Persepolis, and what it says about today’s Islam

I just finished watching one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen – Persepolis. It’s a cartoon about how Iran has changed since the Islamic Revolution. Before, it was an open, liberal country. Yes, the Shah wasn’t perfect, but neither were the Ayatollahs that came after him. After the revolution, a lot of things changed – women were forced to veil, men and women were often segregated and could not go out in public together, the “moral police” were constantly on guard, thousands of political prisoners were executed, and thousands of innocent people were thrown in jail. (This is all according to the movie.)

The story is told through the eyes of a girl who is about 10 when the Shah is overthrown. She moves to Vienna for a few years, then returns, only to find that Iran isn’t really her home anymore. She finds life in Tehran impossible. She is forced to marry at 21 since she can’t go out in public with the man she is in love with. She is forced to veil, to accept flawed religious rhetoric at school and university, and to constantly be afraid.

What struck me is that these changes that happened in Iran are happening all over the Islamic world. Capitals that used to be open and liberal are now becoming closed, strict, extreme even. Cairo, Beirut, Tehran. What is happening to these cultural centres?

Were the millions of Muslims who grew up in the 50s and 60s in these cities not good Muslims? Most women did not veil, there was no segregation, couples dated, people were not as judgmental – does this mean all of these people are going to hell? I don’t think so, but I’m 100% sure that many Muslims of my generation would disagree and say that yes, those generations were not good Muslims.

Why does Islam (according to these countries) today mean being so strict, so afraid of doing anything? Why does it mean segregation? Why must all women veil (either due to laws or social pressure)? Why can the Qur’an not be interpreted according to time and place? Why should I be called a bad Muslim for even asking these questions?

To make matters worse, Muslims in Islamic countries are sometimes more liberal than converts/Muslims in Western countries. So many converts feel the need to Arabize when they become Muslim – take an Arab name, wear Arab-style clothing – when in fact that isn’t necessary. These converts also end up adopting Arab (or North African) traditions such as strict segregation and female circumcision, thinking they are Islamic.

In Tariq Ramadan’s book about the Prophet, he quotes the Prophet as having said that moderation is best. Moderation is NOT what I see when I look at many of today’s Muslims. And to be honest, it worries me. Either I’ve got it wrong, and Islam is not what I believe it to be, or I’m right, and we just live in an age today where Islam is being interpeted in a particulalry literal and strict manner.

Ramadan also wrote of the following story: some Muslims were about to go on a journey, and the Prophet told them to not stop and pray on the way, but pray when they arrived at the village. On the way, there was an argument between the Muslims – some thought the Prophet was being metaphorical and meant that they should stop and pray but do it quickly, and some thought that he had literally meant that they should not stop and pray. When they returned, they asked the Prophet which was correct. The Prophet said both. Thus there are two ways of understanding the Prophet’s sayings – by following the literal meanings, or by trying to understand the purpose of the saying, its spirit, and occasionally its figurative meaning. “Both approaches had been accepted by the Prophet, and both were therefore correct and legitimate ways of remaining faithful to the message.”

I often find myself torn between 2 types of Islam – strict Islam, which I see most Muslims practicing, and a more open Islam, which I see many scholars, academics, and thinkers supporting, and which I also see when I read the Qur’an and books about the Prophet’s life. Inshallah I’m on the right path.

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