HTBE series: Muslim with a culture
BismiLlah Al Rahman Al Rahim,
The first part of this -I must admit- very ambitious series was to place on our map a more or less Islamic perspective on where we stand in accordance to the Modern World. What is the Modern World we live in? How is it?
Since the Renaissance, Man has centered himself in the Universe, as being the means and end of existence, putting aside the idea of a Higher Being, and giving in to material needs. Thus, numbing his spiritual, fitra side and arousing ever more his bestial one.
The Islamic perspective holds that as Humans we are born with a state that drives us to seek the Absolute. Through Islam, we reach for God by remembrance (dhikr) and worship (‘ibada).
Not only that, but Humans are the honored species on this Earth since we have the 99 Divine Names in us, compared to other creatures who only manifest a few. We have presented 30 of them in the second part of this series.
Every human being belongs to a country, a community. It entails a certain way of living, a culture. What is culture? How can culture and Islam live together? Are they antagonistic? or complementary?
These are excerpts taken from a paper by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, scholar-in-residence at the Nawawi Foundation.
Dr. Umar is someone dedicated to integrating Muslims in America wholly and truly. Seeking the truth and letting History speak for itself. Whether academics like it or not. He always insists on resetting our cognitive frames (cognitive what? It took me a whole year to understand it, in a upcoming post we will talk about it inch’Allah), it’s like telling people that it wasn’t Columbus who discovered the Americas first but West Africans, they won’t believe you since it’s a set idea in their mind and not easy to budge.
Dr. Umar is also a sweet, kind, compassionate person one is so ever lucky to talk to on the face of this Earth. I’m not exaggerating. Meet him and let me know what you think of him.
Back to part three. Excerpts from “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”:
In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization. The religion became not only functional and familiar at the local level but dynamically engaging, fostering stable indigenous Muslim identities and allowing Muslims to put down deep roots and make lasting contributions wherever they went.
I remember the story of how Mustafa Davis, the photographer-director, became a Muslim. When he first heard about it he said “I hadn’t thought of it for myself because I felt it was either an Arab religion or a separatist black movement (which I couldn’t join because my mother is white)” and after converting he would say “I spent a decade trying to leave behind my own culture (the very culture that led me to Islam) and attempted to adopt Arab culture as my own. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to return to my roots as an American and reconcile that with being Muslim… in a way that is a natural reflection of my own culture and symbiotic with my faith as a Muslim.
Dr. Umar goes on:
It is commonplace to identify “culture” with refined taste or “high culture” like the fine arts and humanities. In this vein, Matthew Arnold spoke of culture as “the best that has been known and said in the world” and “the history of the human spirit.” However, culture as a modern anthropological concept and as treated in this paper refers to the entire integrated pattern of human behavior and is immeasurably broader than its highest expressions.
Beyond what is purely instinctive and unlearned, culture governs everything about us and even molds our instinctive actions and natural inclinations. It is culture that makes us truly human, separating people from animals, which frequently exhibit learned behavior but lack our capacity for the creation and adaptation of new cultural forms. Humankind has been defined as “the speaking animal,” “the political animal,” “the religious animal,” and so forth. But speech, politics, religion, and all essentially human traits are fundamental components of culture, and, whatever else we may be, humankind is, first and foremost, “the cultural animal.”
Culture weaves together the fabric of everything we value and need to know—beliefs, morality, expectations, skills, and knowledge—giving them functional expression by integrating them into effectual customary patterns. Culture is rooted in the world of expression, language, and symbol. But it relates also to the most routine facets of our activities—like dress and cooking—and extends far beyond the mundane into religion, spirituality, and the deepest dimensions of our psyches. Culture includes societal fundamentals like the production of food and distribution of goods and services, the manner in which we manage business, banking, and commerce; the cultivation of science and technology; and all branches of learning, knowledge, and thought. Family life and customs surrounding birth, marriage, and death immediately come to mind as obvious cultural elements, but so too are gender relations, social habits, skills for coping with life’s circumstances, toleration and cooperation or the lack of them, and even societal superstructures like political organization. A working democracy, for example, is as much the fruit of particular cultural values and civic habits as it is the outgrowth of constitutions or administrative bodies. In our mosques, schools, and homes, many day-to-day aggravations are patent examples of cultural discord and confusion. Often, they have little to do with Islam per se but everything to do with the clash of old world attitudes and expectations—often authoritarian and patriarchal—with the very different human complexities, realities, and needs of our society.
As an Egyptian, personally, I am finding a hard time defining my culture. Yes I can tell you Egyptians eat “foul and ta’miyah” (beans and falafels) in the morning, kochary in the evening. We are generous, funny, cheerful people. Our dialect is one of the most famous in the Arab world because of our music and movies…
But I feel that capitalism has taken away that essence of “egyptianility”. Capitalism has forced into us a certain way of thinking, dressing, talking, etc. It’s called Monoculture. Monoculture? Next entry inch’Allah.
N.B.: sentences from excerpts have been italicized purposely for this entry.