Religious Identities & labels

To say that a child can be a Muslim child, a Christian child, a Hindu child etc etc. – this is speech devoid of meaning and yet so common in our world. It is mostly atheists and anti-religious folks who rightly note that to speak of children or anyone having this or that religion by birth is absurd. They rightly imply that religion, if it were a name given to some meaningful perspective that a person would freely chose upon reflection and the use of reason, would be irrelevant until one was old enough to think, reason, weigh arguments, choose freely for oneself, consider the implications of ideas and so on. The number of people who think (or accept without thought) that one can have peace of heart simply by claiming to have this or that identity and the length of time for which people may have believed this does nothing to assure me that I should also simply claim some identity ascribed to me by birth and just follow the culture I was born into or which I am supposed to represent. Culture and tradition no matter how filled with beautiful practices and feelings etc, do not answer my existential questions. They do not give me security and meaning that I need and seek.

Unless one takes “religion” (btw, to me personally, this is now an academic category and has no meaning or function in my engagement with revelation or my sense of what is meaningful and true) to be simply and primarily a conformity to whatever way of life one found oneself growing up in, it can’t be meaningfully attributed to children or assigned to people in account of when and where they were born. I decided some time ago that this irrational and arational holding-on to what I was born with or told to embody is a burden for my heart and I can’t live this way and be at peace. So I part ways from those who feel comfortable and fulfilled, living within a given tradition etc. I wish them well, as I try to wish myself well also. I can’t wish well for myself by embracing some “tradition” or “history” as normative. I choose to think that whoever has made me and given me questions about what the meaning of life is and given me the need for the answers to make sense in order for my heart to find peace and security, this one, this maker should give me my answers and frameworks to live by. When I read the Quran as revelation, I find that it gives me meanings I can choose to live by, whatever “culture” I may find myself living in/with. It does not give me a culture or a religion. I find no suggestion in the Quran that anyone can be something meaningful by birth or heritage or by cultural/historical belonging or by claiming an identity or by reciting a “shahada” or by practicing some “five pillars” or any such thing. I found it to be talking to me as a human being looking for eternity, puzzled, wounded and heartbroken by the contradictions of life and by death and separation, looking for peace of heart and looking for a meaning of existence (including myself) that I can affirm as true.

All children are brought up in some kind of environment, taught values and practices and told (more or less) what to think about and how to think. Then when a child grows up, they are to make up their mind about most everything. Whatever they were given is processed, modified, affirmed, discarded, added upon etc. so that each person then (ideally) comes to do, think, understand etc according to the choices that make sense to them and are meaningful for them. A process of “being oneself” begins that continues till death. So to me, all cultures (and cultures within cultures) are equal in being unavoidable and necessary (as the initial raw material, given a person is born into some community or group of people already existing and living and thinking in this or that way) and also equal in lacking any inherent value or authority for those who, as thinking, responsible and peace-seeking adults, will try to find personally satisfactory meaning and truth (and sometimes lack thereof) about those cultures. To me, culture gave a plethora of contradictions for which it did not answers. Hence my turn to revelation. The culture I was born into claimed it was rooted in revelation. As I have engaged in revelation myself, I have come to see the half-truth of that claim. I find that revelation, when I engage it without any pre-existing cultural commitments but instead with my pre-existing human existential needs for meaning and truth (I should be able to tell, within my human capacities, that the meaning is true before I accept it), helps me distinguish truth from falsehood and reveals the reality and contingency of so many things that are otherwise claimed to be necessary. Revelation, and not culture, then is my framework for making sense of life now at a personal level. From whatever I find of truth from my maker, I evaluate all else. I do not allow, to the extent that I am aware of them, identity and culture to enter my engagement with my maker through revelation. I have found that just as flowers and trees and birds reflect the beauty of their source, what people call “cultures” or “traditions” etc, can also be seen in that way. They are all, potentially, places where I might see and experience the universal truth that I learn from revelation. But if anyone suggests (based on a culturally/traditionally authorized reading of revelation) that one or another culture is better or closer to the source than another, then this is not acceptable to me. Such a maker would not be acceptable to me as a just and merciful one, as the revelation claims he is. So I turn away from such readings of revelation, which, when I look at them, are often reading tradition/culture/history into revelation which is not there actually.

It is therefore just as nonsensical when people talk about things like Muslim history, Islamic law, Islamic history, Muslim majority countries, Islamic dress, etc etc as it is nonsensical to me to talk about religious identity by birth. The former takes the latter for granted. Muslims are those born to Muslims- this is taken to be the case when people speak of multi-generational collectivities of “Muslims” comprising Muslim culture or Muslim history. These are perhaps accurate second-person reports – “that there is a city or place where people claim they are “Muslims” and they eat, mate etc. this way” so I, as an observer, am going to report it as Muslim culture etc. But as first person account of what I wear and eat etc., it is not Muslim dress and Muslim food. It is just dress and it is just food. I do not use the word “Muslim” as I read it in revelation in the same meaning and in the same way as second-person accounts use the word Muslim. They are two entirely different uses. And when speaking of the “Muslim”/”Islam” of revelation, I do not understand them as proper nouns or identities at all. And so from the first-person perspective of a person who is trying to find truth and meaning, I have little use for the non-revelational uses of terms that I find in revelation. I actually find it a challenge and a confusion that i need to carefully navigate lest I fall into giving meanings to concepts in revelation that, for instance, sociologists (and second-person accounts) of some culture or tradition or practices might give to those concepts. Everything hangs on the words we use and the meanings we think they have. What we silently feel etc. are also concepts and ideas in language – I don’t have to use words and concepts to realize that I live by them. I live by the meanings things have for me. I need to find out what these meanings are (I am often not aware of them) and whether they are true or not.

And so concepts like Muslims, Islam etc etc may be common in academic and policy discussions but these categories have no place in my discourse when I am concerned with meaning and truth. But what to do about the utter ubiquity of these labels? In a word, nothing. As long as I am aware that they are not inherently valuable labels from a first-person perspective, I don’t need to concern myself with the labels at all. I can just ignore their existence, not give them the importance others expect me to give to them and just focus on finding what the true meaning of existence is. I should not imagine (or dogmatically assert) that any particular label has any greater proximity to truth and meaning than any other. There seems no prima facie reason to think that. My world is populated by people here and now (and thus in the past it was the same as far as i am concerned) who either look for meaning and truth and live with whatever meaning and truth they found or those who don’t look or do not bother with what they found. My concern is a first-person concern for meaning: what direction or framework shall I choose? Should I give things meanings myself or should I ask the maker and receive the meaning from him? And I choose to ask for meaning from my maker and I look for it from my source, my maker.

So I choose to focus on meaning and pay no attention to the label, my own or anyone else’s. To me, I am a name (Faraz) and so are others. Beyond the name with which I know them apart from other human beings, I do not give them any meaning until I have reason to do so (e.g. I am speaking academically etc). As for those who imagine that their identity labels are meaningful as labels and identities from a first-person perspective, I simply let people be and let them do what they want to be. Maybe these labels have meaning for them! who knows! They don’t for me.

What about converts/reverts etc etc? What I know is this: reflective individuals, at some point, come to think about the views and commitments they find themselves living by but do not find them satisfactory to live by them (any longer, at least not without reflection). They seek or are at least open to new perspectives and meanings. They look for purpose, truth, peace of mind/heart, etc etc. No one have I ever met who told me that they set about looking for Christianity and then found Christianity. Or that they knew they needed to find Islam and then embraced Islam. People look for meaning and truth, for peace of mind and purpose of life. Then some find meaning and truth (at least some, at least something that is an improvement on what they had) and they like what they found. Others around them then tell them that the meaning they have found has a label: for instance, “Islam!” And more often than not, this label has no real meaning for the person who is eager to encourage these truth seekers and truth-finders to put the label “Islam” and “Muslim” on what they found and on themselves. The reverts/converts are given labels (“take the shahada and “become” Muslim”) that people either carry by birth i.e. meaninglessly or imagine being necessary or important, when it is not clear to me how it is so. A particular, blindly-followed version of a some tradition and its claims (that X is revelation from God, that Y was a prophet – and all this is true because we believe, as A or B label, that it is so) make it possible for people to ascribe to others (and for others to accept) labels, often along with the meaning that was actually what was convincing and transformative or appealing to a seeker. People tend to want to commit to a new “way of life”, which is all too often unnecessary and even counter-productive. Soon enough people start to realize that the truth that attracted them (often, the seemingly simple idea that nothing other than God is god and our purpose is to serve him none but this God) is not well understood or practiced by the “community” that claims it for itself. And much turmoil can follow. My view: a thinking, sincere soul should return to a focus on meaning and truth and peace and purpose and try to ignore labels and all discourses (histories, laws, biographies, cultures etc.) built around those labels, unless of course they find those cultures meaningful, in which case they should carry on and ignore me.

At any rate, I pay no attention to labels. And I mean it. Its not easy to live in the world as Faraz. To try to live “boxless” in a world dominated by a taxonomic imagination is deemed impossible, conceit, arrogance and so much more. But no one shall have any claim on my soul except my maker. Whatever i was born, I choose to live as Faraz and I will die as Faraz, either surrendered to the truth I find or not. And that I shall only allow my maker, should I be sure that I shall meet him, to decide and judge what I did while I was here.

I have met many now who would say “islam” means surrender. And then also say “we are muslims” or “she is a muslim” etc. Again, as a pointless (and frankly irritating) speech convention, I try to ignore such chatter. But really, either islam is really just surrender, an attitude, in which case only the one surrendered to would know who does or does not surrender. or islam is a religious tradition, with a history, a religion of a community that one can be born and raised in or convert to and it has a holy book and a history and rituals and beliefs and it is something that both existed before but that Muhammad also brought?! and that there is such a thing as muslim ummah and there is such a thing as some utterance that “converts one to islam and there are others who are non-Muslims etc etc. I take it that it is either surrender (a first person truth) OR it is all the rest (second person descriptions) that I just noted. I am interested in surrender (mainly because the Quran as a book I take to be potentially revelation, one among other equally potentially revelations, mentions the notion of islam). All power to people who find any meaning in a label, either by birth or conversion. My two cents: what is important are meaning and truth not labels.

Finally, labels are a problem when they don’t have meaning for those who hold on to them and do not bring them the peace and meaning they seek. It is a problem with anything that is not really valuable but taken to be or assumed to be valuable simply because one defines oneself and one’s “community and belonging” by it. And that problem is this: It stops one from seeking real, satisfactory meaning because one imagines one already has it (or feels that one should have had it and finds it difficult to admit that one doesn’t) Example: If i stuffed myself on leaves and twigs and you were too polite to tell me that I am eating things that will not digest and nourish, I can fill myself with them if I am starving. And then when someone offers me biryani/pizza/doner (pick your favorite food – i have listed all three), I dont feel I need them because I feel full already. And I feel stupid admitting that I ate a lot of grass actually and I may feel embarrassed admitting that I am still hungry after eating ALL that food/grass! As it stands, eating leaves and twigs is not without consequence – people often suffer from indigestion and vomit on others too. And it hurts me to see people suffer and not have appetite for good food because they stuffed themselves with leaves and now find it hard to admit that their hunger for peace and meaning is, alas, not satisfied. Return to your maker. Let me return to my maker. Only I am the one who stands to lose by depriving myself of meaning. A thousand justifications I can come up with for continuing self-harm and self-deprivation. But I shouldn’t. I hope I dont.

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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