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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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On (falsely) appearing to be too “Westernized” for Muslim Communities

I recently came across an article in the Huffington Post discussing the idea of thinking of the West and Islam as having unrelated, separate histories. We seem to think of the West and Islam as being inherently in opposition. The West valuing progress while Islam valuing a seeminglystagnant tradition. Media often propagates these binaries and, unfortunately, so do our American and Muslim American communities.

As someone with a degree in the humanities, I often get into debates with friends and family over issues that often result in me being labeled “socially liberal.” Apparently, this also means that I am a “bad Muslim.” Often times, my friends and family look at me in dismay because in their eyes I have “sold out” and chosen the West over Islam, again thinking in the binary way discussed earlier. In their eyes, because I may be critical of gender segregation in Muslim spaces, that means I also value glamorizing alcohol consumption and American “hook-up” culture and my points are often delegitimized as coming from the mouth of a “western-pundit.” However, I am not stripped of all legitimacy because ultimately, I am not as big of a traitor as a sister who doesn’t wear hijab (she obviously doesn’t care about the Deen, right?) and am somewhat knowledgeable of the religion and its history.

I find it especially troubling to associate any critique I may have of my own community as solely influenced by Western thought. This is particularly troubling for me because I spent the past four years of my life writing papers criticizing White and Western hegemony, Euro-centrism in academia, and Western cultural imperialism. So no, my critiques (which are often far outnumbered by my praise) of my Muslim communities is not a result of me being “brain-washed” by “liberal” professors in Ann Arbor. I do not believe in cultural or civilizational hierarchies, so my critiques of my own community come from a genuine love and care for my American Muslim community, and not from a belief that “Western” thought or culture are somehow inherently superior  (there is a difference between leftist and Western). I love the Deen and this Ummah, but that does not mean it is perfect. I want to see it progress. I want to see it be dynamic. I want us all to be more and more proud to be Muslim every day. I want us to realize that Islam is demonized and I want us to do something about it. I would like to see us combat the false dichotomy between Islam and the West and further ideas of coexistence over isolation. I want to see Muslims leading domestic social justice endeavors. We are on the right path. I love this Ummah and would like to see it become as inclusive and understanding as possible. How dare you question my commitment and allegiance to the Ummah because I discuss taboo issues and attempt to combat forces of oppression found in (but definitely not limited to) our own Muslim communities?

The fact the people are willing to listen makes me optimistic. They don’t have to agree with what I have to say, but dialogue is important. However, the fact that people are willing to listen have made me slightly more aware of my male and Sunni privilege within Muslim communities. It is a shame that those two criteria allow people to take me more seriously, but I am glad that they do allow my voice to be heard. So I would like to end by saying that we should be aware of any voices being silenced within our own Muslim communities and why they are being hushed. How can we preach inclusivity when we aren’t thinking about who is being silenced and who is producing current Islamic knowledge? I hope we can continue to think critically and keep our minds open. Let us hear the voices of all Muslims and never forget the Islamic principles of love, mercy, equality, and social justice. 

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