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Islam and culture: Don’t mix them up

As an American Muslim, when I see the issues and events about Islam that get treated as “news” in the mainstream media, it bothers me that so many are portrayed as “problems with Islam,” the religion, when they are in reality problems of culture, traditions, politics, superstitions, and tribal or ethnic codes of conduct of some Muslim-majority region. I think most Americans would agree with me that it would be unfair to judge a religion (whether Islam, Christianity, or any other religion) by the practices it does not condone.

The religion of Islam does not condone — and it actually condemns — practices such as dishonorable “honor killings,” racism or tribalism, oppression of women, banning women from obtaining an education, and many other un-Islamic practices that make their way to the sensationalized news. If a Muslim, or a Muslim-majority region, practices these despicable acts, it is not because of Islam, but despite Islam.

On numerous occasions authors and “pundits” have wrongly attacked the religion of Islam for the cultural practices of Muslims in certain places in the world. Polls have shown that about 70 percent of the American public acknowledges being unfamiliar with Islam. Thus it is not a surprise that most Americans cannot distinguish Islamic religious practices from cultural practices by Muslim-majority countries.

There are certain areas of overlap: A people’s religion influences their culture, and culture influences how they practice their religion. But in Islam there is a clear distinction between the two.

In order to explain the differences between Islam and culture, I think it will be useful if you could imagine a Catholic family in Minnesota, a Catholic family in South America, a Catholic family in Italy, and a Catholic family in Africa.

Although these four families have the same religion, they will have different cultures. They will eat different types of food and will listen to different types of music. Their style of clothing will be different and, of course, their languages will be different. More than likely, they will have certain cultural and traditional practices that are not derived from Catholicism. I think the same would be true for Protestant families or Jewish families in different parts of the world.

In the same way, Muslims from different parts of the world will have varying cultures even though they share the same religion. For many Muslims, as with people of other faiths, their cultures play a strong role in their lives. Looking back, my country of birth, Afghanistan, and its neighboring country Pakistan have cultures that, when viewed from a global level, seem very similar to each other. But when I was forced to flee Afghanistan as a teenager and live in Pakistan as a refugee, I experienced culture shock. I found the culture and traditions to be very different from what I was accustomed to. As I was explaining this phenomenon to a friend who was born in South Dakota, he shared that he had “culture shock” when he moved from South Dakota to Minnesota. He also reminded me that the culture of Minnesota is different from the culture of Texas, and the culture in San Francisco is different from the culture in New Orleans.

Many of the countries that are commonly called “Islamic countries” — which in reality are merely “Muslim-majority countries” — practice an amalgam of Islamic practices and pre-Islamic/non-Islamic practices. More than 10 centuries ago, when Islam became the predominant religion of the part of the world that today is Muslim-majority, those countries already had very distinct and very patriarchal cultures, as many remain patriarchal today. After embracing the religion of Islam, many of these cultures, including the culture of my ancestors and the culture that I grew up in, abandoned some of the pre-Islamic cultures and traditions, but they hang on to many others.

As a young boy growing up in Afghanistan, like many people in Afghanistan, I wrongly presumed many of these cultural practices to be “Islamic.” At certain times of the year we cooked certain types of food and distributed them among the poor. On certain days, many visited the graveyards and the shrines, and prayed for the deceased, and some asked the “spirits of the deceased” to pray to God for them. These practices are performed by Muslims and are given an Islamic dimension, for instance by the reading of a passage from the Holy Quran, etc. Yet these practices are not Islamic practices.

So then, what is an Islamic practice? Islamic practices and beliefs are those that have roots in the Quran (which Muslims believe to be the last and unchanged revelation from God) and the Sunnah (traditions) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Any belief or practice, even if common among some Muslim-majority country, which does not go back to the Quran or the Sunnah, is not an Islamic belief or practice.

Just as it is unfair to judge Christianity for un-Christian and inappropriate actions of some who call themselves Christians, it is unfair to judge Islam by un-Islamic and inappropriate actions of some who call themselves Muslims. Just as every action of every Christian is not necessarily based on Christianity, every action of every Muslim is not necessarily based on Islam.

Just as I have urged my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world not to judge America by what they see on their TV sets on “The Jerry Springer Show,” I want to urge my American brothers and sisters not to judge Islam by the tabloid and cultural news that finds its way to their TV sets.

Tamim Saidi is an American Muslim and an active member of the Muslim community in Minnesota. This article originally appeared on Engage Minnesota’s website.


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