Taking Back Islam

I write this post from the Karachi newsroom of The Express Tribune, a daily English newspaper in the “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan where Shias are being killed daily during Muharram, women are getting raped, robberies are an every day thing, and at least six people were killed daily here in Karachi in 2012. In all of these cases, justice is hardly ever found due to the corruption that permeates Pakistani government and law enforcement. Pakistan, however, is not alone and is symptomatic of a larger plague among societies in the region.

Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world and the fastest growing one, but Muslims are the least united and, therefore, get the least done in terms of fixing societal problems. We are too busy fighting each other, sect against sect, country against country, ethnic group against ethnic group. I cannot have a religious discussion without someone telling me that because I do not wear a scarf on my head, because I interact with the opposite sex, my point is automatically invalid. Islam is a religion of one’s own individual relationship with God before all else. A majority of Muslims have yet to demonstrate mutual respect for each other’s opinions and interpretations of Islamic teachings. Throughout history, Islamic rulers and scholars have been known for their open-mindedness and tolerance, and many Muslims today are eradicating that legacy.

Most Muslim families that I know are preoccupied with simply making a living, often pressuring their children to become doctors, lawyers or engineers because all they want out of a career is money. I’m not saying they’re all greedy — who wouldn’t want themselves or their children to be well off? — but it is a very misguided notion. As a result of this trend, we are producing subpar doctors, untalented lawyers, unambitious engineers, and unhappy people… all the while doing absolutely nothing for our Muslim community, our ummah. The Muslim youth need to be encouraged to play to their actual strengths, not the ones their parents force on them or wish they had. We need politicians, professors, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, authors, artists, analysts, journalists; we need to find a multitude of ways in which we can work for a better society, both for everyone and for our ummah. That is what a true Islamic fundamentalist would be.

Instead of teaching kids that watching the Super Bowl is haram, admonishing them for not reading the Qur’an in a particular and “proper” Arabic accent, or threatening them for standing within five feet of the opposite sex, we need to emphasize the basics — the core of what it is to be Muslim. We need to focus on the very fundamental belief in the Qur’an that killing one innocent person is akin to killing all of mankind. We need to teach our kids that hurting someone with your words is in defiance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), that respect and tolerance for other religions is part of sunnah. We point to others, find things we consider un-Islamic, and ignore the fact that Islam strongly condemns backbiting and judging.

I am not saying that extremism is a rampant problem within Islamic society; it is nowhere near being so. But the fact of the matter is that the mainstream media is portraying it that way, and this can have dangerous consequences. It is a known phenomenon that minorities, particularly minority youth, tend to emulate the very stereotypes and perceptions that the general populace has of them. By focusing on the true fundamentals of Islam, we would not only come to practices that unite the Muslim ummah but fight any threat that religious fanaticism may pose.

Islam is a beautiful religion, but it is an exceedingly complex one. It is a religion in which adherence requires study of its writings and their historical context. It is a religion in which nearly every teaching and belief, upon dissection, has certain logic to it. It is a religion that, I believe, is quite well suited to shifting with the times without compromising its core values, although much current practice would make it seem not so. For most practicing Muslims, Islam is very much a lifestyle. Islam makes us who we are, but we often forget that it is also us that make Islam. Thus, it is our duty, our right, and our jihad, to do it justice.