Despite the many variables that exist in life, there are some constants that never change. Everyone who has a long-life must grow old and weaker; everyone who is born must eventually die. Despite having free-will and the ability of discerning choice, even here, there are constants that never change. No one has a choice over the land in which they are born, who their parents are; what ethnicity their ancestry descends from, and even the colour of their skin.
Given these undisputable points, how then do we explain why so many people today are seeking to express their Islam by way of a qualifying nationality? In Europe, it is not uncommon nowadays to hear people refer to their Deen as being ‘British Islam’, ‘French Islam’, ‘Turkish Islam’ or the like. This also carries an unusual dilemma – given that the majority of Muslims in Europe are from migrant communities, does their Islam now change once they acquire a new citizenship? Does a Syrian-Islam now become a German-Islam once a new nationality has been given?
On other occasions, though less common, there is a prefix which centres upon an ethnic grouping: so the Deen therefore becomes ‘Arab-Islam’, ‘Asian-Islam’ or ‘African Islam.’
Is there a particular reason why this differentiation is being made? It is not altogether always clear precisely what those who speak of this prefix mean, or what they are seeking to achieve. Is it one of distinctiveness? Perhaps one of asserting an identify within Islam that is at the same time separate and unique?
Moreover, does prefixing a nationality or an ethnic-grouping to the word ‘Islam’ advance our understanding of the Deen? Can it even add anything to the nature of Deen itself, in terms of what people currently practice or adopt?
Tell me, what is Islam?
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was asked specifically ‘what is Islam?’ by the angel of revelation, Jibreel (Gabriel). In the Musnad of Imām Aḥmad, he cited the narration where Ibn ‘Abbās reported the wording of when Jibreel questioned him as follows:
فَقَالَ: يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ، حَدِّثْنِي مَا الْإِسْلامُ؟ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ، صلى الله عليه وسلم: الْإِسْلامُ أَنْ تُسْلِمَ وَجْهَكَ لِلَّهِ، وَتَشْهَدَ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلا اللَّهُ وَحْدَهُ لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ، وَأَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا عَبْدُهُ وَرَسُولُه قَالَ: فَإِذَا فَعَلْتُ ذَلِكَ فَقَدْ أَسْلَمْتُ؟ قَالَ: إِذَا فَعَلْتَ ذَلِكَ، فَقَدْ أَسْلَمْتَ
He (Jibreel) said: O Messenger of Allah, tell me about Islam. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: al-Islam is that you submit your entirety to Allah; to bear witness that there is no deity except Allah alone, with no partner or associate and to bear witness that Muḥammad is his slave and Messenger. He (Jibreel) said: If I do that, will I have become Muslim? He said: If you do that, you will have become Muslim.
On the authority of Abu Hurayrah, Imām Muslim recorded the wording as:
قال رَسُولُ اللَّهِ، صلى الله عليه وسلم: سَلُونِي فَهَابُوهُ أَنْ يَسْأَلُوهُ. فَجَاءَ رَجُلٌ فَجَلَسَ عِنْدَ رُكْبَتَيْهِ. فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ مَا الإِسْلاَمُ قَالَ: لاَ تُشْرِكُ بِاللَّهِ شَيْئًا وَتُقِيمُ الصَّلاَةَ وَتُؤْتِى الزَّكَاةَ وَتَصُومُ رَمَضَانَ. قَالَ صَدَقْتَ
The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: Ask me, but they (the Companions) were too overawed to ask. Meanwhile a man came and sat near his knees and said: O Messenger of Allah, what is Islam? To which he (the Prophet) replied: To not associate anything with Allah, and establish the prayer, to pay the zakāt and to fast in Ramaḍān. (The questioner) said: You have spoken the truth.
Elsewhere in the book of Muslim there is the narration on the authority of Ibn Umar:
وَقَالَ: يَا مُحَمّدُ! أَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الإِسْلاَمِ؟ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللّهِ، صلى الله عليه وسلم: الإِسْلاَمُ أَنْ تَشْهَدَ أَنْ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاّ الله وَأَنّ مُحَمّدا رَسُولُ اللّهِ، صلى الله عليه وسلم، وَتُقِيمَ الصّلاَةَ، وَتُؤْتِي الزّكَاةَ، وَتَصُومَ رَمَضَانَ، وَتَحُجّ الْبَيْتَ، إِنِ اسْتَطَعْتَ إِلَيْهِ سَبِيلاً؛ قَالَ: صَدَقْتَ
He (Jibreel) said: O Muḥammad, inform me about al-Islam. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: Al-Islam is that you testify that there is no deity but Allah and that Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish prayer, pay zakāt, observe the fast of Ramaḍān, and perform pilgrimage to the house if you can do the journey. He (the inquirer) said: You have spoken the truth.
At the end of each narration, the Prophet (peace be upon him) informed the companions of the identity of the questioner, it was the angel Jibreel. The full reported wording and channels of transmission for these aḥadith can be found in the translated chapters on the Grades of Deen and Tawḥeed.
Although there is some variation in the reported wording from the companions who narrate this incident, one can clearly discern that there is no prefix that has been used as a qualification. The infallible seal of the Prophets, Muḥammad (peace be upon him) conveyed the revelation from Allah. Can anyone therefore be seriously suggesting that the Prophetic word has to be limited, qualified, or even morphed based upon where someone is born, the colour of their skin or the nationality they currently hold?
Maybe our detractors should be more forthright in their locution. Perhaps they should openly express if they believe Jibreel and the Prophet (peace be upon him) have made a mistake concerning the question, answer and attestation of truth that was reported about ‘what is Islam.’
A Mercy for all Creation
The Prophet Muḥammad (peace be upon him) was sent as a mercy to all creation. The message he (peace be upon him) brought is for all peoples, all colours to the day of judgement. That is established beyond all doubt; Allah the exalted states (21: 107):
And We have not sent you but as a mercy to all creation.
Imām Muslim records in his Ṣaḥīḥ:
And Yaḥya bin Ayub, Qutayba bin Sa’eed and Ali bin Ḥujr narrated to us, they said: Ismāeel (and he is Ibn Ja’far) narrated to us from al-‘Ala from his father from Abu Hurayrah that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: I have been given superiority over the other Prophets in six respects: I have been given Jawāmi al-Kalim; I have been supported by awe; spoils have been made lawful to me; the earth has been made clean, and a masjid; I have been sent to all creation and the line of Prophets is sealed by me.
Strictly speaking, there is no Muslim Ummah (nation). That idea only remains within the texts of Islam and the hearts of a minority of Muslims. The actual world in which Muslims inhabit is based upon state-sovereignty. Since the end of the First World War, the Muslim world has been preoccupied with attempting to forge nation-states. That is, to entrench political, economic, linguistic and ethnic division based upon an artificial territoriality. These ‘nation-states’ are a new creation, having no real precedence historically let alone legally.
What has this produced except division, enmity and bloodshed? How many wars have been fought over the search for primacy and the desire for dominance? Has it really been because of anything other than oppression, or seeking to oppress others? And what else has resulted from all of that, except that there remains a cold bitterness and hatred being entrenched and passed on by generation. Even marriage in certain parts of the Muslim world is outlawed solely based upon an individual’s nationality. On other occasions, it is viewed as abhorrent when it crosses ‘cultural’, linguistic or ethnic lines.
Yet one of the greatest ironies for the average Muslim man and woman still remains: their prayer is still in Arabic; their Prophet, the mercy sent unto creation – for the vast majority, is not from their ethnic or even linguistic group.
So many express an unyielding love and devotion to him (peace be upon him), and in the same breath, stubbornly cling to that which he hated and commanded against.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is knowing and acquainted. [49: 13]