Is there Any Clash Between Islam and Culture, By Murtada Gusau

Imam Murtada Gusau

By Murtada Gusau,

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
All praises are due to Allah, we praise Him and we seek help from Him. We ask forgiveness from Him. We repent to Him; and we seek refuge in Him from our own evils and our own bad deeds. Anyone who is guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been left astray, will find no one to guide him. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, the only one without any partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad (SAW) is His servant, and His Messenger.

“O you who have believe. Fear Allah, as He should be feared, and die not except as Muslims.”

“O you who have believe. Be aware of Allah, and speak a straightforward word. He will forgive your sins and repair your deeds. And whoever takes Allah and His Prophet as a guide, has already achieved a mighty victory.”

“O mankind! Show reverence towards your Guardian-Lord who created you from a single person, created of like nature, his mate and from the two of them scattered (like seeds) countless men and women:- Be conscious of Allah, through whom you demand your mutual (rights) and (show reverence towards) the wombs (that bore you); for surely, Allah ever watches over you.”

Servants of Allah!
Today’s topic is about Islam and Culture. What is Islam, and what is Culture? Is there a difference? Is there an Islamic culture? How does culture and Islam interact and overlap? There is a great deal of confusion on this subject. The confusion is not only in the minds of people looking at Islam from the outside, but also among many Muslims on the inside. Some of us cannot tell the difference between our tribal, ethnic culture and the basic teachings of Islam, the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Brothers and Sisters!
Let’s be clear about this. Islam is one thing. Tribal, ethnic culture is another. Islam never changes. Cultures change. The two are not the same. Culture has many shades of meaning. Its Latin root refers to something that’s cultured, cultivated, as plants are grown in a garden. Our meaning here is about the shared values, the attitudes and practices of a particular group that are grown and cultivated over time; for example an ethnic or national culture.

Although some aspects of culture can be positive, and some can be neutral, there are other aspects of culture that are bad, unjust and downright evil. Sadly, many children grow up developing a strong resentment towards Islam, because their parents impose intolerable burdens on them – cultural burdens – in the name of Islam. Some examples are: the oppression of women, denying girls the right to education, forced marriages, sending our children to do almajiri or Bara (begging), so-called ‘honour’ killings and many vices in the society. None of these despicable, abominable and barbaric practices has anything at all to do with Islam. They are pre-Islamic traditions that are totally forbidden for Muslims. Yet some uneducated Muslims behave as if this is part of their religion. And some sensation-hungry journalists often seize items like this and tag the words Islam and Muslim to spice up their stories. These journalists betray the ethics of their profession, which ought to be about uncovering the truth. Instead, they promote crude stereotypes based on downright lies, just to sell a few more papers. But even worse than shoddy journalism is the inexcusable ignorance of Muslims who claim that these revolting tribal abuses are somehow Islamic.

So, how do we distinguish between Islam and culture?

Whether we are conscious of it or not, every one of us is swimming around in an invisible ocean of culture, fed by many streams and rivers; western culture, African culture, Arab culture, Turkish, Pakistani, Malay, Somali or Bangladeshi culture. Each one is a world of values, of assumptions and prejudices that informs our cultural identity: our likes and dislikes about everything from food, clothing, poetry, art and music, to our preferences and prejudices regarding other people. While many aspects of tribal culture are positive, promoting respect, honour, hospitality and service to others, we should be critically aware of the negative and destructive aspects of our ethnic cultural traditions. A good Muslim is constantly vigilant over the lower inclinations of the inward self, the Nafs. We should constantly ask ourselves, why do I prefer this over that? Is this good for me, for my spiritual heart, my qalb? Is this good for Islam, or is it only good for my tribal culture? Am I driven by racial pride, greed, fear, egotism or am I driven by loving gratitude to my Lord? Is this right? Is this pleasing to Allah? We should always be aware of that subtle distinction between our cultural values and our Islamic values. The two are not the same. Sometimes our cultural values may be in direct conflict with Islam, as mentioned earlier.

Islam, on the other hand, is very simple and clear: Worship Allah alone, making no associations with Him. Get to know Allah as best you can. The more we know Him, the more we will love Him and feel gratitude to Him, until our heart is overflowing. This overflowing love and gratitude to Allah will drive us beyond selfishness and vanity towards serving others. We will then become like those whom Prophet Muhammad (SAW) described when he said:

“A believer’s faith is not complete until he also wants for his brother that which he wants for himself.” (Hadith)

When we remember Allah with love and gratitude, we become anxious about the pain and suffering of others. We turn our selfishness into selflessness. That’s when we want to show mercy and generosity to all creatures, human, animal, vegetable and mineral. This is what Islam sets out to do. Islam wants to make us, creatures of mud, moulded into shape, into the trustees and ambassadors of Allah on earth, khaleefatulLaah. When we rise up and grow into this noble garment, then Allah elevates our status above the angels that surround him. These angels, as we remember, were commanded to bow down to Adam. That’s the reward for serving Allah. When we refuse to serve Allah, we not only fall below the angels. We fall below the wild beasts that roam the earth. We then become the followers of Shaytaan, the cursed one. Na’uudhu Billah!

Allah the Most High said:

“Surely we created man of the best stature. Then did we reduce him to the lowest of the low. Except those who believe and do good works, and theirs is an unfailing reward.”

Brothers and Sisters!
Let us be mindful of those powerful words in Surah Al-Teen. We human beings can be the noble representatives and Ambassadors of Allah, or the followers of that fellow downstairs, shaytaan. The choice is ours.

My respected people!
When the culture of nationalism and tribalism gets distorted, it gives itself a false sense of superiority over other people. That brings trouble, big trouble; Israel is one example where some secular Jews are trying to twist a great monotheistic religion, Judaism, into a narrow political idea called Zionism. The peace and stability of a whole region is being undermined by a militant state structured on racially exclusive lines. Some Muslims also confuse culture, politics and religion that continue to make an explosive mix of tribal and political agendas, hiding behind the beautiful name of Islam. We can see the messy results on the news every day, of bombings, killings etc. Allah will not allow His religion to be abused in this way. Some parts of the ummah are being torn apart, limb from limb.

Is culture incompatible with Islam? Can these two ideas co-exist peacefully?

There is indeed a place for culture in Islam. That place is always to complement and not to contradict Islam. Culture should never, ever, be used to harm anyone or make someone to behave immorally. Our cultural traditions should beautify our faith, showing the richness and diversity of the Ummah. It should never be an excuse to abuse our womenfolk, or anyone else.

In the Noble Qur’an 49:13 Surah Al-Hujurat (The inner Apartments) Allah declares:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Truly the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most virtuous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”

Allah has created the human species as a one single entity, a unity that underpins the great diversity of cultures, ethnicities and nations. This cultural diversity is no accident: it’s a part of Allah’s plan. He intended it to be this way. He wants us to recognise each other, and to respect the many cultures that beautify the human family. We human beings are living works of art, a living expression of Allah’s marvelous ingenuity, his infinite creativity. But when we forget why Allah created us as nations and tribes, then we fall into division, injustice and evil. This happens when we forget who we really are and why Allah created us. In Allah’s colourful garden, nations and tribes flower like fragrant blossoms.

Prophet Muhammad (SAW) proclaimed, in his final sermon on Arafat:

“O you people!” he said, “listen to my words, All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab. A non-Arab is not superior to an Arab. A white person is not superior to a black person. A black person is not superior to a white person. You are only superior through your Allah-consciousness and good deeds. Remember that every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim and that you are all now, one brotherhood.”

In these momentous words, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) set out the basis of harmonious human relations, for all time to come. Within our endless human diversity there is a unity. And within our unity there can be infinite diversity. In Islam, unity does not have to mean uniformity. We are not like soldiers in a regiment. Like many different flowers in a garden, we are all beautiful in our own way. We don’t all look the same, we don’t all have to think or act the same. But we must have the same goals and the same universal values, regardless of our culture and background. We must worship Allah and be His agents of mercy, his angels of mercy, just as Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was sent as a mercy to all the worlds.

“And we have not sent you, (O Muhammad) except as a Mercy to all the worlds.”

We Muslims should be people of justice in everything, to anybody, irrespective of his tribe, religion or region, people who promote good and prevent evil, and who believe only in Allah.

Allah the Almighty said:

“You are the best of nations evolved for mankind. You enjoin what is right and you forbid what is wrong and you believe in Allah.” (Qur’an Ali-Imran, 3:110)

So, as we end this week and look forward to the weekend, let’s remember that our national culture, our tribal and ethnic backgrounds are only tags and labels of convenience, but our core identity is Islam. This means that we must be virtuous people, primordially upright human beings. We are Muslims first, and then we can be African, Nigerian, British, Pakistani, Arab or Indian etc. Let’s get our priorities right. Let’s aspire to the noble position that Allah has decreed for us. Let us be witnesses to Allah, and become like angels of mercy to all people, irrespective of tribe, region and religion.

Brothers and Sisters!
“Surely Allah commands justice, good deeds and generosity to others and to relatives; and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, so that you may be reminded.” (Surah 16:90)

“And remember me: I will remember you. Be grateful to me, and do not reject faith.” (2:152)

“And without doubt, remembrance of Allah is the greatest thing in life, and Allah knows the deeds that you do.” (29:45)

May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our beloved Prophet and Master, Muhammad peace be upon him, his family and all his Companions.

This Khutbah (Friday Sermon) was prepared for delivery today, Friday, Thul Qi’dah 2nd 1437 AH (August 5, 2016), by Imam Murtadha Muhammad Gusau, the Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Central Mosque and Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene’s Mosque, Okene Kogi State, Nigeria. He can be reached via: +234 803 828 9761.