Terra Incognita: Pre-Islamic but retained by Islam

From face veiling to female circumcision, many practices are said to have nothing to do with religion, but why, after 1,300 years, are they still practiced?

muslim woman burka 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
muslim woman burka 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
From face veiling to female circumcision, one hears that many practices perceived as negative in the West have nothing to do with Islam, the religion, the culture or the famed civilization.
Babak Darvish argued on his blog in June that “Islamic law teaches that the face and hands should be uncovered. Meaning that if somebody follows the traditional Sunni school of thought in Islam, they should not practice the pre- Islamic tradition of face veiling or Niqab.”
Another blogger notes “the wearing of a veil predates all the Abrahamic religions.” A website called Hilalplaze.com informs believers that “cultural dress is referred to in the ancient pre-Islamic era (Jahiliyah). Yet it is the veil from the ‘pre-Islamic’ era that is considered ‘traditional,’ and which stops women from contributing in society.”
The writer argues that the activities of the Taliban were typical of this un-Islamic society.
Greek writers about Persia described many upper-class women as veiled. There is no mention in the Koran of a new institution regarding female dress. But if the veil and all its permutations – niqab, hijab, chador, abbaya, burka, purdah – are pre- Islamic, then why has Islamic society been so good at cementing their appearance? In fact, despite the spread of Islamic piety from Bosnia to Cambodia, one finds a startling similarity in the veil.
Where once some Central Asian Muslim women were garbed in horrid long horsehair burkas that made movement all but impossible (they were banned by the Soviets), now one finds those same women wearing the same head scarf so common throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Another controversial concept widespread in the Muslim world is “honor killing.”
On the website islamonline.
net, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, is quoted as saying; “There is no such concept in Islam.”
An esteemed writer on the website reiterates “so-called honor killing is based on ignorance and disregard of morals and laws, which cannot be abolished except by disciplinary punishments.”
John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani, the former a well known American writer and defender of Islam, note that “these [honor] murders occur in the Islamic world, but they also take place in other countries such as India, and victims can be Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Sikh.”
Yotam Feldner, writing in Middle East Forum, notes that “the religious establishment in Jordan views honor killing as a remnant of pre-Islamic Arab tribalism.”
MK Ahmed Tibi has even proposed passing a law that would ban the use of the term by officials or the media. So here again a crime prevalent among modern Muslims becomes a “pre-Islamic” crime, or even one whose name should be abolished, lest it stigmatize Muslims. In fact, it turns out other communities are probably just as guilty as Muslims. When non-Muslims are victims of honor killings in the Middle East it receives widespread coverage. This was the case with Mariam Atef Khilla, a Coptic Christian girl who converted to Islam and was subsequently murdered.
BUT THE numbers and stories betray a deeper truth.
Robert Fisk, the usually anti- Israel writer at the Independent, wrote in September that 20,000 women are murdered a year, and that while it is a crime which Hindus and Christians also commit, it is all too common throughout the Muslim Middle East.
Honor killings have now come to shock the Western world when Muslim immigrant communities are implicated.
As with the veil, the question is the same – if it’s not part of Islam, why is it so common among Muslims? Fisk, Esposito and others like them might be right; women are murdered throughout the world. But are they drowned, strangled, shot, beaten, raped and sprayed with acid by their own relatives? Do the men express pride when confronted by police? It seems the answer is generally no.
Take Arab Christians, for example. Sometimes Arab Christian women who convert to Islam or run off with Muslim men are murdered by relatives. Until recently some families took out death notices in papers rather than actually murdering them. But Arab Christian women, to my knowledge, are never murdered for being “immodest” or because of “rumors.”
Arab Christian women often never wore a veil in the first place, not in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.
The last subject labelled a “pre-Islamic” tradition is female circumcision. Suffice it to say that this practice indeed predated Islam in Egypt, Africa and parts of Arabia.
According to one hadith (Islamic tradition), “circumcision is obligated for men, and an honorable thing for women.”
All four Islamic schools of jurisprudence agree that the practice is honorable for women. Dr. Adb’ al-Rahman ibn Hasan al-Nafisah, an editor of an Islamic jurisprudence journal in Saudi Arabia, notes, “We conclude that female circumcision is merely a cultural practice.”
But here again we have traditions that are pre-Islamic and yet which Islam helped cement.
The same is true of other unsavory practices, from wife-beating to slavery – all pre-Islamic –which were not eradicated by Islam. The same is not generally true of the Christian relationship with pre-Christian practices.
Christianity helped suppress slavery, after many centuries of tolerating it.
Drunkenness – surely a pre- Christian practice – has been semi-enshrined on St.
Patrick’s Day, but temperance movements were largely Christian in origin. The Mafia revenge culture of Sicily is intertwined with the Catholic faith, but priests have condemned it.
Without being a shill for Christianity, it seems obvious that “traditional” practices that receive little purchase in modern Western society thrive under Islam.
Excusing them as “pre- Islamic” is a misnomer; after 1,300 years, they are “Islamic,” and only Islamic jurisprudence can change them.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.