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?