A Question of Identity

Sadek Jawad Sulaiman

Two major features define our culture: Uruba (Arabism) and Islam. It is important that we clearly identify and understand these twin constituents of our background, for unfortunately, many of us have misconceptions about them. And unless we rectify the misconceptions about ourselves that we entertain from within, it would be disingenuous to blame others for misreading us from without.

The Quran and our rich Arabic literature demonstrate vividly how intimately our spiritual and literary traditions intertwine in our Arab/Islamic heritage. The closer we look the more we discern how intricately Uruba and Islam interweave. We find it difficult to define the one without considering the other. We find it hard to separate the two, historically, culturally, or intellectually. We realize how each, indeed, would be incomplete without the other; viewed separately, how each loses some integral part of itself. Outside its repository of Arabic culture, Islam is left with little form or substance. Emptied of its Islamic content, Uruba is reduced to a culture devoid of intellectual and moral moorings.

And yet, many of our Arabists and Islamists have come to view Uruba and Islam as not only disparate, but also incompatible. The Arabists dismiss Islam's potential as a force for exerting moral and ethical influence on the Arab national life. They discount the immense historical, social, and spiritual significance that is attached to Islam in the consciousness of an overwhelming majority of the Arab masses. At the other end, the Islamists reject identification with Uruba as something un-Islamic. Uruba, they argue, is a racial particularity of the Arabs that ought to be discarded in favor of the non-racial universalism of Islam.

This rather inordinate misconception of the essential compatibility of Uruba and Islam, the two main determinants of our cultural identity, is clearly not conducive to a robust and harmonious self-understanding. To the extent that it has gained currency over the past few decades, it has impaired our ability to draw positively and cohesively on our rich Arab/Islamic experience. We have failed to give proper form and direction to our national (Arab) life largely because of the confusion we have let in by losing sight of the historical complimentarity between the two. And while this misconception is allowed to persist, the governing Arab regimes, who are neither Arabist nor Islamist at heart, nor for that matter democratic (although they may wear any one of these hats as a matter of convenience) continue to service their own survival as their primary concern. Relieved from both national and Islamic constraints, they ignore public interest, flout national priorities, claim autocratic privilege, and resist democratic reform.

Why is it, might we ask, that so many of us have come to entertain apathy to either Uruba or Islam, or, equally often, to both? It is, I submit, mainly because we have come to misunderstand both. We misunderstand Uruba when we take it to be primarily defined by race. And we misunderstand Islam when we take it to be primarily defined by its rituals and rulings. Consequently, we also fail to see the mutuality thereof that has shaped the course and character of the Arab/Islamic civilization.


What is Uruba, after all? As it has evolved historically under Islam, Uruba is one of several national cultures that were augmented by the advent and spread of Islam. However, since Uruba was the culture that received and gave expression to the Islamic message at inception, it became and remains to this day distinctively the main repository of Islamic creed and thought. The Quran describes itself as Arabic where it appeals to reason, knowledge, and morality as requisites in the inquiry for truth. This is because the Arabs of the time, though cognizant of these values, ignored them; and remained mired in tribal strife and a corrupt lifestyle. Islam was to call upon the Arabs to reinstate these values in their life and rise to a culture that would transcend race.

Thus, the Uruba that Islam acknowledged and nurtured as the purveyor of its message to the world was cultural and rational; for an Uruba based upon race would have ill-fitted a universal Islam that appealed to reason, transcended race, rejected social stratification, and addressed itself to humanity at large. It was this cultural and rational character of Uruba, as compatible with Islam, that attracted people of other races and religions. As they entered Islam, or as they studied it, learning Arabic and reading the Quran, they fell in love with both. In due course, they became Arabized, in much the same way as people of various ethnographic backgrounds entering the American experience become Americanized over time. Consequently, many prominent scholars of non-Arab descent authored their intellectual product in Arabic, rather than in their own native tongues.

The first communication of the Quran was a call to read - Iqra' -and reading, indeed, was what the Muslims of the first six centuries of Islam took to with remarkable relish. On the one hand, they developed their own Quranic studies and philology; on the other, they probed all knowledge that humanity had achieved before them. They collected works of medicine, mathematics, geography, astronomy, physics, philosophy -virtually every field of knowledge upon which they could lay their hands- and translated them into Arabic, making the language an efficient and universal means of scientific and literary communication. They improved on the knowledge they received, and then pioneered some important studies in science and humanities themselves. They revered learning, and individuals of learning, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. By the third century of Higra, universities and research laboratories flourished across the Muslim world, in Asia, Africa, and Muslim Europe.

Who were these great seekers of knowledge, and what motivated them? They were people of various ethnographic backgrounds, come together under the universalism and rationalism of Islam. They sought all knowledge, not just religious knowledge. They were all members of an Islamic scientific community, which was indeed cosmopolitan in race, native tongue, and even religion. But they were all bound by a common view of the world and a common cultural language (Arabic) in which they held learned discourse and authored their books. And they were part of a common culture, Uruba, that, like Islam, indeed, because of Islam, saw no difference among people based upon racial descent. Notwithstanding the environment in which they lived and labored, which was despotic and often turbulent, the intellectual and moral thrust of Islam and the richness and versatility of the Arabic culture moved their souls and energized their pursuit of knowledge far beyond the social and political mores of their time.

They were mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicians, geographers, physicists, philosophers, historians, grammarians, poets, jurists: the likes of Al Farazi, Ibn Hayyan, Al Khawarizmi, Al Kindi, Al Mutanabbi, Ibn Younus, Al Battani, Al Razi, Al Farabi, Ibn Haitham, Ibn Sina, Al Bayruni, Ibn Rushd, Al Masoudi, Sibawaih, Al Farahidi, and thousands others of diverse disciplines and pursuits who rightly saw in Islam a liberating influence on the mind and the mind's God-given propensity ever to explore and seek to understand.

To them learning in itself was an act of religious significance. The Prophet had urged the seeking of knowledge wherever it was to be found. He had decreed it a duty of every Muslim, man and woman. And the Quran challenged: "Say: Are those equal: those who know and those who do not know?"; and: "Say: Are the blind equal with those who see, or the depth of darkness with light? And it declared that, "those who are blind in this world will be blind in the Hereafter, and most stray from the path".

To truly see, they were prompted to observe natural phenomena, look into themselves, and examine the record of the nations before them: that thereby they would better comprehend their universe, its laws, and themselves as individuals and community. Unverified knowledge was not sufficient as a basis for judgment or action; unfounded speculation could, indeed, be "sinful" sometimes. And in the Quran they read a glorification of knowledge, the like of which no book, earthly or celestial, had expounded before.

Persons of learning in that Golden Age of the Islamic Civilization were citizens of the entire Muslim world, which, in time, grew to comprise most of the civilized world. From China, Indonesia, and India, through Persia, Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, to Morocco and Spain, Islam, in the words of Will Durant, "touched the hearts and minds of a hundred peoples, governed their morals and molded their lives, gave them consoling hopes and a strengthening pride, until today it owns the passionate allegiance (of 1.1 billion) souls, and through all political divisions, makes them one". Through all this massive and diverse historical transformation, Uruba and Arabic, the culture and the language, remained the preeminent repository of Islam, its revelation, philosophy, literature, and science.

Our scholars were free and able to move within this vast area, using the same Arabic language, thus enriching it ever the more. Through their enterprise, Uruba and Islam, providing culture and thought, coalesced to accumulate a yet unprecedented wealth of recorded knowledge anywhere that was commonly generated and shared throughout the Muslim world. Generations of intellectuals followed in that integrative tradition, blurring the racial and accentuating the cultural, moral, and intellectual in the Islamic experience. Never was there a question about the compatibility of Uruba as culture and Islam as religion. Nor was there a challenge to the essential harmony between Islam and science.

Thus, historically, Uruba, like Islam, transcended race and national origin. People from all over the known world who came in contact with and lived the Arab cultural experience became Arabized over time. Uruba even transcended religion: Arabs of Christian, Jewish, and other faiths were never seen any less Arab, in culture or sentiment, than their Muslim fellow-Arabs. Islam, unchallenged, coexisted peaceably and cooperatively with the other faiths. Thus, to be an Arab then was not, and is not now, to assert a racial lineage or a religious affiliation. It was and is, rather, to affirm an historical identification with a great culture that received, lived, and conveyed to the world a great religion. The culture and the religion coalesced to offer mankind one of its greatest civilizations.


And what essentially is Islam? To begin with, Islam is not only a religion, as it is to the Muslims among us, but also a civilization, as it is to us Arabs, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. And it is not merely about rituals and rulings. Saying prayers, fasting, giving zakat, performing haj, and observing the haram and halal are indeed basic to the practice of Islam; yet, these disciplines are not ends in themselves. They are there, in essence, to help us cultivate rational faith and moral conduct, the two principal tenets of true religion, and the two universal requisites for fashioning a good and productive life.

To understand the essence of any religion, one ought to move beyond its symbolism and dogma, and examine its basic ideas. To understand Islam, one, obviously, must do no less. The fact that Islam offers an overview of reality and a prescription for good life, on both the personal and societal levels, makes it all the more relevant that its core ideas be well understood.

The Conceptual Framework

The Islamic perspective can be examined at three distinctive levels: the conceptual, the moral, and the practical. At the conceptual level, Islam is centered in the core concept of Tawhid, affirming God as One, Absolute, Ultimate, Eternal, Transcendent. No human category is applicable to God. The human intellect can conclude from pondering creation that God exists and that He is One. It can grasp only God's attributes, but is unable to fathom God's essence. God's attributes are intrinsic, not extraneous, to Him.

Tawhid, in the words of the late Ismail Faruqi, is Islam's "first determinant of reality, of truth, of the world, of space and time, of human history." It pervades and unifies all the various elements in Islamic thought. It embodies three major ideas: Unity, Freedom, and Rationalism.

From Unity flows the precept that God being One, all creation is one, governed by the selfsame laws of nature; His message is one, and humanity is one as well. No civilization can arise without unity. No culture can evolve to civilization unless the various elements constituting it -- political, economic, social, educational, moral -- coalesce in harmony and, as an integrated whole, produce coherent and progressive movement forward. Tawhid, as such, unifies, harmonizes, orders, and integrates all that is Islamic in a civilizational whole.

Freedom establishes the precept that man's ultimate allegiance is to none other than God; subservient to God, man is freed from subservience to any fellow human; hence, relationships between humans cannot be sound and mutually beneficial but on a free, consensual, and equitable basis. Man is free to think as he would, "believe or disbelieve". He is free to speak and act as he would, except where his speech or action would endanger others or infringe upon their freedom.

Rationalism cognizes human reason and empirical observation as the proper means for comprehending the universe. It rejects suppression of verified knowledge. It is open to new and or contrary evidence. It denies inherence of contradictions in nature. Where contradictions appear, final judgment should wait until a more thorough examination of the facts has resolved the contradiction and revealed the underlying harmony, which is the natural state of all that exists. By the same token, Tawhid Rationalism does not admit of contradiction between revelation and reason.

The second core concept in Islam is Nubuwwah, or Prophethood. Simply stated, it affirms the historical phenomenon that guidance for humankind, that is, the moral direction sustaining the human experience and moving it forward, has come from God, through Prophets, who were humans themselves. The defining difference between an ordinary human and a Prophet human is that truth is cognized in the Prophet's consciousness through divine revelation, in addition to observation, intuition, and reasoning, the faculties ordinarily shared by all humans. And yet, truth being essentially the same, it can be cognized at the human level however it is revealed or derived.

Prophets, as such, were humans who received revelation. Some of them were Messengers, too, meaning that they sensed the call to convey what was revealed to them to their communities as well. Prophets and Messengers belong to all humanity, for their wisdom is universal and rooted in the same divine source.

The third core concept in Islam is Ma'ad, or Return. It means returning after completing a cycle of life on earth. Ma'ad, as such, negates death as the end of an individual human's existence. What appears to be death is but a phenomenal event, indicating transformation. When faced with the inevitable, or when pondering mortality, Muslims often quote the Quran: "To God we belong; and to Him is our return".

The Moral Framework

Islam's moral framework comprises four cardinal principles that are deemed essential to the development of any healthy civic society.

The first is Justice. God being innately Just, Justice must be upheld in every human activity, public or private, big or small. Without Justice, no human transaction is essentially valid or beneficial. The accumulation of injustice leads to the disintegration of society. The perpetrators and victims of injustice both suffer as a result, the latter for failing to resist it collectively right at the start. With Justice, societies are helped to endure and prosper.

The second is Equality. Being equal before God, we simply cannot be unequal among ourselves. Discrimination by race, gender, color, or creed is rejected, and claims to autocratic power or privilege are held invalid. Equality at the basic human level translates to equality of opportunity and equality before the law. It does not as such preclude or ignore differences among individuals in terms of their achievements in life. In this latter regard, Islam recognizes distinction on the basis of knowledge, moral fortitude, and public service. It rejects distinction on the basis of racial lineage, material wealth, or political power.

The third principle is Human Dignity. All humanity is endowed with Dignity by God; therefore, human beings, as distinct from human actions, may not be condemned. One egregious way of violating Human Dignity is by suppressing freedom of thought and speech; another is by enforcing one's will on others. Despotic and autocratic patterns of governing that can show no verifiable evidence of popular consent constitute a violation of Human Dignity.

The fourth principle in the Islamic moral code is Shura, or consultative governance, which, declares the Quran, is the natural order in the community of the faithful. While Shura did not historically evolve in Islam as a democratic process, it, however, has never been denied or challenged as a constitutional ideal. In recent times, its authenticity has been strongly reasserted, and, in some cases, institutionalized, though in a yet inadequate fashion. Shura is also coming to be viewed increasingly as essentially consistent, in both equity and scope, with contemporary democratic systems.

In the Islamic perspective, all human rights and responsibilities - personal, familial, national, and international - ensue from and connect with these four principles of Justice, Equality, Human Dignity, and Shura.

The Value System

Lastly, at the practical level, we see in Islam a great emphasis on time tested values that are universal in their beneficial effect on humankind, regardless of time, place, race, culture or creed. Some such values emphasized in the Islamic perspective are knowledge, cooperation, prosperity, compassion, faith, integrity, physical as well as psychological health. These values are by no means exclusive to Islam; we consider them Islamic only in the sense that Islam, like all rational thought, has acknowledged and underscored them as essential to the survival and healthy development of humankind.

Thus, Islam is not merely rituals and ordinances, or a collection of things allowed and things forbidden; it is, beyond that, an overview of existence, a communion with the Transcendent, and a perspective on life and the human condition; it is in one coherent and comprehensive scheme of understanding a conceptual framework, a moral code, a system of values, and a set of disciplines meant to inculcate faith, train in ethical conduct, and encourage intellectual development.


Although this is a compressed and a rather cursory exposition of Uruba and Islam and their historic mutualism, it is offered to demonstrate that neither of these two primary constituents of our culture is a label we carry around lightly. I hope, notwithstanding its brevity, it has conveyed a sense of how Uruba and Islam interweave; how they lend depth to our identity; and how, as the twin givers of a great civilization, they anchor us in faith and morality, orient us to values, and encourage us to actively participate in humankind's quest for knowledge and good life. It is a civilization we can truly cherish as one of the greatest streams that have ever augmented the river of human progress. Yet, to appreciate it better, and thereby to present it more accurately to others, we need to understand it better ourselves, and to more faithfully demonstrate its wisdom and values in our own lives.

This is a great age for the global advancement of peace, morality, democracy, and knowledge. The experience of my stay in the United States over the past decade has made me sensitive to these great causes of our time. In my study of Islam, I have focused primarily on Islam's outlook on these four areas of universal significance. In my concern for the Arab nation, I have thought long and hard about how to initiate progress in these vital spheres of human achievement. I find nothing in Islam that is averse or indifferent to peace, morality, democracy or knowledge. To the contrary, every notion in the Islamic perspective argues for earnest endeavor to make our societies more peaceful, ethical, democratic, and literate. I find nothing in the culture of Uruba that is inhospitable to these objectives. To the contrary, every impulse therein cries for progress. Indeed, nothing could be more antithetical to the essence and thrust of Islam and Uruba than political and social mores, perpetrated from within or without, that defy morality and impede peace, democracy, and knowledge.

Concluding Comment: The Contemporary Arab Experience

What in contemporary Arab life I find, unfortunately, is a rather pervasive misconception of Uruba and Islam, and a lack of appreciation for both. Although Islam was once, and could offer again, a significant indigenous force in the revival of the Arab nation, its potential is dismissed and its immense moral and intellectual equity reduced to mere rituals and rulings. Although Uruba was once the culture that synthesized and enhanced the Arab experience, and could again integrate and energize the Arab national life, it, too, is dismissed as an impractical notion, or, worse still, as one that would further divide, rather than unite, the Arab people. It is as if with Islam and Uruba both relegated to insignificance, as they are at present, the Arab national experience is thriving at its best.

I can understand when adversaries argue negatively against Uruba and Islam, but to find the Arab nation herself partake of that negativism shakes my confidence in her ability to reform. To see her devalue her own formative elements, discount her own vital assets, and refuse to transcend the legacy of partition and arbitrary governance, with which European colonialism shackled her, makes me fearful lest she may forever have lost her moorings, purpose, and compass. Seeing her thus misled and rendered impotent, I fear for her drifting in time and circumstance, heading perilously toward historical irrelevancy and atrophy.

Thus I find the Arab nation at this juncture to be oblivious to her own needs and indifferent to her own destiny. I find her mired in division, deficient in democracy, and lacking in progress and peace: withering away while nations worldwide, many with far less resources, are actively seeking strength and prosperity through democratic reform, science and industry, and national cohesion. And I find Islam, with its moral imperative effectively decoupled from the practice of governance in the Arab states, compromised in essence, and rendered irrelevant to the Arab national life.

One day, I hope, the Arabs will unite, and Islamic morality and ethics will be rehabilitated in the Arab national perspective. However, what we as Arab Americans, moved by our deep sentiment toward the old motherland, can contribute to bring that day closer is something that deserves our earnest consideration. There is a sense in which a debt is waiting to be repaid, an obligation pending to be met, on our part, in terms of helping the cause of reform and progress in the societies we have left behind. Yet, here in America, meanwhile, we have more immediate responsibilities to meet, as our lives unfold: taking care of our families, making an honest living, and maintaining ourselves at all times as good and engaged citizens. Whether the day of a new Arab renaissance will ever dawn or not, here we must keep faith, fulfill our obligations, and make the best positive contribution we can to this great American experience that we have come to share. Here our challenge is not racial or religious, but intellectual and moral. Not by accentuating our separateness or arguing our theology, but by civic engagement and rational exposition of the ideas and ideals we bring from our Arab/Islamic heritage would we win the appreciation of fair minds and hearts.

These ideas and ideals are of universal relevance. They commit us, first and foremost, to the integrity and well-being of these great United States, which is our home; they commit us as Arab Americans to the integrity and welfare of the Arab homeland, which was our home; and they commit us at the level of human fellowship to the integrity and welfare of all humankind. Here, as citizens of these United States, in all these fields of endeavor lies our opportunity and challenge to excel and serve. And here, in the final analysis, it will be the true merit of what we represent, individually and collectively, in thought and action, in character and commitment, that will shape our real image with the others. And an image thus shaped will not fail to impress and endear.

Mr. Sulaiman is a former Ambassador of Oman to the United States. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. He delivered a speech about the subject in this article at a general meeting of the Baltimore Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee on January 24, 1997.

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