A Cultural Paradigm

Bismi Allah

*Allah made us all a different shade and colour. Nations and tribes recognize one another cuz every single Muslim is your sister or your brother. So many different colours of Islam...*

Culture is a fascinating phenomenon. It distinguishes people from different lands all across the world.

However, today conformity lingers in the air, but not with a single tradition. Instead, one will often see the 'dual life' being played out. One part of life is conforming to the values of our upbringing, ethnic background, and 'culture' while the other part of life involves conforming to some type of 'subculture' within society wherein people adopt a communally accepted image which is simultaneously tolerated by most and frowned upon by others.

There is goodness in having a culture, but I have trouble with the concept of a dual life dictating incongruities. I personally can't imagine having to 'alter' myself in any drastic way when my environment changes. To do such, I suspect, would make me feel as though I am being untrue to myself. Of note, I am referring to adopting superficial ways and not adopting good values or propriety.

Like most, I have an ethnic lineage. I am aware and grateful for my background and all that which makes me the person that I am. I am "Indian." Though born in Africa, I cannot call myself "African" per se because Africans are black and I'm brown and declaring myself "African" alone would be misleading (somehow, it all comes down to race). When asked where I'm from, my usual reply is "I'm from Zambia, but my roots are Indian." My parents speak languages of both ethnicities, and eat foods from both ethnic lands as well. And of course, they do the same with what has been seen as 'non-ethnic' namely adopting English and aspects of the 'white culture.' But, I am as little Indian and as little African as I am white. So what does that make me?

In elementary school, I was first introduced to the formal definition of "culture." I think in some subtle way the consequences of my reflections at the time influenced the decisions that I made into my teenage years and currently into adulthood. In that class, culture was essentially defined as one's way of life or that which directs one in one's life. At that point, I asked myself, "What makes me do what I do?" "What guides me?" I realized then that the only thing I could consistently attribute as my 'culture' as defined in that class, was Islam. SubhanAllah. I thought then, "So wait.. does that mean Islam is my culture? Is it possible for religion to also be one's culture?" I decided then that it didn't matter if it was linguistically possible or not because my reality showed it to be true.

Unfortunately though, this becomes problematic for me because it excludes me from what most consider a cultural group. I find that many of those whom I share a strong sense of affinity with (my good friends) connect with me on our ability to communicate well with each other and to use Islam, in its beauty of moderation and not extremism, as our baseline. That is not to say they are as 'culturally undefined' as I see myself, but still we connect on a level beyond culture. When interacting, we use our normative cultural differences as something to appreciate from each other.

Culture is not meant to be disuniting. It is meant to bring appreciation for each other. It is a blessing. God tells us in the Quran:

O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know and deal with each other in kindness (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God (is he who is) the most righteous of you, and God is Knower, Aware. [Al-Hujurat - 49:13]

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the Arabian peninsula's social makeup was founded upon tribal affiliations. Conflict amongst neighbouring tribes was common and even deadly. Vengeance was the norm. Tribal honour was to be upheld at all costs. Islam changed this so that one's honour came from one's servitude to God. Honour was endowed with depth, and superficial tribal considerations were demolished.

Consider the lengths that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, went to in order to disable the negativity that tribal commitments created. He, peace be upon him, married women from a variety of tribes in order to unite the tribes. SubhanAllah. Really... this is a profound thing.

Unfortunately, Muslims of today find that mosques, houses of God, cannot be built because of cultural barriers. There are too many incidences where Muslims themselves have severed ties with other Muslims on the basis of culture, thus ignoring what Islam dictates and instead becoming victims of their cultural pride.

In this way, as a community we have moved back to the days of ignorance leaving us in a bad state. When Muslims pass by each other and only feel comfortable greeting each other when they find that they are of the same ethnicity, we have a serious problem. When people cannot marry each other because they are not from the right village 'back home,' a village they have never seen and will likely never see, then we have a problem. These mere examples express problems because these are against the standards of wisdom set for us by Islam.

As a community, we need to change ourselves so that culture is no longer a prison for us, an oppressor, but instead it is a fruit of goodness for us, a liberator.

Again, I can't help but be extremely grateful that my family only requires that I am true to my faith and encourage me to live in such a way. The fact that I do not have to live a 'dual life' is a blessing indeed.

Thank you Allah!

*....Fill the world with colour, paint it everywhere you go. Paint everything you see and tell everyone you know. Quran will be your paints and your brush will be imaan, so fill the world with colour every colour of Islam.*
- Dawud W. Ali

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"Do you think that you will enter the Paradise without such (trials) as came to those who passed away before you? They encountered suffering and adversity and were so shaken in spirit that even the Apostle and those of faith who were with him cried: 'When (will come) the help of God?' Ah! Verily the help of God is (always) near!" [2:214]



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"Be mindful of God, and God will protect you. Be mindful of God, and you will find Him in front of you. If you ask, ask of God. If you seek help, seek help of God. Know that if the whole world were to gather together to benefit you with anything, it would benefit you only with something that God had already prescribed for you. And if the whole world were to gather together to harm you, it would harm you only with something that God has already prescribed for you. The pens have been lifted and the ink has dried."
--Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him]