Reformist Muslim

Exploring possibilities for the future of Islam and other thoughts

Location: London, United Kingdom

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Cultural Baggage & Religious Modesty

The House of Lords decision in the Jilbab case has elicited a lot of comment. One of the more interesting pieces was written by Fareena Alam at the Guardian's Commentisfree. I'd like to pick up on one paragraph in particular.
For years, Muslims around me have said: "Islam must be separated from culture." While this slogan has deep and well-meaning roots - such as the struggle to teach people that honour killing, often justified with religious excuses, is a cultural practice that is unequivocally abhorred in Islam - the clash between culture and religion is ultimately a false one. This idea of a "pure Islam, free of cultural baggage" is a false one. Religion manifests itself in the realities of life. Must we all neutralise ourselves - even the aspects that do not contravene Islam, to be accepted as "pious"? What is this "one Islam" or "one voice" people call for, and who decides what it says?
I think this cuts to the root of the major clashes within Islam, not only today but for a very long time. For the fundamentalists, modesty is something which has an external standard, judged by God and having only one true interpretation. Therefore any element of culture which gets in the way, is baggage which needs to be discarded in order to obtain 'pure Islam'.

On the other hand for the liberals or more commonly the pragmatists, modesty without its social setting is devoid of both meaning and guidance. Therefore to judge what is modest, one has to take the surroundings into account. After all, if everyone in society thinks that my dress and behaviour is modest, then that is all that should count in determining whether I am modest. Evidence for this can be seen in the fact that women can wear whatever they want in the company of other women. To extend this further, it is possible that people wearing different clothes in different parts of the world can both be fulfilling the requirement for modesty.

The second view of modesty reaches when one reaches the extremes. For example while most people would feel comfortable with an outsider wearing shalwar kameez when in Pakistan, wearing a Burqa in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan simply because others wear it seems less acceptable. In any case the fact that it is limited to extremes means that it affects relatively few people.

The biggest problem comes from the fact that the majority of the world's population do not live in small isolated communities. For Muslims this is most acutely felt when in living in non-Muslim countries.

An obvious solution is to stick with the lowest common denominator so that you make sure that you remain within certain bounds. Unfortunately this has two problems - firstly it may make integration unnecessarily difficult, but more importantly, if someone chooses to wear clothes which are slightly different but still modest, they can be made to feel as if they are lesser Muslims or not as pious by those who stick with traditional clothing.

Tariq Ramadan has proposed a middle ground to this debate by calling for scholars of the text, to engage in a consultative process with experts of the context, ordinary economists, civil servants, politicians etc. This approach definitely has its merits in integrating traditional knowledge with contemporary secular knowledge. However I'm not sure if it deals with something as personal a decision as what is and is not modest. To conclude, I would agree with Fareena Alam that while religion seeks to make us better humans, that should never mean that it neutralise us as individual human beings.


Blogger iabhopal said...

You have raised a good point. The idea of writing on it had recently come to my mind when I was writing on Karo Kari but could not because of some other subject being on my plate.

I am not a scholar but have habit of reading with concentration relevant material before commenting. Our people have started behaving like a pendulum. They go either to one extreme or the other while Qur’aan teaches us “Siratul Woosta” (median way). Islam is Islam and there is nothing like moderate Islam, enlightened Islam, true Islam or real Islam. These terms appear to have been coined by people to justify their point of view which may or may not be within the fold of Islam. Islam is what Qur’aan says and Hadith explains.

No where culture has been dubbed as bad. Only bad things are bad. Islam has not taught us to remain among other people and practice the faith and not to live a secluded life. Also, culture generally keeps changing with time. During my life time culture of Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi has changed to a great extent. The culture of Duesseldorf (Germay) that I witnessed during 1966-67 was not there when I visited during 1978. Then there are traditions, again, some good and some bad. Some people mix traditions with culture. So far as Karo Kari, Maani, Wunni and Swara are concerned, these appear to be more dictatorial tribal tradition than culture and have nothing to do with Islam.

4:56 am, April 01, 2006  
Blogger reformist_muslim said...

Thanks for the interesting comments Ajmal. I agree that tags such as 'true' and 'englightened' Islam do not have a deeper meaning and are used by one group to try and maintain its superiority over others.

The point about culture changing is one I definitely agree with. The idea that one 'culture' exists for any community is an overly romantic notion which often leads to people yearning for a non-existent past.

Finally, while I agree that Karo Kari emerged from a tribal landscape, Muslims in the West often throw the baby out with the bathwater when dealing with the issue.

Just because there is one negative cultural thing doesn't mean that we shouldn't incorporate positive elements from our or our parent's culture. The new Amartya Sen post deals with this somewhat as well.

Finally I would agree with you about Islam not being about seclusion. Although Sufism emerged, as far as I know ascetism is not prescribed in any text.

9:20 am, April 02, 2006  
Blogger Hypocrisy Thy Name said...

Before dilating on the subject, I think that I should describe myself a little. Zakaria Ajmal is my son from whose blog I reached yours’.
I liked your way of writing and tend to agree with it. You are very right and I say that we must follow some good traditions of ours which we are abandoning while following the wild West. For example, (1) we used to respect and to feel it our duty to serve our parents (2) we used to respect our sisters (3) we used to respect all the women and old men (4) we used to take guidance from our parents and teachers (5) we used to live simple life (which we have lost) and so on.

4:25 am, April 03, 2006  
Blogger reformist_muslim said...

Mr Ajmal, thank you again for your comments. I particularly agree with you on point number 1. The absence of care for the elderly is one of the biggest problems in the UK today.

Young people send their parents to old people's homes where they often do not get the necessary care and attention. Blame is then placed on the government, when their role in this regard should be limited to providing healthcare.

Finally I would just add that while preserving the good traditions it is also important to recognise bad traditions and leave those behind.

7:59 pm, April 03, 2006  

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