Daring to Be European Muslims

Islam in the West or Islam of the West (Western Islam)?

Whether we look at the situation before and after the events of September 11, it is clear that for a significantly long period of time, interest in Islam in the West has been, for better or for worse, staggering. You cannot really conceive of going through a single day in your life anymore without seeing Islam somewhere in the spotlight. In the media, it is probably impossible, even if we limit ourselves simply to printed media in the United Kingdom, to find a day where there is not some sort of focus on Islam.

The connections and links between the West and Islam — these two monolithic forces, one crusading for the good of mankind (or, from another perspective, being crushed from within), and the other, a barbaric "Green Threat" that has come to replace the "Red Threat" (communism) — are the subjects of many a book (Amazon.com alone carries almost 9,000 titles). Publishers, newspaper editors, and media pundits know that these books attract audiences. What Went Wrong?, Radical Islam's War Against America, Prophet of Doom, Militant Islam Reaches America, Where Civilizations Collide: The titles vary, but they share a few characteristics. The first is that Islam is to be feared, and the second is that it is to be feared as something foreign.

But the discussion has taken a bit of an interesting twist in recent years. It used to be about the West and Islam; about something "out there," not "in here." When people in the "West" said "Islam," they did not mean their neighbors; they meant the outer frontier. When Muslims said the "West," they did not mean something that they recognized as familiar; they meant an alien environment. That has changed. There are still more of the fear-mongering titles, but there are now other titles such as The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.3 It is now no longer even remotely justifiable to speak of Islam as something "out there," nor is the "Yin" of "West" disparate from the "Yang" of "Islam." Both are connected to each and exist, in different ways, within each other — the Burda of Busairi is recited in the heart of London, and Macintosh iMacs are being used in Makkah.

Both types of interactions are of great consequence and should be properly understood, but it is the phenomenon of Islam in the "West" that attracts more attention at the moment. In the "West" (the quotation marks remain until the author understands what precisely what we are "west" of, and where the mythical qutb, or pole of geography seems to exist), Islam exists, not simply as an extension of some sort of Arabian or Pakistani interloping cultural imperialism, but as a living reality that is challenging what it means to be a Briton, a Frenchman, a German — a European in all shapes and forms that identity expresses itself in. That challenge is not taken lightly, and it needs to be taken seriously for what is at stake is the future of Europe as Europeans know it.

No longer can we take seriously the idea that a Briton is only an Anglo-Saxon Anglican, or the French is only a Catholic Caucasian. (And thank goodness for that; both were always rather absurd ideas; just ask the Protestants in France, the Catholics in Britain, and the Jews all over Europe.) The basis of society in all these societies of Europe is being questioned; the place of laicite in France, multiculturalism in Britain, the roots of citizenship in Germany; these are all issues that are directly confronted by the existence of a population that cannot simply resign itself to accepting that the headscarf must be taken off for its own good. That to succeed in society, you must consider yourself as an ethnicity and have no recourse to your religious principles, and that race is a defining factor of citizenship.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Daring to be Muslim in Europe Today: Issues and Tests

Just as societies in the "West" appear to be challenged on a variety of levels by the growing Muslim presence,4 so are Western Muslim communities being tested by the situations they find themselves in. By and large, these tests are the same challenges facing all Muslims around the world:

1. The ramifications of living as a Muslim in a world ravaged by modernity5

2. The recognition of legitimate orthopraxy and orthodoxy in a world where extremism6 has taken root beyond the radical fringe

3. The reconstitution of Islamic identity for Muslims, where Bani Islam (a neo-nationalism based on religiously-inspired affinity) and tribalism of a universal faith are deemed worthy.

For the Muslims of Europe expressly, there are two specific and distinct issues that are directly relevant to their surviving and thriving in Europe. Beyond these issues, and according to different contexts within Europe, there may be more subissues and other factors as well, but these two issues are fundamental and apply to all European Muslims. What is interesting to note is that both of these issues were identified centuries ago, albeit under different terms:

1. Islamophobia. The first matter is rather infamous now.7 Recognized by the United Nations8 as a reality the world over (and in Europe specifically), Islamophobia has been confirmed as a problem by a plethora of studies. It cannot be ignored, and it will remain to be a factor in the survival and the thriving of Muslim communities as long as it exists.

2. Integral to European Societies: Integralization. Islamophobia is, by and large, an occurrence visited upon Muslims by non-Muslims. While it may be a distinct phenomenon, independent of any Muslim creation, Muslim communities possess the ability to significantly decrease its impact. It remains, however, a taboo to seriously engage Muslim communities in that debate, even if many scholars and intellectuals are in favor of it.

The answer is not as easy as assimilation or integration, which both have already received meanings in the English language, particularly in the context of multiculturalist debates and discussions, and are not essentially positive courses of action to pursue. I have struggled to find a word that encompassed what I think may escape the harms of the above, but will also incorporate their benefits. Localization does not quite accomplish the task, and acculturalization does not exist in the vocabulary. But the basic principle of the approach, whereby one becomes integral to and embedded in one's society, has been recognized as a matter of course in Islam, for the prophets invariably began their invitation with the words, "O my people" and were sent as members of those peoples. For who better to deliver the message than one of their own, who knew their ways inside and out, even if he chose not to partake of them? Who better to deliver the message than one who could speak not only in their language, but also use their idioms and expressions?

Integralization and Its Support in Fiqh

Scholars have already looked at the latter challenge of "integralization" in Islamic jurisprudence, whether in the modern context or the medieval context. Ibn Taymiyah, for example, mentions a strong encouragement for the Muslims living in non-Muslim lands to observe the outward adaat (customs) of the non-Muslims, while ensuring that the Muslims not commit any haram9 (forbidden) actions in so doing (and herein lies the limits of any Islamic "assimilation" exercise).

Ibn Taymiyah mentions two goals behind his advice of what is basically integralization, namely the preservation of the Muslim's life, and the bearing of witness to Islam. In our own context, we might say that the preservation of a Muslim's life relates to Islamophobia; extreme Islamophobia can, indeed, lead to death. As for the spreading of the invitation, such a challenge always exists and is no less so obvious in a society where Islamophobia is so widespread. The limits are not lost on Ibn Taymiyah, who warns the Muslim from committing any forbidden action in this respect; but beyond that?

The reasoning behind this is aptly given by the principle expanded upon by Imam An-Nawawi, who in his commentary on Sahih Muslim,10 mentions that one of the principles of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is to consider the consequences and benefits of actions before doing them. This goes to the point that one should leave aside a mandub (recommended)11 action if the performance of a mandub might bring about a non-beneficial outcome. An-Nawawi, however, notes that this reason does not apply to actions that are fard (obligatory);12 they remain fard, and while there may be certain ways in which they are performed that are more advisable than others, they must be performed nonetheless.

This is obviously a very brief overview of the basic details of fiqh, but the essence of it is clear: For their own benefit, Muslims are advised by the Shari`ah to assimilate to the non-Muslim society within the limits laid down by the Shari`ah.

Responding to the Challenges Through Fiqh: Hijrah in Muslim Thought

The reasons behind this advice (safety and the effective bearing of testimony to Islam) are tied together through another part of fiqh. They both represent the key contextual factors that need to be taken into account when an ancient noun is brought into Muslim discourse: the duty of hijrah, or "flight from one's place."

The idea of hijrah is fundamental to Muslim history. It is the Hijrah of the last and final prophet of Islam from Makkah to Yathrib (later renamed Madinat an-Nabi [the city of the Prophet]) that marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar; such was the significance of the first hijrah to the first Muslim community. After many years of severe persecution, and scouting distant lands such as Abyssinia (a non-Muslim country ruled by a Christian king), the Muslims emigrated to a place free of persecution, where they could practice Islam without fear of destruction.

Nowadays, hijrah still plays a role in the mentality of some Muslims, who believe that it remains a duty for Muslims to migrate from a land ruled by non-Muslims and non-Muslim government, to a land ruled by Muslims in an Islamic regime. As there is no "real Islamic state" in existence at the moment, the duty is simply in abeyance. But there is no point in getting comfortable in these lands of disbelief and obscenity, they believe; they do not belong here, and they should leave to a place where they can practice their deen (religion, for lack of a better word) freely.

Legal discussions of the past question whether the duty of hijrah was primarily about Muslim rule or Muslim laws, however (although for many classical scholars, it was indeed a factor). During the Makkan period when Muslims were persecuted, there was a hijrah to Abyssinia, a non-Muslim country, which was voluntary. However, when the discrimination in Makkah became persecution and remaining there would have meant unacceptable compromise, the Hijrah to Madinah became obligatory for those who could migrate (Eickelman 30).13 The Hijrah was thus linked to freedom of worship, but also to the strengthening of the Muslim community, which in that historical context meant strengthening the new city-state of Madinah.

Scholars of Islam in the classical period thus interpreted the principle of hijrah in different ways. Al-Busti insisted that the hijrah was meant to strengthen the Muslim community in its early days, and would become required only when the community was in such a situation. Ibn Khaldun went further and said that the hijrah had ceased to be an obligation after the death of the Prophet, while Ibn Hajar Al-`Asqalani took a more "middle of the road" view and said that the hijrah was no longer required after Makkah was conquered.14 Other scholars held that the hadith concerns a hijrah that was incumbent upon the Companions of the Prophet and that the abrogation does not extend to later generations.

Ibn Al-`Arabi divided the hijrah into six situations, three of which would involve compulsory migration, and three of which would involve recommended migration. Hijrah, in this perspective, would be obligatory for Muslims in lands of unbelief or heresy, injustice, or where lawlessness prevailed; while it was recommended in cases of physical persecution, disease, and financial insecurity.15 Ibn Hajar Al-Haythami, the leading Shafi`i jurist of his time, believed that the operational norm was for a Muslim not to make hijrah as long as persecution was not in force. If he were able to practice the deen, then the land would become dar al-Islam [lands where Muslims can freely reside and practice their religion], for himself and for other Muslims. For such a person, hijrah might be permissible, but only if it did not result in the land reverting back to being dar al-harb [lands where Muslim cannot practice their religion freely], in which case, it would be forbidden for him to leave.16

If we consider the modern period, the reality for most (if not all) of us in the "West" is that there is no widespread persecution on the level of that suffered by the first community of Muslims in Makkah. On the contrary, generally speaking there exists freedom of religion in all European countries. This freedom is not absolute and it is not perfect, but there are not any pogroms or any kind of maltreatment of a level that would oblige hijrah. There might be other reasons that would make it recommended; the many Muslims who travel in charitable organizations abroad to help those members of humanity who require their assistance can see that migrations may be necessary even without a khalifah [caliph].

[1] Allen, Christopher. "Endemically European or a European Epidemic." Islam and the West Post 9/11. Ed. Ron Geaves, Theodore Gabriel, Yvonne Haddad, and Jane Idleman Smith. Ashgate: 2004.

[2] "Tradition or Extradition"; see http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/TradorExtrad.htm

[3] See Bulliet, Richard W. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.Columbia University Press, 2004, where he argues that the Islamic civilization and the Western civilization are in fact variants of the same civilization, and that struggles within them should be viewed as struggles within a single "family."

[4] I am reluctant to admit that the full weight of these challenges lies with the Muslim presence, as a case can be made that the challenges exist independently of Muslims, who appear to be useful scapegoats and excuses to escape the painful process of self-examination that Western societies must undergo.

[5] Although it should be noted that the beginnings of this process began as soon as the generation of Companions began to pass.

[6] I would argue that extremism is not always about militancy. Severity and stringency are not always the same as caution and prudence, and might be called a form of extremism, as might the rejection of classical forms of Islamic education in favor of unwise innovations in form and substance. In any case, extremism is usually best dealt with through orthodoxy and the turath of the Islamic intellectual inheritance, as can be seen by the "Qur'anic duels" in Yemen (see http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0204/p01s04-wome.html).

[7] See Christopher Allen's latest analysis, "Endemically European or a European Epidemic? Islamophobia in a post 9/11 Europe." Islam and the West: Post September 11. Ed. Ron Geaves and Theodore Gabriel. Ashgate, 2004.

[8] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2004/hr4801.doc.htm

[9] The performance of which entails liability for punishment, and the avoidance of which entails reward.

[10] Imam An-Nawawi's commentary on the hadith collection of Imam Al-Bukhari hadith 653, Volume 2, Book 26 The Book of Pilgrimage.

[11] The performance of which entails reward and the neglect of which entails no punishment.

[12] The performance of which entails reward and the neglect of which invites liability of punishment.

[13] Eickelman, Dale and Piscatori, James, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination. London: Routledge, 1990.

[14] ibid 33

[15] ibid 37. The Ibn al- `Arabi mentioned here is apparently not the same Ibn Al- `Arabi who was born in Spain in 1165, but rather the Maliki Qadi Ibn Al- `Arabi.

[16] Ghimari 2004


Integralization: The Stakes for Europeans

This is how "Islamophobia" links into the question of hijrah, as noted in part 1. How, then, does "integralization" link into the same question?

As indicated in the first part of this article, Islamophobia exists, but unless one believes that Europeans are hereditarily distrusting of Islam, there needs to be a bit of an exploration. The representation that Islam receives in European countries reveals either a severely well informed, media-savvy conspiracy that is bent on lying about Islam, or a population who do not know what they are talking about.

Either way (and credence is to be given to the latter rather than the former), the portrayal of Islam as some sort of superior national identity will likely prolong the existence of this erroneous view. A novel form of `asabiya (partisanship) combined with ta`sub (prejudice) may be emotionally satisfying and psychologically gratifying, but it does not come without a price, nor without consequence.

As many have noted, it used to be the case that Western Islam was thought of as being inexorable (that is, that Western Muslim communities were here to stay, no matter what). That can no longer be relied upon on, ignoring the possibility, as did the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust, and the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, that prejudice and bigotry might mutate into something far worse, a deepening of Islamophobia, and the possibility of the destruction of Muslim communities by demographic majorities who, for whatever reason, fear the "infidel" in their midst.

Nevertheless, at present there is no need to call for alarm, for in the countries of the European Union, under the rule of law, such persecution is not permitted. Although certain neighborhoods may be rather difficult, European societies as wholes are remarkably tolerant (owed in no small part to secularism, the only way that pluralism could come to exist in much of Europe).

Classical Muslim communities exhibited great forbearance under far more desperate circumstances; Muslim communities today should be in a state of thankfulness in Europe, and not underestimate the value of living here. Despite residing in much more arduous conditions, classical Muslim communities were also more prone to unwearyingly probe themselves about difficulties of their own making, something that some sections of some Muslim communities today are not so inclined to do. On the flip side, the efforts of some non-Muslims to exhibit regrettable bigotry under the fig leaf of "intellectual enquiry" needs to be challenged by any European concerned about the future of Europe.

Nevertheless, the failure of Muslims to probe themselves and exhibit themselves as intrinsic to European societies continues to frustrate both Muslim communities, who look for a productive and relevant image of Islam, as well as non-Muslim communities. Reactionary political movements among the latter frequently abuse the representation of a Muslim community seeking economic benefit without contribution to society as a whole to further their extremist political agendas, although this is more often than not a diversion from the real issue of deciding what it truly means to be a "European."

The root of hatred is fear, and it is common for human beings to fear what they do not know and do not understand; something Europeans have learned in Europe many times over, but cannot quite seem to grasp. Something that is known and understood, if it is worthwhile on its own two feet, will not be hated and demonized by the masses, although there will always be people who for various reasons reject certain realities. Such is the nature of things, but this is not, by and large, the predominant disposition of any people, let alone those who have opened their countries' doors to refugees, who expend great amounts in charity across the world and continue to mobilize for causes that have no direct relevance to them.

Integralization: Past, Present, and Future?

Throughout history, Muslim communities have faced the challenge of living as "minorities" in the following way, acting as the embodiment of the collective human personality formed by Islam in such lands and of such lands. At the dawn of their existence as a Chinese Muslim community, the Muslims of China , in the face of an overwhelmingly more difficult situation, had far fewer numbers and far fewer resources than today's European Muslim communities. . Yet within a few generations, the Muslims of China were quite literally running the economy, having become not integrated, nor assimilated, but integral to the country, to the point that Islam was recognized as one of the great religions of the empire. They met the non-Muslim Chinese with words they understood, rather than introduce themselves as foreign fifth columns that had no concern for them or their contexts, becoming Chinese in the process but remaining Muslim to this day.[1]

This was the same elsewhere as well, regardless of whether the Muslim presence had political sovereignty (as it did in Egypt) or not (as in China); in all places, the Muslims "went native." The glorious civilization of Al-Andalus (Andalusia) was not an "Arabian seed" planted in Europe, but rather a fresh, beautiful, and new culture of its own. The same is true all over the Maghreb, the Fertile Crescent, Turkey, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, India, and all the lands where Muslims went. All became attached to the land and formed new cultures with the inhabitants, filtering out the "chaff" from the "wheat" using Islam,[2] as per the historical pattern of Muslims.

The alternative is to constantly insist with deeds and words that Muslims are no more than an artificial implant in these lands from somewhere else. For decades, despite having huge numbers at their disposal, the Muslims in various countries of the European Union have been stereotyped as "Pakistani," "Arab," and "Turkish," among other ethnicities to the point where if a non-Muslim embraces Islam, he is spoken of as "turning Turk" (historically the phrase used when a European Christian became Muslim) or "becoming a Paki."

In our times, where the new dynamic of the European Union has deeply affected the sense of "self" among Europeans, such perceptions are none too helpful. In the face of phenomenal changes to their societies, resulting from European integration, modernity, and so forth, Europeans currently find themselves in a crisis of identity that is continually exploited by xenophobes on the far right. Instead of confronting that problem on a fundamental level, taking into account the new dynamics, some are simply using the "Muslim other" as an excuse to escape answering the true conundrum of defining what it is to be "European." The left wing is seen as hammering the deathblows into the coffin of the nation, under the pretext of respect and tolerance of minorities; whereas the right wing prefers to ignore that national identities need to be re-examined, as they always have been over the centuries. The former respect Muslims, but only as the "other." The latter reject Muslims, also as the "other."

After examining the destruction of tolerance in Dutch society in the aftermath of Theo Van Gogh's murder and the subsequent attacks on Muslim communities, Rod Liddle, in a recent issue of The Spectator, notes that recent study suggested that within six years at three large Dutch cities will have an effective Muslim majority. There's also the nightmare scenario of the Low Countries' caliphate … And all of this is aided and abetted by the European Union, its liberal immigration laws, its espousal of multiculturalism and, crucially, its implicit disavowal of the concept of a sovereign nation state with a coherent national identity. … How, then, do you attempt to inculcate a belief in unity and nationhood among new citizens when the nation is withering away in front of you?[3]

Liddle may be raving against Islam and Muslims in his piece, but a key point that he exploits, which many sectors of our European societies feel vulnerable about, is the dissipation of the cohesion of society and the nation. It is likely that the full weight of these challenges lies not with the Muslim presence, but exists independently of Muslims, who appear to be useful scapegoats and excuses to escape the painful process of self-examination that European societies must undergo. European societies have serious issues to deal with relating to identity, and instead of facing them, the reactionary sections among them prefer to deconstruct those identities to an unsophisticated bastardization, vis-à-vis the "Muslim Other" and focus on that "other" instead of re-evaluating themselves in the face of modernity.[4]

All the same, if Muslims continue to appear to be encouraging the damaging development of the dissipation of civil consciousness, non-Muslims will continue to view them and their religion as suspect. Even those sympathetic to Islam may not wish to unnecessarily commit cultural apostasy at the best of times, and indeed, should they have to?

"No Muslim would deny that multiculturalism must always have some limits,"[5] for then "respect of diversity" falls into valueless and useless cultural relativism. The Prophet may have allowed a large degree of autonomy for Madinah Jews, but he unconditionally banned female infanticide. The same principle is valid in the EU, and it is not unjustified for European societies to expect a degree of cultural assimilation from new citizens. How far that goes, however, is forever being argued, in a discussion that European Muslims need to engage in, as a community of purpose, bound to their ethical code.

A Community of Purpose

As the Maliki Fiqh Conference in Europe in the 1980s made clear, it is incumbent (fard) for Muslims in Europe to remain. This is clear from both classical Islamic jurists and contemporary scholars such as Shaykh Al-Ghimari,[6] the great Moroccan expert in Hadith (prophetic traditions). At the same time, they are enjoined to adhere to the law of the land (something that numerous authorities such as Abdullah Bin Bayyah in the modern age, and classical authorities such as Ibn Qudama have stated to be obligatory). This is not to negate the need for a critical evaluation of European foreign policies, or the threats of complete cultural destruction, for such assessments are necessary. On the other hand, "wild denunciations of great Satans or global Crusader conspiracies are, for Muslims here, not only dangerous, but are also discourteous — scarcely a lesser sin."[7]

This all points to the implication that all Muslims should consider themselves members of a community with a positive purpose, assisting in the improvement of their societies in all ways available to them. In the aftermath of September 11, Hamza Yusuf made the point to Muslims, both privately and publicly, that if they could not be law-abiding citizens, they were obliged, under the Shari`ah, to migrate to a place where they could. For this, he was widely criticized.

A Community of Universal Mercy

In these beautiful lands of Europe, there is certainly a plethora of opportunities at the disposal of the Muslim community. The only question is, are they up to it?

There are certainly problems in our societies in the "West." September 11 gave the impetus (or excuse) for a great deal of structural reshuffling to take place. Police states may not yet exist, but we are closer to them than we were before. And Muslims will likely bear the brunt of such measures, regardless of what pundits and bureaucrats might claim.

Nevertheless, now, as in previous centuries, European societies are in a state of flux, with our values being constantly examined. A plethora of European non-Muslims have struggled against the encroachment on their liberties and freedom over the years, struggling with their lives and their wealth to ensure that we might live free; where are the the Muslims in this?

If they stay on the sidelines of those debates, Muslims have no one to blame but themselves if Islam itself stays on the sidelines, instead of contributing to the discussion. If the "West" becomes synonymous with the term "barbarism" in truth instead of merely polemics, then part of the responsibility will be with the millions of Muslims who reside in these lands and have not made the necessary impact.

In the midst of that picture, however, there is hope, for in Europe, civil society remains open to the contributions of its citizens. The Prophet, an individual who understood his duty to the community, lived among his people for more than 40 years, learning all their dialects and communicating with them in their colloquial forms and habits. When he sent Mu`adh to Yemen to meet ahl al-kitab (People of the Book), he advised him to talk about the unity of God, for this was a common ground to start from. This is how integralization, participation, contribution, and involvement must take place: with an awareness of what is common and what is different, what is essential and what is inherited culture.

Muslim scholars are the ones who are qualified to give authoritative opinions on what Islam does or does not stand for. For my own part, it seems Islam in its pristine form is a message of al-`alammiyah (universalization); a universal message of rahmah (mercy), for the preponderant quality of God in Islam is mercy, the final Prophet of whom was none other than mercy unto the worlds.[8]


[1] Chinese Islam with its own unique characteristics, see http://www.islamonline.com/cgi-bin /news_service/world_full_story.asp?service_id=1392

[2] See `Umar Faruq `Abd-Allah's article, "Islam and the Cultural Imperative," http://www.nawawi.org/downloads/article3.pdf.

[3] Rod Liddle. "No Tolerance, Please, We're Dutch.' The Spectator [London] 5 Feb 2005.

[4] It should go without saying that different European societies have different issues to work with, and that European societies are unique in comparison to the USA, for example, where the issue of immigration is not linked to Islam (unlike the EU).

[5] Murad, Abdal Hakim. Tradition or Extradition.

See http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/TradorExtrad.htm.

[6] I am indebted to Ustadh Abdullah Hamid Ali for his invaluable translation of Shaykh Al-Ghimari's fatwa in this regard.

[7] Murad, Abdal Hakim. Tradition or Extradition.

See http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/TradorExtrad.htm. The point is also made that one of the duties of Muslims is to be courteous and well-mannered, no less so in places where their presence as a significant population is rather new.

[8] I would like to thank those who commented on this article, the responsibility of which remains mine, and the truth of it, should there be any, lies predominantly with them.

RSS per kategorine Lajme Shfletuesi i Kur'anit

  • RSS per kategorine Lajme