Islam, Muslims, and Delusions of Utopia

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I recently had an opportunity to speak to a group of private sponsors of Syrian refugees coming to Canada. This wonderful group of people volunteered their time and whatever resources they could gather to help, in the small way that they could, innocent families struck by a brutal war. They were eager to learn about religious and cultural differences they should be aware of, because they were concerned about inadvertently offending the people they were helping. This, to me, highlights a beautiful quality of the Canadian spirit.

What transpired during our interaction was quite illuminating. It brought to the forefront a challenge we in the Muslim community continue to struggle with. We seem to have a problem differentiating between Islam as a religion, and Muslims as human beings who come from different places with different cultural norms. We also speak of Islam with either ignorance or disregard of legitimate differences in juristic opinions on rulings that impact how a Muslim will conduct his or her life. All this of course not to mention the simple fact that, at the end of the day, the way Islam manifests itself in practice varies depending on the knowledge and spiritual development of any individual Muslim.

The types of questions I had to address and concerns about a number of issues the sponsors raised should have been shocking, which made the fact they were not even the more depressing. Queries that came forth included:

“I have really nice pots and pans that I was told I couldn’t donate because I had used them in the past to cook pork.” 

“We were told only female medical professionals, including dentists, could provide their services to Syrian women.”

“Is it true that Syrians don’t listen to music because it’s prohibited? How will the children get through schooling here where music is part of the curriculum?” 

“I’m under the assumption that for setting up bank accounts and financial services I need to talk to the men only. Is it a problem if I as a woman discuss this with the husbands or should I get a man to do it?” 

“Are they allowed to have pictures hung up on the walls at home? I was told it was prohibited.”

This was a sample of the questions I was asked, and the general theme in them is quite clear. The refugee sponsors were previously presented with what can only be described as a puritan and quite scrupulous version of Islam. The general mood in the room was of a people feeling as if they had to walk on eggshells when dealing with Syrians. At the risk of sounding polemical I will say this: given how often this perception comes across from many refugee sponsors, it appears that instead of talking to them about Syrians as a people and culture, a number of imams and teachers have been giving presentations on Islam as a religion, based on their myopic vision of it, served on a ne0-orthodox plate (or a neo-traditionalist one if you prefer), and passed off as the “Syrian way of life”. Instead of teaching sponsors about the people they were helping, these imams and teachers were taking that platform as an opportunity for “Da’wa”.

The true reality of the Muslim community is that despite some apparent differences, we are not fundamentally that different from other communities in many respects. To be human is to be a collection of contradictions. Neo-orthodoxy equivocates between Islam and Muslims, presenting a utopic version of the religion that is so far removed from reality as to diagnose one truly believing in its having existed at any point in time as delusional. Incidentally, the word utopia comes from the Greek ou “not” and topos “place”, thus literally meaning “nowhere”. The 15th/16th century English statesman Thomas More first coined this word in his 1516 book Utopia, which was a text on political philosophy using an imaginary island as the setting for his descriptions of the religious, social, and political practices of a fictional society. In his chapter “On Their Trades, And Manner Of Life” More writes,

Through the island they wear the same sort of clothes, without any other distinction except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters, and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters.

It is ordinary to have public lectures every morning before daybreak, at which none are obliged to appear but those who are marked out for literature; yet a great many, both men and women, of all ranks, go to hear lectures of one sort or other, according to their inclinations… They do not so much as know dice, or any such foolish and mischievous games.

In his book Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700, J.C. Davis observes that Thomas More in Utopia was,

[Claiming] that community pressure could be made to correspond to and to endorse conscience and that the way to achieve this was through institutional and legal regulation, supervision and control. Moreover, he was aware of an environment in which exactly this was done, the environment of the monastery.

To put this into a Muslim context, the type of Islam a number of imams and teachers preach at the pulpit and present to the public is an Islam of nowhere. It has never existed, does not exist, and never will exist. It is an attempt of taking what Muslims do in the last ten days of Ramadan as they go to seclusion in the mosque, and inducing it to the community and public space at large. It is an effort to homogenize Muslims and negate their cultural identities and heritages under the guise of returning them to what the early Muslim community was upon. Implied in this is the widespread belief that early Muslims were practically angels walking on air, and we today are so terrible and in need of rectification.

To believe that early Muslims were a perfect community is to believe in fantasy. If such a belief was innocuous it would not warrant addressing. However, despite the Sunni position that infallibility is a characteristic of Prophets only, most Sunni Muslims effectively treat the Companions’ generation as if they were infallible. The harm here comes in the imagined idea that the Companions’ time was a time of Muslim Utopia. In fact, it is not uncommon for many imams and teachers to use the fiction of a Muslim Utopia to flagellate the Muslim community in their attempts to whip them into pious shape.

The Islam as it was taught by the Prophet ﷺ is a much simpler one in its theology and law. But today, for one to be a “proper” Muslim, it is not enough to declare a belief that there is no other deity except God and that His Messenger is Muhammad ﷺ, observe the pillars of Islam, and acknowledge a belief in the pillars of faith. Rather, modern Muslims have a situation where if one upholds a valid juristic ruling on a matter risks being ostracized and in some cases excommunicated if it is unacceptable by whoever has decided they were the community’s pope.

This discussion is a pertinent one to have because to accept that a homogenous utopia existed in Muslim history during the time of the Companions is to set unrealistic benchmarks for how Muslims are expected to be. Furthermore, this problem is exacerbated when nonMuslims are trying to learn about the Muslim community, only to be told about some fictional pious angelic community, which apparently has no culture, and happens to adhere to a version of Islam that sees the religion as a monolithic one.

One of my favourite questions during the Syrian refugee sponsors’ information session was the one about music being prohibited, because it illustrates a point. Music is a contentious issue not only among Muslims. Some Christian movements prohibit music, and the Jewish tradition has a rich discussion on this issue. Nevertheless, within the Islamic Tradition, despite what some may aggressively try to claim, this is far from a settled matter. A number of prominent scholars have concluded that music, i.e., songs with instruments, are permissible, including Abdullah bin Ja’far bin Abi Taleb, Abu Hamed al-Ghazali, al-Shawkani, Ibn Hazm, Abdul-Ghani al-Nabulsi, al-Iz ibn Abdul-Salam, al-Thahabi, Yusuf al-Majishoon, and Mahmoud al-Shaltoot among others.

I bring up the music question for a point. The Syrian refugee sponsors were looking to get to know the people they are hosting. Syria is among the most prolific producers of music in the Arab world. Why in the world would someone take a differed upon issue in Islam, take one of the juristic rulings, and issue a blanket statement upon all Syrians who are to arrive in Canada? As the Arabic saying goes, if it is done with ignorance it is a calamity, and if it is done deliberately it is a bigger calamity.

An explanation for why Islam is being presented in the way that is discussed here may lie in the personal religious choices some imams and teachers impose on themselves. One can be hard on themselves if they wish, but this creates a heavy toll on the psyche if one is alone. It makes the battle with oneself to uphold a particular lifestyle much easier if others in the community follow along. This can be observed in people who try and become vegan or vegetarian but eventually return to eating meat because their social environment made their attempted plant-based eating lifestyle too difficult to sustain.

Islam and Muslims are not synonymous terms. The Islamic tradition is a vast one and an ounce of humility about one’s assessment of one’s knowledge will go a long way. Muslims are a collection of over 1.6 billion people coming from different cultural backgrounds. The way Islam manifests itself in a particular culture is not necessarily the same as in another. When someone wants to know about Muslims, it would be wise to pause for a minute and remember to answer who the person wants to know about, not what you think they want to know about. Not every observant Muslim is going to adhere to the same school of jurisprudence as you or accept 100 percent of the rulings you accept. Furthermore, one cannot assume that all Muslims will be observant. It would serve the questioner better to be given a baseline of the basics an observant Muslim would follow while emphasizing that a lack of observance does not indicate a lack of obligation, and not complicate the picture with contentious issues. Most importantly, if you think you need to protect the religion and “speak the Truth” or else people will go astray, that is a good sign for you to step away and sit down in silence.