When Culture and Religion Clash

June 5, 2007 § 2 Comments

Although the idea of culture and religion is broad and profound this article on the issue will not be. I am intentionally formulating questions, that I have considered but have yet to realize a conclusive and reasonable decision on the matter of culture, religion and Islam in the United States (U.S.). Personally, my experience being a Muslim in the U.S. has been reasonably pleasant, however lonely at times. I have always lived in the U.S. and I have nothing to compare my experience as Muslim in the U.S. to. Honestly, I don’t know how different it is to be a Muslim living in a Muslim-country, I can only imagine (and that does me no good at all).

Therefore, on this issue – being a Muslim living in an Islamic-country – I have no substantial opinion. Though what I have found is that living as a Muslim in the U.S. is at times strange and then at others very normal and comfortable. And I intend on identifying – at least for myself – what makes my experience as a Muslim in the U.S. strange and what makes is normal?

This first thing that I identified as a key element in the strangeness of being a Muslim in the U.S. was my knowledge – or ignorance – of the religion (din). Looking back, I realize that the less I knew of the religion the more uncomfortable I felt with religion in public life. Sure, I believed that: there was no diety but Allah and Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) is His Messenger, but what I mean is more closely related to the types of decisions Muslims must make on a day-to-day basis.

For example, certain practices like the ritual ablution or prohibitions like those on food and drink may seem absurd to many Americans. And while I may think obeying my Lord and purifying before prayer or the avoidance of alcohol and unclean or questionable food products may be a righteous behavior, there are some that feel it obsessive to wash a minimum of five times per day. Others find it offensive if one refuses food or a cocktail when offered, I have experienced this first hand.

Is this the result of a culture in opposition to a religion? Does one find the same conditions in Islamic-countries? Perhaps, but are the conditions parallel, I doubt it. Generally speaking culture is socially transmitted behavior patterns that reflect a number of elements in society but particularly art, belief and education. And religion is a system rooted in belief and worship. Therefore, what category does Islam really fall? Or is it too expansive to be categorized in these terms. Furthermore, isn’t our belief inseparable from the Sunnah of the Prophet? And where does the Sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.s.) fall, culture, religion, both or neither?

Recently, Fatih Alev – a Turkish-Dane – and member of the Islamic-Christian Study Center in Copenhagen wrote an article entitled, Europes’ Future: Make Yourself at Home, in it he says,

“My culture is Danish (you may say European) and only to some extent Turkish and is a product of the norms and values that I have been subject to in my family and in society at large.”

This statement led me to question the concept of culture as it relates to religion. I think that this concept is being approached incorrectly at least for Muslims. How is it that a Muslim can take on a non-Islamic culture? It appears that this is either a miscommunication of terms or an oversimplification.

Perhaps we could correct this possible error by making use of more realistic terminology such as “Danish-Muslim culture” or “European-Muslim culture”. These terms – in my opinion – are more accurate – generally speaking – in their depiction of Muslims as they relate to culture (art, belief and education). Whereas an occasional beer may be acceptable in Danish culture it is absolutely impermissible in Danish-Muslim culture.

I think that at the very least we could benefit from these clarifications by putting to bed the ridiculous notion of a “Clash of Civilizations”. This theory proposed by Samuel Huntington; promoted by the hit-and-miss intellectual Francis Fukuyama, and his notable contemporary Benard Lewis is only possible by removing the reality of Muslim societies in the West. Not to mention those groups that share the basic cultural and societal values that Muslims are generally known for. Once the interconnected reality of Islam in the West is realized exclusivist ideas like that of Huntington and others will be as laughable to non-Muslims in the West as it is to Muslims in the West. But this can only be done if we Muslims in the West begin to expose the inner workings of our culture to the global public sphere.

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§ 2 Responses to When Culture and Religion Clash

  • Assalaamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuhu,

    Jazak Allahu Khairan.

    Mash’Allah great insight. Sometimes, as Muslims in the West, we tend to shy away from the public. When, in reality, what we need to be doing is showing them the beauty of true Islam through our daily actions and interactions.

  • Salaam

    British Muslim children need state funded Muslim Schools with bilingual Muslim Teachers as role models. They need to be well versed in English language to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. They also need to be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry.

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