Islamic Studies

Framing the Discussion on Culture & the Fitna of the Immigrant/Indigenous Dichotomy

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the importance of culture and Islam. While Islam possess within its vastness the ability to function in most cultural settings; since the majority of human actions fall under permissibility, one must question the attempt to frame certain discussions around al-’Urf (culture), making it an absolute source of guidance for the following reasons:

  1. Custom is not an agreed upon source of legal inspiration
  2. Those who agree upon it, fail to agree on its function and the volume which it serves to coat Islamic expression; most holding it as simply a secondary source of Islamic law, while only the Malikis and the Hanafis agree that it is an independent source of legal inspiration [see al-Qawaid al-Fiqhiyah, fourth year al-Azhar University]. This is based on the statement of ‘Abdullah bin Ma’sud, “Whatever the Muslims deem as good, is good.” Al-Sarkhasi wrote, “An established custom is like a definitive texts.” Ibn Nujayim dedictated an entire chapter to this in his work al-Ashbah wa al-Nadhair.
  3. Defining a dominant culture in the West, in the face of Post Modernity and Secular Humanism, is a daunting task. American culture could  perhaps be defined as eclectic, and in the face of the “culture war” trying to pinpoint such a culture is futile.
  4. This fetish for a cultural imperative led to a rather strange sociological phenomena amongst Western Muslims, the immigrant indigenous dichotomy.
  5. While such an argument holds emotional weight and has some value, the sad fate is that, in many cases, it was not the immigrant who engaged in acts of violence against the locals, but it was those very indigenous communities who went after each others throats whether physically or with the keyboard. The recent problems surrounding the leadership of  an indigenous American Islamic community and the failure of the indigenous to rise up and help Imam Siraj Wahaj, I know of a group of ‘immigrants” who on their own raised S 40,000 for the Imam, is telling.
  6. While the immigrant communities have built large centers all across America, the converts have failed to produce much. It is not enough to simply blame the immigrants while our own backyards are a mess.
  7. The dichotomy itself goes against a large number of definitive texts which encourage us to work together, avoid calling each other evil names and, in one verse, refers to such a dichotomy as ”Disbelief.”
  8. Many have framed the discussion around al-’Urf, when in fact, tnohe discussion centers around a ruling. In other words, Urf in no way, unless under extreme situations, allows one to simply sidestep his religious responsibilities in the name of culture. By bringing culture into the disscussion one may actual be harming his/her cause because the centrality of the issue has nothing to do with culture. In order for culture to be admitted into religious expression it must meet certain conditions (see below). Instead, one should approach things from the point of permissibility, if those things are outside the field of ritual worship, and ask the people of fatwa for a ruling on the matter.
  9. In the past those who accepted Islam felt a great need to change the repulsive qualities they brought into their conversion. Recently, because of the cultural imperative and the reflux of 9/11, many are simply maintaining who they were without adopting the important goals of learning, purification and transformation. I found this expressed by a large number of those represented in a host of recent articles, books and documentaries. Excuses were given regarding things that are clearly unacceptable according  to the Four Major schools primarily based on ”I grew up with this” or ”My parents did it my whole life” Compare this to the examples of the Companions and the transformation that took place in their lives. That transformation eventually led to the guidance of countless numbers of people; empowered them to take a simple Bedouin culture and spread their message, via one language, across multiple cultures, ethnic groups and societies. Ibn Hazim said, ”If the companions were the only miracle of the Prophet [sa], it would be sufficient to prove his prophecy.
  10. Adopting the dominate culture is a reality whose time will come. Forcing a set of universals [that were not revealed] upon people struggling to find a balance between religious orientation and responsible citizenry is dangerous. The outcome could be that Islam is slowly removed from the hearts and minds of Muslims, or, what really worries me, a group of those who hold extreme views could counter such a movement with acts of violence and extremism. The safe way is to focus on reinforcing orthodox religious expression coupled with responsible citizenry.

I’m planning a detailed discussion on this issue and, inshallah, I hope it will serve to redirect the misappropriation of ”urf”, steering the discussion back to a simple fact articulated by al-Akhdari in his famous text, ”It is an obligation upon every Muslim to find the ruling for every action he/she undertakes.” Reason being, that many of the discussions around ’Urf simply don’t hold up under greater scrutiny and are misplaced.

The following are the agreed upon conditions of al-’Urf amongst the scholars of Usol. I would encourage those who have no knowledge of this subject to mind the order of Allah, ”Do not engage in what you have no knowledge about.” We did not study ‘Urf until the last year of our studies in al-Azhar. So it is sad to see recent converts trying to tackle this from the get go.

Conditions of ’Urf

  1. That it does not contradict a text whose legal implications are definitive. Examples of contradicting such texts would be the pre Islamic Arabs custom of killing their daughters and circling the K’abah in the nude. Other examples would be illicit mixing with non-Mahram males or females, interest, drinking, not praying or observing proper dress because of custom- wearing the Badu Hijab and overly effeminate clothes by men. The writer of al-Mabsut wrote, ”Every custom which goes against a definitive text [from the Qu’ran, Sunnar or the ’Ijm’a] is not recognized.”
  2. It is observed, or seen as good by the majority of the society. Dr. ’Abdul Karim Zaydan notes, ”What is meant here is an actual cultural practice and not something merely theorized by scholars and used as examples in their books.”
  3. The custom must have been in play when the action [looked at by a Muslim scholar] took place. An example provided by Imam al-Dasuqi in al-Sharh al-Kabir is that a person contracted a sheikh to teach his son the Noble Qur’an. After some time, both parties realized that they failed to name a price. In such a case the predominant amount paid to most sheikhs for their work would be assigned to the contract based on al-’Urf [Custom].
  4. It does not contradict another known better established and accepted custom. Al-’Izz al-Din ’Abdul al-Salam coined the following axiom, ”What is established by an unspoken custom, is not recognized if it contradicts a definitive one.”

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah said, ”Islam did not come to destroy a culture. It came to polish it.”

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

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