Saturday, August 22, 2009

Religion & Culture: Contours of the Debate

6th Islam Seminar
The Religion & Culture Debate
Aiwan-e-Iqbal Complex, Lahore
15th August 2009

Religion & Culture: Reflections
Dr. Ejaz Akram

[Do not cite or reproduce from the following paper without permission of author]

Introduction: The Intellectual Rediscovery of a Heirarchical Relationship

In the modern systems of knowledge both religion and culture look at each other and try to define the other. The fields of Cultural Studies and Religious Studies are often taken as legitimate equals of each other without any reference to their ontological status in the grand scheme of things. This has caused considerable confusion. In order to understand the relation of culture with religion one should define both and demarcate a working definition that would allow one to see for what they are individually and how they relate to and interplay with each other. This paper is a minor philosophical endeavor to see things in their due places within hierarchies that exist but may be less and less visible to the modern mind. This paper vies to define culture and religion from both modern and traditional standpoints in order to discover the locus of confusion. After the intellectual rediscovery of a proper hierarchical relationship, we look at some of the problems that have beset the Muslim world due to interplay of religion and culture.

1. Defining Religion:

Defining religion is nearly not as problematic as defining culture. In English language, the word religion entered in it from Latin in eleventh or twelfth centuries which originates from its root to ‘relig(āre)’ which means to tie, fasten or bind, i.e., religion is that which ties man to God.[1] All religions have some concept of Divinity, a story of origin and most religions also inform the humans of the anticipation of the end of the world. Religions tend to explain the riddles of life when reason and rationality alone fail to deliver and give meaning to life. Thus it is no surprise that religion is defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs”.[2] For believers, the author of religious beliefs is God who is at once the Alpha and Omega of all things. Tao Te Ching says: “Tao begets One; one begets two; two begets three; three begets all things. All things are backed by yin and faced by yang, and harmonized by the Immaterial Breath (ch’i)”.[3] For believers, the source of religion is God and if God is transcendent, the source of religion can be said to outside of the confines of time and space.

2. Defining Culture:

Many Definitions

Culture has many definitions. Before talking about its common usage it may be proper to look at the word in itself, its original meaning, its transformation, and then look at its connotations which exist in its contemporary usage.

The word culture came into Middle English from its Latin root cultūra, which means to cultivate or till.[4] This concept has permeated over history into different fields of knowledge.

In biological sciences it implies the cultivation of microorganisms. In medicine it means to introduce (living material) into a ‘culture’ medium. Its extension in agriculture refers to the breeding of animals or growing of plants, especially to produce improved stock.[5] In this sense it is apparent that culture refers to a medium in which some kind of growth and mushrooming is taking place in an organic environment that is biophysically alive.

Defining Culture: The Domain of the Social Sciences in Modern Universities

The transposition of this concept into humanities and social sciences took place with the advent of modern social sciences in the modern universities.[6] Out of the many social sciences that exist today sociology and anthropology have contributed the defining culture the most, not to suggest that philosophy and religion have not attempted to do so, however, modern philosophy seems to have willfully abdicated that domain to the social sciences:

“The word may be used in a wide sense to describe all aspects characteristic of a particular form of human life, or in a narrow sense to denote only the system of values implicit in it. Understanding culture in the wide sense is one typical concern of historical, anthropological, and sociological studies. The study of culture in the narrow sense is the province of humanities, whose aim is to interpret and transmit to future generations the system of values in terms of which participants in a form of life find meaning and purpose”.[7]

Cultural anthropology takes as its special province the analysis of the culture of human societies. This term is used mainly in anthropology, to denote established patterns of behavior and belief. It refers both to the routines of daily life and to the distinctive features which marks off one culture from another.[8]

Modernism: Secular & Relativistic Knowledge

With the advent of modernism knowledge gradually became secular and of necessity relativistic. Just as in the modern university the department of computer science, accounting or economics stand on par with philosophy and metaphysics, one culture seems to stands on par with another one making a normative and value judgment rather difficult because:

“… different societies or cultures are analyzed objectively without using the values of one culture to judge the worth of another. A favored way of achieving this aim is to describe the practices of a society from the point of view of its members. The method is one of the hallmarks of ‘modern’ anthropology in contrast to the ethnocentrism of 19th century anthropology. A more commonsense meaning is that beliefs are relative to a particular society and are not comparable between societies”.[9]

In modernity there seems to be no higher and fixed standard available in relation to which one can judge and pass a value judgment on other entities. All seem equal in their own rite. In short there is a crisis of normative standard when approaching the subject of culture. The field of modern anthropology understands that human behavior is culturally and not genetically constituted, which has also led to debates about cultural diffusion and the uniqueness of cultures and cultural relativity.[10]

When studying Islamic cultures for example, one encounters the problem whether there is an Islamic culture as such or not. A hierarchical understanding of how culture can be conceived would purport that “if we consider the spiritual and intellectual elements which determine the life of a traditional society, and define culture as to embrace these basic elements, then without doubt there is a single Islamic culture with distinct ‘zones’ or worlds contained within it, ‘worlds’ which are united by spirit and sacred form of the tradition and separated by local ethnic, linguistic, geographical and other factors”.[11]

Modern worldview, which either denies or relegates things such as ‘sacred’ and ‘spirit’ is fragmentary in its approach. Because of its epistemology it is in a habit of focusing on parts while obscuring the whole. The term ‘culture’ is a word of recent origin in the Islamic world and its usage happens to be under direct influence of its usage in the modern Western world,[12] and therefore has a divisive impact on the identity of many Muslim groups.

In the human social realm, culture is described as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another; it endeavors to study the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, religious or age group.[13] Collectively it means that it is a particular ‘form’ of spiritual, intellectual and material advancement in civilizations[14], as that of a certain nation or period. Individually, ‘culture’ or ‘cultured’ can mean that which (or who) is excellent in the arts and manners, exact opposite of which would mean savage and uncouth. Modern sociologists and anthropologists use ‘culture’ as a collective noun for the symbolic and learned, non-biological aspects of human society, including language, custom and convention, by which human behavior can be distinguished from that of other primates.

A Working Definition…

Keeping in mind a superfluity of definitions that exist in humanities and social sciences, our working definition must be trans-behavioral and conducive to the study of religion and culture. In the light of above discussion it is our observation (one that is commonly accepted by modern sociologists and anthropologists) that culture is a medium.

In life of human beings this medium assumes a distinct form that is distinguishable from other such forms that other humans may have produced elsewhere. In how we speak (language), geography of cultural domicile, historical consciousness, all impart certain traits from which that culture becomes distinguishable from other cultures. But most of all, belief systems of cultures are informed by religion.

Since it is a medium, it is not only a site of growth but especially communication that is transmitted from generation to generation. Our ways of thinking, acting and outward behavior is linked to our motivations, desires and intentions are culturally conditioned.

The former is visible to senses but the latter is not, yet our motivations, desires and intentions constitute a part of our cultural moorings that inform the outward behavior that are observable. Beliefs in this sense are more crucial for the study of culture than behavior alone.

A Definition of Culture

Hence, in the light of the above I would like to present a definition of culture as “a realm of shared beliefs, ideas and symbols”. Inasmuch as culture is a medium between human beings, it also plays the part of binding individuals together, or that which binds humans with other humans. Non-material and higher aspects of cultures promote unity and cohesiveness in and across cultures, while the material side of culture such as geography and ethnicity often cause fragmentation.

3. Religion AND Culture:

Traditional & Modern Culture: Proximity & Distance from God

Traditional cultures are by and large religious cultures. It may be possible to find anti-religious or agnostic people and even small scale intellectual movements in the traditional world, but ultimate legitimacy of things in traditional cultures has always come from religion. Modern culture and cultures are exceptional in a sense that for the first time in human history they have managed to produce a secular ‘culture’ whose referent is not God and whose legitimacy comes not from proximity but distance from God. In a worldview that either denies the existence of God or relegates references to God as a backward form of human consciousness, it becomes possible to assert that all human behavior is socially and culturally determined, and culture alone is upheld to be the producer of the values it lives by.

Culture as a medium

Traditionally only religion has had the right to know cultures, inform the medium of culture of religious truth and want to see cultures as a reflection of itself. Only in modern times culture has equipped itself to look at not only itself but also religion. In that sense, it would be safe to assert that religious humans have a say on matters of culture while culture lacked the ability to do the same. This is because culture is a medium, it will carry in itself whatever one puts in it and people will only transmit across generations that which is of value, that what brings happiness, felicity, peace, and that which avoids pain, suffering and anguish. For the traditional man, it is religion that accomplishes the above and for the modern man, it is often the absence of religion that supposedly accomplishes that.

Religions views culture as its repository

Religion views culture as its repository. The ultimate source of religion is God, and God is out of the confines of time and space. The humans on the other hand are bound by time and space. The law, ethics, morality and rituals of religion are meant for those that live in the human abode. God is above humans and God’s knowledge seeks to inform the way people live in their earthly abode. In this sense, religion seeks to inform culture with perennial principles that are a key to leading a good life. Religions thus leave their imprints on human cultures. History of humanity is also a history of religions. There is nothing in the world that has nothing to do with religion. Religions have always sought to guide humanity towards cultivating cultures that uphold ‘thou must not kill’ and ‘thou must not deceive’. World religions always seek to regulate human behavior so that there is peace among humans.

…then Religion is ontologically above culture

If religion is that which binds man to God and culture is that which binds fellow humans together, then religion is ontologically above culture. In religious worldview, the marriage of religion and culture would be like the marriage of Heavens and Earth or the marriage of man and woman. The former representing the absolute and active principle while the latter is the reflection of the former as a receptacle:

“A traditional civilization, such as that of Islam, is dominated by a Divine Norm, by a ‘presiding Idea’ which leaves its profoundest imprint upon its earthly receptacles; yet each receptacle is given the freedom to develop its own innate possibilities within the tradition into which it is integrated and hence to give birth to a particular ‘world’ or ‘zone’ within the general matrix of the tradition in question”.[15]

Traditional religion views traditional cultures as its repository. Modern religion (different types of fundamentalisms, especially revisionist Islam in its salafi form) are uncomfortable with the concept of culture because in its worldview religion should be pure and pristine while culture is seen as a polluting agent that has corrupted religion. In the Islamic tradition, Muslim scholars have viewed traditional cultures with the terminology of ‘urf.[16] Ibn Khaldun, the famous 14th century philosopher calls the study of societies (and their cultures) ilm al umran.[17] In the Islamic philosophic tradition, the relationship between traditional religion and traditional cultures was a symbiotic one in which ‘urf was informally considered by many doctors of law as a legitimate source of Islamic law.

4. Can ‘Urf accommodate Cultural Modernism?

The word ‘urf in Arabic means human customs, conventions, practices and social habits.[18] It comes from the same root word as irfan or ilm al ma’arifa which implies higher and Gnostic knowledge. In today’s day and age, many modernist reformers have furthered the argument that if Muslims of the traditional age could accommodate the local customs and practices and used them in Islamic law, why can we not do the same in the modern period in which we take what is good in modernity and leave the rest beside? This would appear to be a rational and reasonable argument on surface, but on closer inspection the argument may not seem to hold ground. The argument could hold ground if urf to be considered was from traditional Christian West and not from the contemporary modern West.

Modernism: Religion a fundamental problem in the path of progress

It is important to note as mentioned above, that upon the arrival of Islam the traditional cultures bore an imprint of other traditional religions that came before Islam. For example, when Islam came to India, the Indian culture(s) were already informed by the primordial Truth upon which Hinduism was based. It was possible for the Muslim Sufis and Hindu Rishis to sit together and discover a common denominator of God, albeit with different names, theological discourse and language of cosmological doctrines. Nonetheless, a culture of love and fear of God was mutually comprehensible. Or for that matter, the same exercise with Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians or Buddhists was also possible. Is such a thing possible with cultures of modernisms that Islam comes across on a daily basis in the modern world? Perhaps not. Modernism doesn’t view religion on par with itself, rather considers it a fundamental problem in the path of progress and equates it with superstition. Cultures inspired or contaminated with modernism in our opinion do not deem fit to be borrowed from. Since tradition is far from being dead, it is still possible to continue using ‘urf as a source of law from those cultural practices and customs whose origins are pegged in a revealed tradition. The same cannot be done with modernism. It is exigent therefore that the fuquha (legal doctors of Islam) understand the modern historical transformation in its philosophy, sciences and worldview. Only then will it be apparent to them why we cannot use ‘urf as a source of law to reform the precious body of Islamic principles and Shariah. The concern of the modernists is different from traditional scholars of Islam because it is the modernists who stress the need for a Protestant style reformation so that the Muslim world can emerge out of darkness and superstition and embark upon the path of modernity and progress. It is for this instrumental reason that ‘urf is being stressed by them at this point in time:

“The modernists never tire of speaking of nearly every form of activity in the Islamic world as renaissance, whose Arabic translation, al-nahda, has become such a prevalent word in contemporary Arabic literature. There is something insidious about the carefree use of this word, for it recalls the Renaissance in the West and the re-birth of certain elements of Graeco-Roman paganism, deadly from the spiritual point of view—not the positive elements of this ancient tradition which had already been integrated into Christianity by the Church Fathers”.[19]

5. Religion in the Eyes of Cultural Modernism:

Now lets look at how modern view of cultural studies looks at religion. For a brief moment, it is necessary to pause and look at the world we live in for one sees everything in the light of one’s beliefs and values. Modern world systems and international norms are secular in orientation. The origins of modernity[20] were also the origins of secularism[21]. In the religious worldview the world appears different and often diametrically opposite to non-religious or anti-religious perspectives. In order to achieve a minimal level of clarity it is important to make a dualistic distinction so that our argument stays parsimonious and comprehensible to the non-scientific and lay audience.

The story of origin of modernism, which is built on the denial of religion and on the cadaver of European Christianity, looks at human beings from the point of view of the theory of evolution. Modern philosophical argues that:

“Culture may be thought of as a causal agent that affects evolutionary process by uniquely human means. For it permits the self-conscious evaluation of human possibilities in the light of a system of values that reflect prevailing ideals about what human life ought to be. Culture is thus an indispensable device for increasing human control over the direction in which our species changes”.[22]

Since the theory of evolution denies a sacred and Divine origin of the world, its view of culture is purely terrestrial which does not take into account transcendental realities. If one denies the absolute one stays forever trapped in relativism. In the field of Cultural Studies it has meant cultural relativism in theory and in reality, but it has also led to cultural absolutism from the West, which due to its political and economic power, is strangling cultures of several traditional civilizations. This first happened inside the West itself and subsequently with the rest of the world. P. Bourdieu introduced the concept of cultural reproduction in which the dominant powers sees the function of the educational system as being to reproduce the culture of the dominant classes, thus helping to ensure their continued dominance.[23] This is exactly what the modern West is doing today. The West is missionary about spreading secularism in the world. They lay the blame on religion when religious people cause violence while condoning the secular values when non-religious people cause violence. On the one hand they speak of cultural relativity and on the other they practice cultural absolutism around the world. Modern cultures have a special proclivity towards war. The modern period between 1740 to the present as a cultural period of industrialism related to total war:

“This triumph is primarily responsible for the gradual transformation of a subject of an empire into a citizen soldier whose worldview is evolutionist and who has a mechanical conception of nature. It is the triumph of scientific materialism that has contributed to the destructive power of arms, the growth in the destructive powers of society, the gradual weakening of moral and aesthetic values, a decline of intellectuality, and a cult of violence leading eventually to a state of total war”.[24]

6. Culture of Peace is the Culture of God:

The word peace in Middle English comes from the Latin root ‘pes’ which is also a root word for peace in French ‘pais’ from where word ‘pact’ also emerges. Its parallel to what we call in Arabic ‘aman’ which has a connection with amanah that give off meanings of trust and pact, the antonyms of which are discord and disunity.[25] These words symbolize the cessation of conflict and treat the concept of peace outwardly. The dictionary describes the outward peace by words such as: accord, reconciliation, order and truce. It is interesting to note that the words that describe the outward peace are all those that suggest that a contentious, warlike situation of insecurity existed before but has now returned to a situation of normalcy. However, it is important to note that peace does not mean the mere absence of war.

The attributes of inwardly peace are lexically described through the words such as: contentment, harmony, repose, tranquility, rest, silence and beatitude, whose antonyms are agitation, anger, madness, restlessness, storminess, terror, turbulence and violence.[26]

Outward peace is necessary for a normal life, but it is the inward peace which ultimately produces the outward one; and it is the lack of inward peace that ultimately perturbs the outward peace whose extreme manifestation is war.

It is ironic to note that the cultures of the modern world and their short history can be quite adequately characterized by political agitation, a condition of anger and restlessness, while the state of terror and violence push the world toward more turbulence. Modern political culture, modern economics and their concomitant social systems have produced anything but peace. Traditional cultures by contrast, also witnessed war and strife, after all these things are a predicament of terrestrial existence, but the frequency and intensity of war and insecurity was much less than that of the modern world as documented by many scholars of war. The modern world system has ushered forth an epoch of incessant wars and civil strife, not to name the disruption of human ecology (which was more or less intact in the traditional world) and now threatens our collective existence and harmonious ways of living.[27] While the world politics and economics of the modern world have shaped the military-industrial complex that routinely overruns already oppressed peoples of the world, it is equally disruptive of its own populations inside itself. The modern urban domicile is gradually becoming uglier, giving birth to a culture of hysteria and paranoia where inner peace of its inhabitants is gradually evaporating to a point where even the so-called pacifist societies may not be peaceful to live in anymore.

The secular order that came in full force in the cold war period on both sides of the iron curtain, put humanity on a path where God became unfashionable, along with the importance of God’s fear, love and knowledge. One who doesn’t fear God can do anything. If we kill God, everything becomes possible. Western imperialism and colonialism were nothing but an outward projection of an inward mindset where men swapped sacred principles of human living for profane and secular ones.

To resuscitate the culture of peace, one must understand and accept the importance of the culture of God. God is Peace. One of the 99 beautiful Names of God (al-Asma’ al-Hasna) is al-Salaam, which means peace. The more of God one has in one’s life, the more peaceful one is, and one ‘gives off’ or radiates more peace and tranquility to others around oneself. By having more of God in oneself, we mean that one follows the injunctions and exhortations of the sacred texts of the revealed religions in an attempt to develop fear, love and knowledge of God, for one who has the fear, love and knowledge of God can in principle be only peaceful.

Muslims' struggle for Islam is also Their Struggle to Preserve their Cultures

All religions are first and foremost traditions. There is nothing intrinsically modern about religion. Like the institution of family, religion is also a traditional institution. Out of all living religions, Muslims are still arguably closest to their religion and constitute the last remaining frontier that modernism vies to engulf and dissolve. The Muslims’ struggle for Islam is also their struggle to preserve their cultures as receptacles of Divine words. According to S. H. Nasr:

“Islamic culture displays an undeniable unity which is the result of the spirit and form of the Islamic revelation and ultimately of Divine Unity itself. In the same way that the whole created order is the theophanic reflection of the One in the mirror of multiplicity, so are the various ‘faces’ of Islamic culture so many human echoes of the one Message which is itself beyond the human and which alone bestows upon the activity of a human collectivity the purposes and values which make it worthy of being called a culture in conformity with the noble destiny of man”.[28]

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