Sorry, I haven’t gotten the time to write about why I think “Islam is defined by Muslims.” I have several unfinished posts on the topic lying among my drafts, but they will have to wait when I am less busy. For now, here is a related post about the necessity or otherwise of defining a Muslim by Arafat.
[T]here were three main strains of argument: 1) It is necessary to define a Muslim (preferably through a broad definition with minimal conditions) if at least for the sake of inclusion and preventing takfir. 2) It is necessary to define a Muslim, because people derive identity through membership in communities, and if Muslims form a community (ummah, local and/or global), it must naturally be defined (It seemed to me that this line of argument had certain communitarian tendencies […]). The proponent of this position insisted further that a definition “too broad” is problematic. 3) The third position, in opposition to the first two, was that this debate is practically useless, and likely even harmful: the effort to define necessarily excludes, and that is bad — not only because of the anti-takfir principle (you cannot judge another person’s Muslimness, since God alone decides), but also because we need to be open and welcoming towards everyone. The proponent of this position also maintains, that yes of course, there are normative criteria that make a Muslim, and which for instance we’ll teach our kids, but for the community to practically apply these is harmful and intolerant.
Do read Arafat’s post as he has a bunch of thoughts on this topic.
He also mentions the Murjiite school of thought in early Islam.
[Murji’ites] advocated the idea of “delayed judgement”. Only God can judge who is a true Muslim and who is not, and no one else can judge another as an infidel. Therefore, all Muslims should consider all other Muslims as true and faithfull believers, and look to Allah to judge everyone during the last judgment.
The opposite approach was taken by Kharijites, the original radical fundamentalists, who preferred a very strict and narrow definition of a Muslim and declare jihad against anyone they considered not to be a Muslim (i.e. anyone who committed a grave sin and they included almost everyone in that category).
While I think that we have to define Muslim as anyone who considers himself (or herself) one, there are a few caveats:
- This acceptance might or might not mean that the person is a Muslim in the eyes of God. So I am taking the Murjite position here by delaying judgment and staying away from takfir.
- On the other hand, the Murjite position and the reaction to the Kharijite violence resulted in giving a pass to the Umayyads as the Murjites (and the Muslim community in general) acquiesced to Umayyad rule. This position of accepting even unjust rulers has survived in some traditional schools of jurisprudence. While I understand the reasons why this arose as a result of civil wars and disturbances, I have to part company with the Murjites and hold the rulers responsible for their injustice. I would still delay judgment on their faith. However, I would hold them accountable for their deeds as rulers. This is probably a secular concept
There is also the issue of determinism as related to Murjite thought but that is a topic for another day.