What does the Muslim identity entail for Muslims in Britain? What are the challenges we face? Where do we draw the line between assimilation and faithful practice? I’ve had many a conversation in which I’ve found myself confronted with such questions; questions that, at first glance, would appear to be legitimate concerns to ponder. And yet, one would think that having spent one’s life in London, as a Muslim, that it would be relatively straightforward to dive into an account of the so-called Muslim identity in Britain. However, the more I have given thought to these inquisitions, the more I have come to the realisation that such quests are an exercise of semantics, and thus futility.
There appears to be a heightening obsession with defining ourselves, and setting ourselves apart as Muslims in and of Britain. However, one must ponder over whether such an endeavour is even answerable or necessary. Is a ‘British Muslim’ identity definable? Rethinking the so-called Arab identity, or the English identity, or the Indian identity makes some form of sense, if only because the parameters of such identities are rooted in one’s language, one’s clothes, one’s customs, and so on and so forth. However, Muslims don’t speak one language; we are not ethnically homogenous; we don’t wear the same attire; in fact, we are a diverse body of people from all walks of life, literally scattered across the globe:
“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another”.
Yes, we were bound to find ourselves living in different nations, but does that change anything about the traits or indeed the duties of a Muslim living in London with a brother or sister residing in Cairo?
What is most concerning about this obsession over the defining features of ‘identity’ is that, of late, debates marketed on the premise of reassessing and formulating the Muslim identity in Britain has taken a hold of our collective psyche, leaving behind the pivotal philosophical and theological underpinnings of our faith, which have either been neglected, or reduced to dogma. This trap is most convenient to those who control the media, and thus society; creating a wedge between identity and practice ultimately breeds confusion and divisive questions of ‘belonging’ that really should not feature in our quest to ‘fearlessly and boldly help truth and justice’. God prescribed justice:
“Be ever steadfast in upholding equity”.
We have become so preoccupied with how to appease perceptions of Muslims, how to break stereotypes, that we have forgotten about our duty to be champions of social justice and defending the welfare of all.
And so, to be a Muslim is simply to observe that there is One God. This is the point of departure: Tawheed, the recognition of the Unity of Being translates into the uncompromising implication that it is God alone to whom we submit our dependence and needs towards, neglecting any form of reliance upon social, economic, and political constructs. To be a Muslim is to be a positive role model, indeed an example, in our communities. To be a Muslim is to inspire, to educate, to teach justice, peace, and subservience to the One. Indeed, the Holy Prophet himself stated that “the best of you are the most good-natured”. To be a Muslim is to be a good person. And indeed, as we travel along the path towards the Almighty, our humanity should amplify. If we can agree that, on a fundamental level, these are the critical features of a Muslim, can we truly be defined by mere geography when it comes to the embodiment of these traits? Can a Muslim who happens to reside in the UK be distinguished from a Muslim living in New Zealand? It seems not.
As such, we should abandon altogether abstract preoccupations about the so-called Muslim identity in the West or otherwise, and instead live practically and engagingly wherever we may find ourselves dwelling. Rather than theorising about what our identity is and means to us, we should instead build an acknowledgement that one’s (meaningful) identity should not be dictated by the labels that one attaches to oneself relating to ethnicity, nationality, or even religion, but rather the principles that we personify through action. We are defined by our deeds. Not how we look. Not the language we speak. Not the passport we bear. It is our content that gives us our identity. And indeed, we are reminded throughout our Book that when we leave this world and return to the One to whom we all belong, all that we will be taking with us are our deeds:
“wealth and children are an adornment of this world’s life: but good deeds, the fruit whereof endures forever, are of far greater merit in thy Sustainer’s sight, and a far better source of hope”.
Our deeds will be presented to God and thus our legacy in this world will be defined and our destiny in the hereafter decreed. Therefore, if we want to generate a more positive, and indeed accurate, perception of Islam in the West, we need only to align our conduct with the principles of justice, moderation, and love. The rest will surely follow.
Indeed, we are quick to blame the West, Europe, America, for the stereotypical depictions we see so often with regards to Muslims, but perhaps we have only to look at ourselves, in our mirror, to truly diagnose the origin, and source, of such unfavourable characterisations. This glaring victim mentality is a poor excuse for a deeply-rooted problem that we have left to brew for centuries. By this, my point isn’t to say that Islamophobia is non-existent, or that the bigoted mockery and vilification of Muslims has not been a feature of certain communities. Such prejudice exists. It always has done, and no doubt always will. But, prejudice is rooted in a lack of understanding, and if the understanding of what Islam is and what Muslims stand for is not coherent, it is a lot less to do with the racists and more to do with our inner condition. Tariq Ramadan in a recent lecture aptly put it as such: “If people don’t get [the Message], it’s not because they are ‘kuffar’, it’s because we don’t know how to express the Message”.
If we are genuinely concerned about what it means to be a Muslim in the West, know that such questions are ultimately baseless. Simply put, we are as good or as bad as our actions. Our conduct within society dictates how Islam is perceived externally. A desire to seek social justice, to ensure prosperity for all, to repel bad with good, are the very lenses through which we derive our identity. Such is the Muslim identity in the so-called ‘West’, and the same should no doubt have been true had we found ourselves living in any other corner of the world. A servant of the One is not dazed by where they may find themselves, because the only Home for the believer is with God.
The universality of the message of Islam means that it is applicable and practicable in any country. If we define Islam through the principles of Tawheed, justice, and compassion, as opposed to the more appearance-level variables such as attire, how many verses of the Quran one has memorised, what mosque one is a member of, then we can slowly begin to see how the trajectory transforms. The dialogue will no longer be driven by physical and circumstantial parameters. It becomes about the vibe one emits – our aura, which has the power to transcend location, and indeed minds. With such an approach to and understanding of the Scripture and indeed the legacy of the prophets, the question of faithfulness to Islamic doctrine versus Western citizenship (or any citizenship for the matter) is exposed as a false dichotomy. It is incumbent upon the Muslim to integrate, to participate, and to be active. We should refrain from segregating ourselves, at all costs, because to do so is to entrench artificial divisions, but worse still is attributing such divisions to our faith, when in fact Islam equips us with the necessary qualities to be able to live with people, peacefully and constructively.
Ultimately, Islam delivered a message of unity because it was the final manifestation of the message that the dignity of the human being is non-negotiable, regardless of gender, colour, and any other discriminatory. Therefore, if Islam has become a source of and justification for division and disunity, we have an urgent need to go back to the drawing board of our minds, of our spirituality, and find out why. The revolution of the Prophet Muhammad lies precisely in his message of dignity and justice. He did not compartmentalise people, nor seclude and segregate people. Further still, the Islamic faith was delivered as a message of liberation, not from the Americans, from the Jews, from any group of people. It was a message of liberation from the self. To liberate your self from yourself essentially entails that you endeavour to detach from your ideas of you. You encompasses your ethnicity, your appearance, your name; all the categories that you have imposed upon yourself and that society has prescribed for you. These labels instantaneously disintegrate with such thinking and one is left to be defined by the Sole Definer, God Himself.
There is no such thing as a Muslim identity that is specific to Britain, just as there is no credible equivalent for Muslims living in the Arab world, or in South East Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. We are Muslims, beginning and end. Theorising about how and through which means to define ourselves in Britain is a fruitless folly. Rather than obsessing over how to break stereotypes, the focus should be on transcending them.
Liberating ourselves from labels, from vacuous social constructs, from prejudices, is the only option. Once we lay down our weapons of division, subtly taking the form of nationality, ethnicity, and religion itself, we are left with nothing but our shared humanity. Not a Muslim brotherhood, a universal brotherhood. As Malcolm X explained: “I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what colour you are, as long as you want to clean this miserable condition that exists on this earth”. In another speech, he stated: “I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men”. Note, he didn’t state a belief “in the brotherhood of Muslims”. He left his door open for all. God orders us to “do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbour from among your own people, and the neighbour who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer”. And so it follows that true Islamic faith does not discriminate. It emancipates. All arbitrary measures of identity should collapse, and all that one ought to be left with is the Reality of God, the only identity that contains intrinsic meaning.