What is Islam?

I just finished a class on gender & sexuality, and we were discussing the fact that “culture” is always used to mean a uniform, homogenous, singular and static entity. “Our culture” doesn’t approve of this, or “our culture” is different from “their culture.”  This is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that it hides power relations, differences, and diversity within various cultures.

During the class I kept thinking of Islam. In a sense this is what has happened with Islam as well: it has come to be used as a term indicating a singular, monolithic religion. I would argue, however, that there are different Islams and the “Islam” that has become dominant is not the best or the most natural version. It has become dominant precisely because the people advocating for it are more powerful, and have been powerful for hundreds of years. It is often patriarchal and against diversity in terms of sexuality; it is static and closed to interpretation; it is conservative; it is reliant on age-old customs.

The west has also strengthened this type of Islam by constantly validating it. Here in Holland, for example, many Dutch people believe Islam is against homosexuality. This ignores the fact that there are Muslims who do not believe this. It ignores the fact that there is diversity of opinion. It ignores the fact that the idea that Islam is against homosexuality is a construction (like all interpretations are) that was made by specific people for specific reasons.

Perhaps most importantly is the fact that it sees Islam as monolithic. “Islam” is against homosexuality. What exactly is Islam? The Qur’an? The hadith? Muslims? But they don’t all agree. Who is interpreting and acting? Do all Muslims act the same way?

It is only by asking these questions that we can begin to deconstruct the categories of “culture” and “Islam.” These are complex, shifting, constructed categories, not fixed, homogenous ones. To assume they are fixed is to do violence to those discourses and groups in a society who do not believe in the dominant discourse. It is to give power to those who already have the power to define what “our culture” or “our Islam” is.

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4 thoughts on “What is Islam?

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