Islam, Culture, and Civilization: Points to Be Debated

M Tehami Bashar Alawi for
Culture or civilization is the manifestation of ideology and behaviour of a nation. It also includes their customs and rituals. While Islam is a set of divine instructions which are meant to purify human life in its individual as well as collective spheres. In this respect, it is not a culture or civilization.
It is true that a culture may include Islam in it and adjust itself accordingly, then, Islam becomes one of its cultural factors. In the early time of Islam, then civilization imbibed Islam and let Islamic injunctions and instructions reflect through it. However, this reflection was more on ethical grounds than cultural one. The religion except for making some basic social and individual reforms did nothing more nor does religion demand anymore.
In the early time of Islam, people lived in a tribal environment, hence had warlike tendency. They found in the religious injunctions on holy war, a legitimate way to satisfy their warlike leaning.
However, tribalism in the early Muslims could find very less outlets because their tribalism was directed towards fighting non-believers. Still, it did find its way at times, which ultimately came afore in full during the bloody conflicts between Umayyids and Hashmids and later Abbasids.
After the time of the prophet PBHU, Islam could no longer be an influential factor as it was earlier. Fortunately, the non-Arab nations, which converted to Islam, had no such big problems with Islam, that is why, despite having many secondary level things which were not in accordance with Islam, they embraced Islam. No strong reaction came from their social circles against the things which were un-Islamic in their culture, so they went on with Islam and their un-Islamic norms side by side. For example, in India, women were not supposed to receive shares in inheritance. Islam despite having unequivocal command on woman’s share in inheritance, could not persuade Muslims of India to give woman’s due share of inheritance. These un-Islamic cultural customs further perpetuated when religious scholars compromised with the local culture and interpreted the religious teachings accordingly.
However, despite such un-Islamic general trends in the civilizations which embraced Islam, recognition of the true spirit of religion through its primary sources stayed alive all the time in every culture. The campaign of Abdul Wahab al Najadi aroused similar campaigns in India, such as Ahl –e-Hadith and Deoband, who stood against the un-Islamic but Islamized customs. They declared them un-Islamic and heretic. But despite their verdicts against these rites and rituals, public did not stop practicing them.
If we analyze the psychological makeup of these scholars, we come to know that in spite of criticizing some cultural phenomena, their own mentality accepts cultural norms more than the religion. This is well indicated through their behaviour, which is a reflection of their own culture, rather than religious ethics. For example, Islam had deeply influenced the ethics and morality of early Muslims, but it badly failed to reform the cultural behavior of the Muslims of the subcontinent.
In the Indian culture, we find great exaggerated reverential attitude towards their great personalities. Hindu mythology treats such human figures as gods and demigods. This attitude can well be observed in the Muslim religious circles for the religion personalities. This debate leads to us to conclude that Islam never adopted a civilization, rather, the civilizations adopted Islam and adjusted themselves accordingly with different ratios. There can hardly be any civilization which is a pure product of Islam.
In this modern age, the western civilization in its structure and demonstration is a very different civilization as compared to other ones of the past. Its approach towards freedom of thought, an emphasis on secularism, ethical grounds, social norms, the concept of family and individual, especially regarding the status of man and women are quite new and different from that of the past civilizations. With respect to religion, it has adopted quite a different approach. Having these distinguishing aspects of this civilization, there is little prospects that it may adopt Islam and adjust itself accordingly. The maximum one can expect is that its individuals accept Islam on their own. Now the question comes from which aspects of their civilization, they have to detach themselves from. Here, those people are answering this question, who do not actually belong to this civilization. They cannot treat it as their own civilization nor can have the sensitivity which one can feel for one’s own civilization. This is why such people keeping in view the pure religious demands, demand for change in their behaviour and actions of the individual who belong to western culture. Because this civilization is an alien to our religious minded people and Islamic scholars, many of its cultural norms are declared un-Islamic without due consideration. One can understand this reaction of religious minded people because this civilization is based on secularism, free sex, and liberal concept of woman.
Other so called Islamic civilizations which have such un-Islamic trends in their culture tend to interpret them to adjust them in the frame of Islam, but this concession they are not ready to give to the western civilization.
We need to consider following points to debate on the Islam and civilization:
i. Individuals should be given space to adjust his or her religion according to his or her cultural priorities, that is, besides the very basic demands and requirements of religion, by using the faculty of Ijtihad, the individuals should be given space in the fields of precautionary religious measures, so that they may adjust their religious and cultural priorities according to their cultural demands thus save themselves from unnecessary conflicts with their civilization
ii. For example, the matter of western woman’s casual and ceremonial dress, shaking hands with women should be dealt on a broader base. However, the religious unequivocal uncompromising stance on free sex should be told in its clear term. In the matter like head covering of women, and shaking hands with them, a rigid approach will not work.
iii. On ideological basis, the civilizations should be reviewed to point out the aspects which go against Islamic demands, and then try to Islamize them.
However, our study confirms that no civilization ever takes religion as the sole factor to construct their social and cultural fabric, the most we can do is to try to change the things which are on in accordance with the spirit and basic structure and demands of religion and compromise with others which are not in direct conflict with religion.

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