The De-colonialization of Islamic Culture: The role of language, religion and tradition


Today the question for a Muslim, any Muslim, is not “Who am I?” but rather, “Who are we?”

Humans, in contrast to other social animals, do not just live in societies — they produce societies in order to live. It follows logically then, that Muslims can only know themselves by knowing who they are in relation to others.

But Muslim countries, more than any others in today’s world, are being subjected to dangerous forces of recolonialization due to: (a) their natural resources, especially oil; (b) their strategic geopolitical positions, and; (c) their huge potential consumer market of more than 1.2 billion people.

By “recolonialization,” I mean the cumulative economic and political injustices committed against Muslim countries by the West, which in some cases have escalated into military aggression, invasion, and occupation. These forces of recolonialization are working in the context of an unbalanced and unfair system of globalization that benefits mainly the world’s rich and powerful nations. Both historically and in our post-modern times, colonialization and re-colonialization do not only mean that the West is trying to impose its political and economic interests on others, but its culture as well.

We know from past centuries that the colonizing powers did not simply overthrow local governments. Over time, they destroyed the languages, religions and traditions of native and indigenous peoples, through the imposition of foreign education, media, art forms, literature and propaganda. Colonizers would label native languages as inadequate, native religions as backward and native traditions as not worth keeping. Once the natives bought into this portrayal of their cultural inferiority, it became an easy matter to recolonize their “primitive” ways with foreign political and economic systems.

Major colonizing powers of the past often claimed religious imperatives as a mainstay of their drive to “civilize” other parts of the world; today, those same powers are witnessing a steady decline in civic religion. Similarly, Islamic culture is feeling the effects of a gradually weaning away from its religious roots; today, the gulf between spiritual and secular spheres of life is wider than ever, and increasing. Today’s Islam — like Christianity and Judaism — continues to influence deeply individual Muslims, but has ceased to have the profound effect it formerly exercised over vast ranges of people. Obviously, it would be counterproductive for the Muslim world (the Ummah) to reject everything globalization can offer; but when it comes to preserving Islamic culture — more specifically, language, religion and tradition — the Muslim world must move into a protective mode of the first order.

The problem — indeed, the universal dilemma — facing Muslims is how to preserve their culture and values within their heritage, while integrating them with the culture and values of the rest of the world. It has now become a matter of survival for the Muslim world to pay attention to decolonizing Islamic culture. This must be done through proactively protecting language, religion and tradition — in that order. By “tradition” I mean family values and our “Oruf,” or social customs.

There is, certainly, no substitute for an objective and critical examination of how the colonizing powers of Europe and the Americas have used language, religion and tradition to oppress Muslims and other indigenous and aboriginal peoples for more than 500 years. But I believe that the remedy for half a millennium of such abuses is within our reach.

First of all, no decolonialization can be possible if Muslims do not begin by reclaiming the languages they use, the religion they practice, the traditions they follow and the social system that produces and influences these three factors, particularly through education and the media.

In Muslim countries today, Islam — instead of being the whole focus of education — is incorporated into the curriculum as a separate subject, following the Western model of education. Instead of reforming the original Islamic school system, secular Western educational models have been imposed in many places and given the material and financial resources to succeed, at least in Western terms. But the plain fact remains; a school where Islam is taught as one subject among many others is a secular school. Moreover, even schools where Islam is taught as a separate subject are becoming all too rare in Muslim countries; more and more private schools have been established and an increasing number of public schools use a totally foreign-based curriculum.

Unfortunately, American cultural domination in education and many other areas shows no signs of waning. To preserve Islamic culture through language, religion and tradition, Muslims urgently need to devise a grand collective plan for the next 10 to 20 years. In fact, the decolonializing of Islamic culture should be classed as a matter of national security and governments of Muslim countries must be strongly encouraged to allocate the necessary resources to implement cultural preservation programs without delay.

The result of not decolonializing Islamic language, religion and tradition will be the inevitable de-Islamization of Muslims themselves. They will become accustomed to formulating their thoughts within the fabric of foreign cultures. No matter how faithfully they practice their faith, their world view and their values will become foreign to Islam.

The tragedy of North American First Nations peoples losing their language, religion and tradition under the pressure of European colonialization is a sobering lesson for Muslims today. The pressure on indigenous cultures was brutal. European colonial powers separated children from their families to raise them as so-called “civilized” Christians, speaking only English or French. Jobs were offered first to those who had been forcibly “re-educated” in the colonizers’ schools. Within just one or two generations, native culture was reduced to the novelty of interesting shows at official ceremonies.

Islam in the past has succeeded in blending the cultures and traditions of many peoples in ways that have proven fruitful to all, and this feature of Islamic society should be restored.

At this point, I must emphasize the crucial distinction between Islamic culture and tradition and Muslim culture and tradition. The former is highly desirable; the latter is subject to the same human weaknesses and inconsistencies of any ethnic community. In some Muslim countries, for example, it is well known that women’s education, human rights, legal status and vocational opportunities have lagged far behind those of men. We must reject the dismissive and segregationist attitudes of some Muslim men toward women and restore the Islamic ideal of equal opportunity in all facets of life for both men and women.


Language is not a neutral tool. It encompasses wide fields of association and definite modes of conceptualization; hence, its impact on culture is huge.

By “language” among Muslims, I mean first of all a fluency in at least two or three languages, including one’s mother tongue (if different from Arabic), as well as Arabic and English.

I have included the mother tongue as a necessary language, despite knowing the practical difficulty of using it in certain cases; in some Muslim countries, there are many different local languages and dialects.

We must give language the highest priority as it enormously influences the identity of individual persons, entire nations, and the whole of the Muslim Ummah. Language is used as a universal vehicle or medium, shaping both religion and tradition. Divine Wisdom tells us that Arabic was chosen for the revelation of the Qur’an, with several good reasons.

One reason is the makeup of the language itself. By the 6th century AD, Arabic was mechanically developed; its rich vocabulary, sophisticated syntax, and comprehensive semantics were unmatched by any other language of the time.

Another reason is that Arabic was the dominant language for a large number of people in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq and even the language of the occupying Roman empire offered zero competition.

At that time the prestige of an Arab was largely measured by how well he or she could master the language. Widely publicized annual competitions in Arabic poetry were held and winners enjoyed the unique distinction of their work being “published” by having it hung for a year on the wall of the Kaaba, the sacred House of God in Makkah (Mecca).

Arabic gained universal prominence as the language chosen by Allah God Almighty in which to reveal His holy book, the Qur’an. Qur’anic Arabic is called “Mobeen,” which means clear, articulate, concise, and eloquent (16:103) and (26:195). Qur’anic Arabic is the form in which the faithful learn to understand the message of revealed scripture, to reason through it, and to apply its teachings. (12:2)

The Qur’an has been transmitted through the ages in both oral and written Arabic. Although early Muslims relied on translators to communicate the Qur’an to those whose mother tongue was not Arabic, from 640 AD through the mid-17th century –” just over a millennium — the followers of Islam succeeded in making Arabic the most prevalent language of the Middle East, just as English prevails today in the Western hemisphere.

When Cairo University opened its doors almost a century ago in 1908 as a private school, its administration took pride in the fact that their university followed the Western model of teaching Arabic and religion as separate subjects. This new educational model –” which continued in 1925 when Cairo University became a state institution –” was in marked contrast to the traditional philosophy of giving Islamic values centre stage in the teaching of all post-secondary disciplines. The secular university of Cairo was founded to replace Al Azhar, a religiously-based Islamic university established in 641 AD.

In 1863, even before Cairo University opened, Protestant Christian colonial powers founded their own post-secondary institution, the Protestant Syrian College; some 12 years later, the Catholic Church followed with the College of St. Joseph.

During that same period in the late Ottoman Empire, a number of university-or college-like schools were established in Istanbul. In 1859 came the Mulkiye, which specialized in preparing civil servants; in 1900, Istanbul University was established. By 1901 a School of Medicine had opened, followed in 1912 by a School of Law. In all of these, however, Islam was studied as a separate subject, rather than being the central philosophy grounding all education.

Today, almost all graduates of Egyptian universities leave their post- secondary studies without ever having mastered classical Arabic. They cannot express themselves in any depth using Arabic, yet many are proud of being able to speak, read and write in one or more foreign languages, especially English. In the faculties of Science, Engineering and Medicine, English is now the primary language of instruction. Sadly, few university graduates take the time to read any classical Arabic poetry or literature.

From the Qur’an we learn that God gave humans the ability to master language – – multiple languages, in fact. Becoming fluent and literate is taught as a religious duty, or “Bayan.” (55:4) This duty toward language allows people to formulate broader and more accurate world views. Compared to the Judeo- Christian Bible, the Qur’an appears to be a rather small book. But it articulates every message concisely and emphatically. The Qur’an itself is a miracle of language in the perfection, beauty, eloquence and economy of its text. Down through the ages, its literary power has been a potent force in molding the Arabic language and in shaping Islamic culture and thought.

With such a glorious background I believe that only a colonial mentality could regard classical Arabic as a language to be kept apart from the mainstream media, movies, theatres, schools, universities, businesses commerce, and everyday life.

Muslims the world over could learn much from the example of France in how to protect the integrity of their language and culture. Since the 1630s the Academie Francaise has diligently overseen the use and development of French, guarding the language and its culture against foreign incursions –” first from England and more recently from the American-dominated West. Today France heads an international association called La Francophonie; their common link is that French is either the principle or major second language of their citizens and all are concerned to keep their cultures from being assimilated or diluted by imported American influences. French Canadians are especially challenged to safeguard their language and heritage while being surrounded by the dominant North American pop culture.

Another lesson can be taken from colonialized Africa, where Christian missionaries introduced an education system based on their own imposed languages, where the accepted religion was Christianity and where native traditions were replaced by the popular culture of the colonizing country. To have any chance of a job, one had to graduate from such an educational system. By contrast, existing Muslim education systems did not progress in colonized countries due to lack of resources. The result was that within less than a century, Christian areas of the world had evolved more rapidly than Muslim areas.


In discussing a religion, any religion, we must consider also those factors which compete against it and know how to recognize them for what they are, as quasi-religious; I’m speaking chiefly about nationalism, materialism and secularism.

Here, we must distinguish between secularization and secularism. The first describes the change from a religious to a non-religious culture, in which all spheres of life are equally affected and included, whereas secularism pertains to an ideology, an attitude toward life that rejects spiritual values and the religious world-view.
Islam accepts the former state –” secularization –” while rejecting secularism.

This is because, for a Muslim, that which is spiritual cannot be separated from all other aspects of life. At the same time, it does not mean that the political, economic, cultural, educational or military policies of any government should not be criticized for the common good.

Secularization need not necessarily lead to secularism, but it opens the way for applying freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and the freedom to express one’s views without fear of reprisals.

There are Muslims today whose practice of Islam, as a spiritual and moral force, is becoming irrelevant to their lives, but who at the same time retain loyalty to Islam as the social and perhaps cultural environment to which they belong.

Here, as elsewhere, the future of Islam depends upon the forging of a new kind of relationship between religion and contemporary life, and this new state of being promises to be different from anything known to our Islamic past.

Islam is not only about monotheism: it concerns itself also with building and nurturing community. Although other mainstream world faiths have been guided historically in a similar way, its communal aspect today sets Islam apart from them. A dual concern for the shaping of the community and for the success of that community in the world has been a consistent force throughout Muslim history.

Islam freed itself early from the restrictive bonds of nationhood by envisioning itself as an international community. It was, and in many ways still is, that sense of international fellowship that continues to nourish and sustain our faith.

One of Islam’s great contributions to the religious experience of humankind has been to demonstrate the way in which faith can be harnessed to the creation of a complex and successful earthly community –” not a Utopian or idealized one, but a matter-of-fact everyday one –” a community in which people’s primary needs, hopes and ambitions are not denied, but channeled into a collective pattern of pious fellowship.

Islam has preserved the essence of that ideal community in the Qur’an, where one can read and learn of a people united in sensible and sober fellowship, guided by the justice of Qur’anic teaching.

In his book, The Religious Experience of Mankind*, *Prof. Ninian Smart writes;

“From the standpoint of religious history, Islam’s importance lies partly in the stress it lays on the social dimension. It is a faith which demands institutions, but not those of a [Christian] Church, centered primarily in the promotion of religious quest by itself: rather, it demands institutions which cover the whole life of the community. There is nothing in Islam (except in a few sects here and there in its history) corresponding to the Church. There is no place for a special institution within society devoted to the ends of the faith. For it is the whole of society which is devoted to the ends of the faith. **

“It would be mistaken, however, to stress the political side of Islam to such a degree that we lose sight of the religious experience and practice which have been nurtured within. The Prophet, through his vivid awareness of a majestic and overwhelmingly powerful God, passed on to the Muslim community an impressive dedication to worship. The Muslim’s daily prayers continuously express his awe before the Almighty, and thereby he gains a sense of divine Presence. Islamic monotheism is simpler than that of Christianity. It does not contain the Trinity doctrine.”

Also unlike mainstream Christianity which stresses salvation-by-faith, the Qur’an stresses the need for “good deeds” as well as “good faith” in order that a believer can reach a high status among his / her community and in the eyes of the Creator.

For example, the Qur’an says; “There is no piety in just turning your faces towards the East or the West, but he / she is pious who believeth in God and the Last Day and the Angels and the Scriptures and the Prophets; who for the love of God disburses his / her wealth to his / her kindred and to the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and for ransoming; who observes prayer and pays the Legal Alms, and who is one of those who are faithful to their engagements when they have engaged in them, and are steadfast under ills and hardships and in time of troubles: these are they who are just, and these are they who fear God.” (2: 177)

Furthermore, the Qur’an always addresses its message to the people as a whole, not to local groups or individuals. The individual must look to the well-being of his / her community, knowing that the well-being of individuals cannot be divorced from the well being of the whole. A strong and healthy community based on fellowship and faith is the best protection for its individual members. The community in return must help the individual when he / she is in need, whether that need is for education, health care, security, financial help, kindred support, etc.

For example, prohibitions on gambling and drinking were instituted to combat widespread social problems that threatened to destroy early Islam; the Qur’an says that while there are some benefits in gambling and drinking, they are far outweighed by the harm of these activities.

Calling for the decolonization of Islam and Islamic teaching does not mean one should not accept and be in dialogue with all people of other religions. On the contrary, Islam encourages, demands and rewards such dialogue. Only in the present century, with the advances in information technology, have religions been in a real position to understand one another. It is possible for religions the world over to enter into a process of friendly exchange and mutual understanding, even today when political conflicts are seemed, falsely, to be religion –” based.


In keeping with the Islamic tradition of healthy moderation, Muslim countries should discourage their citizens from eating in American-style fast food restaurants whose menus are unhealthy for all of us! Instead, national foods should be promoted; they are often just as fast for restaurants to prepare and are usually both cheaper and healthier.

In the whole of the Muslim world today, the study of any subject must include contributions of Muslims to that field of endeavor; after all, we can be proud of more than 1,000 years of contribution to every facet of human life.

In all fairness, however, individual school teachers and university professors cannot be blamed for not introducing or lobbying for Islamically-grounded courses and research topics. There must be a collective effort led, for example, by well established bodies like the OIC (Organization for Islamic Conference) to promote and support the development of more meaningful and culturally appropriate teaching materials. These revised, revamped and enhanced curricula must be prepared to the highest available standards by experts and packaged in ways that will attract and motivate the youth of today’s internet and video-gaming generation.

As we have seen, the impact of Western culture upon Muslims has assailed the very foundations of our society by undermining traditional and extended family dynamics, and by introducing an education system that reflects non-Islamic ideals and aims. Largely as a result of this systemic Western influence the economic and material prosperity of the individual has now become the deciding factor for many of today’s Muslims when dealing with contemporary societal issues. The remedy will not be easy but I believe it is within our power to make the changes that will save who we are, and can be, in this world. On that basis, I offer to you a number of recommendations:

Recommendations to the Muslim World

1). Families throughout the Muslim world should avoid using foreign “baby- talk” with their infants and raise them from their earliest moments hearing their mother tongue, or Arabic.

2). Children should be taught simultaneously in their mother tongue and in classical Arabic throughout the first six grades of school when their minds and hearts are most receptive and impressionable; the use of colloquial or slang Arabic should be minimized.

3). Parents and teachers should instill into young children the habit of reading; if acquired at an early age, it will be their resource and strength for a lifetime.

4). Young children can be encouraged to express themselves correctly and creatively in their mother tongue, as well as in Arabic, through school competitions in poetry, prose and public speaking.

5). Students should take courses in two mandatory languages up to and including their graduating year of university.

6). English as a second or third language should be introduced only during the last three years of secondary school, and then only as a tool to communicate with others internationally or professionally.

7). The first three years of a child’s school life should be spent in a reformed or updated version of the traditional Koottab, in which students not only learn to read and write, but also memorize the Qur’an and are taught how to practice Islamic etiquette.

8). Educational curricula should place higher importance on teaching a comprehensive survey of Islamic history, Islamic civilization, and the varied Islamic arts such as story-telling, etc.

9). The length of time Muslim students remain in school, college or university programs should be extended by one year more than the international average, thereby allowing them to experience and absorb a more holistic Islamic education. This approach will produce a person who can Islamically think, reflect, investigate, discuss, debate, research, etc. whether at age seven, 14, or 21. The time to reform the education system in Muslim countries and develop the human resources to decolonialize our language, religion and tradition is now.


A paper presented at the Islamic Conference, Cairo, Egypt, March 27 – 30, 2007