Islamic Culture/Muslim Cultures: An Attempt at Understanding Relationship between Uniformity and Variety

Anwar Moazzam Any attempt at understanding the social, religious or political behavior of human groups any where ultimately demands a conceptual framework which can help in defining the identity of such groups in terms of religion and/ or culture. It is a historical fact that all contemporary societies have had religion, in some way or the other, in the distant or recent past, as one of the basic constituents of their cultures. This is especially true of Muslim groups. Islam has been the most important factor in the making of the personalities of Muslim societies and in giving them a philosophic content. Thus, it would not be wrong to state that the centre of cultural gravity of Muslims is Islam. Therefore, in order to determine the identity of Muslim groups for the sake of understanding their multi-dimensional problems, it is necessary to focus our attention on the theme of culture. The expression ‘Islamic culture’ is generally applied on cultures of Muslim groups living in different territories which are in many ways quite different from each other. How different are these cultures from what is described as ‘Islamic culture’? There is certainly a serious mismatch between this phenomenon and its terminological identification. There are several such instances of terminological distortions of identities of the Eastern world, especially with regard to issues related to the Islam and Muslims. One has to guard oneself against the use of misleading ascriptions. Among the Muslim philosophers who have discussed the problem of culture, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Muhammad Iqbal (-1938) are the most prominent. They both have, from a philosophical point of view, studied the basic values of culture. Iqbal appears to have prefered Ibn Khaldun’s interpretation of Muslim culture. The basic ideas underlying the spirit of Muslim culture, according to Ibn Khaldun, are two: first, the unity of human origin and, second, the concept of life as a continuous movement in time. The process of history is not a determined one but a continuous creative movement. Accepting this, Iqbal brings up Islamic faith as the source of the values of Muslim culture. He believes that the attitude of Islam towards Time and Space is crucial in order to appreciate the spirit of Muslim culture. Stating that the spirit of the Qur’an is essentially anti-classical, he points out that the Muslim culture rejects the static view of the universe which is not ‘being’ but ‘becoming’. It concentrates on the concrete and the finite. Second, the Qur’anic concept of the finality of prophet-hood implies that now onwards all sources of knowledge, besides higher mysticism, are open to man for the understanding of his outer experience through the operation of human reason. Thus ‘anfus’ and ‘afaq’ both, are valid sources of knowledge. It would be observed that Iqbal’s interpretation of culture is more philosophical than social. He uses the term ‘Muslim culture’ in his discussion of ‘Islamic culture’. However, it is to be noted that his criticism of Spengler’s concept of culture as a specific organism, having no room for contact with the past and the contemporary cultures, shows that he believes the cultures are not closed systems but, on the other hand, are open to external cultural influences. If this is so, then the question arises as to how to reconcile Iqbal’s concept of Muslim culture as a distinct personality of its own and his view of it as a culture being open to influences of other cultures. This question is of crucial importance in order to understand the crisis of Muslim culture in the contemporary age. In what sense is ‘Muslim culture’ unique and at the same time open to the impact of other cultures? In the context of Iqbal, is it possible to establish any relationship between these two theories of cultures, that is, (i) culture is always based on faith, and (ii) culture is not essentially faith-based but is a territorial phenomenon. Islam is a faith; it is also a culture. Is any distinction between the two possible? Before answering this question, let us answer another question. Is there any thing like Indonesian culture, Arab culture, Turkish culture or Iranian culture? Yes. There do exist such cultures. What is it which distinguishes Indonesian from the Arab culture? It is in this context that the term ‘Muslim culture’ becomes meaningful. In fact, it is more relevant than the term ‘Islamic culture——if the purpose is to understand identities of Muslim groups existing in various regions of the world. Adopting the term “Muslim cultures” does not imply abandoning the term “Islamic culture”. It rather helps in establishing a relationship between the two. Let us go back to our earlier question: how to reconcile the faith-based character of culture with that of territory-based character of culture? I will take the help of a diagrammatic display to help a more descriptive understanding of the problem of reconciliation. The ‘Islamic culture/Muslim cultures’ duality can be better understood with two concentric circles. As the diagram shows Islamic faith is the centre of two circles—the inner and the outer ones. The inner circle named as “Islamic culture” is formed by cultural values rooted in certain Islamic beliefs and concepts. The outer circle named “Muslim culture” is formed around the circle of “Islamic culture” by certain cultural characteristics and values absorbed from the area of the territorial culture in which a particular Muslim group exists. The centre of Islamic faith and Islamic culture are universal and do not change in whichever territory they are, while the nature of Muslim culture differs from region to region. Even in one ‘country’ with a wide geographical range with a variety of cultural streams, like India, Muslim cultures may exhibit variety. Thus, Muslim culture assumes not a singular but a plural character. In areas and countries of predominant Muslim character the Muslim culture expands and covers the territorial cultural zone as well, —-as in Iran, the Arab world or Turkey. However, in areas where the Muslims are in strong minorities, Muslim culture circle maintains itself within the territorial cultural areas—as in India. Islamic Culture: The values constituting the universal Islamic culture can be summed up as follows: Philosophical:
  • A dynamic concept of space
  • Unity of human origin
  • Concept of life as a continuous movement in time
  • Use of all sources of knowledge to understand outer experience
  • Religious brotherhood (institutionalized in Ummah)
  • Mutual help (institutionalized in Zakat, Sadaqah, Batul Mal, etc.)
  • Hospitality
  • Rejection of any authority other than Allah (produced by the belief in one God—Tauhid)
  • Tendency towards independence/freedom of action
  • A sense of superiority based on a sense of superiority of faith and past glories
  • Non-attachment to material wealth
  • Haya—There is no English word to explain it. It covers, shame, diffidence, bashfulness, timidity shyness, a strong sense of attachment to a civilized behavior, virtuous conduct; Muslim women keeping a distance from men and hijab are other forms of haya
  • A disciplined sex relationships and behavior
  • Cleanliness
Muslim Culture: Muslim culture, social in character, is shaped by certain modes of thought and behavior, adopted from the cultural milieu in which a particular Muslim cultural group is located. This adoption takes place in the following areas:
  • Dress
  • Language, literature, arts, architecture, music
  • Customs—marriage, birth and death ceremonies, etc.
  • Festivals—social and religious
  • Saint-worship
  • Idea of fatalism
The frontiers of both the cultures are not fixed and rigid. They are flexible and contract and expand under pressures of the inner circle of ‘Islamic culture’ and the outer regional circle of ‘Muslim culture’. Muslim culture circle may expand outward by absorbing cultural values and influences of the regional culture with or without reducing the content of the ‘Islamic Culture’ circle. If the pressure of the regional culture is enormous and spread over a long span of time, there is a possibility of expansion of the ‘Muslim Culture’ circle—as has happened in India. The size of the ‘Muslim Culture’ circle or the process of its inner or outer expansion depends on many factors. These factors revolve round the historical, intellectual and social preparedness of the Muslim group. Some of the important factors are: (i) the extent of Muslim urbanization, (ii) literacy among them, (iii) location of academic institutions in the area, (iv) economic development level, (v) their political strength, (vi) strength amidst the cultural milieu of the region, (vii) the role of Muslim religious elite and the intellectuals. This theoretical framework can be conveniently applied to different stages of Muslim civilization. For instance, during the era of the Prophet, the circles of Islamic and Muslim culture overlapped. With the political expansion of Muslims in Iran, Palestine and Egypt, during the periods of early Caliphate and the Umayyads the circle of ‘Muslim culture’ starts emerging. During the Abbasid period it acquires a definite shape by absorbing the Persian cultural values and institutions with a forceful expression in the intellectual sphere. In the Sultanate and Mughal periods in South Asia, Muslim culture had a distinct imprint of Central Asian and Indian cultural streams in the areas of governance, literature and social norms and customs. Muslim groups in South-East Asia exhibit various features of existing Hindu civilization. The ‘Muslim culture’ circles functioning in various countries and regions of even one country (like India) some times exhibit concepts, customs and attitudes which appear to be in conflict with the Islamic cultural values and have been labeled as bid’a (outside the original Islamic value system)and have given rise to a sustained conflict between the two. Recent history has exerted great strain on Muslim culture through regional/Western cultural values and their pressure for dragging it in their respective directions. All Muslim modernists like Jamal al-din al-Afghani, Shaikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali and Zia Gok Alp have attempted to devise ways and means to resolve this problem. On the other hand, the traditional Muslim thinkers tended to ignore it. This has led to emergence of two approaches. First, a rejection of all non-traditional elements in the culture, ignoring the strength of and urgency inherent in these external/modern values and, second, an acceptance of these values, which, sometimes, make inroads in to Islamic value-system. Both these approaches are theoretical and not functional. They have failed to resolve the conflict. A case in point is that of Muslim dominated Pakistan. Its birth out of a thousand -year cultural history has posed to the Pakistan intellectuals the question of the identity of Pakistan culture, producing two points of view. According to one, the roots of Pakistan culture are in Islam and the West-Asian cultural history. The other point of view treats culture as a regional growth and locates the roots of Pakistan culture, besides Islam, in the history of the geographical regions of Pakistan itself. A much more consistent struggle for the ‘Islamic culture’ vis-à-vis the onslaught of Western cultures and its accompanying institutions is going on throughout the Muslim world. In order to determine the nature of this conflict, a distinction between “Islamic” and “Muslim” cultures is necessary. The real conflict appears to exist not between the philosophical content of Islamic culture, which is anti-classical (as Iqbal puts it), and the regional/Western cultures, but between the regional/Western cultural norms and Muslim cultures; and unless the values of Islamic culture are identified and concretized, the negative or positive values of regional/Western cultures cannot be ascertained. In this context, the strength and pressures of the regional/Western cultural values cannot be totally ignored. It has been observed that the theoreticians in their zeal to protect their traditional or modern interpretations of Islamic culture have ignored the actual situation faced by Muslim cultures. The point here is that the development of Muslim cultures has been parallel to the assessments of Muslim thinkers. The cultural developments of Muslim groups have been taking place under the irresistible pressures of external cultures, quite independent of the idealistic analysis of Islamic culture by theoreticians. The gap between the two has resulted either in stagnation or half-hearted approaches to measures which the Muslims have perforce to take for their socio-economic reconstruction. Hence, the need for resolving the confusion between Islam’s universal ethical values and the cultural forms of these values in different cultural zones of the world. Appreciation of varieties of plural Muslim cultures would be a great help for the Muslim societies of the world to build realistic structures of socio-economic empowerment in their respective countries.