The Cultural Imperative Of Islam: Authority of Shari`ah Over Custom


Necessary Pre-requisites to the Cultural Imperative

In dealing with a “discussion” (disciplined conversation) or “discourse” (ideological systematic discussion) on culture we need clarity on a number of matters. Of these matters that we need clarity on and understanding of are the following:

  1. A clear definition of “culture,” “custom,” “localized norms” and “practices” as understood in the “‘fiqh literature” and as a topic treated in the discourse of “usul al-fiqh.”
  2. The “significance” and “role” of the notions of Ummah, ethnicity, culture and cultural diversity in Shar’iah.
  3. The problem of “cultural relativity” (the school of thought which professes that all things are relative to cultural context) and globalization in the culture debate.
  4. The Authority of Shar’iah in the life of the Muslim community and Muslim practice,  over custom and culture
  5. A working definition for Islamic civilization.
  6. A comprehensive fiqh of media and its impact on forming practice and opinions.

Setting A Foundation: The Knowledge Imperative

Further, in keeping with and in light of the fiqh of priorities (understanding priorities as determined by Shar’iah) we must be certain that any discourse on a “cultural imperative” is preceded by a “knowledge imperative.” If we look to the Prophetic Seerah we learn that the foundational moment from which this Ummah was born was a moment grounded on a knowledge imperative. In other words, the Prophet (s) sought the assistance of Allah (swt) during his retreat into the Cave of Hira. During his retreat he sought not only clarity about the reality of the human experience but for a solution to the problems he encountered in his social and cultural mileux. In Divine response to the Prophet Muhammad (s) was a command to knowledge.

Allah (swt) led the Prophet (s) and his people out of ignorance as a way of life (jahiliyyah) and into the light of Islam by way of the command to read. In response the Prophet (s)  admitted that he was in a state of illiteracy, divested of knowledge. “Iqra!,” the Prophet Muhammad (s) was commanded emphatically to read, to follow the Qur’an’s recitation and imitate it.

The command to read, was received by the Prophet (s) in a state of powerless-ness but it was preceded by an intense desire to address the human condition. Then the Prophet (s) was possessed of a desire to find resolution to the problems of man. The command to literacy which came from on high (revealed) was coupled with a confession to ignorance of not just how to read but how to tread the path of learning and living. Allah (swt) did not abandon the Prophet (s) rather he bestowed upon him a revelation which gave him  understanding and wisdom. So Islam came to return humanity to a state of purity and integrity to a culture vested which affirm the reality of humanity and guided humanity.

The Reality of Prophethood In Regard To Culture

The problem of custom and culture is a matter that was addressed early on by revelation. Since the inception of the Prophetic mission of Muhammad (s) the problem of custom and culture was addressed whether it pertained to the practice of the Arab burying their daughters alive or the practice of drinking alcohol and partying. What took place in the  Hijaz with the revelation of the Qur’an, was a spiritual as well as a cultural transformation.

The problem of culture, in fact, is a matter addressed routinely by the Prophets (a). If we look closely to the lives of Ibrahim (a) and Ismail (a), their sojourn from Iraq we see that in that event they struggled with custom and culture. Their hijra from Iraq was in defense of a culture (way of life) predicted on “tawhid.” The Prophet Ibrahim and Ismail (a) abadoned the customs and way of their tribe to uphold al-Islam as a way of life.

Ismail (a) for the sake of Islam integrated with Arabs, took on a new tongue and lived in a new land for the sake of upholding the principles of Islam. The task Prophethood (Nubuwwa) over the ages has been to re-introduce humanity to a culture which safeguards happiness in this world and the next while promoting the most holistic ways of living in the world.

The Companions of the Prophet (r) too struggled with culture and custom. In fact, the debate over custom and culture was the principle cause the tribe of Quraish waged war against the Prophet (s) and his Companions, the Muslims. The Prophet (s) was said to be deviating from the way of his fathers.

Islam The Culture of the Muslim: Islam A Way of Life

Engaging a grounded discussion over the legitimacy of cultural practice requries that we clear on a foundational principle of which we must admit its soundness and that is that “revelation stands supreme over localized cultures.” As Muslims, we need to recover our identity that is grounded in the Qur’an and identity guided by the understanding that we are a people of intellect and learning. The arch-axioms which ought guide our action and thought is that:

  1. “Knowledge precedes action”;
  2. “Understanding precedes practice.”

So before an advanced discussion on a “cultural imperative” we are in great need to understand Islam to be admit that Islam is a way of life. Once we are clear that Islam is a way of life then we can acknowledge that a discussion on a cultural imperative is essentially, a discussion on Islamic civilization on the cultural imperative of Islam. Upon being clear that Islam is a way of life then we can begin to see and discuss custom (urf) and culture in the shade of Shar’iah and Islamic sciences and then move on to open up a discussion of being Muslim in the West. Without an understanding of the authority of revelation over practice a discussion on the cultural imperative is none other than given precedence to custom over Shari`ah.

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