Because I am a convert to Islam, I have found that very often I can look at Islam “from the outside in,” as it were, and this tends to give me a different perspective on things than many Muslims born into Muslim families or living in Muslim countries.


One of the blessings that accompanies being a convert to any religion, is the ability to separate out your culture, which you had pre-conversion, and your religion, which you study and learn to practice directly from the sources.


In my case, I belong to a small-town American culture, but when I studied Islam I studied it directly from the books: the Qur'an, the traditions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the books of the great early scholars of Islam. And in studying Islam, I could see exactly which parts of my new religion would match up with parts of my culture (i.e. working hard, cleanliness, giving in charity) and which parts of my culture did not align with Islam (i.e. going out to a bar or club on Friday night, taking interest bearing loans, etc.).


The problem for people born to a Muslim family or in a Muslim country, however, is that it is much more difficult for them to make that distinction between what is cultural practice, and what is Islam. Here in Algeria, for example, it is a cultural thing to have huge, extravagant weddings which often send the new couple into bankruptcy before they even begin their life together. They go for the whole works: DJs, huge, rented halls, extravagant dresses that get changed every few hours, food upon food, and gold jewellery like not even the Queen of England would wear.


And though this is the farthest thing from what an Islam prescribes for a wedding celebration, everybody assumes that because we are in a Muslim country and this is what is practised, that this is what an “Islamic” wedding looks like.


 This blurring of distinction in turn makes it difficult on the non-Muslim viewer as well, as everything a Muslim does is then seen as an Islamic practice, where it could have absolutely nothing to do with the doctrines of Islam and everything to do with the culture of the person in question.


Some of these practices that the so-called West often attributes to the inherent “violence” of Islam are things like forced marriages, honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the forced covering of women in certain countries. I will be dealing with veiling in future posts, but I would like to say a couple of words about other cultural practices that Islam is often condemned for.


Female genital mutilation is something that is often attributed to Islam, and though it is indeed practised by many Muslim communities in Africa and sometimes the Middle East, it is a far outreaches the bounds of those Muslim communities. There are plenty of Christian and other tribes and communities, especially in Africa, that practise this, making it far more likely that it is a cultural practise rather than a religious one.


Plus, in Islam it is encouraged for a woman to enjoy intercourse with her husband, which would make it a moot point.


I would also like to stop on that thought for a second: a woman's right to marital satisfaction. If I pull out my Islamic marriage contract there is a clause right below caring for each other in sickness and in health that states that it is a wife's duty to satisfy her husband's physical needs as well as she can, and a husband's duty to satisfy his wife's physical needs as well as he can. Reciprocal rights. Compare that to recent times in the West (as recent as the 1800's and early 1900's) where it was said that women “don't have orgasms,” it was their duty to lie back and please their husbands, and something as natural as pregnancy was not talked about openly even within a family setting.


That brings me to another issue, namely forced marriages. This is a result not only of cultural practice, but also of taking scripture out of context to augment parents' (usually a father's) rights over his daughter.


In actual Islamic practice a woman should respect her parents' (not just father's) wishes as far as choosing a spouse is concerned, and if she is actively looking for a spouse her parents should be there with gentle advice and guidance. But in the tradition of the Prophet, peace be upon him, he has actually ANULLED a marriage where the woman was non-consenting and her father forced her into an undesired marriage anyway.


So a marriage in Islam is invalid if both parties do not give their full and non-coerced consent.


All of these practices that I have mentioned are the extreme examples, but cultural practices that people often mistake for Islamic pitfalls can be as awful as oppression against women to things as small as spitting in the street or throwing trash on the ground (which are both 100% not condoned by Islam). I myself am so thankful to have studied Islam straight from the sources, before coming to stay in a so-called Muslim country. Spitting and throwing trash on the ground are just the tip of the iceberg of culturally acceptable practices here, which also includes copious arguing, fighting, and lack of consideration for any other human—none of which should even exist in Islam.


The moral of the story is: when you see a Muslim doing something questionable, look deeper than the religion. Likelier than not you will find that whatever practise disturbs you is actually a cultural issue which has nothing at all to do with Islam, and in some cases is even forbidden in the religion. 


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Published by Ashley Bounoura