Monthly Archives: June 2010

Religion as Ethnicity, Religion as Orthodoxy

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown | 26 June 2010 | The National

We spoke several weeks ago about religion as ideology and how it amounts to the politicisation of faith. Politicising faith ends in cancelling it out completely because power politics is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the chess game of materialism. Religion was never meant to be a vehicle for material gain but instead as a path, or a way, to transcend the merely material.

The possibility of religion and its people to fulfil this calling will always face obstacles. One such obstacle is another type of politics – identity politics. Identity politics, as it pertains to Islam, begins when the spiritual teachings of religion become blurred with the boundaries of culture. This blurring reaches a point where affiliates can no longer make out a difference between the two. Religion becomes a badge of ethnicity. It either becomes a line in the sand to define “us” from “them”, or it becomes as a mascot in the parade to redress grievances or gain enfranchisement for marginalised groups.

A sign of this is when you find non-practitioners putting themselves forward as pundits, advocates, or “expert witnesses”. They share little with the religion qua spiritual path save for a distant genealogical connection to a village that once did. Two things are lost here in the case of Islam: religion as both an ethical consciousness, and as source for the revivification of the soul.

A third obstacle is the disenfranchisement that is produced by overbearing suffocation or stagnation.

We have all heard a friend or acquaintance say: “I don’t believe in organised religion.” No doubt, some of us – honestly, myself included – sympathise with such statements. At the same time many of us, myself included, find ourselves in the conundrum of being connected with what might be termed “organised religion”; asking ourselves, “How did we end up here?” So let’s see if we can analyse this complaint with a bit more detail.

What is wrong with “organised religion”? The problem is one of enforcement and the suffocation of conscience. Spiritual experience is intensely personal; and when religion becomes a police state the realness of that privacy becomes lost. Orthodoxy often equals policing. The rejection of this “big brother” style of religious surveillance becomes even more intense in the post-20th century world of hyper-individualism. Everyone is a rebel with a personalised cause.

The conundrum is that the sound recension of enlightenment and praxis is the guarantor of being connected to the source. Actual religion cannot be reduced to a self-stylised emotionalism.

Religions are timeless traditions that infuse their practitioners with life for the soul and open a portal on to another dimension of experiencing reality. The alternative holds more in common with “positive psychology” than to perennial world traditions.

What is needed is not so much “orthodoxy”, but authenticity and “grounded-ness”. What is needed is a programme to unlock the giving power of Islam to bring meaning to people’s lives and be an ethical conscience for an increasingly insensitive and industrialised society.

This programme needs enough connection to authentic tradition to secure a conduit for the grace of baraka, the providence of tawfiq, the provision of madad, and the realisation of haqiqah.


Where I Stand on Apostasy

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown • 05 June 2010 • The National, Abu Dhabi

Look, my being a Muslim is not in order to satisfy some deep-seated itch to chop people’s heads off.

In fact, what originally attracted me to Islam was what I perceived in it as a vehicle to securing human rights. At least that’s what I understood from my first Muslim influence,Malcolm X.

This is how he saw it, this is what he put in his open letter to the American people from the Hajj, and this is how I see it to this day.

But it is the spiritual dimension of Islam that enables it to be that universal system to secure and defend human well-being. This is what touches the heart of an activist and inspires her or him. It is the spiritual coupled with a framework for right and wrong that steels her resolve, no matter what end of the Earth she comes from. It talks to her soul and asks her about courage.

But at the very same time, Islam is meant to be free of ideology; it is about truth, soul, and balance.

When people get an opportunity to encounter an Islam that is ideology-free, it tends to strike a chord. After all, everyone has a soul; and balance is symmetry, and symmetry is the essence of beauty: we all find ourselves drawn to the beautiful.

But it’s when Islam is “ideologised” – used for political gain – that it turns to extremes, as any religion does. Extremes of violence and intolerance can be found in the Christianity of Northern Ireland or the Inquisition, or the messianism of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Zionist fringe of Judaism.

Leaving Islam, however, is also seriously frowned upon; but so is the invasion of privacy. Gossip and neighbourhood espionage was soundly reproached by the Prophet. Allow me to think well of my neighbours, as we are taught.

Peoples’ private convictions are none of my business, nor should they be fodder for the One Hour News Hour. One can’t help but shudder to think of the dangerous outcomes of Western hyper-tech governments that would insist on conditioning their populace to accept privacy as an endangered species. You, too, can become a reality television star in all the wrong ways.

But the infamously “dire” apostasy policies of Islam are exclusively governed by the “rule of law” and remain the sole purview of the state. They are none of our business as citizens.

The source literature is explicit that they apply to prisoners of war who have denounced the religion and joined an armed force intent on visiting suffering and destruction on the Muslim community. Not the standard breakfast table fare for most of us.

At the heart of this prohibition and penalty is a deterrence for anyone who would be crude enough to politicise their conversion out of Islam. The politicisation of faith is never an act of conscience; it is a shameless utilitarian ploy to manipulate hearts and minds for opportunistic or otherwise political advantage.

Just as using religion for ideological gain is wrong and dangerous (because it toys with things dearest to peoples’ hearts), so, too, is the politicisation of conversion out of Islam.

It’s just dirty, and simply base. It’s informed by the same motivation of the extremists. And it belies an inability of the person to commit themselves to the neutrality of the secularism that they claim.