The Diversity of the Islamic World

One of the major themes running through out summer NEH program was tracing the diversity within the Islamic World. We had a chance to look through a variety of art forms to really examine if the term “Islamic World” is even appropriate. For example, what does a Mongolian shepherd have in common with an oil mogul in Saudi Arabia, with a Harlem Islamic convert, or with a Moroccan bedouin? The concept of the “Islamic World” would make you assume that they all shared common beliefs, practices, and traditions. While they certainly share some basic elements such as an emphasis on the Qur’an, and basic beliefs about the afterlife, prayer, and the Prophet Muhammad, the comparisons really stop there (even if they go that far!).

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As a history teacher I am very sensitive to teaching religions in an appropriate perspective. I have to teach the historical facts of these traditions while understanding that history is fraught with troublesome events, even debatable historic authenticity. I’ve always been sensitive to not teaching religion, any religion, as a monolithic tradition but this year I am determined to make sure I really get the point across to my students.

So if you are someone who is unfamiliar with the gorgeous diversity in the artistic traditions in the Islamic World here is a little introduction to the beauty in this diversity. But, ironically, sometimes highlighting the diversity, can also bring out their unity.

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Middle East

This is the poster child for the Islamic World, and that is unsurprising considering it is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, but even within the Middle East, there is a spectrum in Islam. Because of the wealth concentrated in Saudi Arabia, they type of Islam practice in the peninsula is the one that gets all the media attention. One fantastic anecdote from my NEH trip was from a husband and wife couple who owned a shop with different religious paraphernalia when she said that other Muslim women think Yemeni women are stuck up because of how they dress, that is until they are behind closed doors. 🙂 This can show us that even within neighboring countries there can be a lot of cultural misunderstanding.

The Middle East is a region that has always been a religious hot bed (uh hello the Crusades!) but it is filled with a long tradition of monotheism: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and now is majority Islamic. However, within the Middle East are a variety of long-standing cultures that provide a unique flavor to the types of Islams (yes that is not a typo) practice there. This goes beyond the textbook Shia/Sunni split: the legacies of the Persian and Ottoman Empires shape the northern Middle East while the nomadic traditions in the Arabian Peninsula provide their own unique relationship with the tenets of the religion. And today, terrorists groups such as ISIS, brand and manipulate this religion of over a billion followers to justify their atrocities to human life and global culture.

Read more: Book Review! Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia

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Central Asia

Central Asia is a wide and loosely defined territory, for my purposes here it will extend from western China, across the Himalayas and southern Russia to the borders of the Middle East. What I find fascinating with the Islamic tradition in this region is that it is truly embedded within local, preexisting cultures. One great example from our NEH was a great epic poem that combined indigenous themes and spirits with Islamic literary and religious allusions. Many people with a limited view of Islam would consider this “type” of Islam as heretical. And honestly I would have agreed with them until a few weeks ago.

There is a lot of diversity in the Islamic practices and beliefs in Central Asia especially in very rural regions. I still trying to define what it means to be “Islamic” especially when Muslim practices are “combined” with indigenous beliefs: can a man believe and pray to local nature spirits still call himself a Muslim? I am still struggling with this answer but after seeing the beautiful, deeply religious Islamic art forms of this area I simply cannot write them off as wrong and unorthodox.

Read more: A Reverence for Words: Understanding Muslim Culture through the Arts Reading List

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Iberian Peninsula

Although you would not think of Islam when someone says to describe Spain, the Iberian Peninsula was deeply embedded in Islamic civilization for over 700 years. Even today the Islamic influence is felt in the art, food, architecture, and music of southern Spain. We got to visit the Andalusian region on a family trip this past summer and it was just a beautiful immersive experience in a historic syncretic culture.

What defines a place as part of the “Islamic World”? Does it historically have to have Muslim rule? Check. Does it have to have a decent Muslim population? Check. Does it have Islamic art? Check. Spain meets all those categories yet hardly anyone would describe Spain as part of the Islamic World. This was actually one of the main questions brought up by our NEH program: What is the Islamic World? Is that term even appropriate? If there is an Islamic World, then what is the Christian World or Buddhist world?

Read more: Medieval Al-Andalus

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North Africa

As I teach in World History, Islam first came to North Africa and then spread to Sub-Saharan Africa via trade from the Middle East. Similarly to Central Asia, there is a lot of cultural syncretism with older, local traditions. The poster child for African Islam would probably be Egypt and Morocco; however, even with just those two examples you can already see lots of diversity between them.

In our NEH program, we met with a Moroccan DJ who is the founder of remix <–> culture, a non-profit that takes traditional music and allows people from all over the world to play and update this music in more modern styles. His talk really demonstrated that religions cannot, and are not, stuck in one historical time period. “Traditional” religious art is not stagnant, but updates and flows with the march of time; otherwise it dies. His lecture challenged us to stop thinking of religions as something harkening back to a bygone period in history and recognize that each new generation modifies and builds upon the religious foundation of the past.

Read more: Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World in AP Art History

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South & Southeast Asia

Fun fact: Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population, making up ~12% of the global population. Many people first assume it would be Saudi Arabia or Pakistan (Pakistan is second with 11%, so close). Considering the fact that there are more Muslims here there than any other part of the globe, why don’t Southeast Asian Muslims have more of a voice in the global perspective of Islam? In short, money has a lot to do with it but also the history and centrality of Saudi Arabia in Islamic history is undeniable.

Like North Africa, many Muslim converts came from Islamic traders, but this time on boats, not camels. The indigenous traditions that mix with Islam in South and Southeast Asia are Hinduism and Buddhism. You can see a gorgeous mix in art and architecture in India like with the Taj Mahal (part of the AP Art History 250). Additionally, new religions, like Sikhism, spring up from the influence of Islam and Hinduism.

Read more: Student Series! Veiled

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Diversity of Religious Traditions in the Classroom

When approaching this topic, it helps to highlight to students unity and diversity in a secular topic, such as “being American.” I ask students things that are “iconic” to being American (baseball, apple pie, Ford, capitalism, Fourth of July, etc.) and then we break down how many students actually watch baseball on a regular basis or drive a Ford. In addition to that, I explain the foreign influences in Apple Pie. I use these points to illustrate why we have to breakdown the idea of Islam, or any religion for that matter, as a monolith, globally and historically uniform.

By using a secular example first, they are more willing to accept the idea of the multiple voices and practices in Islam. Challenge yourself (& your students) to look beyond the textbook definition of Islam to really engage with the wider Islamic World and you might be surprise how it shatters your pre-conceived notions of who is Muslim or what is Islam. 🙂

Read more: Learning not Converting

JMF


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