A Question of Authenticity

Who You? posted a few days ago about who gets to say who is Muslim. It is an issue that is of grave concern to all Muslims, and particularly those who actively fighting for the soul of Islam; the easiest way to delegitimize your opponent is to call them kafir – non-Muslim.

More broadly than the Ismailis, there were other Muslim voices that were silenced, with greater success, during the recent Canadian elections. A hijab-wearing woman, whose father established one of the larger mosques in Toronto, was shunned by the Muslim community over her support of gay marriages. Her name is Itrath Sayed, and this is her letter to the Muslim community. Her logic, that her religious beliefs are part of her, but not necessarily defining of her role as representative of her constituents, is a compelling one. Just as important is the argument that she is upholding the very document that allows Muslims to practice freely.

The ability for a group to declare someone, or another community, non-Muslim, allows that group to do more than silence them politically – it is the same mentality as dehumanizing your enemy in order to allow people to commit atrocities with a clear conscience. The situation in Sudan is getting progressively worse. In The Economist‘s July 31-August 6 2004 issue, Musa Hilal, a leader of the janjaweed is quoted as saying:

As to the charge that his men rape black women: “Why would we rape them? The disgust us.” He adds that African tribeswomen are barely Muslim and have such wanton sexual habits, as seen from the way they dance, that force would hardly be necessary. (p. 39)

Conversely, in China, there are female imams who are coming to the fore. The article, and my discussion of it, are simple, but the point must be made. These imams are filling a need in a way that is acceptable to the local culture and that does not violate Islamic precepts. However, there would be many Muslims who would condemn this by saying women should not be in public. Who gets to define who is Muslim?

Once upon a time, when the community was new, it took a lot to declare someone non-Muslim. There was sense that in the absence of the Prophet, no one could really act as arbiter in matters of faith (although according to Wilferd Madelung, Imam Ali was very clear about actions that could be considered apostasy). It seems there was this crazy notion that faith was between the believer and God, and no one could judge that; this notion actually seems to be in the Qur’an. In the intervening 1400 years, some shrill voices have popped up, and have taken on the role of representing God’s will on earth. Most Muslims seem to have rolled over and played dead rather than suggest that God is ineffable. So most Muslims are committing shirk, associating others with God, and those who don’t agree with them are branded as non-Muslim. That’s the war we are fighting. Who defines Islam and who is a Muslim is up to us, not the colleges; not the madrasas not my great-uncle’s second cousin thrice removed who once picked up the Qur’an, but us; those who are part of a community; those who are building community; those who, when faced with the majesty of God, do not claim to see our own reflection, but who understand the trust placed upon us to struggle to understand God and our relationship to that Divine. That is the first station for us to reach, to take back our Islam.

Here in the US, the debate rages on as to who is Muslim. The groups maybe US only now, but if we don’t speak up now, when will we?

10 thoughts on “A Question of Authenticity

  1. Thank you for the link to the article about female imams in China! I did not realize that women could become imams; that was a fascinating story.

  2. Didn’t the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, say that all those who believe in One God are Muslims???
    Just asking…
    On another, similarly controversial note, how about the question of who is an Arab? Plenty of Lebanese Christians like to claim they are not Arabs, including some of my relatives. The fact that I call myself an Arab-American says as much about my father’s politics (center left, passionately Arab nationalist) as it does about me. Then there’s the question of how long you get to be an Arab after immigrating to the West – some would claim I’m not really, for cultural reasons mostly, and because I don’t “look like one.” And yet when I went to a Palestinian church festival in San Francisco where I knew no one, people addressed me in ARabic, because it seems I do look like one after all. However I’m barely literate in Arabic, so if the language defines the ethnicity, how Arab am I? Etc., etc.
    Certainly my children, 1/4 Arab, with blonde hair and Anglo-Saxon surnames, cannot really claim to be Arabs. OTOH if Hitler came back, my children would be doomed, because Arabs were just as low as Jews in his book, and 1/4 ethnicity was enough to condemn you to death.
    This is the conundrum of ethnic identity for those of us born in the West…to be continued.

  3. Leila, the hadith as I understand means that all those who believe in one God are muslim – yaani, submitters – not Muslim as in the historical beings that appear in the 7th century. The Qur’an itself speaks of Adam, Moses, Abraham, etc. as muslims. Great thing about a language with capitalization, it can mean whatever you shoehorn into it.
    As for ethnic identification, it’s a huge issue. We have at least 4 generations of Arabs in the US, where language, religion, food, and other expressions of cultural identity are non-existent, or predominantely used in a symbolic manner, rather than through actual group affiliation (asabiyya). The Mexican-Punjabis are in a similar situation, as are the Lebanese in Mexico and Colombia. There are parts of the US where the one-drop rule is still a cultural norm, if not a legal one. Major urban centers have seen the fetishization of the “other.”
    The politics of self-identification are far too dense to deal with in a short blog post, but it’s a great conversation for the dissertation I’m supposed to be working on right now. Do you know anything about the Assyrian movement out of Syria? That strikes me as an interesting study in self-identification.

  4. No I don’t know much about the Assyrians, except that Assyrian folks used to post on soc.culture.lebanon (the usenet) with some stridency.
    Narsai David, our beloved Bay Area food godfather, is Assyrian. He’s the only one I could name.
    Is there a soc.culture.assyrian? You could use Google groups…

  5. Speaking of female imams, do you know of any cases in which female qadis have been appointed in countries where qadis’ courts are part of a state-run Islamic personal law system? There’s been some discussion of appointing female qadis in Kenya and Israel, for instance, but as far as I know it’s never actually been done. Is there any precedent for a woman holding such an office?

  6. Leila, the Assyrians are an interesting group. From what I understand they are a recovered ethnicity; that is, the original Assyrian community died out, but a group chose to revive that identity in order to separate themselves from an Arab/Muslim identity.
    Jonathan, interesting question about the qadis. I know of no practicing female qadis. There are women who may be trained in the law, but do not practice officially in that class. They may function more informally and in parallel systems. The book “Pronouncing and Perservering” deals with these power structures in a rather oblique way. I’ve sent your question on to a couple of friends of mine who specialize in Islamic law to see if I can a more interesting answer and will post their responses here.

  7. “There was sense that in the absence of the Prophet, no one could really act as arbiter in matters of faith…”
    This doesn’t tell the whole story.
    The main concern with declaring some a Muslim, or not, was that of *deeds*, i.e. “doing good”. How far are “deeds” part of “faith”? Or are the two totally separate? Does declaring “faith” mean “deeds” are devoid of meaning? These questions did afflict the early Muslim community.

  8. Further research reveals a presentation by Ankara University professor Ibrahim Maras entitled “The First Woman Qadi: Mukhlisa Bubi and the Soviet Regime (1917-1937),” but I was unable to find out anything else about this person. I wonder if there’s a parallel between Mukhlisa Bubi and the female imam in China in that communist systems are more likely to favor an ideology of gender equality over the sensibilities of existing religious authorities. I don’t usually care much for communists, but maybe this is a minor point in their favor.

  9. Revolution, religion and reform: Islam and the state in Central Asia and France

    In the course of my recent travels, I ran across a link to a po tentially fascinating presentation entitled The First Woman Qadi: Mukhlisa Bubi and the Soviet Regime, 1921-36. I say “potentially fascinating” because there was no abstract and…

  10. thabit, the Khariji clearly opted for acts, but the Shi’at Ali – whether you believe they were political or religious at this point – opted for faith. The question did affect the early Muslim community, but no one individual took it upon themselves to act as the arbiter of faith.

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