It’s Not Just the Veil

Technology and globalization have reinvented other traditional Muslim practices in some surprising ways.


Just Do It … Modestly

Traditional clothing for Muslim women — think head coverings and long sleeves — might not seem compatible with modern athletics, where body-hugging spandex is de rigueur. Bahraini sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara, who once raised eyebrows by sporting a headscarf emblazoned with a Nike swoosh, caused a stir at the 2004 Athens Olympics when she became the first woman to compete in a running event wearing a hijab. More recently, the “burqini,” a modest bodysuit for swimming, has won fans from Dubai to Indonesia since its 2007 launch, though traditionalists complain that the suits are tantamount to “playing a game with Allah.”

Egypt’s Joel Osteens

Like their Christian evangelical counterparts in the United States, Islamic religious authorities have been early and enthusiastic adopters of new communications technologies. The best known of the TV imams is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose show Sharia and Life has been broadcast weekly on Al Jazeera for the last 15 years. Every Sunday, more than 60 million people turn in to hear him dish on subjects ranging from suicide bombing to female masturbation. Internet imams like South Africa-based mufti Ebrahim Desai, who runs, or Dany Doueiri, the California-based Islamic scholar behind, now field thousands of queries from curious Muslims on topics such as work, marriage, and, especially, sex.

Praying With the Stars

NASA engineers have planned for many contingencies over a half-century of flight, but how and when to pray wasn’t one of them. When Malaysia sent its first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, to the International Space Station in 2007, a panel of 150 Muslim scholars and scientists convened by the Malaysian space agency produced “A Guideline of Performing Ibadah [Worship] at the International Space Station.” Among other rules, the guidelines stipulated that Shukor only had to pray five times per 24-hour period, rather than five times every time the station orbited Earth. Determining the direction of Mecca was a little more complicated. The clerics essentially told Shukor just to try his best.

No-Interest Banking

Modern Islamic banking started in Egypt in the early 1960s, when a small-town bank began offering interest-free loans in accordance with the Islamic ban on usury. Today, there are more than 400 sharia-compliant banks that offer loans without interest; the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Financial Services Board predicts that such institutions will have $1.6 trillion under management by 2012. With the sector growing at 15 to 20 percent per year even at the height of the financial crisis, Western banks including Citibank and HSBC have started their own sharia-compliant divisions. Sharia-compliant banks have even found an unlikely ally: The Vatican’s official newspaper recently wrote that Islamic banking was a model of the “ethical principles … which should mark every financial service.”

Mecca Goes Modern

The hajj — the journey to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lifetimes — is among the most important rites in Islam. It’s also big business, with pilgrims dropping an average of more than $2,000 in the city and a record-breaking 2.8 million participating in 2010 (up from just 1.8 million a decade ago), according to the Saudi government. That has led to some decidedly non-holy modern businesses cropping up in recent years, including an amusement park, fast-food vendors, and shopping malls complete with lingerie stores. Recent additions to Mecca include a $1.8 billion rail line that can shuttle 3,000 passengers at a time — open only to pilgrims from the Persian Gulf — and the world’s largest clock, unveiled in 2010 with the ambitious hope of one day replacing Greenwich Mean Time with “Mecca Time.” And for those who don’t have the time or money to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, there’s now a virtual hajj online in Second Life, which for the first time allows even non-Muslims to experience circling the Kaaba.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.