Friday, January 29

Religion and Culture

Is it okay for a Muslim woman to wear a bindi? You know for decorative purposes? Well the two general opinions are yes, that it's harmless; and no, since it symbolises and represents another religion (and I apologise unreservedly for using yet another poor Muslim woman in my example). Largely though it seems to mainly depend on why someone is wearing it - that as long as it's clear to the wearer that it's not a form of worship that it's okay - and it's reasonable to assume that a Muslim wearing one is not doing it for the religious reasons a woman of another faith would. Pretty straightforward right? Many of us now visit churches and temples without fear of it tainting our religion so the point stands. Of course we don't do it as a habit either, so perhaps that's the difference.

Let's now consider a more difficult practise: how about touching the feet of an elder out of respect? The majority (and possibly obvious) understanding (with issues of earned respect put aside) is that this is against Islam because you're placing someone on a pedestal.

But what if it's a cultural ritual and nothing else? Just like shaking hands, or slapping someone with a hi five or a fist pound? What's wrong with it in that case? This isn't a particularly novel question to ask, and a quick Google shows that there are a surprising number of apparently informed opinions which deem this to be permissible provided it doesn't break clearly established rules which apply to all other interactions too (so you couldn't both touch the feet or shake the hand of a non-mehram for example).

But aside from the technicalities, there are two further points to make here. The first is considering the perception that you're giving to others; others who might follow your example without clearing their intent as rigorously as you might have. The discussion then turns to whether or not you are responsible for the actions (and ignorance) of others who have chosen to imitate you, something I've talked about before so I'll skip it for now.

Secondly, you may not have actually thought about it as rigorously as you might think you have. Being flippant about the reasons why you do something (by simply declaring "it doesn't mean anything" for example) may not be enough to clear you; in my opinion it takes much more introspection and a holistic view of how you're living your life, something which might be more difficult than just simply stopping what you're doing. In a world where many aren't even sure of their own faith, it may be a better idea to just avoid any ambiguity in the first place. Of course it's up to the individual to decide where they are in this landscape, and it goes without saying that we should strive to be strong and sure in our respective faiths even if we don't have any contentious issues to deal with.

I think on the whole many of us are able to deal with this isolation of culture and religion. After all, many of you reading are living in modern, western cities and have willingly embraced modern, western cultural ideas such as progressive social justice, equality, the freedom to choose education and work and all the rest of it, all of which complement and strengthen our religion rather than oppose or weaken it.

However the offshoot of this is that this relationship works both ways: that if you can practise an apparently foreign culture without it tainting your inherent religiousness, then you cannot use the same religion to combat a culture which doesn't compromise it, no matter how much you dislike the culture itself. For example, the claim that "cousin marriage isn't Islamic, it's cultural" doesn't mean that Islam has a negative opinion on the practise and therefore this isn't in itself an argument against it.

In other words the often used argument that something you find personally undesirable "isn't from Islam, but is cultural" cannot be used unless that culture is specifically impinging on an Islamic ruling or opinion. If Islam doesn't have an opinion on something then it neither encourages or discourages it, and using the religion to strengthen your own personal opinion on a cultural issue (be it for or against it) is doing your faith a disservice.

So in closing, culture isn't something that is necessarily defined by religion but something that sits alongside with it, and in fact sometimes defines how we implement and demonstrate our faith instead. The wider implication of this, however, is that although Islam can and should be a strong influence in how we live our lives, it doesn't have to be the absolute and only one; that it's okay to take things, both "good" and "bad", from extra-religious things like culture, society or even our friends, provided it doesn't end in us doing anything un-Islamic. In fact it's precisely this approach of subsuming what at first appears to be unrelated to religion which will allow it to spread to the places it wouldn't have been able to otherwise.


Originally drafted 12th September 2007