Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Islam and Flexibility

In the standard American Islamophobic (or at best, ignorant) discourse, Islam is a harsh religion with strict rules of conduct. Sharia, or "Sharia law" as it is mislabeled, is represented as an intensely strict set of rigid rules that all Muslims must follow or face grievous penalties.

This, of course, is completely backwards. Sharia is a system for devising laws, a system with flexible, interpretive, methodologies built in. Islam is de-centered, not hierarchical, with many voices performing these acts of interpretations, advising Muslims how to live, and issuing fatwas to address new problems. This was true during Islam's medieval past. It's true now.

A case in point is a splendid note from Marya Hannun in The Atlantic. She writes about Muslims who want to fast for Ramadan, but who live by the Arctic circle where the sun doesn't set in the summer. They cannot eat until the sun sets. What to do?
This week, with the start of Ramadan, Muslims from Indonesia to Michigan began fasting from sunrise to sunset in observance of one of the religions' primary holidays. But what happens in places where the sun never sets because the country is too far north? For many, this particular dilemma is a relatively new one, only apparent over the last two years. Since the month of Ramadan is pegged to the lunar calendar, it rotates on a yearly basis. The last time the holiday fell this deep into the summer months was nearly three decades ago in the mid 1980s, a time when few Muslim communities could be found above the Arctic Circle. But with Muslims from Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan -- to name a few places -- increasingly immigrating to countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland, the ethical dilemma posed for them by the endless summer days has become very real.
The solution is to be flexible, rather than rigid.

As Hassan Ahmed, a Muslim resident who came to the city from Somalia and works at the Islamic Center of Northern Norway told me, "the sun doesn't set. For 24 hours it's in the middle of the sky." Faced with the impossibility of adhering to the sunrise/sunset rule, Tromsø's Muslims must find alternative ways of determining when to fast. "We have a fatwa," or clerical decree, Ahmed said. "We can correspond the fast to the closest Islamic country, or we can fast with Mecca." 
It's just a simple little anecdote that demonstrates flexibility.

Flexibility isn't always so good, from my perspective. The de-centered nature allows radicals to write fatwas enabling terrorism and suicide attacks, even though suicide seems so clearly forbidden by scripture. Disturbingly, both the American Islamophobes and radical Muslims want to present Islam as rigid. They both want to argue that the only real Muslims are the violent, misogynist, terrorists, and those who support them. But they're wrong. They have always been wrong. The flexibility is built in.

Happy Ramadan (ongoing until the 7th).