Religious Diversity and Human Rights

By Irene Bloom; J. Paul Martin et al. | Go to book overview

6
THE INDIVIDUAL IN ISLAMIC SOCIETY

RICHARD W. BULLIET

Ever since the Iranian Revolution was discovered by a nonplussed and apprehensive world to be firmly in the hands of Shi'ite clerics and laymen intent upon creating an Islamic republic, contemporary Islamic belief and practice have been subjected to intense scrutiny. While scholars have concentrated upon organizational and ideological developments of the last few decades, general commentators have called public attention to issues of individual behavior ranging from courtroom procedure and corporal punishments to women's clothing regulations and bans on different forms of entertainment.

The upshot of this scrutiny has been to create an image of Islam as a faith that is intolerant of individual deviation from social norms. This unattractive reputation has hurt and offended many Muslims around the world who do not see their religion in this light and who feel they have been misunderstood and maligned. Yet specific instances of seemingly intolerant behavior in the name of Islam have received great publicity, as witness the affair of Salman Rushdie. My purpose in this essay will be to offer an explication of the role and status of the individual in Islam that will make it easier to understand the complexities that lead to these contradictory appreciations of Muslim behavior.

No religiously denominated societies in the world are so consistently approached through reference to a presumed normative uniformity as those described as Muslim. Whatever the reality of social relations among Muslims today or in the past, observers repeatedly invoke an ideal social order which

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