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Ramadan Reflection Day 10: The Many Paths to Water

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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.

A couple of days ago I wrote a post on Muslims and Marriage and in it I made mention of my fiancee, Priya. I later noticed that some readers had asked why that is her name. I suppose it's because that's the name her parents gave her.

Two things immediately popped into my mind: 1) Being a convert to Islam can be tough because it's hard to deal with Muslims mostly because 2) many people too rigidly define what makes something "Islamic" based off of their subjective experiences and understandings of morals and ethics.

What makes a name Islamic? What makes anything Islamic?

Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah, a great American Muslim scholar, wrote an article entitled "Islam and the Cultural Imperative" that does a great job explaining how cultural diversity is embraced and considered within the Sharia, Islamic Law, and its application.

"For centuries, Islamic civilization harmonized indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law. It struck a balance between temporal beauty and ageless truth and fanned a brilliant peacock's tail of unity in diversity from the heart of China to the shores of the Atlantic. Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius. In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but -- having no color of their own -- reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilization."

The word Sharia itself linguistically means "a path to water". If one were to conceptualize any body of water, from the largest of oceans to the smallest of raindrops, it can have many paths to it and, thus, is approachable in a multitude of ways. So too the sharia is meant to be approachable in a multitude of ways. Obligations are very few in Islam as are prohibitions with a lot of grey area in the middle to account for the diversity that exists in the human race. We are different in our backgrounds and we should be entitled to stay true to what makes us uniquely us. My embracing of Islam does not necessitate I have to commit a cultural apostasy of some kind. My name is not un-Islamic just because it's not an Arabic name. So too my language, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, what I do for a living and what I consider to be socially normative can be reflective of the culture that I was born into and still be Islamic. What makes it un-Islamic is if it violates something that God has set guidelines on, not a cultural norm elsewhere.

Embracing the diversity that exists in the Muslim community is actually something that would prove to be advantageous. Many of the negative stereotypes that are associated with Islam (not sure if there are any positive ones) are easily applied because people see us as a monolithic, homogeneous community. It's easy to say that "All Muslims are violent" or "All Muslims oppress their women" or "All Muslims" are anything when our diversity is not acknowledged or promoted. All Muslims are not the same. We are every skin color and race, speak most every language that exists, come from a diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds, and have many facets to our respective identities. But if Muslims don't acknowledge this, why would anyone else?

Muslims in the United States have a unique opportunity in showing the world, Muslim countries included, how deep and diverse the religion of Islam can actually be. The American Muslim community is not ethnocentric, it does not adhere to one legal or theological school of thought, and it is made up of people from all over the world, including those who have called the United States their home for centuries. There isn't really any place else in the world like that. Most Muslim majority countries are made up of Muslims who are all pretty similar to each other. Here, we are all pretty different. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.