Sunday, April 17, 2005

Who Defines Islam? The Battle of Definitions

An article ["SG, MSA President Assaulted and Battered," Michigan Journal, Oct. 5, 2004] recently came to my attention, and the story it told was both sad and disturbing. On Sept. 25, 2004, Farhan Latif, the president of student government and president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Michigan in Dearborn (UM-D) was jumped and badly beaten by several assailants. However, his attackers were not non-Muslims prejudiced against Islam in a post-9/11 world. No, they were bigots of another kind: in fact, Latif's attackers were Muslims, radical Muslims who had broken from the official MSA at UM-D months before.

Latif, who suffered muscular contusions, a bruised eye and cheek, fractured ribs, and head injuries, was apparently attacked because of his efforts to distance the MSA from the hate speech of radical extremists. Although the article in the Michigan Journal, the student newspaper of UM-D, was vague on the identities and/or the ideologies of his attackers, I will go out on a limb and say that they were probably radical Salafis (a.k.a. "Wahhabis.")

There is a larger issue at stake here: who is going to define Islam in the modern period? It is a question that concerns both the Muslim communities in the West and in traditional Islamic societies. Will radicals, such as the extremist followers of the various Salafi groups (such as al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wal Jihad/al-Qaeda in Iraq) define what Islam is? If the vast majority of the world's Muslims (i.e. the non-extremists) have anything to say about it, the answer will be "no."

However, there is a long, hard road ahead in battling the extremists and it is a struggle that Muslims will have to take the lead role in. Real, substantive reform within a religion comes not from the outside, but from the inside. Reformers have to have a personal stake in the future of the religion, and it for this reason why Muslim intellectuals and everyday, "lay" Muslims have to resist the extremists. The radical Salafis have to be prevented from spreading their messages of hatred and mindless violence around the globe. Their patrons, in places such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have to be pressured to stop providing these groups with funding. Mosques, Islamic centers, and other institutions funded by Salafi organizations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the World Muslim League have to be reformed; no longer can we as Muslims accept or turn a blind eye to the activities of our radical and misguided brethren.

The time has come to draw a line in the sand; we need to shout, "no more!" No more murders. No more terrorism. No more hate speech against "apostates" (i.e. non-Salafi Muslims). We have to shout, "no to bin Laden, no to al-Zarqawi, no to al-Zawahiri, no to al-Qaeda." Enough is enough. Violence committed by radical Muslims against other Muslims who follow different schools of legal thought or methods of practice (i.e. the Sufi mystics and the Shi'a) has reached a fever pitch in some key regions of the Islamic world, such as Pakistan (which has a large, approx. 20% Shi'a minority), Iraq, and the Arab Gulf states. Sectarian violence threatens to divide the Ummah at a time when unity is vital. Muslims are under attack in many regions of the world, both physically-militarily (i.e. in Chechnya and Palestine) and orally (i.e. Christian evangelicals in the West); only through unity can the worldwide community turn back these assaults and remain a cohesive force in global affairs. Theological differences, while important to individual belief, should not cloud our vision: ultimately, we are one Ummah, one community of believers that submit themselves to the One God, without partners, and acknowledge the prophethood of Muhammad ibn 'Abd-Allah and of 'Isa (Jesus), Ibrahim, Musa (Moses), and the other prophets of God. We believe in prayer, the Hajj to Mecca (when financially and medically possible), charity to the poor, and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. These core beliefs are what ties Muslims of all legal schools and modes of practice together as one larger community, regardless of sectarian differences.

In the words of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, "You will not believe [in the One God] as long as you do not love one another." [Sahih Muslim, Hadith 19]

For the web site of the MSA at UM-D, see:

For the Michigan Journal article, see: