Islam, Millennials and Generation Z

By Inam Ul Haque

Some years ago, I was footloose in the famous Registan Square in Samarkand and the ruins of erstwhile madrassahs — religious universities — of Bokhara in Uzbekistan, in my wanderlust to put Islam in a historic context. It was when I realised how powerful and pervasive Islam in its different shades had been, throughout times, across the globe, thousands of miles away from its fountainheads in Hijaz and Mesopotamia, in modern Iraq. When I penned “How ‘Right’ is the Religious Right?” in this space on Nov 12, 2019, my discourse was limited to the genesis and operationalisation of the power of the clergy in Pakistan and a possible way forward by harnessing and co-opting the religious right in a modernist state. This piece would piece together some fundamentals of our great faith in a purely religious context, as I understand, for the benefit of Millennials and Generation Z or “Zoomers”.

Islam, like the other Abrahamic religions, is not new to controversies arising out of different interpretations of its injunctions. Consequently, young Muslims today find themselves baffled and mostly confused by the different “brands” of Islam available. However, there is no cause for concern, as complete unity in a pervasive concept such as Islam is not practicable and never achieved. Any religion comprises a faith or belief system as basis and a way of life under the respective religious injunctions including rituals and morality. In Islam, the essential building blocks of faith or aqeedah, comprise the unwavering conviction of the All Powerful being Wahid — the One and Only — and Yakta — the Inimitable; He being the only Ma’bood — to whom and nobody else all worship and submissions are owed; nobody, absolutely nobody sharing His sifat — characteristics, virtues and powers; and the belief that all help comes only from Him. Iman — the belief system for being a Muslim involves belief in angels, revealed books, prophets, Day of Judgment, etc. Beyond this essential foundation, the building, i.e. the practice of the religion, the lifestyle, has many shades, variations and beauties. Verses in the Quran have been interpreted to mean more than one thing — all generally correct. That and other theological debates have given rise to sects like Shia, Sunni and orders (masalik) within the religious whole like Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. Practising any one sect or religious maslak or none is okay, as I perceive if the aqeedah or the foundation conforms to the above stipulations. Getting into intricacies beyond, that most religious scholars love to do, is considered divisive and, therefore, counter-productive to faith-based harmony. In sum, beyond the basic belief, sects and orders are natural to Islam just like they are to other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. It is like climbing towards a singular mountain peak using different routes.

To steer clear of controversy, rujo’o — recourse to the Quran as the ultimate guide to Muslim spirituality is the panacea. For today’s common Muslims of the Generation Z lot, aqeedah and recourse to the first-hand reading of the Quran and its “translation” should suffice, without getting into useless debates, which remain unresolved after more than 14 centuries. And in so doing, there is no need to find meanings to Allah’s dictums like the mutashabiha ayats — verses whose meanings only Allah knows. Unfortunately, some mufassars or commentators of the Quran have tried to interpret mutashabiha ayats also, outdoing one another, in knowing more than God intended them to know. Such attempts resulted in the mayhem and fitnas or strife in Muslim lands particularly during the first six centuries after the Prophet (peace be upon him).

One such very destructive controversy was by the Mutazilah sect during the Abbasid period. Mutazilites also called Ahl al adl wa al tawhid (people of justice and Divine Oneness) created the Islamic school of speculative theology (kalam) that flourished in Basra and Baghdad between the eighth and 10th centuries. One of their three-point dogmatic iterations was “not considering the Holy Quran as the word of Allah”, calling the Quran the makhlouq or creation, like all other things. Rising under the Caliph Ma’mun-ur Rasheed in 827AD as state dogma, it was finally abandoned by Caliph al Mutawakkil around 849AD. The Mutazilah ulema, having won the Caliph, would ensure death for those not subscribing after rigged religious debates.

To simplify, when the “essential knowledge” of Islam is combined with practice, steering clear of controversies, the outcome is inner peace. And a life of conformity leads towards the promised salvation, which should be our goal in this world that is the Darul imtihan — a test for all of us to transcend into the eternity of Darul jaza — the life of reward.

Digging deeper has its pros and cons. Sufism is one strand in Islam, esoteric in essence, involving total abdication in this life through surrender and self-actualization. Kashaful Mahjub by Sheikh Usman Ali Hajveri (Data Ganj Bakhsh, died 1077AD) is one such seminal work dilating Sufism. Makhdom Ali Hajveri discusses doctrines of different Sufi orders and uncovers eleven veils, as he calls them, discussing marifat or gnosis of Allah; tawhid (Allah’s Oneness), iman (faith), taharat (purity and cleanliness), and the pillars of Islam, etc. Sufism approaches philosophical issues like fiqr and safwat (poverty and wealth), sukr and suhoo (state of error and non-error), malamat (repentance), the reality of the nafs (self or ego), fana and baqa (dying before dying and subsistence or permanency) differently. Sufis, for example, consider baqa as a state of life with God, through God, in God, and for God. Sufism’s 12 orders thus raise love and antipathy to varying degrees from other non-Sufi Islamic scholars. For our Millennials and Zoomers wanting to tread the path of Sufism, it is one of total surrender through extreme mujahida (struggle) and mushahida (observation), and should not be attempted without a murshid (mentor), as Sufis warn.

Finally some words about criticism in a fashion directed at our simple mullah (cleric). Let’s not forget that despite their ritualistic rigidity, lack of scholarly predilection, and humanly imperfections, they are the vanguard in the sustenance of faith for common Muslims. Without them, Muslims would be at a loss during essential everyday rites of birth, marriage, and death, besides learning the Quran, prayers and observing the fast, etc. Our madrassahs keep a large number of children off the street and protected them from hunger. The mullahs’ critics need to know that not many educated and well-off families want their siblings to be trained as clerics. This cadre deserves constructive support against prevailing prejudice.

So, after a rock-solid aqeedah, diversity in religious practice is the innate beauty of Allah’s message. Accommodating differing viewpoints and not ostracising them is the way to go. So Zoomers, flock to the Message undeterred by the differences. There is something for everybody to take away. We need Him, He does not need us.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2020.