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.


Islam in the Modern World

While this week’s reading may initially seem to be more progressive than a lot of the conservative ideology previously covered in other resources this term, I do not agree that it can actually be labeled as progressive.  It is certainly not a shift towards more liberal interpretations of the Quran, the Hadiths or centuries worth of clerical jurisprudence.  Instead, I see the surprising stance presented this module about both artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery as merely loopholes through which to shove previously established dogmas and understandings.  To frame my meaning in terms of a much more familiar (to most of us) religious context, we see a lot of progressive branches of Christianity attempting to fundamentally change and challenge various verses and doctrines found within the Bible, admitting in many cases that previous understandings were incorrect, and often acknowledging the harm those misunderstandings have caused others.  That is not, however, what we see happening in Islam, contrary to what Abdullahi An-Naim advoctates for in his essay, calling on the need for understandings of Shari’a law to be fluid.[1]

In Islam, we see scholars finding loopholes around firmly entrenched interpretations and understandings in light of increased knowledge, technology and science.  We don’t see them admitting to misinterpretation or error, merely finding ways around precedent as in the case of transsexualism and the fact that it is accepted in Iran specifically because the Quran does not directly address it.[2] While it was surprising for me to learn about not only the legality of sex reassignment surgery in Iran, its frequency and also its relatively early inception compared to other nations, the logic behind it was heartbreaking.  While there are no doubt legitimate transsexuals in Iran that have benefitted from this policy, there is equally no doubt that a large number of people who would identify as gay or lesbian have opted for the label of transsexual in a desperate attempt to escape both the social stigma of homosexuality and its potentially lethal criminal consequences.[3]  In a culture and society where being gay is not only deeply shameful to the individual and their family but also illegal, seeking escape by a willingness to be certified as transsexual is a desperate bid for even a small portion of individual freedom, expression and potential safety – although safety is far from guaranteed.[4]  While difficult to say it is striking how many similarities there could potentially be between Iran and the United States in terms of the stigmatization of gender bias in the case of MtF transsexuals verses FtMs.  Safety is hardly guaranteed even here, and it is far more socially acceptable to be a FtM transsexual than the other way around – a clear example of how much further our society has to go to truly embrace notions of gender equality and a distancing of stigmatism based solely on gender bias.

Finally, it was a remark by Morgan Clarke that caught my attention this week to wrap up a particularly difficult (for me personally as a gay non-believer in the United States) module.  He argues that no one can truly be called a liberal when they truly believe that God has set forth a standard which defines unequivocally the right way to live, but then goes on to highlight the importance of continuing to readjust the understanding of that standard.  If that readjustment or “evolution” of beliefs does not occur, the core belief will cease being relevant within the context of our ever-changing modern world.[5]

[1] Abdullahi An-Na’im, “the Dichotomy Between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” in Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 58.

[2] Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. ¾ (2008), 27.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Morgan Clarke, “Children of the Revolution: ‘Ali Khamene’I’s ‘Liberal” Views on in vitro Fertilization,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 34, no. 3 (2007): 302.

Women, Islam and the Law

As I look back on the combined readings that we’ve had so far throughout this class, I’m struck by the simple idea that Islam – at least at a fundamental level – has the potential for gender equality, yet also has the potential for misogyny.  The readings this week seem to point to one of the reasons why the history of Islam has focused on the latter, rather than the former option by narrowing the scope to a single passage in the Quran and how it was interpreted by Medieval Muslim scholars, opinions that have been carried forward in many instances to the present day.  It could be argued, successfully most likely, that Islam at its core – at least in written form through the Quran – is less inherently misogynistic than either Judaism or Christianity.  In Judaism, women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers or husbands, with many laws put in place to limit their rights.  Christianity marked the apostle Paul making it clear that women were not allowed to have authority over men or even speak in public in Church.  The issue I had with the reading this week was that policies/practices of misogyny in Islam, although not inherent in Muhammed’s message, combined with tribalistic ideals of the culture and time in which it was formed, and those ideas became the predominant view from the 7th century onward, and are still prevalent today.

Fadel raises some interesting points in his article, although it focuses on a very limited time and place.  He does do a good job of extricating medieval ideals and principles and carrying them forward into the present when contrasting with the writings of other writers we’ve encountered thus far this term.  Although the Quranic verse 2:282 Fadel bases his article on initially seems undeniably discriminatory, the way Fadel uses medieval Islamic scholars to shine a light on the intent and justification behind the verse is incredibly enlightening.[1]   Had Islamic thought truly believed the word of a woman was inferior to that of a man, as Fadel points out, they would hardly be reliable sources of Hadith and other legal positions.[2]  The fact that Aisha not only narrated Hadith as well as gave commentary and opinion on legal matters and disputes speaks volumes on the nature of early Islamic thought, and seems to directly contradict the verse being examined.[3]  Regardless of the reasons given in the commentary about the verse by medieval Islamic jurists, both carry further implications – whether avoiding non-compliance by adding the testimony of a man for corroboration or simply keeping the women within the home in the private sphere, both answers add a layer to the relation of women inside the Islamic world.[4]  The separation of the private and public spheres in gender relations within Islam are both fascinating and foreign to me, as is the relationship between political speech and narration.  The distinctions, however, deepen my understanding of Islam as it exists within the modern world.


The key point of Fadel’s article, however, that really drove his arguments home for me was his acknowledgement of Ahmed, who we read in a previous module.  Yes, there are two inherent voices within Islam in relation to gender and gender relations.[5]  But as Fadel rightly points out in response, these voices are not a modern feminist invention or revelation – they have always been in existence and opposed throughout the history of Islam, and will most likely continue to be until a shift in general consensus can be obtained.[6]  The key to this facet of the argument rests in Fadel’s suggestion that “Muslim modernism in general, and Muslim feminism in particular, might profit from exploiting problems and tensions that have long been recognized to exist within Islamic law” rather than pursuing a “new” approach to jurisprudence.[7]

[1] Mohammed Fadel, “Two Women, One Man: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in Medieval Sunni Legal Thought,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, no. 2 (1997): 187.

[2] Ibid, 192.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 193.

[5] Ibid, 200.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Islam: The Lasting Influence of Few Men

Author Fatima Mernissi was onto something I think is critically important to understanding Islam from a Western point of view when she wrote in her book “Is it possible that Islam’s message had only a limited and superficial effect on deeply superstitious seventh-century Arabs who failed to integrate its novel approaches to the world and to women?  Is it possible that the hijab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jahiliyya mentality that Islam was supposed to annihilate?”[1]

What Mernissi seems to be explicitly saying in this pivotal passage seems to be that after the death of Muhammed, Islam’s future leaders deviated from the inherent message Muhammed and his immediate followers so much that the Islam that exists today descended from an incorrect understanding of Muhammed’s message – so much so that the imposition of the veil which has become a symbol of Muslims around the world has grossly misunderstood its original message and purpose.  There was a lot of information in these few chapters, and reading these brief passages gave me the desire to read the entire book (and I’ve ordered it on Amazon as a result – as well as an English translation of the Quran).  As she rightfully points out in both the introduction and the first assigned chapter, understanding the message of Islam requires a lot of digging on the part of the believer – and the same would necessarily (if not more so) apply to an outsider.[2]  The main message, in my opinion, from the collection of readings from this week is that there is more to Islam than merely focusing prematurely on its seemingly misogynistic leanings in the modern world.  From Muhammed’s treatment of his wives – especially Aisha – to the original purpose of the veil (as Mernissi points out to separate two men), it’s clear that at least in theory Islam did not start out as purely patriarchal or misogynistic.[3]

In my personal life, I often debate with people for fun, and I always roll my eyes when I hear arguments about taking things out of context.  In this specific instance, however, when regarding the woman’s place in Islam – especially considering Islam’s message of questioning everything and everyone (a concept incredibly foreign in a lot of Christian culture) context is incredibly important.[4]

I think, given the concepts and the historical context from the readings this week, it is entirely possible that Islam only scratched the surface of change in an already placed Arab culture – a culture that was reinforced as Islam spread and was influenced by similar cultural ideals in Persia and across the Mediterranean.  These influences reinforced a disparity between the sexes, allowing for the focus on hadiths and traditions that would place women below men rather than their spiritual equals and fostering a sense of misogyny that would last into the centuries to come.

[1] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Cambridge; Perseus Books, 1991), 81.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Ibid, 76.

Ethics vs. Pragmatism in Islam’s Age of Expansion

The readings this week highlighted an aspect of Islam that I was unware of but that links it with both Christianity and Judaism – the matter of interpretation.  Being raised in a strict Christian home, I grew up believing that there was a singular Christianity, a singular Judaism and a singular Islam – although, to be fair, I wasn’t exposed to much of the theology of the last two options.  Growing up, however, and developing my own understanding of the religious around the world, I was surprised to see that far from being one singular understanding of Christianity there were, in fact, thousands.  The last I checked, there were over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone – and that’s only one of the world’s major religions.  Islam, however, seemed vastly more cohesive until I began the readings for this week.

When focusing on the theologies of Islam, particularly in regards to women’s rights, their place and how they are viewed in Islamic society, Leila Ahmed rightly points out that, despite current conflicting views continuing through today, the majority of Islamic thought occurred in a time period that allowed cultural and societal norms to influence religious ideology.[1]  If Ahmed’s rendering and study of women is Islamic history is accurate, the regulations, seclusions, veiling and other “oppressive” measures did not originate when Islam did, but came after the death of Muhammed once the mantle of religious leadership passed to others.[2]  While that at first seems strange for someone living in the 21st century’s Westernized world, it makes sense when compared to other religious traditions.  According to Ahmed, one of the very things that sets Islam apart from other monotheistic beliefs was the fact that women are explicitly addressed in Islam’s sacred writing – the Quran.[3]  She points out that this indicates – at least at the beginning stages of Islam – that women and men were viewed equally, not only by Muhammed himself, but by the writings that were to become Islam’s most sacred and authoritative text.  It’s also interesting to note that women within Islam itself argue against the stereotype that Islam is sexist due to the way in which they read, interpret and understand the Quran for themselves, regardless of the more prevalent interpretations that were practiced in Islamic society throughout history and even today.[4]  The key to understanding this dilemma, however, seem to be in understanding that those in positions of leadership, authority and power within Islam are not the ones who focused on the ethical and spiritual aspects of the religion, but rather those who focused on the pragmatic ones – particularly, as Ahmed points out, within the Abbasid period.[5] This period fundamentally changed the way that women were predominately viewed in Islamic society, and was powerful enough to be carried throughout history through the present day in many predominately Muslim nations.[6]  Understanding why this key change took place seems to rest on understanding Islam’s massive growth, assimilation of other cultural and societal norms outside of Arabia and the ruling/political elite responsible for writing much of the texts, interpretations and understandings that are prevalent in Islam throughout the world today.[7]

[1] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 64.

[2] Ibid, 64.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 65.

[5] Ibid, 67.

[6] Ibid, 67.

[7] Ibid, 67.

Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

From the readings and the videos provided in this module, regardless of whether any prior knowledge and/or bias was present prior to the start of this term, it’s clear that the question of the “salvation” of Muslim women is a complex, nuanced and difficult subject that cannot be easily answered.  To be honest, I’ve wrestled with this question myself long before the term started, and although I’ve thought at times that I’ve had the answer, I’ve changed my mind a lot.  I’m still wrestling with it today throughout the readings and activities of this module.

In the readings this week, both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh argue that the veil, contrary to Western stereotypes is seen by many Muslim women in the Arab world as empowering, rather than oppressing Muslim women.[1][2]  Surprisingly, their argument is not difficult for me to understand.  For women constantly on edge regarding unwanted attention from the opposite sex when venturing out in public, covering oneself – especially in light of religious teachings – can demonstrate taking power over oneself in relation to society as a whole, even more so when considering that observers are more likely to stand up in your defense while covered.[3]  That being said, however, I also see the other side.  While it’s true that women are adopting the veil, as argued, of their own free will – is it really free will if the consequences of NOT covering can be death at the hands of a male family member for even the appearance of sexual impropriety and thereby impugning the family’s sexual honor?[4]  Or would that be seen more as coercion rather than a free-will choice?

I think what Abu-Lughod is trying to point out in her compelling article is that in the West, our cultures and societal norms are so different from those often portrayed from Muslim-majority cultures and countries that it’s easy to be dismissive of those cultural differences as barbaric or ancient, assert Western ideals and values as superior or “more evolved” and desire to pull Muslim women out of what is seen as “dark age ideologies” into the modern 21st century, without taking their desires, beliefs or wishes into account.  Doing so, I think, is not only arrogant to the extreme, but dangerous.  Both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh mention that distaste that many Muslim women in the Arab world have for Western culture and ideals.[5][6]  Removing them by force from the Islamic culture that they embrace and throwing them into a culture that they despise would do little more than submit them to a different kind of oppression than we are misguidedly attempting to “save” them from.

It’s all too easy to attempt to claim the moral, cultural high ground, asserting that anything you disagree with is objectively wrong, but to do so removes a lot of the nuance and history surrounding different cultures around the world.  As Abu-Lughod states implicitly in her article, it is impossible now to separate Muslim culture from its history of colonialism, interference and judgement of the western world at large, and to judge Muslim cultural practices as somehow outdated or wrong is to dismiss and fail to take responsibility for the West’s hand in their development and implementation.[7]

[1] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-790.

[2] Lama Abu Odeh, “Post-Colonial Feminism and the Veil: Thinking the Difference,” Feminist Review 43 (1993): 26-37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abu-Lughod.

[7] Ibid.

The People’s Army – Provincials in the 7 Years’ War

The central theme of Fred Anderson’s “People’s Army” seems to be distinguishing the cultural milieu of provincial volunteers from their British regular counterparts. By highlighting and evaluating these differences, Anderson is able to efficiently separate the New World society from that of the old mother country, allowing the New Englanders to develop and identify a distinct, separate identity, helping to foster revolutionary ideals a few years later.

Anderson supports his theme in many ways, by exploring several avenues of distinction between the regular and provincial forces.  Beginning by discussing the events leading up to the outbreak of the 7 years’ war as well as the makeup of armies in New England prior to the war, Anderson sets the stage for the forthcoming chapters.  Where the distinctions between the New England provincials and the British regulars really starts to take shape, however, is in discussing the various interactions that the two groups had with each other.  Anderson takes great care to explain normative societal functions in New England, with most young men not leaving their home town for the majority (if not all) of their lives.  To go out into the world as a fresh provincial volunteer and see the scope of the British army was a huge culture shock to a lot of these soldiers, and that was demonstrated time and time again with interactions between them and the British.[1]

Due to the short-term nature of service of the entire provincial force, they could not hope to obtain the experience, professionalism or battle-hardness of their British counterparts, and that was seen by the British as a deficiency that was noticed and commented on time and time again.[2]  Furthermore, the cultural ideas of covenants and contracts that the New Englanders held as the central understanding of their culture was so completely foreign to British commanders that they further held that against the provincial forces.[3]  For all intents and purposes, the soldiers volunteering for service in the 7 years’ war from New England viewed themselves, surprisingly, as employees working under contract – not for the British, but for the New England towns that raised the forces and sent them out.[4]  As such, they had little regard for authority of any stripe past their terms of enlistment, and were never capable of obtaining the same battle-hardness and efficiency of the British troops, making British leadership underestimate and devalue them – a costly error in judgement that was to cost the British North America in the years ahead.[5]


[1] Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers & Society in the Seven Year’s War (Williamsburg, VA: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 111-141.

[2] Ibid, 142-165.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.