UNILATERAL CULTURAL DISARMAMENTS: Reflecting on the Ways of our Ancestors
by Karima Omar
The brother meant well, I know he did. But, after devoting the better part of an hour to lambasting my homeland; after roasting, frying, and char-broiling the culture in which I was raised (or lowered), he turned to me and remarked, “Masha’-Allah, it’s so nice to see someone like you someone who’s come up so far.”
Hmmm. Well, never mind the fact that it was his first encounter with me; disregard the fact that his patronizingly positive assessment of my character was based primarily on my modest dress and my failure to guzzle beer and snap bubble gum like a Real American. Never mind it was intended as a compliment, and I took it as one - with a grain of salt large enough to give me hypertension and edema for life. He left me with something to chew on long after he and his wife had rushed home to tape their beloved prime-time soap. Come up? From where? I mused. Granted, I (hopefully) have improved (dramatically) since accepting Islam. True, I do cringe at certain memories of my salad days, and from the vantage point of Islam, regard my jahiliyah in general with a delicate shudder.
But, hey—come to think of it, I wasn’t all that bad. Appearances to the contrary , I was neither raised by wolves nor schooled in the gutter. I came from a perfectly civilized family who taught me to tell the truth, clean my plate, speak only when spoken to (believe it or not), and never, never to say “irregardless.” Barring a few eccentricities, my Christian parents unwittingly raised me with a good many Islamic values. In fact, my lifestyle as a Muslim isn’t too radically different from theirs. But, as much as I hate to dash the lurid, prime-time assumptions of some, I haven’t diverged from the ways of my ancestors entirely.
But even if I had, even if my forefathers had worshipped Hubal and Lut and Spiro Agnew, even if they had swilled A-positive blood and sacrificed conceptual artists to daffodils, I would still not have the right to revile them—nor to allow them to be disparaged. In fact, Aisha narrated a provocative hadith on this score. Apparently, Hassan bin Thabit once asked for the Prophet’s permission to lampoon the pagans in satirical poetry .The Prophet simply replied, “What about the fact that I have common descent with them?” (Bukhari), even though they had dumped camel intestines on him, boycotted the Muslims for three years, and slain his closest companions.
His concise response is quite profound. The pagans hadn’t simply offended the sensibilities of garden variety Muslims such as ourselves. They had abused ֖ physically, psychologically, and verbally the Seal of the Prophets. Yet not only did he refuse to wage a personal vendetta against them for his own satisfaction, but he actually dignified them by acknowledging their common lineage.
From this example, we can see that we shouldn’t return ridicule and animosity with more of the same, and that we are neither overly sensitive nor disloyal to our fellow Muslims when we flinch at their graphic descriptions of our Christian parents or Taoist siblings or Jewish kindergarten teachers roasting in the fires of hell. Islam respects the institution of the family to the point of Rasulullah’s asserting, “The person who severs the bond of kinship will not enter paradise” (Bukhari). “Family” is generic, not exclusive, encompassing all families—not just our own.
For centuries, Islam has given people of vastly disparate cultures and backgrounds a common Islamic identity while allowing them to retain their own national flavors and keep the bonds of kinship intact. It has never required its adherents to contract amnesia nor demanded the sort of unilateral cultural disarmament we often see new Muslim impose on themselves today. There is often a tacit expectation for Western Muslims to adopt Muslim ways, rather than Islamic ones, to renounce their culture in total. The grounds for this seem to be the notion that the reverts’ Down ancestral ways are simply too corrupt and deyoid of any redeeming qualities to be retained for any purpose.
Were this applied specifically to un-Islamic aspects of culture, it would be commendable as well as commanded. But often, the new Muslim is expected to wear the same styles, consume the same cuisine, and enjoy the same pastimes as his or her “used” counterparts ֖ in short, to make compulsory the Islamically neutral, and in some cases, even the forbidden. When these customs are within the boundaries of Islam as well as the products of a natural and spontaneous preference, they are perfectly acceptable. It is wrong, however, if these efforts are contrived, if they go against our personal tastes and instincts. If the apparel with a label from a Muslim land is actually more suggestive than our old Calvins, it is wrong. If we have to gag our way through that meal or feel like a refugee from a costume party in that imported clothing or force a smile at that joke, then it is ridiculous-and potentially lethal to our Islam. No fish can survive out of water, no human spirit however sincere, can thrive in an alien environment of its own making. We don’t have to eat our cultural Wheaties to become identical to this group or that we should work with what Allah has given us, hone and polish and clean it up. Universality is the essence of Islam; to force changes where they are not warranted defies this and diverts our energy from the areas which need to be altered. After all, “among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors.֔ (30:22)
Variety may continue to be the spice . of our lives—and our umma. It is ironic that some new Muslims discard their cultures indiscriminately, while some (some!) veteran Muslims refuse to renounce even the un-Islamic facets of theirs. Neither of these two extremes wholesale rejection nor wholehearted acceptance is healthy, for each connotes a blind, unthinking conviction. Islam teaches us to be selective, to analyze, to keep the best of our upbringing and discard only that which will hinder us from our Goal.
While we’re cleaning out our inner closets of un-Islamic rubbish, we often confuse patriotism with chauvinism, tossing both into the same trash heap. Actually, Islam contains ample room for love of one’s country and people, for, as Sayyidina Muhammad said, “Patriotism arises from faith.” Only when it is blown out of proportion, when it mutates into delusions of ethnic superiority, when it supplants love of Allah and allegiance to the Muslim umma, does it become sinful. Because of the social and political climate of today’s world, many Muslims, and many other people harbor a great deal of anger and resentment towards the West. While these frustrations are usually well founded, they are often misplaced/misdirected towards Americans or Europeans in general, rather than their governments in particular. As Islam captures more and more hearts in unlikely places, it becomes imperative that we call a moratorium on ethnic contumelies of any kind ֖ against any of Allah’s creatures. We must stop allowing ourselves to violate the ayah, And let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice” (5:8). I cannot count the number of instances in which Muslims have decried the stupid, amoral, imperialist American swine in my presence, without stopping to consider that there was just such a creature in their midst, with a family full of the same. When this point has been raised, it has more often than not been met with, “but you’re not really an American,” delivered in placatory tones one might use with a small child or a sick houseplant. I guess the State Department would be relieved to hear that, although I wonder how they would explain my passport and birth certificate. All Muslims can claim non-Muslim ancestors; still, they have usually been able to strike the balance between Islam and the acceptable ways of their forefathers. The forced adoption of an alien culture overshadows and obscures the pure beauty of Islam and adds gasoline to our countrymen’s flaming conviction of our dementia.
Clearly, such matters are not to be taken lightly. Rasulullah said, “Two things are found among men which are tantamount to unbelief: slandering one’s lineage and lamentation of the dead.” (Muslim) Islam is universal—therefore, everyone is either a Muslim, a latent Muslim, or a potential Muslim. As we see this glorious truth manifest to an increasing degree, we should beef up security on our own tongues, for “It may be that Allah will grant love (and friendship) between you and those whom you now hold as enemies” (60:7).
After all, today’s kafir could be tomorrow’s mu’min. Besides, when we assail any individual, we must bear in mind that he or she may well have common descent with a Muslim or two.
Originally printed in the Winter, 1993 edition of The American Muslim
Editors note (2001): We will miss KarimaӒs humor. She passed away a few years ago. We will be reprinting old articles and poetry to share with those of you who missed out on her wonderful sense of the absurd.