x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Muslims between labels and identity

Any discussion of Muslim identity must be about "being" something, beyond labels and sound bites.

A myriad of affiliations abound in the life of a Muslim. Some people identify with their country, some with their favourite sports club. Others identify with their ethnicity or tribal loyalties, still others with their career or preferred musical genre. But all these operations of "identifying with" are only skin deep. They can only go so far to explaining who a person actually is, let alone their worth as a human being. They are more like labels, brands or tags by which a person can be categorised in the appropriate file.

The question of "identity", however, is a much different and deeper issue. First, it is one of the primary investigations of metaphysics in philosophy. It has to do with the essence or quiddity of a thing, meaning the qualities that fundamentally make it what it "is", and without which, it would lose its identity. In Arabic we call this the huwiyyah, the innermost dimension of a person that indicates his reality. The term mahiyyah is also used to refer to "that by which a thing is what it is".

For example, Muslim scholastics accepted the definition of the human essence as "the rational animal". But "animal" in Arabic means anything infused with life, hayawan. So it would mean a living rational entity. Or in the case of the human being we could say "the rational soul"; as ensoulment is the key differentiator from common animal life; and the rational mind is actually a faculty of the soul.

The 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, referred to the state of being particular to the human person as da-sein, "being there"; the defining principle of da-sein is that it is the only thing conscious of its own being, and for whom its own being is an issue for it. Any discussion of Muslim identity must begin from this level of inquiry. It must be about "being" something, beyond labels and sound bites. Allah refers to people of spiritual consciousness as ulu albab, people of core, people of substance. This is more than a fashion, or a "stylisation". For example, the realisation of ultimate unicity is defining for the Muslim. The consciousness that everything is returning to a single point of causal-ontological unity, and that this is the source of equilibrium in the universe.

Another example is that the meaning of peace in Islam comes from the human being's submission to the natural order of the universe. Only the human being can resist order. So when he relinquishes resistance, he comes into harmony with the rest of the cosmos. It is from here that the meaning of human being in Arabic obtains. Insan is the one who has achieved inner harmony by becoming fully human and so everything in the cosmos finds comfort (uns) in him.

When it comes to identity, finding the right place to begin the discussion is the goal. All I can offer here is a start. Bringing it to a conclusion is for others. Regarding the essence of the Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad famously described a good companion as like a perfume vendor. Even if you don't purchase anything you still come away smelling fragrant just from his company. Perfumes are made from the distilled essence of the plant or flower from which they come.These thoughts echo in the words of the poet who said, "If the fragrance of His remembrance is diffused in the West, and in the East is a sick man, he willed be cured from his illness."

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research of the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi