No announcement yet.

difference between Islam and "Local Cultures"...

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

    difference between Islam and "Local Cultures"...

    Islam and “Local Culture”


    When the thought of implementing Islam or living in an Islamic system is mentioned, many stigmas come to mind for some people, both Muslims and Non-Muslims. For some, Islam in application is synonymous with oppression of women, superstition and silly taboos, and medievalism. The contemporary view of an Islamic society is a backwards society which rejects any notion of scientific or technological progress, where thinking and creativity are shunned, and where barbaric laws are practiced. This idea is reinforced by some regimes in the Muslim World which claim to implement Islam, and their representation of Islam has created doubt among Muslims as well as Non-Muslims towards Islam’s ability to deal with the life affairs by reinforcing commonly held stigmas.

    Many of these phenomena can be attributed to the effect of local cultures and traditions which are propagated by the societies in the Muslim world and adhered to by the people. Further compounding the confusion is the lack of any clear understanding of Islam among the Muslims, which causes many Muslims to confuse Islam with the local traditions and cultures that they have grown accustomed to. As a result, what is often portrayed as Islam is in actuality a jumbled amalgam of Islamic thoughts mixed together with superstitions, local customs, and regional traditions that have no relation to Islam. This blend – which by its nature leads to stagnation, suppression of intellectual momentum and creativity, and stifling of progress -- is what many Muslims practice and what the societies that claim themselves as Islamic apply upon the people and present to the world. Attempting to implement this formula upon a society, even if done with sincere intentions, will result in the oppression, stagnation, and backwardness that are characteristic of some societies in the Muslim world today.

    The reason for this failure lay in the basis upon which such a formula is built upon – the notion that Islam came to mix within the prevailing customs and traditions of a particular society. This notion is one of the most frequently propagated myths in relation to Islam. Proponents of such an idea cite this ability of Islam to blend with the local cultures and traditions as one of Islam’s strengths and a significant factor which enabled Islam to spread to many different nations and people. The reality is that Islam, from the time of revelation, superceded the local cultures and traditions that existed in the society and replaced them with a superior Islamic culture which all the people adhered to and practiced. For example, during the era of the Sahabah, the Islamic State, which began in the Arabian Peninsula, grew to incorporate areas once ruled by the Roman and Persian empires. Both the Romans and Persians had unique cultures that were distinct from the Arabs. However, living under the Islamic system caused them to all adopt the Islamic culture. In fact, many of the great scholars in Fiqh and Arabic language were descended from the Persians.

    The unified Isalmic culture was manifested in the society and implemented by the institutions of the state, and as a result of the Islamic culture (not the local cultures and traditions), the society progressed in all facets of life. The local cultures, traditions, and customs, because they were typically based upon blind imitation of forefathers and superstitions, kept their respective societies in a state of darkness and stagnation. Therefore, Islam’s strength lay in its ability to displace these local cultures and traditions which stifled progress and advancement, and replace them with the Islamic culture which encouraged thinking and creativity among the people.

    Today, due to many factors, the Islamic culture has receded from the lives of the people, to be substituted by local cultures, traditions, and customs. Such cultures and traditions have in fact become a frame of reference for many Muslims. The danger of this fusion of Islam and local culture lay in the fact that the influence of local culture and tradition is, in many instances, almost undetectable. Muslims have accustomed themselves to certain beliefs and actions to the extent that they have become fixated within their mentality as indistinguishable from Islam, even though they may be mixed with local cultures and traditional beliefs and customs. When this confusion is manifested at the societal level, the results can lead to stagnation in the society and a tainting of Islam’s image throughout the world. Therefore, it is essential for Muslims to clarify the distinction between Islam and local culture and to fully understand the consequences of mixing Islam and local culture.

    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.

    The Effect of Mixing Local Culture with Islam

    Muhammed (saw) stated in the opening words of the first written constitution of the Islamic State, “This Ummah is one Ummah, distinguished from all other.” The distinguishing factor which the Prophet (saaw) was referring to was the Islamic Aqeedah, which created among its adherents a unified outlook and culture. The Islamic bond that resulted from this unified outlook abolished all the cultural and ancestral ties of the various people, and Muslims who came from different backgrounds and a variety of cultural norms, values and beliefs, abandoned these norms and values and surrendered to the Islamic doctrine. Because of the clear understanding the Muslims had towards the Islamic Aqeedah and the strong connection they had as a result of this understanding, the Muslims referred to the Islamic ideology as the source of their culture and norms and to the Ahkam Shar’iyah as the sole source of solutions, always confident that everything had an Islamic solution and only the Islamic solution was correct and valid. Thus, the relationship between Islam and local culture was clear in the minds of the Muslims. They understood that Islam was their reference, the Islamic culture was their culture, and the traditional norms and local cultures that they carried with them was no longer their standard of conduct.

    When the understanding of the Islamic Aqeedah declined, the Muslims began to lose their confidence in Islam, which resulted in a weakening of the Islamic Aqeedah as well as doubt among the Muslims towards Islam’s ability to address the life affairs and to solve human problems in an effective and progressive manner. This weakening eventually led to the Muslim Ummah detaching Islam as a reference in the life affairs and reducing Islam to an abstract collection of rituals that addressed only the spiritual affairs of the human being.

    By removing Islam from their life affairs, they created a political vacuum and a cultural vacuum. Because it is the nature of every vacuum to be filled, the political vacuum was filled by the Capitalist system, which the Kuffar imposed upon the Muslims through force and deception. Within this context, one noticed many shades of governments that emerged in the Muslim world, all of which had the common theme of being Secular. As for the cultural vacuum, the Muslims adopted their culture from two sources. The first was the Western culture which was rooted in Greek philosophy and was imposed upon the Muslims through the educational systems that were implanted by the Western colonial powers. The second source were the various local cultures that already existed in each locality. As a result of Islam’s absence in the life affairs, the local cultures and traditional customs, which were muted under the rule of Islam, became more pronounced in Islam’s absence and began to assume a role in shaping the outlook of Muslims. Thus, instead of having a unified culture which gave them a unified outlook and behavior, the outlook and behavior of the Muslims assumed a tribal and regional flavor as Muslims once again began to re-associate themselves with the cultures, norms, and values of their respective national and tribal origins.

    Complicating the situation even more is the fact that the Muslims never truly abandoned Islam, while at the same time they adopted for themselves local culture. As a result, the Muslims unknowingly began to fuse the two elements together, and what emerged was a lethal cocktail of Islam mixed with local culture and tradition. This combination caused tremendous confusion among the Muslims, and it created a negative image among Muslims as well as non-Muslims in the ability of Islam to address the life affairs.
    Today, Islam has been deeply intertwined with local culture, to the extent that Islam and local culture have become virtually inseparable. As one Muslim Woman once said, she was brought up to believe that “culture is my religion and religion is my culture.” Muslims today have great difficulty in differentiating between Islam and local culture. The end result is that Islam is viewed as synonymous with backwardness and superstition, and is incapable of addressing human problems in a relevant manner. This view that Islam is nothing but a collection of cultural taboos undermines the confidence of the Muslims towards Islam and further alienates the Muslims from their ideology as a practical solution to humanity’s problems.


    The blending of local cultures and traditions with Islam has caused widespread confusion among the Muslims. The product of this mixture is a system of local cultures, superstitions, and traditions cloaked in an Islamic garb. This hybrid is given further legitimacy through the implementation of these cultural norms and practices by the societies of the Muslim world. Such a mixture will only perpetuate the stagnation and decline that already exists by pacifying the Muslims into believing that what they are applying is Islam, when in fact it is merely local culture and tradition that has no relation to Islam. Therefore, this mixture between Islam and local culture must be eliminated entirely by making the clear distinction between the two. Islam is what defines the frame of reference and outlook for the Muslims, regardless of their locality. The Muslims should abandon the cultural practices that are associated with their respective localities and adopt the Islamic culture in their stead.

    A question may arise: How can the Muslims unify themselves around a single culture given the vast differences in things such as foods, customs, clothing, and other aspects of life? This question can be answered by recognizing the difference between culture and “tastes.” Culture is defined as a set of concepts that define a particular outlook, which in turn manifests in a unique behavior. The Islamic culture consists of those concepts which define the Islamic point of view towards life and produce the Islamic personality. All Muslims should adopt the Islamic point of view towards how life should be organized, in addition to the Islamic view of women and the relationship between men and women in the society. However, it is not expected for all the Muslims to have the same taste for food, clothing, and the other details of life. Allah (swt) did not define unity for the Muslims in this manner, and the Prophet (saaw), when he stated, This Ummah is one Ummah, distinguished from all other, did not mean by this that the Muslim are united based on a common taste for food or clothing. The unity of the Ummah is defined as the unity of the Islamic thoughts, which will produce a unified culture among the Ummah.

    Today, the Muslims are deceived into believing that what they witness and experience in their societies is in fact Islam in practice. Based upon this premise, Muslims assume three opinions:

    1. Abandon the stifling backwardness of “Islam,” and embrace the Western culture instead.

    2. Return to “Islam,” and thus commit to a code of living that is marked by ruthlessness, barbarity, and a complete disregard for human dignity or progress.

    3. Reconcile between “Islam” and the Western culture.

    All of these opinions are incorrect because they are based upon an incorrect premise. What is viewed as “Islam” is in fact a hybrid of local cultures and traditional norms mixed with Islam that has little or no relation to Islam itself. Furthermore, these options are reactionary stances that are based upon the incorrect frame of thinking. The reference is no longer Islam but Western culture, and these options demand from Muslims to assess their situation based upon how near or distant they are to Western culture.

    The correct stance is to reconstruct the correct image of Islam in the minds of the Muslims as a unique system of life which has defined its own unique culture. It was this Islamic culture which facilitated the rapid spread of Islam across vast territories in such a remarkably short period of time. The reference for the Muslims is Islam, which means that Islam defines not only their course of action but their culture and outlook towards life.

    Soldiers of Allah

    "Only for Allah and to gain His pleasure"
    "You are either slave to what made man or u are slave to what man made"

    [This message has been edited by Warrior of Allah (edited May 08, 2002).]

    very well written article. What is the source & who wrote it?

    Thanks for sharing. Jazakallah Khairun


      Next time please post the full url and your own comments, members can then click on the link if they're interested.

      Cut and posts without personal comments will be deleted