There have been frustratingly many definitions of culture, but perhaps in distilling all those meanings we can say that culture is the behavioural and cognitive patterns generated from the interactions between a society’s beliefs and its environment. This environment could include such things as the physical, social, ethnic or historical conditions that influence society.
Culture determines our instinctive behaviour by giving functional expressions to our beliefs and values and it functions as the context within which we think and act. In this way it makes it comfortable for us to live our lives in accordance with our beliefs in a particular subjective or objective environment.
Thus, as the environment changes, culture must change too in order to re-establish that harmony between beliefs, behaviour and that particular environment.
For Muslim communities in the West the issue of the cultural status of Islam is pivotal in deciding how Muslims deal with their environment and the extent to which non Muslims accept Islam as an indigenous religion.
The Islamic world consists of many diverse cultural practices subsumed under one Islamic culture spanning a wide multi-ethnic domain that includes Africa, Asia, and even parts of Europe. Many scholars have divided the cultural zones that comprise the Muslim world, into the Arabic, Persian, Turkish, African, Indo Pakistani and Malay, all of which while being Islamic, have strikingly varied cultural expressions of Islam.
When it comes into contact with other cultures, Islam has a threefold reaction. It condones forces and ideas that agree with it, such as the belief in one transcendent God, life after death, marriage as the only legitimate context for sexual relations, etc. Secondly, it reinterprets and appropriates other aspects of that culture that do not contradict the principles of Islam but are peculiar to that society and finally rejects those ideas and cultural forms that contradict its principles, doctrines and morality.
This process of acculturation, appropriating what is in conformity with the Islamic ethos and rejecting what is not, began in Arabia itself with the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. There, certain pre-Islamic cultural practices and attitudes, such as certain types of pre-Islamic dress like the turban and the cloak or abaya, and cultural attitudes such as the Arab custom of generosity to the stranger were incorporated within the local Islamic practice.
This process was followed wherever Islam had a foothold or became the dominant religion. The synthesising process of confirmation, modification, incorporation and proscription led to the emergence of different Muslim cultures unified by an ever pervasive universal set of Islamic practices and values. In these cultures, Islamic principles and the Prophetic traditions as sources of divine grace dominate, but each cultural group has the freedom to realise its own cultural possibilities within the tradition of Islam itself.
Among the different factors that play a central role in this synthesis is language, which is the outward expression of the intellectual genius of a people. Language also had a powerful effect in building bridges between Islam and local cultures. In many parts of the Muslim world the interaction between Islam and these cultures has resulted in the creation of hybrid languages, such as Swahili, Hausa and Urdu that are mixtures of the local languages and Arabic. To be a knowledgeable Muslim in these societies knowledge of Arabic and fluency in these hybrid languages are all required. These languages played a crucial role in making Islam a religion familiar to the local people and contributed significantly to its spread among these people.
Chinese Islam for example, has been articulated in terms of Chinese civilisation and thoughts. The name of Islam, for example, translated into Mandarin is Qïng Zhën Jiao, which means, “The Religion of the Pure and the Real” in place of the word “Islam” which in their pictorial script and speech would have been alien and meaningless to the people of the area. It thus made a connection between the religion and the intellectual and philosophical environment integrating it with the culture of the Chinese.
Thus in each area one would find variations in the cultural expressions and manifestations of Islam such as differences in architectural styles, local costume, in ceremonies commemorating rites of passage such as births, weddings and funerals. From place to place some aspects of the sunnah (inspired Prophetic practice) are observed, neglected, or even opposed in cultures where such a practice is at variance with embedded psychological attitudes. Even Islamic law recognises cultural diversity. Through the concept of ‘urf’ or customary practice, it accommodates local culture by making rulings that incorporate a wide range of behaviour that translate Islamic rules into action. Although less authoritative than other sources of law and subject to criticism and modification, nevertheless, the concept of ‘urf’ is very important, for through it Islamic law considers and validates local customs and requires Muslims to conform to them.
In terms of its integration into Western culture and its “naturalisation”, Islam in the West displays both a cultural incongruence – hence alienation from its surroundings – as well as trends towards “indigenousness”.
There are many indications of cultural incongruity, most important of which is the domination of immigrant ethnic attitudes over western nationality. This is the source of the vast majority of our community’s ills, from our inability to influence our society to our lack of unity and social cohesion. Almost all of the institutions, centres and mosques that we build are constructed more to satisfy this ethnic need to feel at home or more accurately, to recreate the familiarity of the mother country outside the homeland than to reflect and aid our integration in our adopted countries. Thus we end up not being able to politically and economically manoeuvre successfully as a community in our new environment despite the fact that we have a large number of professionals among us as well as growing individual wealth.
This alienation has come to be reflected in an ideology that sees Islam as a monolithic culture narrowly defined in a literalistic application of the practice of the Prophet. Whatever practice that is at variance with the outward form of the Prophetic practice is not seen as Islamic. The argument of those who hold this view is that since Islam is a superior religion and culture, all other religions and cultures must be eliminated and only Islamic culture, as a rigid set of formal behaviours precisely defined, should remain. Not only is this school of thought hostile to their country of residence which they determine as the land of the infidels, but it is equally hostile toward understandings of Islam that are at variance with their own.
It is interesting that right-wing nationalist Islamophobes in these countries have the same uncompromising idea of Islam as the media stereotypes which stem from this alienation. This type of opinion has given impetus to the idea of Islam as a monolithic culture that is incompatible with the Western way of life and which must be reformed in order to coexist with western society. According to the proponents of this view, Islam should exist only as a set of personal beliefs without any outward manifestation.
The other, more positive, trend is the growth of a thriving Muslim subculture, grounded in the western environment and proud of its Islamic heritage and practice. This culture is expressed in many forms, from stand-up comedy, to the writing of penetrating books and articles on Islam from perspectives peculiar to the intellectual environment of the West.
It would take too long for an indigenous Islamic society and culture to occur naturally, but the process could be assisted. For this to occur, it requires a shift in our understanding of the meaning of Islamic culture and our attitudes to the host country. It also requires the development of local scholars and intellectuals with a profound knowledge of the history of Islam, the humanities and culture. They should be completely familiar with the eternal principles of Islam and how to apply them to the immediate environment using as a base, the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that are compatible with the Islamic ethos.
Written by Shaykh Ahmed Haneef
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.