Interpreting the Quran

Mixed Up in Morgantown: Reclaiming Islamic Diversity

by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

I was deeply impressed to see how painstakingly, as well as how defiantly of our soundbytes-and-snark culture, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN endeavored to explore the various viewpoints germane to its featured conflict.  For me as an American Muslim woman, the film highlighted both what I myself find most beautiful about my religion and what I am most uncomfortable with about the way it is being practiced in my country.

Watching the film, I found it unsurprising that, in a mosque where so many people from different countries converged to worship, different interpretations and cultures would clash.  A similar situation might arise in a church comprised of Evangelicals, Unitarians, and Catholics, both progressive and conservative, originating from over 30 different countries, all attempting to decree the correct form of worship at the church.  Any similar situation would pose challenges.

However, in the Muslim case at least, diversity of opinion is built into the very structure of the religious law.  Over five hundred schools of Islamic law once flourished in various areas of Islamic civilization, and disagreement between them was acceptable.  Even now, the remaining four main Sunni schools and one main Shi’i school accept each other as valid, whether or not they agree.   Muslims have never had a single authority, like the Pope, to lay down what Islamic law is or isn’t.  Numerous historical examples illustrate long theological debates waged over decades and distance (including those regarding women’s places in society), considering a wealth of factors, including geography, culture, hardship, and context.  These debates were preserved in the historical record even by those jurists who did not agree with them, because they recognized that Islam allowed for various interpretations, freedom of thought, and critical thinking.

How is such diversity possible, if there is only one Qur’an and only one Sunnah (words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad)?  The Qur’an contains both general principles and specific injunctions, and it allows room for interpretation.  Muslims are allowed to ask questions: Is a verse metaphorical or literal?  Was it revealed in response to a particular historical situation?  If the Qur’an mentions a particular practice, does that mean that every other practice is disallowed?  What is the historical, circumstantial, and textual context in which the verse was revealed?  What was the “reason for revelation,” a factor that formed an integral part of the development of Islamic law and understanding?  On all these points jurists could disagree and still be consistent with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

This was why Islam flowered.  Muslims were not afraid to engage their tradition and respect the opinions and writings of even those with whom they vehemently disagreed.  Muslims were secure enough in their tradition that they could read other juristic interpretations of the Qur’anic text and debate them rather than close off their minds with cries of “No!  That’s haram because I don’t agree with it!”

Asra on Literalism

Yet, the trend I see in the mosques — though not in the general population of American Muslims — is dogmatism.  This is highlighted in the film not only in the way the religious conservatives relegate women to the back door, but also in the way that Asra Nomani aggressively forces her views into the mosque.  The women condemning Nomani claim that it is “God’s law” that they are following — but what is God’s law?  If the religious scholars through the centuries debated the specifics of God’s law when it came to (among other things) women, then who are these modern women to say that their own personal view is God’s law?  Similarly, when Nomani isolates Qur’anic verses from their 7th century historical context and attributes to them the roots of Daniel Pearl’s murder, she engages in the same kind of one-dimensional, thoughtless rhetoric as her opponents.  She is right to want to discuss the status of women in the mosque and in Islam.  She is right to read the Qur’an.  But there is a huge spectrum between religious conservatives (even misogynistic ones) and Daniel Pearl’s murderers; to connect them by calling them all extremists is counterproductive to dialogue.

It is this type of unawareness of diverse valid opinions that is currently causing conflict and isolation within the American Muslim community, most of whose members do not attend mosques.  To illustrate: suppose an Islamic jurist somewhere issues a fatwa (a reasoned legal opinion by a recognized religious jurist), and then suppose imams all over the United States start proclaiming this fatwa as shari’a (“the way of God”).  A fatwa is not binding or enforceable.  Contradictory fatwas may be just as Islamic.  So where are the other possible fatwas on the same issue?  Where is the debate? For an imam to choose one view as “shari’a” and exclude other, equally valid Islamic views, would be presuming he knows God’s will and other scholars do not.  And if I, as a Muslim, disagree with that fatwa but am told that it absolutely amounts to shari’a, might I not be completely disillusioned by what I am told is my religion?

Why then, for example, are some imams dictating that women must pray in separate rooms?  Not all Islamic jurists would agree.  At the Ka’ba itself, men and women pray in the same room. Isn’t it time Muslims again allowed intellectual debates to flourish in a civil manner in mosques and meeting places?  Each group in the film had trouble listening to its opponents.  Each side insulted the other by saying, “I’ll pray for you,” as if they were doomed otherwise.

Throughout history, when Muslim shaikhs conducted religious classes, some required women to sit in the back, some in the front, and some on the side.  All forms were acceptable; one could choose which to attend.  Today, if we Muslims cannot practice together or reconcile varying interpretations in the same mosque, then perhaps we need to form separate mosques to accommodate our different interpretations.  But whatever we decide, we must dispense with dogmatism and reclaim our Islamic heritage of respect, dialogue, and diversity of interpretation.


Sumbul Ali-Karamali has a graduate degree in Islamic Law and is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing (White Cloud Press, Sept. 2008). Please visit her website at

Tags: , , ,


  1. Funmi Taslimat Gaffar - Lagos, Nigeria says:

    I loved this article. It was informative and validates my instincts on these issues which I’ve never been able to properly substantiate because I’m not a scholar. Thank you for writing about the Islam that I believe in – promoting, peace, tolerance and above all open minded.

Please wait