The Myth of the Muslim Monolith
What supposedly Islamic traditions are actually specifically Arab cultural traditions, but not universally Muslim?
This is quite the difficult question to answer, and not just slightly due to the fact that Muslims themselves vehemently disagree on the issue among themselves and work to promote a united front for the eyes of non-Muslims.
Despite what many Muslims are wont to say and a lot of scared Americans might believe, Muslims are far from a united group with similar opinions. Islam, while originating in the region now known as Saudi Arabia, spread quickly to other areas. Like Christianity, it was active in wiping out local religions, but tradition and custom have a way of showing themselves whether or not a conqueror has told a tribe that all of its members ought to worship one god. What is considered to be important to people as Muslims varies from region to region.
One minor example of this that I observed growing up relates to Muhammad’s sayings on eating. Growing up in the Indian diaspora community in London and Southern California, I was always told that the Prophet’s sunnah, or example worthy of emulation, was to eat with one’s right hand, preferably using only the thumb, the pointer finger, and the middle finger, and to dine communally off a single platter. Those of us who chose to eat with our hands were seen as both less Westernized and, somehow, more Muslim than those who used a spoon or fork instead.
Then, in fifth grade, I began attending an Arab-dominated religious school. One of my classmates there, a girl of Egyptian descent, reacted with disbelief when I told her that eating with your hands was better and more Islamic. Her father, she asserted, slapped her if she ever dared to use her hands to eat. I learned much later that while a lot of post-colonial Arab countries were really big on picking up certain European habits, including but not limited to those relating to dining, India was different. Indian traditions related to communal eating and the use of the right hand happened to match up with Muhammad’s views on eating, and so those are enforced among Indians.
Eating habits are of not of general concern in the grand scheme of things, but take something of far more importance, like female genital mutilation. Those African Muslims who practice it claim that it is Islamic. Muslims from other areas might disagree and say that it’s not truly Islamic, and though anti-FGM Muslims have more Islamic texts on their side, it’s hard to convince people who have been doing something for centuries in the name of Allah that, no really, their views on Islam are the wrong ones. On the other hand, for Muslims in most parts of Asia and the Middle East, FGM is a rather uncommon, if not unknown, practice.
These differences are often ignored or glossed over by Muslims. Post-colonial Islam has meant a great deal of backlash against anything considered Western as well as anything seen as causing divisiveness in the Muslim community, dubbed fitna, or civil unrest. Fitna, as a concept, has been used for everything from quashing healthy debate among Muslim scholars to banning women’s sections in London mosques.* It is the second-worst slur with which a modern Muslim might brand another Muslim’s words or actions.
Beyond the idea of fitna, the concepts of unity and oneness is very important in Islam. Islam arose from of a polytheistic culture, so its monotheism is reactionary in a rather marked fashion. The idea is not limited to its theism, as ummah, or the sense of a single international Muslim community, is emphasized above all other allegiances. Even Muslims who identify with some of the Islamic sects will readily agree that Muslims should be united as one ummah, not divided. Mention Israel, or the United States, and Muslims are all the more eager to put differences aside in favor of showing themselves to be united.
Between Islam’s history of having a deep impact on the cultures that it conquered and the Muslim wish to maintain the illusion of unity, it’s quite hard to differentiate which practices are Arab and which are “Muslim.” Even if the question were more specifically on a single issue within Islam, there would likely be disagreement on all sides. Ironic, no?
*It shocked me, when I was an American Muslim, that so many mosques in England lack a prayer section for women. This is changing, but it was quite the culture shock to go from American mosques, where women almost always have a section and often serve in mosque leadership, to a country where there wasn’t even a place for me to pray. My British cousin explained to me that having women at the mosque “caused fitna” because men ended up fighting over the women. I replied by wryly asking her why they didn’t ban the men instead.