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Islam and Muslims: Is There A Difference?

In previous articles we discussed spirituality, what constitutes true spirituality and the correlation between spirituality and religion. We also touched on the vastly growing demographic of individuals who identify with “spirituality” but not “religion”.

Much of the problems that people have with religion are not necessarily with religion; that is to say that often times actions done in the name of religion, in particular, that which defame religion tend to leave a sour taste in the mouths of onlookers or even followers of that religion, as they associate the action with the doctrine. In reality they are not mutually exclusive.

“Islam” and “Muslim” are not always synonymous, although ideally a Muslim should be the manifestation of Islam.

There are a tremendous number of examples of people who took religion in vain or used it to further a personal agenda, material gain, fame, wealth etc. The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) is a white supremacist organization (which still exists and has an active web and physical presence) and yet they associate their beliefs and practices, which include acts of terror and violence with that of Christianity, the holy Bible and Prophet Jesus (pbuh).  This pattern is not uncommon and Islam, today, is not exempted from such hypocrisy. Imposters attacking civilians or committing acts of destruction in the name of Islam is as far away from the noble religion of Islam as we can possibly fathom. A French journalist who was captured by ISIS and spent 10 months as a prisoner testified that they “didn’t even have the Quran”. [1]

So it is not overly surprising when many people identify with the same idea of being disillusioned with “organized religion”, especially, when these instances are sensationalized with a little help from media outlets. An NPR guest battling Islamophobia suggested that today studies show that 80% of the time when Islam or Muslims are depicted in the media, it is a negative portrayal.  Not to mention that a study released in November 2015 by 416 Labs, a Toronto-based consulting firm, reveals that the New York Times portrays Islam/Muslims more negatively than alcohol, cancer, and cocaine among other benchmarked words. [2]

Of course if we were to truly apply this rationale and logic regarding organized religion comprehensively, then one would be lead to be disillusioned with atheists or “unorganized” religions as well but that is not so much the case. Often, there are other deeply rooted underlining motives to disregarding “organized religion”.

However, in summary this notion can be best rebutted with the old saying: ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’ (the dirty bathwater being the bad apples or misrepresentations and the baby being the parable of goodness of religion).

This is one of the important arguments as to why God had sent pious, righteous guides for humanity within every monotheistic religion:

قُل آمَنّا بِاللَّهِ وَما أُنزِلَ عَلَينا وَما أُنزِلَ عَلىٰ إِبراهيمَ وَإِسماعيلَ وَإِسحاقَ وَيَعقوبَ وَالأَسباطِ وَما أوتِيَ موسىٰ وَعيسىٰ وَالنَّبِيّونَ مِن رَبِّهِم لا نُفَرِّقُ بَينَ أَحَدٍ مِنهُم وَنَحنُ لَهُ مُسلِمونَ

Say, ‘We have faith in Allah, and in what has been sent down to us, and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus were given, and the prophets, from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him do we submit.’ [3]

Likewise, God has commanded us to be obedient in following Him and His commandments as revealed to the Seal of the Prophets (Khatem al-Anbiya) (pbuh) and to follow the Imams (pbut) as a source of guidance.

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا أَطيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطيعُوا الرَّسولَ وَأُولِي الأَمرِ مِنكُم

O you who have faith! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those vested with authority among you. [4]

So in the Messenger of Allah there is a perfect example for us to emulate. If the Qur’an is our guide and the Word of God, then its embodiment becomes the Masoumeen [5]. They become the living standard for human perfection and proximity to God (taqarub ilallAh). The closer one comes to being like them then the more that person becomes a reflection of Islam, itself.

لَقَد كانَ لَكُم في رَسولِ اللَّهِ أُسوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِمَن كانَ يَرجُو اللَّهَ وَاليَومَ الآخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثيرًا

In the Apostle of Allah there is certainly for you a good exemplar. [6]

Hence, there is no inherent problem with organized religion as revealed by God. The flaws and shortcomings are only our own and thus spiritual self-development means acknowledging and understanding this and following the best means for our own spiritual growth. Undoubtedly we have to look to the best examples and then the next closest to them, etc.

The bad is often easier to see or focus on, and many stereotypes and false narratives are drawn from that. Ironically, the flip-side of the line of thinking is that people spend little time focusing on the ‘good’ examples and drawing conclusions based upon that. When Muslims are gathered to feed the poor or engage in other positive social justice activities, there is less of a likelihood for news vans to come rushing to record and report. Can you imagine the world or media narrative if focus shifted to the many many ‘good apples’? When news media will spend 80% of their coverage showing Muslims doing upstanding deeds as the good samaritans of society?

Of course, in our society today, controversy sells better and bad or scary news is much more “juicy” so do not anticipate any such change any time soon in this regard.

People themselves, even tend to focus on negativity for some other underline reason. Your 10 o’clock news ratings revolve around crime coverage. Suburbia sleeps better knowing that what they saw was just far enough away not to be a serious concern, and so the underlining need to feel a sense of security is accomplished in this way. When people leave reviews on Yelp or Google, they are more likely to do so if they had a negative experience.

The same is true, not only for current negative coverage of Muslims and Islam but even historic narratives of how Islam and Muslims have been placed in a negative context which also impairs judgments and generates pre-conceived notions about Islam. So challenge ourselves and others to see the true light and beauty of Islam and its adornments who are the sincere righteous believers.

Imam Ali (as), in his description of Islam, said: “It is the brightest of all paths, the clearest of all passages, with towering minarets, brightly lit highways and illuminating lamps.” [7]

Editor’s note: Islamic Insights is honored to host a series on “Refinement of the Self” by esteemed guest columnist and scholar from Qom, Shaykh Husayn El-Mekki. His column will focus on interrelated topics ranging from akhlaq, ethics and morality as an all-comprehensive approach for character refinement based on Islamic teachings. For past articles in the column see here.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-captors-didnt-even-have-the-koran-says-french-journalist-held-prisoner-by-group-for-more-than-10022291.html

[2] See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2016/03/study-nyt-portrays-islam-more-negatively-than-alcohol-cancer-and-cocaine/#sthash.8b1WgFzo.dpuf

[3] Holy Quran, Chapter 3, verse 184

[4] Holy Quran, Chapter 4, verse 59

[5] Sinless or infallible divinely appointed leadership in Islam, i.e. The Prophet Muhammad, Lady Fatimah, 12 Imams (pbut)

[6] Holy Quran, Chapter 33, verse 21

[7] Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon 106

About Shaykh Husayn El-Mekki

Shaykh Husayn El-Mekki received his Masters degree in Islamic studies at I.C.A.S. (Islamic College for Advanced Studies) and completed Islamic courses at the Islamic Seminary of Qom. He has spoken at numerous Islamic centers and university campuses due to his relatability with the youth, exceptional Islamic knowledge and public speaking skills.

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