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Yes, There Are 2.0 Billion Islams

By Junaid Jahangir, New Age Islam

19 October 2021

With My Grasp of the Islamic Texts and Understanding of the Islamic Ethos, I Try To Learn Why Young Muslims Downplay the Diversity of Islam

Main Points:

1.    No two Muslims think alike, perhaps this is an illustration of Qur’anic verse 31:27.

2.    But of all the grossly prejudiced and uneducated opinions, the one that repeatedly stands out is that there is only one Islam.

3.    I could pontificate the difference between “Islam” as a state of security with the Divine and “Islam” as a religion unique to the teachings of Muhammad (upon whom be peace).

4.    Ikhtilaf is Rahma (difference of opinion is mercy).

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Praying to the West

By Omar Mouallem

Simon and Schuster Canada

pg. xvii, 384, CAN $34.99,

Hardcover, ISBN-13: 978-1501199141

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Why Omar’s book?

I mentioned in my 2019 Tedx talk on LGBTQ Muslims in Islam that there were 1.6 billion Muslims in the whole wide world and by extension there were 1.6 billion Islams. It brought out the strange bedfellows that I have become accustomed to hearing from: Muslim homophobes and xenophobic Islamophobes. What unites them is their intense fear of the marginalized other, to the extent that they take it upon themselves to explode with snarky and inane comments. Often, such comments exude a sense of supreme self-importance, which is usually reflective of their underlying self-esteem and identity issues. These comments include the tropes that being LGBTQ and Muslim are absolute or binary choices, or that Muslims are practicing Taqiyya (dissimulation). Additionally, if the commenter is Pakistani, then the prejudice against Ahmadis trumps that against “the gays”, as I had included Ahmadis in my list of Muslims in the Tedx talk. But of all the grossly prejudiced and uneducated opinions, the one that repeatedly stands out is that there is only one Islam.

I don’t bother with Islamophobes, as I neither have the capacity nor the interest to reach out to people, whose view of Islam is cardboard unidimensional. I am an overworked middle-aged instructor and I’ve had my share of fiery debates in my youth. At this stage of my life, I am not interested in corresponding with anyone with a sense of self-entitlement. I guess I am learning from the younger millennial and Gen Z crowd that I don’t owe that kind of emotional labour to anyone. Although, as a teacher shrouded in privilege in the ivory tower and with my grasp of the Islamic texts and understanding of the Islamic ethos, I try to learn why young Muslims downplay the diversity of Islam. Often my search leads to their profiles that reek of videogames and popular culture but who otherwise are quite rigid when it comes to Islam. I am not sure if I can reach out to this crowd that imbibes its Islam from YouTube celebrity cult speakers like Nouman Ali Khan, Zakir Naik, Mufti Menk, or Mohammed Hijab amongst others. And this is why I am extremely appreciative of Omar Mouallem’s newly released book Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, especially when he writes that, “the Prophet democratized the Muslim clergy while stressing their fallibility. If any man can be an imam, and none of us are to be worshipped, then imams are not to be worshipped” (p. 84). From here on I will refer to him as Omar instead of Mouallem, as I know him well and I wish to personalize this review.

The Pluralism of Primordial Islam

On my part, I could pontificate the difference between “Islam” as a state of security with the Divine and “Islam” as a religion unique to the teachings of Muhammad (upon whom be peace). The latter is a post Muhammad development for the constitution of Medina was clear that the Ummah Vahida (single community) comprised not just of Muslims, but Jews, Christians, and those that were part of the fledgling Medinese community. Indeed, Rabbi Muhayriq died fighting side by side with Muslims at the Battle of Uhud and the Prophet’s armour was with Avi Scham at the time of his death. The later anti-Semitic texts are also a post Muhammad development, when zealous converts brought their prejudice to Islam, which is why we see the superimposition of a Roman massacre of Jews on to what later became known as the massacre of the Banu Qurayzah. The work of Imam Mohamad Jebara is worth reading on such issues, as is Mohammad N. Miraly’s master’s thesis, The Ethic of Pluralism in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Medina. In short, primordial Islam upheld pluralism with a multiplicity of paths and salvific exclusivity was a later development. And this is precisely why there are multiple Islams with infinite permutations and combinations of theological positions on multiple issues.

No two Muslims think alike. Perhaps this is an illustration of Qur’anic verse 31:27 that reads, “If all the trees in the earth were pens and the ocean, with seven more oceans, were ink, still these could not suffice to record all the Words of God.” And this is why I mentioned in my Tedx talk that I can only speak for myself, in stark contrast to many young Muslims, who are quick to use the royal “we” pronoun to speak for an entirety of 2.0 billion Muslims. Come to think of it, the differences at times are so magnified that Barelvis and Deobandis have historically passed takfir (excommunication) on each other in the Indian subcontinent. Within Shia Islam itself there are multiple denominations like the Ithna Asharis, Zaydis, Ismailis, Bohras, and there are further subdivisions even within these subgroups such as the Bohras, who further split based on the Syedna they choose to follow. And this difference is not just on obscure theological differences, but it has important implications for issues like female genital circumcision/ mutilation that the Bohras practice in contrast to the majoritarian Islamic position, save perhaps for Bohra activists and progressive Dawoodi Bohras, as exemplified by the late Asghar Ali Engineer (d. 2013).

Returning to Omar’s book, it rests on telling the stories of everyday Muslims affiliated with 13 mosques in the Americas. Putting aside those with the attention span of a gnat, who do not read beyond titles, such powerful stories have immense potential to reach out to others. Stories have the ability to cut through cultures and racial lines, where academic work is of limited scope. Indeed, as Rumi is sometimes quoted, “Love alone cuts arguments short, rescuing us from words and debates.” And Omar’s book shows why Islam is not a monolith, far better than any academic work possibly could to the general population at large.

The Umpteen Muslim Apologies

I find Omar’s book important, as like other Muslims, he seems tired to be called out to apologize on behalf of 2.0 billion Muslims. I should know for I compiled a blog post in October 2014 titled, Muslims Stand against ISIS, Too, which pales in comparison to the Muslim condemnation database painstakingly compiled by the much older Sheila Musaji in the U.S. While Musaji and I did what we thought was best back in the age of ISIS, a younger Omar teaches us well in a changed world that, “it’s neither mine nor any practicing Muslim’s responsibility to do public relations for a billion autonomous individuals with whom we may share little in common” (p. 161). This is significant, as the same communal scrutiny is starkly absent when it comes to Hindu and Buddhist communities in the West. Omar writes that, “millions of Muslims across the Pacific” have been “terrorized for their religion by mobs of Hindu and Buddhist extremists”, referring to the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Muslims under a far-right Modi government in India (p. 318).

Omar notes that the persecution of the Uyghur Muslims in China has been recognized, as Jewish communities across the world have “dedicated the cause of International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021 to Uyghur genocide” (p. 319). However, the main thrust of his entire book project is to “debunk the myth of a monolithic Islam”, as there is difference of opinion among Muslims and such “clashes cover cultural and generational values, gender roles, [and] theological preferences” (p. xv, 118). Nothing could be truer than what he writes, as even on the issue of the Uyghur genocide where the West has taken a position, albeit for strategic purposes to contain China instead of a genuine regard for human rights, there are educated Pakistani Muslims who reject the plight of the Uyghurs. Indeed, as the country is heavily reliant on Chinese benefactors, some Pakistanis view the Uyghur plight as concocted and based on fake news. Similarly, there has been nary a peep from otherwise hardline Pakistani clerics either. However, positions based on financial interests are not unique to Pakistani Muslims, as Omar points out about mosque board members in Dearborn, Michigan that, “most of them are successful Lebanese businessmen, who might have voted Republican in 2016 if the candidate wasn’t a lunatic” (p. 108).

New Atheism and Post Modernism

While Omar offers a snapshot of the diversity in Islam through 13 different mosques, he also raises important points in the book that pertain to the modern age and the jargon that is wielded in contemporary life. He mentions that his “devotion to disbelief had become another type of zeal and blind faith. It was an ego trip with none of the spiritual nourishment” (p. 4). I distinctly recall this phenomenon among some of my young students in the mid-2000s when the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were at the height of the new atheist movement. The God Delusion by Dawkins was published in 2006 and God is Not Great by Hitchens came out in 2007. I recall smart young men enamoured by the lure of new atheism posturing aggressively. Personally, I can’t stand aggressive approaches and I withdrew from one of the young men. But Islamic teachings are clear that everything in this world is ephemeral, for even the Nimrods and Pharaohs of their times despite all the privilege of wealth, rank, and power, must eventually fade away.  This is what I think has happened to new atheism. Indeed, one of the obituaries of Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, who passed away recently, states that:

“Spong claimed that he was making Christianity relevant for a new generation who could not believe in the supernatural, modernity was ending and post modernity was starting. His rationalism became passe ... The supernatural did not die, younger generations went in search for it elsewhere.”

I do, however, feel that the aggressive posturing of new atheism has been replaced by that of social critical theory involving race, gender, and sexual orientation. There is an uncompromising purity politics at play that is projected based on victimhood and imposed on the pain of humiliation. The same dynamics were at play when new atheists argued they were oppressed by religion and shamed others into intellectual submission. Aggressive call outs and shaming are perhaps why writer and activist Frances Lee wrote a powerful column in 2017 titled, Excommunicate me from the Church of Social Justice: An Activists Plea for Change. Similarly, queer Muslim author Irshad Manji published the book, Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times in 2019, where she wrote that, “A lot of people who think of themselves as marginalized actually wield power. And a lot of the time, they’re unconscious that they’re wielding it. As a result, power’s exercised poorly, even destructively” (p. 189).

I mention this because of the immense lateral violence that has been inflicted even in a community as marginalized as LGBTQ Muslims, who have not yet been affirmed in mainstream Muslim spaces. It has left me disillusioned, for I could deal with homophobic Muslims and western Islamophobes, but I simply found the Gheebah (backbiting) and the aggressive posturing within the community unconscionable and I withdrew from all LGBTQ related work. Additionally, notwithstanding my own personal beliefs, I have remained close and truthful to the Islamic texts. I am not sure if the importation of critical theory in Islam would be seen akin to the introduction of Greek philosophy in Islam or another foreign influence. Regardless, if time has taught me anything it is the temporal nature of entities, ideologies, and phenomena.

Anti-Colonialism and Islamism

Another significant point Omar raises is that “pan-Islamism emerged as a coherent anticolonial idea” (p. 16). This is important to note, as a lot of resistance to change within Muslim communities arises from the marriage between Islamist and anti-colonial ideologies. When academics like Joseph Massad, author of the book, Desiring Arabs, suggest that the plight of sexual minorities in Arab countries is compounded by western LGBTQ rights groups that have foreign social constructs alien to Arab identities, it feeds into the anti-western narrative of the Islamists and provides more fodder for their homophobic narrative. However, the position taken by academics like Massad ignores the fact that many educated sexual minorities in Arab and Muslim countries have already adopted such identities. This is akin to other aspects of culture where youth follow Hollywood trends, invest in bodybuilding, take shirtless selfies, adopt some western mannerisms and use jargon that emanates from social critical theory on race, gender, and sexual orientation. In other words, if such phenomena are not considered blameworthy by such academics then why must LGBTQ identities be singled out? Additionally, while academics like Massad blame western LGBTQ groups, I have never seen them offer an alternative to address the plight of Arab sexual minorities or voice concerns against their incarceration, torture, humiliating invasive medical exams, or other human rights abuses. Thus, as long as the anti-colonial and Islamist narratives boost each other, productive change in Muslim societies would remain impeded.

Racism and Extremism

When Omar showcases the diversity of Islam, he does not limit himself to the positive aspects but also highlights the negative aspects. For instance, he does not shy away from mentioning the anti-Blackness in Muslim and Arab societies and goes against the grain of a post racial Muslim society narrative to mention that “Arab nations are responsible for selling about 9.5 million sub-Saharan Africans into bondage, not far from the 12.5 million sold to Greater America” (p. 20). In another instance, he writes that, “Black converts like Abu Bakr found inspiration in Islam’s nonracial egalitarianism but quickly learned it was more theory than practice” (p. 46). However, I also don’t find Omar jumping on unidimensional bandwagons mindlessly. So, for instance, where he critiques Muslims for anti-Blackness, he does not shy away from highlighting the racially supremacist position of groups like the Nation of Islam, as he writes, “the imam turned them away, wanting nothing of their Black power screed. Islam should erase colour, not emphasize it” (p. 51). This approach reminds me of the Prophet’s teaching that a White is not superior to a Black, and a Black is not superior to a White. Indeed, the saying goes in both directions.

Continuing with the negative aspects, Omar also highlights the root cause of extremism, when he writes that, “propaganda might stir hatred, poverty and alienation might incentivize the move, and gang violence might desensitize a person to genocide, but puritanical thought precedes all” (p. 37). This is why I have noted the exiled Islamic scholar from Pakistan, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, emphasize the significance of a counter narrative to that of the Taliban. Although, developing such counter narratives is important, I would also emphasize what Omar writes elsewhere that the “disenfranchised recruited by radical Islamists [were] promised a sense of belonging” (p. 11). Thus, for me, it boils down to identity thumping, be it new atheism, social critical theory, and taken to the extreme, both white extremism and its counterpart Islamist extremism. Each one of these approaches rests on purity politics, and Omar eloquently points out that, “the pursuit of perfection, or purity, primes Muslims for extremist groups that want to exploit their good intentions” (p. 48). Thus, Omar cautions us against purity and perhaps teaches us to embrace our humanity that is fraught with flaws. We simply cannot expect people to be perfect in ticking all boxes against racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and the multiple other “isms” out there in our rapidly changing world. Indeed, this reminds me of the Hadith that reads, “if you did not sin, Allah would replace you with people who would sin, and they would seek forgiveness from Allah, and He would forgive them.”

Headscarves and Women

Maintaining his thrust against purity and uniformity of thought, he writes on the hijab that has been politicized by Islamophobes and Islamists alike. He mentions from his mother that, “when she was a girl, it was more a marker of old age than piety, and it was not compulsory in public opinion” (p. 41). Indeed, I have found this to be true in my time through the 80s, as I grew up in Dubai. Diversity of practice among Muslim women was the norm and each choice was well respected. This is in stark contrast to the aggressive and polarized narrative today where zealots believe in having the last word on the issue. Omar mentions how “Islamization rapidly transformed the Arab world into a more conservative place” and how in Edmonton, the “second-wave immigrants pressured the mosque’s board” to the point that “a green curtain suddenly appeared in the prayer hall to separate the genders” (p. 130). I also recall going to the Al Rashid mosque open house in Edmonton to witness how the original women founders of the mosque did not wear headscarves and wondered how Muslim markers of identity have shifted across time. Indeed, Omar writes that “a group photo of the founders shows all the women in the downstairs hall wearing their hair openly, with fascinators, skirts, and other styles of the time” (p. 132). This also points to another shift in Muslim position across space and time, for growing up in the 80s, I learned that taking photographs was prohibited. I still recall a senior Pakistani figure in Edmonton two decades ago, who refused to have photographs taken, as he deemed them forbidden. All of this belies the shallow position of a singular and stagnant Islam.

Omar is deeply appreciative of the role played by Muslim women in the preservation of Muslim heritage and history, as in the case of the pioneering women who worked hard to build the first mosque in Edmonton and then the later generation of accomplished women who worked hard to save it from obscurity. He correctly points out that Muslim traditions are preserved by women, as he mentions about North Dakota that, “second and third-generation Syrian men married local Christians. Since spirituality is usually nurtured by mothers, more of their children went to church than mosque” (p. 137). This is a significant point, as my article “Muslim Women Can Marry Outside the Faith” received backlash, just as the one titled, “5 Muslim Scholars On The Permissibility Of Not Wearing The Headscarf”, based on conservative theological grounds that allows Muslim men to marry outside the faith but not women. However, notwithstanding theological diversity on the permissibility of interfaith marriages, Omar’s careful observation makes it clear that any supposed prohibition would be more pressing for Muslim men than Muslim women.

Islamophobia and Identity

Omar’s writing makes it clear that for many folks, Islam is not about rituals or rigid practice, but rather about identity. This should be noted by Islamophobes for the more they rail against Islam, the stronger it becomes. Indeed, as I’ve noted in my own line of work in Economics, sometimes you get the opposite of what you want, as people respond to incentives. So, for instance, when seat belt laws were first introduced, they led to an increased incidence of accidents, as people felt safer and drove faster. The same applies to COVID-19 when double vaccinated folks started taking more risks with social interaction compared to the partially vaccinated crowd. Therefore, I am not surprised when Omar writes about Islamic identity that, “Trump’s presidency had an unexpected effect … She’d long stopped practicing her faith and was conflicted about identifying as Muslim. She now covets it not for its spiritualism but its iconoclastic meaning” (p. 105). He expresses similar sentiments for his own identity that, “despite lacking Islam’s most rudimentary beliefs, I’ve become protective of my religious roots and feel rebellious when I declare myself Muslim in the face of bigots or zealots” (p. 105).

Reading Omar’s book is a pleasure for he does not present unidimensional portrayals of the people he interviews. He is honest in his search and offers a human picture of a person, both the good and the bad. This is in line with his orientation against purity. So, for instance, in interviewing Imam Qazwini, he mentions about the “imam’s “dangerous, hateful” and “toxic” 2015 past statements regarding same-sex marriage” and his infamous kissing picture with George W. Bush (p. 115). However, he also tempers his critique by mentioning how thinly spread the Imams are, as “in addition to being preachers, teachers, funeral home directors, youth counsellors, marriage counsellors, and divorce counsellors, they were public figures burdened by interfaith, cultural and political responsibilities” and therefore “how could anyone spread so thinly keep his judgment intact? Regardless, their mistakes were made in good-faith belief in what was best for their fellow Americans” (p. 116). It is this human approach towards his interviewees that endears Omar’s writing to me, as I find this approach far more meaningful and effective than the purity politics of social justice activists.

Breaking Binaries and Lateral Violence

Omar rejects the binary between Islam and the West, as he writes that, “there’s an assumption that Muslim and American values are incompatible, that you can’t have one without the other” and that “western liberalism and Islam can adapt to each other” (p. 117, 189).  This is important to recognize, and I believe that we need to back off from defensive confrontational approaches and reject binary options. Though, I would add that the binary is also upheld by Muslims who grew up in the West and continue to nurture their identity issues by holding on to a very rigid practice of Islam. I wrote about this very phenomena in an article titled, “The Problem in Islam is not Accented Uncles but Fluent Young Muslims.” There are young Muslims who railed against the Study Qur’an, a translation and commentary of the Qur'an, based on the charge that it promotes perennialism, a philosophy of religion that views each of the world's religions as sharing a single universal truth. Such people, who grew up in the west with the privilege of being educated in reputed western universities, uphold salvific exclusivism and rail against the affirmation of LGBTQ Muslims in Islam by adopting hardline approaches that they don’t want the “Kuffar” (disbelievers) to like Muslims. Indeed, I have found some graduate students and young academics to be quite judgmental and aggressive in their approach, which confirms my viewpoint that sometimes education only cements and magnifies one’s prejudice and bigotry.

Notwithstanding young conservative Muslim academics and speakers, the binary between Islam and the West needs to be broken. For the sake of a better world, we need to draw people together instead of rending them apart. This is why I was quite pleased to read Omar write that, “when I’ve seen Islamophobia flare up in Alberta, non-Muslims tend to rally around victims even before other Muslims” and that when a mosque windows were smashed and “Go-Home” was spray painted, “by mid-afternoon, residents had replaced the windows, repainted the walls, and decorated the exterior with signs like “You are Home” and “Love Your Neighbour” (p. 140). I have experienced this generosity in my line of work on LGBTQ Muslims in Islam as well. I was operating on a tight budget of CAN $5000 to invite Samar Habib, Scott Kugle, Imam Daayiee Abdullah and my co-author Dr. Hussein Abdullatif to the Allah Loves Us All Symposium in 2017. That barely covered their airfares, but I quickly found so many volunteers in the interfaith communities that volunteered to pick up the speakers from the airport, show them around the city, and drive them back on the day of their departure. My friend, Murray Billet, even hosted the speakers in his apartment for a fine dinner and invited notable members of the local LGBTQ community. It is because of such generosity, and because of the need to keep people united in divided times, that I took a firm stand against social justice activists, who caused divisiveness based on their purity politics.

I wrote an article cautioning against lateral violence, but my viewpoint fell on deaf ears. Some of them aggressively lashed out at me, and I withdrew from all community related work, just as I had distanced myself from new atheists, a decade earlier. Though, I’ll say this, that now more than ever, we need to work together, as imperfect human beings instead of demanding perfection aggressively. This is why I was particularly impressed with Omar’s portrayal of Sobia Siddiqui in Houston. Omar writes that she “wasn’t an apologist for racists. But she wasn’t an “all-or-nothing” progressive warrior either,” and that “she resisted rhetorical generalizations about conservative voters, seeing such judgments as no less prejudiced than those to which Muslims are routinely subjected” (p. 155, 156). I am not interested in reaching out to hateful xenophobes out of some noble savage or Uncle Tom sensibility, but I want to remain ever gentle with my friends, whose worldview may not match with mine. This outlook is perhaps based on verse 48:29 that believers are firm with the ungrateful wretched but compassionate with one another. It is true that extremist Muslims demarcate between Muslims and non-Muslims, but based on primordial Islam, this really is about the Ummah Vahida (single community), people that are united in common humanity through Sabr (patience) and Shukr (gratitude), versus those who remain ungrateful wretches, whose worldview inflicts divisiveness against that Tawhid (Oneness).

Omar correctly points out that, “embracing western notions of an equal society, assimilating to workplaces, and meriting elite jobs doesn’t make one “good” any more than praying five times daily” (p. 165). Indeed, many of us have witnessed people who follow rituals religiously but who engage in ethical crimes like tax evasion, lie for financial gains and cheat to get ahead. Similarly, prizing financial consultancy jobs over janitorial services is problematic in a world where financialisation of the economy has stoked inequality but the latter remains an essential service through the pandemic. Similarly, in terms of equality, my own position is similar to that of Rabbi Emeritus Gershom Barnard, who wrote in an article, now removed from the internet, that “my ultimate commitment is not to inclusiveness, to egalitarianism, to participation, to pluralism, or to any of those good things. It is to God and to Torah.” Likewise, I support the affirmation of LGBTQ Muslims not because of egalitarianism and certainly not due to the post-modern development of queer theory, but because of Islamic values that hardship begets facility, that Allah has imbued people with desires and offers a legal contract through which they are regulated, that Allah creates whatsoever He wills, and that Allah loves us all.

The Aga Khan

Omar is critical of the Aga Khan, even as he recognizes the tremendous development work by the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. He is concerned that, “he placates the powerful and panders to them to advance his causes” (p. 171). In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, Omar mentions the Aga Khan’s silence with the Harper government in Canada. He writes that he “did expect him to acknowledge the worst refugee crisis since World War II. He did not. He instead spoke about Islam and Canada’s shared values of inclusiveness, higher learning, and meritocracy” (p. 171). This is significant, as even autocrats speak of tolerance and peace in the same breath, as they sanction genocide and murder. The Indian Prime Minister Modi is a prime example of such demagogues. However, Omar’s critique of the Aga Khan is also relevant to mainstream Sunni Muslim leaders, as many Muslims have criticized Shaykh Hamza Yusuf for backing the U.A.E. regime despite its complicity in the human rights violations in Yemen.

Additionally, Omar critiques the Aga Khan for being expediently silent on LGBTQ issues in Islam. He mentions that liberal Ismailis feel that “the imam’s refusal to take any official position in support of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights undermines his commitment to modernism and social justice” (p. 181). Omar opines that this could be due to the “fear of losing the allegiance” of Ismailis in conservative Muslim countries (p. 181). However, this self-preservation is not unique to the Aga Khan, for many Sunni academics and community leaders, who otherwise talk of compassion or Rumi, also talk in “feel good” generalities instead of challenging the Muslim community at large to overcome intense homophobia that is rampant in Muslim spaces. Indeed, where celebrity Shaykhs hold a tempered position against LGBTQ affirmation, their followers are quite often scathing and horrifying in their demeanour. I do know that when Dr. Shabir Ally offered a nuanced review of our book, Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions, his YouTube review received many scathing remarks out of ignorance and spite. Similarly, my own experience of the freezing silence by the local leaders from the Ahmadiyyah community that otherwise upholds its “Love for All, Hatred for None” slogan, allows me to add a qualifier, “except for gays.”

What Is Faith?

A question Omar asks in the book is whether he has a place in Islam as an atheist. One answer he receives is that “having a Muslim background – based not in spirituality but history, politics, culture, family – was legitimate enough for Muslim identity” (p. 312). Indeed, there are people who have identified as atheist Muslims like Ali Rizvi. However, many Muslims find the approach of ex-Muslims caustic and aggressive, much like the new atheists and “all or nothing” progressive activists. But Omar does get effective answers to this question from many people, especially when he mentions that, “faith as a feeling one has in life to always work out for the best. Faith in people to do the right thing. Faith in myself and my abilities. Faith that everything has meaning. Islam poured the foundations of this faith” (p. 188). Indeed, for several Muslims belief is not about an old man in the sky keeping a naughty or nice list. Instead, their belief rests on Tawakkul (trust in Providence) that no matter the tribulations in life, everything will eventually turn out well, that Allah does not let someone’s efforts go waste that one trusts in no other worldly power like wealth, fame, or connections, except for the Divine mystery that Muslims call Allah. This faith is etched in the Muslim testimonial, La Ilaha Illallah (there is no god but God), which frees Muslims from depending on clerics, leaders, or the largesse of kith and kin for Allah alone is enough.

It is this faith that Omar finds in the survivor of the 2017 Quebec Mosque massacre, Aymen Derbali, who was paralyzed after being shot seven times trying to protect his fellow worshippers. Despite going through hell, he mentions “there’s no safe place in the world … only in Canada would there be so much national solidarity against racism” and that “I just think I’m miraculous to be alive. I accept this destiny” (p. 230, 237). Reading Derbali’s words overwhelmed me, for I have found so many people in this life who become bitter and adopt a caustic attitude for much lesser reasons. Indeed, one question that I have asked myself is that how come many Syrian refugees, who have seen war and death, get back on their feet to live life with patience and gratitude, whereas I find others consumed by drugs, alcohol, or unrestrained sexual activity to cope with the stressors of modern life. I know the social justice crowd would chide here against comparing oppressions, but sometimes I really find that the social justice narrative rests on ghuluw (exaggeration). I simply admire the immense faith Muslims like Derbali have to continue living their lives at peace and with gratitude.

Omar also finds such faith in Mexico, as he mentions about Ibrahim Chechev, who converted to Islam that “changes in Ibrahim’s personality started to show. He became courteous, compassionate, and forgiving” (p. 251). He finds it in Inuvik, where Muslims “deliver food to elders at their homes for free if they can’t come to the food bank themselves” (p. 278). Omar finds that it is not about praying or fasting but charity, which is done Fi Sabilillah (without any worldly expectation), as “preaching Islam was not the Inuvik Muslim Association’s kind of Dawah. Rather, they teach Islam by trying to be model citizens” (p. 289, 290). He finds it in Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who “presided over Janazah of a man who succumbed to AIDs-related illness” when no one else would lead the funeral prayers given the stigma (p. 303). Finally, he found it within himself, as he writes that “there’s no hatred that can’t be healed, no anger that can’t be reconciled, no act that can’t be forgiven, when you submit to something bigger than yourself. Islam was my framework for the radical forgiveness required of me” (p. 314).

Respectability Politics

In interviewing Zied Kallel in Quebec, Omar finds that “his ideas smacked of respectability politics” for he wanted Muslims to have talk shows, debates, artistic works, and engage in community works to dispel Canadian stereotypes against Muslims (p. 240). While Omar correctly points out that “nobody should have to condemn terrorists, let alone prove they’re not one, to comfort the ignorant” (p. 24), this approach works in utopia. Doing nothing, expecting others to educate themselves, is not an option. After all, if as Muslims we expect Hindus to push against the far-right government in India or the Burmese to speak up against the atrocities inflicted on the Rohingyas, then some in the Muslim community will have to push against the Islamist supremacists, as Omar points out that, “members of a Muslim student’s association failed to control radical voices in the group. In Friday sermons, the group’s president … advocated stoning and whipping violators of sharia and decried democracy as incompatible with Islam” (p. 240). It is easy to find characters, who grew up in the West, speak fluently and charismatically, obtained degrees from reputed universities, and who end up supporting extremist positions through their social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

I think what Omar has done by writing his book is what Kallel would strongly support. It is this approach of sharing stories through an artistic medium to show that Muslims “are no better or worse than everyone else, but equally accountable and influential” that brings people together and further serves to bolster Muslim community safety and interests (p. 274). Otherwise, adopting an aggressive social justice activist approach that rests on demanding others to get their act together may serve to alienate those sitting on the fence regarding Muslims. Indeed, the Qur’anic approach rests on calling others with the best of manners and with wisdom (16:125). Omar finds this approach in Inuvik through Abdalla Mustafa Mohamed when he mentions that “if you treat people well, they treat you well. If you make charity, you won’t make enemies” (p. 290). This isn’t about respectability politics to ingratiate oneself to others for people see through hypocrisy. This is about walking one’s own path and staying true to one’s values.

Additionally, I have noted the exaggerated narrative against “respectability politics” when rampant sexual activity without any legal contract is upheld as a rebellious rejection of heteronormative norms, an approach that clearly flouts the principles of Islam. Muslim LGBTQ activist, Omar Sarwar, has written an excellent article titled Rethinking Casual Sex, where he goes against the grain of the mainstream LGBTQ narrative. In short, I would prefer Muslims to continue with their values and approach, as Anthony Quinn’s Omar Mukhtar eloquently expresses about the Italians in the movie, Lion of the Desert, that, “they are not our teachers.”

What Did I Learn?

Omar’s book taught me that the Hadith often used in vitriol against LGBTQ Muslims that “Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange” is always selectively quoted, as they do not read the next part that “blessed are the strangers” (p. 245). This only confirms how homophobic Muslims cherry pick their texts and verses without taking into account the language, nuance and context. I learned that while some Muslims “had a bootstrap mentality and believed that free supplies would “spoil” the needy, allowing them to waste more money on drinking and gambling,” other Muslims like Abdalla felt that “alcoholism [and] addiction” were symptoms of a larger problem based on “lack of education [and] lack of opportunity,” which were also found in third world countries like Sudan (p. 289). I found this really interesting, as it allows us to understand why some Muslims would vote conservative for a smaller government and others for the left parties for a larger government.

I also learned that even though “the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America … issued a fatwa permitting [Muslims in Inuvik] to fast and pray on the Meccan clock”, there were those who deemed it a cop out and were willing to fast longer or even go for 22 hours straight. Many years ago, I came across the late Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah’s (d. 2002) ijtihad (independent reasoning) that Muslims could fast based on Meccan timing, as I found that the local Edmontonian community was equating hardship with piety. I knew that asr (undue hardship) is abth (useless), found Usama Hasan’s article that confirmed the same, and wrote an article titled, Undue Hardship is Not Piety. Based on my knowledge of the Islamic ethos, I mentioned that the Prophet selected the easier of two equally valid positions, that Islam is about the Tariq Al Wasat (the middle path) and based on my reading of the jurist Shatibi (d. 1388), when Allah offers a facility, He wants it to be used. Yet, my article was met with scathing remarks from some Muslims in Edmonton, who equate hardship with piety, which is more of a Christian notion than a Muslim one that rests on Yusr (facility). In short, just as homophobic Muslims are guilty of cherry picking, zealot Muslims are guilty of importing foreign ideas into Islam.

Finally, Omar mentions that I am somewhat of an outlier among “mostly loud-and-liberal or out-and-proud activists” (p. 302). He is correct about the fact that my approach, as that of my co-author Dr. Hussein Abdullatif is conservative, and he is equally right that change in Muslim communities on the LGBTQ front will happen through “teachers, social workers, and parents who hold sway over the congregation” (p. 303). This is consistent with Behnam Sadeghi’s work The Logic of Law Making in Islam, that change in Islam comes about because of social pressures and that hermeneutical accommodation is an after fact. I agree with Omar’ assessment of myself despite the differing worldviews we may have perhaps based on our age gap. However, based on a weak Hadith, Ikhtilaf is Rahma (difference of opinion is mercy), and despite any differences, I am glad he put in so much effort in getting his book out, which is sorely needed in our divided times. His book clearly shows that he has successfully met his objective of showcasing that Islam is not a monolith and that Muslims are no better or worse than everyone else. Indeed, it is writers like him along with artists, performers, entertainers and others, whose individual and collective efforts will bring down the prejudice against Muslims slowly but surely. In essence, defying the caricature of both Islamists and Islamophobes, Omar’s book allows me to emphatically say, yes, there are 2.0 billion Islams.

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Junaid Jahangir is an Assistant Professor of Economics at MacEwan University. He is the co-author of Islamic Law and Muslim Same-Sex Unions. With Dr. Hussein Abdullatif, a paediatric endocrinologist in Alabama, he has co-authored several academic papers on the issue of same-sex unions in Islam. He contributed this article to NewAgeIslam.com.

Image Source:  https://www.amazon.ca/Praying-West-Muslims-Shaped-Americas/dp/1501199145

URL:   https://www.newageislam.com/books-documents/ummah-vahida-islamic-ethos-diversity/d/125603


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