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The Arabisation of Islam

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

By Tahmina R.

Have you ever felt like you’re not Muslim enough because you’re not from an Arabic-speaking community?

No matter who I spoke to, be it my Indonesian, Pakistani, Afghan or Turkish friends, they would all agree that at some point, they had been in spaces in mosques, school or even in their own communities, where they had questioned the way they practiced because of how it compared to Arabic speaking communities.

There is an emerging culture within my community that in order to become more religious, one would begin to dress, act and socialise in a way that would make it clear that they had now adopted another culture. They had diminished the importance of their own culture under an assumption that it was contrary or in opposition to the way that they should practice. These choices were often the result of having internalised the idea that Arabic-speaking communities knew how to practice in better ways than their own community did.

Much Needed Context

Before we launch into the piece here is some much needed context to give you a sense of how dense this area of study is and how far removed we are from it. Bear with me - you’ll see how this all ties together at the end.

Islamic law was malleable to suit the needs of the communities it governed – so that a Muslim living in China would never be subject to the same law as a Muslim living in West Africa. It’s existence is a question of human interpretation of the religious sources. The Shari’a is the religious law (it is unchanging) and the Islamic law (fiqh) is always changing (tailor-made to the problems of the society). Historically, religious scholars needed to complete years of rigorous study over decades to then be granted the authority to write law and when they did it was fundamentally designed to and encouraged to change over time. This is why in the hierarchy of a Muslim society, the scholar was the most honoured.

The laws they followed would be drawn from the Qur’an and the Sunnah but the specific ‘precedents’ or fatwas would be contextualised for the community they sought to govern and there were always incredibly highly educated jurists that would be there to perform the rule of developing the law that held those Islamic societies to the standards that were decreed – with the full range of issues to cover an entire spectrum of human experience for almost a millennium. This system was disbanded very actively and very recently during the processes of shifts in power during colonisation.

Where did our scholars go?

The nature of conquest is to destroy, but no one ever talks about the role of this in taking religion away from a society by breaking the systems that would allow them to learn it. Under the umbrella of government, there were a number of clear roles, with each having distinct responsibilities and limitations. For example there are the interpreters of Qur’an (mufassir), authenticators of Hadith (muhaddith), linguists (lughawiyy), logicians (mutakallim), ethicists (mutasawwif/ sufis), jurists (faqih), jurist-consults (mufti), jurist-authors (mu’allif), judges (qadi) and professors (ustadh). This seems complex because in our system of law we just have politicians writing law who have no unified system of training to do so.

The population of people that were qualified in these areas is now very small compared to what it once was. In the aftermath of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, the strongest rebellion during British rule in India, the British authorities came down hardest on the ulema (Muslim scholars) because by eliminating the scholars they were also eliminating the leaders of the time. It was in this single event that tens of thousands of Muslim scholars were killed and the communities of this region are still feeling the effects of this loss. This is the modern day equivalent of if we lost every professor in every university and then the institutions they taught in were also dismantled. This is just one example of a practice which happened across the globe in many colonised lands.

“The Right Way to Practice”

There is no single, codified system of law that prescribes how every society should practice Islam. The closest thing to a streamlined system of law that exists are the schools of thought (madhabs). These schools of thought were developed by complete scholars (mujtahid mutlaq) who were capable of understanding and interpreting the sources this and it was through their legal writing and consensus over the years that the dominant schools of thought in Islamic Law were developed. Looking at this history, we can see that it has left a vacuum where instead of many diverse scholars from different regions guiding us, there is now a small minority of people largely from the Middle East that has the spotlight and is able to reach all of us. This has meant that we have all heard the teachings of very controversial revivalist, reformist or modernist schools of thought (for example, Wahhabism and Salafism).

The orthodox tradition of scholarship has been weakened and many Muslims would have heard people saying that they “only follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah”. Historically, this was an extremely controversial thing to say but it has been largely normalised today. This is a reflection of the idea that imams and individuals without the proper scholarly training are capable of interpreting the sources better than the greatest scholars (mujtahid mutlaq) and place a lot of emphasis on their own ability to exercise individual reason (ijtihad) in line with Western Enlightenment ideals of the power of individual intellect.

What does this mean for us?

The reason it’s so important to create space in this conversation is because it prevents us from falling into the same slippage of conflating Arab identity with all-Muslim identities in a way that is done in the West, specifically in a colonial context. Merging ethnic and religious identity allows the politicians of Australia, the USA and the UK to chalk up cultural problems as ones that plague the entire Muslim population in one fell swoop - like any of the commonplace complaint or stereotypes you might have heard in the popular media. Muslims are synonymous with Arabs in the West. This is an association that the last twenty years of foreign policy has been built to explain and justify crimes in the Middle East. The vast majority of Australians would not know that our closest neighbour, Indonesia, is the biggest Muslim country in the world by population, and that India is second to that.

Projecting Islam and Muslim identity as Arab is colonial and sidelines some of the centres of Islamic scholarship, art and culture like the countries in North Africa and Asia. For example, in many regions in South Asia the practice of learning and listening to qawwali (Sufi devotional music) has slowed down or stopped in the last few decades because it was seen as deviant due to a fatwa issued by certain scholars from very far away from where this tradition had been practiced for centuries. This may seem like a minor example, but it is reflective of the trend of asking for religious guidance from scholars that historically would never have developed law for that region. There is nothing wrong with learning from other scholars, it is simply a product of local knowledge being erased that people have to look far for it.

Culture or Religion?

Arab identity is seen as superior within the Muslim community and it is seen as the figurehead of Islam outside the Muslim community. These are both problematic. I have been in many spaces where I have felt less Muslim because I am Desi and not Arab. Everyone asserts their closeness to it, if they can. Either by being from a country “close to the Middle East” or speaking a language that has its “roots in Arabic” as if to legitimise their identities by virtue of their closeness to the region which gave rise to religion. But distinguishing race or ethnicity as a marker of religion is all but prohibited in Islam and every language is considered sacred because it is believed that at some point in time revelation would have been sent through that language.

But these are just two examples of a culture of ranking religiousness, it is a mentality that we have all internalised and I myself have reproduced without even questioning it time and time again. It is inhabiting markers of the Arab identity in the West in order to appear more Muslim. It’s in the smaller choices of how I wear an abaya to taraweeh (prayer), but it is also in my confusion in how a Sheikh that performed the nikah (wedding rites) of a family member asked only the husband and then her father – even though there are centuries of practice and law around this in Bengal that both parties give verbal consent (qabool). Everyone at that wedding, especially the elders, had something to say about this because they had never seen this practice in a Bengali wedding before. What I am trying to illustrate here is not that this practice in itself is wrong but it is another example of how our practices have become homogenised and we are bringing on aspects of other communities that are inconsistent with the way we have practiced in the past.

So why are you bringing this all up?

The first time that I was exposed to most of this knowledge was when I took an Islamic Law elective two years ago at my extremely conservative, at times Islamophobic, law school. And honestly, the fact that as a young Muslimah I was learning the history and basics of Islamic Law in a secular environment through biweekly tutorials next to an Irish man on exchange and a lot of staunch Scandinavian atheists who took the class because they thought it would be easy marks is probably just the most painful reminder of how much has been lost – but it’s also testament to all the academics working tirelessly to make this knowledge more known.

It was a privilege to have my eyes opened to just how much I don’t know and it motivated me to learn more. On a final note, the intention for this piece is not to be divisive, but to recognise this history and create space in a conversation before we judge one another in our practice because unity does not mean uniformity. Also, the simple reminder that there is no distinction between us except in imaan (faith), there is no culture or tribe that is superior and it is these politics that hold us back.


Editor: Irisa R.


Hussein, Shakira, and Scott Poynting. “‘We’re Not Multicultural, but...’.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 38.3 (2017): 333–348. Web.

Hallaq, Wael (2009), An Introduction to Islamic Law, 1-13.

Modarressi Tabataba’i, Hossein, ‘General Structure of Shīʻī Law (Pp. 2-22)’ in An introduction to Shīʻī law: a bibliographical study (Ithaca Press, 1984).

Murad, Abdal Hakim, Understanding the Four Madhhabs: The Problem with Anti-Madhhabism (20 February 2018)

Al-Shafi’i’s, Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Idris, “Al-Risala fi Usul al-Fiqh: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic Jurisprudence” (trans. Majid Khadduri), 2nd edition (1997), Islamic Texts Society, pp 123-145.

An-Na’im., Abdullahi Ahmed (1990), Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law, Syracuse University Press, 19-21, 52-68.

Siddiqi, Muhammad Zubayr, Hadith Literature: Its Origin, Development, & Special Features (Islamic Texts Society: Cambridge: 2010), chapters 2-4.

Al-Shafi’i (trans. Majid Khadduri), op. cit.,pp 285-287, 333-352.

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