Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf:
As Islam has spread throughout the world, it has combined religion with native cultural practices. Many centuries later, separating the religion from the underlying culture has become difficult. That's why Islam as practiced in Egypt differs from, say, Islam as practiced in Malaysia.
Mona Eltahawy describes cultural practices in Egypt and the Middle East that predate Islam yet have been embraced by many people now as part of Islam. The practice of genital mutilation of women, for example, is found only in Africa. If it were part of Islam, it would be practiced by Muslims all over the world.
For his time, the Prophet Mohammed was a revolutionary feminist. Before him, Arab women had no rights; they were men's property. Before Islam, men could have as many wives as they wanted. While it might sound outrageous to Americans today, the Quran insisted that men could have no more than four wives and that the wives must be treated equally -- a radical idea at the time. In another major breakthrough, the Quran decreed that female children must be given a share of their parents' inheritance. In fact, with the explosion of wealth in some of the Gulf states, women are now accumulating economic power through inheritance.
None of this may sound too liberal to many Muslim women, especially in the United States. Women are still assigned second-class status in much of Africa and the Middle East. But the question modern Muslim scholars are asking is this: Was it God's intent to set gender relations as they were in the seventh century for all time? Or does the Quran's directive reveal a divine intent that striving for gender parity and justice should be perfected in our time? If it is the former -- as many Muslims insist -- then seventh-century practices become the norm. If it is the latter, as I and many believe, then we have an obligation in the 21st century to continue the quest for equality and justice that the Prophet began.
Here is where American Muslims become so important. As it has in other countries, Islam as practiced in the United States is taking on many of the cultural norms of American society. American Muslim women drive cars. No one advocates genital mutilation here. Muslim women enjoy the rights and privileges of all American women.
These new practices are transforming Islam here and, as with so many other immigrant groups, American Muslims are positively influencing events back in their native countries. Whether she knows it or not, that's the most important thing that Mona Eltahawy is doing with this essay.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and author of Moving The Mountain, which goes on sale May 8.