Muslims today experience, sometimes with a great deal of tension, conflicts of belonging, and if they themselves do not feel it as such, their fellow-citizens sometimes manage to connect them with another belonging – to “their community,” “their brothers” from some other place, as if this attribution were one more sign that they do not really belong to the Western nations.
For decades the same intentional process has been directed in Europe against Jews, whose genuine loyalty has always been suspect. Muslims face the same judgment, and international events push them even more onto the defensive.
So this issue must be dealt with particularly explicitly. Let us ask the questions clearly and simply: should Muslims be defined in the light of the notion of community (ummah), or are they simply Muslim citizens of one or another Western country? To which group or collectivity do they belong first, to the Ummah or to the country in which they live as residents or citizens?
These are sensitive questions, for behind their outward meaning we find the fundamental question: Is it possible for a Muslim to be an authentic European or American, a real citizen, a loyal citizen?
Belonging to the Islamic Ummah
The essence of the Muslim personality is the affirmation of the Shahadah (Declaration of Faith). If we had to look for the minimal element on which Muslims agree for the definition of their common identity, we would certainly find that it was this fundamental profession of faith, which, when declared sincerely, makes the individual a Muslim.
This Shahadah is not a simple statement, for it contains a profound perception of the Creation that itself gives rise to a specific way of life for the individual, as for the society. The permanent link with God, the recollection that we belong to Him and will return to Him sheds an intense light on our person because we understand that life has meaning and that all people will have to account for their actions. This ’intimate thought of every action‘ is one of the major dimensions of Islamic spirituality that, without any form of institutionalized influence, prompts every believer to decide on the markers for his social life.
To believe, along with the recollection of the presence of the Creator, is a way of understanding one’s life within creation and among people, for, from the Islamic point of view, to be with God is to be with human beings. This is the meaning of tawheed (Oneness of God) in Islam.
In Islam, there are four circles or areas that, at various levels and with specific prerogatives, should be highlighted in order to explain the social significance of the teaching of Islam, from the family to the Ummah and finally to the whole of humankind.
Immediately after the recognition of the presence of a Creator, which is the fundamental vertical dimension, a first horizontal area is opened up in matters to do with human relations. The strong affirmation of the Oneness of God and the worship of Him is linked as an essential condition with respect for parents and good behavior toward them.
The first area in social relations, which is based on family ties, is basic for Muslims. The Qur’an connects the reality of tawheed with respect for parents in numerous verses:
Do not set up any other deity side by side with God, lest you find yourself disgraced and forsaken: For your Lord has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto your parents. Should one of them, or both, attain old age, in your care, never say ‘Ugh’ to them or scold them, but (always) speak unto them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of your tenderness, and say: ‘O my Sustainer! Bestow Your grace upon them, as they cherished and reared me when I was a child.’ (Al-Israa’ 17:22-24)
To serve one’s parents and be good to them is the best way of being good before God. It is one of the most important teachings of Islam, and the Prophet constantly emphasized it with supporting injunctions, such as the famous hadith: “Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.” (Muslim)
Nevertheless, there may be a situation when parents ask something that is against the faith and God’s commands, in which case a son or a daughter should not obey, although they should remain respectful and polite. The most important of these commands is, of course, not to associate any other god with God, and if parents order their children to do this, they should refuse:
But if both try to force you to associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them; keep company with them in this world in an appropriate way, but follow the way of those who turn to Me. (Luqman 31:15)
This refusal to obey certain pressures exercised by one’s parents clearly shows where the priorities lie with regard to authority from the Islamic point of view: one should please both God and one’s parents, but one should not disobey God in order to please one’s parents. This was confirmed in general terms by the Prophet: “There should be no obedience to a creature in disobedience to the Creator.” (Muslim)
This means that despite the importance of parental ties, which are where identity and fundamental belonging lie for a Muslim, they are not the first or the most important criterion in determining and guiding human relations.
If a Muslim has to choose between fairness, which God has commanded should be practiced and respected, and himself, his parents, or his loved ones, he should prefer justice, for such an act bears true witness to his faith:
O You who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own interests or those of your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over (the claims of) either. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort (the truth), behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do! (An-Nisaa’ 4:135)
A Muslim belongs above all to God, and this belonging influences and illumines with a particular light each social sphere in which he or she is involved. To believe in God and to bear witness to His message before the whole of humankind means that the fundamental values He has revealed, such as honesty, faithfulness, fairness, and justice, all have priority over parental ties.
Consequently, Muslims must respect family ties (and by extension ties with community, people, and nation), as long as no one forces or compels them to act against their faith or conscience.
Thus, the first area of social relations in Islam associates father and mother very closely with the concept of the family, which refers, in the broad Islamic sense, to close relations and to everyone with whom one has a family relationship.
The individual affirmation of Islamic faith by means of the Shahadah and the recognition of the family as the first area of social life are the prerequisites for entering into the second circle of social relations in Islam. Each of the four practical pillars of Islamic religious practice has a double dimension, individual and collective.
By trying to excel in the practice of their religion, Muslims are immediately called to face the communal dimension of the Islamic way of life. Most Qur’anic injunctions are addressed to the believers in the plural: “O bearers of the faith. . . .” and when Muslims recite Al-Fatihah (‘the opening chapter’ of the Qur’an) in each prayer cycle, they present themselves as members of a community by saying: “You alone we worship, to You alone we turn for help. Guide us in the right way.” (Al-Fatihah 1:5, 6)
The article is an excerpt from the author’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press (2004).