There is more than one way to be a Muslim

Nathalie E. Amazan
Interfaith Now
Published in
4 min readJan 23, 2023

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“These students, like many religious people, do not know about some aspects of their own tradition…”[1]
- Professor Mark Berkson at Hamline University

Author’s Photo.

The initial condemnation and lasting termination of Professor Erika López Prater from Hamline University for showing her art history class medieval paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) exemplifies the dangers of allowing one strand of a religious tradition supersede the living history of others.

In every religious tradition and especially in Islam, there are differences in how Believers practice their faith which varies based on phenomena such as culture, time period, or simply personal preference. To allow a particular set of beliefs to dictate the bounds of acceptability ignores the diversity inherent in Muslims and makes what should be a simple relationship with one’s Creator unnecessarily and harmfully rigid.

As a queer Muslim woman, I am interested in queering religion, that is challenging the authority on which religionists, particularly Muslims, claim certain ideas or practices to be Islamic/unIslamic. The Qur’an, the foundation and supreme authority on Islam, states that Islam is the belief and devotion to One God while a Muslim is one who submits to the will of God in their life [2].

Beliefs that fall outside the bounds of this clear and simple understanding of Islam and Muslims should be evaluated by individual Muslims to incorporate what will be most helpful for our spiritual journeys. The fact that a majority or a powerful sect of Muslims believe or declare something as Islamic/unIslamic does not make it a necessary belief for every Muslim.

The religion of Islam has historically been a religion of converts who bring our own cultures, languages, and ideas to the faith while spiritually nourishing ourselves and others along the way. With this understanding, what has been understood as Islamic/unIslamic has changed throughout history and continues to evolve.

There are as many ways to be a Muslim as there are Muslims (billions). If we accept that there is only one valid school of thought that decides what a Muslim is, does, or believes in, we lose the essence of what it means to be a Believer, that is to cultivate a personal relationship with God rooted in mindfulness, faith, and love.

There have been and continue to be Muslims who do not believe that artistic representations of the Prophet (pbuh) is forbidden just as there are Muslims who do not believe listening to music or praying with nail polish is forbidden. The plethora of opinions that exist within Islamic traditions highlights both the tolerance that is foundational to the faith as understood through the Qur’an and the diversity of thought with which we are blessed to hold.

Extra-Qur’anic beliefs widely stem from hadith sources- i.e. alleged sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and classical scholarly interpretations of both the Qur’an and Hadith. The authority given to Hadith varies across Muslim communities with some Muslims viewing Hadith with little or no authority for their own practices. Classical scholarship like Hadith are another important foundation of Islamic traditions. The revered, primarily male, classical scholars who have interpreted the Qur’an inevitably however inserted their own biases while reflecting societal standards of their time. Thus, the over reliance on these scholars’ interpretations can create a rigid culture of neglecting our contemporary duties to both critically evaluate classical interpretations and to interpret the Qur’an for ourselves living in the 21st century.

There must be a reckoning within Muslim communities that the authority that is given or taken by leaders who have cemented certain views in the Muslim psyche do not encapsulate the truth of our faith or what should hold us together as a community.

If we settle with ignoring the fact there are vastly different valid worldviews among Muslims, we will reject the spiritual knowledge and growth that can come with getting to know the breadth of diversity that God has ordained within Creation. It can also lead us to accept something as harmful as vilifying a vulnerable adjunct art history professor for showcasing a manifestation of the beautiful history of Muslim traditions.

[1] Yonat Shimron, An image of the Prophet Muhammad ignites an academic storm, Jan. 3, 2023, available at https://religionnews.com/2023/01/03/an-image-of-the-prophet-muhammad-ignites-an-academic-storm/

[2] The Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqara (2:128); Surah Al-Imran (3:19); Surah Al-Hajj (22:78). See also, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, Islam Means Being “Muslim,” 2020, available at https://hwpi.harvard.edu/files/pluralism/files/islam_means_being_22muslim22_1.pdf

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