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Who Is A Muslim? An Intense Struggle within the Muslim World for the Soul of Islam


By Dr Abdul Cader Asmal for New Age Islam

15 Dec 2014

Well before Cheryl Bernard concocted her whimsical compartmentalization of Muslims into arbitrary categories (1), and Nathan Lean cautioned Muslims not to be defined by non-Muslims (2), there was and is an intense struggle within the Muslim world for the soul of Islam.

This review attempts to analyze the claims of the various sects and movements within Islam, to find the common denominators that bind them together, to identify the conflicting views that tear them asunder, to acknowledge the heinous acts that cast them outside the pale of Islam, and to end up hopefully with a definition of who really is a Muslim!  

A Muslim is an adherent of Islam, a monotheistic religion that is the complete universal and final version of a faith that has been revealed through many prophets including Abraham, Moses, Ishmael, Isaac, Jesus and finally Mohammed.

“Muslim” is an Arabic word meaning ‘one who submits to God’.  Muslims believe that God is eternal, transcendent, and absolutely One. God is incomparable, self-sustaining and neither begets nor is begotten and He is gender neutral. God revealed His final revelation to mankind through the Quran which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God that he passed on to prophet Mohammed (PBOH).

To become a Muslim, one simply has to pronounce the Declaration of Faith, ‘There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God’.

The Amman Message: In an attempt to define the common denominator across all Muslim sects The Amman Message (3) issued the following consensus statement,

“All Muslims believe in Allah (God), Glorified and Exalted be He, the One and the Unique; that the Noble Quran is the Revealed Word of God; and that Mohammed, may blessings and peace be upon him, is a Prophet and Messenger unto all Mankind. All are in agreement about the five pillars of Islam: the two testaments of faith; the ritual prayer (Salat), almsgiving (Zakat), fasting in the month of Ramadan (Sawm), and the pilgrimage or Hajj to the sacred house of Allah in Mecca. All are also in agreement about the foundations of belief or creed (Aqida): belief in Allah (God), His angels, His Scriptures, His Messengers, and in the Day of Judgment, in Divine Providence in good and in evil”.

Notwithstanding these clear guidelines there are fundamental differences in the interpretation of Islam by divisive sects who have emerged over the centuries. In an attempt to focus on diversity within the Unity of Islam, The Amman Message, noted,

” There exists more in common between the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence than there is difference between them. The adherents to the eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence are in agreement as regards the basic principles of Islam.

“Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Mathahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali), the two Shi’i schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Ja`fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Thahiri (Zahiri) school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim. Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable. Moreover, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash`ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.

Equally, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare as apostates any group of Muslims who believes in God, Glorified and Exalted be He, and His Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) and the pillars of faith, and acknowledges the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.”(3). The Message concluded with the statement, “Disagreement with respect to the ancillary branches of religion (furu`) is a mercy. Long ago it was said that variance in opinion among the ‘Ulema (scholars) “is a good affair”.

The Amman Message represented a visionary and valiant bid to develop within the Muslim world, struggling to define itself, a semblance of consensus. It, however, failed to address some of the more controversial issues, as well as the ‘hot button’ topics that generate so much intolerance and violence in the name of Islam. In its inclusiveness it failed to acknowledge two of the larger Islamic creeds, namely the Ashari and the Maturidi Aqida. Thus it is fine to make the blanket statement that any Muslim who subscribes to the designations noted above, including the two schools omitted, should not be defined as an apostate. But yet this is what exactly happens!

It is the spontaneous combustion of rival elitist groups claiming the mantle of correctness while vilifying others that leads to the internecine self-destructiveness that we see within the Muslim world today. In order to make sense of the artificial compartmentalization of Muslims into a panoply of unrecognizable entities (‘secular’, ‘liberal’, ‘modernist’, ’progressive’, ‘conservative’, ‘orthodox’, ‘traditional’, ‘puritanical’, intolerant’,’ fundamentalist’, ‘radical’ ‘fanatical’, ‘extremist’, ‘jihadi’, ‘heretical’ and off course ‘moderate’ or ‘mainstream’) it behooves us to examine the distinguishing features of some of the wide spectrum of self-defined sects and movements that not infrequently lead to a charge of one group by another of deviation if not apostasy, a designation that is automatically loaded with a death penalty.

For a practicing Muslim any of the following situations will cast him/her into the realm of apostasy or disbelief. Clearly any individual who knowingly renounces Islam is an apostate. Equally, the disbelief in or denial of any of the articles of Faith and the Five Pillars would lead to a state of apostasy as for example denying any of the Books of Revelation or the Prophets of God. Thirdly, adopting practices that have been clearly prohibited by Islam in the name of Islam would also be grounds for the declaration of apostasy e.g. the deliberate consumption of alcohol, fornication, or the killing of innocent humans as though sanctioned by Islam. Some legal scholars have declared that rejection of the co-eternal existence of God and the Quran is also an act of apostasy. Areas of dispute among different schools of thought that fall into a gray area as to whether they constitute apostasy or not, or ‘just’ innovation or deviation, include some of the following:  Whether God will be seen in this life: God said to Moses, ’You will not see me’ Quran (7:143); whether the anthropomorphic attributes of God are purely metaphorical or literal is a source of debate. God says, “There is naught like unto Him” (Quran, 42: 11). The question whether Iman or belief or piety or Taqwa increases and decreases is contested? The questions relating to prophet Mohammed (PBUH): Is Mohammed made of light and not clay? Is he alive in the grave? Does God keep Him informed of current and future events? Is it appropriate to pray to him to act as an intercessor? Is it appropriate to celebrate his birthday and that of other saints? Some of the questions in the gray area arouse the greatest degree of hostility amongst the various sects, and frequently generate charges of either innovation deviation or apostasy.

The key players in the Islam of today had been identified by the beginning of the 10th century. What has evolved since then has been a further fragmentation of the previous sects into smaller exclusive subsets and a quest for exclusiveness within the 73 predicted divisions of Islam! Apart from the almost knee-jerk reaction of some Sunni Muslim rejecting the legitimacy of Shi'ism, and questioning the authenticity of Sufism, there is an equally problematic reaction within Sunni Islam itself. This revolves around the question as to what sect or movement within Sunni Islam is the ‘authentic’ version of Islam and constitutes the elusive ‘Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at’.

According to some authorities Ahl al-Sunna consist of three groups: the textualists (al-Athariyya), whose Imam is Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the Ash`aris, whose Imam is Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, and the Maturidis, whose Imam is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and they include all four of the accepted schools of Islamic jurisprudence. But this is just the beginning of an internecine diatribe in which competing groups put down one another in an etiquette that totally contravenes Islamic norms of discourse. This is a topic saturated with contradictions and counter-claims and toxic with antipathy toward fellow Muslims (4-10).

The important issues such futile, vitriolic and counterproductive debates raise are several:  can the Muslim Ummah afford the luxury of squandering its resources on such behavior when it faces far greater challenges from both within and without? From without is the incessant barrage of negative portrayal of Islam by Islamophobes who make a living out of demonizing our religion. At the same time there are increasing numbers of non-Muslim groups who are persecuting Muslims with little response from the non-Muslim world and even less from so-called Muslims. The persecution and near genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and of Muslims in the Central African Republic immediately come to mind. The enormity of the fratricidal depredation in Iraq and Syria defies all description. By their invectives hurled at one another not only do these Muslim demagogues fail to address the problem of Islamophobia or that of the victimization of Muslims, or the torment of the innocents of all backgrounds, but also serve to turn off the young, as well as the would-be Muslims. They fail abysmally to address the real issues confronting the Muslim Ummah summarized here :( 11).

"The challenges facing the Ummah are no longer about the misinterpretation of Allah’s Names and Attributes or the validity of celebrating the Mawlid. No doubt, some people, at some level, do need to discuss the reality of the Mawlid, and the Attributes of Allah and other aspects of faith. But these are not the problems of our time, nor do they present major challenges to the faith of our young men and women. These are controversies of a bygone era: the Salafīs and the Ashʿarīs can go on debating such aspects amongst themselves. But the vast majority of our youth couldn’t care less about such abstract non-tangible theoretical discussions.

"They are struggling to retain faith in their religion, problematising Darwinism and secularism and post-modernism and humanism and liberalism and a thousand other ‘isms’, while Salafīs (and Deobandis, and Ashʿarīs, and Sufīs) still debate in their circles matters that only concern the 0.1 %. Islam is witnessing unprecedented ideological attacks from radical secularism; these attacks seek to render Islam in particular - and religiosity in general - anathema to modern society. Modern culture reeks of materialism, hedonism, pornography, and sexual exploitation. Age-old social ills that Islam came to eradicate continue to plague the ‘Muslim world’. Societal problems are rampant, domestic and sexual abuse, violation of worker’s rights, racism, bribery, and so forth are becoming increasing prevalent, yet, almost all of these issues are sidelined. It is inexcusable for jurists to passionately propagate their personal opinions on the prohibition of women driving, or incessantly criticize the celebration of the Mawlid, for instance, all the while sidelining the widespread and endemic problems. Any Islam that does not concern itself with the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden is far from the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (PBOH), whose very last words urged us to fulfil the rights of the weakest members of society." (11)

The consequence of such spurious debates is the branding of rival sects as ‘innovators’ or worse still as apostates. This may have one of several negative effects: firstly, as noted above, Muslim intellectual resources are squandered in futile exercises, while the Islamophobes as well as the real global challenges that Muslims face are ignored; secondly, those defined as apostates from the religion are made vulnerable to discrimination and persecution and random acts of violence, even murder; thirdly the arrogation of the right to designate a group of Muslims as apostates by a cabal with its own heretic interpretation of Islam, is accompanied by a self-proclaimed license to slaughter such innocent Muslims with total impunity. This notion is the basis of the slaughter of Shia communities in many areas of the current conflicts and had also led to the killing of Qadianis and of the Bahias in the past. Clearly in the minds of those seething with hate, if they can ‘justify’ the killing of innocent Muslims who they view as ‘disbelievers’ what makes the Christian and Jews any less of disbelievers! Thus, the ‘Takfiris’, or those who brand others as apostates, have no reason not to exterminate all those (Muslim or Non-Muslim) who disagree with their diabolical world view of Islam!

Many of the issues causing discord within the global Muslim community have been prevalent for centuries, and will need the coming together of rational beings from the wide spectrum of opinions (Sunni, Shia Sufi and the many self-destructive sects within Sunni Islam) with mutual respect and a genuine concern to resolve the stress lines. Intra-Muslim Dialogue in which diverse views are expressed in an open civil forum may be employed to resolve some of the less controversial and provocative issues so that either a consensus is reached or the discussants depart agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable (12).

Much more pressing is the need for these various sects and movements to come together and resolve the issue of the mindless carnage of innocent civilians in the name of Islam. On this there can be no disagreement as such acts are totally antithetical to the fundamental principles of Islam. Despite their claims to find justification for their actions as a response to the malfeasance (whether real or imagined)in all its form unleashed by the so-called West against the Muslim world, be it as mere humiliation (The Rushdie affair, the cartoon caper or the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, or the sensationalist public depiction of the execution of 3 Muslim figureheads, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Osama Bin Laden, no matter how unsavoury they may have appeared to most observers in the West and to many in the Muslim world); the exploitation of Muslim resources, or occupation of their lands, or propping up of servile Muslim dictators; the permissive extermination of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo, and now Burma; or the unending atrocities committed in the endless so-called ‘war-on-terror’, Islam does not permit vicarious retribution. This is reflected in the near universal condemnations of the barbarity, initially by Al-Qaida and now by Isis, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. (13, 14)

Recognizing the difficulty in branding any Muslim or Muslim group as apostate or heretic (Takfir), but also acknowledging that those who regularly brand others who disagree with their heretical views on Islam as apostates, should not the accredited Islamic scholars from the diverse sects come together to denounce the real heretics for who they are? This is a daunting process because of the following admonition, warning against the targeting of any Muslim with such an odious depiction: The Prophet had this to say on the subject, Whoever charges a believer with unbelief is as though he had killed him’, Bukhari 8.32:6105: and, ‘Any man who says, “O’ Kafir” to his brother, one of them deserves the name” (Bukhari, 8.32: 6104.).It is difficult to think of a direr warning, and its purpose is clearly to dissuade Muslims of religion and good sense from judging anyone who professes Islam to be an unbeliever unless there is irrefutable proof.

In the case of so-called Muslims deliberately targeting innocent Muslims and non-Muslims whether directly in the name of Islam, or what is tantamount to it, is there any justification for not condemning their acts as heretical and therefore outside the pale of Islam? Ordinary individuals without the proper credentials cannot make this judgment. It requires a fatwa by a consensus of religious scholars and judges to arrive at this verdict. Only a public denunciation and excommunication of those who promote such mindless acts as heretics if not apostates would be able to stem the tide of ignorant, disenchanted misguided Muslim youth from seeking glamour in martyrdom. Such impressionable brainwashed losers in life (in this and the Hereafter) need to understand in clear unequivocal language that the killing of innocents has only one destination - and that is hell. While James Brandon agrees that Takfirism is the ‘root and enabler of all modern Jihadism’ he argues that it would be counterproductive for Muslims to denounce Isis as ‘not Muslim’ (15).

This conclusion sounds somewhat counterintuitive. Certainly such a position should not be adopted as a means to ingratiate the ‘Muslim world’ with the so-called ‘West’. It should be done out of a sense of deep conviction by Muslims, based on Quranic injunctions that make it an imperative: ‘O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, 4: 135; and, ’God does not change the condition of a people until they first change what is in their hearts’, 13:11’. These statements make it very clear for Muslims to judge between what is right and what is wrong and how to act upon the decision. As it is not possible to subscribe to the view propagated by Al Qaeda and Isis and other proponents of ‘Binladenism’ (16) that Islam ordains or condones the slaughter of innocent people as part of its value system, and if such a perspective is perceived as not only un-Islamic but also anti-Islamic (17) then one is compelled (to be just to one’s self) to repudiate those views and ostracize such persons, and pray that with such cleansing God will guide all the Muslims who have truly expressed what is in their hearts onto the ‘Straight Path’.

Such a declaration is not, as previously noted, to pander to the dictates of the ‘West’ but to detoxify Islam of the heresy of Binladenism that has envenomed its doctrine. Unless the heresy is recognized as such and expunged from Islamic theology (18) it will continue to generate irremediable harm in countless of young impressionable minds led to believe that the killing of innocents is an act of true ‘jihad’ and a portal to martyrdom. Generations of Muslims will be doomed to purgatory. And those who remain silent in the presence of known evil may have to explain their inaction on the Day of Judgment. Whereas, if exposed the heresy will be recognized for what it is: that terror is no part of, and can never be a part of jihad, but it is a passport directly to hell. In invoking a declaration of heresy if not apostasy it is purely with the intent of exposing an evil deviation with no intention of exacting any form of punishment for the ‘heretics’ or ‘apostates’. That is for God and only God to decide.

This brings us back to the question. Who then is a Muslim? Muslims thus have a choice: they can allow themselves to be defined by the whims and prejudices of outsiders who have little interest in their welfare; or they can remain as microscopic obscurantists clinging to their self-styled identification as multiple brands of Sunni or Shia or Sufi Muslims, or revert to the original designation employed at the time of the Prophet (PBOH) as ‘simply’ Muslim (19). In an otherwise superb article in which he highlights the attributes of a Muslim, the respected author Asghar Ali Engineer (20), assigns these traits to those whom he categorizes as ‘progressive’ Muslims. In fact what he attributes to a ‘progressive’ Muslim should be the very same qualities expressed by all Muslims!  As a caveat it may be added that a Muslim is a person , who when he meets a friend or stranger, instead of saying’ good morning’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ or ‘what’s up’, greets him with the words, ‘peace unto you’. If Muslims can replace the salutations in current use with this sentiment, they will be at the vanguard of a defining moment in their history.



1. Cheryl Bernard CIVIL DEMOCRATIC ISLAM   2003, Rand Publication

2. Nathan Lean: 2012, Heritage Foundation.

3. The Amman Message: The Role of Consensus in Contemporary Struggle for Islam 2006

4. Meaning of Ahl us Sunnah Wal Jama’at

5. Zubair Qamar:

6. Wahhabism Exposed:

7. CIF International

8. Answering Wahhabism and Salafism

9. Halverson, Jeffry R. (2010). Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam


11. Yasir Qadhi: On Islam: On Salafi Islam 9/2/14

12. A.C. Asmal: Intra-Muslim Dialogue: Islamic Council of New England: Archives

13. On Islam: 9/2/2014: four articles denounce the actions of ISIL: World Muslims Deplore Journalist Beheading; Sunni Rebels, Scholars Reject ISIL Caliphate; ISIL Enemy No 1 of Islam: Saudi Grand Mufti; World Scholars: ISIL Caliphate Is Null and Void

14. Sheila Musa Ji: The American Muslim: Vast compilation of information: Muslim Voices against Extremism and Terrorism.

15. James Brandon: http//: www By Denouncing ISIS as ‘Not Muslims’, Moderate Muslims Risk Making Things worse’,

16. A.C. Asmal: International Herald Tribune, 8/4/2005, Terrorism is not Islamic

17. Nihad Awad CAIR: Isis is not just un-Islamic, it is anti-Islamic

18. A.C Asmal. The American Muslim, 10/11/2012, Binladenism: the Heresy that must be expunged

19. Khalid Zaheer:

20. Asghar Ali Engineer. Who is a progressive Muslim? The American Muslim 11/18/2011.

Abdul Cader Asmal  MD PhD   ( Former President of the Islamic Center of Boston and Islamic Council of New England; current Co-chairman of Communications, Islamic Council of New England). He wrote this piece exclusively for New Age Islam.