ISLAM AND THE CULTURAL IMPERATIVE

by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

For centuries, Islamic civilization harmonized indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law. It struck a balance between temporal beauty and ageless truth and fanned a brilliant peacock's tail of unity in diversity from the heart of China to the shores of the Atlantic. Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius. 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.

By contrast, much contemporary Islamist1 rhetoric falls far short of Islam's ancient cultural wisdom, assuming at times an unmitigated culturally predatory attitude. Such rhetoric and the movement ideologies that stand behind it have been deeply influenced by Western revolutionary dialectic and a dangerously selective retrieval and reinterpretation of Islamic scripture in that light. At the same time, however, the Islamist phenomenon is, to no small degree, a byproduct of the grave cultural dislocation and dysfunction of the contemporary Muslim world. Culture—Islamic or otherwise—provides the basis of social stability but, paradoxically, can itself only flourish in stable societies and will inevitably break down in the confusion of social disruption and turmoil. Today, the Muslim world retains priceless relics of its former cultural splendor, but, in the confusion of our times, the wisdom of the past is not always understood and many of its established norms and older cultural patterns no longer appear relevant to Muslims or seem to offer solutions. Where the peacock's tail has not long since folded, it retains little of its former dazzle and fullness; where the cultural river has not dried up altogether, its waters seldom run clear.

Human beings generate culture naturally like spiders spin silk, but unlike spiders' webs the cultures people construct are not always adequate, especially when generated unconsciously, in confusion, under unfavorable conditions, or without proper direction. Unsurprisingly, Muslim immigrants to America remain attached to the lands they left behind but hardly if ever bring with them the full pattern of the once healthy cultures of their past, which—if they had remained intact—would have reduced their incentive to emigrate in the first place. Converts—overwhelmingly African-American—are often alienated from their own deep indigenous roots and native cultural sensibility through the destructive impact of culturally predatory Islamist ideologies from abroad. All the same, Muslims in America have been silently forging sub-cultural identities over recent decades around our mosques, in Islamic schools, at home, and on college campuses.2 Some of these developments are promising. The upcoming generation has produced a number of notable Muslim American writers, poets, rap artists, and stand-up comedians. We experiment with dress (special dresses from denim, for example) and coin words (like fun-damentalist) as parts of our daily speech. Cross-cultural and interracial marriages have increased and show that many Muslim Americans now find themselves more Muslim and American than Indian, Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, or anything else. In other ways too, the young generation shows signs of cultural maturity and is connecting on positive levels often unthinkable to their parents. Many of them are comfortable with their American identity, while cultivating a healthy understanding of their religion, pride in their past, connection to the present, and a positive view of the future. But, despite positive signs, much of the cultural creation taking place over recent years around the mosque, school, home, and campus has been without direction, confused, unconscious, or, worse yet, subconsciously compelled by irrational fears rooted in ignorance of the dominant culture and a shallow, parochial understanding of Islam as a counter-cultural identity religion.3 The results—especially if mixed with culturally predatory Islamist ideology—may look more like a cultural no-man's-land than the makings of a successful indigenous Muslim identity. Development of a sound Muslim American cultural identity must be resolutely undertaken as a conscious pursuit and one of our community's vital priorities. It is not a problem that will sort out itself with time and cannot be left to develop on its own by default. Islam does not merely encourage but requires the creation of a successful indigenous Islamic culture in America and sets down sound parameters for its formation and growth. As we take on this commitment, we must understand that our revealed law and long history as a world civilization do not constitute barriers in the process but offer tremendous resources and latitude.

What Is Culture?

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.4 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.

A key measure for evaluating culture is its capacity to impart a unified sense of self and community and consistent, well-integrated patterns of behavior. A culture is "successful" when it imparts an operative identity, produces social cohesion, and gives its members knowledge and social skills that empower them to meet their individual and social requirements effectively.5 Identity and social cohesion are fundamental outgrowths of culture. Community and self-determination also hang in the balance of achieving a "successful" culture. In the absence of an integrated and dynamic Muslim American culture, to speak of ourselves as constituting a true community—despite our immense individual talent and large and growing numbers—or being able someday to play an effective role in civic life or politics is little more than rhetoric or wishful thinking.

By setting the boundaries of the self and imparting a strong, unified sense of identity, a sound Muslim American culture would allow for dynamic engagement with ourselves and the world around us. It would also cultivate the ability to cope with complex social realities and negotiate productively the various roles which life in modern society require us to play, while maintaining a unified, dignified, and self-assured sense of who we are and a consistent commitment to the values for which we stand. People can repent from broken rules but not from broken psyches. The creation of a healthy Muslim American psyche is contingent on the creation of a successful, well-integrated indigenous culture. A well-integrated psyche and unified sense of identity make authentic Islamic religiosity, true spirituality, and moral perfection a normative possibility within the American context.

Respecting Other Cultures: A Supreme Prophetic Sunna

The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world's cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places. The Prophet and his Companions did not look upon human culture in terms of black and white, nor did they drastically divide human societies into spheres of absolute good and absolute evil. Islam did not impose itself—neither among Arabs or non-Arabs—as an alien, culturally predatory worldview. Rather, the Prophetic message was, from the outset, based on the distinction between what was good, beneficial, and authentically human in other cultures, while seeking to alter only what was clearly detrimental. Prophetic law did not burn and obliterate what was distinctive about other peoples but sought instead to prune, nurture, and nourish, creating a positive Islamic synthesis.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2006, Vol. 56,  No 3.