Muslim Culture - Introduction

The Qur’an informs us that from the very beginning of  humanity’s existence on earth, God promised Adam that  He would send guidance to mankind. “But when  guidance comes from Me, as it certainly will, there will  be no fear for those who follow My guidance nor will  they grieve.” (Qur’an ch2, v38). For Muslims, therefore,  God’s message, with its central tenets, has always  remained unchanged, the same essential religion being  brought and renewed by righteous messengers sent by  God to guide their people.

“The messenger believes in what has been sent down  to him from his Lord, as do the faithful. They all believe  in God, His angels, His scriptures, and His messengers. ‘We make no distinction  between any of His messengers,’ they say, ‘We hear and we obey. Grant us your  forgiveness our Lord. To you we all return!’”  (Qur’an ch2, v285)

Explore Islam CultureWhile the central tenets have always been thus, that is not to say that all of the specifics  of what was sent with each messenger have remained the same. The circumstances,  cultures, and backgrounds of each tribe and people differ, and God, who is aware of all  these differences and knows what best suits each people, has, in His mercy, allowed  adjustments in the obligations laid upon each. “We have assigned a law and a path to  each of you.” (Qur’an ch5, v48). A balance is achieved between the rights of God and the  needs of His servants, between that which is common to all messages and what is unique,  between that which  binds all humanity and that which divides it.

In a similar way, within the religion sent with the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)  there is a balance between the central beliefs and obligations of the religion and the  circumstances and backgrounds of those that came to adopt it. At the religion’s heart are  the central tenets – submission to the one true God, the acceptance of Muhammad  (peace be upon him) as His final messenger, belief in the Qur’an as the word of God, and  faith in the Day of Judgement and the Afterlife. Then there are the fundamental acts of  worship – the prayer, fasting, alms tax, and pilgrimage – and the other obligations and  restrictions contained within the faith. On the other hand, however, Islam allows a great  deal of diversity with regard to matters not covered by the religious guidance. Amongst  these can be counted matters relating to culture, such as modes of dress, styles of cuisine,  types of pastimes, methods of enjoyment, styles of art and architecture, to mention a few.  By way of example from the life of the Prophet, on one occasion, a group of Ethiopians  were performing a spear dance in the mosque. On being asked about it, the Prophet  (peace be upon him) instructed his followers to leave them to continue, as this was  something from their culture.

Explore Islam CultureUnfortunately, the current perception of Islam amongst many in the world is that Islam  is a monolithic, inflexible religion, imposing itself upon the different peoples of the world.  Whatever the reasons for this view, the reality of history shows us a totally contrary one.  The diversity of life across the Muslim world, with regards to all aspects of culture, speaks  of a flexibility, tolerance, and sensitivity to local differences not found in any other religion,  culture, or civilisation to this day. Indeed, while historians have noted, for example, that  every city within the Roman Empire looked architecturally exactly the same, such that a  visitor would be unable to tell by looking at their surroundings where in the Roman World  they were, the exact opposite can be said of the Muslim World. Each region and culture  where Islam spread was free to continue building and developing its own architectural  styles, based on the precedent for that particular region or culture. Even the mosque, the  central physical expression of the religion, was adapted according to the styles and tastes  of the different cultures and worlds into which it was established. The great mud built  mosque in Djenné in West Africa is utterly distinct from the grand structures of Cairo, the  Classical influenced buildings of Jerusalem and Istanbul, the Indian and Indonesian  mosques of the Asian Subcontinent or the distinctive curved roof mosques of the Chinese  World. Each performing the function, and with the essential features, of a mosque, yet  each at home in its local environment. In this way Islam can be shown to have connected  and integrated in a beautiful way into the societies into which it moved, and the same  ‘balance’, noted above, can be seen between religion and culture, and between what  unifies the Muslim nation and the wonderful diversity that it contains. The same principle  also holds for all other aspects of culture, whether it be the incredible array of culinary  dishes, the variety of garments, or the decorations that go to beautifying the homes and  ornaments of the different Muslim peoples.

Explore Islam CultureAs a final thought, it is important to note that sometimes the balance between religion  and culture is lost. When this happens and culture is given precedence over religion,  local customs can be practised which actually go against Islamic edicts, often under the  mistaken belief that these acts are actually requirements of the religion. These customs  usually have their origins in the cultures that predated the spread of Islam, and they have  often been maintained within the local cultures despite the prohibitions present within  the religion. The problem in these cases is compounded, as the oppression that they  involve then becomes associated with the religion, and the image of Islam becomes  tarnished. In the West, the result is that Islam is often seen as something very alien to  the local community, giving rise to the common misconception that Islam is unable to  integrate.