I found this article written by Zakariya Dehlawi, a columnist at the Daily of the University of Washington. I'm sharing it here as a primer on how Islam affects the cultures it comes in contact with. Plus, there's a line about silat, so how could I resist?
There’s a difference between what Islam’s role in culture should be versus what Islam’s role in culture actually is, or, more relevant, the influence of culture on Islam, which is a challenge faced by American Muslims. Either way, it’s hard to quantify “Islamic Culture.”
This is a big topic, and once again I need to qualify that my own knowledge of the subject is limited. I apologize for any mistakes, all of which are my own, while any benefits you glean are due to God’s grace.
Islamic culture is a misnomer, but a popular one. I find myself using it often when trying to quantify the achievements of Muslims throughout history and geography. In reality, Muslims come from diverse and multi-ethnic backgrounds. This leads to millions of cultural traditions and very little cultural overlap. Silat, the traditional martial arts form practiced in Malaysia and Indonesia, is radically different from horse racing in Morocco. But both fall under the umbrella of Muslim or Islamic culture.
Even things which are considered iconically Muslim, like the headscarf (Which by the way is not unique to Islam), is worn differently depending on cultural context; with different styles, from the colorful patterns in Somalia to plain black in Saudi Arabia.
The reason these traditions persisted and flourished is because of how Islam treats local practices. Islam is there to supplement and guide the existing customs. My teacher, Abdul Hakim Jackson, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies, put it best when he explained that when Islam came to an area, it tilted the direction of life, not forced it into a 180.
Within fiqh (Islamic law and jurisprudence) there are concessions given to accepted local traditions, provided they’re not harmful and violate Islamic sources. These considerations are called ‘urf.’ Islam is not a fully-fledged replacement culture; Islam is a religion, and is about worshipping God and acting in a manner pleasing to God.
One of the drawbacks of this diversity is that it allows culture to pervade Islam, and local practices become synonymous and justified as Islamic. Pakistani culture becomes Muslim culture, because that’s how people were raised. The problem becomes even more apparent in the United States.
The United States attracts Muslims from all over the world, each bringing their own preconceived notions of Islamic traditions. The difficulty arises when these various notions need to be reconciled – Iraqis, Vietnamese and even Muslims indigenous to the United States, such as African-Americans – in order to function as a community. This development is slowly progressing into an actual Muslim-American culture, which is a synthesis of the environment.
Adding to the complication are the first generation, second generation and beyond, of Muslims who were born and raised in the United States. These people often incorporate what some immigrant Muslims label as “American” or “Western” cultural influence. But this implies that Muslims are somehow out of the American cultural landscape, which is not the case.
Muslims can be found throughout American society in all levels, each contributing to our society in their own ways. Fazlur Khan is notable for being the structural engineer who designed the Sears Tower, and iconic symbol as the tallest building in the United States. Some Muslims overtly show how Islam influences their cultural contribution, such as hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco who incorporated a Muslim prayer in his CD. Others, like Dave Chappelle, don’t blatantly publicize it.
The heritage of the many ethnic groups within Islam will continue to play a role in forming a specific Muslim-American culture. What will be more interesting to see is what facets of these cultures will become incorporated in what we consider our dominant American way.
Reach columnist Zakariya Dehlawi at firstname.lastname@example.org.