“We have never sent a messenger who did not use his own people’s language to make things clear for them.” Quran, Ibrahim [14:4]
“Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. There truly are signs in this for those who know.” Quran, The Byzantines [30:22]
“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.” Quran, The Private Rooms [49:13]
One of the constantly daunting negotiations Muslims have to engage in during our modern times relates to culture vs. religion. Interestingly, this struggle is a byproduct of globalization, media (including social media), and generally all forms of mass communication that no one in the past could’ve dreamt of. Although we might take our ability to go online and find out what’s trending across the planet for granted, if we reflect on how people in the past lived, we would be wondering how they managed to carry on about their daily affairs without all the gadgets (they were just fine, may be even better than us. At least when they talked to each other, they actually TALKED to each other, with eye contact and body language!).
The issue of cultural diversity is an interesting one. Most people automatically retreat to an ethnocentric perspective in which they view the other through their own cultural glasses. What’s puzzling is how self-assured each group of people are about themselves and their superiority. But this is fast changing, especially with social media, which is mostly used by impressionable young people. The proof of the power of something like YouTube is in how quickly people from all over the world pick up on some craze within 24 hours and all of a sudden everybody’s doing the Harlem Shake (which has nothing to do with the real Harlem Shake by the way). After all, it was Twitter and Facebook that made the Arab Spring possible.
With such unprecedented capacities to peek into each other’s backyards even if we’re on opposite sides of the planet, the culture one happens to grow up in is immediately challenged in its assertions about numerous facets of life. Such a practice that used to be reserved for philosophers with time on their hands to reflect has become the norm for many people. This puts many into existential crises of varying degrees, which can be exacerbated if faced with unjustified impositions by their family and/or community members.
It’s often forgotten that much of pre-Islamic Arab culture was preserved after the advent of Islam. Aside from forgoing their polytheism and the practices related to it, when an Arab embraced Islam over 1400 years ago, he wasn’t required to become something other than an improved version of him or herself. Unless the name they carried had a negative meaning, it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that they needed to change their name. Their clothes didn’t change and their social customs were preserved. This story repeated itself when people accepted Islam in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The testament to this stands in the historical relics and sights that remained behind to this day all over the world. Even today, for those lucky enough to have travelled extensively, they would’ve taken note of the true diversity of cultural identities that prosper within an Islamic context.
The challenge many Muslims in the West face, especially converts and those from immigrant families who for all intents and purposes are more Western than anything else, is how to avoid leading a schizophrenic existence where at home and the mosque they’re one person, and outside of them they’re someone else. As noted by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah in his paper “Islam and the Cultural Imperative“, without coherence and grounding in personal and cultural identity, a Muslim cannot engage in their personal struggle for moral perfection and spiritual elevation due to their constant struggle against culturally predatory impositions that are sold as “Islamic”. More importantly, for Islam to speak to everyone, it must allow for a diversity of cultural expressions. To assume that the only “true Islam” is that which included the cultural practices of the Arabs or the Indian Subcontinent is antithetical to Islam’s nature as the Final Message universal to mankind. To insist on this expression of Islam as the only proper expression of it will inevitably mean that Islam will always be foreign to anyone outside of that cultural expression, and it will indeed always be so even if such an outsider accepts it.
Prophet Muhammad blessings and peace be upon him is known to have worn clothes gifted to him from different regions, including Egypt, Rome, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Doing so is to make it clear that no particular way of dressing oneself has theological significance, so long as it conforms with the general guidelines of covering one’s nakedness and being modest. After all, the Arabs were non-Muslim Arabs before they became Muslim Arabs, and Islam didn’t de-Arabize them. So why a Westerner must be de-Westernized is a question that remains illusive for a sufficient answer.
Many Muslims have misunderstood Islam granting them relative legitimacy for their cultural expression as making it absolute for everyone else. As a consequence of this, the “other”, and in this case it means the West more than anywhere else, is always criticized. Interestingly, the criticism is usually against social ailments that Islam doesn’t approve of. But this is used to issue a blanket judgment against everything the West has to offer. Anything they’re unable to attack directly is at the very least viewed as having malice intent behind it. This is akin to someone going to a palace, ignoring all the beauty it has, going to the garbage dumpsters and complaining about the smell. In addition, it assumes the infallibility of one’s own culture and the Divine right to judge others. Such a rejection does nothing when one is immersed in the culture they reject other than turn Muslims off from actively engaging with it. By becoming passive consumers of culture, Muslims will inadvertently take up both positive and negative aspects of culture without being aware of it. Eventually many will come to a turning point where a fundamental choice will have to be made about who they are because being in flux is sustainable for only so long.
As young Muslims facing this dilemma reject their ancestors’ culture out there and fully embrace the culture they’re actually a part of in here , they also reject Islam or many teachings of Islam because of how it was presented to them. This is no surprise when culture is made into religion. Without a viable alternative that allows for Muslims to be Muslims by religion, but culturally in sync where they live, they will end up in a state of confusion that is hard to be settled without the right Islamic juristic tools. There are Muslims today who reject such a notion and speak in derogatory tones about California Islam, American Islam, or European Islam as if they’re cheap knockoff versions of what they understand to be “true Islam”. Unfortunately, in their modern religious rhetoric, Muslims have lost sight of the Quranic injunction “And do not withhold from people things that are rightly theirs” [Quran, Hūd 11:85]. It seems that anything that comes from non-Muslims is demonized even if there’s nothing demonic about it. Given the history of Islamic thought and jurisprudence, this dismissive position is indefensible. Islam has always allowed room for different forms of cultural expression and to assume that being a proper Muslim means to restrict oneself to interpretations and rulings issued by scholars in a single region during a single era is actually going against maxims of Islamic Law. Shaykh Adil Qūtah relates two telling statements by giant scholars with regards to this in his book “Al Ūrf” (The Custom). Imam Al-Qarāfī states that:
“Persons handing down legal judgments while adhering blindly to the texts in their books without regard for the cultural realities of their people are in gross error. They act in contradiction to established legal consensus and are guilty of iniquity and disobedience before God, having no excuse despite their ignorance; for they have taken upon themselves the art of issuing legal rulings without being worthy of that practice… Their blind adherence to what is written down in the legal compendia is misguidance in the religion of Islam and utter ignorance of the ultimate objectives behind the rulings of the earlier scholars and great personages of the past whom they claim to be imitating.”
These words of Imam Al-Qarāfī are not to be understood as an open ticket for any cultural realities. There are in fact negative cultural practices that can oppress individuals and/or have negative manifestations upon society, which Islam does seek to eliminate for the benefit of mankind. However, there are many cultural practices that Islam can either be neutral to, or even encourage should they provide an overall benefit for the general society. As to the discernment between these different realities, this is a matter only the most elite of scholars who don’t only know the text, but also the context, should engage in. The statement of Imam Al-Qarāfī was highly commended by another prolific scholar, Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim who said:
“This is pure understanding of the law. Whoever issues legal rulings to the people merely on the basis of what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their customs, usages, times, places, conditions, and the special circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical natures but merely in accord with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. He is an ignorant physician, but the other is an ignorant jurisconsult but much more detrimental.”
The Islamic Tradition is clear about something that modern Muslims have made opaque, which is that being a Muslim doesn’t mean losing your identity. However, while maintaining their current cultural identities that may differ from their parents, young Muslims also need to reconnect and reclaim the roots from which they’ve come from. The cultural heritage of their parents is not restricted to how they dress or how they interact with each other. Language, art, poetry, and history provide important lessons and insights to what made one an Indian, an Arab, an African, or any other identity. Many people focus on external superficialities and ignore the backgrounds. It’s from the backgrounds that people like Rūmī, Hafiz, and Al-Busīrī come from. It’s also from these backgrounds that great architectures like the Taj Mahal, Alhambra, the Shah Mosque, and the Suleyman Mosque emanate. It was these backgrounds combined with proper and comprehensive understanding of the Islamic Tradition that produced great institutions like Al Azhar, Zaytuna, Al Qarawiyyin, and the University of Timbuktu, some of which were built by Muslim women philanthropists and all manifest a different cultural heritage under the wide inclusive umbrella of Islam. There is that and much more, but as long as some Muslims maintain a culturally predatory attitude they cloak as Islam, young Muslims will increasingly reject that culture and Islam along with it.
1. The Arabic text for both Imam Al-Qarāfī and Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim are as follows:
وقال أيضا رحمه الله تعالى: “… وعلى هذا القانون تراعى الفتاوى على طول الأيام، فمهما تجدد في العرف اعتبره، ومهما سقط أسقطه، ولا تجمد على المسطور في الكتب طول عمرك، بل إذا جاءك رجل من غير أهل إقليمك يستفتيك لا تجره على عرف بلدك، واسأله عن عرف بلده، وأجره عليه، وأفته به، دون عرف بلدك، والمقرر في كتبك. فهذا هو الحق الواضح، والجمود على المنقولات أبدا ضلال في الدين، وجهل بمقاصد علماء المسلمين والسلف الماضين” الفروق ١\١٧٦-١٧٧
وقد علق على هذا النص الأخير – الإمام ابن القيم – رحمه الله تعالى – بعد نقله له بحروفه تقريبا، فقال: “وهذا محض الفقه، ومن أفتى الناس بمجرد المنقول في الكتب على اختلاف عرفهم وعوائدهم وأزمنتهم وأمكنتهم وأحوالهم وقرائن أحوالهم، فقد ضل وأضل، وكانت جنايته على الدين أعظم من جناية من طبب الناس كلهم على على اختلاف بلادهم وعوائدهم، وأزمنتهم وطبائعهم بما في كتاب من كتب الطب على أبدانهم، بل هذا الطبيب الجاهل، وهذا المفتي الجاهل أضر ما على أديان الناس وأبدانهم، والله المستعان” إعلام الوقعين ٣\٨٩
2. An important article to read (which this one stems from) on this subject is “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah. A lecture in which he discuss his paper is shown below.
May 5, 2013 Update
Much of this post dealt with the issue of custom and cultural realities’ influence on Islamic jurisprudence from a theoretical perspective than from an application one. This is because before we can speak about application in a coherent and consistent manner, we must first set the principals in place. Although the relevance of this discussion is more pertinent to daily practice with regards to clothing and social conduct (interaction, marriage, etc.), it also has influence upon the rulings on celebrating non-religious holidays (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving Holiday, etc.), as well as how one is expected to interact with non-Muslims on their religious holidays. There are also the issues of business and politics. While it might seem that Islamic scholarship has become stagnant and in some cases irrelevant, the reality is that Islamic scholarship has continued to produce numerous works that address modernity in a relevant and applicable way. Unfortunately, much of this work remains on the shelves of university libraries in the Muslim world as graduate theses. The book by Shaykh Adil Qūtah quoted above is an example of such works where he brought the tradition and elaborated upon it from a Hanbali perspective. What we’re in need of now is a massive effort to bring forth such works to the forefront of Islamic thought. Otherwise we risk further marginalizing Islam by continuing to rely upon past scholars specific rulings rather than relying upon the methodology they used to arrive at such rulings that were relevant for them but may not be relevant for us.