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Friday, June 12, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be a Muslim Today?

To be a Muslim today--or any day--is to live in accordance with the will and pleasure of Allah. Muslims often say, with joy and pride, that it is easy to be a Muslim since Islam is "the straight path" leading to paradise. What this means, in other words, is that the principles of Islam are simple and straightforward, free of ambiguities, confusions, inconsistencies or mysteries, and that comprehending them or living in accordance with them is not difficult. The assumption here is that if one somehow comes to "the straight path" by accepting Islam, which is Allah's last and final revelation to humanity, one will fairly effortlessly arrive at the destination which is a state of eternal blessedness in the presence of Allah. I must confess that I am totally amazed, and overwhelmed, by this assumption. To me, being a Muslim today--or any day--seems to be exceedingly hard, for to be a Muslim one has constantly to face the challenge, first of knowing what Allah wills or desires not only for humanity in general but also for oneself in particular, and then of doing what one believes to be Allah's will and pleasure each moment of one's life.

In view of the stereotyping of Islam and Muslims which has gone on in the West for many centuries, and especially since the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it is necessary to state at the outset of this article that "the world of Islam" is not a monolith and that Muslims differ as sharply within their "ummah"1 of one billion persons as do adherents of other major religious traditions within their own respective communities. Therefore, my perception and understanding of Islamic ideals and Muslim realities as presented here ought not to be taken as those of Muslims in general. At the same time, from my encounters with many Muslims in different parts of the world I believe that my response to the question "What does it mean to be a Muslim today?" is grounded in an Islamic perspective which is shared by a number of contemporary Muslims.

To be a Muslim means, first and foremost, to believe in Allah, who is "Rabb al-'alamin": creator and sustainer of all peoples and universes. The Qur'an, which to me is the primary source of normative Islam, tells me that Allah's creation is "for just ends"2 and not in "idle sport."3 Humanity, fashioned "in the best of moulds,"4 has been created in order to serve Allah.5 According to Qur'anic teaching, service of Allah cannot be separated from service to humankind, or--in Islamic terms--believers in Allah must honor both "Haquq Allah" (rights of Allah) and "Haquq al-'ibad" (rights of creatures).

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