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Islam is Greater than the Muslims

In his 1999 interview with the Paris Review, novelist and historian Shelby Foote commented on how many peculiar things he found by searching for one thing and finding something else. Anyone who has spent serious time researching any topic can sympathize with this sentiment. While preparing for a recent lecture series, I had one of these episodes that actually led to the writing of this article. One afternoon as I was reading through the work Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fī Ikhtirāq al-Āfāq of the famous geographer al-Idrisi (d. 1165) I came upon an interesting story. While a special delegation of the ninth ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Wāthiq Bi’llah (d. 232 AH) was out searching for the dam of Dhul Qarnayn mentioned in the Quran (18:94-97), they came upon a group of Muslims living in isolation near the Caspian Sea. When the delegation introduced themselves as emissaries from the “Leader of the Believers,” the formal title of the Caliph, this particular group of Muslims thought this was the strangest thing they had ever heard. After an interesting exchange, it turned out that some Muslim traveler in the near past had been the catalyst of this town’s conversion, and they lived in relative isolation from the rest of the Muslim body politic ever since. This story reminded me of something I learned early on in my studies, but something we don’t talk about enough: Islam is greater and larger than the Muslims.

A Page from al-Idrisi’s Book

Most of the time we forget that religion, organized religion particularly, is largely man-made. It represents our attempt to make sense of the Divine, interpret scripture, and organize devotional activities. If you think about this for a moment, you will realize that this is essentially the finite (i.e. us) trying to interpret the infinite (i.e. God). Accordingly, this will always be partial, approximate, and open to error.

As I reflect on this concept as it relates to Islam and Muslims specifically, a few things come to mind that I think help instill a little humility in all of us who claim to follow it:

  1. It is very difficult to deny people’s personal religious experiences even if on the surface they don’t exactly fit into the orthodox structure. Who are we to say what you experienced is false? If it’s personal and it doesn’t involve interpreting religion (something I discuss in my Core-7 articles), then it would be a crime to rob you of that special experience. Furthermore, who are we to dictate to the Almighty how He chooses to manifest to a particular person? How can we limit that which is limitless?
  2. In the Islamic tradition all acts of worship are concluded with some sort of prayer for the act to be accepted. One would think that the mere act of worship itself is a good sign. You did it and therefore should be rewarded! However, if we focus on our own humanity for a moment, we can see that our efforts are always fallible and therefore open to deficiency. As we engage in devotional acts, therefore, we conclude with a hope and prayer that they are pure and worthy of reward. This serves as a reminder that we should rely ultimately on the Almighty, not our human efforts.
  3. The entire edifice of Islamic law (Sharia) is essentially man-made. The Sharia is nothing more than the jurists’ best guess of what is being asked of us by God. It happens to be a good guess since it is grounded in first principles, but nonetheless it’s a human attempt. This is why every legal opinion that is offered (typically referred to as a fatwa) ends with the statement, “and God knows best.” This is a very humbling notion. One can study their entire life, use all the intellectual and scholarly tools they can muster, and still be wrong. Humility aside, this is also an important reminder that our deductions are just that, ours, and in no way speak to the entire potential embedded in the Divine texts.
  4. Islam is a religion of initiation, not ordination. There is no ecclesiastic class that serves as the official interpreter of things religious. Rather, easy access to the club of Islam is offered by way of participation in the various chains of transmission (sanad/asānīd), which connect one to the past in an unbroken, direct chain. Everyone is invited to be initiated and everyone, therefore, has the same potential to gain from Islam as much as they want. Therefore, we cannot negate another person’s experience with their faith nor their personal relationship with God. This is ultimately the reason why coercion of faith is an anathema to Islam (e.g. Quran 2:256 & 18:29). So, while there is an established level of normative orthodoxy (which regulates outward action), the potential of internal experience and faith are limitless.

I find these four points humbling and liberating at the same time. While I take great joy in the scholarly and academic pursuit of the sciences of Islam (I have dedicated twenty-five years of my life to it so far!), I am humbled to know that this represents a minority of what Islam actually offers. While my launching point within Islam is normative Sunni orthodoxy, I am liberated by the notion that the experience of Islam can present itself in ways unknown to me and open to anyone and everyone.

The threat of extremism of any kind is that it mistakes human interpretation for absolute truth and by doing so pushes people away from religion and divides communities. In other words, it makes people arrogant and restricted, not humble and liberated. Which would you rather be?