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Culture vs. Ritual 7 July 2008

Posted by MOZAFFAR in Misc.

There is very little ritual in the primary sources in Islam. “Ritual” here is a formal process of steps a person or community undertakes in order to fulfill an otherworldly purpose. Meaning, the benefits of these steps might indeed be worldly, but the motivation for conducting these steps in this format are not worldly, but other worldly.

Muslims, before conducting their ritual prayer (salah) perform a set of ablutions. Indeed, these ablutions physically clean the body, and might also have some sort of cooling psychological effect. But, the primary reason for performing these particular ablutions is to conduct the prayer.

There are very few rituals in Islam. Most of the rituals in Islam are found in the steps involved in fulfilling the five pillars. Aside from these, there are certain steps involved in birth, marriage, death.

A purpose, then of culture is to fill in the blanks. Culture also provides steps that do not necessarily provide worldly benefit. The appropriate term regarding culture, though, is “beautification” more than “ritual.” But, in some cases, culture provides tools for emoting when emotion is otherwise difficult to release or manage. Culture is the source, for example, for the steps in an individual’s or community’s grieving.

One of the struggles of the Muslim experience in America is that many Muslims have rejected the cultural practices of the Muslims of lands overseas, yet have not developed or embraced replacement practices. The result has been a huge void in something as simple as coping. Ideally a Muslim will have a level of faith where culture becomes irrelevant to him/her, but few Muslims reach this level. For most Muslims, these cultural steps are necessary. How does a common Muslim cope with the death of a loved one? How does the common Muslim cope with heartbreak? These questions have not been answered, for these are questions answered for the layperson by culture, and for the believer, by belief.

On the flipside, many Muslims have confused cultural practice with Islamic ritual. That in itself is not the problem. It is also not necessarily a problem when cultural practices are given very heavy importance. The problem comes in when the cultural practice overrides the religious ritual. Thus, it is the practice of many Muslims that, when someone dies or when someone buys a house, to invite their friends and relatives for ritualized readings of the Qur’an. That practice is not at all bad. For some of the Muslims involved, it is their only connection to religion (or to the Qur’an). But, if this practice is taken as being connected with salvation (or in terms of worldly benefit: luck), and the actual Islamic rituals are not, then that is a problem.

And Allah knows best…



1. fisabilillah - 7 July 2008

Jazakallahu Khairan for your fantastic post. May Allah Bless You Akhi…Ameen.

2. A musing muslim - 7 July 2008

Interesting perspective on culture versus Islam.

in my experience I have found things a little on the flip side. I find that there is a move towards a more pan-Arab understanding and interpretation of Islam with a sort of demonising of other cultures.

For instance, (and this is touchy I know) people feel that there is only one way to wear the hijab, saris are not an Islamic dress. There is only one right way.

I find this problematic since for me the beauty of Islam is the vibrant diversity of people and cultures that embrace it.

A musing muslim

3. talib - 8 July 2008

commenting on this:
“On the flipside, many Muslims have confused cultural practice with Islamic ritual. That in itself is not the problem.”

it may not be *the* problem, but i do think it is a big problem. confusing cultural practices or anything (ideological positions, philosophical commitments, etc.) for Islam is tantamount to speaking for God i.e., a major crime.

also, i think *the* problem, as you state it, Mozzafar: “when the cultural practice overrides the religious ritual,” is directly correlated to confusing cultural practice with religious ritual. in fact, it may be the same thing. when you tell someone that they are placing too much emphasis in what *to you* is clearly a cultural practice, the response is usually not, “well, i care about my culture more than Islam.” the defense is usually, “this *is* Islam. this *is* an Islamic ritual, not a cultural one.” and arriving at such an erroneous conclusion is only aided when one defines as Islamic whatever “does not go against the sunnah,” as we often hear.

all that being said, i agree that muslims in the west need to create a culture, if we can call it that, that can meet their needs while still being authentic to deen.

4. talib - 9 July 2008

i should reword the last sentence of the second paragraph:

and arriving at such an erroneous conclusion is only aided when “whatever does not go against the sunnah,” has the potential of being Islamic.

ABD knows what i’m talking about. probably.

5. MOZAFFAR - 10 July 2008

Assalamu Alaykum fisabilillah, A musing muslim, and talib,

Jazzaks for your posts.

fisabilillah: may Allah bless you too.

A musing muslim: it’s a pseudo-pan-arabism, isn’t it? which version of arab styles are we speaking of? saudi? jordanian? palestinian? and, that is only referring to the hijabs, jilbabs, and thobes. what about the shoes? the shoes are pretty rather western.

talib: give me a longer write-up and i’ll post it on my personal blog, and eventually i’ll post a response, ia.

Omer M

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