Against The Grain: On imitation and Muslim xenophobia

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 26, 2018 - March 04, 2018.
-A +A

Muslim revival or resurgence or reform, as it is variously known, is not peculiar to the modern period. The idea of reform in Muslim societies dates back to pre-modern times. In a broad sense, we may define Muslim revival as a social and intellectual movement that seeks to correct what is perceived as wrong or lacking in the social, economic, political and cultural life of Muslims.

Some of these revival movements and the ideologies behind them have been regarded as extremist by Muslims themselves. They were regarded as outliers, or what the early Muslims referred to as the ghulat, the adjectival form of ghuluww, often translated as zealotry. The term refers in classical Muslim sources to minority Muslim groups that exaggerate in matters of belief or doctrine. An example would be those who deify the Prophet Muhammad or a member of his family such as Sayyidina Ali.

Another term is hashwiyyah, a reference to “vulgar anthropomorphism” because of the way in which basic beliefs were deformed in the tendency to compare and reduce God to created things. These are theological dimensions of extremism. There are also the social dimensions of extremism that have implications for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, or among Muslims who belong to different sects or schools of thought.

An example is the view peddled by some Muslims that would have us believe that it is wrong for non-Muslims to carry out their religious celebrations if these are in the full view of Muslims. The fear expressed by some quarters among Muslims is that Muslims may imitate the acts of unbelievers and that such imitation may damage their faith.

This view is seen to be supported by a saying of Prophet Muhammad that “whoever imitates a people is one of them”. Muslims should not imitate unbelievers in terms of their customs for fear of becoming an unbeliever or weakening their faith. For some Muslims, the prohibition on imitation of unbelievers extends to the celebration of birthdays, including the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and the shaving of the beard. Such a view is indeed extremely damaging to inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations and also reflects an irrational mind. The logical consequences of such a view include the banning of public religious celebrations of non-Muslims in a Muslim state.

Does the Prophet’s statement “whoever imitates a people is one of them” imply intolerance toward the religious festivities of non-Muslims? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the proper context in which this statement has meaning. First of all, the statement applies to Muslims who live in a state of inferiority and who wish to imitate the culture and ways of those whom they regard as superior. This would, for example, apply to some who live in underdeveloped countries and uncritically imitate the ideas and lifestyle of the more “civilised” West.

In the intellectual arena, this is known as the phenomenon of mental captivity, a problem discussed and elaborated on by the late Syed Hussein Alatas. Mental captivity refers to a way of thinking that is dominated by Western thought in an imitative and uncritical manner. Uncritical imitation takes place at the different levels of scientific intellectual activity, affecting problem selection, analysis, conceptualisation, description, explanation and interpretation.

Among the characteristics of the captive mind are the inability to be creative and raise original problems, and being cut off from the main issues of society. The captive mind is trained almost entirely in the Western sciences, reads the works of Western authors and is taught predominantly by Western teachers, whether in the West itself or through their works available in local centres of education. Mental captivity is also found in the suggestion of solutions and policies.

The captive mind also wreaks havoc on development. In Mecca, for example, many historical sites in have been demolished to the extent that some of the prophetic legacy is disappearing. The homes of the Prophet’s wife, grandson and one of his companions have been demolished. Other historical sites have been replaced with skyscraper hotels.

Here, we see the imitation of modern urban development and capitalism. This happens in many countries of the Third World, including the Muslim world.

Clearly, therefore, imitation can be a bad thing. But that imitation may have negative consequences should not be a rationale for infringing on the rights of other religions or disrespecting their traditions. The reason to avoid imitation is when it is uncritical and it brings negative consequences to a community.

In many other cases, imitation is harmless. To suggest otherwise would result in ridiculous conclusions and xenophobia or an unreasonable fear of things non-Muslim. Muslims watching Christmas celebrations or Hindu rituals, for example, are not likely to imitate these practices and lose their faith. To say that they would lose their faith as a result of such exposure is to suggest that the faith of these Muslims is precarious to begin with. This, however, is not the reality.

What is dangerous is the attitude that the faith can be protected by prohibitions and restrictions on the practices of non-Muslims. It is not only contrary to the spirit of Islam, it will also gradually infringe upon the rights of Muslims themselves. If prevention of the imitation of non-believers is the goal, where does it stop? Will it be extended to shaving the beard, the use of the suit and tie and attending a Chinese New Year dinner? We must be on guard against the backward and intrusive mind.


Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore

Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.