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.

Main image via. Thanks to Jim for the question. You can send me your questions by posting on my Facebook page or emailing me at [email protected]

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. This doesn’t sound unlike Christianity, really. Or Judaism, for that matter. I mean, Eastern Rite looks quite different from Roman. And this Jew has more in common with a German Catholic than I do a Sephardic Jew, in many ways. And you know, Christmas trees are pretty pagan.

    One thing to mention: FGM is actually less common in parts of North Africa wit large Muslim populations than it is in sub-Saharan regions where more people are Christians. AFAIK it’s unknown in Morocco (or at least really uncommon) and almost universal in Egypt.

    An interesting thing is that when I look at a map the areas that practice FGM seem concentrated roughly along the Nile basin, and then in a sort of line west along the edge of the Sahara, and east to the coast and the Horn of Africa. I’m not entirely sure what would drive that as it doesn’t really match up with the direction and spread of Islam all that well. So whatever reasons people are giving the practice isn’t likely related to Islam directly, and in fact it predates it anyway — it is first noted by the Greeks, I think, some 600 years before Mohammed’s birth. And as you mention the practice is much less common in say, Indonesia, and I haven’t heard of it at all in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or the southern Philippines.

    You know, I was in Turkey recently. If nothing else, the sheer diversity of Islamic practice and thinking there was pretty large. And that was just Istanbul, Cyprus and Anatolia. But admittedly religion sits lightly in Turkey.

  2. Hrm, a very interesting thing in fitna. Especially as, if I recall, bidah is the worst insult, right?

    So if you’re being innovative it may lead to civil unrest. A very interesting mix, there. A socialization of a civilization that encourages homogeny. Makes sense, though, especially for an area of the world where local cultures were more different than similar for a long time.

  3. Heina, you’re quickly becoming one of my fave authors; keep up the fantastic work!

    I think the geographic concentration of Islam until (comparatively) recent times adds to the impression of universal beliefs. I suspect the same is true for many faiths that originate further east, where isolationism was the rule for so many centuries (Shinto, Buddhism and Hinduism all seem like fairly undifferentiated faiths to most Westerners).

    Meanwhile, Christianity spread much more rapidly in terms of geography and cultures crossed and absorbed, resulting in the more diverse array of practices (not to mention the more virulent schisms).

  4. This reminds me of a story I heard in church about how an American pastor was shocked an Italian pastor drank wine with his meal. The Italian pastor was shocked the American drank coffee. Or, an American pastor’s wife was shocked a Norwegian pastor’s wife would go to a topless beach. The Norwegian was shocked American Christians would watch violent movies. Missionaries used these stories to illustrate that we should mistake cultural norms for religious ideals, not that it ever stuck.

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