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Embracing Otherness as the Prophetic Sunnah – Imam Khalid Latif

The Prophet’s ﷺ reality and his personal  relationships call to diversity; he was exposed to diverse people of gender, colour, age and ethnicity from a young age; this theme furthers throughout his  lifelong relationships. Imam Khalid Latif  invites us to meet such personages as Umm Ayman Baraka and engage with otherness through the lens of love and empathy.

Imam Khalid urges us to reflect on the nature of identity, he tells us that we go through the steps of self affirmation and we place ourselves in boxes of identity, and once we do that we compare ourselves by that which we are not. The Prophet ﷺ was able to be an individual for all people, and generations for all time; this behooves us to ask ourselves who we are  and what our relationships are really based on.

Resources for Seekers

Cover photo from flickr. We are grateful to ICNYU for this video.

Islamophobia is alive and well but are we capable of a compassionate, introspective response? Tanya Muneera Williams

WindrushOn the 22nd of June 1948 the landscape of England changed in the most unprecedented way. The arrival of the empire Windrush from Jamaica to Tilby docks in Essex has been pinpointed as one of the biggest changes in post-war British history.

It can also be said that the 500 or so passengers on board the Windrush, represented a complete rethink of what it meant to be British, and in essence it was the start of what has become known as multiculturalism.

An Era of Social Bias

My father left Jamaica and came to England in 1962 on a Spanish ship called ‘The Big Owner’, the ship docked in Southampton, and in a matter of hours my father was in the back of van on the way to Bristol, where he was met by his two brothers. This was the era of cramped housing and notorious slum landlords, this was before ‘foreigners’ could freely enter public buildings such as banks, pubs, and shops, this was the era where racial bias was an acceptable criteria in the work place, this was the era of Teddy-boys, this was the era where physical assault and verbal abuse was the norm.

Tension between minorities evident on a daily basis

Maybe this is one of the reasons why I was sickened to see the video of a black British woman, who was quite possibly of Caribbean heritage abusing a pregnant Muslim woman on the bus in a multicultural area not so far from me. A few days later, another video emerged of a young man hurling abuse at a disabled Turkish man. I should not be that surprise, because despite living in an ethnically diverse area of London, on a daily basis I see contentious interactions between mainly migrant communities, but more specifically between ‘Black British people’ and people from a Muslim background.

LondonBusRantI am often astonished how the act of sitting on a bus, or waiting in a queue can get so volatile. This was summed up perfectly when one day I was standing in rather long queue at a cash point when an East African Muslim lady who was the first person in line at the cash point, could not find her card and continued searching for it despite the queue growing longer; out of nowhere a young ‘Black British man’ maybe in his mid 20s shouted out “You can’t come to England and be a problem, now you want to take my time.”

At first the lady did not respond, but after some members of the of the queue started showing solidarity towards the man and others huffed and puffed, she swore at him and the slanging match started. Thank goodness she was able to give as good as he got, and in the end she boldly walked away, but that does not disparage the fact that an everyday event escalated in a matter of minutes and by time the incident finished, they offended each other with terms like ‘bloody refugee’ and ‘fatherless child.’ Granted these terms were said in the heat of the moment, but on some level they are indicative of wider cultural perceptions.

A deeply rooted, self-inflamed anger

Back to the bus incident, however, in the first few seconds of seeing the footage, to my shame, I thought what did the pregnant Muslim woman do or say to get the other woman so enraged, but before the first minute was over it was clear to see that the pregnant Muslim woman probably could not even speak English and even if she could, whatever issues the abusive lady had, were deeply rooted within herself, and the anger that she unleashed was self inflamed.

Not that it needs to be said, but for the sake of clarity, what happened was totally wrong, and as the abusive woman has handed herself to the police, she will no doubt see the repercussion of her wrong doings.

The antagonist is our sister in humanity

Someone asked me if it is difficult for me to see the wrongs of the ‘black woman’ being black myself, I was mystified by the logic because the school of thought that I am from is that we have to be self analytical, we have to be able to critique ourselves, our actions and inactions in order to develop and grow in a healthy way. Although it may be shocking to some, I see the antagonist as my sister, my sister in humanity and my sister in ethnicity, so as my sister I want better for her, I want her to learn that her actions are not the type of action that can be tolerated in this society, and want her to know that in short, her attitude stinks.

Descendants of immigrants become aggressors to new immigrants

Being that she is only a little older than me, the likelihood is, like me she is a second generation immigrant to this country; the hardships that my father and many others like him endured during the Windrush era and the lasting consequences of their efforts would absolutely be in vain if 50 years down the line we as their children become the aggressors to immigrants who too are seeking a better life.

Racist, derogatory responses on Muslim social media

Another interesting thing this incident bought up, which sickens me equally if not more, is the sheer amount of racism that is festering deep in the crevice of some believing people’s hearts. This is not a new phenomena, many people have been speaking about it for years, and have been told “it’s dying out”, “it’s not really racism, it’s just cultural differences”, “you have an inferiority complex”, “you are causing divisions in the Ummah” or “oh you are one of those black Muslims.”

Poetic Pilgrimage with Tanya Muneera Williams (right) and Sukina Douglas (left)

Poetic Pilgrimage with Tanya Muneera Williams (right) and Sukina Douglas (left)

But after seeing the comments to the video of the bus incident, no one can deny the sickness that in many cases is not hidden that deep beneath the surface. Some of the comments used terms like “Nigger”, which was justified by someone else saying it was only used for the ‘black women’ in question not anyone else. Another person actually said “had it not been for Islam you would all be slaves,” in reference to those from the African diaspora.

No place for racism

I feel foolish having to point out the obvious, but there is no place for racism in Islam. The conversion experience of Malcolm X attracted many converts from the African Disaspora to the Deen – particularly his experience of men of all colour treating each other equally. For many, part of the conversion process is trying to separate seemingly racist encounters with people of Muslim backgrounds, from the words of God and the practices of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and it was his practice to rid racism wherever he saw it. So this should be our Sunnah, up there with men wearing beards, or fasting on a Monday and Thursday.

If the words “An Arab has no superiority over a non Arab nor a non Arab has any superiority over an Arab” and “A white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action” is not enough for us, then let us then reflect on the actions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and how he welcomed black people into his family in the case of his adopted son Zaid b Harithah, or how he honoured and respected his Black mother by breast milk, Barakah Bint Tha’labah. We can also reflect on how Allah has honoured Bilal by allowing our Rasool, peace be upon him, to hear Bilal’s footsteps and call to prayer ahead of him in the heavens.

Allah has said in Quran 49:13 “O Mankind, We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.”

Racism is not befitting to a believer, and as the reality of Islamophobia has dawned on us and we are now making strategies to tackle it, so should the reality of racism dawn on us so we can make strategies to tackle it and fulfil a sunnah.

The community’s lack of acknowledgement

These are comments and attitudes that don’t belong in Islam, and are not befitting for those who believe in the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). It is not so much the racism that bothers me, it is our community’s lack of acknowledgement of it, which will naturally lead to inactivity toward changing it, which leaves me thinking how are we as a Muslim community in Britain going to develop and grow in a healthy way?

A polarised public discourse

Every day, “Muslim terrorist”, “sex grooming gangs”, “refugees”, “halal meat”, “Shariah law”, “Islamic State”, and whatever other negative connotations that can be conjured up are fed to us through the media. We are in the era of political parties increasingly leaning towards the right, the era of comments like “multiculturalism has failed” and “Muslims are not integrating”. Coupled with tensions between communities means that unfortunately, appalling incidents like the one we witnessed on the bus are liable to be on the increase before they decrease. A perfect example of this is another clip which recently came out, which shows a mix heritage young man acting aggressively towards an older Turkish man, again on a London bus. After his tirade, the perpetrator threw the elderly man’s zimmerframe off the bus. The direct physical threat was made clear and explicit. What was sad to see is in both this clip and the one involving the pregnant Muslim woman is that no one on either bus intervened.

Injustice to ourselves

As Muslims we keep faith, point out injustices and continue to showcase the beauty of our path, but what maybe a greater task is looking at our own short comings, pointing out when we have done an injustice to ourselves, for the sake of preserving this beautiful path.

My prayers are with the pregnant sister who was the victim of the attack, may you give birth to an awliya. My prayers are with us all.

By Tanya Muneera Williams

Tanya Muneera Williams or Muneera Pilgrim, is a Bristol born, London based, rapper, poet and cultural commentator. She is one half of the hip-hop and spoken word duo Poetic Pilgrimage. She facilitates workshops, gives seminars and performs around England and Europe and has toured South Africa, Morocco and The United States. Muneera has facilitated a series of participant led, poetry performance courses in Sudan where she lived as a teacher and performer, she conducts engagement workshops in schools and performs and hosts around England. She is currently studying for her MA in Islamic studies where she is focusing on the Caribbean contribution to Islam, migration, gender and race. Using her talent, skills and passion Muneera colourfully etches a space of dialogue that can be accessed regardless of cultural, religious or gender boundaries. Rooted in spirituality, she uses communication for edification and change.

 

Resources for Seekers:

Our Condition Today: the Disease and the Remedy
Advice from Habib ‘Umar: How to defend the Prophet
Hadiths on the “Bad Traits” of Black People
Letter to the West: we just have to learn to live together
Race To The Top
Would it Be Wrong To Avoid Interracial Marriages For Cultural Considerations?
Dealing With Those Who Harass Muslims
“Sound societies come from sound hearts”
Allah’s Mercy and the Mercy Showed by People

What Role Does Culture Play in Islam?

Question: Could you please clarify what is the view of Islam regarding different peoples maintaining their native character and mentality, and being proud of them: I mean not in a bad way, which denies validity of other peoples, but simply appreciating what they have been given and cultivating it as their unique heritage? Does really Islam ultimately deny value of native, ancient heritage and cultivating it in terms of that which does not go against Islamic principles, like decent folk songs and costumes, symbols and distinctive, irreducible mentality and world-view? I ask this because I see that for many of my compatriots this is a major obstacle for accepting Islam: they might actually, perhaps partly unconsciously be considering Islam as something alien to our mentality, coming from distant Arab lands, suitable for Arabs; so they might see accepting Islam as a kind of treachery towards this ancient heritage, which additionally is already on the brink of extinction thanks to globalization, modernity and so on. However, I feel that it cannot be true – it is Allāh that created all the different peoples with their peculiarities as a sign from Him, not to be ignored and destroyed, and Islam is intended for all of those people.
I will truly appreciate any qualified suggestions and clarifications.

Answer: Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah. Please see below.

Maxim Five: Custom has the weight of law. (Taken from Dr. Umar Abd-Allah’s ‘Living Islam with Purpose.’)

This maxim is the theme of the Nawawi Foundation Paper “Islam and the Cultural Imperative,” which illustrates the importance of culture in Islam and the imperative that Muslims in America create their own distinctive indigenous culture.55 The maxim “culture has the weight of law” affirms that Islam is not culturally predatory, and it teaches Muslims to look upon all cultural heritages with an open mind, especially those where they live and to which they belong.

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Once, a group of Ethiopian converts began to dance with drums and spears in the Prophet’s mosque in celebration of an annual Islamic festival. The Companion ‘Umar attempted to stop them, but the Prophet intervened and urged them to continue. In one Hadith, he said to them: “Play your games, sons of Ethiopia, so that the Jews and Christians know that there is flexibility (fusḥa) in our religion.”57 By this and similar acts, the Prophet set the precedent of affirming cultural differences and made it clear that, for non-Arabs, entering Islam did not require them to give up their own cultural norms for those of the Arabs.

The Qur’an revealed the following verse to the Prophet on the eve of his migration to Medina, where his legislative activity began.

It establishes several primary legal principles, acceptance of culture being one of them: “Accept from people what comes naturally for them; command what is good by custom; and turn away from the ignorant without responding in kind” (Qur’an 7:199). The Prophet’s attitude toward ethnic and cultural identity provides an example of the application of this verse. He did not destroy the indigenous cultures and subcultures of pre-Islamic Arabia, rather he lived in harmony with them, correcting what was unsound and repealing what was degenerate. Perhaps, the best example of the Prophet’s accommodation of Arabian subcultural norms was his practice of propagating the Qur’an in the seven principal dialectical variations (aḥruf) of Arabic. Throughout Arabia, the Arab tribes understood the Meccan dialect of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, which served as the linguistic standard for all. The Prophet’s use of the seven dialectical variations was not a necessity; it was a respectful gesture toward the Arab tribes, which acknowledged the integrity of each tribe’s cultural identity.

The Prophet’s attitude toward the cultural norms of the Arab tribes and other ethnic groups constitutes a major precedent and a basic standard in Islamic law. Because the Prophet gave broad endorsement to diverse cultural conventions and did not alter them except when necessary, Abū Yūsuf, the principal student of Imam Abū Ḥanīfa, regarded Islam’s openness toward other cultures as the Prophet’s Sunna. Abū Yūsuf’s position contrasts sharply with certain Muslims today who regard the Sunna (narrowly defined as certain details of dress and personal behavior) as a substitute for culture.

Islamic legal theory regards sound cultural norms as constituting an independent and authoritative source of Islamic law. The noted Ḥanafī jurist al-Sarakhsī stated: “Whatever is established by good custom is equally well established by sound legal proof.”

Al-Tusūlī, a prominent Mālikī judge and legal scholar, wrote: “It is obligatory to let people follow their customs, usages, and general aspirations in life. To hand down rulings in opposition to them is gross deviation and tyranny.”

The word “custom” (ʿāda) as used in the maxim “custom has the weight of law” refers to acceptable cultural norms. Jurists define their usage of the word “custom” as “matters that are firmly established in practice and frequently repeated in people’s lives and acceptable to sound natures (al-ṭibāʿ al-salīma).” Reference to “sound natures” is linked to the Islamic belief that human beings are created with sound natures; humans are intrinsically good and endowed with basic intuitive knowledge of God, good and evil, benefit and harm. In a normative state, human beings adopt cultural norms suitable for themselves and the particular circumstances, times, and places in which they live. Thus, the basic purpose of cultural conventions is to obtain benefits and ward off harms to the furthest extent possible in widely divergent contexts. From the perspective of Islamic law, the nature of indigenous cultures and subcultures is fundamentally linked to the wellbeing of the social groups that have adopted them. For this reason, Muslim jurists regard Islam’s endorsement of diverse cultural norms as an instance of its overriding commitment to acquiring benefits and protecting from harms.

Cultural conventions make up a fundamental part of identity and have a strong hold over people accustomed to them. Islamic law acknowledges this reality and expresses it in the form of the legal maxim: “Custom is second nature” (al-ʿāda ṭabīʿa thāniya).

Customs are so deeply ingrained in people that it is difficult to distinguish them from their intrinsic natures. Therefore, it is all the more wise, from the standpoint of the law, to leave customs unchanged insofar as possible. Changing customary conventions unnecessarily is detrimental, because of the strong connection between customs and societal needs. When unhealthy customs must be altered or repealed, the process requires wise strategies and must be given time. Here again, the Prophet’s example sets the precedent; he brought his Companions into full compliance with Islamic norms gradually through a process that lasted more than two decades.

Some Muslims challenge the validity of indigenous customs by citing the Hadith mentioned earlier: “Whoever imitates (tashabbaha) a people belongs to them.” As noted, the Hadith condemns the servile imitation of others; it does not condemn healthy cultural interaction or the mere act of resembling (tashābaha) other people.

The value of such interaction is especially clear when it is done for laudable reasons like living with others harmoniously and building bridges of understanding and cooperation. Furthermore, it is indisputable in the light of a body of authentic Hadith that the Prophet himself often wore various types of non-Muslim clothing that were given to him as gifts from Byzantium, Yemen, and other distant regions.

When introduced to this maxim, “custom has the weight of law,” some American Muslims have anxieties about which indigenous customs are acceptable and which are not. In certain cases, their response reflects the culture of inhibition in which many of them grew up and the general presumption of prohibition common to that culture. It should also be noted that the word “culture” has taken on a pejorative meaning for many Muslims in America, especially those who come from immigrant families. For them, the word “culture” is often associated with the old world folkways of their parents, certain aspects of which they may deem to be “un-Islamic,” in conflict with American norms, or otherwise unacceptable.

“Custom has the weight of law” cannot be invoked to repeal what is clearly obligatory or prohibited in the Prophetic law, and the law categorically repudiates detrimental and degenerate customs.

But, as has been seen, Islamic law takes an open-minded attitude toward customs in general, and, when judging cultural norms, it prefers to err on the side of leniency and not rigidity. The presumption of permissibility also applies to indigenous customs; customs too must be presumed acceptable until proven otherwise. A relevant maxim states: “Permissibility is the basic rule in customs” (al-aṣl fi al-ʿādāt al-ibāḥa). As before, the burden of proof that a particular customary convention is impermissible falls exclusively on those who repudiate it, not on those who affirm it. Nevertheless, in borderline cases, the law prefers to err on the side of lenience. The applicable maxim in this regard states: “The basic rule in customs is exemption” (al-aṣl fī al-ʿādāt al-ʿafw), meaning that they are exempt from blame.

Accommodation of indigenous cultures made it possible for Islam to lay indigenous roots wherever it spread on the continents of Africa and Eurasia. Muslims learned new weights and measurements.

They adopted and enriched local languages. In addition to the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims adopted solar and astral calendars to determine the seasons and the best times for planting and harvest. They designed distinctive styles of dress; the long onepiece garment (thawb) and many other items of clothing that some Muslims today call “Sunna” are largely cultural products and differ significantly from the dress of the Prophet and his Companions. Muslim cultural genius is still reflected in simple things like the ways they receive guests and prepare food and in grand things like their achievements in regional styles of art and architecture.

Throughout the pre-modern period, local expressions of Islam bore witness to indigenous cultural creativity. When Islam entered Indonesia, Muslims found that the standard Islamic call to prayer (adhān) did not always serve its purpose. The human voice could not carry well in the dense Indonesian rain forests. Muslims adopted the local cultural convention of communicating through “talking” drums. They preserved the Sunna of making the prayer call but complemented it by using enormous drums, which they hung horizontally outside their mosques and beat loudly to call people to prayer. The deep, hollow sounds of the drums resonated through the forests. The drumbeats signified that the place from which they came was empty and needed to be filled; they stopped what they were doing and came to prayer.

In many parts of Indonesia, Muslims worked in rice paddies and came to the mosques with muddy feet. Instead of repeatedly reminding the rice farmers to clean their feet before entering the mosques, indigenous architects constructed shallow pools in front of the mosque entrances. The farmers could not enter the mosques without walking through them, which cleaned their feet. But the standing water in the pools created the potential hazard of becoming habitats for mosquitoes and other insects. So the pools were also used tobreed carp; the fish ate the insect larvae, and the people ate the fish.

In speaking about creating an indigenous Muslim culture in the United States, it must be emphasized that such a culture would not be a single, monolithic whole, nor would it necessarily develop along the lines of the dominant culture or any particular subculture.

American culture, like human cultures everywhere, is not a single uniform entity. It is a complex of many diverse cultures and subcultures coexisting. They complement and compete against each other and have the same relation with the dominant culture of the mainstream. Endorsement of American culture means being open-minded toward all the multiple expressions of the indigenous cultural heritage. As emphasized before, the maxim “culture has the weight of law” disallows outright rejection of any of cultural or subcultural legacy; the maxim allows American Muslims to adopt or to adapt what they like from what they like as long as it is not detrimental. Our attitude should remain consistent with Islam’s default position that customs are presumed to be permissible, beneficial, and good until proven otherwise; in borderline cases, we have recourse to the maxim “the basic rule in customs is exemption.”

In traditional Muslim societies, creative adaptation of indigenous norms was conspicuous and often more beneficial than mere adoption of them. Likewise, American Muslims need not be content with just adopting good cultural norms; it is often better to adapt them imaginatively in order to produce results that are more beautiful and more beneficial than what existed before. In this regard, noteworthy achievements have already been made in areas like music, poetry, comedy, journalism, fiction, non-fiction, fashion, and interior design.

One of the most significant cultural challenges before American Muslims is to design truly indigenous styles of American mosques. The American mosque should not have a single set form. As stated above, American culture is multiplex; American mosques must reflect that complexity and suit the localities and neighborhoods where they are built. Several North American Muslim communities have made laudable efforts in this direction already.

Throughout history, Muslim mosques have been the products of regional cultures and subcultures. Islam does not dictate a set design for mosques; the only necessary architectural element in a mosque is that it have an area for prayer. Some Muslims regard domes and minarets as essential features of the mosque. The Prophet’s mosque did not have a dome or minarets during his lifetime.

Domes and minarets were post-Prophetic cultural innovations in the Muslim world. The dome were a relatively late development in Islamic architecture; its design was created to allow for expansive prayer areas that were not taken up by pillars in an age when builders did not have access to iron and steel beams. Minarets were also later developments. They were ideal for making the call to prayer in an age without microphones, but they also had a second primary purpose. Just as lighthouses are beacons for ships, minarets were originally beacons for caravans. Bonfires were lit on the tops of the minarets after the night prayer to give distant caravans a point of reference. The name “minaret” reflects their original cultural function; in Arabic mināra (minaret) means “place of fire.” Muslims in China, Andalusia, and North and West Africa did not adopt domes or minarets, in part, because they did not suit their environments.

A mosque should fit in harmoniously with its surroundings. Historically, the design, structure, and landscaping of mosques were suited to local and regional architectural norms, topography, and climate. Mosques should not clash with indigenous tastes and styles; they should not appear out of place or give the impression of being foreign transplants. Like all architectural achievements, creation of American mosque styles requires artistic, technical, and cultural genius. At a time when secular architecture is the dominant norm, the Western mosque must be attractive and inviting by today’s standards yet readily identifiable as sacred space.

Related Answers:

Giving & Receiving Christmas Gifts
Partaking in a Thanksgiving Dinner: Permitted or Not?
Did The Prophetﷺ or Companions Partake in Poetry?
Listening to Islamic Songs with Musical Instruments
Denim Clothes, Saris, and Imitating The Unbelievers
Can Women Wear Colourful Clothing?
Women & The Workplace

Related podcasts and videos:

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In Conversation with Dr. Umar Abd-Allah: Islam and The Cultural Imperative
 
Mercy of Diversity: Cultivating Understanding Despite Difference (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)

Video: True Religion Celebrates Diversity – Eid 2010 Sermon by Imam Zaid Shakir

True Religion Celebrates Diversity – Eid 2010 Sermon by Imam Zaid Shakir

On the occasion of Eid Al-Fitr, Imam Zaid Shakir delivers a sermon on the theme of unity in diversity. Brought to you by Zaytuna College, www.zaytunacollege.org. Video Credit: Shafath Syed.