Cafeteria Islam: Is it Really Bad?

Aug 02, 2010

A Pakistani blogger discusses picking and choosing aspects of his religion that are most appealing to him.


indian cafeteria by shantest patil

Photo credit: Shantesh Pantil

So what is “Cafeteria Islam”? It's an Islam which, much like a cafeteria, is where we pick and choose aspects of the Islamic faith which are most appealing to us rather than those aspects which don't appeal to us; in essence, not taking the whole package but only those parts which suit us.

Before I go on, I like to state this disclaimer. Many of us are cafeteria faith holders in one way or another; and I for one am among the ranks of those who are. Many religions have their core beliefs. Islam has five basic tenets. Many Muslims adhere to one or two, maybe even three sometimes, and proudly attest that they are devout Muslims. Many even adhere to four or the whole quintet of tenets but then there are other important things that they miss out. Things such as truth, brotherhood, service to humanity, and others which are probably more important than a solo track towards Heaven guided by the five tenets. Are they not practising “Cafeteria Islam”?

Now almost all Mullahs (Islamic clergy) are devout followers of the five basic principles of Islam. What they aren't that forgiving for is disregard of religion which they see as disrespect for the Almighty. Tunnel vision is what comes out of it and anyone not following the path to Light or Sustenance or anyone not in the tunnel is sacrilegious, a non-believer, a heretic, an infidel. But are they different from “Cafeteria Muslims”?

Find a Mullah who has opened a door for a lady, or played cricket with orphans, or done something even as mundane as giving a stray cat some milk. I could tell you that your search would go far and wide and if you were successful in finding one, then I pray that hold onto him for Dear God. Hold on tight because you won't find any others like him. Doesn't Islam preach righteousness and submission for the sake of peace, “Salam”? Aren't such things more right and selfless than praying and selfishness?

Let's look at one of the pillars of our faith and see how maybe “cafeteriaism” isn't bad but that rigidness is:

Praying: Does praying just mean that we should perform the ablution correctly, stand in worship five times a day, kneeling, bowing and prostrating towards the Holy Ka'aba? Or are we doing that just to make ourselves happy or to fulfill acts which we believe will lead to Divine Intervention when confronted by the Fires of Hell?

The man who looks out from on top of a mountain on scenery which could go into a calendar is praying too. He's praying with his eyes wide open as he appreciates the beauty that is out there. A woman who sets her eyes out on her firstborn is also praying. Praying with love for the person she has brought into the world and praying for health, happiness and a long life. The teeny toddler who when handed an ice cream by her aunt is praying, too. Praying for the goodness that she knows will greet her when she sinks her teeth into the ice cream and with gratitude as her aunt looks on.

Does a beard and a hijab signify holiness and Eternal Salvation when the bearded kill and the hijabis gossip and backbite?

Maybe all these people have never ever prayed or pray sporadically, maybe an Eid prayer here, maybe a verse of the Quran there. Does that mean that they're worse than an Islamist, a person who sacrifices his sleep for the morning prayer, but doesn't sacrifice his meal for the poor beggar who looks on? Does a beard and a hijab signify holiness and Eternal Salvation when the bearded kill and the hijabis gossip and backbite?

Do I believe in all five tenets? Yes, I do. I believe in Unity of God, in praying five times a day, in fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and in giving alms to the poor. But over and above all of that, I believe in logic, in philosophy, in debate, and in questioning.

Compared with other monotheistic and polytheistic faiths, Islam is young. Yet it is centuries old, sent as a blessing to Mankind and as a gift, embedded in a scripture as age-old as itself. It is bound to change and have some changes to it. It is given in our religion that when such a situation arises, it is on the scholars to come upon with a consensus on some issue and if that hasn't happened or can't happen, then use sound judgement and analogical reasoning to come upon an answer.

So herein lies the answer to the question that I have asked: Is “Cafeteria Islam” bad? No. And this can be debated by all and sundry but I have an opinion and I like to state it. “Cafeteria Islam” is good and as we swim among other faiths in this stormy weather of the 21st century, where rising tides means that all boats are lifted, we should embrace it and not disregard it.

It is not an end onto itself but a means to make sure that religion is accepted by all and becomes more ubiquitous, a trend that takes agnosticism heads on and makes universal faith a reality, not just a figure of speech. So Islam has five basic principles, the quintet of tenets as I have stated before. Adhere to those but as long as you do that and not do the unnecessary and the expressly forbidden, in my book you pass the test.

I've been told that interaction between the sexes is taboo; dancing, song and sport are frowned upon from the Seventh Heaven. My reply to these accusations is that I need to stop lying, cheating, swindling, being gluttonous, and do more for the Paki street before I even pay attention to such acts.

This is not a prayer, nor a sermon, nor am I preaching from the pulpit where I have so many wrongs and the way I've used "cafeteriaism" is not something I should boast about. But churning the wheels I have and I like to hear what others think.

My favourite quote to end this, stolen from Dan Brown:

Faith is universal. Our specific methods for finding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth. That which is greater than ourselves.



This post was originally published on I Am Yawar in May 2010.