On Being Muslim

What is Islam? Who is a Muslim?

March 05, 2022 Zeyneb Sayilgan Season 1 Episode 1
On Being Muslim
What is Islam? Who is a Muslim?
Show Notes Transcript

For a general introduction see Exploring Islam: Theology and Spiritual Practice in America by Salih Sayilgan

What is Islam?

Basic Definition of Islam

I would like to answer this question by going beyond the basic facts you can find in a textbook. Yes, literally Islam means peace, surrender, and submission. You probably heard the word shalom which in Hebrew means peace. Arabic, similar to Hebrew, is a Semitic language and salaam and shalom sound very similar - both mean the same thing, namely peace. Muslims greet each other by the greeting of as-Salamun alaykum - peace be with you and are called to return the greeting by wa alaykum salaam, Peace be with you too. 

 Islam is the conscious decision of a human being to freely surrender and submit to the one and only God - the Creator of everything and every being. I want to stress that this surrender must be one of choice not force - there is no compulsion in religion, as the tradition asserts. Force defeats the whole purpose of this effort. Where is the sincerity and authenticity of someone’s faith who had been forced to believe? The greatest gift and responsibility given to humanity by God is free choice. Good or bad - the choices we make are ours and according to Islamic teaching we take full responsibility for our choices and will be held accountable. Historically, Muslims who expanded into the farthest territories affirmed Islam as the one and only true religion but this did not hold them back from living amicably with other religious communities. Forced conversion is alien to the Muslim experience. 

I also want to be clear that Islam is not a “new” religion in the sense that it appeared historically first with Prophet Muhammad only. Islam as it defines itself is a universal religion. Free submission to the One God and free surrender to the One Creator of all has been an invitation issued to humanity since their very existence. Islam is understood as the primordial religion. A religion that does not accept any intermediaries and associates with God. A religion that does not attribute power to anything or anyone but God alone. Every human being stands directly and intimately in front of God. Beginning with Prophet Adam - the first human being who had been created and sent to earth as a messenger of God up until Prophet Muhammad - all messengers of God sent to humankind delivered this same message of free surrender and free submission to the One God. It is this radical monotheism, this direct connection to God that is Islam’s concern. Prophet Muhammad as the final messenger of God re-established and defined what Islam means in its fullness for all aspects of human life and thus his exemplary behavior and conduct plays a key role in understanding the application of Islam in daily life.

Islam is also universal because it is embraced by the entire creation, by all beings in this universe not just humans. How are we supposed to understand that? Well, don’t we constantly observe and witness in the creation an absolute harmony, balance, equilibrium? So long as human beings do not interfere with the creational order and do not destroy it, the universe functions perfectly. The more we learn and investigate, the more we understand how beautifully designed this cosmos is. A complex and intricate web of life is in front of our very eyes, billions of changes and transformations occur every second - yet there is a complete absence of chaos, anarchy and confusion. Why? Because the answer is “islam” - the fact that every being surrenders and submits to the will of God and in that process “peace” islam is accomplished. That should give us pause and invite us to think and reflect. This is what the Qur’an - Islam’s Holy Book and central authority - has in mind when it states over and over again that everything in the universe completely submits to the will of God. Every being is muslim. Let’s listen to Chapter 3 Verse 38 of the Qur’an which declares: “And to Him has surrendered whoso is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him they shall be returned” (Q 3:38) And in Chapter 22 Verse 18, the Qur’an asks the rhetorical question: Do you not realize that everything in the heavens and earth submits to God: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings.” (Q 22:18)

Everything is assigned a place in the grand scheme of the universe, which works in a magnificent harmony and interconnectedness. The sun, the moon, stars, and all heavenly bodies are woven together in a splendid system, following an unalterable law, and never deviating from their ordained course. The birth of a human, its growth and life, and all the bodily organs, from small tissues to the heart and brain, are also governed by the laws prescribed for them. Again, how can we explain such obedience of all beings? The answer is universal islam - universal surrender to God’s commands and laws that have been established by the Creator. Even those who do not embrace faith in the One God are muslim with a small m -  in so far as their bodily existence is concerned, for each part of their body follows the course God established for it, from birth until death and dissolution. In this meaning, whether a believer or a non-believer – everything in the heavens and earth submits to Him willingly or unwillingly. The key then is to become a conscious Muslim. A Muslim who has come to the conclusion that God has given him life and existence and so decides to live this life according to God’s guidance.

The Islamic tradition teaches that every human being is born pure, sinless and that their default position is one of innocence and goodness. Every human being is born with a clean slate. Every human being is born as a muslim - meaning that they with an inclination towards faith. An inclination, a propensity to believe, rely and seek help from something or someone. The choice, however, where to direct this inclination is ours. The potential is there if one makes good use of it. This is also called fitra - that pure original or primordial nature. As a human being grows up, external temptations, negative distractions, outer influences kick in and can change that disposition. Surely, context and upbringing are significant and Islam acknowledges that nature and nurture both play a complicated role. Fundamentally, though, it is our decision and choice whether we surrender ourselves to God or something else: do we submit to God or our lower egos, do we rely on God or on ourselves, on other beings, do we seek help from science and causes or understand that ultimately all beings and causes are created by God and therefore seek God alone? Do I turn to creatures or to my Creator? This is the question that Islam constantly issues. Creatures are fallible, flawed, unstable, imperfect, limited, weak, ignorant and ephemeral just like me - or do I believe, rely and seek help from someone ever present, absolutely Compassionate, Wise and Powerful? Again, the choice is ours. 

The Qur’an invites us to reflect on those who have taken their own egos as invisible idols: “Have you seen him who has taken his own caprice to be his god?” asks verse 43 of chapter 25 in the Qur’an. Those who are truly ignorant follow their own lower, selfish desires, their little gods inside. The Qur’an constantly stigmatizes those who worship their own inclinations and moods as gods. Caprice is an internal wind that blows this way and that, a whim of the moment. One day, you want this, the next you want something else. In the Qur’anic world, caprice is the worst of gods. When you worship it, you never know what is up and what is down. Practically every day your ideas, emotions and feelings change. The wind keeps on blowing, and the Qur’an assures us, if you let it take you along with it, it will take you to destruction. Your self does not care whether it is right or wrong. Your spirit is enslaved by egotistical desires. You have surrendered yourself to your flawed ego. This is one way of being enslaved. A god is anything, any object that you adore, worship or serve, whatever that thing might be. In this case it is your ego constantly looking out for the next satisfaction. A life aimed at constant and instant gratification. The problem: this gratification is very short lived and is only providing short-term pleasure and never filling that void and emptiness in your heart. It is exhausting to say the least to constantly chase for the next pleasure. The Qur’an warns people that if they continue on the path of worshipping this inner invisible idol, which is the most dangerous idol of all, it will lead to self-destruction and harm to others. It’s not difficult to see how aggressive or excessive selfishness becomes harmful to the self and the environment. Excessive selfishness is the other extreme of self-neglect which is also wrong and harmful. Let’s say for example, you have a passion for fast fashion. You are always after the newest trend. Your ego tells you to be hip and cool and obey the latest fashion hype. The problem: this constant desire for new fashion leads to the exploitation of other human beings and has a deep negative impact on our environment. The waste it produces, the cheap labor that it demands and so promotes a total disregard for the dignity of human life. You see, it is not hard to understand the connection between the destructive tendencies of the self and the harm that it can cause. So, if we prioritize our selfish wants, or worship our ego as an idol, to the extent that it harms and exploits nature then something is deeply wrong. Islam teaches moderation in all aspects of life. Self-compassion and healthy self-care are important and differ from egotism. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. This is the essence of Islamic teaching. However, if taking care of yourself is exaggerated and leads to overstepping God’s boundaries, if it results in abuse, misuse and harm of others then this represents a destructive approach. The self or ego in itself was created by God with a purpose and wisdom. But this is a subject for a later conversation.

The avoidance of associating anything, including our own selves, or any other being with God is thus a central part of the Islamic message. Islam declares “There is no god but God.” Nothing can be worshipped except God. In the process of freely and consciously surrendering to God one attains peace within oneself and outside - just like the universe. How does free surrender and free submission look practically? Well, in any given situation throughout your day you are given two choices: either to feel, think and do in a way that is pleasing to God and be mindful of Him or feel, think and act in a way that is disconnected from Him. One of the meanings of the term tawhid which is translated as monotheism or as a declaration of “the Oneness of God,”  is also to “connect” yourself to that Oneness. The tradition is full of divine guidance on how to live a life most fulfilling by being in constant connection with God. It is to constantly ask the question: How do I live a life that is dedicated to God and be most pleasing to Him? Islam is an integrated whole addressing all aspects of human life. The domain of thinking, feeling and actions - all are ideally directed towards God. The idea is basically, you love someone so much that you are constantly concerned with expressing that love in every situation of your life. That love is permeating all aspects of your being. In the process, since you have only One Single Being, One Single Lover, in your mind, you feel liberated from inner and outer shackles. On the journey of Islam you are freed and liberated from inner and outer pressures or the concern to please anything or anyone. This effort really brings you to peace, which is to reiterate the other meaning of Islam besides surrender and submission. It is all interrelated and interwoven. In fact, one saying in the tradition states, that Islam came to liberate the human being from the bondage to another human being. At the end, we all aim for true liberation and for true freedom. If we beg for attention, for applause, for praise, if our self-worth is defined by worldly or societal expectations, by outward appearances, or by peer pressure then we are never truly free. Let this sink in a little. If we constantly chase our inner desires, material things and are obsessed with consumerism, again we are not truly free. We end up living in a delusion. We might think we are in full control of ourselves, but in fact we have given control of ourselves to others. I can either surrender to creatures or to the Creator - the choice is mine. If I understand that I have to only answer to the One - the One who made me and created me then everything falls into place and I am fully liberated. 

A human being who freely decides to follow God’s guidance and makes an effort to consciously surrender to God is called a Muslim. What does a Muslim hope for in the process? I would say, a Muslim strives for wholeness, completeness, tranquility, balance and harmony within their heart and outside by following the will of God - knowing that their Creator has the best interests at heart for humankind and all creation. I can honestly say, in the limited 40 years of my humble life as a Muslim on this earth, I have never once regretted the decision to structure my life according to God’s guidance. There was and is always wisdom, goodness, purpose and beauty in heeding the Divine call. In fact, every time I decided to go the other way and follow my own egoistic and selfish ideas, I have only fallen short. And this brings me to a key point: That becoming Muslim is a life-long journey, it is a process. It is not always easy to surrender your whole self, your emotions, your body and your thinking to the One God. As human beings we are complex and we have so many facets to our being - that to completely surrender every aspect of our existence is a life-long task. We might never accomplish that fully - but the way is the goal. Progress and not perfection, sincerity and the intention - that’s what the tradition highlights the most. A Prophetic tradition notes that the greatest struggle in life is the struggle against one’s own lower self, the struggle against one’s negative inclinations and feelings. Nelson Mandela once said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.” What wise and deep words. This is a profound example of someone who understood the deep struggle of humanity.

The Islamic tradition is one that places great importance on the intention: Actions are judged by intentions, states one Prophetic tradition. We might not achieve perfection in this life but the sincere effort, the sincere intention that we express for positive change counts the most. This is such a hopeful message. Islam is not interested in the end result itself, in a culture that is so result-oriented and focused on the visible, tangible material outcome - this is truly countercultural. It is a process oriented religion, placing emphasis on effort and intention. God is perfect, we are not and that’s ok. We can lean into it and embrace our humanness. In this regard we stay humble while being ambitious. It is a message of compassion, the central tenet of Islam. Imagine, you work all day in your office but have not accomplished the desired task your supervisor had designated for you. They will probably fire you. Islam, however, presents a Creator who is Absolutely Compassionate and One who always gives us another chance over and over and looks at our sincere intentions even though we might fall short in producing any tangible result as defined by materialistic culture. As long as God witnesses our effort and our struggle to progress that’s sufficient.

After the end of every ritual prayer, Muslims recite the famous supplication: “Oh our Lord, You are Peace and from You comes all Peace. Blessed are You, O Possessor of Majesty and Honor.” The other day I was reading a beautiful quote that pretty much summed up to me the whole Islamic enterprise and I would like to share it with you and end on that note:

And then it happens...One day you wake up and you’re in this place. You are in this place where everything feels right. Your heart is calm. Your soul is lit. Your thoughts are positive. Your vision is clear. You are at peace, at peace with where you have been, at peace with what you have been through and at peace with where you are headed.

For a general introduction see Exploring Islam: Theology and Spiritual Practice in America by Salih Sayilgan