Islam Culture Versus Islam Religion
Throughout this course we have learned several different aspects of Islam as a culture and as a religion we have also been able to put to rest several myths that have plagued Islam in the eyes of the Western World. In this paper I will discuss the significant difference of Islam as a religion versus Islam as a culture as seen through the eyes of a Malay Muslim. I will then go on to discuss how the Western world views Islam and how it is progressively changing for the better.
Islam is a religion based on the teaching of the Profit Mohammad, passed down by the angel Gabriel. But, to many Malay Muslims, Islam is a culture. It is a practice handed down by their fathers, and their father’s father before that. It is something they do out of habit and tradition that than from principles of the religion. That is why by taking shadat, non-believers convert to Islam, and referred to as “Born Again Muslims” they seem to make better Muslims, because they are able to embrace the religion whole-heartedly.
Converts learn the religion from scratch and throw away their old beliefs on becoming Muslims. Newly baptized Muslims re-learn the religion and are able to differentiate between Islam as a culture and Islam as a religion. They are brave enough to reject what is unIslamic as learned through their new understanding of the Qur’aan. They fallow this religion, separate from the culture even though they run the risk of being branded fanatics.
Unfortunately, the majority of Malay Muslims confuse what is religion with what is culture. They take both as one and the same and practice religion as if it was part of the Malay culture, or adopt some of the old cultures thinking they are doing an Islamic thing.
Sometimes even the culture over-rides religion and they rush out to implement a cultural practice as if it would be unIslamic in not doing so. Culture takes precedence over everything else and, if they miss one or two obligations in Islam, like praying or fasting, it does not matter as long as
that so called “adat” has been safely implemented.
For example, they would spend hours dressing up a bride for a wedding ceremony. Never mind that the bride has to miss her prayers because of this. Allowing her to do her prayers would mean the preparations would be interrupted or delayed, not to mention her hair, which had been carefully set at great expense of time and money, would get all messed up.
The house would need to be cleaned and everything would need to be nicely set up in preparation. This would mean they would have to miss the last day of fasting or else there would be no energy left for the great task ahead of them. Impressing the guests who would be visiting for the wedding is more important than fasting. Culture is so important that they would sacrifice their child as long as the culture is protected. They would not sacrifice for Islam.
How did this come about? Islam is very specific and explicit. Islam is the ultimate and everything else comes later. How could, therefore, culture stand between the Muslim and their religion? Even more important, how could the Malay Muslim get so confused that he could not differentiate between religion and culture and allow himself to practice Islam his way; religion as a culture.
Malays were the descendants of Hindus long before they became Muslims. The part of Indonesia, where the Malaysian Malays originally came from, is still predominately Hindu. Even in those parts of Indonesia, which have become mostly Muslim, you can still see the remains of the Hindu religion within the culture as seen within a number of ritualistic ceremonies, that have a strong presence of Hindu traditions
The Malay Sultans of early Melaka had Sanskrit names, proof of the Hindu influence. The Indian merchants who came to Melaka to trade brought the Islamic influence into the hearts of the Sultans. That is why the brand of Islam is the same in India and in Indonesia. In comparison to the practices of the Middle Eastern Muslims, which are very different.
The nation at that time owed their loyalty to the Sultans. When the Sultans converted to Islam the nation followed suit without any questions. They became Muslims due to the tradition of loyalty to the Sultans rather than because they were committed to the religion.
Here alone was reason enough for the weak following of the religious principles. The people were just doing what the Sultan asked. The old cultures and traditions were never erased on the bases of the religion but were blended in to their brand of Islam. The early Malay Muslims were confused and a lot of people today, follow their customs, which are viewed as religious but in actuality are not. Confusion remains today and no changes have been made to understand or correct this issue.
Even today, you can still see some of these aspects of Hindu culture in their so-called “Islamic” practices. Take the lighting of lanterns on the last seven nights before the end of Ramadan. This is modeled after the Hindu religious celebration of Deepavali, the festival of the lights. This practice has no reason to be acclimated into Islam but they incorporate it as part of their culture.
In fact, some acts committed by these people in the name of “Islam” are in fact Haraam or sinful. These practices are not the nature of Islam and make a mockery of the one god fundamental of the religion. That forbids the acknowledgement of the existence of any other equally powerful source.
For instance, take the practice of consulting bomohs, which is Haraam in Islam. But most Malays believe in the powers of the bomoh and many actually go to see them for assistance. Bomohs are nothing but witch doctors. In the Western terminology “witches” are servants of the devil as they draw upon the powers of the forces of evil. The Malays swear by the power of the bomoh rather than do their Hajat prayer to get their wishes fulfilled. Bomohs use the Qur’aan, spirits of dead people, bones of humans, and so on, to “pray” for help.
It must be remembered that the bomoh uses the Qur’aan it is not used for reciting the verses but as talismans. The Qur’aan is not taken in its spirit or substance but in its physical form, as an object of magic within the culture is ok but not within the religion.
Sometimes the verses are recited but only for “fixing things”. The “client” may want the bomoh to help them get a job promotion, a contract they have bided for, the love of a woman or man, and other worldly desires. In extreme cases the bomoh calls upon the “powers” of the Qur’aan to harm an enemy or as a prevention from an enemy who is suspected of using another bomoh to give this client bad luck or make him sick. Which is no part Islamic or part of any teaching of the Qur’aan.
Islam, or the powers of Islam, is treated as something magical or mystical, and who better to call upon the magic of the Qur’aan or the verses of the Qur’aan than a man of black magic. Of course, every bomoh would claim he is doing things the Islamic way and that there is no sin in what he is doing. This gives the Malay the feeling of security, that he is not offending God in his actions or creating an associate to God.
Many religious people, those well learned in Islam dare not speak out. They realize that this is a very sensitive area to venture into. In fact, some of these religious people even contribute to the belief by themselves offering mystical services. The Malays believe that these religious people have a closeness to God due their “ulama” status and how better to reach God than through these people.
One reason why the Malays are so gullible or ignorant to the teachings of Islam is because it was an imported into Indonesia and not embraced as a religion but was accepted. Malays choose to be Muslims as long as they could revert to their own culture and traditions freely. If they had to live without the Hindu culture blended with the Islamic religion, they wouldn’t be able to.
In the same way, the belief in other forces other than Allah “kills” the
fundamentals of Islam. Without this fundamental belief, their Islam is just as “dead” and is not Islam at, but rather a tainted version of the word of Allah and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad. Re-education is required to reintroduce Islam to the country and not confuse or infuse the two separate religions and cultures.
Western Perception of Islam
Now that we have thoroughly discussed Islam as a culture versus Islam as a religion as seen first hand by a Malay Muslim, lets dive into some myths and stereotypes that have plagued Islam as a religion according to the Western perception.
In the west, the news media is a major source for information about Islam. The image of Islam, as projected by the news media is often fragmented and clouded by the fast moving political events, like the war in Iraq and other crises in the Middle East. The perception of Islam, at times, is painfully distorted. Khomeini, Qadafi, and Saddam Hussain are seen as inflated demons with malice and ill will intended for and directed at the U.S.
Sometimes, a selective and unfamiliar aspect of a particular Muslim country’s social behavior is projected as if it were a universally practiced tradition of Islam. For example a women not being able to drive in a “Muslim” country, was not a rule based on the religion of Islam but rather a rule set by the culture of Islam. Another example of this generalization is the hatred that Muslim extremists have for the U.S., this is a behavior is shared by a small group of Muslims but is projected as though it’s the entire culture that feels this way, which if false.
The entertainment industry, especially the film-makers in Hollywood, with very few exceptions, have shown deep bias presenting Arabs or Muslims of the Third World countries as uncouth, uncivilized rogues and extremists. Thus, ridicule is added to an already blur and dismal perception of Islam in the west.
A large majority are unaware of the fact that every fifth person on earth, i.e. almost one billion people in total, are Muslims; more than 40 countries are predominantly Islamic, Arabs being less than 20% of the total Muslim population.
The largest number of Muslims are Indonesians totaling a 150 million. Then there are 20 million Chinese, 55 million Russians, 100 million Indians, 95 million Pakistanis, and 90 million Bangladeshis. And millions upon millions Africans who live in Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco and adhere to the religion of Islam. Islam is a global phenomenon, embracing in its fold over 4000 ethnic groups.
It is unknown to many people that Muslims were the torch bearers in the fields of arts, sciences, medicine, agriculture, architecture, philosophy, literature and mysticism, while a greater part of Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages. The general public rarely comes to know the closeness of Islam to Christianity and Judaism; and the commonalities among the three major monotheistic religions are seldom brought to light.
Therefore, to allow ourselves to form a dreadful or disgraceful image of Islam, as most often the case in the media, would constitute an extremely unfair and regrettable attitude towards the second largest religion on earth. It would be as if some one tries to understand Christianity by reading the news of what is happening politically and religiously in Northern Ireland or of apartheid in South Africa. It would be like attempting to understand the teachings of Jesus Christ through reading about hundreds of tragic and bloody wars fought among the European Christian nations. It would be highly inappropriate to dwell on racism, lynching, witch-hunting, and the Inquisition in order to understand the true teachings of Torah and the Gospels.
It would be like finding fault with Christianity and Judaism by reading news about the horrible stories of murder, rape, child abuse, incest, teenage pregnancies, AIDS, alcoholism and drug abuse – the evils that infest Judeo-Christian modern Western societies.
To facilitate the needed change in Christian attitude towards Muslims, COLUMBAN MISSION in the same issue printed excerpts from an article on St. Francis of Assisi, who was “for one moment in time … a bridge between Islam and Christianity”.
“We are convinced that to arrive at a more Christian understanding of our brothers in Islam, it is important for us to adopt the attitude adopted by St. Francis of Assisi and meditate on a phase of his life that has perhaps escaped a number of biographers and admirers; namely, the mysterious bonds that united the saint to the founder of Islam, the Arab prophet Muhammad.”
On June 22nd President Bush to offer each and every American Muslim his heartfelt best wishes on the Islamic religious Festival of Eid ul Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) on June 22. In his televised message, President Bush mentioned that Abraham’s example, who was ready at God’s command, to sacrifice his own son, inspires three great religions:
“As children of Abraham, American Muslims gather today to honor their ancient faith. As Americans, your celebration affirms this nation’s allegiance to religious freedom for all. The notion of religious tolerance lies at the heart of the American ideals. Many of our founders came here because the land promised religious tolerance.”
But, unfortunately, this professed religious tolerance was not demonstrated to my ancestors who were brought from Africa in chains of slavery. Millions of these slaves who were stripped of their original names and cultures, freedom and human dignity, were Muslims. Their masters not only imposed their Christian names upon them, but also got them converted to Christianity under duress.
Finally, the ultimate question of who will win and who will lose, only the almighty (God/Jehovah/Allah) knows. My hope and prayer is that the healthy process of advancement in mutual respect and trust, love and compassion should always remain the real winner among Christians, Muslims and Jews –
all the Children of Adam and Eve.
1) Kuala Lumpur. “Mahathir badly hurt as Malay Muslims vote for Islamic party” (Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999).
2) Abu Talib Ahmad. The Malay Muslims, Islam and the Rising Sun.
3) Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Adair T. Lummis, Islamic Values in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1987).
4) Council on American-Islamic Relations, “Report Outlines Political Attitudes of American Muslims: 96 Percent Believe Muslims Should Get Involved in Local and National Politics” (December 22, 1999).
5) Jeffrey Lang, Even Angels Ask: A Journey to Islam in America (Amana, L.L.).