By Heba Abdel-Karim
Have you ever wondered why a newborn cries when he first sets eyes on our world?
The underlying rationale is that the child experiences an enormous difference between the warmth of his mother’s small, comfy womb and the vastness of this “new world” that he has just been thrown into. Before being born, the infant did not know that another world existed, and therefore could not have distinguished between what is “baby” and what is “womb.” Because of his inability to distinguish between the two, the baby cannot realize the importance and love for his mother’s womb until he is forced to leave it.
Just as a the baby feels a difference after leaving his “home,” adults leaving behind their own culture have an opportunity to re-see their religion, and to realize what is actually religion and what is actually culture.
Many non-Muslim Minnesotans, and even Muslims for that matter, do not realize the difference between culture and religion. Although the religion of Islam and the cultures where it flourishes are distinct, the two are sometimes unintentionally combined or inter-switched. Some cultural aspects can be mistaken for religious beliefs, and may therefore be interpreted by non-Muslims to be Islamic practices when in fact they are no more than the individual’s cultural background. This is especially the case since there are over 10 million Muslims in the U.S. representing more than 150 cultures.
There are many misconceptions about Islam formed as a result of various cultural and religious intermingling.
Some very common instances include the role of women and dress. Different cultures have different (maybe restricted) roles for women, many of which do not necessarily hold true with respect to Islamic law. Women have a unique role in Islam…no, they are not oppressed by their men, nor are they required to only stay home, cook, clean and take care of the kids. But in some cultures, that may be the case, and women might be looked down upon if they do not conform to those cultural aspects. In such a case, culture is overriding religion.
The second instance refers to how Muslims dress, inside and outside of religion. Some Muslims may not wear the proper clothing as a result of a cultural influence, and will give the public nothing more than yet another misconception about Islam. There also exist many other beliefs that may sprout from a cultural background and that have nothing to do with Islam. How are non-Muslims (as well as Muslims) to know where the limits between culture and religion lie?
Living in another country, with a different culture, gives one the opportunity to reflect back on this, and it gives one the chance to discern what is culture and what is religion. This is not only because there are eyes watching your every move as a foreigner, but also because one wishes to know who he is and what he believes before he is given the chance to discuss such topics with others. It gives one the chance of discovering one’s own individuality amongst others of different identities.
Yes, we may all come from many different cultural backgrounds which may create conflicts with respect to how Minnesotan Muslims relate to one another, but what’s better is that such a large and diverse group of people are all bonded by a common religion. In this way, we are similar to the newborn; living happily in our tiny world until we are given a chance to realize the separation of ourselves and our “womb.”
Heba Abdel-Karim currently resides in Fridley, Minn. and is a student at the University of Minnesota.