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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stop Labeling People

By Altaf Husain, MSW**

Warning: Reading this essay could be dangerous and corrupting to your mind if you have no previous knowledge of labels used to "brand" Muslims as following a certain type of Islam. If you have no previous knowledge of labels, it is recommended that you close this Web page and resume your browsing at the main homepage: www.islamonline.net. If you do have knowledge of such labels, then please do not leave this Web page before reading the entire article so that in sha' Allah you can refrain from branding and labeling other Muslims in the wrong manner. Proceed with caution.

I arrived at the car rental counter in the airport, Washington D.C. The customer service representative acknowledged my presence with a smile, and I noticed that he was of South Asian descent. He asked me where I was from and I said I am of Indian origin, And you? He said he was from Pakistan and had only been in the United States a few years. He asked how long I had been in the United States and I said since I was 10-years-old. He was surprised and said, "looking at you, I thought you just arrived." We had more small talk. He shared with me that he was studying and working. A busy life no doubt I said. How do you keep up with everything, like daily prayers? I try to pray as much as I can he said. Then, along the same lines as "I thought you just arrived," he said in a quite matter-of-fact tone, "with your beard, you look like a panch wakth namazi (person who prays five times a day)."

What just happened? It happens all the time these days. No longer are Muslims, and especially people of other faith, comfortable with referring to a Muslim person as just a Muslim. It seems almost a commonplace these days to add a descriptor, a qualifier, a label, to precede the word Muslim. What are some of the labels that you use?

In the true story above, in a brief, less than three minute encounter, this young man had measured me against his own preconceived notions on two points: First, that having stayed in America, an immigrant has to look American, and this young man believed clearly that with my Nehru style shirt and "one-fist length" beard, I must have just arrived to the United States. Second, that having a beard meant that I observed all five daily obligatory prayers-to the Urdu speaking readers, "a panch wakth namazi"-as compared, I suppose, to the "part-time" Muslim or the "once-in-a-while" Muslim, who prays only sometimes or whenever he or she "feels like it". Do you ever stop to think about what it means to be a Muslim?

In fact, what it means to be a Muslim is quite simple: One who submits voluntarily to Allah, accepts the last and final Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and lives his or her life according to the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Sounds very straightforward right? It is straightforward until we introduce our own biases and begin to classify one another. And this process of classification becomes sinister when motivated by a desire to marginalize, denigrate, or pejorate. What's worse, both Muslims and people of other faiths are using labels nowadays to "brand" Muslims, to make fun of them and laugh at them. The Qur'an instructs us about such behavior:

[O ye who believe! Let not a folk deride a folk who may be better than they (are), not let women (deride) women who may be better than they are; neither defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. Bad is the name of lewdness after faith. And whoso turneth not in repentance, such are evil-doers] (Al-Hujuraat 49:11).

Let us take for example the common notion of referring to Muslims by the particular madhab (school of thought) that they follow: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, or Shafi`i. While it is critical for a person to have a thorough and practical understanding of the particular schools of thought he or she chooses to study, neither the founders of these schools of thought nor their best students ever taught others to refer to themselves by the name of the particular school of thought they follow. What does it mean to be a Hanafi? Or a Shafi`i? For all intents and purposes, referring to someone as a "Hanafi," for example, implies that the person is a Muslim, and follows the school of thought known for its founder, Imam Abu Hanifa. But in reality, one would be hard-pressed to find any reputable Islamic scholar ever refer to a contemporary by the school of thought he or she follows simply to denigrate that scholar. It is just not a known practice, and in reality such a label serves no immediate purpose in everyday life. However, in scholarly discussions it seems almost imperative to know the madhab of the respective scholars so that one can appreciate better the basis of his or her reasoning on a particular issue of fiqh. When you and I engage in labeling people by madhab we ought to be careful that we are not doing so to put them down, to make fun of them, or to consider ourselves better than them.

Another kind of labeling involves referring to Muslims by the particular movement that they follow: Ikhwani (The Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan ul Muslimoon), Jamati (Jamat-e-Islami or The Islamic Group), Tablighi (Tabligh Jamat or The Group Conveying he Message), Salafi (follower of our predecessors, or the Salaf as-salih), and a Wahhabi (Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) among others. The assumption with the use of all these movement labels is that the person is Muslim and happens to be a member of a particular movement. What does it mean then to refer to someone by the movement they follow? Why make the distinction in daily conversation? One reason could be, within the context of a scholarly discussion, to distinguish the strategy or outlook that a movement espouses on a particular issue facing the Muslims. A person could, for example, rightly desire to examine the views of the Muslim Brotherhood on political participation and in doing so, ask a member of that movement: "You are an Ikhwani, help us understand your movement's views on political participation." However, the labeling or the self-labeling should never be used to marginalize people of a particular movement or to deride them or ridicule them for their stance on any aspect of daily life.

Another kind of labeling by Muslims, and also people of other faiths, is by the level of adherence to Islamic beliefs and practices that a particular Muslim is perceived to have. You might have heard for example, references to an fundamentalist Muslim, a conservative Muslim, a liberal Muslim, or a progressive Muslim. What each of these labels means is really defined by the person using them. To date, there is no agreed upon definition of these particular labels precisely, because the breadth and depth of the definition are constricted by the personal insecurities, biases, and prejudices of the person using the labels. After all, who determines what makes a person a fundamentalist, a conservative, a liberal or a progressive? For the people of other faiths, each of these labels has a meaning and is applied to connote a level of practice and a particular personal perspective on various issues in life. Muslims should never be tempted to characterize individuals based on their personal perspectives but rather on their adherence to the teachings of the Qur'an and sunnah. It is possible that individual scholars might vary in their interpretation of Islamic teachings but we should resist the temptation to characterize this variance as 'conservative' or 'liberal.' It is more preferable for us to gauge the variance among the scholars with reference to our pious predecessors such as ibn 'Umar and ibn Abbas radhi allahu anhuma. Both of these beloved companions of the Prophet Muhammad sal allahu alayhi wasallam are known as established scholars, with unparalleled contributions in the fields of tafsir, for example. It is known however, that the stance of these two scholars differed on various issues and most often, the result was that people felt ibn 'Umar's interpreted along the letter of the law and ibn Abbas interpreted along the spirit of the same law. Both feared Allah and exercised great restraint in proffering their interpretations so we should not trivialize their efforts by using commonplace terms to say that ibn 'Umar was conservative and ibn Abbas was liberal. Similarly we should not use those same labels for contemporary scholars whose interpretations are aligned with either ibn 'Umar or ibn Abbas radhi allahu anhuma. And as for those who call themselves or others 'progressive,' let them also remember that Islam is a complete and comprehensive religion for all people for all times. There is no need for the religion to be made more 'progressive,' but rather all efforts should be dedicated at restoring and reviving the practice of Islam based on the most authentic sources. In addition, more energy needs to be exerted on the resolution of contemporary issues while keeping in line with established centuries-old methodology to analyze and interpret Islamic teachings. Notwithstanding the self-imposed stagnation of the past few centuries for Muslims all over the world, no one would deny nor will deny that no religion desires progress more than Islam, and no adherents of a religion are more progressive than the Muslims.

Finally, think twice before resorting to the use of a label to refer to family members, friends, community leaders, scholars, etc. What does it mean to be a Muslim? As we noted at the outset, that question is simple and straightforward to answer. It is you and I who complicate our religion and trivialize and marginalize legitimate differences within the rich and deep-rooted Islamic tradition. When we use labels such as some of those mentioned in this essay, we risk hurting people and displeasing Allah. Stop using labels and fight the temptation to make fun of others, to put down others, to humiliate others, to marginalize others and worst of all to think of oneself as better than others. Remember that scholars use certain labels but also remember that a true scholar fears Allah and thus would never use a label in the same manner as a person who is not a scholar. Stop branding and labeling people, since we know that a Muslim is a Muslim and that's that.

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** Altaf Husain is a licensed social worker in the United States and has been a contributing writer to IslamOnline since its inception. He can be contacted at youth_campaign@iolteam.com.

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