Why Islam Is Not A Culture

During my talk in Rancho Cucamonga last week, one of the main points that I spoke on was that Islam is, ultimately, not a culture. I thought I’d take a comment to speaker further on my statement and explain it in a bit more detail.

One of the problems of seeing Islam as a culture is that, if it is a culture, then it must lose its ability to inform, for all of its arguments become circular. This is one of the reasons I feel many Muslims object to the notion of Islam not being a culture is because they want Islam to inform their lives. In many ways this conundrum is really a matter of semantics. After all, it is Islam, its book — the Qur’an — and the life of the Prophet Muhammud (صلى الله عليه وسلم) that gives meaning and direction to the lives of Muslims, and rightly so. However, I feel the only way to retain the perfection of Islam, and its ability to reform and guide the human being, is if it is ultimately elevated beyond the construct of human endeavors, time, and history. In defense of this approach, one of the central tenets to the Islamic faith is that the Qur’an is not manufactured by man and that Muhammad did not speak of his own accord.

Let us examine this semantic conundrum further. One of the main challenges facing Muslims in the modern age is the inability to no longer see the distinctive line between where revelation ends, on the one hand, and where their cultures begin. From this troubled point of view, Muslims can often end up condemning other Muslims, not for having infringed upon divine Scripture or prophetic tradition, but rather simply for being different from them. Let me be clear here: this is not a challenge solely for immigrant (I prefer legacy Muslims) Muslims, who fail to see the dividing line between Islam and their own cultural interpretations on it. It is also a major challenge, for the sake of this article, for American Muslims (particularly converts) who also express difficulty in discerning where Revelation ends and culture begins. In fact, American Muslim converts can be the greatest enforcers of this (false) regime. In the end, however, the intentions driving this mindset, no matter how well-intended, often lead to divisiveness inside the broader (global) Muslim community.

It is precisely this above-mentioned mindset that drives most of the criticism against those in the American-Muslim community who seek to establish a bona fide American-Muslim culture. And yet, at its heart, the discussion around the creation of a authentic and valid American-Muslim culture is in essence, an attempt to do precisely what the Muslim Ummah has done throughout history: negotiate their customs and norms with the revelation of Islam.

In summary, by insisting upon Islam’s supra-worldly status and origin, we can then set about to the enterprise of “commanding to the good and forbidding the evil”, as the bulk of both categories are wholly unknowable without relying upon pre-existing, man-made cultures. And perhaps most important of all, we’ll be reminded of where our best efforts end and God begins. The detriment of not doing so explains to great lengths why the Muslim world has lost its ability to change and adapt to modernity: not because Islam is incapable of doing so but precisely because these Muslims no longer see a distinction between their cultures and divine Revelation. Therefore, once this distinction is removed, there is no other recourse for these cultures to change (if they are inseparable manifestations of Revelation then logic dictates there can be no change! – for Revelation does not change!) for only a man-made culture can indeed be advised and informed by that which is from Beyond.

وَفِي ذَٰلِكَ فَلْيَتَنَافَسِ الْمُتَنَافِسُونَ

“Let people with aspiration aspire to that!” Qur’an, 83: 26.

The Imperialists New Clothes

Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:

أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.

Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.

There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.

There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.

All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).

Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:

والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].

The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).

If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.

At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.