One of the most common refrains one hears from Muslims about any bad traditions in Muslim societies is that it is a cultural fault and not a religious one. Never mind that those following such traditions (like honor killing, for example) do bring up religion, in addition to culture, to justify their actions. I have always been exasperated by people saying that this practice or that is not “real Islam.”
For years, Muslims around me have said: “Islam must be separated from culture.” While this slogan has deep and well-meaning roots – such as the struggle to teach people that honour killing, often justified with religious excuses, is a cultural practice that is unequivocally abhorred in Islam – the clash between culture and religion is ultimately a false one. This idea of a “pure Islam, free of cultural baggage” is a false one. Religion manifests itself in the realities of life. Must we all neutralise ourselves – even the aspects that do not contravene Islam, to be accepted as “pious”? What is this “one Islam” or “one voice” people call for, and who decides what it says?
A mosque in China, with its bright red and gold interior and pagoda-like exterior blends beautifully into its surroundings as does the new mosque in Bradford, made of the same local stone as the buildings around it; they are completely different but both sacred places of worship for Muslims.
“Like a crystal clear river, Islam and sacred law are pure but colourless, until they reflect the Chinese, African, and other bedrock over which they flow,” wrote Dr Umar Faruq Abdallah, of the Nawawi Foundation in Chicago, USA, in his paper, Islam and the Cultural Imperative.
While we should not blame all the faults among Muslims on their religion, the fact is that it is difficult (and sometimes impossible) to separate culture and religion. Sometimes cultural practices arise from religion and at other times secular practices in a culture acquire religious underpinnings. These things are complex and difficult to disentangle. As someone who thinks of religion in a sociological context, there is no such thing as “real Islam” or “pure Islam.” Islam is basically what is practiced by Muslims. This can and does vary depending on time, place and context.