The Problem of a Single Muslim Narrative

21st June 2019

The famed Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, delivered an insightful TED talk in 2009: “The Danger of Single Story.” In summary, she articulates the manner in which humans, our stories and lived realities are composed of many layers and overlapping stories which shape both us as individuals and the communities in which we reside. However, if we only share one single story about another person, country, group or religion, we risk a critical misunderstanding of the diverse component experiences, both as individuals and as a collective.

In the African context, which Adiche understands well, Africans are too often reduced to a caricature: lives spent in poverty, stricken with disease and famine and begging for assistance from the wider developing world.  Similarly, the broader Muslim world and in particular, Muslim minority communities in the West, are often understood through the prism of a simplistic single narrative. That perspective is often articulated and advanced by those who claim to represent specific nation-states and ideological interpretations within Islam. At present, the idea of a single Muslim narrative is amplified in a manner that particularly pronounced. It is fed, in part, by the intra and inter Muslim reaction to a widespread and vocal anti-Muslim sentiment.

We are therefore faced with an increasingly complex and urgent challenge: the need to understand the diversity of the Muslim narrative. By way of illustration: for those who live in the broader Arab world, the most pressing issues include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the challenge of the massive refugee influx in the immediate aftermath of the fall of ISIS. However, for Muslims living in Sub Saharan Africa, the current Sudan crisis and transnational terrorist movements including Boko Haram and Al Shabaab represent the most pressing issues. It is important to realise that these populations will have differing priorities and will therefore focus on different concerns which reflect their local circumstances.

Cemil Aydin’s 2017 work, “The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History”  addresses in a similar manner the struggle to identify a single Muslim narrative. Aydin notes that discord, internal in-fighting and the conduct of certain self-identified Muslim states, rulers and movements – few of them with democratic legitimacy – have resulted in some of the century’s most significant challenges to any common vision of true Muslim unity. As Chandler Barton, a reviewer of Aydin’s work, puts it:

After all, never in human history has such a hegemonic unity ever existed that the totality of individuals identifying with one particular religion (or any other identifier for that matter) acted or thought in complete solidarity, especially when we are talking about millions or even billions—1.8 to be exact in modern figures—of individuals claiming to be Muslim. 

It is the diversity of opinion, both within specific Muslim communities and the Muslim community at-large, and the perspectives of both the mainstream and minority interpretive traditions within Islamic jurisprudence, that represents the key to challenging the idea that there is a “single Muslim narrative”. In particular, we should note that there is now a significant gap between the perspectives of members of Muslim communities within and outside the West on such issues as human rights, women’s rights and same sex marriage equality. The Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas found that the vast majority of American Muslims backed same sex marriage for the first time in 2017. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the approach to these issues of the religious establishment, dominated as it is by conservative clerics, is very different.

Accordingly, for Muslims living in majority Muslim nations and those living in the West as minorities, it is important to recognise, celebrate and share the many stories, narratives and experiences which together make up the Muslim story. In my home country of America, it is increasingly clear that no single demographic group, ideological interpretation or community represents a single Muslim narrative. We must remember that, as with the broader American community,  it is diversity of thought within the Muslim community that makes us strong. By doing so, we will be well placed to meet the new challenges presented by modernity.

By highlighting these varying viewpoints, and both by sharing them and by learning from each other, we will play our part in encouraging and creating resilient populations throughout the world.