Sayida Zeinab Mosque, Old Cairo © Kenza Saadi

Are you Muslim?

So many of us are nowadays faced with the question ‘Are you Muslim?’

This goes beyond trying to get a Visa. It is has, unfortunately, become a rather common question, and many people seem to have no qualms about asking it. I find it very sad, as I always believed that religion is a personal matter that should have no consequence on our standing in society. But the fact is that these days, it does matter.

The question also comes to mind as I see so many people suddenly searching for their roots, whether they believe, practice, or neither. I also see well-intentioned people approaching Muslims, trying to inform themselves.


What’s in the name?

Muslim? Is it in the name, in the nationality, in the belief, in the attitude, in the clothes? How can we answer this question without caveats – is it even possible to answer? Strictly speaking, Islam is a religion just as any other. Being a believer implies obligations, faith and acting according to and with due respect to the umma (community). It is a religion within the Abrahamic tradition with a God who is sometimes compassionate, sometimes wrathful – the same one from the Old Testament.

This is the strict definition of Islam as a religion. The same criteria are used for the other two Abrahamic religions. And yet, just like in Christianity and Judaism, it is not as straightforward as it seems. After all, we are dealing with beliefs. As you read early Islamic writings, you see that the intellect has been given full liberty. Read Ibn Sina and Ibn Tufail, and you will see how they encourage everyone to experiment, to question and then to believe. It is not a blind faith but rather a choice. Going further, and reading Ibn Arabi or Rumi, Islam becomes a path towards unity with the divine through absolute love.

Additionally, Islam takes on various hues once you start looking into the Shi’a-Sunni split, the various schools of law, from Maliki to Hanafi, the intricacies of the various Imams among the Shi’a, and more besides. It is not homogenous, again just like the other Abrahamic religions, and just like the 1.6 billion people of Muslim ancestry.


A heritage

Yet Islam is not only a religion in the strict sense described above: it is a heritage.  On this point, I adore the fact that sister-hood uses ‘women of Muslim heritage’ in its description. It opens the door to all, and that is wonderful.

Islam is in many ways a culture, a way of seeing life with an open heart and an open door to all. It is a certain gentleness and even a way of sharing a meal. It is more than five prayers a day, and it does not even need it.

Someone from Morocco (my origins) will have more in common with someone from Afghanistan (my in-laws) than with someone from Spain only 14 kilometers away. How come? The answer lies in a shared history, shared celebrations, and a shared culture of sounds such as the call for prayer. It is all of us, from Canada to Western China, saying Inshallah – and it is all of us Muslim mothers, whether Nigerian or Indonesian, using it to avoid giving a straight answer to our children.

It is a common heritage and also a sense of belonging. There is no need to fast during Ramadan or go to Mecca. In many ways, it is very similar to the Judaic tradition. Whether one practices or not, there is an intrinsic closeness among all Jews, Ashkenazi or Sephardim, no matter where they reside.


Not the black clad warriors

The dominant media outlets show us a different image of what a Muslim is, especially when it comes to women. Haven’t you noticed? These days, every time a Muslim woman is portrayed in a caricature, she is wearing a scarf. In fact the images seem to vacillate between the all black niqab wearing lady to the half naked one moving her hips to oriental rhythms. Somehow the in-between has vanished. The architect, the poet, the doctor, the pilot, the movie producer, the fashion maker, the mother… they all seem absent.

The same goes for men. The black clad warriors, who are creating havoc across the Muslim world from Nigeria to Pakistan, do not represent Islam. I know that. You know that. And yet, people often need to be reminded.

On that point I think we all have our own personal story. So let me share one.

I was giving a guest lecture on ethics and international politics to University students in Mexico. I asked everyone: What would you do if you suddenly realized that the person sitting next to you on an airplane was Muslim?’ I looked at the 20 something year old student closest to me and asked her again. She said without hesitation ‘I would ask to change seats.’ I walked to the door and opened it. I invited her to leave the room along with all of the others who wished to do so, since I was one. They all looked at me utterly embarrassed.


Personal ijtihad

In conclusion, if ever someone asked me if I was Muslim, I would have to answer with a question: ‘Do you have time to spare?’

These days, given the current anti-Islamic waves, whether one believes or not or practices or not, he or she will be classified as Muslim. So it seems that any discussion may be futile.

Religion is and remains a personal matter. It is unfortunate that nowadays many of us are forced to explain ourselves, defend ourselves against being boxed in, and make all possible efforts to express our diversity.

From all this, maybe a stronger sense of belonging may emerge. Yet, it may also further reduce our capacity to engage on a personal spiritual path, that ijtihad, or personal effort, Ibn Sina and Ibn Arabi all encouraged us all to do, whether it leads to strengthening or reducing our faith; a path, I must add, already severely constrained by increased conservatism in Islamic thinking.