When the Prophet ﷺ was sent with the divine message, the key change that took place was the fact that rather than traditions and ancients customs being the sole source of practice and yardstick for right and wrong, it was the book of Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions (sunna) that was the adjudicator. However, this did not mean that the Prophet ﷺ wanted to completely change the status quo and overthrow every aspect of life that the people had been accustomed to.
Reforming not Demolishing the Status Quo
This is attested to by several incidents wherein the Prophet ﷺ, far from changing everything, approved of practices that were prevalent in the time of Jahiliyya (Pre-Islamic times). An example of this is the law of Qasama. This was when a body of a murdered person is found on a land occupied by a tribe, fifty inhabitants of that land must each take an oath that they have neither taken part in the death of this person nor have any knowledge as to who the killer is. If there were less than fifty people, than those present must take oaths more than once until the quota of fifty oaths is reached. After this, they are free from any liability, in terms of punishment, but must still pay compensation to the family of the murdered. It is recorded in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad and in Sahih Muslim:
“The Prophet approved of the law of qasama which was prevalent during the time of jahiliyya.” (Muslim and Musnad Ahmad)
This was not only in penal matters, but the Prophet also did the same with the prevalent forms of marriages during his time. Aisha, radi Allahu `anha (May God be pleased with her), narrates:
“There was the marriage which is that still practised by people today in which a man asked another man for his ward or daughter, paid her her dower and then married her. Another type was that a man would say to his wife after she was pure from menstruation, “Send for so-and-so and have intercourse with him.” Her husband would stay away from her and not have sex with her until she became pregnant by that man with whom she was sleeping. When it was clear that she was pregnant, then her husband would sleep with her if he wished. He did that out of the desire for a child of noble descent… Another type of marriage was that a group of less than ten men would go to the same woman and all have intercourse with her. If she became pregnant and gave birth, some days after the birth she would send for them, and none of them could refuse to come. When they were gathered together before her, she would say to them, “You know what you did. I have given birth. It is your son, so-and-so!” She would name whichever of them she wanted to name, and her child would be attributed to him and the man could not deny that. The fourth type of marriage was that many men would go to a woman who would not refuse whoever came to her. They were prostitutes and they used to set up flags at the doors as signs. Whoever wanted could go to them. If one of them became pregnant, when she gave birth, they would be brought together and they would call the physiognomists who would then attach the child to the one they thought was the father. He would be ascribed to him and called his son. None of them could reject that. When Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was sent with the truth, he abolished all of the marriages of the Jahiliyya except the marriage practised by people today.” (Bukhari)
Moreover, custom or `urf, is something that is considered in Islamic law. This is evident in contractual law. For example, if in the sale of a car, it is known that it is the seller who usually delivers the product, then even though this may not be verbally stipulated, the sharia (Islamic ruling) will consider it as such. Thus the legal maxim, “That which is known by custom, is treated as if it has been stipulated verbally.” Another example is the obligation of the husband to financially support his wife (nafaqa)—the actual amount is not stipulated. It is referred to the custom of the people to decide how much is fair. Thus far from doing without custom altogether, many aspects and rulings of the sharia are dependent on the customs of a people, in order for them to be actionable.
Of course, if the customs of a people contradict a clear textual evidence of the Qur’an and sunna, then that is discarded, as the Prophet ﷺ exemplified.
The Attitude of (predominantly young) Religious People
The point of mentioning all this is to highlight the fact that Islam is not supposed to be practiced in a vacuum, where anything, by virtue of it being foreign, is rejected and seen to be something that the sharia despises. This is more so when it seems almost fashionable for young practicing people to boast how some practice is “just” traditional, and hence they want to rid themselves of it.
Weddings as an Example
For example, during weddings, different cultures have different ways of doing things. All of this is fine, unless something contradicts the sharia. So having a pre-wedding function is completely fine. Thus it does not make sense, at least from a purely shari point of view, for people who start to practice newly or are practising to want to go against such functions in the name of religion, and upset a huge number of relatives. This breaks up unity and gives Islam a bad name and makes religious people seem like they are against having fun.
Reason for Rejection: Un-Islamic
The common argument is that because there is no precedent for such functions in the sunnah, it is by default un-Islamic. However, this attitude itself is Un-Islamic and rejected, since when it comes to social practices and events, “everything is permissible until proven impermissible.”
Reason for Rejection: Finance
Of course, sometimes halal (permissible) customs can place undue hardship on people, especially those that are not financially well off. In such situations, should a person not want to hold a customary function, it is completely justified and praiseworthy, since spending out of one’s means is discouraged. Yet the reason for breaking from one’s cultural practices would be finance, and not because something was intrinsically wrong with the function.
Reason for Rejection: Personal Choice
If someone wants to break from their cultural practices and tradition due to personal preferences, then it is only fair that they make this known and not mask this using religious justifications. This would be an unfair abuse of religious texts. Of course the motivation for appealing to religion at such times comes from the fact that breaking from traditions attracts the censure of one’s family and peers, and in an attempt to deflect such criticism religion is used as a shield.
Moreover, people should be wise when making such choices by taking into account the possible harms that may result. One needs to balance one’s individualism with the wider concerns of one’s family. After all it was the Prophet himself ﷺ who said to Aisha (ra) when she took a woman on her wedding night to a man from among the Ansar:
“O ‘Aisha, was there any entertainment (in the gathering)? For the Ansar love entertainment.” (Bukhari)
He ﷺ knew the custom of the Ansar and respected it.
We must not forget that our religion is a universal one, and our Prophet ﷺ is a universal prophet. Thus, we, who claim to follow the Prophet ﷺ must also adopt this in our attitude and practice. In the words of the Qur’an:
“And We have not sent you except comprehensively to mankind as a bringer of good tidings and a warner. But most of the people do not know.” (Qur’an, 34:28)
This universality implicitly accepts the cultures and traditions of all people with the condition that they do not contradict the Qur’an and sunna. This difference is an aspect of life that is to be embraced, not an imperfection to be erased.
Thank you for this brilliant reminder.
Important reminder for us who live outside majority Muslim countries in the West. Shukran!
Well written, but I think the following quote would be an legitimate addendum:
“Because it equates tradition with prejudice, the left finds itself increasingly unable to converse with ordinary people in their common language”
– Christopher Lasch
Though I agree with the quote in essence, I think it is not completely accurate in the Muslim Religious scene.
Though I am wary of superimposing terms such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ on groups and people within our discourse, I think those that use Islam to ‘clean’ people of their tradition are those that exhibit characteristics that are common to the far-right e.g. intolerance predicated on a misunderstanding that truth is theirs alone, and viewing things in an exclusivist binary manner.
Thank you for your contribution, I appreciate it.
Yes…I agree, but the extremist right have little influence in academic debates, while the progressive left often do. But I understand your point sir.