No One Owns Islam

No One Owns Islam

By Omar Gatto and Mona Darwich-Gatto

“In the eyes of the weak, it is wrong to be right.” - Amin Maalouf

One of the strangest things arising from the Bizarro Ummah is the ardent desire of some Muslims to keep it bizarre. The reaction of surprisingly many Muslim women against equality within Islam is especially bizarre. When one segment of the Ummah works for equal value and access to religion of all races and genders, why do they so strongly oppose it? In the face of this, we propose that many Muslims have given away their ownership in Islam to others.

In Hawaii, we are witnessing a strident defense of segregation by a vocal segment of our community. Much of it has centered on the fact that all of the women present in the mosque one evening voted to maintain segregation. The Hawaii Muslim community once had men and women praying together in the same room without a barrier. It was some time after the establishment of the community that gender equality was replaced by gender apartheid. We have speculated that it is because the women desperately want to remain virtuous in the eyes of their husbands. But we now believe that the problem is much deeper and relates to the very question of who owns Islam. We’ve concluded that these women have given ownership of Islam to men and women who would disenfranchise them for personal gain.

Ownership of Islam means that a person makes personal choices about how they will practice Islam. Their choices will help refine existing interpretations of Islam and formulate new interpretations. One does this believing that their choices conform to the spirit of Islam. Islam is what you make of it. That is a hefty ownership responsibility that Muslims cede to others, so much so that they now have little or no control over how to be Muslim.

In past Muslim societies distinct from those existing today, advocates of any single interpretation could not successfully claim exclusive ownership of Islam. There were dissenting majorities who were able to withhold recognition from such claimants. This produced a balance of ownership between alternative interpretations of Islam.

This balance of ownership among interpretations is the key to stable Muslim societies and communities. These alternative interpretations arose from the needs of different segments of Muslim societies and communities. Each interpretation of Islam was almost a culture by itself: it defined a worldview, maintained standards for behavior, defined roles for its members and provided adaptations to the world they lived in.

There were the needs of the ruling elite, which produced Palace Islam and built grand works of architecture in the forms of mosques, monuments and charitable fountains with the goal of legitimizing the ruling elites’ actions. The needs of the intelligentsia produced Clerical Islam, which emphasized legal deduction with the goal of determining Allah’s will. The needs of the farmers, merchants and laborers produced Popular Islam, which emphasized spiritualism and community rituals with the goal of making life easier for the people.

Of course, this is a simplified model of complex human societies. In reality, there were no clear cut memberships in any of these interpretations. Instructive examples include a farmer who esteemed a legal jurist or even became one. A Jurist may have participated in Sufi zikrs and even observed his family leave a prayer at a shrine. A member of the Sultan’s family may have enjoyed legal debates with a Jurist. A Sufi may have advised the Sultan on good deeds, while the Jurist advised the Sultan on the legal form such good deeds should take.

None of these groups could claim exclusive ownership of Islam in practice, because each group had something the others needed. Palace Islam needed to remain legitimized by Clerical Islam by not acting too far outside of the established texts, though it certainly pushed the limits and exceeded them in private. Clerical Islam shared the public domain with Palace Islam, but it was Popular Islam that dominated the private sphere even among some members of the other two interpretations of Islam. This private mode is what counterbalanced the other two; privacy was its power. Balance was maintained by the State’s and the Cleric’s inability to penetrate the private sphere. Palace Islam’s access to military and financial power limited the power of Clerical Islam. Clerical Islam’s claim to standardize public behavior checked the power of individuals and the state. Popular Islam refused to accommodate zealotry which threatened people’s prosperity or lives.

Nevertheless, there has always been tension between Clerical Islam, Palace Islam and Popular Islam. People within each interpretation criticized the practice and beliefs of the others in terms which eerily echo those of today. Clerics blasted Palace Islam for turning a blind eye to the pleasurable excesses of the ruling class. Popular Islam lampooned Clerical Islam for splitting hairs in texts and ignoring the needs of the people. Palace Islam warned the others against trying to interfere in the administration of the empires.

The saving grace of this system was that people could move through a spectrum of Islamic thoughts and practices and still remain Muslim, albeit criticized by the core establishment of any one interpretation. Although these conflicts sometimes turned ugly, one could change his or her association with a particular interpretation as the Muslim matured or had new needs to be satisfied. They coexisted because the three interpretations just went ahead and did Islam their own ways by disregarding the condemnations of the other groups. The people may have recognized the Clerics as keepers of the mosques, but rarely let them dictate how they did Islam at home.

Today we have three main strains of Islam current in our lifetimes: Traditional Islam which absorbed most of Clerical Islam and some of Sufism; Salafi Islam which adopted the legalism of Clerical Islam and took it to new social extremes once Wahhabism became the Palace Islam of the Saudi State; Modernist Islam, which strives to meet the needs of the people as Popular Islam did. Modernist Islam may be on its way to becoming the Palace Islam of Western Muslim elites, though it lives in tandem with Progressive Islam which seeks to remain firmly rooted to the masses.

In Western secular societies where the state cedes religion to the clergy, there is no Palace Islam to keep the other interpretations in check. Thus, in America there is only the descendents of Clerical Islam and Popular Islam. What are the implications?

The implications of imbalance are apparent in many Muslim majority societies. Clerical Islam has ascended to become the most powerful interpretation of Islam. There is no Palace Islam that can overshadow the Clerics while Muslims continue to cede their ownership to the Clerics. Education and modernization has all but discredited the customs of Popular Islam among many Muslims. Muslim states enhance the power of Clerical Islam by delegating some state enforcement powers and accommodating requests to regulate private behavior. Most modern Muslim states do not feel the need to define themselves in terms of Islam, and so have not reconstructed Palace Islam. They rely instead on directly controlling mosques, waqfs (charitable endowments) and the Clergy.

We must continue to restore balance to Islamic culture by constructing alternative interpretations of Islam, notably by developing Modernist and Progressive interpretations. No one person or even group of persons can claim to understand the totality of Allah’s revelation of Islam to humanity. Thus, there have been, are presently, and always will be alternative interpretations that Muslims can turn to in fulfilling their personal social, political and spiritual needs. We cannot make barriers between these interpretations; instead we must affirm the rights of Muslims to pick and choose from alternative interpretations and change memberships at will and even to maintain multiple memberships.

We must resist exclusive claims to our religion since they are blatant attempts to disenfranchise dissenters. We may criticize people on their choices, but even this must be done respectfully and with the above understandings. Thus, the women at the mosque in Hawaii who desperately want to maintain their own segregation can be allowed to do so, but we must summon the courage to represent the Islamic ideal of maintaining space for alternative interpretations and actions.

Critics of alternative interpretations ask whether a person is really a Muslim when they say or do something different. Sometimes, they talk around that direct question by insinuating that advocates of an alternative interpretation should find another religion because Islam is “only like this.” They can also claim to be confused about the many new labels people give to these alternative interpretations, which is yet another way to claim there is only one true interpretation to follow. Counter them by pointing out that, “No one owns Islam!”

We are indebted to Amin Maalouf’s book, “Samarkand” for the opening quote and to Dr. Robert Hefner for his differentiation of different Islams in the medieval Muslim empires.

Omar Gatto is a Sergeant in the Marines and a graduate student in Near Eastern Languages at the University of Arizona. Mona Darwich-Gatto is a sociologist and author of an in-depth oral history of Hawaii’s Muslim community.

Originally published on the MuslimWakeup website and reprinted with permission of the author.

Please visit Omar Gatto’s website