I recently had a conversation with a 19-year-old Black female college student. During the conversation, the young woman shared with me that she is an Individualist. Naturally, because I was unaware of the term, I asked the student, what is an Individualist? The response was shocking, not because of her definition of the Individualist per se but more because of who the individual was from my own perspective. You see, this individual was a member of my own family. So of course I thought I knew who she was – I remember when this beautiful, talented, intelligent and creative young woman was born. I thought, for sure I know you because it was very likely that I changed your Pampers when you were born. So surely, I know this individual and for sure, if she identifies as an Individualist then I must know what an Individualist is. Wrong! Boy, was I wrong! The young student explained that the Individualist is a term that she coined for herself to define herself. She went on to discuss that rather than identifying as a woman, or a Black-skinned person, or as a member of a particular religion, political party, she identifies as an Individual. Upon further questioning, my family member shared that she prefers to be identified by those things that distinguish her from the next Black-skinned person, or female, or religious organization member. She exclaimed, “Hope, I am an individual, and while the family that I came from is important, it is not who I am nor is it who I wish to be identified by.” The conversation left me speechless, wondering if it were significant that there seems to be a movement in Western culture surrounding how individuals identify themselves. To answer my own rhetorical question, I turned to the seventh juz’ of the Holy Qur’an.
My reflection was key to my understanding of the significance of Identity. You see, when I read from verse 83 of Surah Al-Maidah up to verse 110 of Surah Al-An’am, two key verses linger in my mind around the issue of identity and the role of self-knowledge.
The concept of self-identity is critical in Islam. It is through our ability to identify with the people of the past that we are able to properly view those righteous men that Allah (SWT) raised up from among us or sent to us.
Consider the following verse: “O you who believe! Take care of yourselves; he who errs cannot hurt you when you are on the right path” (5:105). This verse makes it clear that Islam allows us to do as my family member suggested and think of self or the individual. How else can we as individuals take care of ourselves unless we pay close attention to ourselves? The concept is made clear whenever we experience sickness. For example, suppose any one of us were feeling sick, we’d go to the doctor. The doctor would then ask a series of questions for the purpose of gaining knowledge about the individual that may be unique to the individual. This act of self-awareness is necessary for the doctor to form an opinion regarding the condition of the individual. So, it is the same with us when we are not sick. In order for us to take care of ourselves, we must first acquire self-knowledge. Perhaps my young family member wasn’t too far off with her thought process of first gaining knowledge of self.
Now that the individual has self-awareness, it becomes critical that the individual properly identifies themselves. To better understand this concept, I refer to the following verse: “And most certainly We sent apostles unto peoples before thee, then We caught them in distress and adversity, in order they might humble themselves” (6:42). For a time early in my reversion to Islam, I (like my young family member) could not understand how an individual who lived over 1,400 years ago could be the apostle to a people he had not met. I was very immature in understanding how a man could be an apostle for a people that would live over a thousand years after he walked and talked in this world. It wasn’t until I understood the significance of how we identify ourselves. The concept of self-identity is critical in Islam. It is through our ability to identify with the people of the past that we are able to properly view those righteous men that Allah (SWT) raised up from among us or sent to us. For example, as a Black Muslim American Woman, I identify myself as one of the most oppressed people of the earth. As such, I can identify with other people who have also been oppressed, be they people of the past or present. Therefore, it is easy for me to instantly love any man that comes forward to teach a way of life that will relieve me of that oppression, in this case the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH and his Ahlul al-Bayt). The mature version of myself now understands well how yes, Allah (SWT) did send an apostle to even me and my people. It is only through our ability to identify ourselves properly or through our ability to have self-awareness, knowledge of self, that we can read the Holy Qur’an and see ourselves in the book and see where we fit. It is through gaining adequate knowledge of self that we can ever properly take care of ourselves.
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Hope Copeland learned about Islam at boarding school and took her shahadah during her freshman year of college 20 years ago. She is particularly interested in the Ja’fari school of law and has found an unlimited amount of knowledge in the study of the Ahlul Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him).