Last week we spoke about problems of ideology, identity and orthodoxy, specifically politicisation of religion as an ideology, or using it as a vehicle for identity politics, or the suffocating effects of "command and control" orthodoxy. We mentioned the need for an alternative approach, one that could provide us, instead, with a "grounded authenticity". What is required is an approach to religious experience that connects people to the source - the wellspring - of meaning, such that it can be effective, significant and rewarding in their lives.
What is required is a coherent and holistic system that makes sense of complex reality as well as suggesting a framework for an effective ethical programme to engage with that reality. This is what religion should provide. Any faith-based programme should be rewarding and transformative in both the lives of those who subscribe to it, as well as the context of relationships around them. Once we have freed the identity of the Muslim from political ideologies, ethnic utilitarianism and doctrinal policing, it becomes free to pivot upon three timeless meanings: autonomous-uniqueness, healing and enlightenment. It is my contention - upon a close reading of primary sources - that the core identity of the believer is found in their being unique, a healer and an educator.
It is this first quality of autonomous uniqueness that I would like to touch upon here. The believer is meant to be a stranger in the world. The motif of the wayfaring traveller abounds in primary literature, but it is the allegory of stranger-ship that I believe strikes the most profound chord. The Prophet mentioned that this Way (deen, meaning Islam) began as a stranger and will return as it began; therefore, the felicitous outcome will be for the strangers.
Just as the Prophet was unrecognised by his own people at the outset of his mission - even though they had always referred to him as the Truthful and Trustworthy (Sadiq Amin) - so too will the Way of Islam return at the end of time unrecognisable by its own people. One could say that this is the situation of Islam today. For this reason, it is not only non-Muslims who stand to benefit from revisiting what it means to be Muslim, but Muslims themselves need to carefully consider this.
The meaning of "stranger" here is to be unique yet accessible, a free and autonomous soul yet disciplined, to be detached from the world yet concerned for it, unaligned and impartial yet faithful to fairness and truth. At the heart of this "stranger-ship" is the Islamic concept of "freedom" (huriyyah). But far from being a modern political ideology, freedom here means freedom from attachments. Especially, attachments to things other than the Eternal; things that would divert the believer from higher purposes.
This freedom from attachments appears to imply a complete divestment from all other affiliations; however, this is not exactly the case. The Way of Islam accommodates affiliations, whether they be tribal, family, ethnic or even national. The difference is that the stranger is not owned by his affiliations; instead, he owns his affiliations and deploys them in the service of his higher purposes. The Muslim "as stranger" is not susceptible to the "herd" mentality, nor are they a bystander. The consciousness of higher purpose leads to a conscientiousness of action. Faith becomes transitive, not just a source of individual benefit, but a driver that encourages the believer to be a functional asset to community and society.
Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi.