Tariq Ramadan: Components of Muslim Identity

(Part 2)

In this series:

After his introductory discussion about identity and culture and the consequences of the failure to recognize the true components of  Muslim identity, Dr. Taiq Ramadan explores these components, discussing in this article the first two: faith and understanding.

One Faith, One Practice, and One Spirituality

The first and most important element of Muslim identity is faith, which is the intimate sign that one believes in the Creator without associating anything with Him.

This is the meaning of the central concept of tawhid, faith in the oneness of God, to which the shahada affirms and testifies. In this sense, the shahada is the purest expression of the essence of Muslim identity beyond time and space. It is naturally embodied in religious practice (prayer, zakat, fasting).

Closely connected with these two realities, and the immediate consequence of them in the life of the believer, is the fundamental dimension of spirituality. Spirituality, from an Islamic point of view, is the way in which the believer keeps his faith alive and intensifies and reinforces it.

Spirituality is remembrance—recollection and the intimate energy involved in the struggle against the natural human tendency to forget God, the meaning of life and the other world. All the practices prescribed by Islam, especially prayer, are in fact a means of recollection (dhikr):

{Truly I am God; there is no god but I. So worship Me and perform the prayer in order to remember Me.} (Taha 20: 14)

Excellence, defined as the ideal behavior of the Muslim, would be to attain a state where there was no forgetfulness. Excellence (al-ihsan), the Prophet said, is “to worship God as if you could see Him, for even if you cannot see Him, He sees you,” (Muslim) that is, to try to be with God in every situation.

In the many debates involving sociologists and political scientists, this dimension is often forgotten, as if faith and spirituality cannot be considered as scientific data with an objective “identity.” But the word islam itself means “submission” to God, expressing, strictly speaking, an act of worship, with its spiritual horizon.

Consequently, recognition of the Muslim identity entails recognition of this first and fundamental dimension of faith, and, by extension, allowing Muslims to carry out all the religious practices that give shape to their spiritual life. Faith and spirituality underpin these practices, which express the presence of an essential conviction that gives meaning to life: to cut Muslims off from them is to cut them off from their very being.

Muslim identity, at its central pivot, is therefore a faith, a practice, and a spirituality. It is essentially the dimension of intimacy and the heart.

An Understanding of the Texts and the Context

There is no true faith without understanding; for Muslims, this means understanding both the sources (the Qur’an and the Sunna) and the context in which they live. This has already been much emphasized in the first two chapters.

Muslims’ responsibility rests on this twofold understanding: they must develop both an understanding of the texts and an understanding of the context in order to discover how to stay faithful to the injunctions of Islam.

This is the fundamental teaching of Islamic legal practice, which has continued since the time of the Prophet and has never ceased to occupy the ulama through the centuries.

It follows that Muslim identity is not closed and confined within rigid, inflexible principles. On the contrary, it is based on a constant dialectical and dynamic movement between the sources and the environment whose aim is to find a way of living harmoniously.

This is why the development of intellectual abilities is so important in Islam and actually elevates the very foundations of Islamic teachings. A Muslim must not be satisfied with a hypothetical natural state of affairs : to be Muslim entails struggling to increase one’s abilities, seeking tirelessly to know more, to the extent that one might say in the light of the Islamic sources that, when it comes to the cultural dimension, “to be Muslim is to learn.” The Prophet said, “Seeking knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim.

More generally speaking, this knowledge is a precondition for understanding not only the Islamic sources themselves, but also the Creator, the Creation, and created beings. According to the Qur’an, which never stops sending human beings back to use their intelligence, knowledge and understanding are means of deepening one’s awareness of God. This is one aspect of understanding.

The second is that Muslims, faced with the calling to act in conformity with the teachings of Islam, should use this ability when making choices between what is good and what is bad in order to find the best way to please God, no matter what the environment in which they are living.

If it is clear that there can be no choice without freedom, as we have said, we have to add that neither is there choice without knowledge and, even more important, understanding. Choice and ignorance are antithetical.

So the elements of Muslim identity that follow on immediately after faith and spirituality are understanding based on knowledge and choice based on freedom. These together make up the dimension of responsibility.
So, Muslim identity, in its second pivotal point, is seen to be open because it rests on an attitude of intellect that marries an understanding of the Texts and an understanding of the context. It is therefore distinguished by an active and dynamic intelligence that needs knowledge, freedom and a sense of responsibility.

Taken, with some modifications, from the author’s website.