Million-dollar question in the world of Islam


 SEP 20, 2022 –

Illustration edited by Büşra Öztürk.

Illustration edited by Büşra Öztürk.

‘From religious scholars to academia, from politicians to artists, every segment in a Muslim society should have the capability to gather all reasonable colors under a single Islamic roof and build a consistent identity’


Currently, there is an ontological schism plaguing Muslim self-identification. In every region, Muslim nations are dogged with the common problem of interpreting, building and embracing their authentic identity since some are stuck between the West-East dichotomy. Others have fallen into the trap of the wave of incoherent identities. The latter is related to the gap between belief and practice, as Muslim nations remain true believers of their faith but fail to adopt a coherent identity and lifestyle. The level of ambiguity and inconsistency in identities is so high that nations have trouble communicating effectively, becoming more engaged in bilateral relations or further developing bonds in every sphere.

Individually, socially and philosophically speaking, modernism is the source of this ambivalence, while “post-truth,” a trendy product for the world, also sponsors the said evolution. In this age, humankind’s common principles – be it ethics, aesthetics, etiquette or religious norms – are not accepted as common or as principles at all. It is a dystopic space and time, where identities are dispersed, mediocre and almost extinct. Just like others, Muslims have their share of this reality. In the midst of this, nations have no other option but to remember their glorious self. Well, what else can they do?

To protect their past, present and future, just as every Islamic school and branch, from the golden age of the religion to the following periods, today’s Muslim nations need to first ask and then answer the million-dollar question: “Who are we?” Unfortunately, the answer that “we are Muslim” falls short here, as every “Muslim” nation is already “Muslim.” But, what kind of Muslim are we talking about here?

Simply put, based on the Quran, sunnah (sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad), ijma (consensus) and qiyas (analogy), the religion of Islam draws a general framework for nations and guides them to build a particularly well-organized and developed society. So far, every civilization has tried a different path to embracing and adopting Islamic understanding and lifestyle. However, that never turned into reality as societies lived in parallel with their authentic real identities. In other words, as the great Sufi philosopher Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi said, people in general “either exist as they were or be as they looked.” Of course, the exception proves the rule. Even in communities where extremist theories were practiced, it was known that they were extremists.

With the Ottomans, for another example, the state would rule all of its geographies with its unique combination of customs, traditions and the norms of Islam. Alternatively, if a community in a local town followed the school of Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, a prominent Sufi scholar and polymath of Islamic thought who lived between 1165 and 1240, it was widely known as unusual.

However, on an individual or national level, the clarity was replaced with ambivalence, which is one of the root causes of several problems Muslim nations face. During my academic working life and official duties abroad, I have observed how this problem has eroded the communication bonds between societies. The more people have become incoherent, the more the disunity has peaked and the relationships have been eradicated.

As mentioned in my previous piece, a concept like identity is bonded with the determination of a paradigm that the very concept of identity belongs to. Unless a paradigm is irrelevant to the concept, you cannot build or revive an identity. It is like methodology 101. Muslim nations face the lack of a methodology that can produce their own paradigms. From religious scholars to academia, from politicians to artists, every segment in a Muslim society should have the capability to gather all reasonable colors under a single Islamic roof and build a consistent identity. Then, an answer to the million-dollar question can be found. Otherwise, the nations are doomed to face identity-related problems.


Professor, director general of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA)


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