PRIOR TO THE coming of Islam, Arabia was a land surrounded by immoral cultural practices. Female infanticide, idol-worship, and mindless blood feuds were the norm. When told to cease these rituals, the Arabs could only respond, “And abandon the customs of our forefathers?!” When prophet Ibrahim asked his people how they could possibly worship empty, lifeless ornaments, their only attempt at a logical explanation was, We found our fathers doing so! [Surat Al-Shu‘ara’, 26:74].
It has been the failure of many nations to reject Allah’s message in favor of following the misguidance of their forefathers:
When it is said to them, ‘Follow what Allah has revealed,’ they say, ‘No! We shall follow the way of our fathers.’ What! Even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance? [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:104]
And as unreasonable as it is, something about the comfort and familiarity of societal customs has made it a timeless folly, from the earliest nations of Prophet Ibrahim, to Prophet Muhammad and even continuing until today.
But following perverse cultural traditions is not only a problem for pagans and other non-Muslims. We have seen that attempting to mix misguided cultural practices with Islam creates a less than wholesome combination that results in denial of women’s rights, honor killings—and, among radical sects, practices which border upon idol-worship.
Culture is an extremely powerful force. When culture was mixed with Christianity, idolatry and saint-worship became a part of the very fabric of the religion. Whether it was in Rome, China, Central America, or any other nation where Christian missionaries and conquerors arrived, Christianity itself was altered to conform to the indigenous culture.
Allah has promised to preserve his Din from such corruption, but it is our responsibility to assure that we preserve ourselves. To a more or lesser degree, we can see this problem present in all of our communities.
In the Middle East, the push for cultural tradition often fogs religious conventions. In some Muslim countries, women are not allowed to drive so they must resort to being passengers with hired male drivers. Being alone with a non-Mahram man is Islamically forbidden, while a woman driving is not. But the cultural push to prevent women’s independence overrules Islamic injunctions.
Likewise in the West, the push towards “modernity” results in other distortions. As we strive to fit Islam into Modern Western culture, we often fall into the trap of twisting the text to fit our own desires. Many times we begin with the desired outcome—what Islam should say in order to make it culturally accepted in the West—and then work backwards.
As young Muslims, we are torn between the two extremes, both of which are wrongfully influenced more by culture than Islam. If we are to be sincere believers, we must not fall blindly into the easiest path—that is, following the culture that is most prevalent. The Prophet stated in a hadith that Islam …began as something strange, and it shall return to being strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers (Bukhari and Muslim).
It is our responsibility to seek knowledge about Islam through the authentic sources so as to be well-equipped to filter our way through the messages we receive from the media (Muslim and non-Muslim, alike), from academia, speakers, and community members. We must be willing to submit to what Islam really wants from us, rather than trying to make Islam submit to what we want from it.
Here in the United States, it is especially important that we do not delude ourselves into believing the myth that we, unlike our immigrant parents, are unaffected by culture. That as American Muslim youth we are “cultureless” —or at the very least, without the wicked cultural baggage of our parents’ generation. That somehow experiencing an amalgamation of immigrant, indigenous, and pure-bred Islam makes us exempt from cultural biases.
The fact is, we have grown and developed in this society, surrounded by the politics, pop culture, and all of the other public norms; and despite the desperate attempts by our parents and other community elders, our consciences and identities are inevitably influenced by the Western culture we grew up in —which makes the challenge twofold: (1) to filter through what we hear from others, but also (2) to be wary of our own cultural bias.
Accomplishing this requires nothing less than the sincerest intentions and constant prayers for guidance. We live in a difficult time, fraught with much confusion, and the only source of clarity and solace can come from Allah Himself. Like our beloved prophets, Ibrahim and Muhammad, I pray that Allah grant us, too, the strength and sincerity to choose true submission over any opposing cultural expectations.