Does Islam allow for liberalism? Marilyn Mason considers the lives of liberal Muslims.
If the 'true Islam' is illiberal and fundamentalist (and not being an Islamic scholar, I am in no position to judge) many of its adherents patently are not. How do the liberal and cosmopolitan Muslims we sometimes meet as neighbours, friends or colleagues reconcile their beliefs with their lives? My friend Ahmed was born in Nairobi and brought up as a devout Muslim, praying, fasting and studying the Qur'an but, apart from a few key verses that were translated, not really understanding it, as it was in Arabic. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, by his teens Ahmed was, as he puts it, "not too keen on the religious side of things". At eighteen he came to university in England, before embarking on a career as a civil engineer back in Nairobi until three years ago. He is now a 'house-husband' in Vienna, looking after his two children while his wife, Balwinder, has become the family breadwinner, an unusual arrangement but one that he enjoys. Ahmed's life is not very different from most of ours. He and Baldwinder dress like us, go out, cycle around Vienna, walk and climb and ski in the Alps, and enjoy the occasional bottle of wine; daily religious rituals plays little or no part in their life.
What has he retained of his religion, I wondered? Ahmed describes himself as a Muslim as he has maintained a faith in God and the values he was brought up with, and he has adopted no other religion, though he regrets that he did not learn more that he could have passed on to his children. "I do not pray five times a day or fast for thirty days every year, because I believe that one's faith is between oneself and the creator whether that creator is called God, or Allah, or whatever. I do not feel that I have to do things purely for show, or because of what people will say if I don't, or because of the threat/promise of going to hell/heaven. I have seen the hypocrisy in so-called devout Muslims who pray five times a day but still do evil things I believe in the sanctity of life, in giving to the poor, in respecting your elders, especially parents, in tolerance of other faiths and in equal rights for women. I believe that if I follow the core teachings of Islam kindness, tolerance, good deeds I do not have to spend my energies or valuable time in sitting in a mosque and repeating prayers. If I compare myself with those who do, I have to consider myself a bad Muslim but what is the yardstick? Is it strict adherence to the Koran, or is it to follow the underlying principles and core objectives?"
Ahmed has little time for fundamentalists and acknowledges that he has picked and chosen from Islamic teaching: "I believe that is all right, provided that you can live with your conscience and not do any harm to others. I think many so-called Qur'anic acts are actually interpretations to suit traditions and cultures. But I have not studied the whole of the Qur'an in English, so I am not an authority on such issues." Of the New York terrorists he says: "Yes, they were Muslims, but certainly not right-thinking people and I do not believe they did it purely for Islam maybe they were so bitter that they wanted revenge rather than diplomacy or a solution. They killed thousands of innocent people nothing can justify that." Like almost all of us, Ahmed felt utter disbelief and then great sorrow as he watched the tragedy unfold on television, but he can also understand (though not condone) something of the motivation of the terrorists, citing the arrogance of successive US administrations, the despair of the underdog, and injustices against the Palestinians and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. He finds it ironic that it took such a terrible event to make the rest of us pay so much attention to Islam, and I have to admit that this is the first time I have asked him about his beliefs.
Ahmed's religion has sometimes caused him problems. When he married Balwinder, a Sikh, neither family was pleased. His family insisted that Baldwinder convert to Islam and to keep the peace she agreed, though the Muslim name chosen for her never really caught on and was used only for a little while by older family members. Some members of both familes were very understanding but others would not see or speak to Ahmed for nearly two years, and the marriage was kept secret from the rest of the family. But in both families, initial misgivings and hostility gave way to friendship and great affection as individuals got to know one another.
"I think the older generations are not happy with our lifestyle," he says, "but they also see that we are at peace with ourselves and that we are happy. They do not force their views on me, but I do see their disappointment when for, example, during Ramadan I am not fasting. I have about twenty-eight nephews and nieces and about eighteen grand-nephews and -nieces, and some of them live, at least outwardly, similar lives to mine." Ahmed is proud of the younger generation's cosmopolitan choices: "We have some interesting matches amongst my nephews and nieces: a Tamil Singapore girl, a Goan girl, an American man, an American girl, a Korean-American girl, a Sri Lankan-American boy, another Sikh girl, an Indonesian boy, a French man (with my gay nephew), and an English girl."
Ahmed is not typical (who is?) but neither is he as rare as some imagine. Because he grew up outside the social circle of the mosque, most of his friends are non-Muslims. Because he and Baldwinder set up home independently outside the family household and travelled extensively, they forged their own lives in an international community of friends and fellow-professionals. Ahmed has more in common with a liberal-minded parent or engineer or a mountain-lover of any nationality or religion than with a strict fellow-Muslim. There are earnest young evangelicals in every religion. Ahmed was sent these verses by one of his more devout nieces in England, to inspire him to change his way of life. In this extract, the Angel of Death speaks to a terrified dying man:
"Why are you afraid! Tell me O man,
To die according to Allah's plan?
Come smile at me, do not be grim,
Be Happy to return to Him.
O Angel! I bow my head in shame,
I had no time to take Allah's Name.
From morning till dusk, I made my wealth,
Not even caring for my health.
Allah's command I never obeyed,
Nor five times a day I ever prayed.
A Ramadan came and a Ramadan went,
But no time had I to repent.
The Hajj was already fard on me,
But I would not part with my money.
All charities I did ignore,
Taking usury more and more.
Sometimes I sipped my favorite wine,
With flirting women I sat to dine.
O Angel! I appeal to you,
Spare my life for a year or two.
The Laws of Qur'an I will obey,
I'll begin Salat this very day.
My Fast and Hajj, I will complete,
And keep away from self conceit.
I will refrain from usury,
And give all my wealth to charity,
Wine and wenches I will detest,
Allah's oneness I will attest.
We Angels do what Allah demands,
We cannot go against His commands.
Death is ordained for everyone,
Father, mother, daughter or son.
I'm afraid this moment is your last,
Now be reminded, of your past, I do understand your fears,
But it is now too late for tears
O Reader! Take moral from here,
you never know, your end may be near
change your living and make amends
or heaven, on your deeds depends.
(Names in this article have been changed.)