Religion, Culture and Religious Culture

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It is not uncommon to confuse religion, culture, and religious culture.

What complicates the issue even more is that “culture” can include all patterns of human behaviour — religion, language, dress styles, social customs, etc. Thus, it becomes a catch-all word indicating “the total way of life of any group of people.”

Humankind is not only characterized by specific natural or biological traits of the species, but also by the ability to combine physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual development in unique collective expressions, which are the origin of culture. This has led to a necessary distinction between nature and culture: animals, restricted to their physical senses and instincts, cannot develop a culture.

That part of culture which develops within a religious community, or which is accepted on the basis of its specific religious teachings, is referred to as religious culture and becomes a subset of the wider culture.

Religious culture can influence our lifestyles in such as things as the food we eat and the type of clothing we wear. These practices in turn are intimately related to social life. In many parts of the world, a strong local religious culture has spread progressively through many areas of custom and habit to become fully integrated with the larger ethnic or general culture.

Muslim scholars have referred to a religious culture based on Quranic teachings, and the Prophet’s traditions, as “adab.” This Arabic term has many meanings, but in the context of culture, it refers to “etiquette based on Islamic teachings,” or “models of conduct prescribed for the faithful.” Thus, there is a prescribed “adab” for teachers, for students, for reading the Qur’an, for eating, for married couples, for couples engaged to be married, for making a conversation, for guests, for hosts, for greetings, for personal hygiene, and so on.

Imam Ibn Qutayba, more than a 800 years ago wrote a book called Adab al-Katib, on how to be the perfect secretary, in which he insists more on the moral and religious training than on the technical aspects of the job.

And about the same time in his classic book, Ihya Ulum ad-Din, Imam Ghazzali included a chapter on adab as it related to eating and drinking. For example, an adab for eating includes: eat only when you are hungry, and not to the point of becoming over-full; eat sitting down; wash your hands before and after eating; eat with others; eat only with your right hand; say “Bismillah” (in the name of God) before you eat, and “Alhamdullah” (thanks to God) after you finish, etc..

Imam Ghazzali also included a chapter in his Ihya entitled, Adab qira’at al-Quran or, the right way to read the Quran, in which he explains that the most beneficial approach is to seek the spiritual life and experience (dhawq). That is, “to read the Qur’an in such a way as to acquire the knowledge of God’s existence, of His attributes, of His creation of the world, and of His providential action in the ruling of the universe.”

More than 1,000 years ago, when the topic was virtually unheard-of in both the East and West, Muslim scholars were writing about the adab of personal hygiene (or tahara). Imam Ibn Hazm, in his book Kitab al-Muhalla, devoted some 400 pages to the notion of personal cleanliness.

Islam has traditionally accepted the existing local culture in many aspects of life, as long as its customs and habits clearly do not go against any fundamental teachings of Islam.

In the matter of dress, Islam teaches that clothing should be modest, beautiful, cover the private parts, protect the body, and be suitable for the local weather and customs. In India, for example, Muslim men have traditionally dressed in the style of others around them, whether they are of a different religious group or not. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used to dress as the multi-religious Arabian people of his own time did.

And in the matter of food, local culture plays an even greater role. As they traded with both East and West, early Muslims freely adopted foods which were not available in their home country, as long as none violated basic Islamic teachings, such as not to eat pork or pork products, etc.

Canadian Muslims, too, are slowly developing a distinctive Canadian Islamic culture with its appropriate adabs. One can now buy even “halal” (religiously acceptable) pizza, and women can dress correctly while wearing long shirts and matching hijabs (head scarves) over their designer blue jeans. Muslim weddings are now often preceded by a bridal shower and followed by a Western-style honeymoon vacation.

Muslim women can join the increasing number of women-only fitness classes, and many Canadian Muslims can work out in a gym at their local mosque. At mosques and Islamic schools, the traditional religious adabs regarding cleanliness are maintained through the use of specially designed toilets with integrated water taps to ensure complete personal hygiene.

These are just a few ways in which religion and culture are growing harmoniously together for Muslims in Canada.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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