Islam And Cultural Imperatively

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What Is Culture?

It is commonplace to identify "culture" with refined taste or "high culture" like the fine arts and humanities. In this vein, Matthew Arnold spoke of culture as "the best that has been known and said in the world" and "the history of the human spirit." However, culture as a modern anthropological concept and as treated in this paper refers to the entire integrated pattern of human behavior and is immeasurably broader than its highest expressions. (4) Beyond what is purely instinctive and unlearned, culture governs everything about us and even molds our instinctive actions and natural inclinations. It is culture that makes us truly human, separating people from animals, which frequently exhibit learned behavior but lack our capacity for the creation and adaptation of new cultural form.

Culture weaves together the fabric of everything we value and need to know--beliefs, morality, expectations, skills, and knowledge--giving them functional expression by integrating them into effectual customary patterns. Culture is rooted in the world of expression, language, and symbol. But it relates also to the most routine facets of our activities--like dress and cooking--and extends far beyond the mundane into religion, spirituality, and the deepest dimensions of our psyches. Culture includes societal fundamentals like the production of food and distribution of goods and services, the manner in which we manage business, banking, and commerce; the cultivation of science and technology; and all branches of learning, knowledge, and thought. Family life and customs surrounding birth, marriage, and death immediately come to mind as obvious cultural elements, but so too are gender relations, social habits, skills for coping with life's circumstances, toleration and cooperation or the lack of them, and even societal superstructures like political organization. A working democracy, for example, is as much the fruit of particular cultural values and civic habits as it is the outgrowth of constitutions or administrative bodies. In our mosques, schools, and homes, many day-to-day aggravations are patent examples of cultural discord and confusion. Often, they have little to do with Islam per se but everything to do with the clash of old world attitudes and expectations--often authoritarian and patriarchal--with the very different human complexities, realities, and needs of our society.

Respecting Other Cultures: A Supreme Prophetic Sunna

The Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world's cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places. The Prophet and his Companions did not look upon human culture in terms of black and white, nor did they drastically divide human societies into spheres of absolute good and absolute evil. Islam did not impose itself--neither among Arabs or non-Arabs--as an alien, culturally predatory worldview. Rather, the Prophetic message was, from the outset, based on the distinction between what was good, beneficial, and authentically human in other cultures, while seeking to alter only what was clearly detrimental. Prophetic law did not burn and obliterate what was distinctive about other peoples but sought instead to prune, nurture, and nourish, creating a positive Islamic synthesis.

Much of what became the Prophet's sunna (Prophetic model) was made up of acceptable pre--Islamic Arab cultural norms, and the principle of tolerating and accommodating such practices--among Arabs and non-Arabs alike in all their diversity--may be termed a supreme, overriding Prophetic sunna. In this vein, the noted early jurist, Abu Yusuf, understood the recognition of good, local cultural norms as falling under the rubric of the sunna. The fifteenth-century Granadan jurisprudent Ibn al-Mawaq articulated a similar outlook and stressed, for example, that it was not the purpose of Prophetic dress codes to impinge upon the cultural integrity of non-Arab Muslims, who were at liberty to develop or maintain their own distinctive dress within the broad parameters of the sacred law. (6)

The Qur'an enjoined the Prophet Muhammad to adhere to people's sound customs and usages and take them as a fundamental reference in legislation: "Accept [from people] what comes naturally [for them]. Command what is customarily [good]. And turn away from the ignorant [without responding in kind]." (7) Ibn Attiyya, a renowned early Andalusian jurist and Qur'anic commentator, asserted that the verse not only upheld the sanctity of indigenous culture but granted sweeping validity to everything the human heart regards as sound and beneficial, as long as it is not clearly repudiated in the revealed law. For classical Islamic jurists in general, the verse was often cited as a major proof-text for the affirmation of sound cultural usage, and it was noted that what people generally deem as proper tends to be compatible with their nature and environment, serving essential needs and valid aspirations.

The Cultural Imperative in Classical Islamic Jurisprudence Classical

Islamic law did not speak of culture per se, since it is a modern behavioral concept. Instead, the law focused on what we may call culture's most tangible and important components: custom (al-'urf) and usage (al-'ada), which all legal schools recognized as essential to the proper application of the law, although differing on definitions and their measure of authority. (10) In Islamic jurisprudence, al-'urf and al-'ada connote those aspects of local culture which are generally recognized as good, beneficial, or merely harmless. In no school did respect for culture amount to blanket acceptance. (11) Local culture had to be appraised in terms of the transcendent norms of Islamic law, which meant the rejection of abhorrent practices like the ancient Mediterranean custom of "honor killings"--now reasserting itself in the context of contemporary cultural breakdown--or, at the other extreme, the sexual promiscuity prevalent in modern culture.

One of Islamic law's five universal maxims declared: "Cultural usage shall have the weight of law." (12) To reject sound custom and usage was not only counterproductive, it brought excessive difficulty and unwarranted harm to people. Another well-known principle of Islamic jurisprudence emphasized this fact and advised: "Cultural usage is second nature," by which it implied that it is as difficult for people to go against their established customs as it is for them to defy their instinctive natures. Consequently, wise application of the law required broad accommodation of local norms, which should be altered or obstructed only when absolutely necessary. Being attentive to local norms implies meeting people halfway and leads necessarily to broad cultural resemblance. In this regard, Islamic jurisprudence distinguished between subservient imitation of others (tashabbuh), which reflects a problematic sense of one's own identity and was generally regarded as forbidden or reprehensible, and the mere fact of outward resemblance (mushabaha), which was required, recommendable, or simply neutral as the case may be. (13)

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