A shorter, edited version of this article was published in The Independent online on Saturday 16th April 2016
“O ye who believe… say not to anyone who greets you with the greeting of peace, ‘Thou art not a believer.’” (Qur’an 4: 95)
Have you ever identified yourself as something, lived and breathed it all your life, and then told you’re not really what you believe yourself to be?
I’ve always called myself a Muslim, but last week the Muslim Council of Britain made a statement about me, saying I was excluded from the family of Islam.
What’s my offence – am I neglecting my prayers, or not eating halal meat?
Let me first tell you how I came into my faith and practice it today, and then judge for yourself.
My name, Waqar, is an Arabic word meaning ‘dignity’, given to me in honour of its mention in the Qur’an (71: 14). I am a descendant of Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam. Growing up, I remember my parents doing lots of Muslim things both in and outside the house – saying ‘assalamu alaikum’ whenever returning home, answering the phone or meeting someone; my mother wearing her headscarf whenever she stepped out; teaching me the Qur’an, how to perform ablution, the words and postures in salah (prayer), reciting ‘bismillah’ before meals, and saying ‘alhamdulillah’ in gratitude afterwards.
As a young boy, I regularly went to the mosque, and often made the call to prayer. I loved attending religious classes and was addicted to reading about Islam, especially the life of the Prophet Muhammad. From an early age, I got used to attending Friday prayers.
I was a secondary student when my father wrote a response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and other books that vilified the Prophet. This inspired me to write about my faith too, and defend the Prophet’s honour whenever and wherever he was insulted.
Soon after graduating, I got married to my wife, who has always proudly worn the hijab. We have three beautiful children – the eldest is our daughter whose name derives from the Qur’an’s first chapter, followed by two boys, both named after Prophets also mentioned in the sacred text. As per Islamic custom, we recited the words of the adhan (call to prayer) into their right ears when they were born, and also held aqiqah ceremonies for them, where the meat we ate and distributed was halal, as is the food we consume today.
We have continued the same tradition as our parents in the raising of our own kids – teaching them Islamic etiquettes, learning the Qur’an, and going to the mosque. My eldest son has already decided that he wants to become an imam!
All my life, I have believed in the five pillars and six articles of faith. I never miss salah, and also try to rise for tahajjud, a voluntary night prayer which the Qur’an says is granted special acceptance. I observe fasts during Ramadan, believe in paying zakah and have always dreamed of going to Makkah for hajj.
I respect all divinely revealed scriptures, revere the long line of Allah’s Messengers, and regard Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets.
Furthermore, my community requires me to make the Qur’an and hadith my guiding principles, to invoke blessings on the Prophet, and to put Islam above everyone and everything. Whenever I leave the house, I wear a ring with the inscription ‘Is Allah not sufficient for His servant?’
But does any of this make me a Muslim?
This Arabic word literally means ‘one who submits to God’, but also one devoted to peace. All Muslims are required to say the shahadah: ‘I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His servant and Messenger.’ The Prophet taught that “a Muslim is one from whose hands and tongue other Muslims are safe” (Sahih Bukhari), and also said, “Whoever prays like us and faces our qiblah (Makkah) and eats our slaughtered animals is a Muslim, and has the same rights as other Muslims” (Sahih Bukhari).
I tick every one of those boxes.
However, while I fulfil all the descriptions of a Muslim given by Allah and the Prophet, the MCB still won’t recognise me as one. This is for my belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, as Islam’s Messiah and Mahdi – a Muslim Prophet that Muhammad himself said would appear after him. And because other Muslims will not accept any more Messengers, they have declared me and fellow Ahmadiyya Muslims as non-believers.
Unfortunately for the MCB, their own criterion for who is and isn’t a Muslim has no basis in the primary Islamic sources. It is also inconsistent with the belief of the majority of Muslims, including their own affiliates, that Jesus – a Prophet – will come again in future.
Why should this even matter to an outsider? The MCB has for long been a credible organisation, representing several mosques and Islamic groups, and done a lot of valuable work on behalf of Muslim communities across the UK. But their recent statement has wider, and potentially dangerous, implications for us all.
When Muslims start playing God in this way, religious prejudice, bigotry and hate will inevitably rise – including here in Britain. The MCB claims to be committed to “pluralism, peaceful coexistence and extend a hand of friendship and cooperation for the common good of all”, but seems to have a different rule when it comes to Ahmadiyya Muslims. They appear content to regard the murderer of Asad Shah as one of their co-religionists, but not those who live by the motto ‘love for all, hatred for none.’
Whatever the theological differences, no individual or institution has any authority to dictate what anyone else can and cannot call themselves. My faith is a matter between me and my Maker. Freedom of belief and the right to self-determination are among the cornerstones of any progressive society. The Prophet Muhammad certainly stood up for those rights – one hopes bodies like the MCB does too.