'Islam, Culture and Identity' - Live Dialogue

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Progler

Sha'ban 02, 1424 2003-09-28

by Yusuf Progler

Subject:

Islam, Culture and Identity.

Category:

Discussion

Guest Name:

Yusuf Progler

Profession:

Professor

Start Date/Time:

Sunday, September 28, 2003 12:00 ET

End Date/Time:

Sunday, September 28, 2003 1:00 ET

Posted Questions and Responses

Name:

omer

Question:

One of the unique aspects of Islamic culture is that it was able to set a unifying umberalla culture for all muslims yet at the same allow the various ethinic cultures to flourish withen that umberalla without interfering and homogenizing the various elements into a monoculture. Do you agree with this statement and can you elaborate on the reasons why you feel that this statement is true or false.

Answer:

Salam, and thanks for the thoughtful question to get this dialogue rolling! I agree to a certain extent with your statement, but I think it is incorrect to see any "culture" as an umbrella. The statement might be true of Islamic civilization or society or state or empire at certain times in history, but if we are honest about our history, we can also find times when Islamic civilization or society or the state acted against the unitarian sentiments expressed in your question. However, since we are talking about "culture," I think it is important to make clearer distinctions about what culture can and cannot do. Generally speaking, there can be no single culture, since culture, as understood by social scientists today, refers to the way of life of a particular people at a particular time and place. Culture also has two dimensions, the material dimension and the symbolic dimension. The material dimension of culture refers to artifacts, behaviors and creative works that are passed down over time, often understood in terms of "tradition" or even "folklore," but culture gives a more inclusive way of talking about all of that. The material dimension of culture is historical and inherited, we learn it from our parents, families, communities, and also from the artifacts, including writings, left by our ancestors. To the extent that that material dimension was informed by Islamic ethics and morals, they can indeed contribute to making an "Islamic culture." But to be a useful term for analysis, and not just a tool for da'wah, we need to understand that culture changes, and that Muslim culture throughout the centuries has taken many shapes and forms, both ebbing and flowing according to the specific circumstances of the era. The second dimension of culture, and the one that is more complex, is the symbolic dimension. This refers more or less to how we make meaning in the world, how we interpret events, actions, ideas, and this for the most part is present oriented. Take something like a handshake or the wink of an eye, and you can run this across cultures - including Muslim cultures - and find myriad and often conflicting meanings. Taken together, the material and the symbolic dimensions of culture can create what I would call Muslim cultures, which are never purely "Islamic" but which reflect different sorts of emphasis and combinations of different worldviews. In this sense, there can be no pure culture, and I for one would not want to begin to talk about a single Islamic culture, because that right away leads to specious and often fruitless arguments. The more interesting question for me is how do cultures form and how are they maintained? Again, I am making a distinction here between Islam as a religion - and even within that there are many ways to live the Islamic lifestyle - and Muslim culture as a living or lived entity that reflects the worldview of a people at a given time and place.

Name:

Beshir Al-Mahmoudi

Question:

Some western anthropologists have defined culture as " the story of reality that individuals and groups value and accept as a guide for organizing their lives". How how have muslim thinker, like Ibn Khaldun and others, defined culture to be? And how would this concept of culture vary from culture as understood in the west?

Answer:

Thank you for the question. That's a fairly valid definition of culture as understood by academics today, not just those in the West. And it is useful to a certain extent as tool to try and understand the ways different peoples apprehend the reality with which they are faced. But I think you would need to do a detailed textual analysis of the Arabic to find out what Ibn Khaldun thought about culture, first since there is no agreement on which word we would be looking for. Is it thaqafah? Or hadarah? Or tamaddun? Or umran? All of these carry some connotation of the concept "culture" as understood today. Ibn Khaldun wrote primarily about hadarah, which I take be the ethical dimension of existence, and tamaddun, which can be seen as the material dimension of existence. Sometimes they are understood as "civilization" and "urbanization." But Ibn Khaldun was concerned with many things related to both, especially his famed statement that urban life is liable to corruption and often in need of reform, which can only come from the more pure people living in rural areas. Statements like this cause some to see him as the first sociologist, since sociology is concerned with large and generalized groups of people, usually within a given location (e.g., a city). It is less concerned with the symbolic dimension of existence, which is what anthropologists have come around to study over the past century. I don't like to devolve into semantics, but I do believe that culture is often misunderstood, and it is pressed into service to explain almost anything, which really means it explains nothing. So, the question of how we understand culture/society/civilization/urbanization now and how it was understood by some one who lived centuries ago is a complex question in my mind, and there is no easy answer. There have been attempts, of course, most notably by Akbar Ahmad, to create an "Islamic anthropology," but these often fall short around the same problem of what we mean by culture. If you take a humanistic perspective, then the way culture is understand by anthropology is useful though limited to a relativist outlook. If we take a more religious perspective, culture takes on different meaning, and gets intertwined with what is "correct" culture, moving closer to ethics and morality. Since culture presently is relativistic term, it is more useful for comparison of dissimilar ways of life, which at the same time have some commonalities (e.g., marriage traditions seen comparatively across cultures), but it is less useful as a tool to make a moral or ethical point. I think that is why the Islamic anthropology movement never got very far. In any event, although we live in the here and now, with an eye to the past and future, there are vast complexities of cultures among Muslims, not to mention other peoples of the world. So, for me, maybe the first question should be, into what kind of service do we wish to press the term?

Name:

Sumayya

Question:

Many people think that culture is a people's music, food, drink and dress and when you go to various cultural exhibitions in America this all they seem to feature. How can we feature culture in a richer way without just dealing with these outer aspects, but instead trying to hold exhibitions or activities where people can delve a little deaper into the core of cultures?

Answer:

I think you have expressed a very important point, and overlooked aspect of discussions around culture. Anything that is put on stage or in a show is proceeding from a rather limited, and in my mind, even destructive concept of culture. It assumes that culture is only the material artifacts and behaviors produced by a particular people. Even with that, putting it on stage seems to solidify it in a way that makes it somehow unreal. However, culture also has a symbolic dimension, and this cannot be easily put on display. You can really only apprehend the symbolic dimension of a culture by living it. We can debate the benefits of anthropology as presently practiced in a relativistic sense, but one thing stands out in my mind, that is anthropologists (at their best) take the time to learn the language of a people they are studying, and often dedicate several years of their lives living among people of a very different cultural outlook to gain insights into the way those people apprehend the world. But in today's media culture, how much of that can you really squeeze between two commercials on TV or fit in a stage show for two hours? It almost seems foolish when looked at this way. This might not be the answer you want to hear, but the best way to really know about another culture - especially its crucial symbolic dimension - is to live that culture. Stage shows and the like have an added danger of creating an illusion that we are somehow "presenting" or "preserving" our culture, but once solidified that way, culture becomes, in a sense dead. That leaves little to talk about how people actually live their lives, and more importantly for understanding culture, how they make meaning.

Name:

Hasan

Question:

asslmau laikum. muslims in america get caught up in trying to reconcile between their american identity and their muslim/ethnic identity. does there need to be a conflict betweeen the two and what suggestions to you have to remdy this situation. thank you

Answer:

Salam, and thanks for bringing in the issue of identity to this discussion. I have not lived in America for several years, so I cannot say what dynamics are at work now, but in general I think you are referring to an issue that is faced by many immigrant populations. Somehow, identity seems to take on an altered meaning when faced with other identities, often those that are different. Reconciliation happens naturally in this situation and, for better or worse, is a useful survival tactic. I do not think there needs to be conflict, but sadly there are those who wish to somehow purify or protect that which they see as under some sort of threat. That puts tremendous pressure on the newcomer to conform. Those pressures ebb and flow with the times. We should remember that what is now called "Independence Day" in America (4th of July) was once called "Americanization Day" and it arose out of concerns related to security and loyalty during World War One. It hit immigrants hardest, and for a generation or two, immigrants worked very hard to forget who they are and conform to the dominant culture. In the 1960s, the rise nationalism eased that a bit, and then we have the concept of multiculturalism and pluralism arising, which seem to say that there can be differences side by side and they need not fight nor conform. But that has problems, too, and quickly becomes politics. I think at different times and places, Muslim identity has become politicized, just like African American identity and Hispanic identity. There is no easy answer to this question, then, but we can reflect on what it means to live with difference and diversity. One way to deal with that is to exterminate difference; the other is to live with it. Who controls how that works is more complex, but I for one am against extermination (as I think most people are, inshallah). That leaves us with co-existence. One way to reconcile this is to find common interests, across cultures, and create an identity that is first and foremost human. This sounds strange, but you don't have to look too far today find many examples of quite inhuman behavior. Maybe we should focus on our common humanity, which seems more pronounced in recent years with the rise of globalist thinking, and reflect also on how we are losing our humanity. It is not easy, but I think the key to survival, beyond putting on cultural shows and programs, or setting up clubs to "protect" specific identities, is to find the common humanity and then go into the Islamic tradition and interrogate the tradition for what it has to offer this common sense of humanity.

Courtesy: www.masnet.org

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