October 5, 2010

Self-Identification as a Muslim

I've had an odd conversation with someone on Daily Kos, the topic of which was one's self-identification with a particular religion, in this case, Islam. The original comment read, in part:

I don't think that any Muslims have authority to tell another Muslim that he's not a Muslim if he believes he is. I think each person has a right to determine his own religion.

My original response to this was the following:

Muslims can and do have the authority to tell another person that he or she is not a Muslim. Granted, this power should be used rarely, if at all. However, self-identification as a Muslim is not accepted within the Muslim community, and in some countries, such as Singapore, Muslim converts are tested as to their knowledge and practices of Islam before they are officially registered as a Muslim.

There are several reasons why self-identification is not allowed in Islam. One reason is because there are some groups, such as the Ahmadiyya, who are deviant offshoots of Islam who wish to be recognized as part of the greater Muslim community. The Ahmadiyya fail in this test because they have some beliefs regarding their founder that go against Muslim beliefs (specifically, against the Qur'an). Despite their wish to self-identify as Muslims, orthodox Muslims do not recognize the Ahmadiyya as part of the Islamic community.

A second reason is because some people wish to infiltrate the Muslim community by pretending to be Muslims. A recent case of this happened last year, when Chris Gaubatz [also see here] pretended to be a Muslim in order to obtain an internship at CAIR, where he stole thousands of pages of documents. (The most "damning" thing the documents spoke of was CAIR's goal of trying to get as many Muslims placed as Congressional interns as possible. The right tried to make hay of the story, but were ridiculed by virtually every group that has some sort of political interest, where they all agreed that they too had the same goal.)

Because of these and other concerns, Muslims don't accept self-identification. A person may self-identify as a Muslim, and they may truly be Muslim (only Allah (swt) actually knows what is in his or her heart), but that doesn't mean that we, the Muslim community, have to take their word for it. As with many other religious claims, we would tell that person, "Prove it!"

To which that person responded:

I don't care if self-identification isn't used among Muslims. Most Jews don't accept it. Some Christians don't accept it, but I see no other policy which is reasonable. As long as you don't accept group responsibility, which I don't, then self-identification is the the right approach to take. If someone claims they are an X, then they are that religion.

And I replied:

You may not care but that's not how it's going to be among Muslims. One person's opinion is not going to trump a consensus opinion among both Muslim scholars and non-scholars based upon 1400 years of experience. We have our reasons, as I mentioned above, and I believe them to be good reasons.

To be sure, as I also mentioned above, the naming of a person or group as a takfir (an apostate) is an act that is fraught with peril for the person who does so, as I wrote about on one of my blogs (Why Muslims Don't Pronounce "Takfir"). However, the minimum requirement to be accepted as a Muslim among Muslims is a public declaration of the shahadah in front of two Muslims. But even there, it is still possible for someone who does not have the proper intentions to deceive. Hence, our rejection of self-identification.

To which that person replied:

OK, I still don't care. If someone raised a Muslim decides he's an Atheist or a Christian or whatever, that's what he is. I think all of these regulations on who gets to count as a Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc... are offensive and illiberal.

My final comments are:

If someone raised a Muslim decides he's an Atheist or a Christian or whatever, that's what he is.

Which is fine by me. I'm not arguing this point.

I think all of these regulations on who gets to count as a Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc... are offensive and illiberal.

That's your opinion, and you're welcome to it. There's nothing to stop a person from self-identifying or becoming a Muslim, but that doesn't mean that the Muslim community must recognize that person as a Muslim. If that's "offensive and illiberal" so be it. The Muslim community expects certain standards to be met in terms of both beliefs and practices. Muslims themselves may fall into and out of a state of Islam throughout their lives (although we do, of course, hope to die in a state of Islam when that time comes, insha'allah). It's not terribly difficult to be recognized by other Muslims as a Muslim, but we do follow our rules, not the rules other people think we should follow.


bambam said...

--Again with the theme of considering islam as monolithic but you can't be bothered with replying to that so won't bother writing about it again --
The ayah 41:33 explicitly and succinctly states the requirements, from islamic shari3a POV, what are the requirements for being a muslim, and its corner stone is self-identification. Now modern legal requirements differ from the shari3a requirements and you seem to equate the 2.
Actually to prove the point that self-identification is all that is required by islam is it's encouragement for Muslims to hide their faith from the public if it puts their lives at risk...

JDsg said...

Salaam 'alaikum.

Again with the theme of considering islam as monolithic but you can't be bothered with replying to that so won't bother writing about it again

I might be more agreeable to responding to your comments if you didn't keep writing baseless assumptions ("considering Islam as monolithic") and accusations (""that you hold salafi sunni islamic views"") about me. I don't mind your writing comments that present a different POV, such as you did on a previous post, but I don't feel the need to respond to all comments that come to my blog either. I said what I had to say in my post.

Now modern legal requirements differ from the shari3a requirements and you seem to equate the 2.

You, being a born Muslim in a Muslim-majority country, have had different experiences than I, a revert Muslim living in a Muslim-minority country (even one with as large a Muslim population as Singapore).

Self-identification as a Muslim for a revert (or potential revert) to Islam is but the first step in the process of being recognized by other Muslims as a Muslim. For some countries, such as the US, there is no central registry in which a revert to Islam enrolls; thus, no formal (legal) requirement is necessary. However, there will be an informal vetting by other Muslims as to whether a person claiming to be a Muslim is one or not. One doesn't just walk into a mosque for the first time and not undergo some sort of observation and/or examination to determine whether the fresh face is a Muslim. Trust me on this; I've been through the experience many times. Usually doing one's wudu or performing salat is enough to convince other Muslims of one's Muslimness, but sometimes more is asked for; I've been asked to recite Surah Al-Fatihah a number of times over the years by various people to "prove" that I'm a Muslim. (Even my future mother-in-law asked me to recite Al-Fatihah to my wife when she found out about me.)

In other countries, such as Singapore (and probably in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia), there is a central registry where Muslims are officially registered with the government. Reverts to Islam are either required to go through classes or to test out of the classes by proving one's knowledge of basic concepts and practices (e.g., salat) of Islam. (I tested out of the classes here because I had already been a Muslim for about a year and a half by the time of my oral examination.) Even so, that still won't get one out of the informal examinations. People are curious. Is that white man really a Muslim? (The adults in the mosques I attend never question my presence any more because I am a familiar face now, that and the fact that there are a few other white men at jumu'ah, but I still get open stares from young boys who have never seen a white Muslim before.)

So I know of what I speak. Allah (swt) knows how true the shahadah recited by a Muslim is within his or her heart, but other Muslims don't. Self-identification is not and never has been the only step in declaring one's self as a Muslim within a Muslim community.

Rhea said...


Just a question regarding your post. You stated that the bare minimum in terms of acceptance as a muslim by muslims is taking the shahadah in front of 2 adult witnesses (and saying it like you believe the words obviously). In which case, why is it that when children are born to muslim parents, they are automatically branded 'muslim.' I have yet to see a one day old baby recite the shahadah...or a 6 month old child understand the concept of a god/deity. Or for that matter a 5 year old child truly articulate what it means to believe in a said deity, and explain properly the concept of the 5 pillars (which they are assumed to believe in as they are 'muslim children').

So in such cases, why are they automatically considered Muslims, when they can't even fulfill the bare minimum of taking the shahadah properly (by that I mean saying it with the necessary belief and not just rote learning/reciting the words to shahadah)? Why are they not instead considered just the children of muslim-identifying parents, and not automatically 'muslim children'? As a convert, you'd surely know that being 'muslim' is not a status that is conferred by ethnicity/parentage/genes, unlike being 'jewish' or 'parsi.' One is able to be ethnically and culturally jewish without any belief in a deity, yet the same is not true for being muslim; being muslim is all about your iman and nothing else. Thus, repeating my question, why is it that children whose deen is questionable at the very least, are automatically classified as 'muslim' from birth??? (In countries like Singapore, I imagine these unfortunates are being registered as muslims before they come of age).

This is something I have trouble understanding. I guess it is very relevant in my case, as being an atheist born to muslim parents, I consider myself just your average American non-believer. Yet muslims always insist that I am an apostate because of my 'muslim background.' Correct me if I am wrong, but an apostate is someone who goes from being a muslim (i.e. having iman) to being a non-muslim (losing their iman). So how the heck can I, as someone who has never believed in the definitive existence of god (not from aged 6 or 7 onwards; children under that have no idea of critically approaching belief systems so should not be counted as 'muslim'), be classified an apostate, if I never had iman in the first place? How can someone be an considered an apostate by muslims if they were never muslim to begin with? A kafir would be a better term for me I think.

Self identification is paramount in terms of those who wish to be considered muslims and those who wish not to be considered muslim. Everyone has the right to define themselves as they wish, even newborns (who may one day grow up non-muslim) born to muslim parents, which is why I find their automatic classification as being 'muslim' so distasteful. There is no such thing as a 'born muslim'!

JDsg said...

Rhea: Thanks for your comment. I'm a little busy today, but I will try to respond as soon as I can, insha'allah. Thanks!

JDsg said...


Thanks for your comment. I'll make a few responses to various points you made, although not in the same order as you originally wrote them.

There is no such thing as a 'born muslim'!

There are several issues here. On the one hand, the normal usage with regard to "born Muslim" is that of a person who is raised in the religion of Islam from birth (e.g., my wife and my daughter) as opposed to a convert or revert to Islam (e.g. myself). Muslims, however, also use the term in reference to the belief that every person is born with the innate quality of taqwa; moreover, that we have all sworn to Allah (swt) that we understand that He is the one God to whom we owe everything:

"When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): 'Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?'- They said: 'Yea! We do testify!' (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: 'Of this we were never mindful': Or lest ye should say: 'Our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are (their) descendants after them: wilt Thou then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?'" (7:172-3)

Regardless of whether you accept this or not, this is what we believe. In that regard, of course there are born Muslims, and the term will not die out simply because you or others do not like it.

So in such cases, why are they automatically considered Muslims, when they can't even fulfill the bare minimum of taking the shahadah properly...

Most people make the automatic assumption that children, at least until the age of puberty, are of the same religion as their parents. Probably 99% of the time that assumption is true. While you may very well be the exception to the rule, that doesn't mean that the assumption can't or won't be used.

People don't expect children to be able to recite the shahadah or to fully understand the meaning behind what they are asked to say. My daughter, for example, says the basmallah when she begins a meal or drinks a bottle of milk, but no one expects her to understand what the basmallah is or why she is asked to say it. It is one of those things mommy and daddy ask her to say and she says it. But no one challenges the religious beliefs of my daughter either. The issue of whether one recites the shahadah publicly (in front of two or more witnesses) is not of concern for children; it is of concern for adults and children entering adulthood. (For the latter category, the Jews mark this rite of passage with a bar mitzvah for boys and a bat mitzvah for girls. Like the Jews, Muslim parents are held responsible for the child's adherence to Islamic teachings and practices. Once the child reaches about the age of puberty, he or she is responsible for him or her self.) Regardless of whether the child or his or her parents are responsible, they will normally be considered Muslim if they are being raised or were raised in that religion.


JDsg said...

A kafir would be a better term for me I think.

Neither term is preferable to the other; both are deeply negative, and one should avoid being labeled as such, even voluntarily. The irony in your comment is that kafir is normally translated into English as "apostate," so I don't see where being labeled as such would really help you.

In countries like Singapore, I imagine these unfortunates are being registered as muslims before they come of age.

In all honesty, I'm not sure exactly when Muslim children are registered as Muslims with the government. There is no indication on my daughter's birth certificate (or my wife's, who was born and raised here) to indicate religion. The parents apparently declare the child's religion when the latter is entered into the school system. My wife thinks she may have also declared her religion to the government when she received her first Identity Card, which was when she was around 12 years old. As for official statistics regarding the number of adherents to various religions, the government only reports those who are 15 and older.