Friday, November 24

Religion and Culture

This topic has been done to death and so most of you will have already decided what you think about it. But it's also recently come up in conversation with a friend, so I'm recounting it here for the sake of completeness.

This friend said that they wanted to practise a "pure" Islam, or one that doesn't have the influence of culture that they see in the practice of others. Now, whenever someone says something along these lines I always imagine a pair of lungs. Crazy, I know, but bear with me for a second. I was once told in school that a human can never really exhale fully. There is always an amount of air in your lungs that your diaphragm just cannot get rid of - this is the latent capacity of your lungs.

And it's the same with Islam and any religion really; I think that there is always a latent amount of culture present. In fact, an extreme view some may hold is that religion is nothing but culture. And although I wouldn't quite go that far I do think it's inconsistent to, say, condemn inter-religious unions on the one had while promoting inter-cultural marriages on the other since you're prejudicing on the same lines really.

But back to Islam specifically. I guess my main evidence that culture and Islam go hand in hand is the wide range of practising that goes on in this world today. On the "macro" level we have the geographical differences: Indonesian Islam is very different to African, while Arab practise is very different to that seen in Pakistan. Closer to home, we hear about drives for a uniquely European brand of Islam. On the "micro" level we have differing but equally valid opinions on issues like the veil and hijab, or the haramness of music: is Yusuf Islam a sinner or not?

There are historical and prophetic examples too. Even after Hijrah Madinan Islam contrasted with Makkan Islam. The difference? The latent culture of the respective regions.

We all (God willing) pray and fast and pay charity - for simplicity I'll refer to these as fard (although it's important to note that even these might be influenced by culture - more on this later). And even if we don't practise as much we think we should, we do agree that there are common fundamentals shared between all Muslims. Anything else, in my opinion, is culture almost by definition and, provided it doesn't contradict the fard, totally acceptable. This includes things like local law, arranged marriages and even the finer details of prayer and ceremony, and I think consistency and the avoidance of hypocrisy is much more important than the details you actually practise.

This thinking does not back forced marriages, honour killings or anything else that is clearly prohibited in Islam, but of course this argument is a bit circular since what's fard is an interpretation and opinion which can be influenced by the prevailing culture too. For my argument to hold, these examples would have to be as valid as an opposing stance.

Perhaps culture is instead defined by the prevailing feeling of society, and so if it's acceptable to them then that's all that's required for it to be valid. The implication is that as soon as this prevailing society changes, this validity is revoked too. I think it's safe to say that, in the UK at least, there is a prevailing common culture (and one that a lot of Muslims are sharing), but to discuss how culture comes about is out of the scope of this article anyway.

It would be pretty patronising and outdated to accuse those seeking a "pure" Islam of actually wanting to imitate an Arab (or even Salafi) cultural Islam, so I won't. However, there is little doubt that the "radical" Islam portrayed in the media at the moment is an Islam that is very much that, so even if Muslims don't accept it as the only way it might be likely that non-Muslims do, especially as it's easier to see differences in culture than the similarities. Perhaps it's not just Muslims that need to realise that Islam can be (culturally) practised in more than one way.

In conclusion I guess I'm saying that there is no one pure Islam we should be searching for, but just a bunch of equally valid and equally diluted ones. I don't think that this is an incorrect or bad thing either, since an Islam that is inflexible and doesn't cater for the specific needs of a global Ummah will always fail, whereas one that can be assimilated into the local culture is bound to flourish.

On the contrary, it's the idea that there is only a single specific acceptable practice, or that one is necessarily closer to the truth than any of the others, that is anathema to the religion itself.