Islam: Singular or Plural? A Muslim-Christian Conversation

In Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, Bruce Lincoln writes:

“The religion [of the September 11 hijackers] was not a monolithic entity that can be labeled ‘Islam.’  Rather, these men embraced an extremely militant reformulation of maximalist currents within Islam.  To be sure, there are those who consider this style of Islam…to be Islam proper…But we need not repeat that error, any more than we must accept their view of the West – America, above all – as monolithically minimalist” (p. 16).

Tasi Perkins: Like many “open-minded” Americans, I agree with Lincoln’s assessment: the destructive actions of these terrorists is not representative of “authentic” Islam.  Yet the image of Islam to which the American public is typically exposed – through the media and through the propagation of stereotypes – is remarkably uniform.  The stylized depiction of a Muslim in the minds of many well-meaning non-Muslim Americans is someone who is Arab and is at least sympathetic with movements opposed to secularism, consumerism, hedonism, and the residue of European imperialism.  This caricature also includes entrenched attitudes regarding gender identity and religious diversity.

Yet while the image of Muslims is monolithic, most Westerners are able to nuance their own identities – I am not merely a Christian but a Protestant, an idealist, a Wesleyan, a particularist, a narrativist, an ecumenist, a post-liberal, etc.  I wonder if you, Shahid, might offer us a bit of self-description as well as your sense of how singular Islam really is.  This would be very helpful for those of us who have a deep hunch that Islam is a rich, diverse tradition, but who do not have the vocabulary to articulate this heterogeneity.  At the same time, you might comment on what, if anything, you consider to be essential to Islam.

Shahid Khan: While Islam can certainly be spoken of in the singular, one should always remember its diversity and its myriad of expressions. The lack of awareness in this respect is problematic to the extent that the image spotlighted in the media and public arena loses sight of the simple fact that Islam is not monolithic.  Does it come as a surprise to some of our readers that Islam is as much a Chinese and Tibetan religious phenomenon as it is an Arab one? What about India, a country with over two hundred million Muslims, and the region of the world to which I trace my familial roots? I believe that even the most rudimentary knowledge of these different parts of the Islamic world can help shatter the usual, stereotypical image of Muslims in the English speaking world.

I commend Lincoln for his efforts at understanding terrorist activity done in the name of Islam: that is, terrorists interpret sacred sources (the Koran and ḥadīth) in a “maximalist,” albeit “militant” way. My only contention to Lincoln’s analysis is that it fails to clarify various forms of “maximalist” expressions of faith, which not only account for the majority of Muslims, but are, at times, clearly antithetical to the “militant” form.

TP: You have raised two interrelated points.  First, the focus on Arab Muslims in the news and entertainment media certainly influences the subconscious sense that many Westerners have of Muslims.  The recent unrest – violent and nonviolent – in the “Arab Spring” (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, etc.) only further solidifies the Western image of Muslims (especially Muslim males, as they dominate the media coverage).  For many Westerners, therefore, the existence of non-Arab Muslims is more propositional than visceral.  I wonder both what you think could help to reinforce on a deep level the wonderful diversity within Islam and whether you think that anything is essential to the descriptor “Muslim.”

Second, this term “maximalist” seems helpful presently.  As a devout Christian who does not identify with ideologies like “fundamentalism,” “conservatism,” and “dispensationalism,” I often find it difficult to describe myself.  Western society seems to demand that “Christians” be either conservative – politically, socially, and theologically – or nominal.  One feels compelled to choose between wholeheartedly committing to a conservative interpretation of the Gospel and compartmentalizing one’s religious and secular modi operandi.  I am prepared to do neither, so I might call myself a Christian maximalist.  Are there parallel pressures within Muslim cultures, and if so, how do you think that the “non-militant maximalists” can come to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of their beholders?


SK: As to the first of your questions: as you have already indicated in your introductory remarks, it is integral to pay particular attention to this point about the influence of the media / entertainment industry. Perhaps, the media / entertainment resource is the most effective way to reinforce diversity within the Islamic tradition, though that is much easier said than done, and requires something akin to a paradigm shift. The descriptor “Muslim,” or literally “one who submits” (to God), is integral inasmuch as it is a widespread self-referential term, which also indicates a significant meaning associated with the religion itself. Be that as it may, all technical terms require qualification, and “Muslim” is no exception. According to a traditional scheme commonly known as the ḥadīth of Gabriel, “submission” (islām) is but one step in the hierarchy of belief, subordinate to “faith” (īmān), and the highest deed, which is “performing acts which are beautiful” (iḥsān).

Therefore, a “Muslim,” technically and hypothetically speaking, could be a “minimalist;” it could refer to a socialist or a secularist, a liberal or democratic; but this does not exclude the possibility that a “maximalist” could uphold similar ideals, in which case it is safe to say that Muslim cultures do have some parallels to Western Christendom. Precisely how non-militant “maximalists” are to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the beholders is beyond my capacity to comment on, though I would say that it depends on their receptivity.

TP: In pointing to the broader dimensions of faith and ethics you make the point that Islam is about much more than detached or blind “submission.”  Western perception of the relationship between Islam and a just, moral public order strikes me as a case-in-point of rational understanding colliding with prejudices.  Many Westerners can likely articulate, if crudely, the great heritage of egalitarianism, social justice, emancipation, and communal responsibility indigenous to the Islamic tradition.  At the same time, many of these same Westerners might harbor deep and unarticulated suspicions that Shariʿa is necessarily oppressive, that Islam trails behind the West in promoting the dignity of women and religious minorities, and that there is something “medieval” or “puritanical” about Islamic morality.

Along those lines, you suggest that Western appreciation for “non-militant maximalist Islam” depends not on the cultivation of this category within the Muslim community (since it already exists and thrives) but rather on Western “receptivity.”  For many conservative Western ideologues the Muslim world serves as a convenient scapegoat.  By creating a demonized Other these commentators are able to distract their audiences from more internally divisive issues.  But Islam becomes more than a straw man, for real violence against Muslims (Michael Enright, Anders Behring Breivik) and alarmist political activities targeting Islam (Congressional radicalization hearings, Swiss minaret ban) emerge from this demonization.  Do you think that there is hope for receptivity other than in the assumption of a new collective “enemy?”


SK: The idea that Islam functions as scapegoat in order to distract the public is very perceptive on your part.  Could this straw man construct also have other uses, i.e., political tools affecting and influencing the American psyche? I think many would answer this with an emphatic “yes.”   The demonization of Islam, or of any religious / ethnic group for that matter, often functions as a means to more nefarious ends.  However, the consequences of demonizing Islam, as you have pointed out, bring us to another issue.  By connecting the dots between the demonization of a group and the eruption of violence of that same group, one can assume that the two are inextricably linked, and therefore this could hardly function as a point of departure for receptivity: this is destructive, not constructive.

In many ways, the Western appreciation of “traditional” Islam requires a proper disposition on its part, one that respects cultural and religious differences.  This does not mean that Islam and the West do not share similar or even identical ethical codes and principle values; rather, this means that at times Islam and the West do not see eye-to-eye in certain respects. The aim of this receptivity, at least as I see it, seeks to understand that which is foreign or unfamiliar.  I am of the opinion that both Islam and the West value this ideal as an objective in and of itself.  My hope, and to a larger extent my experience, of this noble aspiration towards understanding, has been fostered to a large degree by the educational system.

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6 thoughts on “Islam: Singular or Plural? A Muslim-Christian Conversation

  1. Thanks for a nuanced and intelligent discussion. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue about Western receptivity and non-militant muslim maximalism. I wonder to what extent the cultivation of plural identity and conversation about multiple identities is a particularly Western phenomenon. In my experience discussing religious identity with 20 students in Bangladesh, their descriptions of their identify are overwhelmingly homogenous – i.e. “I am Muslim,” while when engaged in discussion, their are particularities, but which they choose not to name, at least in the same way a Christian will self-identify rather freely as a particular denomination. I’d be curious for your thoughts on this. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks for this piece, Tasi!

      I think more and more conversations like this are needed to create understanding. We can read all the theological garb, all the articles, but, what I have found is in conversations like this, they create a human level of comprehension lost in books and articles. When I teach and write, I have started to incorporate my talks with Wahhabi’s in India, with the Mufti of Banaras, even with Tariq Ramadan (your hero!), to help people relate on a more grounded level.

      I love Khan’s words!


      1. Dear Karen,

        Thank you for your kind words about our piece of writing, and also for sharing your experiences with me. I am so pleased to hear that you’re interested in looking at the Islamic world on the ground level. It is an aspect of scholarship–––in fact, of education–––that can no longer be ignored. With all the differences in theology and religious form, it is quite fascinating, even confounding to some, to see Muslims celebrating Diwali and Hindus celebrating Eid; or to know that Christians and Muslims pray with each other at the House of Mary in Ephesus. The list goes on and on…

    2. Greetings Tom,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences abroad with me. When it comes to the pluralism of identity, I think that this has more to do with our perceptions of people in the Islamic world, than it does with self-identity.

      In your case, I believe that the students who limited themselves to stating, “I am a Muslim,” were reflecting a spiritual attitude found in expressions of traditional Islam. This is none other than the effacement of one’s self before the Divine. This may seem homogeneous from one perspective, but from another it could be interpreted as a statement of fact, as if they were saying, “I am a human being.” The statement “I am a Muslim” reflects the Islamic sense of Divine Unity

      The diversity within unity does not necessarily mean the proliferation of religious denominations, as is the case in the United States. Rather, this sense of diversity appears more in terms of what we might call culture; but given the difficulty of drawing a line between culture and religion, taken together they can aid us in seeing heterogeneity.

  2. While I appreciate the detailed explanation of the diversity within Islam, I’d much more appreciate the moderate sects of Islam condemning the murderous acts of the radical.

    Maybe we can find common ground by admitting our failures.

  3. I don’t think singular Islam necessarily means lack of diversity but rather that it is what defines the limits of said diversity. In a plural Islam there would be no limits, Islam would mean anything to any Muslim.

    There are diffent schools of taught in the Sunni but all are held to be equally valid. But this is not what we mean by plural and singular Islam.

    The question of plural versus singular Islam deals with whether the ultimate essential features of what Islam is and what it cannot be, are agreed upon amongst Muslims?

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