Islam or Culture – Which is to Blame?

Differentiating Religion from Culture

By Tamim Saidi, Engage Minnesota

As an American Muslim, when I see the issues and events about Islam that get treated as “news” in the mainstream media, it bothers me that so many are portrayed as “problems with Islam,” the religion, when they are in reality problems of culture, traditions, politics, superstitions, and tribal or ethnic codes of conduct of some Muslim-majority region. I think most Americans would agree with me that it would be unfair to judge a religion (whether Islam, Christianity, or any other religion) by the practices it does not condone.

The religion of Islam does not condone – and it actually condemns – practices such as dishonorable “honor killings,” racism or tribalism, oppression of women, banning women from obtaining an education, and many other un-Islamic practices that make its way to the sensationalized news. If a Muslim, or a Muslim-majority region, practices these despicable acts, it is not because of Islam, but despite Islam.

On numerous occasions some authors and “pundits” have wrongly attacked the religion of Islam for the cultural practices of Muslims in certain places in the world. Polls have shown that about 70 percent of the American public acknowledges being unfamiliar with Islam. Thus it is not a surprise that most Americans cannot distinguish Islamic religious practices from cultural practices by Muslim-majority countries.

There are certain areas of overlap: A people’s religion influences their culture, and culture influences how they practice their religion. But in Islam there is a clear distinction between the two.

In order to explain the differences between Islam and culture, I think it will be useful if you could imagine a Catholic family in Minnesota, a Catholic family in South America, a Catholic family in Italy, and a Catholic family in Africa.

Although these four families have the same religion, they will have different cultures. They will eat different types of food and will listen to different types of music. Their style of clothing will be different and, of course, their languages will be different. More than likely, they will have certain cultural and traditional practices that are not derived from Catholicism. I think the same would be true for Protestant families or Jewish families in different parts of the world.

In the same way, Muslims from different parts of the world will have varying cultures even though they share the same religion. For many Muslims, as with people of other faiths, their cultures play a strong role in their lives. Looking back, my country of birth, Afghanistan, and its neighboring country Pakistan have cultures that, when viewed from a global level, seem very similar to each other. But when I was forced to flee Afghanistan as a teenager and live in Pakistan as a refugee, I experienced culture shock. I found the culture and traditions to be very different from what I was accustomed to. As I was explaining this phenomenon to a friend who was born in South Dakota, he shared that he had “culture shock” when he moved from South Dakota to Minnesota. He also reminded me that the culture of Minnesota is different from the culture of Texas, and the culture in San Francisco is different from the culture in New Orleans.

Not Everything Done by Muslims is Necessarily Islamic

Many of the countries that are commonly called “Islamic countries” – which in reality are merely “Muslim-majority countries” – practice an amalgam of Islamic practices and pre-Islamic/non-Islamic practices. More than 10 centuries ago, when Islam became the predominant religion of the part of the world that today is Muslim-majority, those countries already had very distinct and very patriarchal cultures, as many remain patriarchal today. After embracing the religion of Islam, many of these cultures, including the culture of my ancestors and the culture that I grew up in, abandoned some of the pre-Islamic cultures and traditions , but they hang on to many others.

As a young boy growing up in Afghanistan, like many people in Afghanistan, I wrongly presumed many of these cultural practices to be “Islamic.” At certain times of the year we cooked certain types of food and distributed them among the poor. On certain days, many visited the graveyards and the shrines, and prayed for the deceased, and some asked the “spirits of the deceased” to pray to God for them. These practices are performed by Muslims and are given an Islamic dimension, for instance by the reading of a passage from the Holy Qur’an, etc. Yet these practices are not Islamic practices.

So then, what is an Islamic practice? Islamic practices and beliefs are those that have roots in the Qur’an (which Muslims believe to be the last and unchanged revelation from God) and the Sunnah (traditions) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Any belief or practice, even if common among some Muslim – majority country, which does not go back to the Qur’an or the Sunnah , is not an Islamic belief or practice.

Just as it is unfair to judge Christianity for un-Christian and inappropriate actions of some who call themselves Christians, it is unfair to judge Islam by un-Islamic and inappropriate actions of some who call themselves Muslims. Just as every action of every Christian is not necessarily based on Christianity, every action of every Muslim is not necessarily based on Islam.

Just as I have urged my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world not to judge America by what they see on their TV sets on “The Jerry Springer Show,” I want to urge my American brothers and sisters not to judge Islam by the tabloid and cultural news that finds its way to their TV sets.

Tamim Saidi is an American Muslim and an active member of the Muslim community in Minnesota.

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10 comments so far

  1. Corey Habbas on

    This is an excellent article and well needed. In the current climate, people are quick to jump to conclusions without examining what their assumptions are and how they might be comitting falacies of logic. What you explained here in this article is an excellent way to get people to think critically about what they are fed by media and how they process the information they are receiving.

  2. Zafar Siddiqui on

    This is a wonderful article. It addresses one of the biggest sources of confusion for people who do not differentiate between Islam and culture. I think after reading this article one would be more aware of this important distinction.

  3. Wayne K on

    Great article. Thanks for pointing out some of the assumptions that we make not only about Islam, but about Christianity as well. I believe these prejudiced assumptions stem from the lack of mobility of many Americans. I don’t know the numbers but many Americans never go farther (except for short vacations to theme areas) than 100 miles from their birthplace, which is their parents and grandparents’ birthplace. Travel increases learning, in my opinion.

  4. Douglas on

    What will happen to Yaser Said on the Day of Judgement?

    I understand that honor killing is not an Islamic practice. Why do you think it has persisted so long?

    What I do not understand is your unwillingness to mention Yaser Said by name, and condemn him as the murderer of Amina and Sarah Said.

  5. Dan Bernard on

    Hi, Douglas. I think it goes without saying that an average person, especially someone who professes to follow a peaceful religion such as Islam or Christianity, would condemn killing. Please do not assume any less of this writer, and we will not assume any less of you. Nor will we hold you responsible for condemning or apologizing for the actions of another person in another state just because that person claims the same religion as you.

  6. […] Minnesota Muslim Tamim Saidi didn’t mention Amina and Sarah by name, his post on Islam versus culture addressed the subject of the honor killings, saying “Well, you shouldn’t condemn Islam […]

  7. Tamim on

    Thanks for your comments.
    I am glad this article is getting some attention.
    I know it might sound incredible to those who have been following this case very closely, but I have not been following the case of Amina and Sarah Said at all.
    Your post is the first time that I have heard of the case.
    But regardless, a crime is a crime and a murder is a murder. Islam is not a religion of vigilantism. Even in case of the punishment for murderers and rapists that Islam allows capital punishment, there are specific procedures that have to be followed.
    Taking the life an innocent person is like killing the entire humanity according to Islam’s teachings. Prophet Muhammad (P) said that if someone were to kill even a sparrow unjustifiably, he/she will be punished in the hereafter, let alone killing an innocent person. NO doubt, killing an innocent person is one of the gravest sins in Islam.

  8. Douglas on

    I’m pleased that you read my post.

    I was hoping you would opine on why the unIslamic custom of honor killing has persisted so long in countries such as Jordan and Yemen.

    Since the murders of Amina and Sarah Said took place on January 1, and your original post was written on January 11, I incorrectly believed you were referring to that case when you wrote the post. That would explain why you didn’t mention them by name.

    Were you aware of the murder of Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga, Ontario in December of 2007?

  9. Fedwa on

    Hello Douglas,

    I am familiar with the case of Aqsa Parvez. You may not be familiar with the most influential Muslim Scholar in the US, response to this case…

    Please read:

    http://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/notes/islam_and_honor_killings_revised/

    Also I am Palestinian. The social ill of honor killing is prevalent in Jordan and Palestine amongst Christians and Muslims alike. There are Christians in Palestine that died of honor killing. You may not be aware of that. But I am sure you do not condone it.

    “Faten Habash’s father wept as he assured his daughter there would be no more beatings, no more threats to her life and that she was free to marry the man she loved, even if he was a Muslim. All he asked was that Faten return home.
    Hassan Habash even gave his word to an emissary from a Bedouin tribe traditionally brought in to mediate in matters of family honour, a commitment regarded as sacrosanct in Palestinian society. But the next weekend, as Faten watched a Boy Scouts parade from the balcony of her Ramallah home, the 22-year-old Christian Palestinian was dragged into the living room and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar. Her father was arrested for the murder. ”

    Thanks,
    Fedwa

  10. Anonymous on

    This is an EXCELLENT article! I just love reading it over and over again.
    Thank you!!!


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