Sunday, February 14, 2010

Negating the Notion of "Culture vs Religion"

I constantly come across Muslims who think that culture and religion are two different things, very much assured that culture serves as the culprit for every single thing that goes wrong in Muslim societies. At a friend's bridal shower recently, for instance, I heard two girls talking to each other, one of whom was saying to the other, "Yeah, in my family, it's only Islam, alhamdulillah. There's no culture whatsoever." And the other responded in awe, "Wow! Lucky you! And that's how it should be, you know." I smiled in response to this interesting conversation.

We make it seem like culture has absolutely nothing to do with our religion (in our case, Islam) or how it is implemented in our society. However, in terms of how Islam is practiced (not necessarily how it should be), our cultures have everything to do with the practice of Islam. Let’s wonder for a moment why Islam is practiced so differently in Indonesia than in Iran or Egypt or Saudi Arabia; let’s wonder why it’s practiced far more differently in the U.S., Canada, and Europe than in Pakistan, India, or Malaysia; let’s wonder why the practices of the Muslims in China and Japan are not the same as those in Iraq, Syria, or Bangladesh.

Many consider this the "beauty" of Islam: it can be integrated into any belief system, interpreted in a million different ways (even if they're opposite – though this is not unique only to Islam), and practiced in any society and time and culture. Throughout Islamic history, we can spot any point in time and ask what Islam meant for that specific period of time and for that specific region. Today is no exception, and if this breaks our hearts and makes us go, "OMG OMG OMG!! This is not good! We must do something about it!" we're fooling ourselves and wasting our time on something that we don’t have any power over.

So, really, who are we fooling when we lie to ourselves that Islam and culture are two different things? No one but our own selves.

Religion and culture are very much embedded into each other and have a strong and indelible influence on one another. Islam – rather, religion in general – is a theory, a theory that can be put into practice in many, many different ways, often being mingled with the original practices of the society that eventually embraces that religion. One of those ways is by interpreting it in a way that it fits our social norms that existed long before the religion ever invaded our land. The reason for this does not require a genius or a scholar to figure out: Religion needs to be practical, and whichever of its laws and routines are not practical for a certain society, that society will not hesitate to reject them. To ask a people to completely rid themselves of their previous customs, no matter how much they may be "clashing" with the religion they are compelled to accept, is silly and impractical. Looking into Islamic history and the beliefs of the people we call the pagans of Arabia, we notice that a lot of the rituals we have to perform during Hajj are actually derived from pre-Arab customs but were simply incorporated into Islam once they were re-interpreted to fit the standards of the Islamic/monotheistic concept of God and divinity and worship. (The concept of dowry is another example. It was simply made by claiming that it is to help the woman, though it can also mean other things … including some bad things, that is, such as: A man is paying a certain amount of money to the bride so that he can sexually own her for the rest of her life, or so that he can expect her obedience. This is how Muslim scholars in medieval and classical times interpreted the dowry. But today, how many Muslim women, especially in the west, are willing to see it this way?)

So we cannot expect people to give up every single one of their custom that they so cherished before they had to accept Islam, even if those practices clash with our understanding of Islam. It is only natural for them to keep some things from their past and accept new ones from the religion they have been introduced to, or to just mix both or re-interpret their older beliefs and practices so they can be explained from their new perspectives.

As far as the treatment of women is concerned, the thing is that there are teachings in the Quran that, if interpreted from a misogynistic perspective, do in fact support the mistreatment of women in Muslim cultures. The “Quranic” concept of divorce is one (if interpreted literally, the woman has to go through hell to get a divorce; so why bother divorcing at all? And look at what the four Sunni legal schools have to say about divorce, both regarding men and women. Tell me how much of it is in favor of women or their mental and physical security. Hanafi school doesn’t even allow it in case of the woman’s being brutally abused or even when her husband abandons her! Shafi’s law is more women-friendly when it comes to divorce: She can divorce her husband if he fails to provide for her and her kids financially, if he beats her, or even if she’s just unhappy.)

So, no, I don’t agree that the mistreatment of women in Muslim cultures is always the original culture’s fault. Many, many hadith do seem to think that education for a woman is just not a good idea. And the hadith that “education is compulsory upon every Muslim person” can mean so many things. We have to ask what education is, do there have to be differences in the types of education (e.g., should women’s education be limited to domestic education and basic education and man’s education far and beyond that?). So when people don’t support education for women, they DO have Islamic basis. Who are we to say that that understanding of Islam is wrong?

Is this to mean that it's Islam's fault? Not necessarily, because, as aforementioned, Islam is a theory; it becomes practice only once it is interpreted AND then implemented. So it's not necessarily Islam's fault but the fault of the interpretations, though often inexorably stemming from the literal text of the Quran itself.


  1. Every religion affects the mode and style of life hence it affects the culture of a society or nation.The more it talks about abstract things the less it affects the culture and the more it talks about practices the more its affects the culture.Hence a culture which is basically a product of environemental conditions,modes of production,socio-politicio-economic coditions is subject to change with the change in any of these determining factors.

  2. Interesting. You have, although, not provided any evidence on how Islam and culture are not two different things except that you provided the status quo? I could equally argue that the status quo is the result of human activities and that is what revivalist movements most of the times attack.

    You start by negating the understanding that Islam and culture are "two different things." But that could mean that you are proposing either of the following two assertions
    1- Islam and culture are the same thing since they are not two different things.
    2- Islam and culture are intertwined and related yet not the same thing.

    If Islam and culture were to be related, you MUST not be a Muslim. Islam started as a part of Arab culture, its holy book is in Arabic and its teachings for Arabs. You must resort back to what your ancestors have been practicing for centuries. This is especially the case with some Persians who are against Islam in Iran and want their ways of ancestors back as they see Islam as a Arab cultural phenomenon.

    Islam does affect the daily life of people and if you want to call that culture, sure. But to claim that islamic culture can contain elements from non-Islam culture, you have to substantiate where does Quran allow for that.

    Regarding Amina Wadud, is it surprising that those "Islamic scholars" supporting her have tenures in American universities and have non-orthodox tendencies, much like how it happens with every other religion?
    "Scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi berated her on Al-Jazeera, calling her action unislamic and heretical; while Eygptian scholar Gamal al-Banna argued that her actions were supported by Islamic sources, and were, therefore, orthodox. Other supporters count among others, Leila Ahmed, Islamic Scholar, saying, it was a good thing as it brought attention to the issue of women in Islam, and Ebrahim E.I. Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, called the prayer a "wonderful move.""

  3. Lemme make one thing clear: I'm talking about *practice* (how Islam is practiced), not how things SHOULD be or what's "Islamic" and what's not. I've never claimed whether it's Islamic or Quranic or not; I'm expressing reality.

    QUOTING: "If Islam and culture were to be related, you MUST not be a Muslim."

    You're more than free to decide if I'm Muslim or not using your own notion of Islam; that's perfectly fine with me. However, I find it sick and ridiculous how we love to decide who's Muslim and who's not.

    But, of course, I disagree that a Muslim cannot connect Islam and culture. And this goes back to the arguments I've presented in other blog posts and comments of mine: interpretations of Islam. Islam is NOT as simple as we are told it is. If it were, there wouldn't be huge debates about what a certain Quranic verse, or a certain hadith, means. I'm currently compiling a list of Quranic verses that are like this, and I'll be posting them in a matter of time.

    Islam gives us principles, *ideals*, and leaves it for our jurists/scholars/etc. to decide how those laws and ideals are to be INTERPRETED and afterward implemented. One can't claim that the way they interpret those ideals will have nothing to do with the CULTURE and mindset of that interpreter's time. This even includes the concept of education for male and female children (or even adults) and what the Prophet really meant when he said "education" is mandatory upon every Muslim. Just because today, we've accepted it to mean equal education for both males and females doesn't *necessarily* mean this was the intended interpretation of the Prophet's words. Culture is GOING to be used in the *way* Islam is interpreted, and it's inevitable. (But as I said, I'll be listing the Quranic verses, [erhaps along with some ahadith, that can be interpreted to suit any culture and time, and none of those interpretations will necessarily be "wrong.")

    Anyway, there are two opinions regarding religion and culture. The first view is that they are two DIFFERENT things and have very few points of intersection. The other view is that they are the exact same thing -- e.g., there's only ONE culture and that's the Islamic culture (purportedly the ideal). We hear this often from typical Muslims, who claim that Islam = culture = Islam. And often, that culture is simply the Arabic culture, especially when it comes to the view of non-Muslims, women, and other "minorities."

    As per what *I* believe, I Islam can be interpreted in SO many different ways that it can apply to ANY culture and ANY type and ANY society.

    As for your question that "Regarding Amina Wadud, is it surprising that those "Islamic scholars" supporting her have tenures in American universities and have non-orthodox tendencies, much like how it happens with every other religion?"

    No, not at all -- it's sad that Muslim universities won't permit Muslims (usually women) to think creatively, to question classical interpretations, suggest re-interpretations, etc. Who else can they turn to?

    Also, why does "orthodox Islam" have to be the "correct" one?

  4. Hey, I never called you a non-Muslim. I, rather, said that your Islamic beliefs do not conform with your views that culture and religion is the same. You are not an Arab, I am assuming you are Pathan, and does not make sense for you to adopt Arab's culture and beliefs (Islam).

  5. It doesn't make sense for a non-Arab to adopt the religion/beliefs of Arabs?

    I don't mind if someone calls me a Muslim or not, so don't think I'd ever be offended if I were called a non-Muslim.

    Yes, I'm Pashtuns (I don't like the term "Pathan" :) 's just me), and a blessed one at that :D

  6. Well, everyone feels blessed to be born into their ethnicity so I take one's self-happiness of their ethnicity with a grain of salt as it is something which cannot be measured or tested.

    Anyways, yes, according to your view, Islam is a part and parcel of Arab culture and beliefs. Hardly justifiable for a pathan to adopt someone's teachings and beliefs. But all this applies within the framework of your proposed argument that culture and religion are the same.

  7. Sardar ji
    Religion and culture are two different things.Pashtuns, e.g. wear shalwar, contrary to Punjabi dhoti which is considered shameful dress code in Pashtun society. The prophet also used dhoti and it was his culture which is not and will never be acceptable to Pashtuns.For Pashtuns, the followers of guru nanak in east Punjab are the same as those of Muhammad in West Punjab, as far as culture is concerned but different in religion which being a matter of metaphysical beliefs is of not much importance practically. The Punjabis of Pakistan have exaggerated the importance of religion not due to its theological or epistemic value but due to the fact that they use it as a tool of exploitation for the justification of the so called ideological basis of Pakistan which has already been proved wrong historically in case of Bengla Desh. Secondly religion is used to justify military powers and budget which has been rejected by Pashtuns, Baloch, Sindhis and Seraikis, on similar lines as rejected by Bengalis in the past. The rejection of Bengalis won them freedom from the banana state of Pakistan. The rejection of imperialistic hegemony by other oppressed nations will soon win them their independence. I hope all learned people should not advocate the devil by opposing the right of freedom and self determination to the oppressed nations in Pakistan.

  8. Beautifully said, Serenity! Love this post.

  9. like this. They are indeed different and exclusive.


Dare to opine :)

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