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How Islamic Culture is Tied into Arab Tradition

posted on: Jan 15, 2021


By: Amana Tashfeen/Arab American Contributing Writer    Roughly 90% of the Arab population residing in the Arab world are adherents of Islam. With a notable minority group of Christians, the majority of the population primarily consists of Arab Muslims. Islam, being the main religion in Arab countries, there is surely an overlap between religion and the culture as many Arab customs and values stem from Islamic beliefs. Finding a balance between culture and religion is a prominent issue facing many Muslims growing up. It is important to recognize this challenge in Arab households as young Muslims work to assert their religious identity while adjusting to cultural society. 

To help better understand this divide between culture and religion, let’s take a look at two different concepts of Arab tradition and see how they tie into Islamic values. 

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Traditional Clothing

Traditional dresses vary throughout Arab states and society, nonetheless, there is a common theme for modesty in traditional Arab clothing. 

Traditional dresses for women generally feature a full-length garment more formally known as an abayah. This robe-like, loose clothing is worn by the majority of Arab Muslim women as it resembles the values of Islam such as modesty and guarding of one’s chastity. The concept is truly beautiful and has been integrating into Arab culture as a popular form of dressing. Paired with this, is a veil or hijab which is worn in the representation of Islamic affiliation and is a concept presented in Islam to maintain modesty. In Palestinian culture, the traditional thobe worn by women serves as an elegant embroidered dress that is similar to the style of an abayah. A thobe can actually be worn by both men and women with little difference as the main “gownlike” feature remains the same. Both the thobe and abayah are full-length dresses, worn in a loose manner, and covers the body. In many Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Palestine, and Qatar, the abaya is actually considered to be the national dress. However, there is a majority of women who prefer to wear more Western-style clothing or other traditional wear instead. In Islam, as Muslims are required to pray five times a day, it is expected for both genders to wear appropriate modest clothing. A thobe and abaya would serve as a suitable clothing item to wear for prayer. Through understanding the similarities between these clothing pieces to the values of Islam, we see an example of how the concept of modesty is embedded into traditional Arab clothing. 

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Representation of Women in Society

In predominantly Arab countries, there is a notable gender gap in areas such as education and the workforce. It is even common for women to face a challenge between reaching for an opportunity and tradition. We see these effects of these traditions through female labor force participation data as there is a less than 40% gap between the two genders in the formal workforce. With this being a common pattern amongst Arab countries, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the role of Muslim women in society. Many young women grow up in Arab households with the perception that because they are female, they are limited to their positions in society. This may be a result of what has been perceived to be the norm for previous generations. However, this is not the case. Islam does not place limitations on women and equally allows them to attain education and enter the labor force. The upcoming new generation of women is working to revolutionize the Muslim world. Many Arab women, young adults, are growing to understand the division between cultural and religious awareness. This is essentially pushing them to step outside of traditional norms while still remaining close to their Arab roots. 

In this example of Muslim women in society, we are able to see how easy it is to mix up culture and religion evidently leading to a big misinterpretation. It is a common challenge for Arab women to face feeling subordinate within their own household in comparison to male figures. It is important to understand that Islam emphasizes the importance and virtue of women and at times, previous traditions within cultures can commonly be misinterpreted into Islamic values. 

Behavior and Character

The practice of Islam creates values and morals that are commonly presented within the behavior and characteristics of Arabs shown through their hospitality and the way they treat other people. Islam emphasizes the importance of being kind and good in character in its teachings and encourages Muslims to live by this. We see this through the generosity in Arab hospitality. Arab’s are known for their grace and etiquettes with other people as a representation of their culture, and in the case of Muslims, their religious upbringing. It is extremely important for Arabs to portray their strong values in maintaining good relations with other people. This good character and kindness is a very important teaching of Islam and this practice is also rooted in Arab culture. 

When looking at these examples, we see that although with any culture where Islam is presented as the main religion, there is a tendency to mix up Islam and culture, there are also many ways in which the root of Arab culture stems from Islamic values and traditions. Both Islamic teachings and Arab culture are filled with a rich history and it is a matter of creating a divide on the difference between religion and culture. It is important that we are using our resources to educate ourselves and build an understanding of their differences and how the two overlap. 

Intro: With the majority of the Arab world being adherent to the religion of Islam, there are many ways that Islamic culture overlaps Arab traditions. Let’s take a look at a few cultural traditions and see how they may stem from Islamic values. 

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