Thursday, 23 August 2012

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 and common conversation among Muslims.

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. For instance, a Pakistani Muslim who moves to the U.S., starts attending the mosque or otherwise learning Islam soon discovers that many things she/he was taught was un-Islamic are actually Islamic or Islam has a neutral position on it. Muslims from other countries experience the same epiphany. Is it because there is no "culture" in America? No. It is because there is no one culture in America.

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? Just ourselves.

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.

For example, on the treatment of women: there are teachings in Islam that, if interpreted from a a certain perspective, do in fact support the mistreatment of women in Muslim cultures. The “Islamic” 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 the four Sunni legal schools aren't very helpful either:  they all differ significantly, such that, according to the Hanafi law, a woman cannot leave the marriage even if she is being abused or her husband is not fulfilling his duties as a husband or even if he goes missing--the wife has to wait until the husband would die a "natural" death or wait until he would be 104 years old to get a divorce! But Shafi’ 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.

Another example might be the Islamic teaching that education is compulsory upon every Muslim. Depending on how and where we were raised, we might interpret the word "education" differently--from no schooling but "education" about domestic work to 10th grade or high school to being able to obtain a PhD or moving alone to another country for higher education, and so on.

Although the formation and development of law is a separate topic than the notion of culture versus religion, the point here is that how we understand Islam is based on the assumptions and beliefs we are raised with. The scholars who interpret the religion for us are no exception: they, too, are children and products of their own cultures, and this is why a scholar from Pakistan is likely to give you a different "Islamic" opinion on, for example, how marriage relations are to be conducted versus how a Muslim scholar born and raised in Great Britain might. It is an unfair mistake to assume that one is more right than the other just because one might give an opinion that we were raised to believe is "Islamic" while the other is not.

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. 
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