When religion is lived

Last week I enjoyed one of the perks of studying at SOAS and went along to a random talk about the socio-political involvement and religious behaviour of Western Muslims. It sought to address questions like whether or not Islam’s transcendence of the civic sphere affects the political participation of Muslim people. That all sounds pretty grand and will have some of you rolling your eyes and exclaiming ‘typical Emily!’ However, the talk was quite simply titled: ‘when religion is lived’. Ok, I’m listening.

The speaker was quick to point to the heterogeneity of the community that is ‘Western Muslims’, dispelling popular assumptions that the Islamic faith is the primary source of all Muslim individuals’ identity, that it is universally interpreted and that it is universally practiced. He suggested, of course, that Islam and its adherents are as heterogeneous as Christianity and Christians, even though many do not perceive them as such. As he said this, I visualised a vast selection of my Muslim and Christian friends and the diversity of their conceptions, articulations and practices of their faith, especially insofar as these translated into expressions of civic and political engagement. Yep, heterogeneity captures it pretty well.

In the light of these false assumptions about Muslim identity, interpretation and practice, the speaker called for a broader approach to the study of faith and religion in which religiosity is perceived not simply as rituals, such as prayer and fasting, but is seen instead as a broader concept in which divine opinion naturally enters the public spheres, influencing foods, arts, culture, politics, and every aspect of life. Preach it, brother.

He suggested that to truly understand the breadth, flexibility and nuance of Muslim political engagement, as well as the scope of Muslim religiosity, new questions and research methods were needed. Got it. However, he suggested that this more ‘holistic approach’ (not that he used that word, but it’ll do well enough) to religion was one that seemed particularly pertinent to Islam. He positioned it in opposition to the established ‘Judaeo-Christian oriented approach’ in which religion was perceived as pertaining not to all areas of life but just to the ‘ecclesiastical realm’ of internal belief and the membership of institutions.

A new approach to Muslim religiosity, he suggested, should go beyond how often individuals went to the mosque or how important, on a scale of 1 to 10, their religion was to them. Rather it should measure its impact on daily life, personal decisions, morality and unseen actions, such as the willingness to engage in a haram activity to provide for your family or choosing to skip prayers for the sake of an important business meeting. He called these ‘trade-offs’.

I found myself feeling bizarrely affronted. In flagging up the Muslim experience of an all- encompassing world view, I perceived my own affiliation to be brushed aside as a Judaeo-Christian compartmentalised faith. Christianity was being homogenized and dismissed as having little impact on the day-to-day business of life. There was no scope for me to protest that it has, in fact, significantly shaped my choices and that I’ve had my ‘trade-offs’ too when the rubber’s hit the road. It almost made me want a hijab to prove it.

I was trying to work out what was going on. I got that he wasn’t making a personal comment about me and that in a different context – such as a flawed and normal Christian community – I would be quick to agree that the Church isn’t engaging with the world as holistically as it might. That we’re not always striving for the political, social, environmental, moral and relational engagement and transformation that perhaps we should be. Indeed, just the other evening, I was amenning to my old mate Mark Greene’s exhortation for the Church to leave an ecclesiastical ghetto and make a difference where we are.

While this was in my head, the talk had moved on to a broader discussion of how this all fits with multiculturalism; considering the essentialisation of differences, the global ummah, local expressions of deterritorialised Islam, and wide-ranging outward expressions of a divergent faith. I heard the speaker saying that when your identity is vilified, you want to embrace it all the more. He was speaking, of course, about the construction of Muslim identities especially since 9/11 but I had a moment of resonance with it.

I found myself a bit taken aback that I had had such a strongly emotional response to the fact that a passing comment had seemed to put me in a box and misinterpret me. It was hardly a vilification but enough of an affront to my essential identity (?) to make me want to reclaim a ‘religious’ label that I would normally nuance, if not eschew entirely.

An emotional response like that was probably a good thing to happen as I turn to my reading on multiculturalism for my first essay of the term and try to really engage, not just academically, with the issues raised. A tad worried that I have a regressive Daily Mail gene, I pick up a book which looks at the political construction of race, the ‘other’, fear, xenophobia and so on. As I read all this, I feel bizarrely white, British, and just a bit unsure about where I fit within the history and current discourse of colonialism, power, oppression and protest that underpins the debate.

Lots to keep my mind and heart occupied as I make my way into college this morning.

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