Identity Development and Transformation in Christ (1/7): Muslim Identity – To Be or Not to Be a Muslim?

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The following article is the first in a seven-part series on Identity Development and Transformation. This series is geared for Muslims who are leaving Islam and embracing Jesus Christ as Lord, as well as those ministering to them.

Identity Development and Transformation in Christ Series:

  1. Muslim Identity – To be or not to be Muslim? [Available Oct 9, 2017]
  2. Flexibility of the term “Muslim” [Available Oct 16, 2017]
  3. Shahada and Muslim Identity [Available Oct 23, 2017]
  4. Transitional Identity [Available Oct 30, 2017]
  5. Christo-centric Identity [Available Nov 6, 2017]
  6. Christo-centric Identity for Former Muslims [Available Nov 13, 2017]
  7. Identity Applications [Available Nov 20, 2017]

Introduction to the Series

Our goal as ministers of the Gospel is to participate with God in bringing Muslims from a starting point in which they have no real relationship with Jesus Christ to a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Savior, King of kings and Lord of lords. This process inevitably includes identity development and transformation. This transformation is God-wrought. Some of the biblical metaphors which describe this process include: “the Potter and the clay” (Rom 9:21), “we are His workmanship” (Eph 2:10), and “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18). God’s grace is the catalyst in this transformative process.

Ministry to Muslims must begin with an axiomatic statement that Muslims are, in essence, no different than other human beings: sinners God loves and for whom Christ died. This does not mean that all Muslims are the same or that only one type of ministry to Muslims is appropriate. It merely signifies that Muslims need to be reached and they are reachable. The ministry we are participating is indeed God’s ministry and the fruit is His fruit.

Muslims begin their spiritual journey the same place as other people, “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Yet, God can certainly be at work throughout this progression, even before Muslims come into a living faith and are born again by the Spirit of God. Indeed, the Holy Spirit continually convicts the world—including Muslims—of sin (Jn 16:9). He then glorifies Christ (Jn 16:14) so that Muslims will trust Him as Savior and Lord. Through the blood of Christ, they may become children of the Heavenly Father. The Christian worker may even be unaware of what is happening in the heart of his or her Muslim friend.

Defining Identity

“Identity,” the theme of this series, is defined as “how someone is viewed by self and others, and how the group(s) to which one belongs are viewed by self and others.” This definition renders a four-quadrant application with associated questions:

Perception from within Perception from without
Individual 1. Individual Self-perception

(“Who am I?”)

3. Perception of individual by others

(“Who is he/she?”)

Group 2. Collective self-perception

(“Who are we?”)

4. Perception of group by outsiders

(“Who are they?”)

 

This series considers spiritual identity. Other identity components, such as occupational identity, socio-economic status, gender identity, birth order identity, and ethnic identity are not the focus of this series. Ethnic identity depends largely on one’s genetic makeup and place of birth and upbringing, and thus cannot be transformed in the way spiritual identity can.

This series will feature seven articles that deal with: Muslim identity; transitional identity; and Christo-centric identity. In summary, the goal is that all four quadrants of identity move toward a Christo-centric identity whereas believers find their individual identity in Christ and their group identity in the Body of Christ. And outsiders, whether they are friends, family, neighbors or colleagues, will ultimately acknowledge that “something is different” and that difference has to do with the Lord Jesus. The goal is not to have a bifurcated identity: a Christian identity when among Christians but a Muslim identity when around Muslims.

Now we turn to the beginning point: Muslim identity.

Muslim Identity – To Be or Not to Be a Muslim?

Introduction to this Article

This article addresses the first of two main points regarding flexibility of the term “Muslim.” The first is the indigenous global discussion on this topic within the Muslim community. Presently, this discussion is centered on the takfiri (excommunication) ideology, which can be set in contradistinction to the “classical” Islamic position on Muslim identity. This debate does not directly impact Christian missiology. Yet, those pushing the takfiri doctrine have, by their extreme positions and actions, indirectly opened up many Muslim hearts to look for a spiritual home outside of Islam. The takfiri ideology seeks to exclude many Muslims from the true fold of Islam.

The second question considers the inverse— broadening who may be considered a Muslim. This will be considered in the second article in this series.

Diversity of Muslims

The global Umma (Muslim community) features incredible diversity. These 1.6 billion people demonstrate ethnic diversity, sectarian diversity, and diversity of religious observance. Similar to Christianity, some Muslims take their religion seriously, while others are merely nominal. For all of these precious souls, Jesus came and died on the Cross.

While it is undeniable that Muslims are incredibly diverse, the basic question persists: Who is a Muslim and who is not? This can be construed as, “What constitutes Muslim identity?”

When considering the concept of Muslim identity, several introductory statements are warranted. First, the term “identity” in Islamic theological parlance is not as widely used as in the general English-speaking context. The Arabic word for identity, hawiyya, is not a theological term of significance in its own right. Even the term “Muslim,” an Arabic term, is typically not used as an adjective; the preferred term is the nisbah (-iyya) ending signifying “essence of,” Islamiyya. So, the Arabic equivalent of “Muslim identity” would be “Islamic identity,” or hawiyyat al-Islamiyya. The term is not a significant theological term historically, in comparison to seminal Islamic terms that define identity, such as, kufr (disbelief, from which the word takfir is derived), shirk (polytheism), and Umma.

While “Muslim identity” is not a linguistic construct of historical importance for Muslims, the concept behind it—who is a Muslim and who is not—is hugely important at the time of Muhammad, throughout Islamic history, and today. The Qur’an, like the Bible, seeks to promote a faith-based identity for its adherents.

The Takfiri Debate

Perhaps the most important internal discussion facing the Muslim community today is the controversy over takfir. Specifically, takfir refers to imputing infidel status upon others, including others who identify themselves as Muslims. The new takfiri doctrine of the Jihadists and other hard-liners has caused endless heartache and bloodshed globally. It also differs substantially from the classical Islamic position on this topic. How this will all play out is a critical issue facing the Muslim community globally.

Takfiri proponents use an ends-justify-the-means approach. Their logic is that Muhammad intended Islam to rule the world. Political leaders who may be Muslim but who do not embrace the agenda of Islamic world domination may, therefore, be declared infidels. Hayder Mili notes: “Most contemporary Takfir doctrine was forged inside Egyptian jails following the great wave of arrests targeting the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1960s where many of its members were tortured and/or executed.” 1

The expansion of the takfiri doctrine provides religious sanction to politically inspired murder. This thinking brought about the downfall of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who prided himself on being a devout Muslim and was frequently televised praying in mosques. However, he suppressed the Islamic political front in Egypt, and thus was marked by them for assassination. In Revolutionary Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini was frequently depicted slaying Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, with the caption, “Li Kulu Musa, Faroon.” (“For every Pharoah, there is a Moses.”) This is another example of attributing kafir status on a confessing Muslim.

Jihadists promote a widespread application of the takfiri doctrine. In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright chronicles the development of al-Qa’eda’s thinking on this subject: “The new takfiris, such as Dr. Fadl and Dr. Ahmed, extended the death warrant to encompass, for instance, anyone who registered to vote. Democracy, in their view, was against Islam because it placed in the hands of the people authority that properly belonged to God. Therefore, anyone who voted was apostate, and his life was forfeit.” 2

The Classical Islamic Position on who is a Muslim and Who is Not

While Takfiri jihadists claim the authority of Muhammad for their actions, a strong case can be made against their position. The Qur’an uses the term “Muslim” to signify its adherents. It also uses the frequent address “O You who believe,” (Ayyuha latheena aminuu). The Qur’an establishes a “we-they” dichotomy between Muslims and non-Muslims. Muhammad’s famous statement in Sura Kafiroon (the Disbelievers) emphasizes this point: “Lakum dinakum, wa liya din.” “Unto you be your religion, and unto me be (my) religion” (109:6).

Al-Ghazali (died 1111 A.D.) states what can be considered the “classical” Islamic position on Muslim identity as follows: “‘Unbelief (kufr)’ is to deem anything the Prophet [Muhammad] brought to be a lie. And ‘faith (iman)’ is to deem everything he brought to be true. Thus, the Jew and the Christian are Unbelievers because they deny the truthfulness of the Prophet.” 3

Writing two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Manzur penned the classic 20-volume Arabic dictionary, Lisan al-Arab (The Arab Tongue), in 1290. Ibn Manzur follows al-Ghazali’s line of thinking that Islam requires complete affirmation of the prophetic veracity of Muhammad: “Al-Islam means a demonstration of obedience to everything that the ambassador of Allah reveals so that his blood will not be shed.” 4

The classical position not only defines who is a Muslim, it also provides warning for those who wrongly strip Muslims of Muslim identity. A hadith saying attributed to Muhammad states: “Abu Zarr reported that the Holy Prophet said: ‘No man accuses another man of being a sinner, or of being a kafir, but it reflects back on him if the other is not as he called him.’” 5

Al-Ghazali pleads for restraint in conferring takfir on confessing Muslims: “As for the Advice, it is that you restrain your tongue, to the best of your ability, from indicting the people who face Mecca (on charges of Unbelief) as long as they say, ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God,’ without categorically denying this.” 6

The global Umma is experiencing significant polarization. A Shi’ite acquaintance had left his homeland and moved to Egypt. He shared with me an exchange he had with a local Sunni Muslim, who asked him: “Are you a Muslim or are you a Shi’ite?” This left the newcomer flabbergasted, as he naturally considered Shi’ites to be Muslims! Time will tell how this debate will play out regarding delimiting usage of the term “Muslim.”

After considering these currents of debates within the Muslim community regarding identity issues, the discussion now turns to missiological issues. This, as mentioned above, engages the attempt not to delimit but to broaden the usage of the term “Muslim.” This will be addressed in the next article in this series.

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Notes:

  1. Hayder Mili. 2006. “Jihad Without Rules: The Evolution of al-Takfir wa al-Hijra.” http://www.islamdaily.org/en/islam/4560.jihad-without-rules-the-evolution-of-al-takfir-wa-.htm (accessed April 18, 2017).
  2. Lawrence Wright. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Viking Press (2007): 143.
  3. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. n.d. Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa (The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam and Masked Infidelity). English translation by Sherman Jackson: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic888446.files/On%20Boundaries%20of%20theological%20tolerance.pdf. (Accessed April 17, 2017).
  4. Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-Arab, 1290, vol. 12, quoted in Abd al-Masih. The Great Deception. Villach, Austria: Light of Life. 1995): 143
  5. Bukhari, Book of Ethics; Book 78, ch. 44. http://www.islamopediaonline.org/fatwa/prohibition-takfir-muslim-calling-another-muslim-unbeliever. (Accessed April 17, 2017).
  6. Ibid. Al-Ghazali, p. 112
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About Author

Rev. Fred Farrokh is an Iranian-American Christian of Muslim background. He is an ordained missionary with Elim Fellowship. He has a PhD in Intercultural Studies from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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