ONE OF the biggest disservices to Islam has been to put it into the ‘Ethnic religion’ category in the thoughts of many, along with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, but probably not Judaism. Many people consider Islam the religion of Pakistanis (which is odd, as it has its roots in Arabia).
In fact, in an age of nationalism, Muslims have contributed to this view themselves. I hardly recognise the proceedings in the mosque in Maidenhead and it’s amazing how many times you say, ‘Assalamu alaikum,’ (peace be upon you) to faces who will refuse to return the greeting. Islam, however, has always been a religion for all people, despite the claims of some Christian missionaries. In fact, one of the first converts to Islam in Mecca was an African named Bilal. Within decades of the death of the Prophet, Islam had spread across North Africa up to Spain in the west and into China in the east.
There have been Muslims in Britain for centuries, although many of them migrated and settled in north Africa and other Muslim regions. These people were typically known as ‘Renegades’. In 1641, for example, the Puritans published a pamphlet about a sect of ‘Mahometans’, a term used to describe Muslims, warning: ‘this sect is led along with a certaine foolish beliefe of Mahomet, which professed himselfe to be a Prophet’. Muslims have existed in other parts of Europe, especially the Balkans, for centuries. In fact, Islam entered some parts of what is now Russia and its satellites long before Christianity. The idea that Islam is for a certain group of people is unfounded nonsense.
The problem for me is that when I was younger and very naive, I behaved a certain way which now acutely embarrasses me. While I did have what might be considered a healthy interest in the agricultural politics of Africa and in ideas of social justice, I also had some rather dubious ideas and habits. So, while it might be reasonable to suggest in the light of how I once behaved that I was attracted to Islam for a reason other than considering it the truth, the reality is that I moved away from those ill-intended ways long (a year or so) before I came across Islam.
So let it be known: my only criteria for taking Islam as my religion was considering it as the true way to worship my Creator.
The passages below speaks of the problem for the Muslim of those who perceive Islam as an ‘ethnic’ religion. This, by the way, is not a problem only for ‘white’ Muslims; I have a Somali friend who, whilst at SOAS, wished to study her religion, but, instead of encouraging her, others would say, ‘Why study Islam when you’re an African?’ For her, they made the issue one of it being an ‘Arab’ religion. I suppose there’s still power in that old saying, ‘Divide and Conquer.’
“Sire, we live in a strange age. I havt learnt of feelings unbeknown to mine self a fore. Whence I wast a student, life as a Muslim wast relative ease, for I didst know people didst hold opinions, but I didst know not what they were, for I couldst so easily escape them. But now, sire, I beest within a world wherest opinions are common for contact with the unbeliever ist part of the course for employment. It hast dawned on mine self that while I doth believe in Islam for the sake of the truth, I am perceived as believing for a lifestyle choice, such that I couldst be a hippy or a Buddhist in its stead. In this world where religion ist so absent (and by that I mean within the hearts of men, and indeed women), one who ist a religious minded soul is considered a fool, and the convert considered insane. For unto they, they doth consider Islam an exotic, and thus mineself as some follower of the fashion of men and women who doth take to mushrikism [idol worship], and so forth, a style, not a life. And though Islam arises from the same soil, or thereabouts, of Christianity […], they doth consider it alien, and thus consider a native who embraces the alien a fellow of somewhat dubious nature. Alas, it is such and I fear how mine self shalt fare.”