“Once you become Muslim, it’s not just a matter of a religion. It becomes a way of life…” (Living Islam) comments Ny’Kisha Pettiford, a Muslim convert from a Christian household. Islam has become one of the biggest religions on the 21st century. The Muslims include powerful Imams from the Arabic Peninsula to a liberal activist from America. The two in the context of Islam seem radically different; they seem to exist a stronger bond than just spiritual similarities, desire to fulfill certain values in society. Islam in the modern world has surpassed the identity of religion, geopolitical ethnicity, or even culture, rather Islam has become a communal value system in which all Muslims abide to.
The religious definition of Islam as an indicator for one’s identity is extremely outdated and far too simplistic to be used in the modern society. Islam is most commonly referred to as a religion. Firstly, Islam started off as a religious set of beliefs and throughout history, Islam was identified as a religion. Also, Islam fulfills the modern definition of what a belief system qualifies as a religion. Islam provides its believers answers to questions of essence and existence with a connection to a divine entity, beyond human perception. It not lonely applies to individuals but also binds numerous Muslims together into one community. Yes, it is true. Islam, in its most traditional definition, is Religion. It is also reasonable to argue that one’s identity as a Muslim is probably out of their religious faith. A person, who would identify themselves as a Muslim would most likely be implying that he believes in the religious belief system of Islam more than anything else. However, there seem to be stronger bonds between Muslims than simple spiritual assimilation. Islam, in the modern society is more than just religion. Firstly, the fusion between the religious property of Islam with political perspective of Islam has created a level of complexity within population that identify as a Muslim. The appearance of the Islamic State shows commingling between the identity of Islam and political units. For example, countries in the Arabian Peninsula such as Qatar and Bahrain identify as Islamic States meaning that well above 75% of their total population are Muslims. However, in those countries in specific, along with Indonesia and Bangladesh, more than 10% of their population identify as a non-Muslim. This creates several issues. A person living in these Islamic states that believe in other religion, Christianity supposedly, can be easily generalized as a Muslim in statistical data, assumed to be a Muslim by foreigners, or simply say Muslim themselves to avoid awkward explanation of being a Christian in an Islamic state. This demonstrates that one need not necessarily believe in Islamic faith in order to share the Islamic identity as a Muslim by living in an Islamic state. Assimilation between Islam and politics can be seen in Islamic Radicalism. Radical political groups such as Al Qaeda claim to be Islamic. However, their purpose of attack lies majorly in secular political reasons rather than a completely religious one. Secondly, there have been a consistent culture of atheism in Islam since the 8th century. Amira Nowaira, a journalist in of The Guardian exclaims that “there is a long and vibrant intellectual tradition of dissidence and freethinking” (Nowaira) and that “they lashed out against the notion of prophethood and argued against the privileged position occupied by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers”, consequently opposing the most basic Islamic belief. However, those scholars such as Abdel-Rahman Badawi consider themselves as Muslim for their cultural and intellectual heritage of Islam. Islam in the modern definition cannot simply be categorized as a religion.
However, the identity of Islam also cannot be defined by geo-political factors for it ignores the global population of Islam from a diverse national and ethnic identity. As analyzed above, Islam to the western hemisphere is often associated with the Arab World. There have existed numerous Islamic Empires in which a large portion of the world Muslim population resided. In the modern world as well, there are Islamic states where much of its population is consisted of Muslims. The Islamic states have ruled abiding to the ethics of the Sharia law and used religion as the justification of their dictatorship. The citizens of Islamic states have also commented that they demand a state that rule according to religious morals. It is also true that a large number of Islamic states are on the Arabic region. This demonstrates the correlation between ethnicity and Islam. However, this definition of Islam as a geographical unit, a political theocracy, or ethnic group has become an oversimplification. It is now hard to define Islam as an ethnic identity for there are far too many people in other parts of the world (Indonesia, central Asia, India, China, and North Africa) that make up more than 80% of the global Islamic population. According to Esposito and Mogahed, “The majority of the world’s Muslims live in Asia and Africa, not the Arab world… Only about one in five of the world’s Muslims are Arabs” (2). The Story Map, The Muslim World: Sunnies and Shiites, a visualization of Muslim population around the world today reveals that indeed, Islam is a diverse and widely dispersed faith; a larger population of Asian and Africans identify themselves as Muslim than people of Arabian Peninsula. Islam is neither an ethnic group, a geographical unit, nor political sector.
There have been attempts at defining Islam as culture; similar to the previous two definitions, equating Islam to a particular culture and utilizing it to describe one’s identity has failed to achieve its purpose. Since the 20th century and the rise of a global Islam, cultural aspect of Islam has been emphasized. The culture of prayer, alcohol prohibition, charity, equality, and also oppression has been prevalent with the Islamic population that the cultural generalization of Islam had no problem in defining it as well. However, doing so completely ignores the diversity that is as equally widespread in the Islamic communities. With the dawn of the 21st century, the century of diversity, there seem to exist contradictions on the claim equating Islamic culture and Islamic identity. Firstly, the Islamic feminism activists have claimed themselves a Muslim, yet opposed to the Islamic culture of oppression prevalent in the Islamic society. Increasing Islamic feminism points at the fact that Islam and oppressive culture is different. Muslim women clearly show their sentiments against the oppressive culture of Arab. They oppose to wear hijab, they advocate for women’s rights to higher education, and they drive in public, seeing all of them as a form of oppression. However, they need not necessarily oppose Islam. As correctly analyzed in Who Speaks for Islam, the Muslim feminists indeed are favorable toward the Islamic code of life. Numerous polling data suggest that “women overwhelmingly say that their faith is personally important… a significantly higher percentage of women… cite people’s faith as their most admired aspect of the Muslim world” (Esposito, 113). This shows that although opposed to the culture of the Islamic societies, women identify themselves as women for their religious affiliation. Similarly, homosexuality has clashed with Islam on several notions. A gay Muslim Daayiee Abdullah comments that “to be gay and Muslim, at times, people will say that it is an oxymoron. But in actuality, it’s a formulation that shows the diversity within Islam”. This clearly draws on the difference between the culture of homophobia in Islamic society and Islam itself. This idea is further elaborated in Abdellah Taia in his talk about his identity in context to Islam. Taia comments that although he was angry at the society for treating him the way they did – including verbal and sexual harassment – for being a homosexual, he understand that “the way the [society] was acting [was] just an expression… of the way… the people running the country were pushing [them] to”. This shows that he analyzes the suffering that he had to endure as the product of culture, not Islam itself. During the entirety of his talk, he refuses to blame Islam as the reason for his suffering, and condemns the oppressive culture built by years of patriarchal discrimination.
Rather than categorizing Islam within a certain vocabulary, Islam is a set of values that Muslims abide to. The term value system is a broad terminology. It is similar to religion that it provides answers to how one should live life and is communal, yet is different that value system does not have to be related to faith. The two most important values that Islam embodies are morality and equality.
Firstly, morality is an important value for people who identify as a Muslim. This is shown through Sayyid Qutb’s ideas of anti-secularism and his foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb exclaims in his book The America I Have Seen, “the American is primitive in his artistic tastes, whether in his judgment of art or his own artistic works. Jazz music is his music of choice. It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires…” (Qutb) later further developing his argument using his observation on overflow of sex in American culture. This shows that Sayyid Qutb condemned the American culture based on its deterioration of morality, thus justifies his creation of the Islamic Brotherhood based on anti-secularism within the context of creating a moral state. This political movement toward creating nation based on morality has been approved by the majority of Muslims living in the Islamic state. This is also shown through the increasing women population who choose to wear hijabs. Some Muslim women are required by law to fully cover themselves in public, while others are prohibited from displaying the Muslim headscarf. A growing number of Muslim women are choosing to cover their head. Their choice of wearing their veil does not come from legal obligation or religious compulsion but with individual decision out of completely moral reasons. They feel that the western way of life has demolished the boundaries of morality. Who Speaks for Islam comments that “While admiring much about the West, the majority of Muslim women do not yearn to become more like their Western counterparts. While they favor gender parity, the likely want it on their terms and within their own cultural context” (107). This shows that although a large part of women advocates for basic women right such as suffrage, they still retain to their method of life, distinguished from the western form of living, by morality. An American Muslim woman, living in Seattle who chooses to wear hijab expresses her views on clothing, saying that “they’re beautiful… on the religious side, you don’t have to struggle… with is the shirt long enough to cover my bum? An abaya just makes my life so much easier. I wear whatever I want underneath, pop an abaya over it and wrap up a hijab… No worries. So I’m covered in the way I believe I should be covered, seriously” (Living Islam, Maria Romero). This shows that she does not cover herself out of oppression but rather out of her personal choice. Her last comment, “I’m covered in the way I believe I should be covered” has a moral overtone implying her judgement on what righteousness is within the context of clothing. This leads to a conclusion that the deliberate choice that she made to wear the Islamic cloth was compelled by her own moral values which she calls Islam.
Equality is another value that Islam weighs heavily on. Islam is recognized by world religion scholars as a religion of equality and brotherhood. This is mainly shown through their canon, There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God. Their main belief reveals that all believers are equal under God, including Muhammad, the model of a perfect Muslim. This implies a great degree of equality between all human being, regardless of race, social status, and later on gender. This value of equality can be also seen in Islam’s long legacy of hajj. Hajj is a religious pilgrimage that a Muslim has to participate once in their lifetime. Suroosh Ali, a tour journalist, describes hajj and analyzes equality as the central belief of Islam. He observes that all pilgrims are told to strictly wear only seamless white garments, eradicating discrimination from clothing and all pilgrims are required to participate in seven sacramental rituals equally. This, Ali demonstrates, is eradication of discrimination based on social status or circumstances and enforcement of the sense of equality among all believers. This value of equality can also be found in Islamic feminist movements. The Islamic feminism movement rose from the idea of equality under God. Women from Tunisia, the most liberal Islamic country, as well as one of the most liberal country in the world, remarks on the idea of equal right to faith compared to social rights. They comment that all Muslims are entitled equal right to faith under the same God regardless of gender, sexuality or any social titles. This shows that Islam embodies the value of equality.
In conclusion, Islam is a broad term when defining one’s identity. With the dawn of the century of diversity, definition of Islam as religion, geopolitical ethnicity, or culture started to deteriorate. But rather, a much comprehensive understanding of Islam was needed to interpret in context to individual’s identity. Islam, as a result of several analyses on modern culture and diversity, can now be classified as a value system in which people abide too. “Once you become Muslim, it’s not just a matter of a religion. It becomes a way of life…” (Living Islam), Islam is now beyond simple social norm; instead, it is how one defines life.
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