[Original published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
MECCA – The Kaabah, the holiest shrine of Islam, is a breathtaking place – even through secular eyes. Millions of Muslims flock here every year to venerate this ancient building, which they believe to be the world’s first monotheist temple built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
The Kaabah is most crowded during the Hajj, with millions of pilgrims, but it is filled with thousands of worshippers at any given moment.
It was crowded last Fiday night too, when I had a chance to see the very birthplace of my faith for the first time, thanks to a short trip to Saudi Arabia. Hundreds were doing the “tawaf,” the circular walk around the Kaabah, which was covered by a beautiful black fabric decorated with golden verses from the Quran. There were Muslims from many different nations, following the same rites, murmuring the same words.
Besides all the experience of the sacred, one mundane detail that struck me about the Kaabah was that there was no separation between the sexes. The crowd that rotated around the shrine was mixed with no barriers between men and women. Similarly, when I sat down on a carpet, next to a group of aged Arab ladies, they did not show the slightest reaction. Moreover, their faces were all open – something that I later learned is a must for Muslim women who visit the Kaabah: They are supposed to “face” the “House of God.”
If you wonder why these are meaningful details, you must see the rest of Saudi Arabia. This is a country with strict rules for separation between the sexes. Many women cover their faces with burqa-type veils. Even then, you are not supposed to be in the same physical space with any of them, unless she is your wife or family. That’s why when I left the Kaabah and headed to the nearest Burger King, to grab my usual “onion-free whopper menu,” I had to order, pay and collect in the “male’s section,” which was carefully separated from that of the females.
“It is ironic,” I said to myself. “You can mingle with the opposite sex at the Kaabah, but not at the Burger King.”
It is not just ironic, but also thought provoking. Because the Kaabah, and rituals around it, are the most trustable relics of the earliest phase of Islam: the time of Prophet Muhammad. So, if there were an emphasis then to seclude women from men, the Kaabah rites would have been designed accordingly. (An example is the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is divided into males and females’ section, according to the rules of Orthodox Judaism.)
But, apparently, such a separation of sexes was not a part of the earliest Muslim practice. Even more tellingly, the Quran has no such commandment either. That’s why the thesis by some historians that the seclusion of women is a later development in Islam, reflecting not the will of God but the traditions of the medieval Middle East, makes a lot of sense.
In fact, this is just one example of a much larger phenomenon: What we call “the Muslim culture” today is made up of not just the divine core of Islam – the Quran – but also many traditions created by men. That’s why there is actually not one “Muslim culture,” by many variants of it, all shaped by the distinct destinies of each and every Muslim society.
Here in Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a very strong tribal culture: You are valued according to not only your individual deeds, but also the supposed nobility of your tribe – or lack thereof. As a Turk, that is a big surprise for me, for the notion of tribes is simply absent in Turkish culture. It is even more surprising as a Muslim, for tribalism is the very thing that Islam denounced, and tried to erase, from Middle Eastern societies.
Yet the Saudis, apparently, do not see a contradiction between Islam and tribalism. Most of them, probably, do not even distinguish between them. They rather seem to have a culture in which things that are Islamic and things that are Saudi are mixed and confused.
Which takes me to a larger problem that I see among many contemporary Muslim communities. Since they do not try to distinguish between what is religious and what is traditional, their admirable loyalty to their religion sometimes breeds a rigid adherence to medieval traditions, some of which are quite repressive and brutal. Horrible things such as “female circumcision,” “honor killings” and various forms of misogyny are all examples of the latter. They reflect not Islam, but the doomed traditions of some societies that happen to be Muslim.
The same thing is true for heavy-handed “Islamic teachers,” such as the one at the Markazi Jamia mosque in Keighley, England, who was filmed recently hitting and kicking young boys at Quran reading classes. In fact, the Quran and the Prophet’s life are full of messages of love and compassion, but there is also a bad tradition that says beating up children is for their own good. And the latter, apparently, still has some appeal.
Muslim opinion leaders should not dismiss these problems as “isolated cases” and find an easy way out in accusing critical Westerners of Islamophobia. Islamophobia does exist, but so do troubles within Muslim cultures. The Muslim thing to do is to face the latter, and push for change.