Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Identity Politics or Theologies of Identity: Lessons from the MAC Scholars Summit

Sara Hamed

July 26, 2021

The words “Deeply Rooted and Standing Strong,” flashed on my screen against the image of a thick trunked tree with protruding roots stitched into the earth around it.

It’s time for an authentic, genuine narrative that is grounded in our religion, to reflect our proud Canadian Muslim identity,” said the promo video’s disembodied voice, “If you don’t tell your story. Someone else will. Writing our own narrative transforms everything. The way we see ourselves, the way we ground ourselves, the way we project ourselves and the way others see us. The MAC Scholars Summit is a 10-day trilingual program with a line-up of 30 speakers who will lead discussions on fiqh, identity, spirituality. Get ready for a series that will move your heart, motivate you to think, inspire you to act. 

(MAC Channel 2020, December 24)

In the promotional video for their 2020 convention, the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC) summoned a compelling metaphor, describing true Muslim identity formation through the metaphor of a deeply rooted tree. Here, I suggest that to fully appreciate MAC’s vision, we must look beyond those aspects of Muslim identity that react to the diasporic context. While the compatibility of Islamic and Western values was a recurring topic at the convention, the conference was also intervening in an intra-communal discussion about how to be properly Muslim in Canada.

With the majority of Canadian Muslims being immigrants, studies of Islam and Muslims in Canada provide tremendous insights into Muslim experiences, especially into how they encounter and negotiate secularity and religious privatization. As a minority group, Muslims navigate complex issues of accommodation, integration, media misrepresentation, identity politics, racism, discrimination, and Islamophobia – attending to these narratives is crucial to the story of Islam and Muslim experience in Canada. However, in addition to a focus on diasporic conditions, I suggest that attention to how Muslims imagine and relate to the Islamic tradition (Jouili, 2015)[1]Joulli, Jeanette S. 2015. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe. Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press., and to each other, is of equal importance (Moll, 2018)[2]Moll, Yasmin.  2018. “Television is not Radio: Theologies of Mediation in Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 33(2): 233-265.. Even though debates within the Muslim community are never fully insulated from the effects of the non-Muslim majority (Grewal, 2014)[3]Grewal, Zareena. 2014. Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. New York University Press., if we are to understand Muslim identity beyond the five pillars of Islam and possible allegiance to a handful of controversial divine dictates, we must also attend to intra-communal conversation (I.e., between Muslims). As Moll (2018) points out, and as Asad (1986)[4]Asad, Talal. 1986. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University. sought to underscore, there are competing theologies at work in all Muslim societies, each with their own logics and underpinnings. In my short discussion of the excerpt above, I hope to show that Muslim identity is not just an articulation of difference vis-à-vis the non-Muslim Canadian majority. Within the Canadian Muslim community, there are multiple theologies of identity – each a call among many calls of Islam (Spadola, 2014)[5]Spadola, Emilio. 2014. The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. that uniquely reaches into the archive of Islamic tradition and intervenes as one possibility.

The urgency in the excerpt – “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will”– certainly points to real threats minority groups experience in diaspora: the usurpation of their voices and regulation of their religious expression and practice by the state or majority-public opinion. But there is more to see. The video highlights the importance of scholarship to Muslims, evoking a longstanding relationship between ʿulamāʾ or religious specialists and the broader Muslim public. This relationship is one of trust, and it authorizes certain knowledge-seeking behaviours over others. MAC’s mission is a particular rendition of this relationality; it is premised on the idea that access to authentic Islamic scholarship is indispensable to Muslim identity formation. To become a person who pleases Allah, i.e., to be properly Muslim, one must approximate Allah’s will and intent. Scholars, and their moderate readings of the Qurʾan and Hadith, are the channels through which Muslims can recalibrate their internal compass towards God, achieving rabbaniya (God-centredness). MAC is not alone in underlining the importance of fiqh or scholarly Islamic jurisprudence. But their approach is particular to their reading of Muslim reformist Hassan al-Banna, whose thought informs modern Muslim efforts to ‘Islamicize’ everything. When one is properly “grounded” (i.e., God-centered), Islam becomes the lens through which everything is not only seen, experienced, and understood, but also accomplished. In other words, MAC’s vision of Muslim identity culminates in a particular mode of action-taking.

Although for MAC the question of difference partly has to do with positioning Islam in relation to other value-systems, MAC is also attentive to differences along other axes. As Khaled al-Qazzaz, MAC’s education and communications director, explained to me, MAC positions itself in relation to other Islamic orientations such as Salafism and Sufism. The organization aims to embody the mainstream, moderate, and “genuine” voice of Islam (MAC Channel 2020)[6]MAC Channel. (2020, December 24). “MAC Scholars Summit -Dec 24 – Jan 02” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ELfvFplqY. In its sequencing of feelings (heart), thoughts (mind), and actions, the conference promo video alludes to a popular prophetic hadith (report): “whoever witnesses wrong-doing must change it by his hand. If he cannot, then by his tongue. If he cannot, then in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.” MAC’s conference summons a strong faith, which inverts the hadith’s order (“…move your heart, motivate you to think, and inspire you to act”) with faith-inspired action becoming the ultimate realization of Muslim identity. Through this allusion, MAC’s conference articulates a critique of Islamic organizations that focus solely on providing services (such as funerary rites and marriage officiation) or offering rudimentary Islamic education. For MAC, Muslim identity is not just a feeling in the heart or an abstraction in the mind, it must also shape every action a Muslim takes. Hence the conference’s thematic metaphor of a deeply rooted and strongly standing tree. A tree that must be deeply rooted so that it can stand steadfast in Canada or anywhere else, regardless of where it is planted. Anchored in rabbaniya, the deep roots of the strong Muslim predate the Canadian diasporic context; they are formed through practical applications of an Islamic worldview premised on seeking Allah’s pleasure. While this discussion only scratches the surface of MAC’s theology of Muslim identity, it points to an on-going, intra-communal discussion shaped by much more than Canadian public opinion.

Notes / References

1 Joulli, Jeanette S. 2015. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe. Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press.
2 Moll, Yasmin.  2018. “Television is not Radio: Theologies of Mediation in Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 33(2): 233-265.
3 Grewal, Zareena. 2014. Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. New York University Press.
4 Asad, Talal. 1986. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.
5 Spadola, Emilio. 2014. The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
6 MAC Channel. (2020, December 24). “MAC Scholars Summit -Dec 24 – Jan 02” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ELfvFplqY

Sara Hamed

Sara Hamed is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Study of Religion department. Her research on Canadian Islam brings together the anthropology of Islam, institutional theory, and rhetorical studies.

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