The recent hype in the online Muslim community was this article called “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts.” By a Muslim girl. A number of people shared the post, and a few — from my circle of friends — pitied the author, prayed for her guidance, dismissed her experiences as “cultural, not Islamic!” I let it be known to some such commenters that such reactions are grounded in arrogance and ignorance because they disregard a Muslim’s experience with Islam; they have idealized Islam and the Muslim experience in such a way that any Muslim who doesn’t have the romanticized experience with Islam growing up was simply never exposed to “Islam” but to “culture.”
This myth of “culture vs. Islam,” as though the two can be separated from each other, as though Islam — or any other religion — can be practiced in a vacuum, needs to be challenged because it is unrealistic. There’s no such thing as an Islam without culture or cultural influences because Islam, like all religions, has to be interpreted before it can be practiced, and in order for it to be interpreted and practiced, the interpreter and/or practitioner is inevitably going to approach it according to their background. Our perceptual systems are limited, and it is impossible to interpret Islam and understand it without considering what we experience, what we know, what our surroundings are like. Culture thus plays an ineluctable role in the process of interpretation and practice.
The original article aside, I was struck most by a response from a fellow Muslim brotha. See, what made him think he should respond to that article, anyway? What makes us think we can respond to something that someone else says based on their experience? Is it not arrogant to say, “No, no — sister, because your argument was based on your experience, and your experience is not mine, let me go ahead and tell you what your reality and experience should have been because mine is the more right one?” More importantly, why does a guy think he can have an opinion on whether a girl can or can’t practice Islam in shorts? Don’t we have more than a smothering number of Muslim men from the ‘ulama holding the obvious opinion that “it’s not possible”? What new thing could a male have to say on women’s clothing, practice of Islam, and whether or not her experience and voice count as a result of how she dresses and practices the religion?
But that’s not even the point here. The point is that Hussain Makke, the author of the response, completely missed Thanaa El-Naggar’s point and made some false or at least oversimplified claims in his article. I am tempted to address each of his points, but I have neither the time nor the interest to do so right now. The obvious sexism in Makke’s article aside (“this is a very sensitive topic and should be discussed maturely and without emotion, rather, with intellect,” he writes. Seriously? His article, perhaps because it is from a man’s perspective, is obviously grounded in intellect, not emotion, as though we can talk about religion and the practice of religion and of “sensitive” topics without bringing emotions into them. Besides, what’s with the privileging of intellect over emotion? And what’s with this false dichotomy, as though we must have either one or the other in all conversations?), I’ll highlight two major issues: one is that Makke missed the actual point El-Naggar wanted to convey in her article, and the other is that Makke’s idea on “religion” and “spirituality” is false, shallow, and incomplete.
But before I get there, I need to comment on judgment. You see, when we sense the need to say, “I have no right to judge her for wearing short shorts because for all I know, she’s probably a much better person and Muslim than I am,” the implication is that she may be subject to judgment because of what she’s wearing. Would the same person say, “I have no right to judge this girl who’s wearing the hijab and practicing Islam the way I believe she should, because for all I know, she’s a much better Muslim/person than I am?” We also don’t get to not-judge people just because they might be better than us in some way or another. We don’t get to judge people, period.
What is the point of the El-Naggar’s article that Makke misses entirely? This: “In your worship, be free” — interestingly enough, precisely the last words of Makke’s article, but which actually contradict his entire premise. El-Naggar’s point is that you can be a good Muslim without adhering to the standards that most Muslims expect you to adhere to. Islam is much grander and more profound than your and my limited, narrow idea and expectation of it. Yet, Makke claims that some of El-Naggar’s views “contradict the religion” (when what he should have said is that they contradict his understanding of the religion), and that “you cannot be truly spiritual in Islam without following its law. It’s one and the same.” It would have been honest of Makke to point out that this is merely his take on how religion and spirituality operate. Religion/religious law and spirituality are not the same thing, not in Islam and not in any other religion. Islamic law took centuries to develop, and it was interpreted and codified almost entirely by men, so actually, yes, we can be truly spiritual and have a close relationship with God while not following parts of a law that do not always speak to us or are not always sympathetic towards our needs and realities.
I emphasize that Islamic law was established by a group of elite Muslim men (most of whom held views on women that would be offensive to many contemporary Muslims, men and women alike). Gender is important here because think back to my above point on culture and religion: patriarchy reigns and frequently blinds our perception of religion and hence of the parts of Islamic law that pertain to gender and sexuality, especially to women. We may want to believe that Islamic law is solely from God, solely from the Qur’an, but that is not the reality because God hardly played a role in it. For God, the Shari’a is whatever is just, whatever is good; men have decided, and largely continue to decide, what exactly justice and good mean. There have been and continue to be multiple sources of Islamic law, and the Qur’an has been hardly a part of it, mainly because of how open it is to interpretation (I know – it’s heartbreaking that the Qur’an isn’t as clear, decisive, and simple as we’re taught when we’re kids; I was crushed when I found out, too). And believe it or not, circumstances and necessity are considered a source of Islamic law. It gets complicated here because every other Muslim then feels compelled to opine, “Yes, BUT! But only an authentic scholar can speak on that, not you,” and it gets even more complicated because none of us can agree on what an “authentic scholar” means.
No, this doesn’t mean dismissing the centuries of scholarship and hard work on Islamic law (unless you want to do so), but it does mean thinking critically about it when its effects are harmful to us, whether as individuals or as community members. We cannot be spiritually blackmailed into accepting every guideline about us (Muslim women) just because scholars worked hard for centuries to reach a consensus on so many (patriarchal) guidelines and rules about us. We get that the scholars may have meant well, but that’s irrelevant and does not negate the reality of the damaging consequences of some of the guidelines they established.
Makke also conflates ideas of “religion” and “spirituality”: contrary to what he assumes, people are not entering religion because they want to find spirituality—many people are leaving organized religion because it is so bereft of spirituality due to its incessant, overwhelming need for rituals. Too many of us are so fixated on the idea that Islam must be practiced one specific way that we miss the overall point that many Muslims would agree Islam aimed to promote: love God, and demonstrate that love through worship. But what does it mean to love God, and how do we worship God? That’s where some of our differences lie — and that should be okay. Some believe everything is in how we dress (if you’re a woman), others believe it’s more about prayer and being a good person, others believe it is a combination or parts of these two, and so on. Where we go wrong is when we make claims like Makke’s – that there’s a specific way to be spiritual, a specific way to worship God.
That said, too many of us are quick to point fingers at other Muslims when they “pick and choose” or when they say, “I accept some hadiths, but not all,” but how many of us actually believe in hadiths that are so condescending towards women? There is a long history of hadith science, including hadith criticism. The process of sifting through hadiths to ensure the authenticity of the ones being collected was arduous and most probably sincere, but not everything in Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, or the other four hadith books are entirely authentic, and today, we have some scholars even claiming that hadiths that would have no reason to be declared inauthentic are fabricated (see “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China” is a false hadeeth). Why would such a harmless, and in fact a beautiful and useful, hadith suddenly be declared fabricated? Let’s please not get started no whether Islam-qa.com is a legitimate source of knowledge on Islam. I do not consider it to be so, but the point here is that even harmless hadiths are suddenly being dismissed as inauthentic.
What about the hadiths that are actually very destructive and offensive to women, such as those saying that women have to have sex with their husbands whenever the husband wants it even if the wife is on the back of a camel or at the stove? Or the ones threatening that the Prophet (peace be upon him) cursed women who pluck their eyebrows? It is easy for men to say, “No, no, you can’t just not accept this hadith just because you want to pluck your eyebrows!” or “Just because you are being brainwashed by the west that if your consent was not sought before sexual intercourse, then it’s rape,” but for women, these are realities because we are the ones who have to live with the consequences of hadiths like these.
So, yes, a Muslim, and especially a woman, has every right, every reason to distance herself from Islamic law, grounded in patriarchy and some misogyny with respect to question of gender, and decide that she would rather turn to God than to law to practice Islam. At the end of the day, she is the one who has to face her Creator and defend her choices where necessary. I, too, would much rather make my own choices and defend them when confronted by God than to say, “Well, Imam (male) X said I could/could not do this, and I obeyed.” What if the response is, “Why did you not think about it more critically?
Sure, we’re told that our scholars, our imams are accountable to God for any mis-knowledge, mis-information they impart (intentionally or unintentionally). You and I are not responsible for having to face God for the choices we made because of what the imams told us, but why are we so obsessed with this idea? Why are we so willing to let our scholars be wrong (when they’re wrong — and that’s possible, as any humble scholar should admit), and why are we so hesitant to be wrong ourselves? Why are we so unwilling to think critically about what is passed down to us? Are we really so unthinking, or so incapable of thinking and reflecting (despite the Qur’an’s command that we think, reflect, reason) that we’d rather leave everything to our scholars, to other humans, to make decisions for us, to think for us? Another problem with consigning accountability to scholars is that we claim there is no clergy in Islam in theory, but in practice, I doubt any other religious community appeals to it more strongly than we do.
I’ll end with the one point that Makke makes that I find of value: “In your worship, be free.” I’m sure he had a different idea in mind—I mean, what exactly did this mean other than what El-Naggar shares of her own experience, no?—but, indeed, let us all be free in our worship, however we understand its meaning. Let us also be free in our practice of Islam. Anything that takes us away from God, remove it from your life; anything that brings you to God, take it, cherish it, live it.