Muslims need a new definition of Islam in order to survive

Portrait of an Ahmadi refugee.
Portrait of an Ahmadi refugee.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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A few weeks back I was in a mosque, decrying the scourge of sectarianism. (I’d been invited to speak, to be clear: I wasn’t just monologuing uninvited.) In too many places, I noted, Sunni and Shia Muslims are not just at odds with each other, they’re at war. To prevent similar conflicts from poisoning our own communities, American Sunnis and Shias would have to learn and work with each other.

After the talk, an older woman approached me. Clutching her purse, looking equal parts nervous and disappointed, she sighed. “I am an Ahmadi Muslim,” she told me. “What about us?”

The plight of Ahmadis had actually already been on my mind for some time. But this woman’s question left me at a loss. She was right. Ahmadi Muslims are often marginalized, regularly (and legally) discriminated against, and even killed. This is, unlike many Sunni and Shia disputes, an entirely one-sided affair. Ahmadis are not warring with other Muslims. They are being aggressed against. There’s no Ahmadi Muslim nation that plays the role of Iran or Saudi Arabia, no Ahmadi faction like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Which makes it so much worse.

Will such conflicts prevent the West’s very diverse Muslim communities from working together in the face of rising Islamophobia? Is it possible to be true to our beliefs, respect our differences, and yet recognize that we share a common identity? I believe the way forward is to bring about a new definition of Islam that will coexist alongside the ones we already have.

A spoonful of theology

The majority of Muslims are Sunni, usually following one of four “schools.” Nowadays Wahhabis are counted as Sunnis, although (a) Wahhabism emerged in rebellion against Sunni Islam, and (b) for a long time a lot of Sunnis did not see Wahhabis as part of their tradition. A significant minority of Muslims are Shia, further distinguished by various branches within.

Beyond the familiar Sunni and Shia divide, there are also Ibadi Muslims, mostly in Oman. Some Muslims are progressives, liberals, modernists, or Salafis, and may or may not identify with the previous categories. Nowadays I often meet people who call themselves “just” Muslim, “culturally” Muslim, or “secular” Muslim.

In other words, while contemporary Islam is often portrayed as a monolith, we are anything but.

Nevertheless, there has historically been a kind of lowest common denominator definition of Islam, which may go something like this: A Muslim is any person who believes God is One, the Qur’an is the literal and unchanged word of God revealed to Muhammad, and Muhammad is the last Prophet. Muslims also believe Jesus was the Messiah, who shall eventually return to the world and fill it with justice and harmony.

In contrast, Ahmadis believe in the prophetic status of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a late-19th century religious reformer from the Indian subcontinent. Ahmad also told followers that Jesus had lived out his life in Kashmir, and therefore wasn’t going to literally come back—the Messiah was present as Mirza Ghulam Ahmad himself.

This is not the first time a community has been torn apart by Jesus, of course. A similar division caused Christianity to separate out of Judaism. And just as most Jews’ refusal to accept Jesus’ divinity eventually led to their persecution, so too are Ahmadi beliefs met with discrimination and even violence.

In some circumstances, Ahmadi mosques cannot even be called mosques. This is not the case in the United States, but even here many Muslim groups overlook Ahmadi Muslims (for all kinds of reasons). That simply can’t hold going forward, which means Western Muslims will have to ask themselves: How do we deal with significant, even incompatible, disputes?

Muslim is as Muslim Says

By my estimation, American Muslim communities have made great progress in opening their institutions to diversity of thought and representation. We’re not nearly as far along as we should be, but we’re also not where we were five years ago.

But Ahmadi Muslims remain something of a blind spot. As a Sunni Muslim, for example, I don’t recognize Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claims to prophethood, or that Jesus is gone forever. The first of these is more challenging: I have been taught that belief in the conclusion of prophecy with Muhammad is fundamental to my faith. Certain core Ahmadi beliefs stand at odds with my own, and yet they consider themselves part of the same tradition. (It’s worth pointing out, of course, that this runs in both directions.)

What do you make of people who claim to be in your community, even as their theology appears at odds with your own? American Muslims are going to have to figure out an answer.

For reasons strategic and moral

A recent and exciting development in American Muslim life is the creation of college chaplaincy. Chaplains are religious authority figures who serve campus Muslim life in all its diversity. A chaplain, which can be male or female, has to be comfortable with Islamic customs and practices, but doesn’t get to pick and choose who is ministered to. If someone calls herself Muslim, she’s part of the constituency.

There are simply not enough resources to build separate Sunni, Shi’a or Ahmadi institutions—nor is it clear that we should. After all, no university would allow a chaplain to simply dismiss a group of people who want to be part of her congregation.

Most Muslim communities are still relatively small, struggling against Islamophobia, and just beginning to institutionalize. In this context, forced cooperation between diverse sects might be a good thing. We can’t and shouldn’t deny our differences. But we don’t have to let them consume us. When you hitch your politics to your theology, you don’t just go backwards. You end up in some very bad places.

One option is for American Muslims to acknowledge a second definition of Islam, which might be called Cartesian: “I think I’m Muslim, therefore I am.” Call yourself a Muslim, and you are. I might not agree with how you define Islam, but I can acknowledge your right to define yourself as Muslim, not least because the wider world treats you the same way. When Ben Carson says Muslims are “schizophrenic,” he’s branding Muslims generally.

But I also know what happens when we allow our disagreements to interrupt our cooperation. After all, many Sunnis believe Shi’a Muslims aren’t Muslim, and though I strongly disagree, I know what happens when we begin to concede to these kinds of perspectives. That doesn’t mean all Muslims have to subsume their differences, or share their institutions. But we must also cooperate across differences. 

How else are organizations that represent Muslims politically, or fight back against hate crimes, going to function? Are we going to hold inquisitions over whether or not the mosque attacked for being a mosque has any right to call itself a mosque?

Even if that argument doesn’t move many Muslims, the moral calling of this moment should. We are calling for solidarity. Should we not show some?

US president Barack Obama recently stood under an unmistakable “Allah” medallion at the Islamic Society of Baltimore and defended Muslim rights with eloquence and passion. Meanwhile, outraged by presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Islamophobia, Michael Moore stood outside Trump tower, declaring himself Muslim, too. He’s not Muslim by theology, of course, or even by self-definition. But he was rhetorically—to make a point. That’s another kind of identity. Professor Larycia Hawkins donned a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women, and nearly got fired for claiming Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Incidentally, she’s not Muslim either.

All of which is to say that when Muslims ask me whether Ahmadis are part of our community, I am increasingly compelled to answer in the affirmative. At a time when people are being persecuted for these same beliefs, the right answer isn’t to look for reasons to exclude them–but to go out of our way to insist on their inclusion.