religion versus culture (hopefully the last entry I’ll ever write on this tired subject)

My last post kind of brings me to the insufferable religion versus culture debate, which I’ve been meaning to record, and which I am hoping has been (at least temporarily) put to rest in the comments section of a post by almostclever.

In the post she writes, Then take what you learned and apply it to the rest of the world, you will see that culture is everywhere – each culture chooses it’s own way to practice, something that fits that culture.

We can say we are able to practice religion without any culture getting involved, but then we would be liars.

And some of what follows in the comments section is

Serenity | May 4, 2011 at 10:26 am

This is very true, Sarah! I have learned the same thing myself, that you can’t separate culture and religion from each other no matter how much you try. I once heard this interesting conversation between two Muslim girls, one who’s father is from Pakistan and whose mother from Malaysia and the other one was born in saudi Arabia but her parents are Indian. It went something like: “In my family, there’s no culture at all; it’s only religion. That’s why I love that I’m mixed – I don’t have to stick to any culture. I’m just a Muslim. Pure Muslim.” And the other one said, “Wow! And that’s exactly how it should be. You’re very lucky.”

I was so confused. What is a “pure” Muslim? What does it mean to be a Muslim with NO culture? How can you have a religion without culture? I understand we all wanna believe that there’s this ultimate Islam, one that is so pure, not adulterated by culture in any way, but how PRACTICAL is that Islam? Who practices it? If no one practices it, can it really be Islam, which many Muslims deem as “a complete way of life”?

That’s why I have often asserted that Islam by itself, with this lack of “culture” we wanna believe in, is a theory; it’s only ideals, teachings, guidelines, beliefs. But it becomes practice only when it’s interpreted, and you almost always interpret it according to your cultural beliefs. I have a blog post on this, too. I’ve said it more clearly, I hope, in there. Here’s the link:

After a couple of more comments of a similar sentiment, I post:

Nahida | May 4, 2011 at 11:07 pm

I’m one of those Muslims who try to separate the two. I feel a little misrepresented in the comments section here. =P

When I separate it, I mean for it to be a theoretical separation–not for it to be separated in actual practice, which I recognize is unrealistic. My problem is when people identify cultural behavior as religious instead of cultural, because that implies that it is a requirement for all Muslims. Praying is religious. Zakat is religious. Pilgrimage is religious. Wearing a certain color to a wedding is not religious. So yeah, it irritates me when people say “White dresses are not Islamic!” instead of “White dresses are not part of our culture.”

Islam is meant to fit with any culture, and some people are relieved that religion is interpreted through the lens of culture, because that means it can be comfortable for anyone during any period of time. And that’s a beautiful thing. But when you forget the origins of your practices, you begin to force them on other Muslims believing that it is Islam and not culture, and sin by making what’s permissible unlawful.

Another example I can think of is when Muslims accuse other Muslims of not having “Islamic names.” There are guidelines for what to name your child (i.e. you can’t name her/him after an animal, can’t have pagan origins, etc.) but just because a name doesn’t have Arab or Persian origins does not make it unIslamic. “Mary” is just as acceptable as “Mariam.” And this discriminatory behavior can become more and more dangerous, especially when Muslims begin falsely attributing aspects of violence in their culture to Islam.

To which she replies,

almostclever | May 4, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Actually, I think we agree quite a bit Nahida – my points are merely to say that we need to step back and take an objective look at what we do and what we call “religion” when actually it is our culture speaking. I also think there is nothing wrong with that because it is inevitable to incorporate these things into our lives because it is what our society calls “normal.” All of us making comments on this post are self-aware enough to see that difference, hence, this conversation – yet for those who DO say it is “Islam” that dictates why a Muslim woman cannot wear a white wedding dress,for example, I can find comfort in knowing this is simply cultural, and therefore follow my cultural tradition of wearing a white wedding dress without feeling I am somehow doing something wrong. Therefore, we can practice as best as we can those things that are the core of religion, and not be so wound up in what others try pushing on us as “The True Religion.”

I find this very empowering.

And I was happy with her reply, and feel for now that I can rest easy whenever this religion versus culture debate arises and I am fighting to explain that the two are separate to those non-Muslims who insist that Islam is inherently oppressive or something ridiculous like that. The core of the religion is unchangeable, and that gives us strength and stability. But as I’ve said in my own comment section before, Islam–since the day it was delivered–was meant to be a religion that could be practiced comfortably from the angle of any culture at any time, because it is a religion without a culutre and this is what makes it so vast and timeless. When we practice it, we apply our own cultural interpretations. I’m glad almostclever pointed this out to me in words, and I found much comfort in it.
I will still have a problem with those who use the terms Islam and culture interchangeably, because as I’ve said it’s crucial to know the origins of practices and to differentiate whether they are religious or cultural so that we don’t push on others what they normally would not accept if they hadn’t been convinced it is a religious obligation rather than a cultural practice. By successfully brainwashing us to believe that culture is religion, men have abused this flexibility in Islam, to an inexcusable extent, erasing and forging over traces of the origins of dictations in a successful attempt to harness their privilege and stretch laws to accommodate their own insecurity. They actively kept women from becoming educated (which is indisputablely against Islam, against the rigid part of Islam, against the part you can’t change with culture, against the core of Islam) because they correctly feared that if women were able to interpret religious texts–we’d call bullshit on their assertions.
And when others mistakenly associate violence with Islam rather than with the culture that interprets it, it affects my life in that it encourages others to discriminate. Miscommunication is never positive. But there is a completeness to consider, and that, like most things, is a double-edged sword.

One thought on “religion versus culture (hopefully the last entry I’ll ever write on this tired subject)

  1. almostclever

    "I will still have a problem with those who use the terms Islam and culture interchangeably, because as I've said it's crucial to know the origins of practices and to differentiate whether they are religious or cultural so that we don't push on others what they normally would not accept if they hadn't been convinced it is a religious obligation rather than a cultural practice."Yes yes yes! I agree wholeheartedly! I cannot say how many times I have been told that Arab cultural practice "is Islam." I disagree every time and try to point out that I can have my Islam and my western culture without a disconnect. I don't have to adopt a certain culture in order to be a good Muslim. That is the inherent beauty of Islam, that it is presented as encompassing all cultures, and being adaptable – which is the only way it could be something that spreads worldwide. I tend to notice a lot of new converts adopting Arab culture and clothing thinking that they are proving themselves to be "good Muslims." I really see a flawed view of what is religion, in their adoption of practices and clothing that really has nothing at all to do with religious obligations.


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