Racism and the fractured Ummah

Saraji recently made two posts (here and here) about two issues which are actually related: first, the racism by which Muslims of “eastern” origin look down on Afro-American Muslims, and on people who attempt to demonstrate that “everything that we don’t like in Islamic belief or practice is wrong”:

We’ve got 1400 years of scholarship, but no one had it right until I, Present Day Muslim, figured it out. I don’t care what the issue is, although it’s usually something related to women — giving khutbahs, praying shoulder to shoulder with men, menstruation and its rules, hijab. Then again, it’s also applied to things like riba (big time), drinking, selling pork, liquor, and cigarettes, trade, certain types of art or music, behavior in public, even fasting, prayer, and zakat.

The two issues are related, as the fractures in the Ummah, to my eye, seem to be connected with a mixture of sectarianism and racism which feed off each other. We might coin a term: ethno-sectarianism. Saraji gives the example of Arabs who disregard the opinions of black Muslims on how to vote, and adopt the name of one of their biggest organisations. It seems to me that sectarianism and hawa has produced different groups of Muslims who don’t see eye to eye.

The worst example is the Deobandi-Brelvi fitna. These are two groups which appeared in the Indian Subcontinent starting in the late 19th century, both named after towns in northern India where their founders operated or came from. The chief difference seems to be mentality; Deobandis seem to be more book-oriented, and have a reputation for “knowing their fiqh”, while Brelvis seem to be more oriented towards devotion and extolling the virtues of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). The problem is that if you go to some Brelvi meetings, especially on occasions like the Mawlid, a whole lot of time will be taken up actually justifying the meeting, when in fact, the people who need convincing are not there. There is still an awful lot of Brelvi material out there condemning a group of early Deobandi scholars for insulting the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), but the Deobandis’ actual meetings, in my experience, are not taken up with sectarian talk. They just get down to business.

The situation is so bad in some places that if you have friends in both communities, it is best not to mention them to each other. There is a mosque in south London which was somehow taken over by people connected with Minhaj al-Qur’an, which is generally considered Brelvi. After a year or so, the Deobandis got control back, and I was in the wudu’ area before one Jumu’ah prayer when there was some sort of violent incident in the prayer hall which provoked a mass exodus. A Deobandi imam took over, and when I mentioned Brelvis to him, he told me that they are involved in shirk, and that their books are full of beliefs which are shirk, and that the deeds of someone in this position are not valid.

In fact, Shaikh Nuh Keller told us that Hanafi ulama in the Middle East respect both groups of Muslims in India, and that Imam Ahmad Raza Khan was one of the greatest Hadith scholars of his time (as I recall, the implication was that he was a greater hadith scholar than anyone at Deoband), but that many people disagreed with his fatawa of takfeer on the Deobandi scholars - including some who had chains of transmission through him. He also said that scholars had looked at the statements of alleged kufr, and found that they did not meet the criteria to be kufr. Bad adab, yes, but not kufr.

I get the impression from some Muslims of Indian origin (especially Deobandis) that they feel that they are the best Muslims out there. The truth is that they have done very little to deliver the message of Islam in the countries to which they have emigrated; they have not even doubled their number in terms of converts, and many of those who have converted have not received Islam through them. Many people still cannot think of Islam without also thinking of the social problems which are known of in the Asian community, particularly those concerning women. I said to one Pakistani that I thought his community had actually put back the cause of Islam in the UK, and he agreed, but said that “they’re better than the Arabs”, many of whom never pray and don’t attend Jumu’ah. He pointed out the well-known hadith about the person who misses three consecutive Jumu’ah prayers (there is, in fact, a well-known position that jumu’ah is only compulsory in a place where the Sultan has established the hudood - a position widely taught in the Arab world but not in India).

Indian Muslims have another reason to think themselves superior to Arabs, which is that they have big beards and Arabs, for the most part, don’t. Again, this is a matter of scholarly disagreement; the Hanafi madhhab demands a fist-length beard for anyone capable of growing it, while the other three don’t. Try explaining this to any Deobandi youth, though - it just won’t wash. (Shaikh Nuh has an article here about the position of Arab scholars concerning the beard.) I once saw a book on this subject in a Deobandi bookshop, published in South Africa, which noted that some people would argue about scholars in Egypt who do not have beards even though they are ulama, and answered this objection by calling them fasiqs. The problem here is that they do not accept that other positions on the beard are valid, which leads to the conclusion that the status of an upright Muslim is only for their people.

While the conservative Indo-Pak Muslims (and those who join them) have their bigotry, the positions they are most forceful about are at least valid positions. The same can’t be said for some of the converts, who seem to follow hawa which leads to invalid positions. Many of them cannot accept, for example, that musical instruments are not lawful, including (nay, especially) for devotional purposes. The hadiths on this are clear, and the positions of all four imams are that musical instruments other than the frame drum are unlawful. Mention this on certain new Muslims’ forums, and you won’t get a very warm response. Converts, and groups of converts, who won’t be strict on adherence to the Shari’ah are a big problem. I once tried to persuade someone of this tendency to remove a picture of a man on horseback with a bow and arrow from his wall, but he refused. When I told him that a hadeeth which established the fact that pictures of animate objects are unlawful actually concerned a picture of winged horses on Sayyidatina A’isha’s (radhi Allahu ‘anhaa) wall, he replied that that his picture was not of winged horses, but of a man on horseback.

Saraji has already mentioned that some women don’t like the rules on what you can and can’t do during a period, and I’ve already mentioned this on her comments page but will do so again as it’s dropped off the bottom of her blog: the Islamic laws on this issue are a good example of Islam as the Middle Way, between the European customs, with no concept of ritual purity at all, and other book-based religions with vastly more stringent laws on this issue. I’ve seen advice on a Hindu website (of the Swami Narayan sect, generally considered one of the more moderate) that women should not cook during their period because of microbes in their blood. All I can say to this is that my mother cooked for me when I was growing up, period or no period, and I can’t recall the monthly bouts of food poisioning. The laws in the Old Testament dictate that someone can become impure by merely touching a woman or the bed she sleeps on during her period. Our laws on this issue are mild by comparison.

Something else I’ve encountered quite often is the mistaken belief that the term “kafir” only applies to a non-Muslim who consciously rejects Islam, not to someone who is ignorant. As false as this is, people will refuse to believe you when you rebut it. The word “kafara” means to disbelieve, even though it may come from a root meaning to cover; there is a passage in al-Wird al-Lateef by Imam Abdullah al-Haddad which says: “Amantu bi’llahi al-Adheem, wa kafartu bil-jibti wa’t-taaghoot”, which Dr Mustafa al-Badawi translates as “I believe in Allah the Formidable, and I denounce the idols and the sorcerers”. The word “kafara” is therefore positive when what is disbelieved or rejected is false or evil. The word “kafir” has a more derogatory connotation to the western ear because it is used as a racial epithet by whites in southern Africa, and we all know you don’t address someone as kafir. But the word, when used on a non-Muslim, is fact; they disbelieve Islam, consciously or otherwise, therefore, they are kafirs. End of story.

Far more serious is the belief among some converts that they are better Muslims than those in the East, which I have encountered among converts of different origins, both black and white. I can only think of two Sufi shaikhs the west has produced in the whole of history, both of whom were emigrants to the land of Islam: Shahidullah Faridi and Nuh Ha Mim Keller (I’m not saying there were no others). A convert, and more so the son of a convert, who has the opportunity to learn the Qur’an and the Islamic sciences from an early age, can become a scholar of Islam and an excellent Muslim, but only by submitting to the authority of the real scholars who are in the lands of Islam, or in some cases, the diaspora of those from the lands of Islam. It is far better to learn Urdu and enrol in a “Dar al-Uloom” type establishment in England, despite whatever they have of mistakes, than to do nothing, while saying that such-and-such a shaikh or group of shaikhs in an Arab country is better than them, when there is little hope of studying with them or even access to them. This ego trip some converts have may well be fed by what some born Muslims say, that we are somehow better Muslims than they are. Trust me, we’re not. A widespread misconception is that we are “just Muslims” rather than Egyptian or Pakistani Muslims, or Deobandi or whatever type of Muslims. The truth is that we are western Muslims, whose culture and view of the world comes from our own upbringing. Westerners have just one superiority over other cultures, which is that bribery is not widespread. That’s all. We are a relative handful of refugees from a society which is falling apart even as it declares its superiority to the rest of humanity, yet some of us have the nerve to think of ourselves as better than the society we have joined. This arrogance is far worse than some of the “cultural” attitudes we sometimes see in ancestral Muslims.

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