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?

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24 thoughts on “What is Islam?

  1. Stephanie says:

    I think about this quite alot also, even still. My first instinct would be to define Islam as the simple belief there is only one God and Muhammad is His messenger. The rest is up for debate. However, I have seen people waver on the second point and still call themselves Muslim.

    Essentially, Islam is a religion. Nothing more, nothing less. One could spend their entire lives studying the different facets of what comprises a religion and even more interesting what it means for human existence. Why do we have religion? What is it? What defines religion? We could ask that quesion of all religions, either en masse or individually.

    Islam is no more monlithic than is any other facet of human experience. Just as other religions have spintered and evolved, so will Islam. I think that is what we are witnessing today.

    • Metis says:

      “However, I have seen people waver on the second point and still call themselves Muslim.”

      Yes, that is so true. I found a few people doing that. I think such people identify more with tawheed or maybe they just don’t believe in prophets at all, but then what becomes of the Quran? I guess such people don’t believe in the Quran as the word of God then?

      Thanks Steph for the comment. I always enjoy reading your views.

  2. T says:

    This is me right now.

    The 5 pillars are pretty much standard for me, everything else is up for debate. And just to clarify, I’m not saying that anyone who isn’t practising is not Muslim

    I reject many of the “traditional” fatwas on women and their relationship with the males in their lives, homosexuality, gender roles etc.

    For me it’s either decide that these fatwas were and *are* part of Islam in which case I am rejecting Islam OR decide that these fatwas are just not a part of MY Islam today.

    Also – you mention Sufis in the progressive Islam category but Sufism stretches pretty much all the way along to the traditional/militant side.

    • Metis says:

      Thanks T for your comment. I think what you are experiencing is very common. I was discussing this with a friend who said she had all these questions running through her mind all the time and a couple of other friends who were there said the same thing. Women’s spirituality is wonderful.

      “Also – you mention Sufis in the progressive Islam category but Sufism stretches pretty much all the way along to the traditional/militant side.”

      Oh yes most certainly. The guy who killed a politician in Pakistan is a Sufi so there are all types. I said “many Muslim Feminists identify with the progressive or Sufi branch of Islam.” There are traditionalists as well who are MF but I found only a very few of them. Most treat feminism with disdain like this woman.

      • Tasmiya says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply and for correcting me – I didn’t read your sentence properly.. I used to adhere very strictly to traditional Islam (not the Salafi brand but the one that Sunnipath.com sticks with) and over time, I found a few of their stances troublesome and maybe a bit inconvenient (the travelling without a mahram one was the first one that really started to not make any sense to me).

        I struggle wondering if my objection is itself a test (wherein I am meant to struggle, then over a period of reflection, prayer etc supposed to silently acquiesce?) I am nowhere near acquiescing so the struggle continues!

        • Metis says:

          “I struggle wondering if my objection is itself a test (wherein I am meant to struggle, then over a period of reflection, prayer etc supposed to silently acquiesce?)”

          This caught my interest, Tasmiya. Do you think that if you were not taught through religion (or by elders) that every instance of doubt is “a test” that will dissolve itself if you pray that you would have felt like this? I am trying to understand how religious beliefs influence human capacity to doubt, reflect and search for truth.

          • Tasmiya says:

            Yes, I think definitely having been born to strict Muslim parents has been a huge influence in my personal spiritual struggle. Also some of my close family and in-laws are so staunch in their views and yet seem so happy about it. I mean, really – are you happy that your husband tells you what to do? Are you really happy that you cannot wear or buy a certain item of clothing because of what some man says? Are you really happy that you cannot say no when your husband wants sex? I WANT to be happy with my religion. I WANT to look at a fatwa and have it make sense like it seems to do with these women in my life. And since these women are otherwise bright and intelligent, I wonder if it’s MY failing that I am seeking something else, autonomy perhaps. Maybe autonomy is not what I as a Muslim woman am supposed to strive for. This is where I get stuck a lot – look at these women and want the peace of mind they have even though some of the fatwas just seem so effed up.

            I have felt this way for many many years but since having a daughter after 3 boys I am feeling it so much more acutely. I can teach my boys how women should be treated. I can’t teach the rest of the Muslim community how to treat my daughter and that scares me.

            Sorry for the long comment – could be a blog post but I would never voice this on my own blog!

            • Lat says:

              “I can teach my boys how women should be treated. I can’t teach the rest of the Muslim community how to treat my daughter and that scares me. ”

              liked how you said that,Tasmiya.If I had a daughter,I’d feel the same way.But your step is sounds like a very big step to me.Teaching boys how to treat the other half of humanity.that’s the way to go!

            • Metis says:

              I love your comment, Tasmiya! You are always welcome to say anything you like here, my dear friend.

  3. Zuhura says:

    I am currently doing fieldwork in Zanzibar and my in-laws here are constantly trying to teach me how to be a “proper” Muslim. I feel like I’m under surveillance sometimes. I’m not doing udhu correctly, my feet are visible during prayer, some hairs are sticking out of my scarf, I accidently put a song as my ringtone on my cellphone, I have short hair, and so on. It really bothers me, but I put up with it here out of respect for the culture. At home I would argue with anyone who tries to tell me such things are un-Islamic, but I know that here they will assume that I just haven’t learned enough about Islam yet to practice it “correctly”.

    • afifa says:

      Hello Zuhura,

      Your comment reminded me of how my husband nitpicked every thing I did after we were married – my wudhu wasn’t proper because I didn’t hit 2.5 inches above my elbow, I was flashing my wrist as I drove, I didn’t stay in Sujood for the prescribed 5.34 seconds, etc. I was always a 5 pillar girl and his excessive need to be SO exact about the RIGHT WAY as though there is one Right Way really killed it for me. I could feel him studying me as I engaged in every activity – scruntinizing it for failure. Such a religious guy but my time with him has made me question why I bother being Muslim at all because I have so much built up resentment. I just wanted an intrinsic spirituality – a way to have structure in my spiritual life. Eh. I could care less about the litany of does and don’ts outside of the obvious ones (it isn’t cool to kill,etc)

      • Zuhura says:

        I know what you mean, afifa. I think if I I was surrounded by this scrutiny year-round I wouldn’t be able to stay a Muslim. Thankfully I am here by choice and only for a month and then I can go back to my life of religious freedom and islam.

      • Nusaiba says:

        I found this blog through tumblr and have been reading a lot of the posts.
        Afifa, I read the 5.34 and had to hold myself back from laughing (it is three in the morning so I do not want to wake people up). I’ve always wondered why people are always so nitpicky about religion.

        Like is Allah SWT actually going to punish us for differences in how we pray or how we do wudhu? Isn’t it a good deed to be doing both in the first place? I mean, at least we’re not sitting around doing nothing towards good deeds.

        And some people don’t even believe that the way many people pray is the way everyone HAS to pray.

        Which goes back to how I’ve always viewed Islam. If Allah is the most merciful, then insh’allah all our good deeds mean something and our intention in being a good Muslim (and through that being a good PERSON) is more important than counting how many times I washed my hands for Wudhu.

        Anyways, I’m sorry that your time with him has built up so much resentment, I hope that one day you can let go of that and be happy with how you practice Islam and not let others get in your way! :]

  4. Metis says:

    Zuhura, thanks for sharing your interesting experience here. I can understand that it must be so frustrating.

    You said, “but I know that here they will assume that I just haven’t learned enough about Islam yet to practice it “correctly”.”

    I think there are also people who will lecture and correct born Muslims even. I have had well-meaning relatives who are orthodox Muslims lecture me on the benefits of hijab or my duties as a wife. And they actually get very angry if I don’t follow their advice.

    So short hair is haraam? 😀

    • M says:

      “And they actually get very angry if I don’t follow their advice. ” Angry and Bossy Muslims – Irony at it’s best 😀

    • Zuhura says:

      I don’t know if they would go so far as to say short hair is haramu but definitely a Muslim woman “should” have long hair because it’s pleasing to her husband (and they’re shocked when I tell them my husband likes my hair short).

      I have also observed people correcting born Muslims here, but it seems to have to do with the fact that many women haven’t formally studied Islam, so the few who have learned something in religious classes that they take to be orthodoxy will share it with others. And often the commentary is welcomed, because women value that kind of education but sometimes don’t have access to it (particularly older women).

      • Metis says:

        I don’t mind correction if it is done in a civil manner. I dislike being told aggressively to agree. I’m sure your husband’s relatives aren’t aggressive.

        I recently cut my hair short and I don’t cover my head AND my husband likes long hair 🙂

  5. Do you think a religion becomes how it is practiced?

    Yes, I do think a religion becomes how it is practised and I guess this is why there is more policing of what is regarded as improper.

    Do Muslim Feminists face such people frequently who wish to ”enjoin good and forbid evil”?

    Oh yes, I meet such people often and they are usually family members and are not only Muslim. Some Christians have asked me why I don’t cover my hair, they tell me that I should do it because I am Muslim and then conclude that I must be one of those ‘cool Muslims’. Muslim family members also assume that I am not informed on my choices, especially with hijab and other sensitive topics. It is expected that I should be a ‘proper’ Muslim, mostly in terms of dress, even though I believe differently. The Quran is usually brought up and I like to point out that I do actually read the Quran. Luckily, I don’t feel under much pressure, people know me to be stubborn now.

    How do such people make you feel when they want you to view things in a set manner?

    They make me wish that there was more space for, and acceptance of, diversity.

  6. Lat says:

    “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…” ”

    I do think that the wahabi trend had a play in this.Remember reading about it,as the right way of being considererd Muslims and that their’s is the only Islam there is and no other.Did early Muslims practice just one way of the religion? Did they not splinter into sects like the Kharijites and the Shia? Surely they had the basics there. Who are we to say now that we are not following the right way? I find this view to be narrow minded.When Islam spread over the Arabian shores,this is to be expected and early Muslims did have the foresight to allow the local people to practice their religion according to their customs.So I don’t believe Islam is monolithic and unchanging.

    Just like how Tasmiya above said about Sufism being tradtitional and militant,was something I was not familiar with.Yes they can be strict but not violent,at least to my understanding.So I was kind of shocked to learn later that Sufis can be violent.So initially I was wrong to conclude that all Sufis are peace loving people (but mostly they are!) Now I know there can be more than one way of looking at sufism whether I like it or not.Or like Zuhura said about wudu.There can be so many differences in prayer that I now think that it’s all okay.There’s no just one valid acceptable way of connecting to the divine.

    And the ”enjoining good and forbidding evil” is also present here.Like the instance at a funeral a lady was telling how women shouldn’t go to the graveyard citing menses among other reasons.Of course I questioned her! And then she said I was just trying to say what I learned from others.It’s how we take it, seriously or lightly and then get on with our lives. This enjoing thing is something like the evangelist do,isn’t it? Once long ago I was preached by my SIL about Chirstianity and when I asked her why she’s doing it,she said it’s her duty to do so to spread the message of Christ otherwise she may be at fault.She told me she was happy that at least she had done her part.

    ” How do such people make you feel when they want you to view things in a set manner?”

    I rebel with my God-given mouth 😀 That’s what I do! But this does not just include Muslims but also non-Muslims when it comes to some traditions I don’t feel right about.I try not to antagonize anyone with my sharp-tongue as best as I could.

    • Metis says:

      I wish people were more tolerant. I think tolerance is a way forward. When we begin using negatives like “don’t/no/bad/non-…/none” etc we are trying to be God-like and I have a problem with that. I have a problem even with learned people issuing fatwas because after all they are human and to err is human. We forget that to forgive is Divine. Most probably God will act Most-Forgiving so why are we so bothered about how others *live*?!

      • Nusaiba says:

        I love this blog. You all are awesome.

        If Allah is most merciful than we should all be worried about making sure that we are living healthy fulfilling lives and just try to be the best Muslims (obviously those who are Muslim here, haha) we can be.

        I’m not sure how policing other people’s lives are conducive to our own lives, and in the end we only have our after-life to speak for (in terms of our deeds and sins). Calling other people out for not doing whatever right is just icky and most likely isn’t helpful to our path in Islam, I would say. That and no one likes a bossy pants. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) led by example and surprised people all the time.

        There is no real reason why we (in general) need to police others.

        Tolerance is the way to go!

  7. susanne430 says:

    Islam is submission to God. I don’t think God has one set plan for every single person. We need to listen to Him and hear what He is telling us to do. For some that may mean being a mother and staying home with the children for another it could be caring for orphans in some far away country while for another it could be breaking proverbial glass ceilings in a man-centered world. So while I think the definition is unchanging, the application of this is different because God likes variety. He didn’t make us all the same. We each have strengths and weaknesses and He chooses to work through us in HIS way.

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