Islam as a “conservative” religion?

Asalamu Alaikom and a Ramadan Kareem to all. I apologize for my hiatus, but I had to tend to some family obligations the past two weeks. Nontheless, it is time to catch up on what we have missed in the past two weeks (aka time for me to rant about conversations and readings I have encountered recently).

I shall begin with a scenario that occurred roughly two weeks ago. A friend and I were discussing various community issues and social spaces (and the discrimination sometimes found within them) in the American Muslim community. The conversation steered towards the taboo subject of homosexuality and homosexuals in Islam. While I would not like to delve into details of the debate, we both came to the conclusion that bigotry resulting from heterosexism unfortunately alienates LGBTQ Muslims within Muslim spaces, often to the point where they must choose ridicule or the rejection of faith. When I said that this was a phenomenon that needed to be combated, my friend responded with a statement that I found extremely puzzling. He said something along the lines of, “Like it or not, Islam is, and has always been, a conservative religion.” Not wanting to get into a debate regarding semantics via text message, I let this statement go unchecked. However, it has been bothering me for weeks, and I would like to address it now.

I do not know exactly but what is meant by “Islam being conservative.” Perhaps this idea results because we cannot escape our own tempocentric understandings of the liberal/conservative binaries. So what makes Islam conservative? Does it favor Bush tax cuts? Is it opposed to a strong, central government (bad news for those who want to reinstate a global caliphate, right?)? Is Islam socially conservative? Is it anti-choice? What is meant by the term conservative?

When people claim that Islam is a “conservative” religion, what I believe they truly mean is that it is a religion that values modesty. I cannot disagree with that as there is a famous hadith in Abu Dawood that says the following: “Every Deen has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty (haya).” However, what we must realize is the idea of modesty is specific to its cultural context and can be dictated by time, space, and even topography. Thus, modest behavior in one place on the planet is not necessarily modest practice in another. We are obsessed with finding cultural universalities that most likely do not exist. In doing so, we invent hierarchies of Muslims based on cultural understandings of modesty. This can place an emphasis on outward manifestations of faith that can alienate a sister who doesn’t wear hijab, a brother who does not have a beard (or wears shorts), an individual who doesn’t fit the heteronormative standard of gender performance, and other valuable members of our Muslim community.

I digress…

I understand where the conflation of “conservative” and “modest” may arise, but let us explore the claims that Islam has always been a “conservative” religion. I, personally, whole-heartedly disagree with that statement. In many regards, the message of Islam was an extremely radical one that came to challenge many societal norms of 7th century Arabia upon its inception. Many reforms introduced by Islam, even by today’s standards, would be described as “liberal” ones as Islam:

1) gave more rights to women (in terms of inheritance, property rights, right to life (female infanticide was a common practice at the times), etc)

2) began abolishing constructed racial hierarchies (by introducing reforms to slavery and encouraging its abolition)

3) challenged aristocratic privilege and plutocracy

4) challenged socially accepted views of masculinity (Islam discouraged the idea of muruwwa which emphasized bravery, pride, revenge and other aspects of patriarchy).

Even fiscally, the Muslim state (under command of Umar Bin Khattab), introduced the idea of bayt-ul-maal (house of money) which many historians refer to as the first modern welfare state. As it can be seen, Islam introduced reforms that were extremely “liberal” and progressive both in the social and fiscal realms.

Sadly, we have abandoned the importance of historical contextualization and have allowed the progressive dynamism of Islam to take a back seat to established, rigid (maybe antiquated?) rules. In terms of spirit, Islam was never intended to be summed up as a “conservative” message. Islam has always carried a message of social justice; of treating others with love and kindness. Islam came to challenge the customs of the ruling elite and reassess the status quo. Islam is inherently progressive. This Ramadan, as we see countless acts of violence and oppression, from Hama to Aurora, let us not forget Islam’s commitment to social justice.

I will end with a beautiful quote by Muslim poet Mark Gonzales found in the book All American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim (which is a great read and should be read by all!):

“I love that infinite Justice is an attribute of Allah, for shedding oppression is the purest form of prayer.”

I pray that these words resonate with all Muslims during this holy month and for the rest of our lives. It is our duty to recognize our own privilege, as well as combat the oppression and discrimination we find around us. This is not to say that we must only combat Islamophobia, but we must oppose ALL oppression and discrimination. It is our duty to speak out against all types of unlawful hegemony because standing for any form of oppression, is still supporting oppression.

As an Arab, I apologize for not leaving when I said I would, but I will end (seriously this time) with another quote from the book mentioned earlier, this time by congressman Keith Ellison.

“Those who seek the divine want to make the world a better place.” He goes on to say this is best accomplished by service to humanity. This should be our goal: to serve God by ensuring the rights of all humans in the world regardless of race, creed, religion, gender, ability, or sexual orientation. Let us remember this purpose during Ramadan and keep on praying that we may one day achieve this goal. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Islam as a “conservative” religion?

  1. Husam

    I agree with your claims above, but I’d like to offer further explanations for the use of the term “conservative” with regards to Islam.

    For example, let’s pretend that a friend of mine who drinks is asking me about Islam’s prohibition on drinking. I’d explain it to him. If I didn’t feel comfortable explaining it to him because I worried that he’d find me judgmental railing against his actions, I might just say that it’s a rule of the religion, so I must follow it. Similarly, I could say, “Islam is a conservative religion.” It’s like a defensive mechanism against explanations. Still, I remember once talking with someone about usury before I understood some of it’s harms on a society. He pushed me on the morality of it, arguing that it was valid. Unable to argue against it further, I just said, “it’s a tenet of my religion, so I believe and follow it.” In my heart, there’s more to it than simple rule-following.

    Growing up with Islam in America, I’d say that its rules seem conservative on the outside. If you incorrectly take Islam’s positions to the extreme and put them in black and white, it’s conservative. Additionally, most of the people teaching Islam here come from cultures considered conservative by Americans. Ethink: even something as small as keeping one’s voice level low would be labeled conservative.

    Side note: I have heard Muslims use the term conservative amongst themselves to describe people that are more strict and dedicated to explicit acts of worship. Some use it positively and others negatively, but in this context, it essentially means those who focus on the minor sunnas (but by association are also more likely to be strict with what is fard).

  2. I just wrote you a long reply, but it somehow didn’t send. I agree with what you said about the statement being used as a defense mechanism. To me, saying “Islam is a conservative religion” is just a default statement used by Muslims when they become uncomfortable when their beliefs are challenged. I think this leaves little room for reform, nuance, or growth for the Muslim Ummmah. What we can focus on is the idea that Islam carried a message of serving the Lord by serving humanity. This is a message that transcends time and space. You will have to settle for this abridged response for now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I mean I understand how refraining from alcohol use or promoting abstinence until marriage are socially conservative traits by today’s standards (in the West), but why have we chosen to define our religion by these characteristics as if they are the most fundamental tennants of faith? Why do we focus on these rules more than the overarching messages of Islam? Who do we feel the need to police the faith of others instead of focusing on efforts to aid all people regardless of beliefs? Confining Islam to the label of “conservative” does a disservice to the understanding of the faith

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