How do you maintain a Muslim identity in a non-Muslim environment?

Ibn ’Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:

He who imitates any people is considered to be one of them. (Abu Dawud and Ibn Hibban)

Though this hadith is just one line, it has generated a huge amount of discussion among scholars.

How not to imitate the people of hellfire

Living in the West, we are surrounded by many common customs which are not from Islam, such as birthday parties, and other secular celebrations such as New Years, or exchanging greetings, gifts and cards at occasions with non Muslims at non Islamic occasions.

Some people quote this hadith and use it to prohibit any practice outside Islam, and call them haram. Their thought process is that because this practice is carried out by non-Muslims, if you participate in it, you are imitating non Muslims and by extension you have become one of them.

They often rely on the literature like Ibn Taymiyya’s lengthy book, Iqtida as-Sirat al-Mustaqim fi Mukhalafah Ashab al-Jahim on how not to imitate the people of hellfire.

What is best way to understand this hadith, bearing in mind that we live in a non Muslim society?

Is the hadith authentic?

Yes. There are differences of opinions how strong this hadith is, and overall we can say it is a sahih (good) authentic hadith.

The longer hadith

The hadith is often quoted as one line, but in fact it is part of a much longer hadith, narrated by Musnad Imam Ahmed, and many others. On the authority of Ibn Omar, (may Allah be pleased with him) the Prophet said:

I was sent with the sword before the Hour until Allah alone is worshipped with no partners. Humiliation has been from those who disagree and do not follow my guidance. He who imitates any people is considered to be one of them. (Musnad Ahmed)

The context of the hadith

Every hadith was delivered in a specific context. It is important when you want to understand the meaning of any hadith or ayah to know the background and context related to it. A hadith delivered when the army was preparing for war will be different to a hadith delivered to a congregation standing for salah, or replying to someone asking how to pay zakat.

The Prophet (peace be on him) always chose the words which were most appropriate for each situation or scenario. When you remove a hadith from its context, its meaning is no longer as clear or comprehensive as when you understand the background surrounding it.

In essence, the Prophet (peace be on him) was commanded to worship Allah alone, as all the prophets and messengers before him. Therefore, the prohibition is related primarily to imitating the aqeedah (beliefs) of non Muslims.

If there are practices which do not relate to belief how do we judge what constitutes copying non Muslims?

People who call all practices outside Islam haram

Those who are say carrying out any practice that is outside Islam, such as celebrating birthdays are haram because they are an imitation of the practices of disbelievers. They are no doubt intending to keep our religion safe, protected and pure, free of any changes or biddah (innovations). They have a good intention at heart.

However, while I agree with them on matters related to aqeedah, I question the logic of this when the matters are not related to aqeedah. For instance, it would not be certainly not be permitted to wear the habit of a nun, or a priest’s cassock or clerical robes, as these are related to Christian worship. But you could not logically extend it to wearing trousers, unless trousers were a religious garment.

Wearing trousers

Nevertheless, plenty of scholars said that Muslims could not wear trousers because this was an imitation of the dress of disbelievers. Later, they realised that trousers are not an issue of aqeedah. They are just a form of dress.

One of the Shuyukh, even wrote a book on whether it was permissible to wear trousers and at the end of 200 pages, he concluded that it was allowed because it has not connected with worship.

Connecting all matters to aqeedah is unnecessary and restrictive

One Lebanese Islamic thinker who was an Al Azhari, and a student of shariah commented that the problem of very practicing Muslims is that they relate every matter to aqeedah.

In other words, they will label things haram by linking them to aqeedah. We cannot call anything halal or haram unless there is clear and authentic evidence from the Quran and Sunnah.

The moment you link a matter to aqeedah, it becomes terrifying territory as anyone participating in that custom or tradition or wearing that dress, is acting against their belief, is under threat of being branded kafir for imitating non-believers and being doomed to hell.

Who gave them the right to pronounce that anyone will go to hell?

Islam was sent for all time

The Prophet (peace be on him) was sent with the revelation, which was the complete and comprehensive message from Allah Almighty to humanity, informing all practices whether they were social or religious. It impacts almost everything we do or say. However there are some issues on which Allah Almighty deliberately remained silent. He left those matters for individuals to have the flexibility according to their time and environment. The Shariah does not have rulings on them.

Islam is silent on certain matters

As Islam is for all time and all places, Allah Almighty out of His mercy, not forgetfulness, was silent on these issues. These matters are known as masqut anhu, ‘what the text, known as nas (i.e. the Quran and Sunnah) is silent about’. Wa sakata an ashya This silence enable us to accommodate social practices which are not against our principles.

The birth of Islam into a non-Muslim society

Let’s go back. Islam emerged in a society which was steeped in ignorance, disbelief and oppression. They were not entirely devoid of goodness and justice, but these were tainted by various erroneous beliefs and cultural practices. The Prophet (peace be on him) came to clarify and establish the proper foundations of justice and fairness.

How Muslims developed a distinct and unique identity

The Prophet (peace be on him), taught us to be proud of our identity. We see this on many occasions, such as the introduction of the adhan as we know it. Before this, believers were trying to find the best option for calling their burgeoning community to prayer in Madinah.

They came up with three options: sounding a horn, ringing a bell, as the Christians did, or lighting a fire. That night, one of the companions had a dream in which he offered to buy a bell from someone who as passing by, but the man said he would teach him something better and performed the adhan. The companion told the Prophet (peace be on him) his dream at Fajr and Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) added that he had seen the very same dream.

The Prophet (peace be on him) approved of this. The point of this story is that the adhan is unique to Islam. Otherwise, we would have been copying another religion.

Similarly in the early days of Islam, the Prophet (peace be on him) used to pray towards Bait al Maqdis (Jerusalem), before the Qibla was changed to the Kaaba. Yet he longed to have their own independent Qiblah and that is why in Surat al Baqarah, Allah Almighty said:

Verily! We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid- al-Haram (at Makkah). (2:144)

Allah Almighty could see his concern for his ummah and He changed the Qibla to Makkah.

On other occasion, Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

“Trim the moustache and let the beard grow; be different from the Magians (Zoroastrians).” (Muslim)

He wanted Muslims, now that they had converted from ignorance to Islam, to distance themselves from old practices and habits.

Madinah was very heavily influenced by the existing Jewish community within it, (the three tribes) and surrounding it. They dominated the culture and their practices were widespread. The Prophet (peace be on him) was keen that people did not copy these practices when they contradicted the Shariah.

They were now an independent community belonging to the message of Islam, the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). They had to cling to what they had.

This is context for the hadith.

When it is not sinful to be like your non-Muslim community

It is wrong to stretch the hadith and apply to non-aqeedah issues and turn them into aqeedah issues. When a matter has nothing to do with aqeedah, such as a way of doing busines, or organising the community, which does not contradict our belief, there is not sin in emulating it.

Examples include those who say wearing a suit and tie is the dress of the disbeliever. Some have claimed that it is wrong to wear a tie because the tie is like a cross. This is absurd.

Trying to complicate things is wrong. The Prophet (peace be on him) used to make ease for people not complication, as long as no principles are violated.

Birthdays

Birthday parties, exchanging cards during certain occasions are also not haram, though commonly presumed to be so, because they are not related to belief. This is a communal practice with no intention of worship. It is not an aqeedah issue. Some people say the tradition stems from various historical reasons going back millennia, however unless there is authentic evidence of this, we can dismiss these, as they just claims. No one celebrating a birthday today is doing it as a pagan ritual. They are merely commemorating the fact they have lived another year.

Parents who forbid their children from celebrating their birthday, when they see all their friends having parties, thinking it is haram, will be rewarded for their intention, but their understanding of the concept is wrong. If the birthday was a matter related to belief, I would agree. However there is nothing wrong in celebrating a birthday with a gathering that has no haram elements in it. Having food and cake and wishing well for someone is not about losing your identity or copying disbelievers.

Following trends

Copying disbelievers is when we follow trends in society without thinking. Trends come in a variety of forms, some good, some bad. Every now and there are trends which are harmless or fun or harmful and sinful. We must avoid sinful trends. We need to be careful.

God is the Guardian of the believers and it is He who takes them out of darkness into light. The Devil is the guardian of those who deny the Truth and he leads them from light to darkness. These are the dwellers of hell wherein they will live forever. (2:257)

At the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) there were many trends. For instance, he taught men to change the colour of their white hair, to differentiate them from Jewish people as this was their distinctive feature, until having white hair was no longer exclusive to them. At the point, this rule was no longer enforced.

On another occasion, the Prophet (peace be on him) adjusted how they divided the war booty, where it was not in line with shariah.  

The Quran was teaching Muslims to strengthen themselves, to have alliances with believers and not allow themselves to be exposed to threats from non believers.

If you have pride, independence and your identity, then there is nothing wrong with having friendships with non believers, as long as it does not harm our community.

The Prophet (peace be on him) is teaching the ummah that they should not be weak.

Identity crisis

Being ashamed of our identity is very deep problem rooted in colonialism. The sense that success and power come when we emulate our colonisers, speak their language, abandon our language, wear their clothes and think as they think. This is still a big problem in our community.

When any country is colonised the impact on the psychology of that nation is long-lasting. The way to achieve independence from the colonial past is to understand your own history and be proud of it. Take what is good and leave what is bad from the colonisers.

An example is that the Prophet (peace be on him) used Indian swords. He did not say they were haram because they were the product of disbelievers. Instead, knowing that they were of a high standard, he sent people to learn how to make them and start their own factory to produce their own weapons.

It is good to acquire knowledge and hone skills that serve your purpose and bring benefit to you and your community.

Preferring Western ideals and values and styles over Islam

Some people hate the fact that they are Muslims. They are born Muslim, but they are more impressed by Western lifestyles, beliefs and ideology. They don’t want to acknowledge their own heritage as they it see as backward and extreme, but these are just excuses.

The reality is that they have a misunderstanding or they had a bad experience which has tainted their view of Islam and Muslims. Accordingly they reject Islam because in their mind it is connected to everything negative. Although Islam has nothing to do with it and they have quite probably been turned off by erroneous cultural practices.

The Prophet (peace be on him) didn’t want us to be weak and fluid and take the shape of any container. We have flexibility within limits.

Going down the lizard hole

Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) as saying:

You would tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step so much so that if they had entered into the hole of the lizard, you would follow them in this also. We said: Allah’s Messenger, do you mean Jews and Christians (by your words)” those before you”? He said: Who else (than those two religious groups)? (Muslim)

In this hadith, we see that the Prophet (peace be on him) was warning Muslims not to be influenced by the non Muslim culture around them. He was worried they would will follow their culture inch by inch and end up follow them to a bad end.

Imagine a man or woman trying to put their head in that hole. What a bizarre scene it would be. If you saw someone attempting it you would think they were insane. No on with dignity or sanity would do this. Yet, people are putting their heads in lizard holes. Don’t let culture influence you to the extent that you lose your identity. If you abuse your heritage, culture and beliefs no one will respect you.

Those who respect their deen, are respected by their enemies. Those who sell their deen, find themselves sold by their enemies.

Islam came to direct people towards better practices, character and conduct.

The summary of the divine message is tawheed (worshipping Allah without partners) and becoming better people.

When you are in a minority. Be a role model. It’s not about wearing hijab but being a person of goodness which be wise be kind. Don’t be embarrassed when you act with goodness that your actions stem from your beliefs.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Bulugh al Maram Class of 17th Jan 2020


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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001.His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College).He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.