OPED: Religious freedom can spur lively debate

Yasir Ahmed

There are five classic responses to ‘organized’ religion. The majority are blind conformists, suppressing individual thought, agreeing with the rest while the rejectionists quit, convert or become agnostic. The moderate rebels stay, question, keep the religion’s core intact and give rise to sectarian or organizational newness. The identity-keepers retain the name, but care less about the practice of faith. Lastly, we have the pseudo-liberals who change the fundamentals of a religion to accommodate environmental changes.

Pseudo-liberalism has influenced many religions. While many churches struggle to retain their conservative roots, others already embrace key moral changes. This article is about Muslim pseudo-liberalism.

There are two categories of altered Islam. First comprise those like Ahmadiyyas, Nation-of-Islam, Bahais, Submitters who believe in a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad (peace), thus theologically differing from proper Islam. Second are those whose differences are motivated by their desire to balance mainstream culture and Islam, in matters of sexuality, gender, etc.

Yasir Ahmed

Why is this a helpful discussion? For Western Muslims whose identity is evolving under pressure and diverse influences — family, culture, faith — there is the challenge to hold on to the basics. For non-Muslims interested in exploring Islam, they have to confront misrepresentation from the media but also from fringe groups unrepresentative of the majority. To preserve the Muslim identity, recognizing the right folks as Muslims then becomes an important quest.

What gives rise to this thinking? As religious traditions evolve over time, communities gradually abandon impractical ideas such as excessive rituals or avoidance of technology to adapt to newer lifestyles. However, there is also the challenge of a people not understanding the dynamics of social change. For instance, instead of taking a community and spiritual effort to promote pre-marital sexual abstinence, many suggest force. Liberals, meanwhile, see superficial conservative efforts not working and consider abstinence an impossible idea, not recognizing the environment surrounding which they make such conclusions. It is one thing to quit the religion and maintain consistency with such thinking and another thing to promote the same ‘no-abstinence’ idea from within the religion. The latter is likely a contradiction between one’s purported beliefs and their view of practicality.

What does pseudo-liberalism in (out of) Islam look like? Apparent cultural differences between Islam and the rest of America such as matters of sexuality, dress codes and gender interactions lead Muslims to choose one or the other. While one Muslim may not wear the Hijab, yet consider it mandatory, the pseudo-liberal, trying to bridge culture and religion, may not consider it required at all. While many of the rulings of Islam are based on the Prophet Muhammad’s statements (hadith), this group rejects it as being outdated. While Irshad Manji may hold a favorable view of homosexuality, Reza Aslan may claim that Jesus (pbuh) was completely crucified and Zuhdi Jasser may present Islam to be apolitical. These eloquent thinkers claim to represent Muslims while most Muslims find these views unacceptable.

OPED: Peace comes through understanding

There are at least three reasons why this orientation to Islam exists. One is the desire to conform to the majority and to avoid sporting differences explicitly. However, this alone does not explain this phenomenon since conservative communities like the Amish hold on to their roots despite cultural differences. Two is parental and community narcissism. Many Muslim immigrant parents force ideas on their children using Islam’s name and reject individuality and choice.  Many converts can feel rejection and criticism in Mosques for their own cultural values while not being guided well. Three is the misrepresentation of religion by many Muslims. I once met a convert woman who rejects the Prophetic statements because she was told that she was ‘unclean’ when she was menstruating and hence cannot pray. Prayer during menstruation is forbidden for women just as how it is for men after sexual intercourse, whereas its interpretation of her being ‘unclean’ is unfounded. The lack of subtlety and cultural consciousness in communication by community members pushes some to devise their own interpretation of Islam.

Why is the pseudo-liberal approach inaccurate? Because it goes against Islamic rulings. The Holy Quran formulates the universal scope of the Prophet’s message in 21:107, “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds” and its eternal applicability in 5:3, “This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion”. Islam also warns against selective following in 2:208, “O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely”. Secondly, pseudo-liberals care less for the hierarchy of Islamic scholarship and make jurisprudential conclusions themselves, the way a nurse would do brain surgery. Thirdly, their many differing viewpoints have been unanimously denied by the consensus of Islamic scholarship and the Prophet said, “Allah will not cause my community to agree on falsehood; the hand of Allah is with the jamaa‘ah (majority of Muslims)”.

What should we do now? Muslims should focus on building an inclusive, respectful culture in their communities. If helpful, those raised in America should slowly take hold of governing Islamic centers from the hands of immigrant Muslims while appreciating the latter. Moderate rebels within the faith should connect to the larger culture without compromising Islamic values, thus preventing alienation. Muslims can also know that a reactive ideology will fall off its own weight should they handle their own affairs well. The pseudo-liberals neither have the formal scholarship nor proactive motivation to sustain their own community, long-term. Finally, Muslims should be confident in the preservation of faith that is guaranteed by God Himself in 15:9, “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur'an and indeed, We will be its guardian.”

Non-Muslims should be willing to explore Islam as is practiced by the majority, instead of only seeking agreeable opinion. Muslims would prefer true acceptance of who they are and not who others want them to be. Finally, we should all recognize the right to free speech for all people including those we may criticize and allow for lively discourse regardless of our differences.

— Yasir Ahmed is a mental health clinician working in the Lancaster area. He lives in Millersville and earned a master’s degree from Millersville University. He can be reached at