Despite being one of the most prominent religions, Islam is still grossly misrepresented. The media often generalizes about Islam, portraying all Muslims as a single entity. And many of these generalizations focus on fundamentalism and terrorism, which don’t apply to most Muslims.
But even after separating the extremist strains from the religion, it is hard to define “true” Islam. Unlike how the Pope speaks for the Catholic Church, there isn’t one person who can serve as a spokesperson or representative of Islam. The question remains: Who speaks for Islam?
Most Muslims are either Sunni or Shia, with some identifying as neither. These two groups are then split into many subdivisions — including Ismailis and Aga Khanees — all of which have their own teachings. Geographically, 1.6 billion Muslims are spread across the world. Many live in Muslim-majority nations ranging from Asian to Middle Eastern to African countries. The Islam practiced in secular Turkey is very different from the rigid Islam of Saudi Arabia.
Not only do Muslims in different countries practice Islam differently, but because the Quran is not the only source of religious law, there is room for further variation. The ulama, or Muslim clergy, devise interpretations and rulings based on the Quran and hadith, or the Prophet’s sayings. But these interpretations are often politically motivated and influenced by the culture and mindset of the ulama. It doesn’t help that most of these ulama are males in patriarchal societies, which explains their sexist interpretations.
Because cultural practices distort Islam, it is hard to discern what is part of the culture and what is part of the religion itself. When thinking of Islam, many non-Muslims in the West look to Arab culture and think it represents the entire religion. A lot of practices in Saudi Arabia are cultural. For example, the fact that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive is not a sign that Islam is sexist — it’s simply part of the culture.
Islamic radicalism, which is sometimes connected to terrorism, has its roots in Wahhabism, which originated in Arabia and was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhabism rejects many of the traditional Islamic teachings and instead offers narrow and dogmatic interpretations. This rigid mindset is what leads to extremism.
Although there are so many ways of practicing Islam, and Islam is extremely diverse and varied, the religion has been hijacked by extremists. Fundamentalists have affected Islam’s reputation disproportionately. Most Muslims are moderate and don’t condone violence in the name of religion. There are writers — such as Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan and Khaled Abou El Fadl — who are speaking out against the radicalization of Islam and offering a more liberal approach. But more moderate Muslims, especially in Muslim-majority countries, need to stand up against extremists and reclaim their religion.
Even when it comes to practicing Islam on an individual level, not all Muslims are the same. I personally struggled with trying to follow the “right” version of Islam — I explored orthodox Islam, moderate Islam, Islamic feminism and Sufism, among others schools, but I was left confused by their contradictory outlooks. Most Islamic sects also believe that they alone represent the one true path, and it’s not a coincidence that most Muslims follow the type of Islam practiced by their families.
There are Muslims who are devoutly religious and dedicate their lives to serving God, even obeying rules such as avoiding eye contact with the opposite sex and not listening to music.
Most Muslims, especially the ones in Western countries, balance Western values and their religion — they are often liberal, and many pray and fast but don’t necessarily believe in rules such as gender segregation.
Then there are Muslims who are just culturally Muslim or don’t follow Islam at all, except when it comes to eating pork, because pork is haram, or forbidden. (Many Muslims still drink alcohol, which is also haram, but for some reason avoid pork as if it were the one major sin that God won’t forgive.)
But as long as they aren’t distorting religion into an extremist version or using it to mistakenly justify terrorism, Muslims should be allowed to practice Islam the way they want to. People shouldn’t deny others the right to claim their religion or identify as Muslim just because their practices differs from the norm. For example, some hijabis who wear the complete burqa look down on other Muslim women who don’t cover up or don’t wear the hijab the “right” way. These people are in no position to judge others and tell them what to do.
People have the right to define their religion on their own terms. I’ve experienced Islam though multiple perspectives and read dozens of books on this topic, and I’ve come to realize that there is truth in opposing viewpoints. Muslims will benefit from exploring and understanding different approaches, which is why, when it comes to speaking about Islam, no one’s voice should be silenced.
Ultimately, these are all Muslim voices, and they represent the diversity within Islam. No one community can claim to have a monopoly over Islam — the religion belongs to all those who identify as Muslim.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].