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What Defines a Muslim?

What Defines a Muslim?

Issue 99 December 2012

Being a Muslim is about being conscious of God, and the Qur'an and Hadith provide us with ways to reflect that in our own lives.


I was recently asked this question in an interview: ‘’What defines you as a Muslim?’’ It was an interesting question, which I interpreted as not asking for a general definition of a Muslim, but looking for my personal perspective, asking how my life as a Muslim is different to what it would be if I hadn’t embraced the faith. 
From the moment that one declares out of their own free will that “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His messenger”, that person is defined as a Muslim. That declaration in itself doesn’t always impact people’s lives, as there are many Muslims who are Muslim in name only, who haven’t engaged with the message. But there are also many for whom this is a catalyst for change. The declaration can provide impetus for taking time out for ritual daily prayers. It can be the pre-cursor for lifestyle changes, including modifications in diet (ham sandwiches used to be such an integral part of my life!), gentler speech and often more modest dress. However, it is typical to think that the more outwardly covered up people are, the more inwardly observant they are of their faith. A few years ago, I came across a Muslim woman wearing the niqab face-covering and was shocked to hear her scattering expletives throughout her conversation with me—it directly contradicted the image I had of someone who had made that particular choice of dress. I have subsequently realised I shouldn’t have been so surprised: there are followers of all faiths and none who will compartmentalise their lives rather than attempt to live a life of consistency—and not one of us is perfect.

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For a Muslim, the belief in God is not meant to be an isolated event, but instead a belief which connects inseparably with belief in God’s revelation to humanity, regular remembrance, as well as with financial and practical service to mankind. Surah Baqarah, Verse 177 summarises what Muslims should be striving for in terms of belief and action: “True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west—but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance—however much he himself may cherish it—upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God.’’

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Prophet Muhammad further explained God-consciousness: ‘’It is that you should serve God as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him, yet He sees you.” And we can serve God through repeatedly focusing on the beauty of our inner spirituality as well as reflecting that spirituality in a myriad of large and small ways in our own lives and in our interactions with others. Key Islamic guidance in relation to reflecting spirituality through very real ways of serving humanity is highlighted in Sura Al-Israa. These principles are universal in their scope and application and include being careful with resources (17:26-27), taking good care of children and especially orphans (17:31,34), respecting life (17:33), being honest in business dealings (17:35), acting upon knowledge rather than half-truths (17:36), and showing humility rather than arrogance (17:37). The Prophet Muhammad acknowledged our propensity to demonstrate negative qualities, and taught us ways to overcome them. To discourage envy, for example, he had practical advice: "Do not look to those above you. Look to those below you, as it will more likely remind you of God’s favours bestowed on you."

Judaism and Christianity encompass very similar concepts of encouraging practical God-consciousness. Adherents of Jewish spirituality are urged to become aware of God’s presence and purpose everywhere and in everything. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob wakes up from his dream and observes: “God was in this place, and I did not know it." (28:16) In the New Testament, it says: ‘’Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1: 5-7) Those who follow the Buddhist tradition are also striving for spiritual self-improvement reflected practically in improvements to one’s own life—honing meditation skills, gaining transcendent wisdom, being disciplined and diligent—and through one’s impact on others, such as by practising forbearance and giving to others. 

The Qur’anic and Prophetic reminders can provide motivation to improve every area of our daily lives. They can help us to be conscious about reducing wasteful consumption, working at full capacity when trusted by one’s manager to work from home, and not gossiping with friends about others. I also interpret these reminders as affecting longer term goals, including actively engaging with the meaning of the Qur’an, aiming to improve the quality of our own lives through mental, physical, and social efforts, and working practically on issues of social justice that affect humanity rather than Muslims alone.  

The quest for striving to improve the condition of oneself and others is known in Arabic as al jihad al akbar, which translates as the greater jihad. It is the jihad or struggle of the heart and soul. It is found in all faiths as well as amongst those with no faith. Within Islam in particular, there is detailed guidance to assist us to stay on this path of jihad. Through the repeated turning to God throughout the day both in ritual prayer and with personal supplications, through the month-long fasts, through the explicit exhortation to give a minimum percentage of my savings annually in charity, through the once-in-a lifetime pilgrimage, I am reminded to work on my inner self. Through the content of the Qur’an and the diverse teachings of Prophet Muhammad, I am reminded of God’s universal presence. “Even a smile is charity,’’ I sometimes remember, as I attempt to stay calm and gracious to others in rush-hour traffic.  

When asked what defines me as a Muslim, at the time I answered ‘’integrity’’ and ‘’gratefulness’’. But I am aware that was a limited answer. For these are only two values out of the many I should be endeavouring to work on. And of course I can have integrity and remain grateful to God and the people around me without being Muslim. 

Rabbi Micah Greenstein has suggested the definition of a good Jew is “one who is always trying to be a better Jew”—in terms of seeking to understand the teachings of the Scripture and also getting involved with assisting in real-world problems in a practical way. It seems he is talking about that greater jihad, albeit using different language. I may accept the Qur’an as the Word of God, but it is that same jihad—or striving—which defines me as a Muslim.l

Lucy Bushill-Matthews is the author of ‘Welcome to Islam—a convert’s tale’

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