Is Islam a stranger in the West in general or in British society in particular? What understanding should Muslims have of Islam and themselves here? What should others think about Islam and Muslims?
To answer the above questions adequately we need to first reflect on the nature of divine religions in general and Islam in particular. Divine messages are always universal. We cannot think that the God of everyone would discriminate in His message by addressing some and excluding others. This is not the way that God can be understood. No kind teacher or doctor would deprive some people from a good thing that he has to offer. In the same way, any message which comes from God is for everyone. Indeed, we can go further and claim that everything that belongs to God is for all. For example, the Ka‘ba in Mecca which is known as the House of God, the Qur’an says: ‘This is the very first house which is built for mankind’ (3:96). The house of God is also the house of men, not the house of elites nor the house of some people. Anything that belongs to God is for everyone.
A message may start from one place and spread; just like light can emanate from one place and project itself, illuminating its surroundings. No one can say this light is only for us. Islam is for all, as the Prophet was also sent as a ‘mercy for all people’ (Qur’an 21:107). Muslims are not only supposed to benefit other Muslims; rather they are brought forth for the benefit of all people (Qur’an 3:110). Islam started in Mecca and then expanded into the Arab peninsula, but it was never meant to be only for Meccans or Arabs or only for the Middle East. Before the Prophet passed away, he offered the message to people of other empires and nations, including the kings of Iran and Yemen and the Emperor of Rome. Thus, the message is universal.
At the time of the Prophet, the message did not reach everyone. It spread slowly to other people. Generally, when the message is reaching out, it takes the form and shape of the people who have already embraced it. Islam is not an exception to this. To understand this better, we can look at the example of water which comes from rain and is pure but depending on the river bed, it can take different tastes. If it is a salty desert, the same water becomes salty and impossible to drink. Societies passed on the text of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet but with their own understanding, rituals, cultures and customs. For example, it may look more Arabic or Persian or Asian than merely Islamic. This may be also the case for parts of Christianity to the extent that some people forget that Christianity also started in the Middle East and Jesus was from Palestine.
One of the problems faced by the message is culturalisation. There is nothing wrong with cultures. Indeed, cultures play a great role in enriching and maintaining people’s experiences of their religion. People can use their cultures and talents to give different, colourful presentations of the reality but they should not let these secretly replace the whole or parts of the message. For instance, you can bring food in any container but the container should not become so important that it diverts people’s attention from the food or changes the taste or benefits of the food.
Unfortunately, many times the way cultures or traditions or religious communities have tried to establish identity in their adherents was by distancing themselves from others. So instead of saying what you are, the focus was on what you are not. And this is problematic. This is a type of identity which is based on fear and exclusion. And certainly, this type of understanding is neither compatible with Islam nor able to work in the world that we live in today. If it has worked in the past, it is because the world was very divided and partitioned. You could live in a town or even a country in which there were no people of other faiths, ethnicities or cultures. This is not the world today. And this type of fragile understanding of identity is not going to work today, and definitely not in the future.
We need to have a different type of understanding based on what you have and what you can offer to other human beings, and in turn appreciate what they have. Being able to relate to other people is an essential part of every person’s identity today. I cannot be a good Muslim or Christian especially today, unless I know how to relate to other people and how to accommodate them in my own identity. And certainly, for believers in God, this is also a very important part of our faith. How can we believe in God, the Creator of all mankind, and then fail to care for part of the creation of God?
For us, not only does every human being carry the sign of God, but also every animal, every bird, every insect, every flower, every drop of water is significant because it is a manifestation of God.
So now, we need to rethink our understanding of our identity. If we look at a human body, we have different organs and different parts. Every organ has some function hence every organ has some identity. But if their understanding of their role is to exclude others or to ban others, then we are not going to survive. You can be an eye, you can be an ear, you can be a heart, but you can only survive if you understand how to relate to others and define yourself in a bigger unity.
This type of understanding is what we need. And when I look at the Qur’an, I see that this is actually the plan of God. God has made lots of arrangements in His creation and legislation so that we would move towards unity. I think what would help communities to develop a new sense of their identity and facilitate the process of opening up themselves to a wider unity, is to give them reassurance that there is no attempt to pressurise them to assimilate or to eliminate their identity or marginalise them. When cultures, traditions and religious communities feel more comfortable and safe, they open up more and become more hospitable and more respectful of each other.