Is it Cultural or Religious? The Role of Culture in Islam
Published: February 21, 2019 • Updated: October 27, 2023
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
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We’re anti-evil, anti-oppression, anti-lynching. You can’t be anti- those things unless you’re also anti- the oppressor and the lyncher. You can’t be anti-slavery and pro-slavemaster; you can’t be anti-crime and pro-criminal. In fact, Mr. Muhammad teaches that if the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of true history, they would be anti-white themselves.-El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)
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Cultural knowledge and lived experiences within Islam
A contemporary example on education
Is Western knowledge sufficient?
Is one culture superior?
Westernization and cultural epistemicide
- Knowledge is controlled by disavowing some, and privileging other, types of knowledge;
- The disavowal of non-western perspectives and epistemology has been engaged with widely across academia;,
- This has meant the privileging of Western Epistemological constructs that construct and name certain cultures, identities, and people.
- Orientalism of Arabs and South Asians: decline, degradation, decadence, but at the same time loyalty underlain with treachery.
- Tropicalization of people from the Caribbean: exotic, heathenish and relaxed, full and voluptuous, all in one.
- Primitivism of people in Africa: savage, childlike, tribal, libidinous, irrational, fecund, close to nature, innocent, and clearly underdeveloped, cultural underdevelopment intertwined with danger, savagery, and irrational violence.
We sent aforetime our messengers with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that men may stand forth in justice.
Ancestral knowledge is transported, hybridized, and appropriated
Centering ancestral knowledge: A centerpiece for all students
Our Islam, our full experiences, and our full potential
- Ancestral knowledge makes up the centerpiece of the epistemologies of Indigenous and Minoritized (including Muslim) students and to deny access to this is a deep form of oppression that continues to marginalize students in school.
- Based on Western European forms of colonization, schools in the US were designed to eradicate all types of ancestral knowledge in the past and to prioritize Western European, Christian, capitalist epistemologies.
- Scholars of Coloniality argue that this attempted eradication of Ancestral knowledge is built within the structures of society, community, organization, and school and will automatically reproduce itself. Therefore we must all take an anti-oppressive stance by not only recognizing ancestral knowledge, but by promoting it and making it the centerpiece in how we lead, live, and engage.
- Ancestral knowledge has the power to contest racial hierarchies and to resist new hierarchies that can find their way into our existing spaces. For example, a predominance and preoccupation with political, cultural, and social issues cherished by wealthier immigrant communities should not dictate our overall strategies as a Muslim community. This is literally driving so many disenfranchised converts right back out of Islam as fast as they entered it. We can use religious texts, but also ancestral knowledges, to resist new types of hierarchies that help stratify US mosques. In no way does this suggest that we should be anti-immigrant or not make room to celebrate the beautiful cultures and experiences found in our diverse Muslim community. It simply means we should not privilege one over the other, especially in the name of it being more Islamic when it's really just another expression or more expedient to one section of the community.
- From a political perspective, we must realize that some of the worst victims of issues like the SPP are actually Muslims, just not the ones who usually represent us in mainstream spaces or are included in our strategies. And the politics of uplifting the oppressed is an Islamic issue, whether the oppressed are indigenous or immigrants. This speaks to one of the bigger issues that comes from negating culture or the experiences of the indigenous. The ramifications of invisibilizing are not just seen in the cuisine of the Mosques in Ramadan but in the social and political agenda of the community. This isn’t only about hurt feelings due to exclusion from spaces but about actual harm done to communities intentionally or unintentionally as a result of that exclusion.
- Ancestral knowledge is deeply ingrained within Indigenous, minoritized, people of color, but many of us do not know how to access this knowledge within our communities. And, most unfortunately, some of us actually use languages of “Modernity” to push and critique all ancestral knowledge out of the Muslim public space, while at the same time others of us act out our ancestral knowledge in hegemonic ways because they too cannot recognize it.
- Many of the Muslims who have migrated to the United States struggle with their own ancestral knowledge, and unintentionally colonize other spaces with ideals even inauthentic to them. The result is not just fair and lovely cream playing into misguided standards of beauty, but colonizers' standards of civility and progress by which existing indigenous communities are judged.
- The call to empower through ancestral knowledge doesn’t invalidate the immense heritage and experiences of our immigrant Muslim communities, nor should this be deemed an attack on them. The beneficial ancestral knowledge from those communities has led to major advancements in fields like education and medicine. Moreover, the emphasis on the building of Mosques, the consumption of halal food, and student organizing contribute to the strong identity of the community overall. Many of these things were based in resistance to occupations or attempted erasures of Muslims in the countries of origin of many Immigrant Muslim communities.
- The Eurocentric erasure of the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples and epistemologies is the same erasure that overtook Islamic discourse in Muslim-majority countries in the 18th century, forcing Muslims to operate with epistemological foundations that were incompatible with their own.
- The suggestion of all this is not that Islam is insufficient or should merely provide a language to other ways of thinking, but that of the brilliance of Islam is that it invites experiences and explorations while offering both paradigms and parameters that help us develop from our origins, through our experiences, to our final goal of pleasing the Most High.
How could a man of your spirit, intellect, and worldwide outlook fail to see in Islam its main characteristic, from its earliest days, as a message that confirms beyond doubt the ethnological oneness and quality of all races,thus striking at the very root of the monstrosity of racism?
My first responsibility is to my 22 million fellow black Americans who suffer the same indignities because of their color as I do. Much to my dismay, until now the Muslim world has seemed to ignore the problem of the Black American, and most Muslims who come here from the Muslim World have concentrated more effort in trying to convert white Americans than Black Americans. I should think the Muslim World would realize that the most fertile area for Islam in the West is the Black American. This in no way implies discrimination or racialism, but rather shows that we are intelligent enough to plant the good seed of Islam where it will grow best…later we can “doctor up” or fertilize the less fertile areas, but only after our crop is already well planted in the heart and mind of these Black Americans….If the Arab world fails to assert itself as the leader of the Muslims worldwide, other forces would rise to replace their power centers. ALLAH CAN EASILY DO THIS.
In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again—as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites made blanket indictments against blacks.
It isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic and social atmosphere that nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.
1 The Qur'ān, Sūrat Ar-Rum 30:22.
2 Zohair Abdul-Rahman and Nazir Khan, “Souls Assorted: An Islamic Theory of Spiritual Personality,” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, accessed February 20, 2019, https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/zohair/souls-assorted-an-islamic-theory-of-spiritual-personality/.
3 The Qur'ān, Sūrat Al-Hujurat 49:13.
4 Ibn Taymiyya, “Faḍā’il Wa Manāqib Al-Shām,” Tarīq al-Islām, May 12, 2012, https://ar.islamway.net/article/10323
5 Ibn al-Jawziyy, “Tanwīr Al-Ghabash Fī Faḍl Al-Sūdān Wa Al-Ḥabash,” Al-Maktaba al-shamila, 1998 1419, http://shamela.ws/index.php/book/5748.
6 Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, “Islam & The Cultural Imperative,” The Oasis Initiative, accessed February 20, 2019, https://www.theoasisinitiative.org/islam-the-cultural-imperative.
7 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Salmān Al-Fārisī | Companion of Muḥammad,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed February 20, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Salman-al-Farisi.
8 “Few Basic Principles of Fiqh (Jurisprudence) – Peace Propagation Center,” accessed February 20, 2019, http://peacepropagation.com/few-basic-principles-of-fiqh-jurisprudence/.
10 Bukhari (2901) and Muslim (893) narrate that Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: Whilst the Abyssinians were playing with their spears in the presence of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), ‘Umar came in, and he bent down to pick up some pebbles to throw at them, but he said: “Let them be, O ‘Umar!”
11 Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 12.
12 Ibid., 13.
13 Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 92.
14 Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), ix-xiii.
15 Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Dilemmas of Ethnic Studies in the United States: Between Liberal Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, Disciplinary Colonization, and Decolonial Epistemologies,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: X, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 81–90.
16 Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century” XI, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 73–90.
17 Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–80.
18 Walter D. Mignolo, “Introduction: Coloniality of Power and de-Colonial Thinking,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (2007): 155–67.
19 Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, 1 edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011).
20 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
21 Anshuman Prasad, Postcolonial Theory and Organizational Analysis: A Critical Engagement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 156–57.
22 Ibid., 155.
23 The Qur'ān, Sūrat al-Ḥadīd 57:25.
24 Paul Gilroy, “To Be Real: The Dissident Forms of Black Expressive Culture,” in Let’s Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance (Bay Press, 1995), 12–33.
25 Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
26 Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century” XI, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 73–90.
27 Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
28 Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times, 1st ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 373.
29 Christine E. Sleeter, White Bread: Weaving Cultural Past into the Present, Social Fictions Series (Rotterdam: SensePublishers, 2015), 137.
30 Louis A. DeCaro, On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X (New York: New York University, 1996), 255.
31 Ibid., 256.
32 Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1st Ballantine Books hardcover ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 369.
33 Ibid., 378.