Cultural Baggage & Religious Modesty
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.