What is Islam?

I have been thinking about this question ever since I have started reading the blogs of Muslim Feminists and also those who have left Islam. I notice a strong sense of individuality in the voice of Muslim Feminists  and the manner in which they perceive and practice Islam is progressive, fresh and often non-traditional.

For example, before I knew anything about Islamic Feminism I wrongly assumed that all Muslims including Muslim Feminists treat homosexuality as taboo and that consequently they would exhibit homophobia. I was quite surprised to find many Muslim Feminists fighting for the rights of gays and promoting that people can be gay and Muslim.

Similarly I found that most Muslim Feminists don’t believe that men should supervise women or that husbands can discipline their wives. I also learned that a few Muslim Feminists don’t believe that hijab is compulsory and some don’t believe that Quran is the exact word of God. Yet each one of them is strongly Muslim.

This does not meant that Muslim Feminists who fight for the rights of gays or talk about the non-compulsory nature of hijab aren’t given grief. Muslims who don’t share the views of Muslim Feminists are quick to condemn and debate with them and question “what kind of islam r u talkin about? making up ur own religion…”

And this is why I have been thinking – what is Islam? Does Islam become how one practices it or is it monolithic and unchanging? Even if it is monolithic, whose Islam is the right Islam? Why are others worried about how someone practices their religion? If Islam is unchangeable then why should anyone worry how a Muslim practices their religion?

“Traditionalists” as a blogger-friend calls orthodox Muslims view Islam as rigid, unchanging with every thing that could be understood and interpreted being already understood and interpreted by the “unanimous” scholars of the past. On the other hand, progressive Muslims (and many Muslim Feminists identify with  the progressive or Sufi branch of Islam) view Islam as constantly developing and morphing according to the needs of moving times. They treat Quran as a Text that can be interpreted in a number of ways for a number of people. Hence making Islam easily fit the description “for all people and all times.”

If Islam becomes how one practices it, then it is not the monolithic block of the “traditionalists” but is fluid and easily malleable like the Progressive Muslims see it.

What do you think about these questions? Do you think a religion becomes how it is practiced? A friend pointed out that others worry how we practice religion because they feel that they are  “enjoining good and forbidding evil” but doesn’t that also sometimes pushes people to apostate or at least become unnecessarily defensive? Do Muslim Feminists face such people frequently who wish to  “enjoin good and forbid evil”?  How do such people make you feel when they want you to view things in a set manner?

On “Mid East Misogyny and the Plight of Muslim Women”

Ken Connor starts his essay, tantalizingly titled “Mid East Misogyny and the Plight of Muslim Women”, with a quote from Ayan Hirsi Ali – “[S]ome things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.” This quote is a reason I write this post.

I can understand Connor’s premise since it is in response to Ali’s insistence that the West must “deal honestly with the egregious human rights abuses that routinely occur in the Muslim world, particularly against women.” However, I don’t fully understand the steps he asserts the US should take:

  • Urging Mrs. Clinton, “an advocate for women’s rights in the most powerful diplomatic post on earth”, to campaign in favour of Saudi women to be allowed to drive
  • Asking feminists in the US to “take up the cause of Muslim women”
  • Saying that “the Church, which proclaims the sanctity and dignity of every human life, should be outraged about the plight of Muslim women in the Middle East… who yearn for the kind of freedom, grace, and redemption unique to Christianity”

Religion should be, but isn’t monolithic because the cultures that practice any religion are not monolithic. Thus, Islam is also not monolithic and there are several Muslim cultures. Hirsi Ali belonged to one such Muslim *culture* which happens to be a violent kind. Unfortunately if anyone takes her as a point of reference for Muslim women then Muslim women belonging to other Muslim cultures will seem unnaturally lucky.

Many Muslim women need help and we welcome help from anyone who is willing to offer it sincerely (not merely for the sake of our “redemption”), but help shouldn’t be based on ill-informed premise. Saudi government’s refusal to allow its women to drive has nothing to do with Islam. It is not “the Plight of Muslim Women.”  In the same country where in cities women can’t drive, there are *Muslim* women in rural areas who drive trucks!

It seems that Mr. Connor either doesn’t know about the existence of Muslim/Islamic feminists or has forgotten that most of the Third Wave “feminists in the United States” (like the feminists of the 60s and 70s) are secular and not Christian. The Second Wave of Feminism produced many, many feminists who rejected the belief that “freedom, grace, and redemption (are) unique to Christianity.” Unlike secular feminists Muslim and Islamic feminists have proven time and again that there is a strong possibility for women to remain within religious traditions and still take up feminist issues sincerely. Thus Muslim feminists are the best people to experience, understand and stand up for the rights of their sisters in faith who have been less fortunate in their culture.

Mr. Connor brings up two other “plights” of *Muslim* women besides not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia (!): FGM and honour killing. Again, he misses the point that countries where FGM is practiced have both Muslims and Christians practicing it. It has nothing to do with either faith but is a *cultural* practice. Similarly, honour killing has never been an “Islamic” problem. It is a cultural offence that is associated with many different cultures both Muslim and non-Muslim.

I am a Muslim woman living in the Middle East and I can tell you that it is not true that all Muslim women are “divorced with impunity, routinely abused, killed for breaches of honor, beaten for being in the company of men who are not their husbands.” By saying this I don’t want to claim that Muslim women are never oppressed. I think it is very dangerous to claim that all Muslim women are happy bunnies and nothing bad happens in our societies, but such abuse is not “routine” and is certainly not part of the Islamic religion.

Islam is only fourteen centuries old. In the 15th Century most Christian women were in similar situations as some Muslim women of today. And when women played important roles in Medieval Christianity so do we today have several powerful Muslim scholars who are strong women. Islam has had a long list of strong and powerful women from Aisha Bint Abu Bakr to Benazir Bhutto and beyond who were/are also part of some type of Muslim culture.

I would have been unjust if I hadn’t pointed this out.

Thoughts?