“A time will come when other communities will attack you like a hungry man attacks a bowl of food,” said the Messenger of Allah (Pbuh).
“Will we be a minority then?” someone asked.
“No, you will be the majority,” he replied, “but you will be like scum on a flood. Allah will take away the awe that your enemy has of you, and He will place weakness in your hearts.”
Someone asked, “What is that weakness?”
He replied, “Love of this world and fear of death.”
It is no secret that, in the past couple centuries, a tremendous loss of self-confidence has struck much of the Muslim ummah. In prior eras, the ummah may have held its head high, for Allah (swt) had revealed that this ummah was the best nation to have ever been set forth among mankind (3:110). Not only had Amir al-Mu’mineen (as) said there is no dignity greater than Islam, but Islamic civilization had magnificent literary, scientific, and artistic accomplishments to be proud of. Nevertheless, as if overnight, many Muslims suddenly turned away from their Islamic heritage towards an alien culture. Not only did they begin emulating this foreign culture, but they began judging themselves by this culture’s standards and – even more frighteningly – allowing this culture to judge them.
Granted, of course, Islam is not a cultural matter. Islam is a belief system, not a culture; and Muslims nowadays hail from and live in virtually all of the world’s cultures. However, by looking up to a culture which neither professed nor respected Islamic values, those Muslims were declaring their allegiance to a system other than that revealed by Allah (swt).
It is also no secret which culture this was, or why this happened. It is well known that much of the Islamic world (and, indeed, much of the world) was colonized by Britain, France, and other European powers. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, these same countries carved up the Middle East and Africa into the modern nation-states – without actually asking the inhabitants whether they wanted to become European-style nation-states. They also did not trouble themselves with asking how the inhabitants wanted to be divided up, and, as a result, conflict continues to erupt in these artificially delineated regions.
At the time, Europe was arguably more technologically advanced. However, the mistake that some Muslims would make was copying the culture in hopes that the technology would soon follow suit. For instance, a handful of elderly people may remember the Turkish “hat law”, which prohibited turbans and the traditional hat known as the fez and instead required men to wear European-style hats – a law which did little to bring about the spread of technology, but did much to indicate Turkey’s new cultural allegiance. Not to be outdone, in Iran, the first Pahlavi Shah passed the “anti-hijab law”, which forced women to take off their hijab or remain inside; some elected to remain inside. If true modernity would not come, then at least certain countries were determined to make a show of it.
The Islamic whole also suffered other blows to its group consciousness. Apart from the fall of the Ottoman Empire – which, despite its unsavory practices, had symbolized Muslim political and cultural self-determination – a big bite was taken out of the Muslim heartland by the formation of Israel. Had Israel been established in Siberia somewhere, perhaps it would not have been so traumatic. But the to-be Israelis did not just take over an obscure village; they took over one of the holiest lands in the Muslim consciousness. They took over al-Quds, and all the Muslims together could not take it back – even though, as Imam Khomeini has famously remarked, if every Muslim had simply dropped a bucket of water on Israel, Israel would have washed away. But they did not, and Islam had to face the shocking reality that it was no longer in control, to the point that, in the mid 20th century, some Westerners were predicting the imminent “end of Islam”. That “end”, of course, never came, and the 1979 revolution in Iran quickly dispelled that prophecy. Nonetheless, reverberations of this deep political, cultural, and spiritual crisis continue to echo throughout the Islamic world.
Of course, Muslims were not alone. During the post-colonialist recovery, much of the world began to voice similar ideals – dignity, identity, and self-determination. In the words of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara:
The final hour of colonialism has struck, and millions of inhabitants of Africa, Asia and Latin America rise to meet a new life and demand their unrestricted right to self-determination.
His voice could easily have been a Muslim voice. And, in fact, his words echoed the basic message of Imam Husain (as) in his final uprising. “Death is better than riding into disgrace/But disgrace is better than plunging into the Fire.” For centuries, Imam Husain (as) has taught each and every one of us to live (and how to give our lives) with dignity. He has taught each and every one of us to determine our own destiny, rather than let others impose it on us.
However, the Islamic ideal takes the concept of dignity one step further. Rather than focusing on the human, it focuses on the Divine. As Amir al-Mu’mineen (as) said: “It is enough dignity for me to Your servant, and it is enough pride for me that You are my Lord.” The prayers gifted to us by Ahl al-Bayt (as) always emphasize the value of being independent from the Creation by being dependent on our Creator and of humbling our finite selves to take ultimate honor in the Infinite.
On a worldly level, a key element of this dignity is judging ourselves only by the standards of Allah. When we truly believe that Allah is the final judge, no one else’s opinion matters. The opinions of other Muslims do not even matter – let alone the opinions of those who do not share our value system. Of course, it is still valuable to take advice, because sometimes we make mistakes. However, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, we should not be embarrassed in front of anyone. In the words of Ali Akbar, why should we be concerned – even about death – when we are certain we are in the right?
Unfortunately, a couple of disturbing trends persist even until today. One is striving for approbation from other world powers. Everyone loves praise, but do we really need a president, prime minister, or UN committee to give us a pat on the back and tell us we are doing a good job? Do we really need an international human rights committee to congratulate us on our great advances in human rights? Shouldn’t we, instead, be sharing with them Risalat al-Huquq (The Book of Rights) that Imam Sajjad (as) penned over a millennium ago, rather than taking lessons? Amir al-Mu’mineen (as) once said that whoever is honored by other than Allah in reality is disgraced. We should not disgrace ourselves by valuing others’ criteria over our own.
We also have to stop being so concerned about what other people think. We have to stop judging ourselves by the modern secular Western cultural standard. There are, after all, plenty of other non-Muslim cultures we could judge ourselves against. We could judge ourselves against Japanese culture, for example, or Mexican culture. Why give this cultural standard special attention? For instance, some Muslims will criticize matam, saying it makes us look “violent”. Or they will advise women not to wear the niqab because it makes us look “uncivilized”.
I say, who cares? All world religions have their particular traditions that others don’t share, and no one bats an eyelash. Christians dunk themselves in water, and it doesn’t make international news. Some even nail themselves to the cross. So what if we hit ourselves? We aren’t hitting anyone else. The same with clothes – some people get hundreds of tattoos, but no one complains tattoos are “uncivilized”. As long as we are sure we are in the right, that is all that matters.
Of course, it is worth tangentially noting that sometimes it is worthwhile to adjust one’s actions for the sake of the message. If we think that adopting a certain style of clothing can help us share the message (and, of course, that style of clothing is halal), then why not? The Imams (as) used to advise their followers to dress nicely to facilitate the spread of the message of Ahl al-Bayt (as). However, doing something for the sake of da‘wah or because we genuinely want to do it is completely different than doing something because we are secretly embarrassed about breaking the norms of an arbitrary culture.
We also need to ensure we are not subconsciously internalizing negative stereotypes about Islam. We will truly know that we do not believe these stereotypes when we don’t care about them. Once we start feeling the need to prove to ourselves that we are not terrorists, or that we don’t oppress women, then we have to realize that we’ve assimilated these ideas. Rather than reacting defensively to what is said about us, we need to be pro-active and express our own self-definition of our identity and belief.
One critical field where we need to define ourselves is the field of academia. This is particularly crucial in the West where many young Muslims learn about Islam in the university without being consciously aware of the biases involved in what they study. A little over a decade ago, Edward Said wrote a now-seminal book called Orientalism in which he – without mincing words – called European study of Islam a ploy to politically and psychologically subjugate the East. (Again, Islam is neither an Eastern nor a Western matter; however, at the time, it was a fairly accurate divide. In any case, Edward Said was actually a Palestinian Christian, not a Muslim) In his book, he called attention to the glaring bias which European Islamologists had against their (mostly) non-European Muslim subjects. They looked down on Islam and Muslims as inherently inferior.
Of course, this in and of itself does not pose a problem. Many people are biased. The real problem is that, as some have observed, some Muslims then turned around and began to accept the conclusions that Orientalists were drawing about them, their faith and their heritage. Rather than insisting on self-definition, they allowed those who looked down upon them to define them. Ironically, even some Muslim academics who decry Orientalism today still reiterate flawed Orientalist or neo-Orientalist notions in their own writings.
There is nothing wrong with a faith being studied by “outsiders”. Some Orientalists did indeed do quality (albeit slanted) scholarship. However, we have to ask: how many Jews would send their children to learn Judaism from a Christian? How many Christians would send their children to learn Christianity from a Muslim? So why would some Muslims prioritize non-Muslim academic scholarship over their own?
Of course, this problem is not limited to the academic field but also relates to “learning” about Islam or Muslim issues through the mass media – through Internet articles, radio programs, news reports, and other vehicles. While the mass media may be right, it is often extremely biased, and a wise person should be hesitant to accept information from a biased source as fact.
Apart from the inherent logic of this argument, this premise recurs throughout the Qur’an. For instance, in the less “politically correct” verses, Muslims are advised not to take those who make fun of religion, the Jews, or the Christians as awliya’. (5:51 and 5:57) The controversy, of course, centers on the translation of awliya’, which some translators interpret as “friends”. It is unlikely that Allah (SWT) revealed a verse telling us not to hang out with Jews or Christians in parks or cafes. A more pertinent translation would be “protectors” or “guardians”. The verse could be telling us: “Do not put those who do not share your value system in positions of authority over yourselves. Do not allow them to control or define you. Keep yourself in a position of strength; do not put yourself in a position of weakness.” Our understanding of ourselves literally defines who we are, and so we should not allow others to define us uncritically. We can consider what they have to say, chew it over, and then decide whether or not to accept it; but we absolutely should not take it as unquestioned fact – even if it comes from Harvard or CNN.
All of the above may sound overwhelmingly negative. Why bring up a potential source of conflict? The answer is, it is important to know. Some of our elders may remember the social and political events that contributed to this loss of self-confidence. But some of our younger generation may not know how this has come about. They may see this attitude among some Muslims, or may even have subconsciously picked up on it themselves. They may allow others to define and judge them – without knowing why. Therefore, it is important to reflect on our recent history, and, at a time like this, to recall the message of Imam Husain (A) who taught all of humanity to live with dignity and self-determination by turning away from Creation towards the Creator. This is the true message of liberation of Islam.
This brief article emerged from a discussion between Amina Inloes and Dr. Rebecca Masterton on the Ahlul Bayt Television Channel on January 30, 2010.
Amina Inloes holds a MA in teaching and a MA in Islamic Studies. Originally from the US, she now works at the Islamic College in London.
 M. Rayshahri, ed. The Scale of Wisdom: A Compendium of Shi‘a Hadith (Mizan al-Hikmah), trans. N. Virjee et al. (London: ICAS Press, 2009), 44 (translation adapted).
 Nahj al-Balaghah, saying 371.
 See “At the United Nations: Che Guevara”, accessible at http://www.scribd.com/doc/402355/At-the-United-Nations-Che-Guevara.
 Famous poetry attributed to Imam Husain (A) on the day of Ashura which can be found in Manaqib ibn Shahrashub and in other sources.
 The Scale of Wisdom, 736.
 The Scale of Wisdom, 735, citing Bihar al-Anwar.