Perhaps like me you’ve often asked yourself when can we call something ‘Islamic ’as opposed to ‘Muslim?’ And what, if any, differences and limits do the two terms have? Whilst they are interchangeably used by scholars and non-scholars alike, in ensuing discussions we’re often left in all kinds of knots and confusions. I know we can easily get caught up in semantics. However, it’s worth exploring words and their usage to understand things better – not least because language actually matters. The Qur’an, for example, was revealed and recorded in the specific dialect of the Quraysh. Language offers immense opportunity to both mystify and clarify things. It’s possible for those who master a particular language to control and influence the rest of society, for good or bad. And we know how difficult it can be to put thoughts and experiences into words. In this sense, in celebration of languages on International Mother Languages Day (21st February) it’s worth recognising that language can be a slender resource with inherent traps, but we cannot do without it. Thus, we can only face up to the challenges of using it expediently and honestly if we’re to be truthful truthfully, as commanded by God.
When it comes to the use of ‘Islamic’ a number of areas are worth considering. The first, and probably the most common, is the use of ‘Islamic’ to recognise the cultural, technological and intellectual contribution of Muslims during the so called ‘Golden Age of Islam,’ in the form of ‘Islamic Astronomy,’ ‘Islamic Chemistry,’ ‘Islamic Trigonometry,’ ‘Islamic Pharmacology,’ Islamic art’ etc. ‘Islamic’ here is meant to differentiate from the ‘non-Islamic’ other, and thus to claim history that might otherwise be overlooked or demoted, particularly as a tactic in today’s identity politics. But this shorthand way of looking at Muslim history obscures the other basic fact: that earlier contributions were not explicitly expressions of religion but merely the outputs of human beings (who happened to be Muslims) who sought to enquire into the miraculous nature of God’s given world.
Yes, one can argue, as the like likes of Al-Shirazi (1236-1311) have, that there are explicit and implicit indications (ishara) in the Qur’an that can be interpreted as ‘signs’ (ayat) which inspired a knowledge culture which in turn led to discoveries. And hence, in this sense, it could be argued that using ‘Islamic’ might be meaningful. But, I think this refers only to the inspiring factor or value rather than the output because otherwise we can apply the same generalisation to everything to the extent that anything and everything can be made ‘Islamic’ which thankfully we don’t.
For example, we hardly hear anyone say ‘Islamic camera’ on the basis that the pinhole camera was invented by the Muslim polymath Al-Haitham (965-1039). Or ‘Islamic refinery’ on the basis that Ibn Hayyan (721-815) advanced the knowledge of distillation. This would also explain why ‘Islamic’ wasn’t added to words that were in usage during the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’ such as ‘al-chemi’ (for alchemy which chemistry is derived from) or ‘al-falak’ (for astronomy). Applying this to ‘Islamic art’ we can see that it’s not Islam in or of itself, but inspired by concepts like beauty in Islam.
The second type, are subject areas that are intrinsically Islamic such as ‘Islamic learning’ referring to learning about Qur’an, Fiqh, Hadith etc. There are also other times when it’s necessary to use ‘Islamic,’ such as ‘Islamic prayer’ in the context of interfaith work or in comparative studies of religion. The same applies to ‘Islamic Education’ if we’re looking to differentiate from other fields of study today.
The third is the use of ‘Islamic’ for current involvement of the Shariah’s dictates in specific fields like ‘Islamic Inheritance.’ Here, the law being referred to is intrinsically Islamic, assuming of course that it’s within the broad remit of normative understanding. Hence, it can be reasonably argued that prefixing ‘Islamic’ in these cases is necessary to differentiate from other legal systems. Though, it’s important to realise that some of what is touted as ‘Islamic finance’ or ‘Islamic investment’ is debatable, and the verdict of scholars may not amount to what pleases God as the Ever Watchful, Knower of what is hidden within us. This also raises an important point of ‘technical norm implementation’[i] coined by Tariq Ramadan. Whereby, the label ‘Islamic’ rather simplistically purports to ‘Islamicise’ things as automatically approved in the religion – in both spirit and form, when the reality is that they dismally struggle to go beyond the rhetoric, ‘techniques in law’ or populism.
The fourth area – which I find most egregious, is the use of ‘Islamic’ for human organisations and institutions such as ‘Islamic political party,’ ‘Islamic state’ or ‘Islamic government.’ You might be forgiven to think that if Islam means to submit to God, then a political party or government that sets out to implement Islamic Law – the Shari’ah, in a rightful way could be truthfully called ‘Islamic.’ But this is highly contradictory in a number of ways.
Political parties and governments are human institutions and ways in which people organise to get things done, and are not intrinsically Islamic. Whilst their moral philosophy can be informed by Islamic values and Law, they are still human systems in and of themselves, where power, choices and money matter. If we apply the same logic at an individual level, we certainly don’t call ourselves ‘Islamic people,’ much as we intend to follow Islam 100%. What if a party or government only implements the Shari’ah 10% or 90%, do we risk ‘faking religion’ for the non-compliant portion if we label the whole ‘Islamic?’ In this sense doesn’t it fall on ordinary people or opposition parties or the judiciary to keep so called ‘Islamic political party/government’ or any government for that matter in check. Though, that said, it would be rather strange to restrain something we call ‘Islamic?’ It seems, like the perversion of ‘Islamic camera,’ references like ‘The Islamic State/Government of the Ummayya/Abbasiyya/Uthmaniyya’ etc. were (unsurprisingly) unheard of at the time, as far as I can see. Worst of all, some Muslim groups, most recently in the form of ISIS, but as well many so-called ‘Islamic political parties’ across the world, have been happily appropriating ‘Islamic’ to suit their own political or narrowed ends for well over a century.
The good news in all of this is that there is a term that we can use – in God’s own description of believers, in the term ‘Muslim.’ What Muslims achieve, do or don’t do, is because of their efforts, priorities and inclinations. Whether Muslims understand God’s guidance or follow it or not, it’s a function of ‘being Muslim.’ God gave us the label ‘Muslim’ and called the religion ‘Islam’ to make this distinction clear.
The tendency to prefix things ‘Islamic’ today, whilst often sloppy, idealises history and Muslims. But, if anything, the signs are very clear for Muslims. The lack of clarity and muddled understandings of what ‘faith’ is by Christian scholars at the onset of European Enlightenment – some three centuries or so ago, is something Christianity hasn’t been able to recover from to this day. To the extent that the West is often described as ‘Christian West’ when few go to Church and even fewer learn or apply the teachings of Jesus.
Thus, we ought to take heed by using the term ‘Islamic’ truthfully, knowing when and how to use it in the right place and time, for the right purpose.
[i] Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform, Islamic Ethics and Liberation, OUP USA, 2009, p251