Islam’s Relation to Culture

As our readings throughout this course became more and more advanced, they combined into a functional understanding of what Islam is – as well as what Islam isn’t.  I think it’s absolutely certain that Islam exists apart from the collection of Muslims who practice it.  Religions have come and gone throughout history, but the memory of them lingers even when their followers no longer exist.  Almost everyone can name at least one Greek or Roman god, even though the practice of those ancient religions have faded into obscurity.  As religions stop being practiced, they start being viewed through the lens of mythology rather than practiced religions, but nevertheless the memory of them persists.

That being said, I also believe that Islam is as much a product of the multiple cultures where it is practiced as it is about a particular holy text or collection of beliefs.  We saw this in our readings from the very beginning of the term, and it has held true throughout all 6 weeks so far.  It started in regards to the veil as we read in our very first module, expressed and argued by Abu-Lughod and its place in culture and society in Muslim communities it became obvious that the practices of Islam vary by culture, region and people.[1]  It continued through the aftermath of Muhammed’s death and the influence of both his male and female followers in Module 3.[2]  How women are viewed under the veil of Islam varies greatly by culture, locale and attitudes of those enmeshed in those societies.

This module as we look at both gendered reactions towards death and female genital mutilation, we are faced with a lot of cultural norms that are abhorrent to us in Western society that are practiced by Muslims in Africa, instead of the Middle East.  Although FGM is not a tradition exclusive or even originating within Islam, it is one that is practiced widely in various areas.  Understanding the practice is difficult, since no one really knows who started it or why, but understanding various positive reactions and implications associated with it starts to shed light on the tradition.[3]  In my opinion, this is yet another example to follow many others in previous modules of culture influencing Islam, and Islam both condemning and supporting cultural norms in a specific society.[4]

In closing, I think it may be possible in some instances to separate Islam from the cultures it is practiced in, but doing so would be tedious and difficult.  Islam, like many other religions practiced around the world, seems deeply connected to various cultures and societal norms in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

[1] Lila Aabu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 784.

[2] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminists Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1991): 70.

[3] Kathryn M Yount, “Symbolic Gender Politics, Religious Group Identity and the Decline in Female Genital Cutting in Minya, Egypt,” Social Forces 82, no. 3 (2004): 1063.

[4] Ibid, 1083.

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