Guest Post: Culture, nationalism, and the myth of a monolithic Islam

Does our last guest writer even need an introduction? Metis, wife, mother, academic, and a writer on topics related to religion and feminism, is the badass behind MusFem, where feminism is spoken fluently–and the gridlocks of conventional wisdom is challenged. Under different names, Metis has always been a subversive voice of uncompromising reason and astounding patience. Please welcome Metis and her exploration of religion and national identity–as well as her contention as to whom it truly concerns.

It has taken my neighbour’s six-year-old daughter nearly a year to vaguely understand the difference between religion and nationality. Every time her mother tried to take her to church because ‘good Christian children attend church’ she would promptly declare that she was “American, not Christian!”

Most immigrant or expatriate families who live away from home tend to focus more on their “own traditions” which manifests itself either in the form of people interacting closely with their national community or in the form of strict adherence to religious traditions. It appears to me that in my neighbour’s case the focus of the family has been more on their American identity in a foreign country. This made me realise that Quran never refers to ‘nationality’ as we know it today. There are references to ‘peoples’ (49:13) and ‘tribes’ (7:160) like the ‘Children of Israel’ (10:90) and ‘Pharaoh’s People’ (43:51) and the ‘Quraish’ (106:1), for example, because people were known to exist as tribes with their personal beliefs becoming ‘Jews, and Sabaeans, and Christians’ (5:69). Bible doesn’t refer to nationalities either. Yet, in the modern world there are constant references to Islam as it started in the 7th Century Arabia versus the modern idea of nations and nationalities. Muslims are repeatedly reminded that a thousand and four hundred years later Islam is a sum total of the verse 12 of chapter 8 of the Quran, while the ‘West’ is ‘democratic’, ‘free’, and ‘just.’ Muslims who migrated to the ‘West’ (sometimes two generations ago) have, like any other immigrant/expat community, tried to remain faithful to their traditions – in this case their Muslim traditions. For that they have been blamed for “bringing that desert stuff into our world.” Constant references are made to ‘the West and Islam’ or ‘America and Islam’ as if these are mutually exclusive entities, and Muslims are regularly asked if they can be “British and Muslim”, and taught how to exist as hyphenated identities: American-Muslim. We vaguely understand what is meant by ‘West’ and we are fairly sure about what we mean when we refer to America or Britain or France. But what do we mean by ‘Islam’? What is ‘Islam’?

In 2001, the then President of the US, George Bush said, “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Thirteen years later, the famous Muslim scholar and writer, Reza Aslan said in reference to ISIS (2:13) that “if a member of ISIS said I’m chopping off the infidels heads because I’m a Muslim and Islam tells me to do so, you’ve got to take his word for it; he’s a Muslim and that’s his interpretation of Islam.” One cannot help but notice the difference between the two men’s understanding of ‘Islam.’ For Bush Islam is a monolithic bloc that is black and white – peaceful Muslims practiced the ‘true Islam’ while the terrorist Muslims hijacked Islam and were “traitors to their own faith.” At least that is what he said. Aslan, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone has their own interpretation of Islam; in effect, every Muslim’s Islam is their personal understanding of the faith and hence those who are terrorists are also Muslim, not “traitors to their own faith.” Bill Maher infamously condemns all Muslims as following one type of Islam, while Aslan and Jebreal try to argue that there is no one type of Islam.

Apparently there are 73 sects within ‘Islam.’ Whether one believes this number as true or not, it is true that most Muslims identify themselves as belonging to a branch of Islam and even within a particular branch there are diversities in beliefs and practices. There are also ‘cultural Muslims’ (aka secular Muslims) like Jebreal (who told Maher that she is a secular Muslim) or Mandvi who recently acknowledged that “Religion is so much more than the god you pray to. The religion that you associate with, it’s culture, it is family, it is background… culturally, yes, I feel like I will always be culturally Muslim.”

Very recently a radio programme focused on the history of Islam in America the introduction of which made a valuable observation that “Islam has some 1.6 billion followers practicing a wide array of religious traditions and speaking hundreds of different languages. And yet, even as more and more Americans convert to the faith and foreigners emigrate to the U.S. from all over the Islamic world, Muslims are still often caricatured in the American imagination.”

This ugly caricature of the American imagination has to stop but first we must also realise that an ‘American’ does not automatically mean a Maher-version of white, non-Muslim, ill-informed citizen of the US. What is an ‘American imagination’ about Muslims if an American also happens to be Muslim? Inadvertently the programme’s introduction is making the same dangerous mistake of stereotyping, and alienating Muslims from America, which it is accusing ‘Americans’ of doing. An American can be a Muslim. They can be white, brown or black. An American Muslim can be a Sufi or Salafi or Progressive or Quranist or Shiite or even just a cultural Muslim.

To understand if people have, even a vague, universal definition of Islam I asked Muslims and non-Muslims to give me their definition of Islam. Twenty seven people kindly shared their definition – each one different from the other. Interestingly only one Muslim made a reference to the Prophet Muhammad while four non-Muslims referred to him as essential to the Muslim faith. Muslims generally focused on the worship of One God and most further defined their identity for example as ‘Ritualistic spiritual muslim’ (sic) or ‘Spiritual Muslim’ or ‘Sufi Muslim’ and even ‘Quranist.’ Furthermore, while non-Muslims were inclined to offer a text-book definition of Islam highlighting the mechanics like “organized religion”, Prophet, Quran, “rituals” and “rules”, Muslims focused more on their “relationship” with God, as Islam being a “security blanket”, and adopting “a Way of Life.” Clearly Muslims understand Islam personally and individually rather than as a standard definition and they acknowledge that their belief system can be further identified as a particular type of Islam.

Where am I leading with this? I argue that while we all know in our hearts that Islam is not monolithic and that there is no ‘true Islam’, non-Muslims and sometimes even Muslims like to pretend otherwise. This insistence that we have “our own traditions and everything else is wrong” (as if there are standard sets of Muslim traditions) satisfies the ego of Muslims who want to broadcast their version of Islam as the only legitimate version – the true Islam. Recently when Huffington Post Religion posted this article on their Facebook Page on how Shiite Muslims observe Ashura, Sunni Muslims were quick to point out to the world that “This is deceiving”, “This has nothing to do with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad”, “This is not the true Islam; This is very real diversion”, and even that “This is not an Islamic practice it is made up and weird” (sic). Yet, if you ask the small community of Shiite Muslims who observe Ashura through bloodletting, the physical ‘abuse’ is neither deceiving nor weird; it is all about the “universality of the experience”, a universality that is confined to the minority community that celebrates its spirituality in a unique manner. Reiterating what Aslan said, “that’s their interpretation of Islam” and we must take their word for it with tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

No one has perhaps said it better than Dr. Laury Silvers that “There is no core “Islam,” there is only diverse Muslim identities constructed in a multitude of ways.” So which one particular Muslim identity is the only legitimate one that non-Muslims and Muslims alike can refer to when discussing ‘Islam’, a religion of over a billion diverse people?

That is a billion American dollar question.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Culture, nationalism, and the myth of a monolithic Islam

  1. Aicha

    But not all versions of Islam are correct. You can’t do horrible things that aren’t theologically supported and be able to claim that it’s still Islam.

    Like

  2. Thanks so much for this series of posts, Nahida! I’ve found them very illuminating – I’ve wanted to read more writing by Muslim feminists, and you’ve just expanded my list in a big way!

    Catherine

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  3. Readers here may be familiar with the Roman Catholic Christian practice of self-flagellation. I see a similarity between this and the Shi’a observance of Ashura. As a lapsed Catholic, I find both practices rather disturbing. As a self-titled student-for-life, thank you for illuminating another aspect of Islam for your readers; I’m learning so much!

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  4. Loved this, Metis! I wanted to answer your question of what I think Islam is, but I just didn’t know what to say. Any answer I’d come up with, I’ll find a whole in it and it wouldn’t apply to “Islam Islam,” you know? It’s important to recognize that there’s actually no one definition of Islam, and the claim that it’s simply “the Qur’an and Sunnah” isn’t that simple at all. If it were, we wouldn’t have the (I think more than) 72 branches and sub-branches that have developed since the Prophet’s passing. Even during his time, we had companions disagreeing over the meanings of his statements, and Muhammad didn’t always clarify or correct them. There’s this one hadith in which the Prophet tells some companions, as they head out to some village, that “none of y’all should pray Asr until you reach the village” or something, and they all thought it meant different things. The time for Asr came before they reached their destination, and so some were like “yah, let’s pray; it’s time” and others were like “na, man, the Prophet said not to until we reach the village” … and when they returned to him and asked him what he REALLY meant, he asked them what they thought he meant. And then he goes, “You’re all correct” (or something like this).

    The point is, as humans, we hear one statement, and most of us are not going to agree over its meaning–and we don’t have to. But for a definition of Islam, could it be a problem if we can’t agree? Maybe and maybe not. If the dominant understanding of Islam is violent, patriarchal, racist, I’ll pass; if it’s something more egalitarian, I’ll accept and embrace it. The problem is, I’m of the opinion that there sadly *is* room for violent readings of the Qur’an and more than many hadiths, and as much as I disagree with them and reject such meanings, not acknowledging it would be dishonest. But I think given the time period we live in and a universal idea of justice and human rights and whatnot, we need to approach Islam from an angle that will take our own time into consideration, such that, for example, any view that deems Arabs superior to non-Arabs (or even Muslims to non-Muslims), or men to women or heterosexual to homosexual, we should reject and review and offer more just ones.

    And such as. I’m tempted to go on, but I should stop … You raised some great points, and I’ll get back to more later on.

    Love!

    Like

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