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Islamic Culture (15 May 2012 NewAgeIslam.Com)

Islam Today: Arabisation and its Discontents


By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam

15 May, 2012

“I thought you are from India!” exclaimed my Omani editor-in-chief, tapping a puzzled pen on his luxuriously dotted table.

“Yes I am, sir,” I confirmed.

“Then why are you wearing Pakistani attire?” he asked, pointing the pen towards my Pathan suit, censure and disapproval dripping from its nib.

“Well…,” I began, but didn’t really know how to go on.

What I wanted to say was that it wasn’t just Pakistanis who wore Pathan suits; Indians wore them too (and just as elegantly). However, the particular suit he was pointing towards was indeed Pakistani: my father had purchased it in Lahore or Islamabad (or maybe Karachi) as a gift for me during one of his cross-border trips. So telling my editor-in-chief that my suit wasn’t Pakistani would also be incorrect. And knowing him, I wasn’t sure if he would have the patience to listen to why Pathan suits weren’t exclusively Pakistani, even though this particular one happened to be so.

He thankfully did not fire me for my transgression, but added sternly: “People should wear their own clothes. They should have pride in their own culture.”

By my “own clothes”, he of course meant shirts, trousers, tees, jeans or other such garments that are much less Indian than a Pathan suit―but which Indians now routinely wear to office, in India or abroad. But that’s another matter.

In Oman, and across the Arabian Peninsula, people are expected to wear their “own clothes” in public. Except for Pakistanis and people from certain parts of Africa, that usually means Western wear. But the real concern isn’t what they wear; it’s what they must not wear: the traditional Arab dishdasha. That is reserved for people from within the peninsula, and even non-peninsular Arabs, such as Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, are expected to avoid making public appearances in it.

I was reminded of the conversation in the editor-in-chief’s office while reading some comments on Aiman Reyaz’s article ‘Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating’, which highlight how Arab culture is being propagated worldwide in the name of Islam, how Muslims in non-Arab nations are being told to pray in Arab-style mosques and, indeed, wear Arab dresses.

The irony is profound. The confusion of the Muslim who must look and behave like an Arab in his own country, and then act like someone from his own country when he goes to the Arabian peninsula, is at the heart of the intellectual and spiritual dilemma facing Islam today. What does it mean to be a Muslim? Is it to assume a particular physical appearance (beards, Burqas) and particular social and moral values (eating beef, beating wives)? If yes, what is the source of this appearance and these values? Are they actually Islamic, or are they just Arab?

Some people would have us believe that there is no distinction between Arab and Islamic: that Arab culture is Islamic culture and vice versa. But Arabs themselves don’t think so. And while they may promote the Arabisation of Muslim societies around the world, they expect the distinction to be maintained on their own lands. Indeed, under the blanket of the Islamic Ummah, the distinction takes many forms: Arab/non-Arab, peninsular /non-peninsular, Shia/Sunni, Wahabi/non-Wahabi, brown/black/white, Asian/African/European, and so on.

Others would say that Islam is not, and should not mean Arabisation. But in that case, what should it mean? The verses of the Quran? But they, too, are written in Arabic. The words and deeds of the Prophet? But he was an Arab: how do we distinguish between what is exclusively Islamic and what is exclusively Arab in his words and deeds?

Web Of History

Clearly, Islam is too intricately interwoven with Arab history, language and culture for anyone to dissociate them completely. But as it has spread to other parts of the world, it has also entwined itself with a panoply of other cultures, languages and histories, influencing them and being influenced by them.

To give one example, my Omani editor-in-chief, for all his talk of maintaining cultural distinctions, wore a skull cap on his head rather than the traditional Arab keffiyeh. As do all Omanis, even when they pray: a result of Oman’s long maritime association with India, the influence of which has seeped not just into their eating habits, architecture and economics, but their practice of Islam as well. I did not lose my job for wearing a “Pakistani” Pathan suit, but I certainly would have been put on the next plane home had I asked my editor-in-chief to wear the Arab keffiyeh instead of the Indian skull cap.

To give another example, Osama bin Laden routinely performed his “religious duty” of urging Muslims to wage jihad against the West by relying on video and digital technologies largely developed by Western “infidels”. He appeared in his videos in the green army jacket typically worn by “infidel” armies: effectively relying on an “infidel” symbol of war to call for a war against the same infidels.

It shows that just as Islam cannot be wrenched away from its Arab roots, so it cannot be disentangled from the diverse historical and cultural experiences it has gone through. Perhaps every society in the world has been influenced by Islam―and Islam has, in turn, been influenced by each of them.

What, then, does it mean to be a Muslim? The answer cannot be wearing beards or Burqas, eating beef or beating wives. It also cannot be praying in certain ways, or following particular interpretations of the Quran or the Sunnah. Perhaps, the answer is: to each his own. Every society, even every individual, should understand and interpret Islam in his own way and follow it as he deems fit. Indeed, the Quran itself anticipates this when it says: ‘lakum deenakum waleya deen’ (For me my religion, for you yours).

That is exactly how Islam has been for much of its history. Wherever it has gone, it has become a part of local cultures, mores, even religions, changing them and being changed by them. This is a testament to its universal appeal and its ability to evolve and flourish on the strength of its spiritualism and philosophy rather than by dint of political compulsion.

But in recent decades, as the world has shrunk and brought these multifarious branches crashing into each other, Muslims have been forced to look around and wonder what is “authentic” amid all this diversity within Islam. The search for authenticity has taken many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the roots of Islam―to its beginnings in the arid interiors of the Arabian peninsula.

Chasing A Chimera

There is clearly a certain logic to locating Islam in Arabisation. But the project faces two problems. One, going back to the roots means undoing the growth that Islam has achieved over these centuries. This growth is not to be measured in terms of the number of people who have joined the faith (which itself is substantial), but in terms of the philosophical and spiritual richness that Islam has amassed within its fold―the richness that enables a mediaeval Indian Sufi faqir to change the life of a 21st century American punk who sees no meaning in this world.

Two, those roots simply cannot be found: they aren’t there anymore. The Arab society as created by the Prophet, idealised by the proponents of Arabisation, exists on the other side of time. What exists now is an interpretation of it, an imitation of what some believe it may have been or claim it was. This interpretation is just as true―or as false―as any other, as authentic or inauthentic as any of the branches Muslims are trying to run away from.

The search for authenticity is thus a chimera. Looking for the “real Islam” as one, absolute set of dos and don’ts to guide all societies for all times means putting our faith in the chicanery of conmen who will sell us phony replicas and hollow imitations (and laugh behind our backs).

Islam is not, and has never been, a monolith; it is a vibrant faith that thrives on dynamism and must keep evolving to survive. Muslims must accept this essential facet of their faith if they have to overcome the existential confusion of what it means to be a Muslim.

Accepting this will also free Islam of the dilemma of traditionalisation versus modernisation. As there is nothing authentic, Islam cannot go back to any one tradition, and this shouldn’t be attempted. And as Islam must evolve, so today it must self-consciously adopt modern values of democracy, free speech, scientific thinking and equal rights for women and minorities―without worrying if these are actually “infidel” values, for they are not, and it doesn’t matter even if they were.

The Arab Spring shows that change is afoot, that Muslim masses, including Arab masses, recognise that they need to modernise if they have to bring meaning to their lives today. The Arab Spring also shows that many “leaders” will still try to con them into putting their faith in an illicit Islam. The history of 14 centuries shows that these conmen will eventually fail. But it is up to individual Muslims to decide how soon that eventuality will come to pass.

Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islamic-culture/saif-shahin,-new-age-islam/islam-today--arabisation-and-its-discontents/d/7335



  • My previous comment that the words, fight, jihad, slay and slain might not be literally interpreted as physical violence can be located in the website below: http://demosite.newageislam.com/spiritual-meditations/religious-violence%20-fall-of-godly-sanity/d/6963 http://www.newageislam.com/islam,terrorism-and-jihad/how-pakistan-lets-terrorism-fester/d/7308 http://demosite.newageislam.com/radical-islamism-and-jihad/the-vicious-cycle-of-jihadism-and-patriotism/d/7222
    By zuma - 5/20/2012 11:46:46 PM

  • Interpretation and analysis of such ambiguous verses containing the words like "kill" which were revealed for a particular purpose in a particular age upon a particular person (pbuh) is out of context at present time. Now, in this 21st century, we can utilise our common sense to elucidate it in the light of the present day requirements which may be extended to even our own introspection and alteration to purify our soul by killing the evil and devilish feelings and practices, if every individual is correcting oneself the community will be purified. Hence we can respect Individualism and implement our own wisdom upon ourselves.
    By Raihan Nezami - 5/20/2012 11:42:35 PM

  • @Zuma, sorry for late replying I was busy. I hope you still remember your comment about my comment. I want to see the “proofs” that the verses of killing could be interpreted as repentance. The second point is that you say that we can interpret these verses as converting non-Muslims into Muslims, that is also wrong and I have to disagree with you. Please tell me how we can interpret the way you want us to interpret.
    By Aiman Reyaz - 5/20/2012 10:29:04 PM

  • For those muslims, that do not know that the words, jihad, fight, slay and slain might not be interpreted as physical violence, might simply jump into the conclusion that the word, fight, in the Quran is meant to trigger off physical violence against non-muslims undoubtedly instead of otherwise.
    By zuma - 5/20/2012 9:21:48 PM

  • If there is no proper guidance to young mulsims that the words, fight, slay, slain and jihad in the Quran should not be meant to encourage muslims to fight against non-mulsims, the danger is that the younger muslim generation that would read Quran by themselves might misinterpret the purpose of Allah in the world (and that is, it is not to annihilate non-muslims, but to bring them to repentance) or even worse, they might be misled by muslim extremists to create havoc in the society continuously, such as, to continuously destroy non-muslims’ properties; fight against their Government that is not a muslim; creating public vandalism; and etc. The worse scenario is: who know there would be another similar 9/11 event that would happen in many years later due to the younger generation does not know Allah’s intention is to get more non-muslims to repentance instead of to annihilate them as they have been misguided or misread by themselves that Quran demands them to fight against non-muslims. Those muslim extremists that involve in physical battle against non-muslims have lost the concept of Quran since their mind is to fight against non-muslims without realising that Allah''s intention is to call all non-muslims to repentance so as to believe in the oneness of God and to obey Quran instead of to annihilate non-muslims from the world, giving non hope for them for their repentance.
    By zuma - 5/20/2012 8:05:56 PM

  • Mr Qaisar's opinion is the shortest and perfect practice to save one's Eiman and try to follow the right path to please Allah.
    By Raihan Nezami - 5/20/2012 11:26:30 AM

  • The word, fight, has been raised in the website below and it seems to promote fighting spirit among muslims so as to stir up havoc in the society by destroying non-muslims’ shops; creating unhappiness or even to the extent to the annihilation of non-muslims and etc. Those young muslims might have misinterpreted or misguided by these verses so as to create physical violence against non-muslims in the society. The adverse effect of promoting physical violence through Quran is that non-muslims might have islamophobia against muslim religion and comment that muslim is bad to the extent to have strong hatred against this religion. This certainly goes against what Allah desires that he demands many non-muslims to be converted to muslims instead of causing them to have islamphobia to turn away from becoming believers. The website that seems to promote violence through Quran can be located at: http://www.quranfromallah.com/Topics/Quran-Fighting.html Despite the extracts in the above website seem to promote physical fighting spirit among muslims towards non-muslims, these extracts do not appear to me that Quran could promote fighting spirit among muslims towards non-muslims. The reason is simply that I have proven in the past that the words, fight, or slain, or slay, or jihad, as mentioned in the book of Quran might not be interpreted as physical violence against non-muslims instead, it could refer to spiritual war, i.e. using good deeds as well as preaching to them so as to call non-muslims to repentance, instead of being literally interpreted as physical slaughtering. My previous comment that the words, fight, jihad, slay and slain might not be literally interpreted as physical violence can be located in the website below: http://demosite.newageislam.com/spiritual-meditations/religious-violence%20-fall-of-godly-sanity/d/6963 http://www.newageislam.com/islam,terrorism-and-jihad/how-pakistan-lets-terrorism-fester/d/7308 http://demosite.newageislam.com/radical-islamism-and-jihad/the-vicious-cycle-of-jihadism-and-patriotism/d/7222 The reason why I strongly oppose that the words, fight, jihad, slay, and slain that are found in the book of Quran to be meant for physical violence against non-muslims is the whole Quran would turn up to have battle against non-muslims and it leaves no loop-hole or chance for non-muslims to escape or even survive. If that is Allah’s purpose to establish muslims, there should not be any justifiable reason for Allah to rescue non-muslims in the past. Why should Allah rescue non-muslims if his purpose is to annihilate all non-muslims wherever he could locate it? If Allah is so cruel that he does not wait for the repentance of non-muslims, he could wipe them out with his power without relying the help of muslims. If Allah’s mission on earth is to demand muslims to slaughter non-muslims wherever he meets them, the following event should not occur since he would simply turn his back behind them instead of rescuing them. The following is the extract that Allah did deliver non-muslims out from their enemy: Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #80, “O Children of Israel! We delivered you from your enemy, and We made a covenant with you on the right side of the Mount, and We sent down to you Al-Manna and quails,” The above is the reason why I insist that the words, fight, jihad, slay, and slain in the book of Quran is to be interpreted as the calling non-muslims for their repentance instead of merely word-to-word interpretation as physical violence against them. This is due to I find this way of interpretation more justifiable than word-to-word interpretation and this has shown the reason why Allah did rescue non-muslims in the past. The reason is obvious that Allah demands the repentance of non-muslims. Muslims are urged to preach the Quran and even to show good deeds to non-muslims so as to convince them that muslim is a good religion in order to avoid islamophobia among non-muslims to ease their conversion. The extract that shows Quran does promote preaching and doing good deeds is as follows: Yunus, Chapter #10, Verse #89, “Allah said: "Verily, the invocation of you both is accepted. So you both keep to the Straight Way (i.e. keep on DOING GOOD DEEDS and PREACHING ALLAH’S MESSAGE with patience), and follow not the path of those who know not (the truth i.e. to believe in the Oneness of Allah, and also to believe in the Reward of Allah: Paradise)." (Mohshin Khan’s translation)
    By zuma - 5/20/2012 9:02:35 AM

  • I think to be a muslim you need to believe in the ONENESS of Allah, Mohammad being his last prophet & to follow the teachings of the prophet are enough. The more interpretation of Islam that are given, the more confusion is being created, some delibrate & some unknowingly.
    By QAISAR - 5/20/2012 8:45:59 AM

  • Mubashir, I have explained before in our website below that the words, kill, and, slay, might not be interpreted literally as physical killing or slaughtering.
    If your interpretation is correct that the interpretation of Quran is meant to whole Quran is meant to stir up physical violence and havoc against non-muslims in the society, why should then Allah rescue non-muslims in the first place as extracted below:
    Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #80, “O Children of Israel! We delivered you from your enemy, and We made a covenant with you on the right side of the Mount, and We sent down to you Al-Manna and quails,”
    As the phrase, O Children of Israel, is mentioned in Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #80, with the phrase, We delivered you from your enemy, it implies that muslims did rescue non-muslims in the past. As muslims did rescue non-muslims in the past, there should not be any possibility for Quran to call all muslims to slaughter non-muslims or else Quran should not mention that muslims did delivered them out from enemies. Instead, muslims should slaughter them without giving any grace. Thus, your interpretation that the word, kill, in chapter should never be side-tracked to physical killing or slaughtering against non-muslims.
    As I have mentioned before that the word, kill, could be interpreted as calling them to be converted to muslims, the interpretation of the extract in Al-Baqara, Chapter #2, Verse #191, would sound justiably with the event in Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #80, if the word, kill, has been interpreted as transforming non-muslims to be muslims.
    Your interpretation is also not found justifiably when the word, kill, in Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #80, is interpreted as physical killing or slaughtering. This is by virtue of Quran demands muslims to torment not the children of Israel. The following is the extract:
    Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #47, "So go you both to him, and say: 'Verily, we are Messengers of your Lord, so let the Children of Israel go with us, and torment them not; indeed, we have come with a sign from your Lord! And peace will be upon him who follows the guidance!”
    If Quran never teaches evil as the website that you have pulled out to us, this is due to Allah would demand muslims to torment non-muslims if his intention is to kill or slaughter non-muslims.
    From the above illustration, it would come to the conclusion that Quran never promotes muslims to find non-muslims where they are in order to slaughter them so as to create havoc in the society as what muslim extremists do, to go against their Government and to destroy non-mulsims’ properties and etc.

    By zuma - 5/19/2012 9:00:39 PM

  • @ Zuma, Chapter 9 cannot be quoted in isolation and the context of the verses is most important. Here is a short explanation of the "UNDERSTANDING SURAH TAUBA (CHAPTER 9) AND THE INFAMOUS KILLING VERSES." http://www.quransmessage.com/articles/surah%20tauba%20FM3.htm
    By Mubashir - 5/19/2012 12:53:34 PM

  • Muslims should not exhibit how much Roza and Namaz they practice and by virtue of which they are the 'real Muslim' or perhaps the ‘only Muslim’, because exhibitionism/showing off mar the serenity and the very private acts of prayer and bring it into public hands to make it as some kind of issue. Muslims should be extra careful to not do it on their own. A little longer Sajda to showoff that one has been praying can make one a Mushrik. 
    There is an anecdote where some great soul remarked to the guy who made a slightly louder voice to call his wife to ask for something he had brought back from Hajj making it appears that he wanted everybody to know that he had performed Hajj. The great soul said to the Haji, that, Dear Sir, “may I suggest you to not exchange your great achievement of Hajj for something that can be bought quite cheaply, namely, publicity?” 
    The point to remind about this particular tendency of showing off is that a Muslim should be extra careful to keep a check on this tendency. And if a Muslim says, he doesn’t show off, but he really feels proud of his achievements then one should recall what Quran has to say about “if anyone has pride equivalent to the weight of an atom”. 
    Dear Mr. Raihan Nezami Sir is perfectly correct when he says “the invitation to prayer or for any good deeds should be given in a very polite manner”. But unfortunately he without even realizing the futility of his activism is inviting again and again and is going overboard in doing so that he misses that there is already an institution of Muazzins who keep inviting for prayers five times a day and then after it is between the invitee and on whose behalf the invitation was extended. This extra-institutional activism is what we understand as coercion and it also displays that he is a Namazi and Rozedar and for which one can have no issues but his ‘display’ that he is Namazi and Rozedar is something he should be more careful than any casual Muslim can be who are Non-Namazi and Non-Rozedar, but are nevertheless Muslim just by virtue of believing that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad SAW is His Prophet. 
    Beside the polite manner, the manner of invitation should be subtle and as Quran says: Argue with beautiful arguments, where beautiful arguments can mean to argue or counsel or convey or invite, wisely. That finesses has to be there and such finesses Inshallah would come to the one who really wish to learn and acquire the art of preaching (of course preaching what one practices!).

    By sadaf - 5/18/2012 2:16:19 PM

  • As Quran demands an alternative approach to non-Muslims through preaching and showing good deeds, it is the best approach to be used to convert those non-Muslims to be believers so far instead of creating violence, havoc against them in the society.
    By zuma - 5/18/2012 4:55:17 AM

  • Doing good deeds and preaching the message of Quran to non-believers is acceptable from the Quran’s point of view. The following is the extract:

    Yunus, Chapter #10, Verse #89, “Allah said: "Verily, the invocation of you both is accepted. So you both keep to the Straight Way (i.e. keep on DOING GOOD DEEDS and PREACHING ALLAH’S MESSAGE with patience), and follow not the path of those who know not (the truth i.e. to believe in the Oneness of Allah, and also to believe in the Reward of Allah: Paradise)." (Mohshin Khan’s translation)

    Allah’s intention upon non-muslims is not to kill, but to demand their repentance to Allah. The following are the extracts:

    Al-Jinn, Chapter #72, Verse #16, “If they (NON-MUSLIM) HAD BELIEVED IN ALLAH, AND WENT ON THE RIGHT WAY (i.e. Islam) We would surely have bestowed on them water (rain) in abundance.” (Mohsin Khan’s translation)

    Maryam, Chapter #19, Verse #60, “EXCEPT THOSE WHO REPENT AND BELIEVE (in the Oneness of Allah and His Messenger Muhammad ??? ???? ???? ????), AND WORK RIGHTEOUSNESS. Such will enter Paradise and they will not be wronged in aught.

    Allah forgives those unbelievers that repent from unbelieving. The following is the extract:

    Taha, Chapter #20, Verse #82, “And verily, I am indeed forgiving to him who repents, believes (in My Oneness, and associates none in worship with Me) and does righteous good deeds, and then remains constant in doing them, (till his death).”

    Allah will be among those non-muslims that repent from their unbelieving. The following is the extract:

    Al-Qasas, Chapter #28, Verse #67, “But as for him who repented (from polytheism and sins), believed (in the Oneness of Allah, and in His Messenger Muhammad ??? ???? ???? ????), and did righteous deeds (in the life of this world), then he will be among those who are successful. “

    Allah delights non-muslims to repent instead of slaughtering them. The following is the extract:

    Ar-Rad, Chapter #13, Verse #30, “Thus have We sent you (O Muhammad ??? ???? ???? ? ???) to a community before whom other communities have passed away, in order that you might recite unto them what We have revealed to you, while THEY DISBELIEVE IN THE MOST GRACIOUS (ALLAH), SAY: "HE IS MY LORD! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He)! IN HIM IS MY TRUST, AND TO THEM WILL BE MY RETURN WITH REPENTANCE."

    By zuma - 5/18/2012 4:50:29 AM

  • Al-Baqara, Chapter #2, Verse #191, “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah is worse than killing. And fight not with them at Al-Masjid-Al-Haram (the sanctuary at Makkah), unless they (first) fight you there. But if they attack you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” (Mohsin Khan’s translation)

    As the word, kill, in Quran could be interpreted as repentance of non-muslims, the extract above could be interpreted as:

    And cause non-muslims to be converted to non-muslims wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah is worse than repentance of non-muslims. And preach not with them the Quran at Al-Masjid-Al-Haram (the sanctuary at Makkah), unless they (first) promote you their religion you there. But if they attack you with their religion, then you should convince them with your religion till they are converted as it that you have killed them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.

    By zuma - 5/18/2012 12:18:22 AM

  • Aiman Reyaz, The following are the words that you hae quoted: If one does that then not a single non-Muslim is allowed to live as numerous verses of the Quran say "kill the unbelievers wherever you find them".

    I have provided the proves that the words, kill, fight, and jihad in Quran could be interpreted as repentance of non-muslims or calling non-muslims to be converted to muslims as if one kills his or old habit to be as unbelieving instead of encouraging muslims to create havoc or violence and etc. against non-muslims in the society. Thus, the phrase, kill unbelievers wherever you find them, could be interpreted as converting non-muslims to muslims wherever you find them until they would not return to their old habit of unbelieving as if that you have killed them instead of to be interpreted as physical killing.
    By zuma - 5/17/2012 11:00:48 PM

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