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Monolithic Madness: How Comfortable Are You With Difference?

by in Culture on 7th September, 2023

From time immemorial, both macro and micro power structures have utilised the idea of a homogeneous society to maintain control, gain wealth and demonise anything that threatens such endeavours. Whether it be through fashion trends and other commodities, state-dictated school curriculums or moral values, we’ve been conditioned to subconsciously fall in line, with our 2.4 children in tow. Anyone that goes against the grain is rebellious, uncivilised, dangerous or just plain weird. 

We needn’t look much further than social media’s heavily filtered faces or the weather-independent rainbows that bombard our senses through every social media platform to see that this obsession with a societal monolith is evident in every corner of our present day affairs. Often masked as the epitome of individual autonomy, our socially accepted uniform is consistently being refashioned at the whim of those who make the decisions, with criminalisation or ostracization the fate of those who don’t agree. Whites are superior, women are property and moustaches are cool. Until suddenly, they’re not. 

Where do Muslims stand?

As Muslims, our stance against homogeneity is two-fold. By default, our religion makes us at variance from the global-secular status quo that has rapidly gained fervour post European enlightenment. However, we are also one body that comes in varying shades, cultures, opinions, socioeconomic and political situations. We dress in the traditionally bright Kente weaves of Ghana, the Baju Kurungs of Malaysia and the Zara culottes of London. We navigate life as Muslim-minorities, Muslim-majorities, under democracies and dictatorships, with varying degrees of religious opinion and manifestation.

Externally, we don’t fit into the global societal monolith. Internally, a Muslim monolithic ideal simply can’t exist. Our very essence has been created with diversity at its core, and living in a multicultural and pluralistic global society, we’re certainly no stranger to Allah’s Divine words:

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allāh is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Aware.” (Surah Al Hujurat 49:13)

“…To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allāh willed, He would have made you one nation, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al Ma’idah 5:48)

Given the innateness of diversity in Allah’s creation, surely Muslims aren’t naïve enough to have internalised the world’s monolithic obsessions, or have we? We certainly pay lip service to Allah’s oft-quoted verses promoting diversity, tolerance and harmony, but whether or not we’ve actually internalised these values in our everyday lives is a different kettle of fish. Unfortunately, the biggest cracks often appear when we consider our day to day lives and circles of interaction within our own Muslim communities. For many of us (especially those of us growing up in a multicultural society or those possessing a brand new zeal for religiosity), our barriers often transcend externally identifiable differences and instead pertain to ideas, choices and strategies of approach.  

From the way converts are bundled together in isolation – overseeing the magnitude of their differences and the beautiful practises of our beloved Prophet who paired the ansar and muhajireen together in order to build brotherhood – to the ‘are you Sufi/Salafi/ Tablighi/Ikhawani?’ questions that precondition our communication, collaboration and support. We are deep within a cancel culture (1), and this isn’t just limited to the hands of the takfir yielding men of speakers corner, but more subtlety by the exclusivity of our gatherings and the singular narrative of those we spend time with. 

Breaking our echo-chambers 

Research suggests as humans we commonly seek information that supports our own views, thereby being more likely to ignore information that doesn’t confirm our existing opinions. This confirmation bias (2) acts as a barrier, making it harder for us to beneficially interact with alternative modes of thought. Whilst human nature dictates that we are most comfortable surrounding ourselves with those who validate our choices and share similar sentiments, there are ample benefits to be had from breaking our algorithmic echo-chambers (3). This effort certainly isn’t easy, but it’s an effort very much worth taking. 

By isolating ourselves amongst agreeable minds, we run the risk of becoming insular, ill-informed and unable to digest alternative perspectives (irrespective of their truth). This manifests itself in individuals and groups that are diametrically cut off from an avenue of potential growth and development. Exposing and familiarising ourselves with divergent views and opinions helps us grow by affording us ample opportunity to practise a vastness in love, tolerance, mercy and compassion. It’s easy to be good with those just like us, but the real test is in exhibiting the beautiful characteristics of the Prophet   with brothers and sisters whose opinions differ from our own. This is also aside from the fact that we might actually gain a novel insight that brings benefit to our lives; we might expand our worldview, or we might strengthen our pre-existing ideas. 

Moreover, exposure to divergent thinking (4) forces us to come up with breakthrough ideas that allows us to unite as an ummah in those issues that really matter. Being familiar with difference means it’s no longer viewed as a threat, and this makes room for the innovative, harmonious collaboration that is needed for a unified Muslim community working for a collective wellbeing. You and I might never end up in exactly the same head space, but we need to find ground-breaking ways to work together in sisterhood, cooperation and unity for the sake of Allah. 

As Carl Jung once remarked, ‘where your fear is, there is your task’. 

A Prophetic example

We know that understanding other people’s perspectives is a key leadership skill (5) and one that our beloved Prophet Muhammad exemplified time and time again. In this spirit, it’s worth ending on a prophetic anecdote that beautifully encapsulates our Beloved’s approach to navigating difference through co-operation. Commonly cited as a paradigm of conflict resolution, before prophethood, the Prophet was tasked with mediating a dispute that arose amongst the clans of Mecca. It had been decided that the Kaaba would be rebuilt after being destroyed by floods, but each clan believed they had the right to put the black stone back in its rightful place. This dispute became so serious that the threat of bloodshed became imminent. The Prophet innovatively suggested that the black stone be placed in a large cloak and collectively carried into place. Each clan representative took hold of a portion of the cloth, in unison they lifted the stone in place and each fulfilled a right they believed to be theirs. 

As Muslims, our unity does not entail uniformity. Working with and embracing our differences can have beautiful results both for us as individuals and as one ummah. So, next time you interact with your friends, attend a gathering, or choose where to spend your time, look around and genuinely ask yourself: am I exposing myself to diverse perspectives and the growth that it affords or am I fearfully trapped in a monolithic echo chamber? 


  1. Emily A. Vogels et al. Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’
  2. Kendra Cherry. What is confirmation bias?
  3. Mostafa M. El-Bermawy. Your filter bubble is destroying democracy.
  4. Thomas W. Malnight. Power of divergent thinking.
  5. Steffan Surdek. Why understanding other perspectives is a key leadership skill.
Anna Birawi

Anna Birawi

Anna is 35 years young mum of 3, a PhD candidate at the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, and an experienced non-fiction editor specialising in Islamic publishing.