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Islamic Culture ( 14 May 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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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.