What is Islam? Is it a religion, a race, or an ethnic group? Or is it some combination of all three? Is it perhaps similar to Judaism, a religion consisting of members who are all of the same ethnic group: Jews? When examining the perspectives of everyday Muslims, there isn’t just one view.
When these questions were posed to a local shaykh, Shaykh Mustafa Umar, he responded, “I have always viewed Islam as a religion and find it difficult to understand how it can become an ethnic group/race.” He went on to write in an e-mail, “Given the fact that the Prophet Muhammad clearly stated that this religion is not just for Arabs, and that 80% of the world’s Muslim population is non-Arab, I find this concept of Islam being defined as an ethnic group disturbing.”
Still, there is a perspective out in the public sphere that Islam is an ethnic religion with followers who are all part of an ethnic group (similar to a race of people). For instance, in the Netflix show “Chelsea Does,” comedian Chelsea Handler included a representative from CAIR in the episode entitled “Chelsea Does Racism.” The CAIR representative was just one of many representatives she met with during a table discussion about the representation of different racial groups in the media. What made his presence so unusual is that CAIR stands for Council on American Islamic Relations. Everyone else was representing organizations catering to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or American Indians. There was one representative from the Anti-Defamation League, which historically fights for the protection of Jews from defamation. But Jews are an ethnic group, so that is similar to being a member of a certain race. Was CAIR actually trying to compare itself to organizations that represent certain races or ethnic groups? That’s what it looked like on the show.
If the stance of CAIR is that Islam is like a race or an ethnic group, then they are not alone in their thinking. In Dec. 2015, CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria wrote an article about his identification as a non-religious Muslim. It is entitled “As an American Muslim, Trump’s Views Outrage Me.” He views Islam as a religion that he was born into, but it isn’t one that he practices or believes in. He describes his personal beliefs as being “somewhere between deism and agnosticism.” Yet he still sees himself as a Muslim, because he was born into a family of Muslims. This is despite the fact that he wrote, “I am completely secular in my outlook.” In this view, Islam is portrayed as an ethnic religion. Muslims are an ethnic group with a common religion (belief in it is optional).
Zakaria isn’t the first or last person to perceive Islam as something other than a faith-based religion. In taking a look at certain websites for Muslim organizations on two campuses in the University of California system, there is an interesting divide. The organizations at one are virtually all listed as simply religious, while the other campus has two of three Muslims organizations listed as both religious and ethnic organizations. Here is a list of Muslim organizations from UCLA and UCI identifying how each organization was categorized by its members.
Religious or Religious and Spiritual
- Ahmadiyya Muslim Student Association: UCI
- Alkalima: UCI
- Muslim Student Union: UCI
- Muslim Law Student Association: UCLA
Religious and Cultural/Ethnic
- Muslim Union: UCLA
- Muslim Student Association: UCLA
It is interesting to note that only one Muslim organization at UCLA, Muslim Law Student Association, chose not to identify itself as a cultural/ethnic organization. The only other category they chose to list themselves under is “Law” (for obvious reasons). The Muslim Student Association also listed itself in the “Community Service” category, and the Muslim Union also listed itself under the “Educational” category.
At UCI, there were zero Muslim organizations that chose to identify themselves as cultural or ethnic. There is one organization at UCI, Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament (MIST), that doesn’t identify itself as religious, ethnic, or cultural. They listed themselves under the category “Hobbies and Interests.”
Shaykh Osman Umarji wrote the following in response to Shaykh Mustafa’s statement that he doesn’t consider Islam to be an ethnicity or a race:
“I 100% agree with Mustafa. There is nothing ethnic or racial about Islam. Additionally, the fact that culture itself partially shapes Islamic law and practice (as long as it does not contradict clear verses/narration), shows that Islam cannot be considered an ethnicity or race, but rather it is shaped by a variety of cultural, racial, and ethnic differences. This is what makes it so universal, where everyone can own Islam, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”