Polar Extremes of the Islamic Spectrum

From conservative to modern, learn the appearance and speech codes of Islamic self-presentation to interpret the levels of extremes.

| April 2017

  • Islam is the favored religion in Turkey.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Leo Lintang
  • “Islam Evolving,” by Taner Edis, argues that many Muslim societies are successfully developing their own versions of modern life, despite such controversial areas as multiculturalism, individual human rights, freedom of speech, and gender roles.
    Cover courtesy Prometheus Books

Physics professor Taner Edis, born and raised in Istanbul and educated in science in the United States, has an intricate understanding of Islam’s traditions. Islam Evolving (Prometheus Books, 2016), reveals how 21st century Muslim societies develop their own versions of modern life while maintaining a distinct Muslim worldview. The following excerpt is from chapter one “Varieties of Islamic Experience”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

If the piles of books that I worked through while writing this book are any indication, Islam should be symbolized not by a crescent but by a headscarf or a beard. Very often people on the covers of the books appear immediately recognizable as Muslims because they are women wearing headscarves or men with full beards. Whether the writer intends to emphasize conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims or to defend Islamic contributions to social diversity, presenting an exotic picture seems to be a good way to advertise the presence of Islam.

Islamic Displays

In the midwestern university where I teach, there are only a few who are visibly Muslim, usually African Americans or international students. Still, I see a variety of Islamic displays. Very rarely, I see the full veil and body-hiding black dress, which can be a nuisance when administering exams. More often the headscarf or beard is less attention-grabbing, but it still stands out, especially compared to the far more common Christian students who prefer to display their faith on their T-shirts.

Those of us who are secular in the way we live and liberal in our politics, such as most of my colleagues, don’t always know what to make of an Islamic presence. We are well-conditioned to allow for diversity, but the stronger forms of Islam raise questions: What does it mean when a woman in full veil thereby isolates herself from others? If a style of beard signals piety, does this accompany a Muslim form of religious Right politics, similar to that of Christians?

Indeed, the strongest challenges to secular liberalism today often seem to involve Islam. Among my fellow liberals, I take it for granted that we will treat religious faith as a personal matter and that we will reason about public issues in a secular fashion. Not all of us will take a liberal position on, say, wealth inequality or our healthcare system, but none of us will support our views by making theological claims. In contrast, devout Muslims often refuse to limit religion to a private realm. As philosopher Shabbir Akhtar describes it, Islam

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