I moved to the Midwest during Covid-19, so this Ramadan isn’t just my first real one in Cincinnati but my first real one in years. Socially distanced services have some upsides, but I was ready to go back to normal when our holiday started on Friday night. Most of all, I was eager to get back to praying with family, friends and total strangers late into the night.
A month of fasting, charity and reflection, Ramadan teaches us many lessons. One is empathy: We go without food and drink for long stretches. But one can also be deprived of community. I’m blessed to have landed in a place where I feel welcome, because I’ve spent years in cities where I never had a mosque to call my own.
Proclaiming that there is — or should be — only one Islam usually just excuses power and privilege among the dominant group in a given place, confusing subjective interpretations of the faith for the faith itself.
Many mosques are tightly controlled by people who act as if their particular interpretations of Islam — shaped by forces like culture, class and gender — are the only ones possible. They leave no room for anyone who might want to do some things differently.
As a result, huge numbers of Muslims are today “unmosqued.” They spend their whole lives socially distanced spiritually. And mosqued Muslims should care. Not just because fellow believers are going without — a problem that should never be belittled — but for the broader implications, too.
Those without ties to community may soon lose their ties to the faith entirely. Institutional religion is already declining in the West, and probably in much of the Muslim world. Islam might be the world’s fastest-growing religion, but there’s powerful evidence that, in many places, the faith is quietly in retreat.
One of Islam’s core values is ummah, the idea that all Muslims, everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, language, class, gender or how long they’ve been Muslim, form one big family with moral obligations to one another. It sounds good in theory, but the way we’ve understood ummah in practice has often resulted in anything but solidarity.
For far too many Muslims, ummah doesn’t mean that we protect, support and empower one another but that we must conform to one another. Rather than ummah being realized in ways that nurture and advance Muslims, it’s more often a project for confining Muslims to the whims and wants of those in power.
Even among supposedly open-minded Muslims, the inclination to homogeneity is widespread. More and more, for example, I hear young Muslims identify as “just Muslim” — they don’t want to see themselves as, say, Sunni or Shiite.
Given how these Muslim sects have been weaponized against each other, I sympathize with the sentiment. But I don’t agree with it. An example from close to home explains why.
While someone might, with wonderful intentions, say they “don’t see color,” that we’re all “just Americans,” a likely consequence of refusing to acknowledge different histories and identities is the further entrenchment of the status quo, leaving those who have a different understanding of America out in the cold.
Similarly, proclaiming that there is — or should be — only one Islam usually just excuses power and privilege among the dominant group in a given place, confusing subjective interpretations of the faith for the faith itself, as if the way some people do things is how things simply must be done.
In fact, Sunni and Shiite grew out of a substantive dispute following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, peace be upon him. It wasn’t an artificial division imposed from above but an unavoidable consequence of human autonomy and agency (both of which Islam cherishes). And if that was then, what about now?
Though some Muslims might insist that there’s only one Islam, people will inevitably disagree. Either we give them room to or, in our age of cultural secularization, social atomization and instantaneous communication, the majority will likely vote with their feet and walk out. They’ll probably conclude they’re not meant for Islam. Or Islam’s not meant for them. Either way, an epic and existential crisis for Islam looms. Today’s Muslims face complex and confusing questions. Our predecessors did, too, but the pace of change is unlike anything they experienced.
Shouldn’t our understanding of ummah evolve to meet the moment?
We need to embrace an understanding of Islam that sees pluralism not as a deficiency, or even a reality we must begrudgingly accept, but as an earthly reflection of the Divine’s endless creativity. Ummah doesn’t have to mean conformity on a global or even national scale.
Ummah can instead be a fluid agreement among hundreds of millions to engage around shared texts and traditions with rigor and respect, including the right to develop identities that allow us to build our unique visions of Islam with other, like-minded Muslims, without any intention of undermining Islam.
When in the past I’d found myself disagreeing with certain mosques around me, I was fortunate to have grown up studying Islam in a religiously literate household. I knew that the Islam that dominated at any one mosque wasn’t the only way of being Muslim. Maybe I’d never be part of that particular community. But I wouldn’t feel Islamically inadequate.
Many mosques are tightly controlled by people who act as if their particular interpretations of Islam — shaped by forces like culture, class and gender — are the only ones possible.
It’s one of the things I’m most grateful to my parents and my childhood mosque for: giving me religious confidence.
All Muslims who care about the future prosperity of our faith must commit to instilling religious confidence in the next generation. Not so that they come out looking like us in every respect, but so that they can imagine and build the Muslim institutions that future circumstances we can’t imagine will call for, including spaces and ideas that push in different directions.
One of the chief characteristics of Islam is modesty. Epistemically, too. With a determined rejection of any further prophecy, Islam requires open-ended conversations — there never again will be any authority capable of decisively and conclusively ruling on new questions. Indeed, Sunni and Shiite only began to take shape after the blessed Prophet passed.
Today, alongside the old sects and schools, new identities are emerging. We should cooperate where we can and go our separate ways when we can’t. We should practice an ummah of autonomous and voluntary collaboration, deterritorialized and decentralized.
Islam emerged in the context of an often nomadic, frequently mobile, largely mercantile society. That’s why the Prophet Muhammad declared all the Earth a mosque. Islam is a globalizing religion founded before globalization, whose heroes routinely traveled thousands of miles. The mobility, immediacy and intimacy of their faith remind us of where we come from — and where we can go.
This Ramadan, I pray the deprivation of these past two years makes us more mindful of deprivation in all its forms, and more thoughtful of what that means for our future. What it might be. And what it could be.