The question addressed in this article is central to our understanding of ourselves and Muslims. It is the first in a series taken from the On Demand Course: Who Am I? Understanding Muslim Identity in Light of the Prophet’s Way.
Majnoon was madly in love with Layla. It was ascribed to him that he said: “I was called a mad one from the deep pains of my passion and I began to be used as an example in her neighborhood.” What was his identity? He loved Layla. That is how he defined himself.
What defines our identity? Is it our occupation? Our actions? The heritage of our parents? What do we value? The soccer team we support? What we are most engaged in? Our environment? How do we behave? What do we think? Our emotions?
Conceptually, you could identify yourself with any aspect related to you or associated with you. Conceptually, you can identify with anything.
Therefore, what is your identity? That is the question that religion asks. Who are you? Not in terms of how you perceive yourself, but who you really are.
Imagine waking up on a train where there is much to do with all kinds of carriages. There may be many others on the train, all involved in their interests. If asked about identity, any one of them may answer in light of their immediate engrossment.
But, if one of them was to step away, look back and consider, “Who are those people?” the answer may differ.
The first question when talking about identity is, “How are you?” A tricky question.
One of the great scholars of Islam, Abu Talib al-Makki remarked that a lot of the early Muslims did not like the question “How are you?” Because it lacked trueness.
Normally when a person asks another how they are, is it because they really want to know or is it simply a placeholder? As for the answer that follows, such as, “I am fine”, is it s true reflection of the person’s state? It may well not be.
The question, “How are you?” is either momentary (“How are you right now?) or the real question: “How did you come to be?”
Back to Basics
Your identity begins with, “How are you?” Meaning, “How do you exist?” That is where we begin. How do we perceive reality?
The Necessary Being
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
كَانَ اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ شَىْءٌ غَيْرُهُ
“Allah was and there was nothing besides Him” [Bukhari]
We only have granted reality. The fact that we are created means that there is a Creator. Only Allah necessarily exists. Anything else is merely possible existence.
Possible existence cannot exist by itself. How are you? It is by Allah. The question before, “Who am I?” is, “How am I?” We exist because Allah brought us into existence.
How does creation exist? It only comes into existence because Allah, the Necessary Being, the Creator, brings it into existence. But then, why does creation stay there? Because Allah sustains it at every moment. That is its reality.
Our belief without a doubt is that Allah creates things, and He is sustaining them at every moment.
Were it not for Allah sustaining everything at every moment, they would cease to be.
The greatest verse in the Quran is Ayat Al-Kursi because it tells us who Allah is. He is the All-Sustaining (Al-Qayyum). He is The Living (Al-Hayy). He is the Grantor of all life. He is the One who needs none to sustain Him and who is sustaining everything in every way.
The answer to the question of identity is that everything is Allah’s.
إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّاۤ إِلَیۡهِ رَ ٰجِعُونَ. Death is a reminder. إِنَّا لِلَّهِ. We are Allah’s. We are Allah’s because He created us. We are Allah’s because He is sustaining us.
وَإِنَّاۤ إِلَیۡهِ رَ ٰجِعُونَ. To Him are we returning.
When are we returning to Allah? We are returning to Allah at every moment. We do not possess anything. Our existence is granted by Allah. He sustains it at every moment.
At no moment are we independent of Allah. This is a central realization of who we are.
Allah tells us who we are in one of my favorite verses of the Quran. Who are you? Allah gives us a definition:
یَـٰۤأَیُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ أَنتُمُ ٱلۡفُقَرَاۤءُ إِلَى ٱللَّهِۖ وَٱللَّهُ هُوَ ٱلۡغَنِیُّ ٱلۡحَمِیدُ
“O mankind: it is you who are in utter need of Allah, and Allah is the Far Exalted above Need for Any, the All-laudable of bounty.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 35:15]
This is a definitional statement. What defines you? You are the ones in absolute need of Allah.
Your most fundamental reality at any moment is that you are in a state of absolute need of Allah.
Allah tells us in the Quran,
وَمَا قَدَرُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ حَقَّ قَدۡرِهِۦۤ
“And they reckoned not Allah His awesome due” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 6:91]
When do we normally think about needing Allah? When going through hardship.
We think of neediness to Allah as being accidental but as one of the great scholars put it, “Your neediness to Allah is an intrinsic attribute of you, it defines who you are and an intrinsic attribute never leaves what it’s an attribute of.”
You are always in need of Allah. You need Allah for everything. You need Him for your very existence itself. There are two blessings from Allah that all contingent existence is never bereft of: being brought into existence and being sustained at every moment.
Allah knows everything. One should never think that one is reminding Allah of anything. Allah says:
أَلَا یَعۡلَمُ مَنۡ خَلَقَ وَهُوَ ٱللَّطِیفُ ٱلۡخَبِیرُ
“Could He who has created not know; When He is the All-subtly Penetrating. The All aware?” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 67:14]
Supplication to Allah is the expression of neediness. It is expressed through our asking of needs. The asking is not just a list of demands.
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) reportedly said:
الدعاء مخ العبادة
“Dua is the essence of worship” [Tirmidhi]
In worship, we humble ourselves and express our neediness to Allah. That is what worship expresses. Prayer at its heart expresses neediness to Allah and supplication expresses that meaning. That is why Dua is so meritorious.
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked:
يا حَـيُّ يا قَيّـومُ بِـرَحْمَـتِكِ أَسْتَـغـيث أَصْلِـحْ لي شَـأْنـي كُلَّـه وَلا تَكِلـني إِلى نَفْـسي طَـرْفَةَ عَـين
“O All-Living, O All-Sustaining in your mercy do I seek urgent aid, don’t leave me to my own self for the blinking of an eye”
إِیَّاكَ نَعۡبُدُ وَإِیَّاكَ نَسۡتَعِینُ
“You alone we humbly adore and in You alone we seek help.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 1:5]
Worship is expressing complete submission and complete neediness to the One worshipped. The early Muslims referred to worship as the sustenance of our souls.
It is Allah alone we rely upon. We possess nothing for ourselves, in absolute terms. In relative terms, we express that certain items are “mine.” But, to understand what is relatively true, we have to begin with what is absolutely true.
The path of good return is outlined throughout the Quran. Allah says:
لَّقَدۡ كَانَ لَكُمۡ فِی رَسُولِ ٱللَّهِ أُسۡوَةٌ حَسَنَة لِّمَن كَانَ یَرۡجُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱلۡیَوۡمَ ٱلۡـَٔاخِرَ وَذَكَرَ ٱللَّهَ كَثِیرا
“Verily you have in the Messenger of Allah a splendid example for whoever hopes in Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 33:21]
This is the second aspect of our identity. I am supposed to identify as a follower of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). servant of Allah.
You are to stand up for the truth because you are a servant of God.
Other genuine identities are also affirmed. Allah tells us:
یَـٰۤأَیُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقۡنَـٰكُم مِّن ذَكَر وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلۡنَـٰكُمۡ شُعُوبا وَقَبَاۤىِٕلَ لِتَعَارَفُوۤا۟ۚ إِنَّ أَكۡرَمَكُمۡ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتۡقَىٰكُمۡۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِیمٌ خَبِیر
“O mankind: verily We created you of a single male and female, and but made you peoples and major tribes to know and appreciate your own kindred ties with each other: Verily the greatest of you all in the sight of Allah is the most godfearing of you. Verily Allah is all-knowing, all-aware.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 49:13]
We affirm identities of background, language, culture, place of origin and occupation. Yet, they are given their due place. If the various identities are deployed correctly, they are part of the richness of life.
وَمِنۡ ءَایَـٰتِهِۦ خَلۡقُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَ ٰتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَٱخۡتِلَـٰفُ أَلۡسِنَتِكُمۡ وَأَلۡوَ ٰنِكُمۡۚ إِنَّ فِی ذَ ٰلِكَ لَـَٔایَـٰت لِّلۡعَـٰلِمِینَ
“And of His truly wondrous signs is the unceasing creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your tongues and hues; Verily in that are a multitude of mighty signs for those who deeply know.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 30:22]