Islamic Principles or Great Tradition Versus Little Tradition Approach

One approach to understanding the issues of modesty and sexual restraint in Islamic cultures has been to focus on Islamic principles as explained in Islamic texts, such as the Quran and Hadith. This approach can be understood as part of the Great Tradition versus Little Tradition approach; scholars in this vein of analysis look at the tenets of Islamic texts—the Great Tradition—and compare local practices—the Little Tradition—with them.

The best-known study in this vein was done by Antoun (1968). He examined prescriptions for modest practices, including appropriate sexuality, in the Quran. He then looked at a variety of modesty practices and beliefs about women's sexuality in a village in Jordan for their "accommodation," or lack of "accommodation," to these textual dictates. In a well-known critique of Antoun's argument, Abu-Zahra argued that his focus on legalistic terms and arguments and dictionary definitions of commonly used words would not be familiar to "illiterate peasant communities"; in addition, the same words would have highly variable meanings in different contexts (Abu-Zahra, 1970, p. 1084).

It is important to underscore here the points raised by Abu-Zahra in a discussion of the concepts of modesty and sexual restraint. It is central to any analysis of these behaviors to recognize that the existence of Islamic texts and their widespread use as references for proper moral behavior in many cultures does not mean that individuals within and across cultures understand these texts in identical ways. What is considered to be within the realm of proper Islamic practice in one place may be understood quite differently—even as un-Islamic—in another setting. For example, Palestinian village women in the West Bank who experience possession by the jinn, or spirits, believe their possession experiences to be well within the realm of appropriate Islamic practice; Palestinians in typically urban settings, such as Toronto, Canada, argue that, while the jinn are known to exist due to their mention in the Quran, such possession experiences are significantly contrary to proper Islamic belief and practice (Gibb & Rothenberg, 2000; Rothenberg, in press). Thus singling out a particular Islamic tradition as normative is arbitrary, as exactly what should constitute the "normative tradition" is the subject of great debate in many Muslim societies (Eickelman, 1989, p. 203). Identifying a single Islamic normative tradition as a yardstick for local practice is not only arbitrary and homogenizing, but also ahistorical, creating a decontextualized view of both Islam and Islamic women (cf. Kandiyoti, 1991).

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