Is islamic culture compliant with Islamic religion?
Today I will take you to Egypt. Along with a dear friend of mine, Mirna, we will explore Muslim culture and we will try to provide useful insights aimed at helping you form a complete picture of this religion that, nowadays, due to many misconceptions, has become more and controversial.
An Abrahamic and monotheistic religion, Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.9 billion followers (24.4% of the world’s population), known as Muslims. Taking into account the recent terroristic events claimed by some Islamic extremist groups, the religion has begun to be discredited and mistrusted, and so the need has arisen to shed some light on Islam.
Since the very beginning, Mirna has been keen to emphasize the crucial difference between the Islamic religion and Islamic culture; the Islamic religion sources all of its teachings from the religious text of Islam, the Quran, which Muslims believe to be the word of a revelation from God (Arabic: الله, Allah). Islamic culture is the way the Islamic teachings, correctly or not, are actually applied in the lives of the followers. If you are a Muslim in the Middle-East or in Europe, it makes a big difference because the culture is different. According to Mirna, the culture can sometimes deeply distort the foundations of its corresponding religion, resulting in a complete subversion of the holy text’s meaning. Islam is badly affected by this.
An example of this is the issue of the usage of the hijab. Both men and women are commanded to lower their gaze and ’guard their modesty’, but in the Quran, it is also stated that women are required to wear the hijab. The hijab is ’a veil worn by Muslim women in the presence of any male outside of their immediate family, which usually covers the head’. Mirna says that usually families persuade girls and women to wear it in order to show maximum respect for God, but actually, the decision about whether to wear it or not is based on the culture people live in and it is a personal choice. Most of the women in Egypt cover themselves because the other women do it and because of the fear of being seen as outsiders, not because of the religious teachings. Sadly, social norms regulate the compliance with Islamic traditions more than the religion itself and this ends up undermining the pure and true obedience to the religion. Unfortunately, there are people who exploit the religion in order to appear in a better light and just pretend to follow it; nowadays, covered women are not necessarily “good Muslims” and vice versa; in the past, all this was less likely to happen and women covered themselves for the purpose of a closer relationship with God, but now another culture is taking over.
Mirna also points out some other cultural issues around the hijab usage. In some areas of Egypt, women who do not wear the hijab are constantly bothered by men, so even if they do not feel like wearing it, they do it because they do not fancy taking the risk of being harassed in any way. There are, then women who, after getting married, are forced to wear the hijab because their husbands cannot accept that they could go outside unveiled and be considered seductive by other men. Women’s freedom can be worryingly limited; Mirna has many examples of friends of hers who are obliged to wear the hijab by their husbands. Sometimes this obligation is part of a prenuptial agreement hanging over women heads and threatening them. Women suffer from the fear of being abandoned by men and so decide to commit to wearing the hijab even against their will. In some marriages, women are not allowed to get a job and this financial dependency makes them even more fearful. In some other cases, women live under the threat of being hit or their children being removed from their care if they do not comply with their husbands’ wills. Marriage often takes on the appearance of a contract where the men hold the power and the women live in fear of not doing their bidding.
Sadly, love seems to be the missing ingredient in most of these marriages, but the fault lies not in the Islamic religion but in the prevailing culture that is able to generate a staggering amount of terror. Moreover, the misinterpretation of some lines in the Quran exacerbates this already dire situation. In the Quran it is stated that ’if a woman rebels against her husband and disobeys his commands, then he should follow this method of admonishing her, forsaking her in bed and hitting her’; the prevalent and applied interpretation seems to be in favour of legitimizing domestic violence against the woman as a way to punish her disobedience. In reality, hitting is subject to the condition that it should not be harsh or cause injury. The purpose is not to hurt or humiliate the woman, but to make her realize that she has transgressed against her husband’s rights, and that her husband has the right to set her straight and discipline her.
Furthermore, women’s self-esteem is very low and they usually feel trapped in ant unprotective reality. The number of rapes in Egypt is still high and, although it is a social disease, no one seems to be eager to find a way to tackle this issue. Women are typically considered guilty of wearing revealing clothing (even if the women are raped while wearing burqua, the full body veil) or are discouraged from reporting a rape because of the consequent reputation issues (they would be revealed as no longer virgin). Islam does not state that women have to be in danger or threatened; it is again the culture that makes it happen. Female genital mutilation, that was very common in Egypt until 2016 when it was finally criminalised, is a practice that makes it even clearer how the culture guarantees very little protection for women. A 2016 survey by the U.N. Children’s Fund showed that 87 percent of women and girls aged 15-49 in Egypt have undergone the procedure. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Female genital mutilation is not prescribed in the Quran, but it was nevertheless established in order to preserve the girls’ virginities and to reduce the probability that they could have any sexual intercourse before marriage due to their inability to feel pleasure (it was also a way to prevent cheating after the marriage). Another example that shows the difference between religion and cultureis the question related to the number of wives a man can have. Islam, notoriously, gives the men the chance to marry up to four women. The Quran states that the wives should all be treated equally and that before getting married to another woman, the man should ask for permission from the previous wife. Unfortunately, this procedure is almost never followed and sometimes pre-existing wives come to know that their husband has another wife when she is already pregnant.
Mirna laments a lack of quality in religious education in Egypt. In schools, children and young people are taught Islam traditions (including the five pillars: (i) profession of faith, (ii) prayer , (iii) almsgiving, (iv) fasting and (v) pilgrimage), the forbidden (haram in Arabic) pork meat/alcohol consumption and the prohibition of having any sexual intercourse between two unmarried individuals. Youth is a fertile field to sow seeds of religion but, at the same time, their endless curiosity is a force to be reckoned with. More and more young people in Egypt, Mirna says, are questioning what they have been taught about religion and the way they should live their lives according to the society that they live in. They ask questions and they want to know the reasoning behind their religious obligations. Their critical thinking does not allow them to blindly follow the status quojust because they have to. Unfortunately, in the religion classes questions are discouraged or simply not answered and there is a general feeling of frustration around it. The more you come up with doubts, the more you will have to keep them to yourself. Religion classes in schools are not designed to create a safe place for a genuine discussion! There is an alternative to attending religion classes at school, which is directly in mosques. You send an application and if you are accepted, you can start attending the classes. In mosques the sheikhs, leaders in Muslim communities or organisations, run classes aiming to provide a proper religious education that can help develop a better relationship with God and facilitate the attendees to go straight to heaven (instead of spending a certain amount of time in hell depending on what sins they committed in life). Mirna says that these classes sometimes end up being brainwashing. It happened to a relative of hers. This man, after being non-religious for a long time, suddenly started considering having a deeper connection with God and attending the mosque for prayer and religion classes. He quickly became a different person. He allowed his beard to grow long and he abruptly ceased all physical contact with Mirna because their intimacy could have warranted marriage; it is haram to have any physical contact before marriage. He stopped listening to music and watching TV (some scholars, after interpreting some Quran lines, agree that music and TV programmes are haram as they are distractions from the religion). He was leaving home only to go to the mosque and he began to regard all members of his family, Mirna included, as sinners. Consequently, he ceased association with them because of their loose compliance with the religious rules. He soon adopted extremist views but then, after a while, he restarted behaving the way he did before being indoctrinated. Mirna asserts that many people end up being brainwashed like this relative of hers. People are told things that trigger them, they start thinking they have committed wrongdoings, and they convince themselves that by being more compliant with the religious dogmas, they can truly hope for a strengthened relationship with God.
In most extreme cases, the brainwashing is so powerful that people start believing that only by killing all the people who do not believe in Allah (kufar in Arabic), or people who believe in more than one God (mushrik in Arabic), can they be truly subservient to Islam. Unfortunately, all the recent cases of terrorism fall within this perverted logic that has nothing to do with the religion. Mirna says that Islam is all about love and peace, and all the things we are witnessing today are definitely ruining Islam. Islam is exploited for these terroristic reasons and the media is playing a crucial role in stirring up hatred and intolerance. Mirna, although she was brought up in an Islamic environment, does not consider herself a religious person but she truly respects those who follow it in the right way; she thinks that open-mindedness and tolerance can allow for the building of mutual respect among different cultures and religions with no oppression. She is sceptical about any possible betterment in Egypt in the near future unless the new generations try to start things from scratch (starting with greater protections for women and severe punishments for rapists) and try to reduce the cultural impact on the religion.
Mirna recently left the country and when I asked her how she would feel about a potential daughter living in Egypt in the current conditions she replied: “I would be very scared to be honest and I for sure would not force her to follow any religion. It would be a decision that she would make. I would leave her free to be religious or not, but I would tell her to be careful and to take care of herself. I would tell her which places are to be avoided and I would suggest to her not to wear any revealing clothing because it is a fact the rapes are common in Egypt. Unless a profound change happens, I would tell her to repress any protests until the moment she leaves the country; it is pointless to take the risk of being endangered for a way of thinking in a country with such an outdated mind-set.”
I am very grateful to Mirna for this interview and I am glad I could shed some light on Islam and clarify the fundamental difference between religion and culture. We are constantly bombarded by the media with sad news that makes us believe that Islam is all about hate, terrorism and fear; Mirna showed us that the religion has nothing to do with the recent attacks claimed by some extremist groups or the absolute terror women have to live in. She indicated that the prevailing culture in Islamic countries and brainwashing play a crucial role in the spread of this negative image. Islam is often confused with something different and the truth is just filtered and obscured. We hope that a renewed awareness may restore the vital trust towards this religion and enhance our critical thinking when we run into misleading information.