Thursday, 9 August 2012

Muslim Girl Problems: Understanding, being understood & separating the truth from the lies

If there was one thing I wish I could do really well, it would be to speak a variety of languages fluently. There's something beautiful and transcendent about understanding and being understood. However, I learned a long time ago that learning to speak an additional language is much more difficult than it seems because it involves more than just learning vocabulary and grammar - it also encompasses learning various aspects and nuances of an entire culture.

People often underestimate the tremendous role that culture plays in Islam. It is the reason that there are currently 72 different factions in our religion - some of which are very similar and others which are worlds apart.

I used to get upset whenever someone approached me with inaccurate information regarding Islam. And then one day I realised just how much rubbish there is out there on the internet and in books - some of which comes from people with differing beliefs and opinions, from different cultural backgrounds and influences; others from complete idiots sprouting absolute nonsense from assumptions they've made or overheard. If I want information on Christianity, I can't go and ask the leader of The Klu Klux Klan now can I?

So I can hardly blame people who don’t know any better for thinking or believing certain things to be true about Islam. For these reasons, I've decided to do a little spit and polish clarification. I will address the questions I get asked the most. For the record: my thoughts here are not intended to convert the masses or impose on other peoples beliefs - it is merely to clarify and educate. By Islamic law (not what you may have heard or seen before but the real true law) I am commanded to respect everyone elses beliefs. To each his own, as stated in the Quran:

" ...You will not believe in what I believe, I will not believe in what you believe, hence, your faith is with you and my faith is with me." Ergo, no force, no competition, no do what you think is good, I will do what I think is good (Quran 109:1-6).

When Christianity spread throughout the world, in many ways it was not only the religion itself, but the Roman-Anglo-Saxon culture that was adopted too. This is where Islam differed significantly. While the religion spread rapidly in the span of a few hundred years, it was only that successful because to a large degree, it accepted and accommodated various cultures in its teachings. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad SAW² himself allowed people to practice their cultural beliefs as long as they didn't contravene any of the major laws of Islam. Many of the teachers and scholars that came after him did the same, for example, Imam Shafi actually altered some of the teachings to fit into the culture of the place he was teaching in.

And as it happened over the years, aspects of culture and religion intertwined and that is why we have so many people today who essentially conform to the same basic set of principles, yet are so different in their  beliefs. Examples of this include the vast differences between the Sunni and Shia factions of Islam on a broader scale - as well as those minor variations within the individual sects themselves.

Geographically speaking, in many regions, culture has doctored Islam to a degree. For instance, the Asian cultural preoccupation with male-superiority and a patriarchal male-dominated society has filtered into the people's religious beliefs and their practices as such - when in fact Islam gave rights to women before any Democracy ever did and emphatically states that Men and Women are equal but have different roles in society.

"But the Quran says..."
I often get told what the Quran says by people who know very little about it. They will read a line or two that is either quoted on a website or take abstracts from an English version of the book and sprout their knowledge on what they think they know about Islam.

What many people don't know or realise is that Islam was built on the foundation of those religions that came before it i.e. Judaism and Christianity. We are commanded to believe in all The Almighty's Prophets (Adam, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed AS¹ etc) and His books (Torah, Psalms of David, Scrolls of Abraham and the Gospels of Jesus - although we don't accept The New Testament) and His angels (Archangels Gabriel, Micheal, Azrael etc) as set out in the 6 Articles of Faith, without which we wouldn't be recognised or even considered as Muslims.

The Quran was revealed to Mohammed SAW when he was 40 years old over a period of approximately 23 years. It was relayed verbally to him by the Archangel Gabriel who often visited him thereafter to relay the verses and messages from The Almighty.

To Muslims, the Quran isn't just a book, it is God's word verbatim. Hence every "translation" isn't really a translation but merely an interpretation of what that particular person believes or understands to be true, given his knowledge on the vernacular.

Let this digest a little.

This tiny piece of information brings with it a myriad of potential problems and complexities, the magnitude of which I don't believe many people (even some Muslims) truly comprehend. Unlike Christians who had St. Paul and Peter laying out biblical law according to what they believed to be true (and which was subsequently accepted as such) the Quran has only ever had various interpretations of it, some of which differ ever so slightly. It's kinda like a poem where people's interpretations of what the poet was actually saying may differ to varying degrees; some closer to the truth than others.

In terms of language, the Arabic used in the Quran is to modern-day Arabic what Shakespearean English is to modern-day high school English. And the problem with language, syntax and lexicon is that it differs significantly over regions and constantly changes over time. A few hundred years ago, Shakespeare used the word "Gay" to describe someone who was very happy. Today, it means something else entirely.

This is a problem with modern-day Arabic as well. Many words have several meanings, some of which mean something else entirely. Hence, it is not only important, but essential that any kind of interpretation of the Quran be done with the utmost care, to reveal the message as it was intended to be revealed, without it getting warped in the process.

It is also worth noting that the Quran is not in chronological order. Almost all the verses were revealed during some event or occurrence in which guidance was needed. So essentially every verse came down in accordance (and in response) to what happened at a specific moment in time.

Therefore, quoting random verses out of from the Quran out of context without referring to the Tafsir (an extensive commentary of the story behind the verse) or the Hadith (the Prophet's SAW narration of the verse in relation to the message or lesson behind the story); is not only grossly inaccurate but dangerous and damaging, completely distorting the message meant to be relayed.

It would be akin to telling the story of Cinderella like this: "Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella. She lived in a...The End", there's no explanation on how she got her name, or any information on her family situation, or what happens to her from the beginning to the end of the story. Hence, the information is not only incomplete but it doesn't make sense on a grander scale and leaves room for conjecture.

And that is why some people would believe that the Quran permits violence and murder, by taking one line out of a passage without considering the other 5 verses or the Tafsir behind them which goes into detail explaining that if you encounter someone who intends to harm you or your family, you have every right to defend them and yourself.

It is such misconceptions that have influenced a whole breed of ignorant haters (amongst them some ill-informed Muslim terrorists too) and contributed to the negativity and Islamaphobia we see today. All because someone didn't read the message in context.

And such is the importance of CONTEXT:

A few months ago I happened to drive by a poster with that day's news headlines which read something like: PIRATES TAKE OUT NIGERIAN. And I immediately thought to myself, these damn Somali Pirates, why can't they leave everyone alone instead of trawling up and down Africa's coastline like a bunch of neanderthals. And in the meantime, what the headline was actually referring to was our local premier soccer team, The Orlando Pirates who were negotiating with another Nigerian soccer player to join/leave their club.

See how easy it is to jump to conclusions? It's similar to the importance of punctuation:

I've heard other criticisms of the Quran which include promises of awarding men with 70 000 virgins for behaving themselves on earth etc. This is where culture has altered the message somewhat. The promise was not only made to men - it includes women too. And hell yeah I'd like 70 000 David Gandy's and Ian Somerhalders and Josh Duhamels and Karim Zianis and Ryan Goslings as a reward. Sign me up for that.

Jokes aside, this is how I see it: The Quran was specifically sent to Arabia around the year 609AD, in a time when chaos, debauchery and lawlessness reigned and men were burying their daughters alive etc. and in order to entice them to live righteously, The Almighty used language that appealed to them, at that specific time, in that specific era. So the palaces made out of gold and silver and the 70 000 virgins were what those Arabs valued at that specific time in history, and the promise thereof was an incentive for them to begin to live righteously.

I have no doubt in my mind that if the Quran was revealed today that we'd all be promised Ferrari's, Super Yachts, Italian Villas on the best beaches, Diamond Rolex's, iPhones that can Skype Heaven, and everything else that man values today.

In many ways, the Islam we have today is nothing like the Islam that existed 1400 years ago. It has been stripped of it's beauty and purity and tainted with cultural prohibitions, misconceptions and silly hang-ups. The key is to know your religion and how its teachings differ from your culture. Or at the very least, go and find out.

1. AS - AlySalam meaning: peace be upon him.
2. SAW - SallaAllahualayhi WaSalam meaning: may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him


  1. Wow, very informative - thank you! Whenever I finish reading one of your posts, I always feel smarter than I'd been during the pre-reading phase...

  2. Definitely appreciate learning something new from you ALL the time - thank you for sharing this and enlightening all of us

  3. Well put, Azra :) Enjoyed reading this.

  4. It was a very nice read, Azra. Thanks for writing.

  5. interesting read, Azra. i totally agree on the cultural and language point of view.
    the bible also has many interpretations from different sects. some play it to the extreme while some take it easy. i follow my heart.

  6. A very enlightening post, Azra. Like Jaya (prolly cos we're from the same country) it's clearly apparent that that culture plays an important role in how the religion is practised - even here too. However, of late, I am beginning to think that the people here seem to thinking/acting in a more Arabic sort of way...

  7. What's that I read? You're not fluent in many languagues? You, Azra is notpluralingual to the third degree? I have to sit down now. Well, at least you're damn smart! What do you mean you can't go and ask the leader of The Klu Klux Klan about Christianity? I'm sure he -he's probably not a woman like all religious leaders (think about that one for a moment)- can tell you a million things about what he and He would call true Cristianity, the ultimate religion among religions, and then cast you in a very deep pit. Just saying.

    Time for a quote: 'And hell yeah I'd like 70 000 David Gandy's and Ian Somerhalders and Josh Duhamels and Karim Zianis and Ryan Goslings as a reward.' There's one name missing, dear or am I too old now?

    But you're right: context is key. I'm old among teens and young among pensioners tanning in Spain. And since we human beings love ourselves more than anyone else we choose to interpret anything or any text according to OUR needs. ;)

    P.S. Did you really use the word hence in this post of yours? Say it ain't so.

  8. Roving Retorter
    I hope that whatever you learn here is somewhat beneficial knowledge, even if it's not applicable to your life.

    Thank you for taking the time to read it. I didn't think anyone would.


    It takes a lot of effort into articulating words for a post like this - so glad you derive some enjoyment from it.

    It's always best to follow your heart. People have a tendency to gravitate to extremes in every denomination. And the thing with culture and religion is that people always tend to bend the rules to suit them.

    Terra Shield
    The thing about culture is that it constantly changes, so it's understandable that people (and their beliefs) would change with it.

    Knowing parts of several different languages and being fluent in only two hardly makes me multilingual Randy. And yes "hence" features prominently in my speech, I wasn't colonised for nothing ;D

  9. Jeez Azra, I feel like i'm home again!!!

    Great post :)

  10. So we are all caught up in a web of tradition and culture...

    You would think that if there is a God He would know all about that too. :)

    So can there be more than one truth or are there just many lies?

    Someone said the reason we have been given time on earth is to get to know the truth about God.

    So, if there is but one God wouldn't he have left a SURE trail of TRUTH?

    I enjoyed your blog! :)

  11. Wings & Whale Sharks
    Thanks for visiting :)
    I'm inclined to believe that the truth is Universal (perhaps more than we'd like to imagine) and that there are too many lies.
    I don't think that God put us on earth to run a race and compete for some elusive sense of truth. In Islam, we are taught from a young age that we were put on earth to worship and remember God. "Worship" takes many forms - including working and supporting ones family.

    Most times I think that life is much more simple than we all make it out to be - or rather - than we'd like to believe ;)

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  13. This post is an eye-opener indeed. I grew up in a Islamic country but don't know much about the religion. Following your blog :)