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The Puritan Formula

The Puritan Formula

Issue 7 Sept / Oct 2004

Just what is your problem? I am often forced to ask this question when the more puritanical members of our community start to impose their presumed moral superiority on me. They would start quoting the Qur’an and hadith– thereby revealing their fathomless ignorance – and insist that since Truth is on their side, they must be correct and innately a cut above the rest of us.

The problem has four dimensions. According to my friend Nejatullah Siddiqui, who pioneered the idea of Islamic economics in the 70s, it can be stated as a simple puritan formula:


We are different.

We are superior.

We deserve to be supreme;

and we are destined to dominate.


These are dangerous illusions. More so when we use the Qur’an and hadith to justify them for then we end up not just deluding ourselves but also maligning the image of Islam. A great deal of strife and violence both within and without the Muslim world stems from this perception.

Our faith does not make us different. The planet is full of faith communities all trying to make sense of this world and give some meaning to arid (postmodern) existence. Islam addresses itself to humanity; not just to Muslims. The Qur’an emphasises our common humanity – it does not suggest that Muslims are in any way different from other segments of humanity. Moreover, as Siddiqui points out, differences related to faith have to be placed in some sort of context;

the role and rule of faith is not uniformly spread over our life. ‘In trade and commerce, agriculture and transport, and in so many walks of life, all human beings need to interact irrespective of their faith’.

To suggest that Muslims are superior simply by virtue of their faith is not just blindly arrogant but downright nefarious. Belief per se does not confer anything on anybody. If this was the case, then anyone who believes in anything can claim superiority; and racial bigots will have as much claim to their arguments as Muslim puritans. 

Now, I know what some of you will say. What about that verse of the Qur’an? The one about ‘you are the best community’ because ‘you enjoin right conduct’ (3:110). Well, what about it? To begin with it refers to a particular community in history – the one shaped by the Prophet. But suppose it referred to all Muslims for all time. Then, you simply have to look around you. Are we the best community that ever graced this earth? Do we ‘enjoin right conduct’? If the answer is an emphatic no, then we are left with two options. Either the Qur’an is wrong; or the interpretation placed on this verse by the self-righteous is wrong. I will opt for the latter. And I will raise one more question: would those who ‘enjoin right conduct’ consider themselves to be superior by virtue of anything – including faith?

That brings me to world supremacy and domination. When we look at the Qur’anic quotations people conjure up to justify this supremacist jabber, we discover a few simple truths. They are all contextual and promise victory to Prophets and their followers under attack. They were revealed to boost the morale of besieged communities, and confi rm that piety and power could go together. They promise victory and not disappearance of all other religions and their followers. By no stretch of the imagination do they provide an agenda for world domination. 

The perception that Islam will one day dominate the world is a product of dangerously deluded minds. It negates everything that Islam stands for: freedom to reject faith, the rich diversity of our human community including the diversity of faiths, and rejection of power for power’s sake. The puritan formula is not simply a problem for the extremist members of our community. It has become a problem for us all. British Muslims are very quick – rightly – to jump on any member of the press who demonises Muslims or misrepresents Islam. But we also need to do something else. We need to see where they get their juicy quotations from. We need to hear what some of our brothers and sisters are actually saying. And we need to think how much of what they are saying is really embedded in our traditional discourse, in fiqh, and in mutterings of the leaders of the so-called ‘Islamic movements’. And worry. And then do something about it.

The first and most obvious thing we can do is to join the rest of humanity. We are not different, superior or destined to dominate. We are nothing more than a fallible community struggling to make sense of our faith in a rapidly changing, complex, interconnected world. In a globalised world, says Siddiqui, ‘exclusiveness and the tendency to create our own separate space are out’. Muslims, puritans and others, need to wholeheartedly share ‘God given space with all human beings on the basis of freedom, equality, mutual respect and human rights’. I couldn’t agree more!

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