From this point of departure, we wish to examine the ability of Islam to restore meaning to an LC (low context) society. This ability lies to a large extent on the fact that Islam is what Dr. Noah Feldman refers to as a “mobile idea.” [1] Feldman identifies universality and simplicity as the two most salient features of a mobile idea. If we consider the categories mentioned at the outset of this article, we can see that Islam’s universality lies in large part with its ability to establish a context that allows for the ascription of meaning. This context-generating ability of Islam, as we will discuss shortly, is not tied to a specific cultural milieu. Historically, it has transcended particular cultures. This is one of the key components of its universality. Ironically, it is only when Islam is approached as a distinct, all-encompassing culture that it loses its universality. We will also examine this issue shortly.

If we consider the category of activities, Islam not only introduces a set of ideas, the focal point of Feldman’s examination of its mobility, it also introduces a set of standardized activities, such as ablutions, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, litanies, etc. Those activities themselves are shaped by a set of well-defined situations. For example, prayers occur in the mosque or a clean place in ones home or workplace designated for that purpose. It also requires a distinct frame of mind, which is an integral part of the situation surrounding its performance. The pilgrimage takes place in and around Mecca at a designated time, while wearing distinct garb. The most commonly repeated litanies occur in the place of prayer.

A large part of Islam’s mobility is rooted in the transcendence these activities and situations. They are not confined to a particular people existing in any particular time or place, nor are they rooted in a particular culture, as we mentioned previously. Hence, they can be readily adopted. The prayer of the African looks no different than the prayer of the Chinese. The prayer of a Muslim three hundred years ago looks no different than the prayer of a Muslim today. Similarly, the mosque, in its essential elements has change little over the course of the last thousand years.

Because of its comprehensiveness, a person entering into Islam can adopt an entirely new way of life with little or no experimentation. Many of the most essential aspects of this new lifestyle have already been worked out. If we revisit our marriage example, the basic role expectations of a husband or wife are provided by the prophetic tradition. Of course there are also many aspects of how the couple may relate to each other that are informed by their shared or respective cultures. However, they would have a good idea as to what they could anticipate from each other if they were both practicing Muslims.

The fact that Islam also provides a new, non-economic, non-hereditary basis for status only enhances its power to create meaning. Most social systems ascribe status based on economic categories or inherited social position, in many instances tied to race or ethnicity. Islam devalues these bases of status, and introduces new ones that are rooted in the activities and situations associated with the religion. This idea is captured in the prophetic tradition that states, “God does not look at your physical forms or your wealth. Rather, He looks at your deeds and hearts.” [2] This tradition emphasizes that race, other physical features –such as hair texture or skin color, and wealth are of limited importance in terms of the status they afford one before God, and therefore, ideally, before other humans.

Just as Islam provides a new and diverse set of activities and situations, it also provides a new, socially neutral basis for status. This feature of Islam has proven tremendously empowering to oppressed minorities historically and contemporarily and may give us great insight into the strong appeal Islam has held historically for disenfranchised groups.

Similarly, the importance that Islam affords to past experience is of tremendous significance in terms of its ability to provide context and therefore meaning in abstractive post-modern societies. It connects the believer to the past, not only as part of a continuous historical community, but also by tying the soundness of belief and practice to preexisting forms and norms. The grounding arising from adhering to established schools of jurisprudence and identifying with an established system of spiritual refinement provides the past with the power to inform the believer of what his or her behavior should be in the present. This power is augmented by the certainty concerning the future that is provided by known eschatological ends.

In combination, these four variables, -activity, situation, status, and past experience, as found in Islam, provide the basis of Islam’s power to produce meaning-generating context. The fifth variable in Hall’s scheme, which we have not discussed until this point, is culture. Culture is a variable that in combination with the other four shapes how context is created. Culture is critical to the context-generating power of Islam for it provides the cement that integrates and synthesizes the context generated by the activities, situations, status, and past experiences that Islam informs with preexisting societal norms. However, if culture to perform this critical role, it has to be viewed as a complimentary variable that strengthens the efficacy of the others, and not as hegemonic one that dominates and subordinates them.

We will clarify this point by returning a final time to our marriage example. A particular culture may shape an “Islamic” wedding ceremony. Culture determines the language the ceremony will be performed in. It determines the role that males and females will respectively play in the wedding. For example, the type of wedding dress, the presence or absence of bridesmaids, a procession for the bride, groom, or both, the place where the bride, groom, parents, guests (male and female) will sit during the ceremony. It also determines if special types of food i.e. wedding cakes or special desserts will be served, and a large array of other issues.

Basic religious teachings governing the vows (Ijab wa Qabul), witnesses, a dowry, and guardianship can be flexibly integrated with the type of cultural elements mentioned above to produce a meaningful ceremony that would not be viewed as strange to the non-Muslim attendees who share the common culture of the bride and groom. The role of event, situation, status, and past experience would be integrated with those cultural elements to provide a meaningful event recognizable to all members of the community. However, if Islam were viewed as an independent, all encompassing cultural phenomenon, it would negate the complimentary role of culture as illustrated above and give rise to a ceremony that might be considered foreign and possibly alienating, even to Muslims.

For example, if the prophetic tradition (Sunna) were seen as mandating that the vows be made in Arabic, that only men be present, that any sort of special clothing and processions, or the serving of any special dishes are all to be shunned because they are religious innovations, then the role of culture would have been paradoxically distorted. This distortion is found in the fact that Islam as a religion would have been elevated to become an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon. On the other hand, legitimate manifestations of culture, such as the things mentioned above, would have been eliminated all together, because of their perceived religious unacceptability.

Traditionally, Muslim scholars understood the role of culture as a complimentary variable that assists in integrating Islam into a living social context. This understanding is embodied in the legal maxim, “Custom is of legislative import.” Hence, local languages, dress, food, ceremonies, mores governing interpersonal relationships, art, music, and other customary features of a society, which collectively make up that society’s culture, are to be duly considered when attempting to implement Islam at a societal level. All of these things are critical in providing meaning to an individual’s life. Understanding this fact and respecting it only enhances Islam’s context-generating power.

Ironically, failing to understand this fact, by attempting to present Islam as a trans-historical mega-culture not only negates the historically assimilative power of Islam, it also skews the relationship between culture and the other four variables we have been discussing. It should come as no surprise that viewing Islam in such a way robs it of its ability to generate meaningful context, and renders it a principal source of the nihilism characterizing the lives of many contemporary Muslims, leaving them just as vulnerable to the ravages of fundamentalism and anomie as other people whose lives have been shaped by the abstractive post-modern condition.

In conclusion, when we see how readily Islam conforms to the variables that are of critical import in the creation of context and meaning, we see that Islam can play a significant role in addressing the nihilism that is a distinctive feature of the post-modern condition. However, the potential role to be played by Islam in this regard cannot be realized if it is approached as a hegemonic phenomenon that suppresses the cultural manifestations of the societies where it is found. Rather, those cultural manifestations have to be viewed as a force that synthesizes and integrates the other variables we have been discussing into the social setting. If this occurs, we will see the return of the dynamic, adaptive Islam that spread so easily to the far corners of this earth, and appealed so readily to such a wide array of people.