Who determines what makes a practice ‘Islamic’? How do we draw the line between cultural practice and a religious practice? And to what extent are the two separable?
These are big questions. Communities all over the Islamic world, and scholars of Islam and clerics, are in a constant struggle to answer these questions as they appear in different shapes and forms.
After 9/11, the rise in Islamophobia, aided in part by Western media has been no secret. With the rise of Islamism, Islam has been repeatedly cast as a religion of violence, or more popularly, as one of terrorism. As a result, Western portrayal of the Islamic world has been one dimensional and damaging.
Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, and an advocate of Islamic Liberalism, made the case for understanding the practices in the Islamic world in their complexity. He points out that it is misguided to assume that violent practices such as honour killings and female genital circumcision (FGC) stem from within Islam:
“What might look like a problem within Islamic faith might actually be a tradition that the community has adopted.”
What he’s hoping to show is how certain local practices are depicted as Islamic, when they might just be cultural.
However, one thing should be clear: while the criticisms of the West can be valid, reform must come from within Muslim communities, because there is oppression both from outside of the Muslim community and from within it. Enforced veiling is just as bad as France’s enforced unveiling.
But before looking at one of Alyok’s earliest examples, let’s turn to something a little more familiar: the driving ban on women in Saudia Arabia.
Until as recently as 2018, women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were banned from driving. However, we don’t see the same ban being replicated in an equally conservative Islamic country such as Iran, because neither Islamic (nor Saudi law, for that matter) forbids Muslim women from driving. And the reasons to enforce such a political decision are defended as being ‘Islamic’’.
This is precisely what Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, did in 1957 when the ban on women’s driving was imposed, on the grounds that women driving would corrupt traditional gender roles–it was the fear of more exposure to males leading to moral corruption that would infest Arab society, but given the country’s restrictions of women’s abilities to move about freely without the consent of their mahram, it is more about maintaining the patriarchal system. Even the recent lift of the ban isn’t credited to any Islamic rulings, but rather for the economically driven motive of giving Arab women the mobility to drive, and to take part in the private work sector.
Alyok observes that this gender segregation is not implemented uniformly: for instance, he points out that the Ka’abah does not enforce segregation during pilgrimage. Alyok argued that if the need for segregation was so vital, and coming directly from the “core” of Islam (by ‘core’ he means the Qur’an), then the KSA government would have made it so that the rules of pilgrimage were different and enabled women and men to remain separate in the public sphere.
While he doesn’t really make the distinction between segregation in a religious versus a public space, he does trace the origins of separating men and women to different spaces to the Byzantines. In their cultures, it was common for upper-class women to be separated from men as a marker of their status, and this practice was gradually absorbed into Muslim traditions as well. You can read more about this here.
But what about other practices? Outside of a deeply conservative monarchy like KSA, the practice of female genital circumcision, prevalent in parts of Africa, has come under heavy criticism from the West.
Islam as a religion that condoned “barbaric and vulgar” practices.
Alyok is referring to a specific incident when he talks about this: in 2006, when a Muslim Ethiopian immigrant in America was arrested for attempting to cut off his daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors, for the purpose of preserving her virginity, reactions from the American public were strong, and condemned Islam as a religion that condoned “barbaric and vulgar” practices.
FGC is not exclusive to Muslim cultures.
But a stream of Islamophobic coverage over the years makes it easy to believe that it is.
While most notably practiced in parts of Africa as “an age old tradition”, in Egypt, for example, it is practiced by both Muslim and Christian communities. But most Muslims outside of these regions do not practice female circumcision at all, and research suggests that any regions where the practice is found, it is dated to before the arrival of Islam or Christianity. Two quotes included in Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam should give you an idea of how controversial the subject itself is in the Islamic world:
“I as Imam would like, with my colleagues, to turn to the Islamic world,– Swedish Muslim Leader Sheikh Omer Ahmed, November 2003
particularly in Africa, and inform people that female genital mutilation is
prohibited. It is a matter of abuse and violation of the female body and is
quite clearly forbidden according to Islam.”
“Circumcision is obligatory for every male and female. [For men,] it– Reliance of the Traveller, classic Shafi Legal Manual
consists of cutting the foreskin of the glans of the penis, while female
circumcision consists in cutting the clitoris and is called reduction.”
There are a few reasons why I put these quotes in:
I. It’s not as simple as “just a cultural problem”
Firstly, and this is where things grow a little complicated, to show that while Alyok is comfortable in saying that we can cleanly separate religion from culture, the fact is that these practices, over time, become deeply entwined with religion.
The above quotes show that solutions and responses to the issue of FGC are coming from within Islamic schools of thought, and not from secular or governmental issues.
II. Moving away from ‘Islamic’ and ‘un-Islamic’ black and white thinking
If there’s one thing that the two quotes above show us, it’s that both the supporters and opponents of FGC can use Islamic tenets to justify the practice.And while Islamic law largely condemns FGC, there are no two sides to anything.
Verses of the Qur’an can be interpreted to suit any agenda.
In fact, this is exactly what Islamic scholar Amina Wadud has resisted against. She instead encourages a re-reading of the Qur’an in light of the concerns of gender politics, saying that Qur’anic interpretation has largely/entirely been a male-dominated undertaking.
And this is important to bear in mind: Islamic practices can change overtime, and as such, require that interpretations of Islamic faith adapt to meet new demands and tackle new issues.
Outside of Sunni and Shi’i schools of law that are implemented differently, ancient traditions that have been transformed and absorbed by and into religion need to be inspected closely.
If Alyok’s anxiety about how Western media depicts the Islamic world (and the harsh Islamophobia that results from this) is any indication, it shows Muslims that they need to be critical about what they choose to believe in. If someone makes a blanket statement about how “Islam” justifies a practice that is oppressive or violent to fellow human beings, it is our job to interrogate it.