Youshaa PatelJan 20, 2023
The Muslim Difference
Defining the Line Between Believers and Unbelievers from Early Islam to the Present
Yale University Press 2023
According to a famous prophetic report, “Whoever imitates a people becomes one of them.” What does “imitation” here mean? Rather, what does this statement really mean at all, and how have Muslims historically understood it? How did this simple report become a doctrine in the Islamic tradition? What does this hadith mean for Muslims today, in an increasingly interreligious atmosphere and especially for those living in the West or in other non-Muslim-majority contexts? Finally, why do humans invest so much in being different and displaying their difference from those they declare as an ‘other’?
These and many other questions are answered in Youshaa Patel’s exciting book The Muslim Difference: Defining the Line between Believers and Unbelievers from Early Islam to the Present, published in 2022 with Yale University Press. The book explores the issue of difference and frames the hadith as significant to Muslim interreligious encounters, showing that ideas and examples of imitation—and Muslims’ understanding of the concept—have changed throughout times and in different contexts. And the debate around issues of religious difference, imitation, and Muslims’ effort to distinguish themselves from non-Muslims tells us about how Muslims understand and define religion.
In our conversation today, we discuss the origins of the book, some of its main arguments and findings, the prophetic reports on imitation—specifically the hadith that “whoever imitates a people becomes one of them”—its role in establishing a Sunni orthodoxy given that the hadith or the concept of tashabbuh is not found in Shii collections, and influential scholars and thinkers’ development of the concept, individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Najm al-Din al-Ghazzi. We also discuss examples of small differences that are not to be imitated, and Patel explains the significance and value of these small differences, which are quite powerful and symbolic. Our conversation ends with the relevance of imitation and emulation for today’s Muslims, including Muhammad Abduh’s Transvaal fatwa on, among other things, Muslims wearing European hats or Muslims doing Christian European things and how other Muslim scholars responded to this fatwa.
Shehnaz Haqqani is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Mercer University. She earned her PhD in Islamic Studies with a focus on gender from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Her dissertation research explored questions of change and tradition, specifically in the context of gender and sexuality, in Islam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.