By: Meena Malik
Embracing Cultural Identity in Islam
What should a person do about their cultural identity when they enter Islam? Do they walk away from it or adopt a new one as a Muslim? The good news is that there is no such thing as a singular “Muslim culture” that needs to be embraced once someone accepts Islam..
The Diverse Cultures of Muslims throughout the World
There is no one monolithic culture within Islam that Muslims should be practicing. In many mosques throughout America, oftentimes the dominant cultures within congregations are Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cultures. As much as it may seem that Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian cultures may be the culture of Islam, that is untrue. The Quran explains how Muslims may come from many different cultures, mentioning that Allah created all people from a single “man and woman,” Adam and Eve, and then “made [humankind] into peoples and tribes” [49:13]. Diversity is something that Allah created for us to live with to enrich our lives. There is nothing wrong with a Muslim, no matter what their cultural identity is, cherishing and being proud of their culture and heritage.
Example of Diverse Cultures During the Prophet Muhammad’s Life
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad,peace be upon him, there were some companions who were not Arab. This was never an issue for the Prophet,peace be upon him, and he never asked people to change their cultural practices unless they contradicted Islam. As a matter of fact, there were times when the wealth of cultural diversity was an asset to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the Muslims during his time. The most famous example is a Persian companion named Salman al-Farsi.
There was an upcoming battle that the Muslims had to prepare for and Salman suggested a specific battle strategy used in his homeland which consisted of digging a ditch around the city. His Persian culture and heritage played such a huge role in this military campaign that it is referred to as the “Battle of the Ditch.” If accepting Islam implied that a person had to surrender their cultural identity, then the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, would have never accepted this suggestion and he would have reprimanded Salman.
The Islam Filter for Culture
We know that Allah created diverse cultures and that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was also accepting of diverse cultures–but continuing with all cultural practices may not be allowed once a person becomes Muslim.
When it comes to a person’s cultural heritage as a Muslim, they now have to be selective and mindful within an Islamic framework. The guiding principle that should be used is this: Islam is a filter through which cultural practices and beliefs can be strained through. Anything from a culture (customs, arts, social institutions, etc.) that contradicts Islamic beliefs or teachings should be left out, but otherwise everything else can remain!
Adapting Traditional Dishes for Muslim Newcomers
Here are some examples of how this filtering principle works. Tamales are a favorite food of a new Muslim of Mexican descent. Traditionally they are made with lard, which is most commonly derived from pigs. But Islamic dietary restrictions do not allow Muslims to eat pork or pig by-products–so now what? Simply use another fat source that would be okay for Muslims to eat–like butter, vegetable shortening, or even lard from another animal. When it comes to different foods, some small changes can now make the food permissible for a Muslim to eat.
Cultural Identity and Islamic Practices
A new Muslim was used to starting every meal with a prayer, like saying grace. Thanking God for food to eat and all other blessings is an Islamic concept and something Muslims are encouraged to be more proactive in. But ending a prayer with a specific ritual against Islamic teachings, like referring to the Christian concepts of the Trinity by crossing yourself or saying “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” would not be allowed. So would a Muslim have to stop this tradition at mealtimes? Remove whatever is problematic Islamically–run this practice through the Islam filter. Stop using specific religious words and gestures that contradict Islamic teachings. If a person would simply remove that, there’s nothing wrong with continuing the practice of praying before eating. But if one would like to go the extra mile, try introducing some Islamic recommendations that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught Muslims to do at meal times. Say your prayer as usual, and then add a “bismillah” at the end and eat with your right hand.
Preserving Cultural Identity in Islam
A person accepting Islam does not prevent them from keeping their cultural identity. Diversity of cultures is something God deliberately created for mankind and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also embraced this. Using the “Islam filter” with all cultural practices is a simple way to weed out whatever may be incompatible with Islam. A new Muslim integrating their own unique cultural idenity with Islam makes their life better.
Have more questions? Call 877-WhyIslam, you deserve to know!
Meena Malik is a writer and high school English teacher by training. You can find many of her writings at muslimmatters.org and listen to her newly launched podcast, Brown Teacher Reads.