Muslims, Unity Does Not Mean Uniformity [Essay]
Everyone seems to support Muslim unity. When we talk about “uniting the Muslim community,” there’s an almost unanimous agreement that it should be pursued. However, the first issue that arises is in answering the question: how exactly should we unite the Muslim community? You’ll get as many answers as individuals you ask—and there’s where most unity talks break down.
For Muslims, the challenges to unity seem large. Things are just too diverse, whether in culture, religious specifics, or just visions of how to unite. We all have differences. But Muslims trying to work together will often seem to find more differences than similarities (or, at least, the differences seem to matter more).
Thus, you have many efforts in the Western Muslim communities seeking to unite Muslims, but often finding little to no success. In many cases, they become a detached pocket of the community that only unites a few like-minded individuals or organizations. Thing are no different here in South Florida. Many sincere individuals have come together with the purpose of uniting the community only to find the effort breeding more division. Finding common ground proves to be difficult when people have different visions of how Muslims should come together, and upon what exactly they should unite.
What Does Unity Mean?
The core issue that arises in many of these failed attempts is a misunderstanding of what unity means. Groups often feel that “uniting” with others who don’t do things “their way” is a compromise of their own identity. A melting pot boils everyone together. As one Muslim comedian described it1—we need to graduate that metaphor, and instead see unity as a “salad bowl,” where every element retains its identity and flavor, but all can mix together without losing themselves. The goal of unity is not assimilation.
That brings us to the title of this essay: Unity does not mean uniformity. When looking to unite, Muslims must have a nuanced understanding of the goal. It is not for each Muslim organization or community to assimilate into what just one group believes or practices. Islam allows for a diversity of understanding and opinion (which is part of the evidence of its universality—why it can apply to so many nations, cultures, and times). But beyond that, Muslims have an even greater diversity—in their practice, their religious specifics, their beliefs about life, and their lifestyles. To unite, there must be a mature acceptance of the fact that not every Muslim is the same as you, and that’s okay.
Prophetic Wisdom: Treat Different People Differently
The Prophet (s) did not turn individuals into copies of one another or himself. Rather, he (s) helped each person to individually thrive in Islam. He not only retained what made people special and unique, he’d capitalize on their talents for the service of Islam. Further, he (s) also understood that people were at different levels and had different circumstances in life. These differences were not done away with, but rather they were intelligently addressed.
This is why he (s) would give different answers to different people who asked the same question (for example, when asked what the best of deeds was2; for some, it was prayer on time, while for others, it was to fast. Each person needed different advice.) Therefore, we cannot seek to make Muslims conform to our specific choices and beliefs—but what we can do is cooperate in the things we do agree upon.
Cooperating Upon Good
Allah calls us to “cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.” (Quran 5:2)3 In this, we find a solution for Muslim unity. What one Muslim teacher describes as the “circles of cooperation”4 is a good guideline to look at. The concept is that there are overlapping circles, some smaller and some larger, that define the scope with which we should get involved with others.
The smallest circles may include issues like teaching our theology and beliefs. This is something we may only want to be done by trusted scholars and teachers (particularly those who follow our methodology or school of thought (and that’s fine)). However, a larger circle may include issues like fighting Islamophobia and discrimination. On this issue, we should be able to join with Muslims of all types, and even those of other faiths or beliefs who support this cause. Just because one works with somebody on one issue does not mean they agree with that person on every other issue. Keeping that clear, we can cooperate upon what we believe is righteous and good, but maintain clear distinctions and dissociate from what we believe may be wrong or incorrect.
An Integrated Unity
Equipped with this understanding, it is possible for Muslims to unite in a manner that honors everyone’s individuality while being clear upon the things we’re uniting on. It does not have to be an “all or nothing” endeavor in which a group or organization is either “with us or against us.” This black and white thinking will only keep us divided and limit our potential as a diverse and interconnected ummah.
The South Florida Muslim Federation was stemmed from this belief, and like many other efforts across the country and world, it seeks to bring Muslims together in order to unite them. Only a unity that recognizes the beauty and potential of our diverse community will truly succeed. This unity can unlock so many opportunities for us to connect on our commonalities, empower our talented individuals to make the world better, and serve Allah and humanity with greater excellence, efficiency, and barakah.
May Allah accept the efforts of any group seeking to bring Muslims together upon that which is good. And may He bless our ummah to unite together in goodness and to recognize our differences as blessings from Allah, not as tools to divide us. As Allah says, He has created us “into peoples and tribes so that you may ‘get to’ know one another.” (Quran 49:13)5
What Will You Do?
How will you bring about Muslim unity in your personal life today? Who will you “get to know” that you haven’t reached out to before? All it takes is a sincere intention and a small deed (a text, a Salaam, a cup of coffee.)
Let’s do this, Muslims.
by Jawaad Khan, Program Coordinator of the South Florida Muslim Federation