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June 10, 2010

Islamic spirituality the key to understanding Islam

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

Today, many of the best-selling books on Islam present a version of Islam that is very different from the one I know.

Worst still, front-page coverage and leading editorials highlight the Islam presented by few politically motivated Muslim and non-Muslims; individuals and groups.

No wonder many Canadians don't know which is the true Islam!

What about the Islam practiced by me or by millions of Muslims the world over, including those in Canada?

Why do Muslims who use violence to achieve their political aims get the media’s attention, whereas Muslims noted for their tolerance, kindness, love and understanding rarely do?

Over the last 1400 years vastly more Muslims have been good global citizens than members of any other religious or national groups and they are more representative of Islam than not.

Today, there are over 1.2 billion Muslims, and if 1,200—(1/10,000th of 1 percent)—of them manage to commit heinous crimes every year, it would be as if Canada produced 30 hardcore criminals every year. Yet, based on this statistic one would not condemn Canada for being a breeding ground for criminals.

But how should Canadians understand Islam and Muslims?

For better or worse, Islam has no single source of authoritative interpretation.

However, Muslims consider certain scholars to be better qualified than others to interpret the religion. No one, however, is so well qualified that his interpretation is exclusively binding forever.

This situation might be expected to result in anarchy, but it hasn’t because there is general agreement on the legitimate sources in Islam: the word of God recorded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, and the divinely inspired instructions and comments of His Prophet that are recorded in voluminous collections. There is also general respect for the past consensus of the community of Muslims, which in practice usually the consensus of the scholars. 

The Qur’an, for example, forbids the drinking of wine. The consensus of the community has been that other alcoholic drinks are much the same as wine. No one, therefore, could honestly maintain that drinking whisky, for example, could be permitted.  

There have, however, been disagreements. Regarding coffee, the final consensus was that it should be allowed. However, there is no consensus over the status of tobacco, so it remains possible to hold either view. The case of hashish is much the same as tobacco, though smaller numbers defend its use.

Disagreement among Muslim scholars is generally limited either to specific issues like these, or to broad questions of interpretation and significance, such as whether it is more important to avoid civil strife or to ensure that a ruler be righteous.

Whichever views they may hold on particular matters, most Muslims and their scholars agree about most of Islam. This large area of general agreement may be regarded as the ‘core’ of Islam, or even “Islam.”

Descriptions such ‘xyz Muslim,’ then, refer to tendencies within some Muslims, and also tendencies within the group in question. One might say, for example, that some Muslims regard the struggle against illegitimate authority as a religious duty (a type of Jihad), while others emphasize the struggle against the nafs or lower self.

There are, of course, Muslims who hold fundamentalist views on certain questions, but liberal views on others.

It’s therefore, unfair also to attribute the social, political or economic conditions of a modern Muslim society to Islam.

Take the whole question of gender. The West generally considers Muslim women to be oppressed. Some Muslim women do undoubtedly suffer, but it is incorrect to see Islam as oppressive to women.

The sufferings of Muslim women do not derive from Islam, but from economic or political circumstances, or from an individual’s cruelty or stupidity. Women suffering may also derive from cultural factors independent of religion.  

In theory, the culture of Islamic societies should derive purely from Islam, which provides a total system for every aspect of life, but in practice many other factors influence their development, and the practice of a particular society on a particular point may often have little to do with religion. Sometimes, it may directly contradict religion.

Understanding Islamic spirituality is one of the best routes to understanding Islam itself—not the political ramifications of Islam, but Islam as a lived religion.

Muslims have excellent opportunities to practice Islamic spirituality right here in Canada, to teach it to their children, and to share it (not preach it) with their neighbours.

So what is Islamic spirituality?

I spent five years trying to answer that question in my book Spiritual Fitness for Life. I invite you to read it; I was awarded the trademark for “Spiritual Fitness.”

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