*MVSLIM does not represent the views of the writer*
The fashion industry is constantly evolving, but one trend that has remained a constant in Muslim communities is the adoption of traditional Arab clothing such as the thobe and abaya.
What I’ve come to realise, especially living in a predominantly Muslim area in the West, is the way in which people identify as Muslim here, with some abrogating their own roots to adopt Arab culture in the pursuit of what seems to be Godliness. It’s as if (to me at least) the more Arab you behave or look the more Muslim you seem.
From the ISOC gatherings, Nikkahs, Eid celebrations, and the Friday Jummah prayers, it’s not uncommon to see both the young and old donning these traditional garments. In fact, it’s expected. And it’s almost considered a fashion sin if you rock up in anything other than it.
On a more serious note, the adoption of traditional Arab culture by Muslim communities in the West raises some interesting questions about the intersection of culture and religion. Like is wearing a thobe or abaya really necessary or is it just a way to look good and fit in at the mosque?
By all means, wear what you want. And I’m not telling you not to wear it if you want to. Thobes and abayas are worn by many because it’s the easiest way to be more modest.
But with that being said, we should also know there is no such thing as an Islamic dress code or culture to adhere to. Because there is no, and has never been a mandate by God for any Muslim to act or dress like an Arab in order to identify yourself as a Muslim. Only to wear clothing appropriately.
The ‘Arab’/’Islamic’ Aesthetic
“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Verily, these are indeed signs for men of sound knowledge.” (Qur’an 30:22)
In our laity, it is important we understand that we are not promoting, or simply making up what is and isn’t correct on behalf of God. And this is especially prominent on Social Media as many romanticise an aesthetic with something that is peddled as a religious mandate – with lines often being blurred between inherited Arab cultural influence and Islam.
A lot of the time it’s defended with the reductive ‘We shouldn’t imitate the disbelievers!’ rhetoric.
Before you retort with, ‘The Prophet wore it so we should do it too.’
Well… not necessarily.
The Prophet [PBUH] wore what was culturally appropriate for his time and region. He did not intend for his followers to abandon their cultural roots and adopt the dress of another culture. So yes, that means he wore the same clothes as the non-Muslims of his time.
I wonder whether our obsession with aesthetics is detracting from the true essence of what God wants from us. Does God really want us to be like Arabs of the past because the Quran was sent down in Arabic or perhaps because the Prophet [PBUH] was Arab?
We must be more attentive in what we advocate on behalf of God and the Prophet to others as a supposed practice of religiosity and virtue. Why would God be happy with us if we wore a turban, slept on a straw mat, or sat on the floor to eat?
This espousal has also led some to react strangely to others who aren’t ‘conforming’ (if you want to use that word) especially from what I have personally witnessed…
If you don’t have a Muslim sounding name (basically an Arabic one), don’t have “MashaAllah” in your daily lingo, or you don’t look brown enough, you’re not doing it right or you must be a revert!
It’s also interesting because there’s only 4 Prophets that were Arab. Even the Prophet Ibrahim (which isn’t his actual name) did not speak to God in Arabic but in an ancient semitic language as did many other messengers.
Recital > Understanding and Application?
With that being said, we should also remember that the knowledge of Arabic or knowing how to pronounce Arabic properly (especially if we don’t know what’s being said) does not make one more ‘pious’ in the eyes of God.
Understanding what God is telling us and actually utilising it to guide our present affairs and outcomes is far more important than simply reciting or listening to the Quran in Arabic.
A sheikh once gave this example:
If our new fridge isn’t working, we aren’t going to take out the manual booklet and start reading the instructions out loud or in Russian Cyrillic if we don’t understand it to make the fridge magically work.
The point is that we wouldn’t do this illogical practice to something material like a fridge that actually needs our attention and understanding in order for us to operate it properly so why do we do it to the best book of them all that is meant to help guide our entire way of life?
It made me think – if I was an author, I would find it quite strange if people spent their whole lives just reading my book out loud paying no mind to the content but giving the utmost attention only to not mess up the words. So I can only wonder how this must all look to God!
It’s without a doubt important to understand the Quran in the language he sent it down as the Sheikh also mentions. But it’s ancient Arabic just like how Shakespearean English is to us. In fact, many native Arabic speakers themselves struggle to understand the Quran (even at the time of the Prophet [PBUH]). Which is why it is important to study it with experts who know what they’re talking about.
Adopting the Arab cultural aesthetic might make some feel more connected to God. But should it? Should wearing a thobe or abaya, enunciating phonemes from a book you don’t understand, listening to Eastern acapella melodies, and spritzing yourself in itr do this?
“Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.” [Qur’an 49:13]
This isn’t a ‘I hate Arab culture’ rant. My point is that while there are certainly cultural practices and traditions associated with faith, it’s not the essence of our submission to God nor should we shove it down other people’s throats as if it is.
Our primary focus should be on our relationship with the Most High. Not adopting a particular cultural identity. We should embrace and celebrate our diversity, rather than trying to conform to a singular vision of what it means to be Muslim. And in the grand scheme of things, the clothes we wear and the culture we are from (or try to adopt) are insignificant compared to the virtues we should be embodying.