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**Islam and Local Culture: The Relationship**

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    **Islam and Local Culture: The Relationship**

    Islam and Local Culture: The Relationship

    The term “culture” refers to a collection of norms, concepts, values, and behaviors that define or characterize a unique outlook. Culture is sometimes confused with “customs,” which refers to a set of habits that people have acquired and may or may not be influenced by culture. Local culture and traditions have always existed among societies. Every society has norms, customs, values, and beliefs that collectively establish a set of traditions and cultural norms specific to every locality. These cultural values, norms, and traditions are inherited by subsequent generations. Thus, the term “Local Culture and Tradition” refers to the set of norms, values, and beliefs inherited by every locality from its ancestry. Typically, these norms and values are not derived from any deep intellectual evaluation or thought basis. Rather, they are adopted and adhered to primarily on the basis that the forefathers practiced such norms and adopted such beliefs and values. For example, in many parts of the Muslim world, local cultures have led many individuals to believe that the woman is a source of Fitnah (chaos, turmoil). As a result, many Muslims believe that isolating the woman from the society and imposing severe restrictions upon the women will eliminate Fitnah in the society. This belief has no basis in Islam because Islam came to restrict the behavior of all human beings, both men and women, and Fitnah results when human beings, both men and women, do not apply and adhere to the rules of Allah (swt), as Allah (swt) stated in the Qur’an:

    “And those who disbelieve are allies to one another. And if you (Muslims) do not do so (become united), there will be Fitnah and oppression on earth, and a great mischief and corruption.” [TMQ: Al-Anfal: 73]

    The ayah mentions that Fitnah will result if the Muslims are not united, and the unity of Muslims is an indication that the Islamic ruling exists because only through the existence of the Islamic system can unity be realized. Therefore, the absence of the Islamic rules is the source of Fitnah. The idea that women are the source of Fitnah was influenced by the local cultures, many of which held the notion that women are a source of evil. Furthermore, this belief has no intellectual basis because any human being can easily notice that there is no difference between men and women, as far are their capacity to obey or disobey Allah (swt), and that Fitnah will result when both men and women disobey the rules of Allah (swt). One cannot imagine, from an intellectual perspective, that a man who walks naked in the street will not cause Fitnah whereas a woman who walks in the street not properly dressed will cause Fitnah. It is the action itself, whether done by men or women, that is the cause of Fitnah.

    In addition, local cultures tend to be heavily influenced by superstitious beliefs. For instance, many parts of the Muslim world believe that hanging certain ayahs in the Qur’an on the walls will offer protection from Shaytan. This practice is alien to Islam because protecting oneself from Shaytan comes through obeying the Islamic rules in their entirety, as Allah (swt) states very clearly:

    “O you who believe! Enter completely into Islam and do not follow the footsteps of the Shaytan.” [TMQ 2:208]

    “Entering completely into Islam” means for the human being to adopt Islam as his or her only reference, which, if one does not do so, will be “following the footsteps of the Shaytan” as the ayah explicitly mentions. The idea of hanging certain ayahs of the Qur’an or wearing the Qur’an as a necklace for protection came from local cultures which espoused the idea that certain objects, if worn or hung as tapestry, will ward off evil spirits.

    During the time of Muhammed (saw), the society of Mecca had norms, values, and beliefs that characterized Arab culture. These ideas were strongly adhered to simply because they were practiced by the forefathers, regardless of whether such ideas were right or wrong. For example, one cultural norm was to respect the chiefs of the tribe regardless of their actions and policies. Thus, criticizing the elites of the tribal system was considered a taboo. Also, it was a cultural norm for the Arabs at the time to bury their daughters alive.

    The question that comes is: How did Islam deal with these local cultures and traditions? When one surveys the message of Islam and the manner in which the Muslims conveyed the Daw’ah, it is very clear that Islam came to dominate the affairs of humanity and establish itself as the prevailing social order. This social order would give rise to certain concepts, thoughts, values, and norms, resulting in a unique outlook and personality. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an:

    “It is He Who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the Deen of Truth (Islam) to prevail over all other deens, even though the Mushriks hate it.” [TMQ: At-Tauba: 33]

    Islam was revealed in the context of a society with a specific outlook that was defined by certain traditions, customs, norms, and concepts. Therefore, if Islam was to reconstruct the society based on a new outlook defined by a new culture, new values, and a new system of thoughts, then the existing cultures, norms, values, and traditions, would have to be abrogated. Therefore, the relationship between Islam and the various local cultures and traditions was clear from the beginning. Allah (swt) ordered the people to adopt Islam as their sole reference:

    “O you who believe! Enter completely into Islam and do not follow the footsteps of the Shaytan.” [TMQ 2:208]

    Thus, the Islamic Aqeedah came to be the only reference for the people and for the society. This Aqeedah would serve as the basis for the culture, the norms, the thoughts, and the values, as well as the source for the systems that would implement these norms and values.

    The evidence for this fact can be elucidated from the way in which the Prophet (saaw) dealt with the people and in manner in which Islam addressed the existing local cultures, traditions, norms, and values of the society at the time. During the daw’ah in Mecca, Allah (swt) revealed many ayahs in the Qur’an which openly challenged many aspects of the culture, norms, and values of the Meccan society that the people held as sacrosanct. For example, Islam ridiculed the notion of referring to one’s forefathers and ancestry as the source of concepts and norms, something that is ubiquitous among all local cultures:

    “When it is said to them: ‘Follow what Allah has sent down,’ they say, ‘Nay! We shall follow what we found our fathers following,’ even though their fathers did not understand anything nor were they guided?” [TMQ 2:170]

    “And when it is said to them, ‘Come to what Allah has revealed and unto the Messenger (Muhammed),’ they say, ‘Enough for us is what which we found our fathers following,’ even though their fathers had no knowledge whatsoever and no guidance.” [TMQ 5:104]

    “So be not in doubt (O Muhammed) as to what these men worship. They worship nothing but what their fathers worshipped before (them). And verily, We shall repay them in full their portion without diminution.” [TMQ 11:109]

    “And when it is said to them, ‘Follow that which Allah has sent down,’ they say, ‘Nay, we shall follow that which we found are fathers (following).’ (Would they do so) even if Satan invites them to the torment of the Fire.” [TMQ 31:21]

    Furthermore, the society considered sanctification of idols and respect of tribal chiefs as sacred traditions, yet Islam also challenged these beliefs:

    “You and the idols that you worship will be the fuel of Hell-fire”

    “Perish the hands of Abu Lahab and perish he. His wealth and children will not benefit him. He will be burnt in a Fire of blazing flames.” [TMQ Al-Masad: 1-3]

    “And do not obey the one who swears much, and is considered worthless – a slanderer, going about with calumnies, cruel. And after all that, a *******.” [TMQ Al-Qalam: 10-13]

    The last two ayahs were addressed specifically to Abu Lahab and Walid ibn al-Mughera, two of the most prominent chiefs of Mecca at the time. In addition to these ayahs, the Qur’an addressed many of the practices and values that the people considered as part of their culture and tradition, such as burying their daughters alive and cheating in financial transactions, both of which were common among the people at the time.

    Thus, contrary to the popularly-held notion that Islam came to blend with the existing cultures, in reality Islam challenged the existing cultures with all of their customs and beliefs, exposing them for their falsehood, and eventually replacing them with the Islamic culture and norms.

    The behavior of the Muslims also eliminated any notion that local culture had any influence upon them. The way in which the Prophet (saaw) conducted his affairs and defined the outlook of the Muslims and their relationship towards one another is a clear proof for this. From the beginning, the Prophet (saaw) incorporated into his Daw’ah people from many different backgrounds and representing many different cultures and traditions. He had in his group a Black Abyssinian, a Roman, a Persian, and Arabs from various regions. In addition, the Prophet (saaw) had slaves as well as members of the most elite strata of the society. However, these individuals adopted the Islamic culture and made the Islamic culture the basis of their outlook, their values, their actions, and their concepts.

    Later, as the Islamic State expanded and Muslims began to carry Islam to other nations, they became exposed to various people who had different cultures and norms. Yet the Muslims were exceptionally keen in distinguishing between their respective cultures and the material aspects of that nation. For example, the Prophet (saaw) acquired the concept of the trench in warfare from the Persian civilization. However, there was no report that the Muslims practiced the fire-worshipping rituals that were characteristic of the Persians. In fact, the manner in which the foreign delegation sent by Muhammad (saaw) to the Persian emperor proceeded towards the palace was a shock to the Persians. Also, Umar incorporated an administrative tool from the Romans in order to keep records more efficiently.

    One may ask: Are there certain aspects of culture that Islam allows? This depends upon the specific aspect of a culture. For example, it may be a cultural phenomenon for the amount of the dowry that the husband gives to his wife at the time of marriage to vary from one locality to another. However, the concept of giving the dowry must be observed as it is part of the Islamic culture. In addition, each locality has different customs in celebrating the wedding. These celebrations, which may vary in their cultural tastes, are allowed only if they comply with the Islamic culture – such as the separation between the men and the women, and the observance of the Ahkam Shariyah. Thus, it is not the local culture that dictates which parts of Islam are compatible with it. Rather, it is the Islamic culture that dictates which aspects of the local culture are allowed. Any aspect of local culture that contradicts the Islamic Aqeedah and the Islamic culture must be rejected, regardless of how strongly the people believe in it.


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    "Only for Allah and to gain His pleasure"
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