Is There Harmony Between Islam and Culture?

The question of culture and Islam has been a huge one in my mind and the minds of so many Malaysian Muslims. Recently, this question has come to light again with the accusation of “arabization” of Malaysian Muslims.

In other, more “classical” manifestations of our lack of understanding in the harmony between Islam and culture, we see confusions with regards to gender relations, women’s roles in society, dress code, social mannerisms, and “Islamic” food.

It seems like we have to move forward to a more back-to-basic, but at the same time, wider and deeper discussion about the topic. No longer can we rely on simple rote memorization, lazy copy-and-paste, and blind adherence to the text as a short cut way to practice religion. Especially when we are currently in an age of cultural mixing, thanks to the advent of social media.

Mixing can be beneficial, but detrimental if one doesn’t have strong roots to begin with. Without proper understanding of objectives (maqasid shariah), awareness of cultural variations, and wisdom in application, confusion ensues.

This is for the lay Muslims, to equip ourselves with a good foundation to build our religion upon. Although we should never abandon the guidance of our teachers (trained and qualified scholars), we should also try our best to stand on our own two feet.

New questions arise constantly, and we need to be ready with the necessary tools to find the answers ourselves. We cannot expect our teachers to be there for us all the time to answer all our questions. To understand the concepts and the underlying universal principles is the key to unlock our mind, freeing it to explore and find answers – while still be wary of boundaries.

It is worrying when we become parrots with regards to religion; we simply copy and paste, with no regard to the objectives and the change of times.

On one hand, it is reflective of our lack in understanding even though we know a lot. We memorize but we don’t understand the reasoning behind what we memorized. Like a student who simply memorized 2+2=4, but without understanding why it is so. When a new question emerges (e.g. 5+7), the student cannot answer because that’s not what he memorized.

On the other hand, it is a worrying sign of our laziness in thinking deeply about our religion; to constantly question and to constantly struggle to find the best answer. To memorize or to copy-and-paste, seems like the easiest and most convenient way to practice religion.

Ease and convenience are not inherently wrong, but they aren’t the best possible solution for all possible situations.

“Persons handing down legal judgments while adhering blindly to the texts in their books without regard for the cultural realities of their people are in gross error. They act in contradiction to established legal consensus and are guilty of iniquity and disobedience before God, having no excuse despite their ignorance; for they have taken upon themselves the art of issuing legal rulings without being worthy of that practice…. Their blind adherence to what is written down in legal compendia is misguidance in the religion of Islam and utter ignorance of the ultimate objectives behind the rulings of the earlier scholars and great personages of the past whom they claim to be imitating.”

(Quote by Al-Qarafi, 13th century jurist, copied from Dr. Umar Faruq Abd Allah’s paper entitled “Islam and the Cultural Imperative“)