How does Islam shape the way Muslims live?
The religion’s formal requirements are the narrow base for a far wider array of patterns that extend the formal rules of Islam, stretching them in unexpected and unplanned ways. A few examples:
The Koran strictly bans the consumption of pork, leading to the virtual disappearance of domesticated pigs in Muslim-majority areas, then their replacement by sheep and goats.
These herds have overgrazed the land, which has led, as the geographer Xavier de Planhol observes, to “a catastrophic deforestation” that in turn “is one of the basic reasons for the sparse landscape particularly evident in the Mediterranean districts of Islamic countries.”
Note the connection between a Koranic dietary injunction and the desertification of vast tracts of land. The scriptural command was not intended to cause ecological damage, but it did.
Islam’s unattainably high standards for governmental behavior meant historically that existing leaders, with their many faults, alienated Muslim subjects, who responded by refusing to serve those leaders in administrative and military service, thereby compelling rulers to seek personnel elsewhere.
This led to their systematically deploying slaves as soldiers and administrators, thereby creating a key institution that lasted from the eighth century for a millennium.
Islamic doctrine ingrains a sense of Muslim superiority, a disdain for the faith and civilization of others, which has had two vast implications in modern times: making Muslims the most rebellious subjects against colonial rule and obstructing Muslims from learning modernization from the West.
Those scriptures also imbue a hostility toward non-Muslims, which in turn generates an assumption that non-Muslims harbor a like hostility toward Muslims.
In modern times, this projection has created a susceptibility to conspiracy theories, which have had many practical consequences: For example, because only Muslims worry that anti-polio vaccinations secretly render their children infertile, polio has effectively become a Muslim-only scourge in 26 countries.
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Islamic hajj, began in the seventh century as a local custom that then became an international meeting that facilitated the transfer of everything from Islamist ideas and political movements (the Idrisis of Libya) to luxury goods (ivory), plants (rubber to Southeast Asia, rice to Europe), and diseases (meningococci, skin infections, infectious diarrheal and blood-borne diseases, and respiratory-tract infections, including perhaps the brand-new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
Other Islamic injunctions also have unintended, negative health implications. The imperative for modesty has led some Muslim women to wear full head and body coverings (niqabs and burqas), which cause Vitamin D deficiency, discourage exercise, and are implicated in a host of medical problems, including rashes, respiratory disease, rickets, osteomalacia and multiple sclerosis.
The daytime fast during Ramadan often leads observant Muslims to exercise less and to “tend to overeat upon breaking their fast, and usually the meal involves heavy, fatty foods that are high in calories,” notes the head of the Emirates Diabetes Society. One survey in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, found 60 percent of respondents reporting excessive weight gain after Ramadan.
A preference for first-cousin marriages, which harks back to pre-Islamic tribal practices (to keep wealth in the family and to benefit from daughters’ fertility) over approximately 50 generations has led to widespread inbreeding with negative consequences, including about twice the incidence rate of such genetic disorders as thalassemia, sickle-cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, diabetes, deafness, muteness and autism.
With regard to women, injunctions about protection by male relatives, and a vastly lower social and legal status combined to create such inadvertent patterns as physical seclusion, obsession with virginity, honor killings, female genital mutilation, and (Saudi-style) gender apartheid. Polygamy creates permanent anxiety in wives.
Although orphans enjoy an honored status in Islamic law, that honor is tied to a tribal structure incompatible with modern society, resulting in Muslim orphans today persistently discriminated against, even by Muslims in the West.
Islam’s scriptures have provided the base from which many other patterns evolved, including: the establishment of dynasties through conquest, not by internal overthrow; recurrent problems with dynastic succession; power leading to wealth, not the reverse; the near absence of municipal governments; inadequate regulation of cities; laws arising from ad hoc decisions rather than formal legislation; reliance on informal money transfers; and the practice of suicide terrorism.
Inadvertent patterns change over time, with some, such as slave soldiers, becoming defunct, and others, such as polio, starting only recently. These patterns remain as powerful today as in premodern times and are key to understanding Islam and Muslim life.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.