I did not doubt any of the books I read. They were written by pious believing scholars. I also rarely doubted any of the hadiths, even those absurd hadiths that mentioned prophetic medicine were considered weak hadith (israeliyat)! I was proud of my religion and put the time and effort to improve upon my Islamic knowledge. I was also happy that my understanding of Islam basic tenets gives me the ability to understand their applications in everyday life.
I was not bothered by extremists/fundamentalists. They were always around and I saw them as a group of people who chose to take the Qur’an and hadith literally. They mostly did not have a strong capacity for abstract or analytical thinking. I considered them as schoolmates who flunked math because they did not get the abstract notions behind mathematical theories. In my view at the time, they were an annoying group, but harmless. This went on until 9/11 and until these extremists started to show up at my local Masjid forcing their opinions on everyone and pushing those who do not adhere to their vision aside, sometimes violently.
I shared my views on Islam with my kids. They asked a ton of questions and did not settle for any answer that did not satisfy their intuitive logic. Questions like: why are we Muslims, not Christians or atheists? How come men play a stronger role in Islam than women? Why there are no prophetesses or female imams? Why do we pray? Does God need our prayers? Why do women have to cover their heads? Why don’t men? The outdated segregation of men and women didn’t make sense to them. We spent endless hours in discussions that only proved the validity and importance of many of their questions.
Events at the Masjid and persistent questions from my kids pushed me back and forced me to open my trove of Islamic knowledge. I started to search for what I had been missing. It didn’t take me long to figure out that all of what I based my Islamic knowledge upon came from a homogeneous source that depends only on a few primary texts that were basically repeated from one generation to the next. I lacked the search tools and analytical methodology that would allow me to understand what went wrong. I needed additional information!
I went back and expanded my reading horizons to include non-mainstream Islamic writers and scholars of Islam teaching at universities around the world. I quickly came to realize that all of what I learned was just one version of Islam and that Islam was not as homogeneous or as well documented as I was made to believe. I learned that the first document on the history of Islam (sira) was that of Ibn Ishaq written 80 years after the death of Muhammad (Sirat Ibn Ishaq). And even this work was purged of many of its inconsistencies by Ibn Hisham (Sirat Ibn Hisham) a few decades later. I learned that there are 12 different hadiths documenting the event of Muhammad receiving his first message from Gibril, each with a different story ranging from it being a dream to a true physical encounter with the Angel. I learned that what I considered as truth was just one version or variant of a story. I learned that all of these versions have one thing in common, they are historically weak.
This knowledge left me feeling confused and betrayed. How come I did not seek, read and expound on this information before? It seems that the knowledge of these variants in the primary sources and the lack of certainty in the sira are not new. This body of knowledge has always been controversial or contested. So why do scholars insist on writing and detailing only one version of the story as if it were the absolute uncontested truth?
Although we know more about Islam than we do about other religions, our knowledge is still very limited. For example, little is documented about Muhammad before he started preaching his message and during the whole Meccan period. The history preserved in Sirat Ibn Ishaq mostly relates to the Medina period and thereafter. In addition, the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty had a superficial attachment to Islam and seemed to have felt hatred for most of the Prophet's companions. They also killed serious Muslim scholars and employed puppet figures to falsify hadiths or prophetic traditions to justify their needs and political reign. In my view the only primary source that has historical legitimacy is the Qur'an. Other source such as the hadith or Sira have no legitimacy. I finally came to the conclusion that what we have today from Islamic history and hadith has little to do with what happened during Muhammad’s time and there is no possible approach or procedure than can resolve this issue.
This is where Muslimish comes in:
There is a clear need for Muslims of all persuasions to come together and start a movement that probes the limits of our historic knowledge, that casts this level of certainty into doubt and that redefines what it means to be a Muslim in globalized world in the 21st century. It is no longer feasible for Muslims to bury their heads in the sands of 6th century Arabia. We need to open a universal dialogue and ask as many critical questions as we can to help bring a positive change from inside Islam before it is too late!