Islam, the Beret, and Cultural Piracy
By Ahmed Rehab
During my college years, I was known to wear a beret. One day, a brother approached me and chided me for it, “Why are you wearing a French hat? You’re not French.” I responded, “Why are you wearing an Afghan Kufi? You’re not Afghan.” He said that “Kufis are worn by Muslims; hence it’s a Muslim hat.” I told him I am a Muslim and I wear this beret; hence it’s a Muslim beret.” He told me, so you equate the beret with a Kufi or Turban?” I told him, “In fact , yes I do.” He said, “Did you know that our prophet wore a Turban?” I told him, “Yes, but so did Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab, it was the standard of his time, not a divine decree or even a personal conscious choice.” He asked me, “Do you even know anything about Islam?”
That’s when I proceeded to tell him, “I know that Islam is a faith for all time and all places, it is value-centric not culture-specific, and so when it comes to attire, its criteria are concerned with virtues like dignity and humility: avoid that which is revealing, transparent, extravagant, unclean, or transgender. Beyond that, it’s variation upon a theme. God’s domain is vast.” He said, “So you don’t believe in Hijab for women?” I told him, “Based on the criteria I just mentioned, it is clear that I do. There is just many ways to do it.”
“I still can’t believe you are equating the French Beret invented by a non-Muslim with a Kufi or a Turban,” he said. I reminded him, “The Islamic criteria I mentioned do not state ‘invented by a Muslim’; besides, since Turbans preceded the revelation of the Qur’an, chances are they were invented by a non-Muslim.” At that point, he looked at his (Swiss) watch and announced that he was late for (Spanish) class.
I was grateful for the exchange; after all I didn’t wear the beret just because I liked it, but to make those very points. Perturbed by the Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural stranglehold on what was s a “Muslim” student group, I cooked up an opportunity to challenge that.
We Muslim immigrants have long subjected Islam to a form of cultural piracy: the notion of selling the West a form of Islam that has been appropriated exclusively to our cultural comfort zones. And so we present Saris and Kufis as “Islamic” clothing, and Biryani, Samosas, and Kebab as “Islamic” foods. We interlace our presentation of Islam with our traditions, mannerisms and biases. Likewise, we deem the injustice in Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, or Iraq an “Islamic” cause, but not the injustices in the South side of Chicago.
This limited acculturation of Islam strips it of its inherent universality.
Islam is culturally neutral in that it is compatible to any culture on the planet. It is a global faith, not a regional faith. It is at home in the fjords of Norway as it is in the dunes of Arabia. It is a connection between a human being and God, not a divine validation of one culture or region over another. It is ill-advised to marry Islam to the Middle-East while divorcing it from the West, Japan, the Caribbean islands, or anywhere else in the world. Islam in its pure form is foreign to none, and native to all.
To be clear, the foundational fabric of Islam is constant and unchanged: sturdy as denim and smooth as silk. But its color is left to the choice of the buyer. We have no right to enforce our preferences on others just because we are ahead of them in the line.