I was eating a chapli kebab burger at a restaurant in Damascus in 2007, when I had a chance encounter with an angry young man. Walking briskly past my outdoor table, he overheard my friend and me speaking English and abruptly turned around to ask where we were from. ‘America,’ we replied. ‘I just made hijra from the UK,’ he proudly announced. Donning a white kufi and carrying a large backpack, the 21-year-old Brit of South Asian origin had just arrived at this ancient crossroads of Arab-Muslim civilisation. Curious, I asked him what he was fleeing from. He told us that he had traveled alone, financed the trip himself by working odd jobs, and detested infidel ‘kuffar’. He took pains to explain why Islam mandated that he flee his home country of Great Britain. Put simply, Muslims should not live among unbelievers. ‘We can’t even imitate them,’ he exclaimed.
The young man was alluding to the famous hadith of the Prophet narrated on the authority of the Companion Ibn Umar: ‘Whoever imitates a people becomes one of them.’ Although the hadith may be read as a neutral observation about how imitation defines group belonging, most Sunni scholars across time and place read it as a morally-charged admonition against emulating non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians. The Prophet, in other words, was defining the line between us and them. Over time, the key Arabic term in the hadith, tashabbuh, came to signal this forbidden type of imitation. How and why this reading transformed into a religious obligation for Muslims to be different was the subject of my PhD dissertation—and why I was visiting Damascus, where a key unpublished manuscript on the subject was held.
I do not mean to draw a straight line between Islamic scripture and the young man’s decision to emigrate from Britain. What experiences led to his hostility towards unbelievers never entered our brief conversation that day, and I never saw him again. How people come to believe in the truth of an idea is too complex for me to claim that it originated with Islam; religion may simply be a pretext. The polyvalence and ambiguity of Islamic scripture and tradition resist sweeping generalisations.
But the encounter with the young man confirmed that my historical research was relevant to Muslim lives today. Not limited to fundamentalists and extremists, a broad spectrum of believers, including ‘moderate’ Sufi Shaykhs, hold the conviction that Muslim have no business imitating unbelievers. In modern times, many thinkers have decried the tendency for Muslims to ape the ‘West.’ They have lashed out at the umma for being copycats in everything from wearing brimmed hats and bowties to celebrating Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Many Muslims living under colonial rule adapted the Prophet’s mantra against imitation into a slogan of anti-colonial resistance. The Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad dubbed Muslim adoration for all things European a plague, Gharbzadeghi, translated variously into English as Westoxification or Occidentosis.