Who is a Muslim? Tension at an Interfaith Ramadan Gathering

I helped my Muslim friends break the Ramadan fast at the home of Abdel, an Indian scholar of classical Islam who works at the Great Mosque in Rome to facilitate interfaith dialogue and to ameliorate Islamophobia. Every time he hears someone insult his religion out of ignorance, he will stop and make friends with them, ask them how they developed their opinion, and offer his devout Muslim life as a counterpoint. He will share his stories and teach them. He is a courageous man.

The guests at the Eid were diverse–between eight of us we had five countries and three religions. One of the guests, a young man from Lebanon, had been living in Rome for two years and attended the American John Cabot University, where most of his friends were Italian Jews. He repeated this to me several times, perhaps because I am Jewish, as a sort of bridge.

The dinner was lively, and we feasted on couscous mixed with pomegranate seeds and tomatoes, on ravioli and eggplant parmigiana, on tabouli and vegetable soup. We discussed the hijab, hand gestures across cultures, Sicilian hospitality, and culturally accepted platonic physical intimacy between males in Arab societies. We discussed internal variations in religions and how sometimes smaller differences are more threatening than larger, more evident differences. I referred to intra-religious strife–Reform and Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The young Lebanese man turned to me.

He said: “There is no such thing as a Shia Muslim.”

I asked him to continue.

“I grew up in Beirut with a group of friends and we did everything together. We were the same, Shia, Sunni, Muslim in any case. Until one day when we were teenagers. Their Shia leader told them I was against everything they stood for, and they had to shoot me.” With a forced smile the young man spoke of how his friends shot at him in the name of Shia Islam. “But they were not real Muslims,” he said. They were just nationalists, he said, supporting Iran blindly, immorally, following politicized decrees. He insisted, Shia Islam is not Islam and his friends proved it–because Islam would never condone his death. It had to be politics.

I responded first with sympathy. For childhood friends to turn on you in murderous, brainwashed vengeance!–it is an unfathomable betrayal. It would make anybody cynical; it would disillusion anyone from a stance that religions teach peace and fellowship. It would inevitably make a person self-protective, and behoove them to construct a narrative about the political coercion of erstwhile friends and what had converted them to enemies. For this young man, the detectable difference was the Sunni-Shia split, and his natural conclusion was that he and his foes did not follow the same religion. In his pained persistence, this young man seemed to seek consensus for his conviction that Shia are not Muslims. I tried to diffuse his pain with sympathy, listening to his story, hoping pain could be soothed by a listening ear and a humane presence.

Still, I had to say something else to him.

I had to tell him I did not think his was a story about Sunni and Shia Islam and which of them is true religion. Rather it was a story of human nature.

Naturally we want to believe that religion is good and beautiful, and that, if religions are true and correct, they offer healing and brotherhood. But we humans can also be selfish, frightened, desperate for approval, and easily enchanted by a charismatic leader with toxic rhetoric about purity and duty. Religion, especially in areas where people are religious, bears a lot of social capital; thus any individual or group who identify themselves with a religion, and figure out how to express their values and aims with religious language and imagery, can legitimate themselves greatly. The Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan did it with Christianity, though I imagine most Christians would deny that these groups were acting out true Christian values.

One litmus test for the truth of a religion might be the presence of a constructive, life-affirming moral framework and a response to human suffering–“by their fruits shall ye know them” (Matthew 7:16). And yet, religious legitimacy is not so clean cut. That is partially because what is “constructive and life-affirming” to one audience may seem the opposite to another. Christian identity cannot be delineated with a question as to whether one accepts Jesus Christ as their savior, because that can mean many things. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims follow the Five Pillars of Islam and perform rites thought to be clear identity markers. Even more tightly-bounded monotheisms like Judaism go grey at the boundaries where secular humanist Jewish groups gather, or when a Conservative Jewish rabbinical court makes a change in community law as to the inclusion of women and eventually LGB people to the rabbinate (T is not yet admitted).

Religious identity isn’t wholly a matter of agency but it also isn’t wholly a matter of community consent or religious authority. Even less decisively can the matter be settled by the judgment of an external party. Especially, in my opinion, when questioning the religious legitimacy of a community that is 14 centuries old–and especially when judgment against this ancient community comes from such a young heart, still smarting from betrayal and confusion.

“By their fruits shall ye know them.” There is something to that. Some say religion is the realm of values, ideals, sacred mystery, the moral–connotatively the realm of creative, life-promoting claims and behaviors. Can it equally be the realm of ideals of separatism, exclusivism, self-promotion, social Darwinism, and ethnic cleansing? Arguably these latter concepts reflect “ideals” that can be expressed in a rationally coherent and even inspiring manner. But they seem a little “off,” don’t they?

Yet, if religion is also considered to be the realm of culturally constructed identities, language, law, discipline, power dynamics, property ownership, and doctrinal boundary maintenance, a group espousing any moral framework can call themselves religious. They can co-opt religious language and be part of a given religion. This is Bruce Lincoln’s argument for the legitimate Muslim-ness of the 9/11 bombers: they engaged Muslim discourse, ritual, community, and institutional relevance. And yet many imams said they were not Muslim. Just as some Boston imams said they would not administer Muslim last rites to the 2013 Marathon Bombers because these boys were not Muslim.

Who is in, who is out?

What is, what isn’t a religion?

Is religious identity about language and identity claims? Or is it about some specific and “positive” moral content? These approaches to religion have very different consequences for the boundaries of religious communities.

My young Lebanese dinner partner applied a moral yardstick to judge religious legitimacy when he said that Shia Muslims are merely Iranian nationalist and not Followers of Islam.

What I heard at our Eid dinner table, more than a coherent moral argument, was the sadness of a young boy far from home, recounting the earliest of perhaps a series of losses. I heard him making sense of tragedy with religion, which is what many people do with religion. It is perhaps what religion is for. Whether his friends were making sense of their world with true religion, or bad religion, or non-religion is not something I can say. Perhaps it is not something that can be definitively said. But in any case, I am glad that they did not shoot him.

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6 thoughts on “Who is a Muslim? Tension at an Interfaith Ramadan Gathering

  1. Oof. Yes. This is a question that I’ve encountered many times, both within my own Christian tradition and in looking at other traditions from the outside. I have been in more conservative congregations which view very liberal theologies as perhaps beyond the pale of Christianity, and just the opposite with some more liberal groups. “How can they call themselves Christian?!” is so often the cry. And yet they– we– do. I was also good friends with an Ahmadiyya student at my college, who on her own terms and to any outsider would seem quite Muslim: she covered herself and wore hijab, she prayed regularly, she revered the Qur’an…but to other Muslim students, her being Muslim was distinctly iffy, if not completely false.

    So I guess I can’t help to answer your question, only to affirm its trickiness! The rules of politesse often tell me to just accept someone’s profession of their religious identity as they present it, but if carried further, such an attitude might threaten the entire idea of coherent and independent “traditions.”

  2. I would agree with the other comment to your article, and say that the answer to your question is a complicated one. What I would also contend as the answer is not as nearly as important as the exercise of asking the question. I would most like to applaud you for your not shrinking at the dinner table. Most often the response would have been to dismiss the gentlemen’s comment, and go on with a polite dinner. The courage that it takes to confront the comment, and address the pain with an honest effort to understand his story, is often the courage that the average person at a dinner party cannot muster. Though to begin to answer the more difficult questions, we first have to build these foundational relationships with those which we might not always agree. I admire and commend you for your bravery, and hope that you will be able to build a friendship based on your authentic exchange.

  3. Dear Ellie and Elisa, Thank you so much for your response and kind words. They mean so much to me. Yes, it was a hard moment. I think we all left on very good terms. Luckily my friend Abdel, the Muslim scholar, had a little more “insider authority” on the matter than I did and the boy was able to take in his message. It is always harder to take criticism or resistence from an external perspective. Again…thank you so much for your response. 🙂 Jenn

  4. Jenn, I think the issues you raise are important issues without easy answers. I appreciate that you brought up this issues in the context of Islam when we are so used to discussing this issue in a Christian context. I would like to add to this discussion the question people who claim dual belonging. Those people who claim both Christian and Buddhist, both Buddhist and Christian, both Christian and Muslim (an especially difficult theological reconciliation), or the growing number of American Muslims who identify as both Sunni and Shia are often rejected by one or both of the communities they claim to belong to. Who controls a person’s religious identification? The individual or the community?

  5. Dear Wendy, It seems we are obsessed with similar questions. (See my multiple belonging meditation here: http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/07/multiple-belonging-thoughts-on-belonging-to-more-than-one-religion/.) My general conclusion is that religious affiliation is not finally settled by an either-or binary but by a both-and dialectic, as far as agentic identity claims and communitarian authority go–and that the legitimizing power of these parties constantly shifts according to context. I also feel, where multiple belonging is concerned, that there are contextual factors determining the enthusiasm and outwardness of the dual identification. A person may be Jewish-Buddhist around other Ju-Bus but be a little quieter about it in a homogenously Jewish setting (especially when people start making halachic apostasy arguments). So I think that spiritual multiple belonging and social multiple belonging look very different, but both can be rationally coherent according to their respective normative frameworks. My approach to religious identity is essentially a moderate “contextuality” trope, but I cannot accept that a hard line about identity or belonging is anything but dogmatic. For me, fluidity is always the strongest and clearest lens–as elusive as it may seem.

  6. Jenn, I agree with everything you said. But no matter how fluid or contextual a person’s self identification is, there is still the problem of authoritative claims of who is in and who is out. What does it do to one’s identity as a Catholic-Muslim, for example, when the pope says dual belonging is impossible?

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