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Islam And The Cultural Imperative 55

By Dr. Umar Faruq AdbAllah

Read the full article published by The Nawawi Foundation (2004)

For centuries, Islamic civilization harmonized indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law. It struck a balance between temporal beauty and ageless truth and fanned a brilliant peacock’s tail of unity in diversity from the heart of China to the shores of the Atlantic. Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius. In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but —having no color of their own— reflect the bedrock  (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization. The religion became not only functional and familiar at the local level but dynamically engaging, fostering stable indigenous Muslim identities and allowing Muslims to put down deep roots and make lasting contributions wherever they went.

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. 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 forms. Humankind has been defined as “the speaking animal,” “the political animal,” “the religious animal,” and so forth. But speech, politics, religion, and all essentially human traits are fundamental components of culture, and, whatever else we may be, humankind is, first and foremost, “the cultural animal.”

A key measure for evaluating culture is its capacity to impart a unified sense of self and community and consistent, well-integrated patterns of behavior. A culture is “successful” when it imparts an operative identity, produces social cohesion, and gives its members knowledge and social skills that empower them to meet their individual and social requirements effectively. Identity and social cohesion are fundamental outgrowths of culture. Community and self-determination also hang in the balance of achieving a “successful” culture. In the absence of an integrated and dynamic Muslim American culture, to speak of ourselves as constituting a true community—despite our immense individual talent and large and growing numbers—or being able someday to play an effective role in civic life or politics is little more than rhetoric or wishful thinking.

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.

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-‘aada), 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-‘aada 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.

These words resounded well in the ears of Ibn Qayyim, a great jurisconsult and scholar of the following century, who commended al-Qaraafii by saying:

This is pure understanding of the law. Whoever issues legal rulings to the people merely on the basis of what is transmitted in the compendia despite differences in their customs, usages, times, places, conditions, and the special circumstances of their situations has gone astray and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is greater than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without regard to the differences of their climes, norms, the times they live in, and their physical natures but merely in accord with what he finds written down in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. He is an ignorant physician, but the other is an ignorant jurisconsult but much more detrimental.


Many in our community today look askance at culture but with only the vaguest notions of what culture actually is and the fundamental role it plays in human existence. For them, “culture” is a loaded word, something dangerous, inherently problematic, and “un-Islamic” (a deeply ingratiated Islamist neologism). Culture, for them, is a toxic pollutant that must necessarily be purged, since Islam and culture are mutually exclusive in their minds. Some foolishly or ahistorically regard Islamic culture—legacies like the Taj Mahal, for example—to have been chief causes of Muslim decline and fall in history. Their mindset reflects the general malaise of the modern period and the breakdown of traditional Muslim cultures, leaving chronic existential alienation and cultural dysfunction in its wake. Such cultural phobia is untenable in the light of classical Islamic jurisprudence and is antithetical to more than a millennium of successful indigenous Islamic cultures and global civilization.