Culture and Real Islam

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.”

So Fareena Alam is refreshing (hat tip: Reformist Muslim).

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.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. A good point has been raised by Ms Fareena Alam. The idea of writing on it had recently come to my mind when I was writing on Karo Kari, Wunni, Maani and Swara but could not because of some other subject being on my plate. Our people have started behaving like a pendulum. They go either to one extreme or the other while Qur’aan teaches us “Siratul Woosta” (median way).
    Islam is Islam and there is nothing like moderate Islam, enlightened Islam, true Islam or real Islam. These terms appear to have been coined by people to justify their point of view which may or may not be within the fold of Islam.

    Islam is what Qur’aan says and Hadith explains. No where culture has been dubbed as bad. Only bad things are bad. Also, culture generally keeps changing with time. During my life time culture of Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi has changed to a great extent. The culture of Duesseldorf (Germay) that I witnessed during 1966-67 was not there when I visited during 1978. Then there are traditions, again, some good and some bad. Some people mix traditions with culture.
    So far as Karo Kari, Maani, Wunni and Swara are concerned, these appear to be more dictatorial tribal tradition than culture and have nothing to do with Islam.

  2. “Islam is basically what is practiced by Muslims.

    Precisely. The head-chopping, women-stoning, children executing cult of death called islam is the root of most evil in the world today…

  3. “Islam is basically what is practiced by Muslims.” Zack, this is utterly false. On the other hand, Muslims are supposed to be following Islam.

    Flanstein’s remarks confirm what others are dying it to be called with your help.

    If Islam is head-chopping, women stoning; Christianity is people bombing, oil thirsty & women exploiting, to say the least.

    Zack I hope it gets to the comments section. If not I request you to delete Flanstein’s too, for the sake of fairness.

  4. Flanstein: You didn’t really get my point.

    Sanity: You are thinking from an unquestioning believer’s perspective while I am writing as someone who thinks of religion in a sociological context. Religion is defined by its practice by people.

  5. Have you read any Amartya Sen? Here is a short piece from the other day, although I’ve read much the same from him in other forms and lengths elsewhere. Here is part of another piece. Thought you might find it interesting.

  6. “Thanks, Gary. I have read the TNR article but not the Slate one.”

    This is good, since TNR stuff isn’t existing well in the free world.

    My own view appreciates that we are, most of us, complex people who participate simultaneously in more than one culture than one.

    I kinda figured you might be interested in that POV yourself.

    I’ve become more and more a fan of Sen’s the more I’ve read of him, myself. Not to regard him as, to use the phrase of a religion that neither of us belong to, gospel, but as a writer of interest.

    Okay, sleepy now again.

  7. Why should we priviledge a sociological reading of religion? While I agree with your point, Islam, from the beginning, has priviledged certains sources and certain types of knowledge over others. These sources (Qur’an, the corpus of Hadit, secondary sources such as Fiqh manuals and books of Tafseer), interpreted and applied in a conscientous way, form the basis of the religion. While Islam has a broad, deep, and variegated tradition, one greatly influenced (especially in its implementation, if not so much in its system of belief) by local conditions and culture, don’t you think that there is a common core of concepts and practices (drawn from texts generally regarded as authentic and enacted by a historical majority of Muslims) that allow us to make a judgement as to what practices are normative? The fact that someone with a guilty conscience chooses to make the religion a scape goat for some distasteful action he has performed should not be allowed to tarnish the image of the religion. In the case of action, the norms are determined via an analysis of the available primary and secondary evidence (textual or otherwise) according to a valid usul-ul-fiqh. I’m not sure that western sociological methods, developed in the context of a critique of Church power and authority and divorced from a notion of objective transcendental truth by the decision to present social phenomena in purely descriptive (and supposedly value-neutral) terms are adequate to describe this reality. It will tend to present the relationships between the ‘Ulema and the general body of muslims strictly in terms of power; because the objective truth of the knowledge which the ‘Ulema impart will be either denied or ignored, this relationship will inevitably appear to be exploitative. This is a shame, because it negates the authority of those individuals who are in the best position to offer a sound religious critique of those practices which have cast a negative light on the religion.

  8. Luqman: Your comment (and several other similar queries) require a long thoughtful response. I’ll do a regular post about it in the next day or two.

  9. For Luqman’s comments, I for one have always held the viewpoint that of the hadith, some are more sociocultural than religious, and that not all sources are reliable. While I’m not Shi’a, I do agree with them that some Hadith sourced from Ayesha are highly conservative and restrict females and society a lot more than that which is implied in the Quran. Hence, I believe that Quran is the ultimate source of Islam, and then Ijtihad and Iqma, and then Hadith. Of course this is a very Rationalist approach to Islam, and is influenced by my interactions with Amish and Mennonite religions. Therefore, I think that there is Islam outside of culture, and there is culture outside of Islam. However, the overlap and resulting barbarity and violence propogated in the name of Islam is more a result of the ever-increasing lack of Prophet’s Arabic-literate ulema, which has been occurring in most areas of the world since the demise of the Khalifat.

  10. Islamic Traditionalism

    There was a great discussion about Islam and Traditionalism spanning several blogs. Please do follow the links and read it in full. There might be a quiz later. When I am less busy, I’ll pick up some of the threads here.

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