One of the most important things I learned throughout my studies is that religion as a concept and discipline is much greater and more expansive than what practitioners make it out to be. This is certainly true for Islam and Muslims. From the perspective of a believer, the origin of religion is the Absolute and the Limitless. However, what we come to call religion is nothing more than our own human (i.e. limited) interpretation of this Absolute and Divine phenomena. Our understanding will always be, therefore, partial and of the current moment.
As I reflect on this concept as it relates to Islam and Muslims specifically, a few things come to mind that I think help instill a little humility in all of us who claim to follow it:
- In the Islamic tradition, all acts of worship are concluded with some sort of prayer that asks for the act to be accepted. One would think that the mere act of worship itself is a good sign. You did it and therefore should be rewarded! However, if we focus on our own humanity for a moment, we see that our efforts are always fallible and therefore open to deficiency. As we engage in devotional acts, therefore, we conclude with a hope and prayer that they are pure and worthy of reward. This serves as a reminder that we should rely ultimately on the Almighty, not our human efforts.
- The entire edifice of Islamic law (Sharia) is essentially man-made. The Sharia is nothing more than the jurists’ best guess of what is being asked of us by God. This is why every legal opinion that is offered (typically referred to as a fatwa) ends with the statement, “and God knows best.” This is a very humbling notion. One can study their entire life, use all the intellectual and scholarly tools they can muster, and still there is the possibility that their deductions could be wrong. Humility aside, this is also an important reminder that our deductions are just that, ours, and in no way speak to the entire potentiality embedded in the Divine texts.
- Islam is a religion of initiation, not ordination. There is no ecclesiastic class that serves as the official interpreter of things religious. Rather, easy access to the club of Islam is offered by way of participation in the various chains of transmission (sanad/asānīd), which connect one to the past in an unbroken, direct chain. Everyone is invited to be initiated and everyone, therefore, has the same potential to gain from Islam as much as they want. Therefore, we cannot negate another person’s experience with their faith nor their personal relationship with God. This is ultimately the reason why coercion of faith is an anathema to Islam (eg. Quran 2:256 & 18:29). So while there is an established level of normative orthodoxy (which regulates outward action), the potential of internal experience and faith are limitless.
I find these three points humbling and liberating at the same time. While I take great joy in the scholarly and academic pursuit of the sciences of Islam (I have dedicated twenty years of my life so far to it!), I am humbled to know that this represents a minority of what Islam actually offers. While my launching point within Islam is normative Sunni orthodoxy, I am liberated by the notion that the experience of Islam can present itself in ways unknown to me and open to anyone and everyone.
The threat of extremism of any kind is that it mistakes human interpretation for absolute truth and by so doing pushes people away from religion and divides communities. In other words, it makes people arrogant and restricted, not humble and liberated. Which would you rather be?