A Malaysian political leader has asked political parties in his country to stop using the word “Islam” in their names so that, “nobody can make use of the religion for their political gains.” This progressive thought is ironically closer to the classical understanding of Islam’s sacred texts. For in the early century of Islam, use of the word “Islamic” (Islamiyyah in Arabic) was limited in its scope. When opining on the permissible (halal) and the impermissible (haram) the classical scholars eschewed the blanket usage of “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” often opting instead to using terms such as “valid”, “accepted”, and “allowable” or their antonyms.

Attaching Islam or Islamic to otherwise secular activities such as politics or art is a newer innovation whose proliferation is traceable to the identity movements that sprang up in the Muslim world in the 1960s and 70s. Even if one were to provide convincing raison d’être for the fields of Islamic Art or Finance, how does one explain Islamic Olympic Games, Islamic Music, Islamic Quizzes, etc.? In their quest to preserve identity, Muslims may have lost sight of the big picture. 

The proponents of “Islamic-anything” perform a difficult juggling act. In his book “Islamic Finance” Mahmoud El-Gamal outlines the dilemma faced by the Islamic finance industry, for example. On one hand the Islamic finance industry tries to be similar to conventional finance so as not to be in any jeopardy of national or international laws. On the other hand, the industry portrays itself to be different by using Arabic words to describe mundane secular contracts and attempting to conform to the sacred texts of Islam, even when such conformity is no more than form over function. This dilemma of being same and yet different is also faced by other Islamized disciplines.

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