Culture, religion and women

A wise young woman recently said to me that the thought that religion can’t be removed from its original culture brings peace to her. To her religions boil down to cultural interpretations of socio-political systems that aim to reform societies according to what is deemed as divinely sanctioned morality.

After this brief communication with her, a few other instances and the comments on the last post made me think about how much Muslim women fight, not with their religion, but with the Arabic culture. What is religion? Is it a way of life or is it an awareness and acknowledgment of the Creator of this world? I think the purely spiritual aim of any religion is to acknowledge God whereas the local culture dictates ways in which that religion is exercised.

I live in an Arab country where any progressiveness in religion is not only frowned upon but is also banned by the government. Whatever progressiveness in religion  is introduced is done tactfully by the government. For me, like for many other Muslim women living in the ME and South Asia, Islamic Feminism as well as Progressive Islam are concepts that are much harder to pursue than for Muslim women living in the liberal parts of the world. I do think that both Islamic Feminism and Progressive Islam are steps towards liberalism and I don’t use that term in a negative manner. If we were to use the terms loosely, liberalism is more tolerant as opposed to traditionalism. But many women who live in oppressive (another loosely used term) societies may not even have heard about Islamic feminism. Indeed when I talk to my students about my research they look at me as if I am talking about atomic science!

So what I have been thinking is, one, Muslim feminists shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Islam because most are only fighting against cultural injustices; two, many women living in non-Western parts of the world have no idea what their feminist sisters are trying to achieve for them; and three, we should accept that culture is a non-static entity.

Regarding the last point – my housekeeper complained to me that her niece who is also a domestic helper had “dared” to throw crushed garlic in the kitchen sink which was discovered by her employer who slapped her thrice on her back for being so callous. Several text messages later between the aunt and her niece, my housekeeper decided that she had to call the police. What she didn’t realise until she called the recruitment agency who dismissed the case as “minor misunderstanding” is that in the Arabic culture beating someone is really not a big issue until it is done publicly in which case it becomes a social punitive measure. I mentioned this cultural trait briefly in this comment.  

When Islam began to spread in Arabia, beating someone violently was something that was starting to be frowned upon because it was evidently distasteful and hurtful for the victim. Thus we have ahadith that teach that beating a wife like a slave and then sleeping with her is unpleasant or that one must not beat their slave like an animal.

Because  Muslims believe that  Quran is true and valid for all people of all times and because wife beating is culturally so abhorrent to many of us today, we can’t imagine a religious culture of another time and another system to have ever tolerated it. This gives rise to the need for reinterpretation often urging alternative meanings through the social lens of modern Western ethics. But we forget that that culture of the past tolerated many other social habits that we find distasteful today and which we explain away without resorting to denial like child marriage, ghazwat (raids), and sex with female slaves and war captives.

When I tried to explain my thoughts in the past on prevalent culture and Islam (in a less diplomatic way!), many readers were shocked. I am not saying that Quran should not be reinterpreted nor am I saying that we shouldn’t use modern ethics to lead our lives but I am trying to look for a middle path between accepting that Islam grew out of a culture which today is not the culture of all Muslims and trying to live as an observant Muslim in today’s society. I welcome your thoughts on this.

  • Do you think that my thoughts on this subject are valid?
  • Do you think it is fair to expect early Muslims to have lived by our modern standards?
  • How do you think modern Muslims, especially the women, can understand religious culture and divine commands regarding piety – for example, do you believe that hijab makes a woman a better Muslim or do you think it was a socio-cultural requirement of the early Muslim society?
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41 thoughts on “Culture, religion and women

  1. Sara says:

    Of course it is not fair to expect Muslims to have lived by our modern standards. NO ONE lived by these standards. In fact there are strong arguments that show that Muslims were much more “civilized” than westerners until a certain point, when colonialism changed the whole world. Whatever Arabs have done in the past that we complain about, westerners have done even worse.

    “This gives rise to the need for reinterpretation often urging alternative meanings through the social lens of modern Western ethics.”

    That’s the problem right there. “Modern western ethics” is also a cultural system. It’s fine if you decide you like it best, but you can’t expect all Muslims to feel that way. I certainly don’t. I find many modern western values and ideals problematic, let alone the fact that they usually don’t practice what they preach.

    As you know, I strongly believe in reinterpretation, but definitely not according to western norms/values. Moreover, I have found too many positive values and ethics in Arab culture for me to completely disregard it as negative for women. For example, Egypt 100 years ago had one of the strongest feminist movement in the WORLD. Now women are treated much worse. So I don’t believe there is something called Arab culture that has stayed the same since Arabs were created. Rather it is something constantly changing, just like western culture, and just like our understandings of Islam.

  2. susanne430 says:

    I enjoyed this post and also Sara’s comment! Maybe many of us have wrongly assumed modern Western ethics is the best we humans can reach for? I think there are many good things about Western ethics while other things…not so much. There are also some things I prefer from Eastern cultures. I don’t think this was the point of your post, but maybe we should have a different standard altogether. I’d say God’s, but then we’d have to argue which standards are God’s since those get interpreted through cultures, peoples, holy books. And I’d say good point and we are back to square 1, aren’t we? 🙂

  3. Metis says:

    Sara and Susie, I agree with you both that no one culture is the best and so when people argue in favour of Western culture and moral ethics I squirm a bit because like you said Sara, not everything is rosy there and not every Westerner practices what they preach. Same could be said about any other culture as well so what makes Western culture so different that it must be followed?!

    But like you said Susie, that was not what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say it why should a Muslim in Pakistan, for example, be required to adopt Arabian cultural practices *if* those practices are not directly linked to piety.

    Sara, I’m glad you brought the Egypt example to the discussion. I remember quite a few feminists pointing to Egypt but Leila Ahmed is fresh in my mind. She gives extensive attention to Iran and Egypt as examples of powerful and women-friendly nations. But she considers both these nations as not Arabic. In fact, she insists that misogyny was introduced to the Egyptian culture when it was colonised by Arab Muslims who had also picked some misogynist practices from the different nations that they were occupying on the way.

  4. Coolred38 says:

    ” What I was trying to say it why should a Muslim in Pakistan, for example, be required to adopt Arabian cultural practices *if* those practices are not directly linked to piety. ”

    My short answer is because God saw fit to give Islam to the Arabs. This created a sense of ownership rights to it and set in motion a chain of events that eventually ended in Arab culture being intertwined with the actual practice of Islam almost to the point of being incestual. If Islam is the father, Arab culture is the wayward daughter, and by this I mean the aspects of the culture that do not agree with Islam’s foundation of piety and justice yet cannot really be separated because of the centuries old relationship between the two. Arabs have defined what Islam is…and what is isn’t, and because they had exclusive control over it for so long before other cultures got a hold of it…it is very hard now to distinguish Arab culture from Islamic practice without serious research and an understanding that your going to face a hell of a lot of resistance…and that resistance will come from both hardliner Muslims (mainly Arabs) and nonMuslims who have an agenda that demands Arab culture and Islamic practice remain one and the same in order to promote the idea of abuse and oppression.

    That man in Pakistan must present himself as close to an Arab as possible if he wishes to be seen as believable and sincere because only those who sincerely follow Islam will desire to be just like the owners of it; Arabs.

    My thoughts only.

    • Metis says:

      “it is very hard now to distinguish Arab culture from Islamic practice without serious research and an understanding that your going to face a hell of a lot of resistance”

      I wish I could say that you are wrong but you aren’t and I know what you mean. From a very uneducated pov, I was thinking, maybe Quran addresses more universal themes (there is culture there too but it addresses non-Arabs as well considering their culture) whereas culture seeps into hadith. What do you think?

  5. sarah k says:

    I don’t think any culture has ever got it totally right. The Quran is quite clear when it says that there is good and bad among the arabs of the desert. Similarly the Quran also says that there are decent people among non-Muslims. So it is neither religion or culture according to the Quran which defines righteousness – it is the faith you have and how that faith informs your actions.

    Arab culture is dominant because Islam spread from that Arabs first to other places. Ultimately when any divine message is delivered into the hands of any humans it become tainted and people apply their own interpretations.

    As for Muslim women not knowing about Muslim feminists perhaps it is because they do not have enough information (or access to information) about the early Muslim women. There were certainly some strong feminists among them. The female companions and wives were not at all meek, silent, cowed women. Their acts are inspirational for all women.

  6. Zuhura says:

    I agree with all of this: “one, Muslim feminists shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Islam because most are only fighting against cultural injustices; two, many women living in non-Western parts of the world have no idea what their feminist sisters are trying to achieve for them; and three, we should accept that culture is a non-static entity.”

    I don’t think it is fair to expect early Muslims to have lived by our modern standards, but I do wonder: if we are meant to accept all of the Qur’an for all times and places, why did God not more clearly set standards that were *not* tied to 7th century Arab culture? This leads me to believe that some aspects of the Qur’an must simply be rejected.

    There’s ample evidence that hijab was a socio-cultural requirement of the early Muslim society for women of a certain class status. I believe that those who view hijab as linked to piety are simply influenced by their culture’s hegemonic view of women.

    • Metis says:

      “This leads me to believe that some aspects of the Qur’an must simply be rejected. ”

      I can see more and more Muslims coming to this conclusion and I can’t seem to see why I would disagree with this opinion. Thanks Zuhura for your comment.

  7. Lat says:

    I agree with your point,

    “I think the purely spiritual aim of any religion is to acknowledge God whereas the local culture dictates ways in which that religion is exercised.”

    Yes I think your thoughts on the subjects are valid and it’s not fair to think that early Muslims should have lived by our standards.

    Likewise because modern muslim women are born into different social and political environments,it wouldn’t be fair to judge them according to early muslim standards.So looking for a middle path as you said is important because we’re neither there,totally traditional, nor here,totally secular.

    • Metis says:

      “Likewise because modern muslim women are born into different social and political environments,it wouldn’t be fair to judge them according to early muslim standards.”

      Amen!

  8. seeker2008 says:

    This is a great post! I have been thinking a lot about religious lately and thought to add some thoughts here. I feel that a mistake I have made is to forget that a Muslim is something God Willing we become through His aid of course. Until that moment we are all on the way. Going through the daily practices and rituals do not make one a Muslim I don’t feel. When I approach the questions in this manner I feel immediately that I am not in a position to see whether outward acts of piety are in fact true piety, or if one’s surrender is deepened or not.

    Also I feel that people, place and time are very important. From my readings of the Qur’an, I feel that context plays a big role in the Quran. Times are different now, the social context has changed to me at least. I feel the deeper messages of the Quran are eternal and immutable. Just my two cents

    -Dave

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Dave for your comment. I completely agree with your second paragraph and find good points there especially when you say “I feel the deeper messages of the Quran are eternal and immutable.”

  9. Sumera says:

    Ive always thought the Quran includes Arab cultures purely because the Arabs it was targetting needed some reference point for implementing changes, ideas and to understand how the Quran would be applicable. I agree though it is hard sometimes to tease out whats Islam and whats Arab culture

    • Metis says:

      “I agree though it is hard sometimes to tease out whats Islam and whats Arab culture.”

      I agree. Even for Arabs it is difficult to do that.

  10. younib says:

    As a Urdu muslim poet said

    * We monotheists [muslims] are meant to break traditions that are not Islam* Mirza Ghalib

    I absolutely believe that each religion is just a cultural representation of a civilization.However one must realize the one thing people must realize, the only thing common between pre Islamic arabia & the Quran is the language. That too in the Quran there are many words which weren’t existent in the classical Arabic.

    plus Even Allah & the prophet [pbuh] have criticized the Arabs for their ignorance plus 1 of the main reasons the prophet [pbuh] was persecuted was b/c he was going against everything that was *arab*

    I think muslims of the past could have done 1 thing better than present day muslims.They would have presented Islam in a much more humanely manner.Now wud that be acceptable to *modern* ppl of today. I don’t knw. Even Allah [swt] says – Had he sent another prophet after Porphet Mohammad [pbuh] he wud have done more harm than good.

    but non muslims of the past & of today are the same at least in their reasoning to criticize Islam.

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Younib for your comment and welcome to Metis.

      While I agree with most of your comment, I don’t think I agree with this:

      “plus Even Allah & the prophet [pbuh] have criticized the Arabs for their ignorance plus 1 of the main reasons the prophet [pbuh] was persecuted was b/c he was going against everything that was *arab*”

      Ignorance of Arabs didn’t meant they were complete idiots. Their ignorance was only the lack of tawhid in their religious system. And the Prophet was not against everything Arab. If that was the case he would have migrated to a non-Arab country, stopped wearing Arabian clothes, stopped eating camel meat and would have learned a new language. He was very much an Arab and had great Arabian qualities of generosity, honesty, and faith.

  11. michele says:

    If your argument is that Arab culture is inherently flawed I would ask why then we have much more extremist and fanatical elements coming out of places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, than most places in the middle east? Why the Bible and the Torah are full of much stronger patriarchal, sadistic and chauvinistic verses, yet no one is blaming this on “Jewish culture”.
    While there most certainly must be a distinction between culture and religion, I would not be so quick to embrace “the western ideal”. The notion that people should do whatever makes them feel good without any regard for the family structure, the society as a whole, has not proved to be such a positive development. Within our western societies, children are being raised by teen parents, drug addicted narcissists, foster parents, special education classes are full of “throw away” babies whose mothers were drinking and drugging throughout their pregnancies and then continue to have more babies with multitudes of worthless men. Others are so obsessed with the pursuit of material possessions that they have little time for their families. Don’t fool yourselves, the shelters are full of abused AMERICAN women and children, not to mention the Priests and pedophiles preying on children everywhere. Can we blame this on Arab culture.
    Is this what one would believe that God intended for us?

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Michele for your comment and welcome to Metis.

      “If your argument is that Arab culture is inherently flawed …”

      No, sorry that is not my argument. I would have said it quite clearly if that was my point. In fact I have said that “This gives rise to the need for reinterpretation often urging alternative meanings through the social lens of modern Western ethics…” and am not supporting this practice. I am condemning that some think that early Muslims lived according to our standards. They did not and they shouldn’t be expected to have lived by today’s standards. By “modern standards” I don’t mean Western standards – again, I would have said it like that if that’s what I meant.

      Yes, extremists are coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan but their leader is very much an Arab. However, that is besides the point and so is the fact that where there are priests abusing children there are also imams doing it. There are shelters everywhere around the world (including Muslim and Arab countries) filled with abused women. That is not my point. Evil exists in every society and we will never be able to settle on where the grass is greener because when we talk about religion, the grass is always greener in *our* yard. Like I said before, no culture is perfect.

      My point is that MFs all over the world are not against Islam. If they were, they wouldn’t be Muslim. They are basically against the injustices of *their* culture. So a MF in India will be fighting against her Indian Muslim culture. Dowry is hardly an Arabic cultural problem. It is very much a problem of South Asian Muslims because their culture has seeped into their religion.

  12. Seema Rehan says:

    Finally someone said it! I agree with your post and the first few comments. It is difficult to pick culture from religion. Your latest link on your Facebook page is an example of Arab culture that has become religion. What is ridaa if not ancient Arab culture that was adopted and continued by Islam. How many Muslims consciously think why they must wash out their ears and pray again if they pass gas. That is a superstitious Arab cultural belief for you right there that is completely pointless.

    Torah must be full of such stuff as well but that doesn’t make Arab culture any less blameworthy. I have been a victim of abuse at the hands of a Muslim man and the truth is when he married again or slapped me occasionally HIS religion sanctioned it and Muhammad wasn’t against that Arabic practice. I don’t care about anything else.

    • Metis says:

      Seema, I think every religion has cultural aspects to it but we don’t think about it because Christianity – the most followed religion – has become more global. It isn’t just Islam. But MFs from different countries are fighting their own culture’s practices. There may be some Arabic culture issues like hijab, for example or specific issues like Rada because of which a woman would try to lactate for an adopted child. Or Wadu which you mentioned which doesn’t exist explicitly in the Quran. But there are individual’s cultural issues as well that MFs deal with like honour killing (which is not Arabic culture) or dowry or high Mahr in some Arab countries or the Khulu law in Egypt.

      Regarding Torah – that is not my point and I feel it is wrong to put down one religion or system to show another as superior.

  13. Helene says:

    Forgive me. What does MF stand for?

  14. younib says:

    actually mate the prophet [pbuh] himself might have not migrated to non arab lands but the followers did to Ethopia & if I believe some accoutns to be correct then to southern parts of India as well.

    actually I never called arabs or any other civ for that matter idiots but rather ignorant or the word-jahlaiya there is a diffrence. I mean they were poets, knew arabic language inside & out,skilled merchants & soldiers, had a sexually free society [comparable to western stds] on top of that a sophisticated polythestic religion which was the centre of arab culture/politics in that time.

    a idol in the Kabah meant ur a important tribe. Mecca kinda like jerusalem was the centre of trade of many civ too. despite all the cultural feats prophet Mohammad [pbuh] went everything against arabs of that time wud normally stand for as they wud for Islam today.

    plus no arab fashion in the pre Islamic era was quite different from today’s arab culture.most ppl have this misconception that some of prophet’s actions were similar to pre Islamic customs but the point is jst wrong. It’s quite evident in the hadiths as well that he was everything against that was UnIslamic rather than Un Arabic.

    hope u get the point 😀

    • Metis says:

      Younib, I don’t know what you are trying to say in your first paragraph. Yes, Muslims not only migrated to other parts of the word, they colonised half of the world as well. But that was not because they were escaping from the Arabic culture. In fact they were spreading it – replacing original languages with Arabic, changing food and clothing and bringing their culture wherever they went. For 13 centuries Arabic has been spoken in Egypt because Arabs replaced the original language of the Egyptians. Egypt’s original language is Coptic and although Coptic is the liturgical language of the Coptic Christians, when Christianity spread in Egypt before Islam it did not replace the original language of the people with Greek. The same is the case with many other countries.

      You said, “It’s quite evident in the hadiths as well that he was everything against that was UnIslamic rather than Un Arabic.” But what you are saying now about Arabic culture is not what you said in the original comment. You had said, “1 of the main reasons the prophet [pbuh] was persecuted was b/c he was going against everything that was *arab*

      And it is also wrong to assume that the “only thing common between pre Islamic arabia & the Quran is the language.” There are numerous practices that have carried forward into Islam. There is NOTHING wrong with that. No religion flourishes in a vacuum. We learn from previous people, their culture and their habits and religions. It is natural. Nothing to deny or be scared about.

      I hope you get my point 😉

  15. Helene says:

    That makes sense. Talk about feeling stupid…

  16. Helene says:

    That is an incredible resource, thank you! It also gave me the first much needed laugh of the day. I mean, I was thinking through different things MF could stand for, but for sure, “Mycosis Fungoides” was not one of them.
    j

  17. Serenity says:

    I completely — and I can’t stress this enough: COMPLETELY — disagree with anyone who thinks that culture and religion have nothing to do with each other, or that there’s “religion” (Islam) and then there’s “culture,” or that religion (Islam) is absolutely perfect but it’s culture that has destroyed Muslims/women. Many Muslims who think that they’re being educated and “good Muslims” by bashing their cultures and somehow replacing them entirely with Islam (what?) believe this. And I used to be one of them until a couple of years ago, but fortunately, now I understand the deep relationship between culture and religion and how religion is nothing without the culture that it’s practiced in.

    Oh, yeah, I wrote a blog post on this once, and I’d paste it here, but it’s too long. So I’ll give the link: http://qrratugai.blogspot.com/2010/02/negating-notion-of-culture-vs-religion.html It’s called “Negating the Notion of Culture vs. Religion.”

    • Metis says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, S! I completely agree with you. Thanks also for the link, I’ll hop over to read it now.

      “Many Muslims who think that they’re being educated and “good Muslims” by bashing their cultures and somehow replacing them entirely with Islam (what?) believe this. ”

      Exactly! Very well said.

  18. Coolred38 says:

    Serenity…I would agree that Arab culture is intrinsically intertwined with Islam…but one would have to balk at the deep rooted aspects of it that have turned this supposedly peaceful just religion into one that is rife with misogyny, injustice, and stagnation….is that due to the cultural influence..or the way Islam would have evolved anyhow..with or without the Arab cultural influence?

  19. Serenity says:

    I think it would’ve evolved either way, Coolred. I also think that the Arab culture is no less or more horrid than any other culture of the world. The only reason most of us pick on the Arab culture is, again, due to our claim that religion and culture are two different entities. It’s also because of many Muslims’ attempt to present pre-Islamic Arabic customs/beliefs/rituals/etc. as ignorant, stupid, barbaric, etc., etc. when, honestly, I don’t think they were such at all. I hate the word “jahiliyya” in reference to pre-Islamic Arabia for this reason. No, Arabs were not beasts before Islam came to them. No, the entire world was not in ruins before Islam came. And, for certain, Islam is whatever we make it to be. It therefore can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how we practice it. As I point out in my blog post, Islam gives us ideals and nothing more; it’s cultures, our respective cultures, that enable us to put them into practice, and that’s why Islam is not practiced one or the same way all throughout the world. Because of its inherent flexibility, WE make it whatever we want it to be, and believe it or not, there is Quranic/Islamic support for every single thing that I, a Muslim, do, whether it contradicts or supports the practices and beliefs of other Muslims.

    I also don’t think any religion is inherently peaceful/just/etc. or violent/unjust/etc. These ideas are modern, and their meaning and our understanding of them change from time to time and society to society. I think this is what Muslims mean when they say Islam is for all people of all times. Really, I can’t think of ANY religion that’s not, or shouldn’t be, for all people of all times!

    • Metis says:

      “It’s also because of many Muslims’ attempt to present pre-Islamic Arabic customs/beliefs/rituals/etc. as ignorant, stupid, barbaric, etc., etc. when, honestly, I don’t think they were such at all.”

      I know you were addressing Coolred, serenity, but I had to tell you how much I agree with your comment. I can’t recall where I read it but I read once some good argument that this hatred for pre-Islamic Arabia was created much later (around the 9th century) to glorify Islam. I don’t think the Prophet put down the heathen Arabs constantly like we think he did.

  20. Serenity says:

    Sorry for the double post, Metis Jaan! Can you please delete the first one? I made it a slight addition to the second one 🙂

  21. Metis, I totally agree with you when you said

    In fact they were spreading it – replacing original languages with Arabic, changing food and clothing and bringing their culture wherever they went. For 13 centuries Arabic has been spoken in Egypt because Arabs replaced the original language of the Egyptians. Egypt’s original language is Coptic and although Coptic is the liturgical language of the Coptic Christians, when Christianity spread in Egypt before Islam it did not replace the original language of the people with Greek. The same is the case with many other countries.

    I mentioned this in a comment below an earlier thread but I’m not comfortable with the way Arab culture has slipped into parts of my own culture even though the Yoruba language hasn’t been completely replaced, and I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

    • Metis says:

      You are a very, very honest woman, ECC and I respect you very much for your honesty.

      It may (wrongly) seem to some that I am siding with Western values; I am not. I am against colonialism whether it is European colonialism, Americanization or Arab/Muslim colonialism. I love different cultures and languages. I respect people for who they are rather than who they want to become. I’m well aware of the dirt in my Western backyard.

      It is unfair to assume that because we are Muslim that we should tolerate one kind of colonialism while condemning the other types. And we have satisfied our souls by webbing intricate excuses and tales that our type of colonialism was *kosher* and safe, that it didn’t involve force or death of original culture. Arabic culture has only slipped into your culture but it has completely replaced the original cultures and languages of others to the point that we are willing to go back a couple of centuries to point out the brutalities of our European colonists and their linguistic imperialism but we don’t even know that going back a few more centuries will open up a completely new Pandora’s box of debilitating imperialism. Honest inquiry comes at a price most are unwilling to pay.

      • You are a very, very honest woman, ECC and I respect you very much for your honesty.

        Thank you 😀

        I can understand where you’re coming from. I’ve always stood so strongly against European colonialism, I couldn’t ever tolerate Arab/Muslim colonialism.

  22. Lat says:

    Metis,it’s interesting you mention about Egypt being colonised by Arabs and the change of language.The Malays too underwent the same change but it came thru’ Arab merchants,traders and Sufis to the region.No war fare here but still colonization did take place.first it was Hinduism and thru’ it Sanskrit and then Arabic and Jawi.Now their written language is amazing,it’s in English! 🙂

  23. Lat says:

    *meaning English alphabets but read and spelt differently

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