Growing up as an American Muslim, I’ve always been hyper aware of my religion. I grew up with Islam being in the spotlight, beginning with the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, all the way to the Islamic State horrors today. It seems that every single time I think people are finally going to stop associating Islam completely with extremist attacks, someone just has to do something to reaffirm that view again.
Most recently, that someone or something is the Islamic State, a political militant group in the Middle East. While putting itself under the banner of Islam, the group has gone on to prove itself more fanatical, more sectarian, and more violent than Al-Qaeda. When reading articles of the Islamic State’s advancement in Syria and Iraq, it is sometimes hard to grasp that this kind of behavior exists outside the movie screen, let alone that it apparently exists in Islam. It is this kind of behavior that prompts me to say something about my religion.
The acts of the Islamic State, though they might call themselves Islamic, are not grounded in their religious beliefs so much so as their political ideologies. Many of the people in non-Muslim dominated countries know about Islam either through the media’s portrayal, which focuses heavily on the extremism, or through Muslim friends. Though not all non-Muslim people believe all Muslims are extremists, even then people do not actively seek out what Islam truly is. So I’m going to explain it today – in an attempt to go on the offensive rather than the defensive.
Islam is very much about peace. There are, of course, references to war in the Quran, but not more so than the Bible. The goal of the religion is to obtain inner peace. “Islam” means ‘peace’ and every Muslim greets the other with the phrase, “peace be on you.”
One of the main philosophical ideas behind Islam is that of free will. God has given humans the free will to do anything and everything. In Islam, you gradually give up your worldly habits and impose restrictions on yourself in an effort to build and fortify ‘walls.’ You turn yourself away from the worldly in order to access the spiritual world and get closer to God. The eventual goal is to reach a state of mind where everything one does is good, where everything one does is sacred, no matter whether or not there was a distinction previously between the sacred and the profane. This state of mind, this merging of the sacred and profane into one inseparable concept has been described extensively as ‘heaven on earth.’ To explain this spiritual journey, allow me to relate it to the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, who said, “At fifteen, my mind was set on learning. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven. At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.” This struggle to let go of the material and exercise self-control, to obtain inner peace, is a lifetime inner struggle. Every day, you are presented with challenges which you must overcome in order to reach the next step in the spiritual process. One does not simply reach a higher level of being just by accepting Islam.
The form and the spirit are two essential concepts in Islam. The form is basically all the rules: Pray five times a day, don’t drink alcohol, read the Quran regularly, etc. The spirit is the motivation behind it, which is mainly to delve yourself into asking questions and gaining knowledge and face the possibility of different answers. To be motivated, in essence, to discover the truth. You must follow the form in order to further increase the spirit. If you forget the spirit and just focus on the form, you risk being religious out of fear – fear of discovering that God perhaps does not exist, and therefore you would not ask yourself questions or encourage others to ask questions about religion. If you forget the form and just focus on the spirit, you risk not increasing your spirit and digress on your religious path. Even if one has the spirit, one needs a way to channel the spirit. It’s like yin and yang. Both are needed for inner peace.
The Islam that I believe in, the one I strive to follow, is based on the aforementioned principles. The goal is to obtain inner peace, which is done by not only following the form and in this sense, keeping your religion to yourself. It is not my place as a Muslim to judge others – that is God’s job, and your relationship with God, whether you believe you have one or not, is your business.
This is not what the Islamic State believes. The Islamic State doesn’t believe in showing mercy to it’s enemies. It has made this pretty clear by their ‘promotional’ videos. A by-product of being an extremist group is that one does not exercise self-control. On the contrary, you are encouraged to be extreme. Moreover, the original concept of jihad is this inner struggle between material wants and spiritual needs. It is within the self, not something one inflicts upon others, as the term has now come to mean. If religion is not born out of hatred of other people, nor is it born out of superiority to others, then the Islamic State’s killing of Christians and Muslims alike does not follow my view of Islam.
Like Reza Aslan said in his New York Times opinion article a few days ago, “No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.” Some people don’t believe God exists, others identify themselves with a religion but don’t really care much to be religious, and some, unfortunately, believe in extremism.
There are some who follow an “Islam” in which killing is okay in the name of religion. There are some who follow an Islam that has been mixed with their local culture to the point where oppressing women is considered religious. But that is not my Islam.
This article was written by Baaria Chaudhary. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Marjorie Wang