Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Muslims Struggle for Islam is also Their Struggle to Preserve Their Cultures

Excerpts from a paper by Dr. Ejaz Akram

[Do not cite or reproduce from the following paper without permission of author]

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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]

Read more by and about Dr. Ejaz Akram

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