Hussein Ibish on Muslim Identity

Hussein Ibish has an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Pages, “Who Is a Muslim?” It takes off from and criticizes Donald Trump’s proposal to “bar entry to Muslims,” and then goes on to raise “two fundamental but largely unaddressed questions: Who and what is a ‘Muslim'”? I certainly agree with Ibish’s critique of Trump on moral as well as strictly logistical grounds. Moral issues aside, Ibish is right to say that “implementing such a policy would be completely impossible under the current circumstances,” for many of the reasons he gives. But I think he overcomplicates the answers to his “who and what” questions. The answers are in fact pretty straightforward.

In fact, the “who” and the “what” are closely related and nearly indistinguishable questions. The necessary and sufficient condition of belief in Islam is sincere avowal of the shahada, the profession of faith. (By “avowal,” I just mean explicit affirmation of the propositions involved in the shahada. It need not be avowed out loud to count as an avowal.) In Arabic, the shahada makes this assertion:

La illaha illal’llah, muhammad ar-rasullulah,

which works out to

There is no deity but the One God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.

Presumably, belief in the prophet entails belief in his prophecy, which is contained in the Qur’an. Arguably, it’s contained in other sources, like the ahadith (the supposedly verbatim sayings of the Prophet), sunna (the ‘way’ or actions of the Prophet as recorded in accredited sources), and ijma (the consensus of the Islamic community as a whole; roughly similar to the ancient Greek idea of an endoxon). But people disagree about all that and can legitimately do so while professing the shahada. You can consistently avow the existence of God and the prophecy of Muhammad, and consistently believe the contents of the Qur’an, while disputing the historicity of just about everything we know about the Prophet’s non-Qur’anic sayings and actions, and disputing the claims or existence of communal consensus.

Hussein mentions his own case, implying that it’s a difficult one:

My own case is instructive. I am a citizen of the United States but born in a Muslim-majority country (Lebanon), and, on my father’s side, into a clearly Muslim family. Moreover, my first name, Hussein, is one of a few in Arabic that is practically exclusive to Muslims (Arab Christians and Jews are not given this name).

While my father was a devout Sunni Muslim, my mother remains a devout Anglican Christian. So, despite my name and place of birth being clear indicators of a “Muslim origin,” the reality is more complex.

Moreover, I never embraced either religion, and had agnostic tendencies even as a child. Yet I identify with the Muslim-American community for social, cultural and political reasons. I am part of, and from, the Muslim community, but in terms of belief I am not and never have been a Muslim. So, how would I be categorized?

This doesn’t strike me as a hard question. He’s not a Muslim. Ibish may identify with the Muslim-American community for social, cultural, and political reasons, but those aren’t faith-based reasons. Because they aren’t, he’s in no sense a Muslim regardless of the degree of his identification with Muslims. You can’t just “identify with” God or the Prophet Muhammad; you either believe in God and Muhammad’s prophecy, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re not a Muslim, end of story.

The scholar Marshall Hodgson made the crucial conceptual contribution here: he coined the term “Islamicate” precisely to distinguish things that are loosely “associated” with Islam from things intrinsic to the religion itself. Having a Muslim name; living in an “Islamic” country; having had a Muslim upbringing (or having Muslim parents); having an alief-based aversion to pork and/or alcohol; feeling a strange urge not to eat or drink during Ramadan; enthusiasm for qawwalis and naats; enjoying the sound of the call to prayer; eating sweets and expecting gifts on Eid; defending the Palestinian (or Kashmiri, or Kurdish, or…) cause; occasionally feeling the need to chop people’s heads off:  all of this, when divorced from sincere avowal of the shahada, is merely Islamicate. Expressed in a given person’s life it’s more of an ethical, political, or aesthetic-cultural thing than a religious one.

By contrast, believing in God, praying to God, fasting for God, paying zakat for God, doing the pilgrimage for God, fighting at God’s command, hoping for a reward in the afterlife, having real faith in the words of the Qur’an: all of this is Islamic, even if you’re doing it in English, in Peoria, Illinois, while wearing a bikini, and while feeling no particular sense of identification with the Muslim community (cf. Veena Malik).

In other words: You can be as Islamicate as you like and not be a Muslim, and you can lack almost all Islamicate attributes and be a devout Muslim. This is one thing that Islamic fundamentalists get half right (not that you have to be one to get it right): they firmly distinguish the Islamic from the merely Islamicate. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to grasp that a genuine Muslim is a genuine Muslim even if he or she doesn’t share your particular sectarian version of Islam. (These aggressively sectarian sorts of Muslims are known as takfiris–‘excommunicators’.)

Ibish continues:

Seen in this light, the range of Muslim beliefs and behaviors is more or less indistinguishable from that of the rest of humanity. The word “Muslim,” without any further qualification, and the word “person,” are, for practical purposes, synonymous. One doesn’t actually tell you anything meaningful beyond what is already suggested by the other.

I don’t buy that. How many non-Muslims wake up every day, before dawn, engage in ritual ablution, lay out a rug, face Mecca and pray–then do it again, four times a day? If that strikes you as a trivial difference, try making a resolution to get up every day before dawn for the rest of your life, wash, do ten jumping jacks while reciting your multiplication tables, and then go back to bed. See if you last a month. Trust me, a genuine commitment to Islamic prayer is not at all trivial. Only true devotion to something deity-like can rouse a person from bed at that hour over the course of a lifetime.

Commitment to five daily prayers obviously distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims, and it’s just one of the five basic pillars of the faith. Add Ramadan, zakat, hajj, and the rest of sharia into the mix, and you have plenty of material by which to distinguish a devout and observant Muslim from a non-Muslim. It’s an open question how many Muslims are devout and observant, but every Muslim has the capacity for devotion and observance, and even that potentiality distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims. No non-Muslim has to wonder how devoted or observant to Islam he or she ought to be. But every believing Muslim does.

I get what Ibish is trying to do, and at some level, I sympathize with it. He’s trying to normalize Muslims in American society, and make them seem less alien, exotic, sinister, bloodthirsty, violent, and intolerant than the stereotypes make them out to be. Fair enough: so far, I’m on board. But like many secular writers with impeccable Islamicate credentials, he also ends up trivializing the faith and effectively writing it into non-existence for liberal political purposes. I don’t say that as a believing or practicing Muslim (I’m neither), but as an apostate who remembers what it was like to be a believing and practicing Muslim. And there is something it’s like to a believing and practicing Muslim–something distinctive (and, to some, attractive). We can defend the rights and dignity of Muslims without having to deny that. Muslims aren’t “just like” non-Muslims. If they were, they wouldn’t be Muslims.

Ibish ends his piece by citing a new book by the recently deceased Pakistani scholar, Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. I haven’t read it. It sounds interesting, but it seems to me that reasoning of this sort has, under the influence of theorists like Edward Said, been taken too far:

Anyone interested in exploring the intricacies and complexities of Islam as a religion, philosophical system and social text should study the new book “What Is Islam?” by the Harvard professor Shahab Ahmed. Professor Ahmed — who died at the age of 48 shortly before this book, his life’s work, was published a few months ago — carefully guides the reader through a detailed critique of the numerous received understandings of Islam. In their place, he proposes a subtle but accessible new framework for apprehending what Islam is and has really been, in all its multiplicity and endless complexity.

I don’t dispute that Islam can be complicated. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also a faith meant to be believed and practiced by scholars and non-scholars alike. Its essential features can’t be so complicated as to elude the grasp of the ordinary believer. And its content can’t be so indeterminate or ephemeral as to blend without remainder into any old ethno-cultural background. If respect for diversity means anything at all, it means that we have to deal with the fact that Muslims really are different from the rest of us. Sometimes the differences are problematic, sometimes they’re edifying, and sometimes the differences fade into insignificance against the more fundamental similarities that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity. But for better or worse, they’re there. They can’t be wished away.

Postscript, December 19, 2015: Hey, look–what perfect timing: a shahada story in the news! Here’s CNN,  The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Vice (the most tendentiously liberal of the four). And then there’s Breitbart, for editorializing and tendentiousness from the conservative direction.

One unresolved puzzle here is the exact source of the calligraphy lesson. It obviously didn’t originate with Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher who’s getting all the flak; she got it from a workbook variously described as World Geography or World Religions. Since textbook writers are presumptive experts in whatever subject they’re writing about, most teachers assume that it’s safe to rely on them. (So much for that assumption.) Despite showing us snippets from the book, few journalists seem interested in taking a look at the “primary text” to understand the calligraphy lesson in its original context. That’s what journalistic deadlines and pressure to keep up with the Joneses will do to a story.

The best commentary I saw was David A. Graham’s in The Atlantic, which saves me from having to write anything on the subject, since I agree with just about everything he says, and he says just about everything that needs saying.  In a paragraph:

No one comes out of this looking great. The assignment at Riverheads High School near Staunton—to copy calligraphy reading “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God”—seems well-intentioned but ill-considered. Parents may have been justified in questioning the assignment, but the level of fury isn’t commensurate with the offense, and it’s hard to imagine it happening with any other religion. And it seems like Superintendent Eric Bond, who made the right decision in refusing to fire Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher involved, overreacted by shuttering schools on Friday, especially as there were apparently no specific threats against the system of 10,500 students.

But go back to the primary text.