Let’s talk Sunni normativity I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we mean by the term ‘Muslim’. How do we define who is a Muslim and who is setting the threshold?
Until this year, I thought that being a Muslim meant:
Little did I know that this is actually a very Sunni take on the foundations of faith. Yes, I knew that there were various sects (a word we’ll come back to later) in Islam but I quite naively assumed that the differences were fairly insignificant. As with followers of other religions, Muslims have to come to terms with the apparent paradox of diversity and unity, tradition and modernity within our religion. Whilst I wrestled with the question of what makes a Muslim, I had also been dealing with an uneasy feeling for a few years. Whenever it reared its head, I pushed it back down again but it kept resurfacing.
It’s the feeling I got when I saw a photo of a British mosque defaced with graffiti that read “Shih [sic] Kafir”. It’s the feeling I got when a woman told me how other Muslim women kicked her as she prayed in one of the largest mosques in the UK.
And it is the feeling I got when I heard some of my own nearest and dearest make prejudiced comments about other sects, rooted in ignorance maybe, but prejudiced nonetheless. The frequency with which I heard these occurrences made me realise that the idea of some unified ummah was a myth – it didn’t exist, if it ever had at all. Currently, Sunni normativity pervades discussions on Islam across policy, academia and the media. This has led to a vacuum of accurate understandings of minority identities and needs.
A general ‘Muslim’ solution as a one-size-fits-all is neither useful nor always applicable.
This is one reason why, for the past two years, New Horizons has committed to improving relations between different Muslim groups with our #NoSectarianism campaign, particularly looking at the Sunni-Shia dynamic. Just like last year, we began 2018 by bringing together a small group of individuals from Shi’i and Sunni backgrounds to a retreat to focus on how we can improve intrafaith relations as well as deal with, and counter, any prejudice that may exist between both communities. We focused on how we could support each other better, looked at existing work in this area, and what strategic innovations were needed going forward. It wasn’t always easy as difficult questions were posed around our faith traditions, but there was a sense of camaraderie and a desire to understand.
One of the key takeaways from the retreat was around language. Currently, we speak of Muslim ‘sects’. The dictionary defines a sect as “a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.” It follows that calling different understandings of Islam ‘sects’ goes to reinforce the idea that Sunni Islam is the norm, against which other denominations are pitted. The group agreed it would be much better to take a more ecumenical approach and use the more neutral term ‘denominations’, meaning simply a branch of any religion. By tackling problematic semantics, we can promote unity whilst still celebrating the diversity within it.
There was also an acute awareness that there exist different levels of categorisation, and diversity is always a relative conversation that may have no endpoint. How inclusive can we make our understanding of Islam without compromising its essence? There was a recognition across the room that institutional collaboration has been poor on both sides, but basic knowledge of other denominations was particularly lacking on the Sunni side. As is common across many different majority-minority dynamics, the majority culture appears to be understood by all, including those who have to navigate it as minorities, whilst those minority cultures themselves are overlooked.
For example, even the basic assumption that all Muslims use the 5 pillars of Islam framework to understand their religious obligations betrays a Sunni bias. Whilst there are lots of similarities and agreements between the denominational frameworks, there are also differences that should be recognised such as the 7 pillars of Ismailism or 10 ancillaries of the faith used by Twelver Shi’is. Similarly, whilst the five daily prayers are seen as obligatory across Islamic denominations, there are subtle variations in the way these are physically performed. Shi’i Muslims, for example, touch their foreheads to a stone called turbah or muhr when they prostrate in prayer, serving as a reminder that we come from the earth and will one day return to it.
Some people may object to the insinuation that there is no religious standard. They “might” argue the label ‘Muslim’ must mean something for it to be different from the label ‘Christian’ or ‘Buddhist’. They may push further with this argument to state that it is necessary to define the boundaries of faith to easily identify who we’re talking about when we use the term ‘Muslim’ and thus, confidently reject the actions of people who do not subscribe to the collective understanding of belief (e.g. Daesh). Dave Birss puts it in better words than I can:
“Inclusion can’t exist without exclusion. In fact, the more exclusive a group is, the more excluding it has to be. The human need for clubs and gangs and groups and communities is as much about defining what we are not as it is about defining who we are.”
Yes, there are beliefs that Muslims agree on and beliefs that, when combined, are uniquely Muslim. However, the tension with the above outlook is that obviously different cultures, backgrounds and experiences lead to variations in the understanding of faith. In addition, we are all flawed and struggle with our own personal challenges which means we emphasise different aspects of the faith that are relevant to us or, we tailor faith to work for our needs, consciously or subconsciously. With this outlook, religious beliefs and practices evolve with time and with people’s understandings.
All systems of belief will have people caught between these two dichotomies – are they two sides of the same coin or a spectrum with shades of variance?
Rather than seeing these variations in Islam as threats to a singular understanding of the religion, learning about such customs should encourage Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stop speaking about Islam as a monolith, embracing instead that there are various Islams practised around the world. Though we can agree that Muslims believe in one God and Muhammad as the messenger of God, there is so much diversity beyond those beliefs. The beauty of the annual retreat is that it provides a reflective space away from the distractions of everyday life where we can build relationships of trust and drill down into the difficult challenges that come with diversity and unity. I felt this most poignantly during the congregational prayers – one day led by a Sunni imam and the other day led by a Shi’i Imam. To have us all come together and pray collectively was one of the most inspirational moments that I felt blessed to be able to participate in, reminding me of that oft-quoted verse:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” (49:13)
Hirra is currently Project Manager at New Horizons in British Islam and a fellow of the Muslim Institute. She graduated from King's College London and used to manage events for Amnesty International UK. Hirra is passionate about gender justice, human rights and all things Muslamic. She is excited about initiating real change in the way British Muslims are perceived and how British Muslims perceive others. Follow her on Instagram @hirr4
By Soraya Beg