Culture and religion: The Arabization of Islam

Culture and religion: The Arabization of Islam January 9, 2008
Some better than others?

A friend of mine was flipping through my new issue of Muslim Girl a few nights ago. She came upon a photo shoot entitled, “Winterize Your Hijab”, which showcases a model wearing different winter knit fabrics as headscarves.

She scoffed at the model: “She doesn’t even look Muslim!”

“Why not?” I asked. “Because she’s white?”

Akh, here we go again.

Now, the conflation of Islam with Middle Eastern people isn’t new. To begin with, all Middle Easterners are not Muslim and all Muslims are not Middle Eastern. In fact, Arabs make up only 18% of the world’s Muslim population, according to Reza Aslan, author of No God but God. But due to terrorism perpetrated by a few Middle Eastern people, and those oh-so-lovely film clips of angry, bearded brown men burning the US flag, the Middle East and Islam are often mixed up.

Looking within our own community, many Muslims themselves (those of both Middle Eastern origin and non-Middle Easterners) see Arab culture as a proxy for Islamic authenticity. This may stem from the fact that the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him)—who was an Arab—in Arabic. Naturally, there is value of learning classical Arabic and reading the Holy Qur’an in its original form. Knowing classical Arabic can also aid in reading the ahadith (a collection of the Prophet’s sayings, teachings, and traditions), and reading about Islamic law and history.

Baladas Ghosal of defines this phenomenon as “[a] process of homogenization and regimentation – the “Arabization” of Islam – puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance…” But although getting caught up in rules and regulations often can make one miss the bigger picture, it’s important to note that this Arabization is more of a cultural issue than a religious one.

Since the original Muslims were mostly Arab, everything associated with them – their culture, names, and family structures – has been associated with Islam. But this presents a problem since the vast majority of Muslims in our current world are not Arab. Passing off Arab culture as Islam in this regard is inaccurate, exclusionary, and disrespectful of other Muslims’ cultures.

Converts to Islam illustrate the issue even further. If a Latina converts to Islam, for example, she may decide (or those at the local mosque may urge her) to take a “Muslim” name, like Fatima or Khadija (which are also Arab names). But why can’t Lucinda be a Muslim name? What makes a name “Muslim”?

I know of many non-Arab converts who have taken Arab names upon their conversion. But why? What’s wrong with the names their parents gave them? There isn’t anything in the Holy Qur’an that mandates Muslims to have Arab names. Changing your name from Carmelita to Khadija isn’t going to get you into Paradise any quicker. Changing one’s name doesn’t change one’s ethnicity or personality. But having an Arab name makes one seem more “Muslim,” because of the way Arab culture is seen as synonymous with Islam.

Another excellent example is clothing, which mostly affects Muslim women. The niqab (the face-veil) was rarely seen outside of the Arabian Gulf until recently. Most Muslims see the niqab as a byproduct of Arab culture. It is only recently that the niqab has been interpreted as religiously authentic instead of a cultural expression. A minority of women in Canada, the U.S., and Europe now wear niqab because they believe it is religiously mandated.

But sometimes brothers get in on the cultural dress-up, too. For example, Morgan Spurlock’s TV show, 30 Days, featured a white West Virginian man living as a Muslim for 30 days. They showed him often in a kufi and “salwar kameez” which is like a long tunic over pants. As with the niqab, this isn’t “Muslim” clothing, it’s a South Asian cultural dress. But since Pakistan is sometimes erroneously considered part of the Middle East, it’s considered authentically Muslim. This seems especially silly considering the fact that the majority of the Muslim men in the TV special were wearing “Western-style” clothes: jeans and T-shirts or button-up shirts.

What is troublesome about all this is that most Muslims who are non-Arabs complain that they’re not seen as Muslims because they’re not Arab (or ethnically Middle Eastern, in some cases). But when non-Arab Muslims take Arab names or wear Arab clothes under the guise of “Islamic authenticity,” we’re all reinforcing the idea that we’re not really Muslims unless we have some link to Arab culture.

The internal projection of Arab culture upon Islam has spread outside the Muslim community as well. If you’ve ever watched a TV special on Islam, there’s always ‘oud (an instrument similar to the guitar or lute) or ney (similar to a flute) music playing, to make it sound “mystical” and Arab, and thus authentic. And there’s always a gratuitous shot of the desert in there, just to make sure we think that Islam derives from the tribal culture of the Arabian peninsula’s deserts instead of from Allah (swt).

The real danger is that Islam is getting buried under all this cultural expression. It is possible to be Muslim without being Middle Eastern, without having a name like Mohammed, and without wearing dishdashas (the long robe worn by most men in the Arabian Gulf states) or niqabs. We should reconsider why Arab-ness is, all of a sudden, next to godliness.

Fatemeh Fakhraie runs the website Muslimah Media Watch and is a regular contributor for Racialicious.

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