Don’t Judge a Faith by Its Cover by
Stripping Culture from Religious Clothing
o you find it strange to see Western converts dressing more “ethnically” than other Muslims? My Ethiopian husband has often wondered how a woman born and raised in North America can look like more of a foreigner than he does.
In the early days after my acceptance of Islam I adopted what I thought was a traditional sense of style. Which tradition you ask? Arab, African and Pakistani were among the many. But in the ten years since reverting, I have realized that there is no particular culture dictating proper modes of dress for Muslim women.
Chapter Al Ahzab states “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons…” The specific obligations of modest dress are generally interpreted to be the full covering of a woman’s hair and neck with an outer garment covering the rest of the body which is thick, opaque, wide and loose.
In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Tariq Ramadan notes that the principles of deen remain the same regardless of cultural influences and that “the concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes.”
With some consideration, just about any clothing style could fulfill the conditions of modest Islamic clothing. So why wear a foreigner’s clothes?
Some reverts may dress this way because they are yearning for the deep attachment and connections born Muslims have to the religion and to each other. By blending in with traditional Muslim ethnic groups, reverts may attempt to achieve a sense of this shared belonging.
Reverts also typically have a keen desire to fulfill the expectations of their new faith group as strictly as possible. Indeed, I was encouraged, even warned, that continuing to wear western clothing indicated a weakness in my deen and that I had to reject any attachment to the faith I was raised in.
Of course there is no Islamic basis for this ‘encouragement’. In fact dressing head to toe in a black niqab in the western world may not actually be modest, considering how much attention women dressed in this manner receive. We also have to be careful about the assumptions we make. For all we know, a Muslimah wearing western clothing may be very pious, while another sister may be having a party under her abaya.
In any event, this ‘encouragement’ seems to be born out of a fear of cultural loss. Immigrant parents see their children straddling between the world of ‘back home’ and their new environment and in many Muslim countries, religion and culture are one and the same. But as western immigrants, the blurring of the lines between culture and religion can create unnecessary religion-culture clashes.
While few people convert to Islam for the couture, western born Muslim children may resent going to the mosque if they have to wear “embarrassing” ethnic outfits. By taking the focus away from Islamic principles, we run the risk of pushing away both potential reverts and western born Muslim children. It is more important that our children adopt Islamic values, irrespective of the style of clothes they are wearing.
Eventually I discovered that there are many different ways to fulfill the obligation of modesty, and importantly, that submission to God is independent of fashion. Now that I have embraced my western self much more as of late, to the joy of my husband, I realize that being Muslim does not require me to deny my ‘westernness’. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with wearing the clothing of a particular culture, merely that I no longer believe it is a religious obligation.
Islam and western culture are not incompatible because Islam is a religion for all times, all people and all places. And as we build Muslim communities in the West, a continued opposition to all things western will not foster healthy integrated communities. While cultural attachments may be maintained, it is the principles and values of Islam which must be the priority. In our outreach and our outfits, we only need only to display those values proudly for them to endure.
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