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Re-Thinking Individual Challenging of Perceptions: An Islamic Perspective, Essay Example

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Essay

Julia Serano’s article suggests that physical transformations radically shift how we perceive of the world, since these perceptions are themselves structured by various social norms. In other words, boundaries exist concerning what is acceptable or not: these boundaries are the products of our social conditioning. Boundaries may take the form of, for example, economic class differences or differences related to sexuality. Hence, a physical transformation, such as those represented in the transgendered community, overturn such ideas of normality. A film such as Transamerica (2005) therefore depicts physical body change as a way of re-thinking our social norms. However, this opens a question: is it correct to conceive all social norms as essentially the same, namely, that they all produce boundaries related to various forms of exclusion and classes? In other words, is this not a form of reductionism of all our worldviews to the same level, even though these worldviews may teach different ethics? The following essay will try to examine these issues from an Islamic perspective.

Serrano tries to point out to the reader that prejudices within society, based on classes such as race, class or gender, are themselves products of a particular society. In other words, there is a certain illusion present in these classifications: when someone says that “all members of X group are Y”, this statement takes a universal form, since it says all X are Y, but in reality, this is a particular claim advanced from a particular worldview. All worldviews are therefore haphazard creations that make false claims towards universality.

This is why, according to Serrano, physical transformations are important: they show the particularity of these apparently universal discourses. Hence, the aforementioned film Transamerica attempts to show the underlying humanity of its main character, who wishes to physically change their gender. The main character played by Felicity Huffman is portrayed according to the struggles she faces from being different from the dominant social discourse, which views her as a type of freak living outside of normal boundaries. The film seeks to show, through the protoganist’s physical attempts to change her body, how this also signifies a mental change, whereby it is necessary for us to re-think our preconceived notions of what is normal.

Such challenges, on the other hand, can themselves be viewed as products of a particular modern worldview that stresses individual choice above all other forms of community and traditions. Namely, what the individual wants is viewed as the utmost goal of human society. Now, why this may seem like a noble goal, can we not trace this very emphasis on individuality in society to the promotion of egotism and selfishness in society? For example, the United States, founded upon emphases on individuality, is at the same time a highly capitalist society, in which exploitation is the norm and an ever-increasing gulf between the classes is a future possibility. This can be understood as an Islamic viewpoint upon the issue. “Islam” itself means submission to God: it means de-emphasizing one’s own ego in the name of something greater. This de-absolutization of the ego is the exact opposite of the emphasis on individuality existing in Western culture, which only looks at reality through the lens of subjective happiness. Theorists such as Serano think that that traditional worldviews are merely particular ways of looking at the world and there is thus no distinction between a worldview such as religion and a worldview such as capitalism. But does this not omit the content of these same worldviews? How can they be so easily reduced to each other, when their messages are so different? In the case of Islam, for example, one of its five pillars is zakat, the giving of alms to the poor. This is a clear case of anti-egotistical worldview.

In short, the “transgressing of boundaries” that Serano suggests itself is part of an individualistic worldview, since it emphasizes the individual’s power to transgress these boundaries. It fails to note that some “classes” or “boundaries” are an ethical code, which has existed for centuries, and, in the case of Islam, is profoundly altruistic at its core. There is a danger in reducing all worldviews to the same level, just because they structure how we see others: we have to think about how these worldviews make us view others, and what these worldviews dictate should be our relation to others. In the case of Islam, this worldview is altruistic, hence transgressing the boundaries of Islam is essentially to fall into egotism.

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