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Culture and Islam – Understanding the boundaries of permissibility


Culture is usually described as ‘urf or ‘adah;
custom; traditional practices of a people that they identify themselves with. And Islam
requires people to be proud of their background, their ethnicity, but not to be arrogant or
look down upon others. And so Allah talks about how in Surat al-Hujurat, He has created
us into nations and tribes, that we should know one another, get to understand each other
better. When scholars study how the Prophet related with custom or culture, they noticed
that even though he was brought up in Jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic] Makkah and he moved to places
like Madinah, he only changed those aspects of the culture that contradicted the Divine
Revelation. He only changed those aspects of culture that caused harm or forms of injustice
or unacceptable discrimination. And so, in the usul of fiqh – the principles of Islamic
jurisprudence – scholars have given a special regard to ‘urf and ‘adah. In fact, so much
regard have they given to ‘urf and custom and people’s regional or traditional practices
that it is even regarded as one of the secondary sources of Islamic jurisprudence; an area
scholars looked to for guidance if the Qur’an and Sunnah and the practice of Sahaba [companions
of the Prophet] are silent on a particular issue. And so, when it comes to various cultural
practices, irrespective of the culture, halal and haram or what is permissible or prohibited
is not based on which culture it comes from, whether Eastern, Western, Northern, native,
foreign, or any geographical location, but based on whether it is in congruence, whether
it is in line with or contradictory to the principles and teachings of the Qur’an and
the Sunnah. And so scholars have a general maxim which states that, “Everything is permissible
except what is prohibited.” Because Allah says in the Qur’an He has created everything
for our own benefit, then scholars view tribal and ethnic differences and racial differences
as being of benefit, as is of course clear in that verse [Q.49:13] that this should improve
mutual understanding. But also, because Allah says He has created everything for our benefit,
Muslims have no right to say something is prohibited when Allah has created them for
our benefit, unless there is clear textual evidence for that. In a hadith, the Prophet
(peace be upon him) said, “What Allah has made an obligation upon you, you must respect.
Those things Allah has prohibited you from, you must keep away from. Those things over
which Allah is silent about are not due to forgetfulness on His part but out of His rahma;
out of His compassion towards you. And so don’t enquire into them.” In other words, scholars
have understood that when there is silence in the text of the Qur’an and the Sunnah,
and a particular practice does not contradict or contravene the teachings of the Qur’an
and the Sunnah, or the objectives of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, it means such cultural practices
are permissible. And so one criteria for acceptance or rejection of a cultural practice is the
absence of any prohibition from the Qur’an or from the Sunnah. And so you have a maxim
in Shari’ah where it says, “Al-‘adah muhaqqamah” – that culture or custom is actually a basis
of law. It has the weight of law if it doesn’t contradict anything and is of course beneficial.
When we look, of course, more closely at various customary and cultural practices, we find
some of them are religious in nature. The general attitude scholars have had is: since
the Prophet made it clear he has come to us with the deen (a religion), with creed and
acts of worship, we do not imitate other people in their acts of worship or in their creed
and beliefs and articles of faith. But when it comes to the area of mu’amalat (cultural
or social transactions), what they call the “duniyawi” (worldly, temporal) interactions,
the general rule that applies to mu’amalat or this worldly, social, interpersonal [or]
interactions such as cultural practices that are not part of [a] religious or devotional
nature, the general principle in Shari’ah is permissibility – that if it is not prohibited,
it is permissible. And so we find the dressing of the Arabs at the time of the Prophet (peace
be upon him), if their way of dressing did not contradict anything in the Qur’an and
the Sunnah, the traditional dressing was respected, and the Prophet would sometimes wear Yemeni
dressing or even Persian dressing because it didn’t contradict the Shari’ah. When it came
to foods that people ate, the Prophet accepted the traditional meals of various people. He
may object to a particular meal that he is personally not comfortable with but he would
not prohibit his companions from doing so. It was therefore considered “mubah” (permissible).
When it came to the names of the Sahaba [companions of the Prophet], they kept their traditional
names. ‘Umar did not change his name when he became a Muslim, Abubakr did not change
his name upon embracing Islam, nor did Khadijah or ‘Aisha, unless there was something in that
cultural name that contradicted a fundamental principle or teaching of the Qur’an and the
Sunnah. And so when it comes to cultural practices – cultural practices of Muslim minorities
or of non-Muslim majorities are respected in all fields so long as they don’t contradict
the Islamic aqeedah [creed] or acts of worship or contradict any clear teachings of the Qur’an
and the Sunnah. So culture should be respected as people’s identities should be respected.
And it’s only where there is a need to change an unjust teaching that we should go out of
our way to teach against a particular cultural or social practice of a people. Otherwise,
we respect it just as we expect them to respect our own too. Wa Allahu ‘alim [and Allah knows best].

Otis Rodgers

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