The problem of culture in the modern Islamic State and movement

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abu Dharr

Rabi' al-Thani 03, 1427 2006-05-01

Guest Editorial

by Abu Dharr (Guest Editorial, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1427)

Al-mu'min mir'atu akhihi (“a committed Muslim is the mirror of his brother”). In other words, we Muslims should be building on our perceptions of each other. One should be able to identify one's own characteristics as a Muslim through the character andbehavior of another Muslim. As Muslims who try to feel and breathe the Qur'an and Sunnah, we run into a serious problem when fellow Muslims are more cultural than Islamic. This is going to need some explaining.

Islam is supposed to be our way of life. Whatever we Muslims do, however we act, and whether we do something or abstain from doing it, all is supposed to be an expression of our Islam. Hygiene standards, dietary laws, social interactions, financial activities, political organization and anything else that contributes to a healthy and humane spirit and society as defined for us by Allah (swt) and His Messenger (saw) are Islamic. Conscientious Muslims participate at many levels in this lifelong quest to be the total Muslim that he or she can be. Up to this point, we all reflect each other, facing similar situations, responding in similar ways and proceeding along parallel lines.

But then something called “culture” intrudes. One way of defining culture is “the way of life of a group of people, consisting of learnt patterns of behavior and thought passed on from each generation to the next.” But if this is the case, then why do we still have some groups of Muslims, from Ghana to Ferghana (a strategic point in Central Asia) whose social character still clings to “learned patterns of behavior and thought” that pre-date Islam? This suggests one of two things: either the original introduction and assimilation of Islam into such societies was somewhat forced and incomplete, or that there was an artificial accommodation between a pre-Islamic culture and the Islamic Culture. In some of these rigid and inflexible cultures, pre-Islamic beliefs, values, social structures and patterns, economic hierarchies and entrepreneurial activities, as well as mental habits and art forms, still live on. So, for instance, we run into the practice of celebrating holidays and occasions that are rooted in pre-Islamic culture and are not Islamic.

Just a few weeks ago, our Muslim brothers and sisters in Iran celebrated Nowruz (the Persian New Year), which falls every year on or about the 20th or 21st of March. And we wish a happy New Year to each and every one of them, even though we may be a few weeks late. On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything wrong with celebrating a New Year in March. Those who follow the Chinese calendar, the Gregorian calendar, or any other calendar, all observe their New Years. The problem with the celebrations of Nowruz in Persian society (and this extends beyond the Islamic Republic of Iran to include Afghanistan, many areas in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, for example – and even Kurdistan, which is neither Persian nor “Shi‘i,”) is that they eclipse and dwarf the celebration of the Islamic New Year. This is an outstanding example of a case in which a cultural day overshadows an Islamic day. Add to that the cultural practices that accompany Nowruz, particularly those of the 13th day, when everyone is supposed to leave their home to expel the “evil spirits” (according to some traditions), and we have a serious problem. And even worse is that some pious Muslims respond by trying to rationalize and Islamize this “great holiday” by giving it an Islamic veneer: they say that the Prophet's day of hijrah from Makkah to Madinah coincided with Nowruz! Is there anyone out there who can please do the hijri/solar calculation and prove to these types of “culture-heavy” yet sincere Muslim brothers of ours from Islamic Iran that their rationale is scientifically wrong?

This is just one example of a phenomenon that proves that one of the most important historical processes of our time has yet to be completed: the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Having said that, we should be wary too of the fanatics who jump on such a social observations to wield their razor-blade words of kufr and proclaim that all culture (or all cultural practices) are necessarily kufr, or shirk, or otherwise un-Islamic. This is another problem that we will have to recognise and address. These are the types of people who attempted to officially ban the observance of Nowruz in Afghanistan less than ten years ago, and now they themselves suffering the consequences of not being able to understand the principle of nasikh and mansukh in the Qur’anic method for the transformation of societies.

We need to be very clear that the Islamic Revolution and Republic in Iran are the only positive factor in contemporary Muslim history. It should be a matter of serious concern for all Muslims that this expression of the power of Islam, and power-base of theUmmah and the Islamic movement, is now being directly targeted by the Israeli-American and zionist-imperialist nexus of evil. These are the real enemies who pose the real threats to the only hope that we Muslims presently have. What we do not need at the moment is for agents of culture to be fraying the ties and bonds of Islamic brotherhood that connect the Islamic State to its natural habitat and environment, the Ummah of Islam and the rest of the oppressed peoples around the world.

When we consider that the Ummah also has to cope with the types who want to assimilate completely into western cultures and societies; with the inclination of some minorities who prefer to relieve themselves of Islamic culture and governance, under the influence of the divisive forces of nationalism, and of non-Muslims enemies anxious to weaken the Ummah; and with mercantile and moneymaking classes of bazaaris, with political deviants such as the “Mujahideen-e Khalq”; and with other nationalist and sectarian sub-Islamic tendencies, we realize that the Islamic State needs the global Islamic movement as much as the Islamic movement needs the Islamic State. No one knows what the world will be like in another fifty years. We must hope that at least a few more Muslim countries will have achieved Islamic Revolutions by that time, and that the cultural issue will be reduced to its proper size. But before then, we may need cultural revolutions to pave the way for Islamic Revolutions.

Cultures, with all their positive and negative elements, are stubborn phenomena; they stick in the mores and manners of societies, and refuse to accept their limited scope and relevance and go away. If cultural influences and implications were limited strictly to cultural or even personal elements of society, we would probably not need to worry about them much. The danger, however, is that these types of cultures provide fertile breeding grounds for more dangerous phenomena such as tribalism, nationalism, sectarianism and Islamophobia. The Ummah has long suffered from these diseases, and been severely weakened by them. Now is the time for Islamic scholars to address all these problems head on, and put culture firmly in its proper place in society and in the consciousness of Muslims.

Now we need people like Ayatullah Mutahhari and Dr Ali Shari‘ati to tell some of our backsliding brothers and sisters the truth about “culture” and “Islam.” We need them to remind us that culture is fine if it fits into the Islamic framework, but if it does not, then we have no use for it. All the talk about Nowruz being the time of year when life blossoms and spring sets in may be true locally in Persia, but in the southern hemisphere of the world, where most of the Muslims and oppressed people live, that same day is not the beginning of springtime but the onset of fall. To the post-cultural mind, Nowruz and its trappings are more attuned to the Euro-American sphere than they are to the Afro-Asian sphere. Islamic Iran is a pillar of the Ummah and oppressed peoples, but cultural Iran is a part of its pre-Islamic moorings.

Today, the Nowruz vacation remains the longest break in the “Iranian calendar.” This may have been acceptable during the Shah's reign, or even during the Safavi dynasty. But today, when the Islamic State aspires to lead the Ummah and all the oppressed peoples of the world against their global common enemies, it needs every element of its social and cultural life to consolidate it as part of the global Ummah of Islam, rather than to differentiate if from its natural allies. The failure to achieve this is yet another of the many failures since the Islamic Revolution that threaten to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of theUmmah, and make it easier for its enemies to isolate and attack it. It is not too late for this failure to be addressed; but it requires understanding, maturity and leadership not only from the State, but from the cultural leaders in Iran, particularly theulama and the hawzah.

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