Islamic Society in Practice

Islamic Society in Practice

Ali Al-Taie

Not a few social scientists in recent decades have done field work on Arab-Islamic society and culture. What they have found in the process has enforced the principle of cultural relatively in the benefit of international understanding and the growth of social science. A product of such a philosophy, methodology, and function, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban’s Islamic Society in Practice is a solid recent example. This fresh thoughtful “academic and personal” account is warmly welcomed.

The anthropologist-author says, “Islam, as lived and practiced in everyday life and society, is the focus of this book” (p. 2); and accordingly she examines several phenomena in Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia. The author gives a theoretical account of “the five pillars of Islam,” and as a participant-observer for five years, evaluates the related attitudes and conduct of the individual Muslim and the state, and finally analyzes the “tension from within and without” that contemporary Islamic communities experience.

While tackling “Islamic values and social practice,” the author notes that, “the truth is that very little is known about the basic values underlying Muslim society …” (p. 44). She then focuses on such values as generosity, hospitality, honor, sharing, association, and appreciation for ‘ilm, “knowledge,” among Arab Muslims. In light of the Qur’an, which is replete with verses and phrases valuing knowledge, the author writes: “The point is stressed in oft-recited Hadith from the Prophet Muhammad that the ink of the writer is more precious than the blood of the warrior” (p. 45).

In addressing “family, community, and gender relations,” the author indicates that ‘ayla, ahl, (or usra), “family,” “is everything” in Islamic society and culture (p. 61). In this context, the roots of female modesty in Islam are attributed to “the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi” as well as to ancient Christian and Judaic customs. She notes, “while the West finds it easy to condemn patriarchy in Arab and Islamic society,” few Westerners see it as a continuation of their own code and tradition (p. 76). “Dressing in conservative Islamist fashion,” she says, “adds a measure of protection for women … [and that] the so-called glass ceiling, much commented upon in the United States as blocking women’s achievement …, has not been a barrier in these nations” (pp. 77, 83).

Acknowledging that “Arab culture and the Arabic language have played major roles in the shaping of the religion of Islam and the ‘cultural’ identity that it conveys” (p. 84), Fluehr-Lobban treats two related matters. One is “Who is an Arab?” and the other is Islamic tolerance of Christianity and Judaism. Although the Arab phenomenon has been defined dynamically from different social science perspectives, the anthropologist’s definition of it has turned out to be sociopolitical. Following many others, Fluehr-Lobban simply associates the Arab in modern time “with the political movement of Arab nationalism, articulated by many nationalist leaders in anticolonial . . . [activism] throughout the Middle East and given international recognition and regional meaning by Gamal Abdel Nasser” (p. 91). “So the best definition of an Arab” she writes,

is someone who thinks of himself or herself as an Arab. This person speaks Arabic as the first language, but may be Christian or Muslim and may or may not claim descent in the long genealogy of the Arabs and their historical relationship with Islam (p. 93).

As for the second matter, she emphasizes that Muslims are not prejudiced against fellow Jews and Christians even though these two minorities may be marginalized because of sheer population size. Not even the Crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 and the Christian and European colonialism of many Arab-Muslim lands have provoked Muslims against their fellow Christian citizens. Further, many Christian Arabs, one may add, have not only pioneered in raising the banner of Arab nationalism but through scholarly work have helped to unveil Islam and to uncover anti-Muslim Orientalist expressions.

Jews and Muslims shared suffering under the Spanish Inquisition, and some of their scholars “were responsible for the translation of the great Arabic works of science and philosophy…” (p. 88). It is also true that Jews held important offices under the Abbassid Arabs of Baghdad (and the Umawis of Spain) and enjoyed protection to compile the Talmud. Until 1948, Jewish communities lived in “relative peace” among Arab and non-Arab Muslims. But “the fulfillment of Zionist aspirations after the end of World War II, with the creation of the state of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinian Arab people, has altered the preexisting relationship between Arab-Muslim and Jewish peoples” (p. 104).

In addressing the “changing family patterns” in light of Sharia, Islamic law, the author observes that the “dramatic” and “most impressive” change to be noted is what pertains “to the status of women,” especially their entry into the work force (p. 137). Together with the “family planning movement,” this visible change is “a by-product of the movement of female emancipation, which in turn was linked to the nationalist movements” (p. 139). However, the role of women has become controversial in that while the secular authorities conceive of women’s education as “career training,” the religious authorities “argue that the education of women enhances their ‘natural’ role as mothers and educators” (p. 147). Nonetheless, “much of traditional family structure still remains intact” (p. 141). However, if the current trends and the economic disparity in the region continue, rural migration to urban areas and expatriation from the poorer to the richer Arab countries will eventually destabilize family life. Because the pace of this alteration is slow, the impact has not been disruptive to date as compared to the Western experience.

Other factors, such as the controversy between the religious and the secular, political-territorial divisions among the Arabs, and the entrenched supremacy of colonial culture, especially in North African countries, complicate this situation. As a consequence, “the perceived failures of secular Arab nationalist regimes on both the international and domestic fronts have provided a large measure of fuel for the fires of Islamic renewal” (p. 155), which permeates both “popular Islam” and “state-supported Islam.” As the secular Arab state considers popular Islam an impediment to change, the alien West stigmatizes it, incorrectly, as fundamentalism. This is, for example, why “when a preemptive coup stopped the Islamists who had won the national election in Algeria in 1992, hardly a complaint was heard in Western editorial pages” (p. 159). But “democracy is democracy, even if the outcome is an Islamist regime” (p. 161).

The author here contrasts two interpretative views on democracy and human rights in Islam: The liberal view, which holds that Islam, interpreted properly, has a full democratic tradition, and the Islamist view, which gives preference to the religious foundation for the state that would result in a just socioeconomic order. Fluehr-Lobban writes:

The Western dilemma that combines a fascination with an avoidance and ignorance of Islamic and Arab culture can be resolved by an openness to that culture, an approach to that culture on its own terms, a recognition that it has strengths and weaknesses as does Western culture (p. 169).

Stimulating though as it is, this work is not without some minor flaws. For example, the author suggests that the independence of Egypt (p. 124) and Iraq (p. 99) came as a result of the respective 1952 and 1958 revolutions that took place there. She may have a point. But if these dates are justified for colonial or imperial dominance over Egypt and Iraq in the pre-revolutionary period, one may dare say that the real national independence of many Arab states, irrespective of their colorful flags, has yet to arrive.

Ali al-Taie is a Coordinator and Adviser in the Department of Sociology at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Association of Arab-American University Graduates

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning