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Payam

Reconciling Culture And Religion

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Salamun alaykum brothers and sisters,

I have always had a hard time understanding what is culture and what is religion in Shia Islam. I have wondered if alternative Islamic cultures can be constructed which may be more appropriated to the times. For example, as a Canadian raised person, I approach religion differently. My pondering have led to these two essential questions:

  • Does Islam advocate a single culture or can it work in tandem with multiple cultures?
  • Can a culture restrict religious practices? i.e. a subset of practices made possible?

Here are a couple of examples to clarify the question

  • In my community, after asking the Imam of the Mosque, he advised to meet a woman by meeting her father first and maybe with a chaperon going out to meet each other. When I asked why not date one-on-one, as Westerners do, I was told "it is recommended not to". Yet, as a Canadian, the later is practical, compatible, and comfortable. Furthermore, it is not Haram, so why not? In fact, in the community, people tend to look down on people who date, despite it not being Haram, which pressures their own cultural preference, but not religious ruling. In this example, can't both be viable approaches? Is it correct for the religious community to be forcing their own perspective and not accepting a Western alternative?
  • In Persian culture, Nikah Mutah is looked down upon. Definitely within the non-religious community, but a bit less in the religious community. Even when granted, it is given with conditions such as "no-sex" or "no-touching" which can undermine the purpose of Nikah Mutah in some regards. In this example, can a culture restrict such a religious ruling and possibly shun it away? I would think that in the West, by not downplaying it or shunning it away, it again provides an approach that is extremely compatible with Western lifestyle without being Haram.
  • In many cultures, there is an unwritten practice that older man marry younger. From the perspective of women, this can cause pressure because they have a limited time to find a candidate. From the perspective of a man, I find it impractical since they have to unnecessarily restrain their sexually until later, which tends to make them slip and sin. Isn't it incorrect to promote such a culture especially when the Prophet and the Quran promote marrying young? I understand people's concerns for maturity; but this should be solved via education, not delays. Isn't this cultural practice, at best, narrowing religious practice, and at worst, leading people astray?
  • In many cultures, people tend to show up late to events and treat it lightly or simply reason it away as a cultural trait. Is this acceptable? Since the Qur'an teaches you to honour your pledges and promises, and saying to someone "I'll be there at X", is a sort of promise, wouldn't this cultural trait be in opposition to Islam? Shouldn't it be abolished instead?
  • Officials of religious institutions, tend to dress in the assumed fashion of the Prophet. However, from my understanding, this is not a ruling, but done voluntarily. As such, can't an individual dress in modern fashion and be a pious and religious leader? With the youth of the 21st century being fashion conscious, I would actually argue that modern fashion would promote youth to the Mosques. Yet, I see a persistence on the old dress-code. Is it not possible to change such practices to accomodate? Or is there somehow an "Islamic culture", and such values are traits of it and it cannot be changed?

I hope the examples help clarify my thoughts. I have always asked myself why there can't be a Canadian Islam available to me. It seems that I keep getting a Middle Eastern version of which is not practical nor attractive to me. I have not tried to alter the teachings, instead I look for viable alternatives which are not followed but would be more practical. Is it not possible to have an alternative form? Shouldn't Canadian Mosques also care to accomodate to their country and environment?

I hope to get your input and value your opinion.

Thank you!

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Well, there is an important difference between how Muslims in the West interact with Islam and how those from the East interact with it. In the East, Islam is the dominant religion and has fully penetrated those cultures. Language, customs, and traditions have all changed as a result of the influence of Islam on those people. So, for someone growing up in the East, the way that they learn and practice Islam is through their culture. In some ways this a positive thing becuase it means that everyone is exposed to Islamic elements. Even those who may not be so religious or even Muslim may take on certain rituals and beliefs as a result of the culture which is influenced by Islamic elements. However, this culture also takes from other sources as well. So, not everything will be Islamic and this often leads to confusion.

Islam does advocate certain principles like eating only halal food, observing hijab, and performing nikah but it doesn't tell you what exactly to eat, what clothes to wear, or how to conduct your marriage ceremony. It gives you the principles and limits and the rest is based on your culture as long as it stays within the limits. So, Islam does allow flexibility and no culture is better than another in and of itself.

(wasalam)

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Thank you Al-Hassan.

It seems that we are both on the same train of thought.

Now, I have another question. The mosques around me are of different cultures, none that caters will to me and with certain cultural practices which I disagree with. If you were to find yourself in a similar situation, would you detach yourself from the Mosque and practice on your own, or do you find it necessarily still to participate with one of the Mosques? The downside of participating would be the implicit support you show them.

Thanks,

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^ Unfortunately, that seems to be a common issue out here in the West. Shi'ite mosques tend to be very strongly centered around one particular culture. And this causes problems when that mosque doesn't cater to your needs. I find myself in a similar situation as well. The nearby mosques or Islamic centers from my house are like forty minutes away. There's three of them like ten minutes away from each other, but they're all separated because of culture. Either they're too strongly biased towards one culture and language and/or the mullahs often don't know what they're talking about. Nonetheless, I do think it is important to participate with them for a couple of reasons. One, if you want to change something, you have to do it yourself. Just remember that you will need to have some patience as these things take time and avoid being agressive as you don't want to offend anyone. Two, Islam places much significance on attending gatherings with other believers. Mosques play an important social role in the Muslim community. Such events like Ramadhan, Muharram, birth/martyrdom of the Masumeen (as), Eid, Jum'ah, etc. are better spent with your fellow Muslims. Even if others don't seem to be as considerate as yourself, you have to immerse yourself among them in order to have any kind of positive influence on them. The fact that you realize the severity of the problem as of now as well as what it could become in the future gives you a bigger responsibility in regards to doing something about it. Most of the older generations don't quite understand the issue and most youth don't have much interest in being involved in community work (likely as a result of the older generation's negligence). So, you have to insert yourself in order to make positive changes. But, hey, that's just my take on it.

(wasalam)

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Thank you Al-Hassan! It is inspiring to read your input. It is definitely a struggling point for me, and I feel isolated by challenging the cultural practices. Fortunately, I am happy to see that others do notice this as well. Inshallah, I'll find a way to immerse myself and help. Although I am not sure how much the community will assist and trust a Canadian like me...

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