptable one in existence. The postmodernist view of the Quran as a document that has no inherent meaning beside that we place upon it is simply incompatible with a belief in its divinity.
There are some who might consider this kind of talk unnecessarily aggressive and impolite. They may argue that it is prudent to tolerate this kind of thinking inside our community, as this will keep youthful members from no longer identifying as Muslim, and will cause native Westerners to be more receptive to the message of Islam. But what kind of ‘Muslim’ will these youth continue to be? What kind of ‘Islam’ will these non-Muslims be hearing about? If we keep reducing the message of Islam in line with secular liberal standards, what will be left? Islam, as is, is sufficient and has plenty to offer the modern world, no reinterpretation of the Quran necessary. The differences between Islam and Western culture do not need to be hidden or explained away in the naive hope that making modern, liberal humanism and Islam compatible will lead to more followers. At any rate, why would anyone want to enter a religion that has nothing new to offer them?
In these times, it’s fair to identify two ideologically different yet methodically identical “reformist” groups operating within the rudderless ship that is modern-day Islam. The first group tends to be Western-born, raised, and bred. They are Liberal, they are secular, they are humanists, feminists, and sex-positivists. They believe the tribulations of the Muslim world can be traced back solely to an excess of religious conservatism. They believe in one value before all others– freedom. The morality of any action is judged not by how it pleases or displeases the Creator, but rather by whether or not it affects one’s personal autonomy. The second group comprises of ISIS, Boko Haram, and other kharijite groups. They are violent and anarchistic, raised in a world that is composed of nothing but violence and anarchy. They believe in violence, not as the means to achieve an end, but as the ultimate End in itself. Ironically, both of these ideologies have been spawned by the modern West, and as such, share a common trait: To them, the Quran is not a divine furqan (criterion), sent to distinguish between right and wrong for humanity, but rather, an unfortunate hindrance that must be dealt with before one can engage their true desires.
But perhaps the most dangerous implication arising from the unprecedented surge of eisegetical techniques in the modern Islamic tradition, is that Muslims, and the world at large, have officially taken morality as a separate concept from religion altogether. This is after all the end goal of secularism: the separation of religion from not merely the state, but any meaningful position in human affairs, and its subsequent irrelevance in society. We are taught, implicitly and explicitly throughout our everyday lives, that the ‘morality’– or, at least, the aimlessly shifting goal posts that now define ethics– of secular liberal culture is absolute and unchanging, despite the frequent alterations that occur to it. Our ancient scriptures, once well worn from frequent consultation in everyday affairs, now grow dusty after having been relegated to the back corners of our temples, only brought out for the occasional, now empty ritual. Even those who continue to profess belief no longer see them as a divine source of ethics, just a source of rules and regulations that are increasingly seen as arbitrary and restrictive. After all, if they have no apparent ethical grounding, what is the purpose of following them? It’s not uncommon these days to find people blaspheming against their own supposed religion, but its not unusual when you realize that ‘religion’ to most people refers to the kind of building they were married in.
And it is the endlessly shifting concepts of morality in modernism that pose a challenge to Islamic “reformers”, who hurriedly struggle to incorporate currently popular social notions into Islamic scriptures, only to realize that those ideas have already been superseded in the current cultural zeitgeist, Muslims who attempted to fit third-wave feminism into the pages of the Quran, now find themselves struggling to fit in LGBT rights. All into a text whose actual message really didn’t matter anymore, not to them, nor most everyone else.
“It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.” (Quran 33:36)
“But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [full, willing] submission.” (Quran 4:65)