It is an inevitable part of the human psyche to quickly carve out a social profile of a person you’ve just met based purely on first impressions and appearance. The woman wearing the hijab (no doubt oppressed according to popular culture), the man sporting a beard (watch out for explosives....) and the clean shaven Muslim (beware of these guys – their lack of bearded faith is contagious) – these are all stereotypes to one degree or another that circulate within contemporary social cultures of Muslim communities.
Starting university now and meeting other Muslim students I’ve been asked why I don’t keep a beard, to which I reply that faith is a personal matter. As ever one needs to marshal scriptural and textual arguments but also appeal to a certain sense of spirituality that allows for an intimate encounter between the One and the individual.
And from this innocuous looking answer a controversy ensues about the very meaning of “personal matter”. Friends misunderstood the word “personal” as meaning to remove religion from the public sphere and to ban religious symbolism in wider society. It is true that I have no taste for self righteous religious imagery in any society but I still maintain that it is a fundamental right for a person to talk, preach and openly display their faith in a public setting if that is their wish. But this only adds to the confusion – because there is a very strong viewpoint within Islamic thought that suggests to keep faith a “personal matter” is to tow the line of hard line French secularism. Automatically, suspicions arise that I must be a “secularist” (read lax Muslim or worse atheist) who doesn’t believe in the true authenticity of Islamic revelation.
But nothing could be further from the truth. When I say that faith should be a personal matter it’s about limiting the rule and interference of the clergy and the State. Power should always be kept in check and faith should always be free from those who pursue absolute rule. It is no business of the State or the clergy to monitor if I pray or indeed how many times I do pray because the very act of prayer is dependent on my conscious choice. True faith is inextricably linked with a sense of free will, liberty and conscientious engagement free from coercion or tyranny. With liberty there can be no faith, without freedom there is no religious experience and without the right of self determination faith simply couldn’t work.
When we speak of keeping faith a personal matter I don’t mean that faith should be a “private” matter that should be kept behind close doors – on the contrary, because faith is a critical factor that informs political choice and social action. It is our democratic right to use religious traditions as a source of moral and political reflection – and it stands that most faiths not just Islam are very public affairs. The act of congregational worship is a public act and one that clearly has a significant presence in the public sphere.
Faith will always be a matter of public contention because of the political and social implications of using religious experience to animate your moral conscience. But faith should never be manipulated by the State. And here is the critical distinction be made – public Islam as in the free and open discussion of religion within civil society should be allowed in a democracy, as should be the voluntary display of religious symbols. But crediting religious authority with positions of unbridled power and government is a dangerous road which often leads to violence and despair. But underlying the distinction between “public Islam” and “State Islam” should be the recognition that faith is an intensely spiritual experience. And being a spiritual experience it is subjective and every individual will have a unique experience vis a vis with the One – therefore it only follows naturally that faith is a relationship with God and that relationship is a personal one.
Furthermore, being a person of faith shouldn’t mean that we should be uncritical to that type of religious symbolism present in our societies. Pointing out hate speech and self righteous arrogance in our mosques, university campuses, and community centres is a critical duty. Accepting the narrative offered by the clergy and conservative Islamic movements must not be accepted out of some misplaced desire for “unity”. Too many times people hide their sadistic brand of theocratic tyranny by pulling out the “Islamic unity” card. And sadly in our time the harsher the behaviour, the more outrageous the rhetoric, the louder the rant then Mashallah the more “Islamic” the individual! This form of super Islamic peer pressure crushes any scope for independent intellectual experience.
Going to Islamic centres and mosques in the UK it is clear that Muslims no longer think about psychology or the complexity of human emotion – all there is to witness is mindless repetition of worn out dogma. And this, I suspect is a universal occurrence throughout the Muslim world. By losing this sense of religion being a matter of personal conviction we no longer treat each other as complex beings – everything is either black or white with no shades of grey. Muslims today are reacting with anger and blind passion to the situation throughout the Islamic world – and too often these volatile emotions manifest themselves in tremendously tragic acts of bloodthirsty violence.
The golden rule I was taught about the practice of faith was that to have a conscientious and sincere relationship with the Divine no matter what faith you belong to is the first step towards starting your spiritual journey. In fact it doesn’t even matter what faith you keep or if you even have a faith – but instead having a sense of sincere personal conviction that ultimately leads to conscientious ethical duty is the best hope we fallible humans can ever hope for.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.