Islam versus Inherited Culture-Based Religiosity. By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan


Some days ago, somebody sent me a list of questions and requested me to respond to them. They were mostly related to what can be called ‘inherited’ and ‘culture-based’ religiosity.
Most people, the questioner began, blindly follow the religion into which they were born. This applies to both most non-Muslims and Muslims. They follow, or have an emotional association with, a particular religion simply because they were born into families that have been linked to that religion for generations. What, the questioner wanted to know, does Islam say about such inherited religiosity?
I replied to him saying that inherited religion or religiosity has no value. One’s religion should be a matter of free and conscious choice. True religiousness is self-discovered religion, which is very different from inherited religion.
Like other people, the present-day Muslims’ religiosity is, by and large, an inherited one. But this kind of religiosity is not enough. Muslims must rediscover their religion by re-studying the Quran and Sunna. Their faith commitment must be a conscious decision based on discovery of the truth of Islam, and not simply because they have inherited their religion from their forefathers.
This principle is given in the Quran (49:14) in these words:
“The Arabs of the desert say, ‘We have believed.’ Say to them, ‘You have not believed yet; say rather, “We have submitted,” for faith has not yet entered into your hearts’”.
Most people, I explained to the questioner, believe in a religion simply because they are, in a sense, born into it. This is due to conditioning. Everyone is born in a particular family, society or culture. One is continually and powerfully conditioned in and by the environment into which one is born. This is a social phenomenon. Perhaps no one is exempted from this social conditioning.
This phenomenon is referred to in the Quran (5:104) in these words:
“[W]hen it is said to them, ‘Come to what God has sent down and to the Messenger.’ They reply, ‘The faith we have inherited from our fathers is sufficient for us.’”
What, the questioner asked, does inherited religiosity mean for the search for Truth and the purpose of life?
I replied by saying that it is common experience that every person applies his reason in matters related to him. For example, a person uses his reason to select the job or business he thinks is best suited to him. The same is required in the case of religion as well. Truth is, or should be, the greatest concern of every human being. Every human being is born as a seeker of truth. And so, a person who, because of social conditioning, blindly follows his ancestral tradition and fails to apply his reason while doing so, leaves his natural spirit of inquiry unaddressed. Consequently, he finds himself wracked by dissatisfaction and despair, because it is impossible to be at peace mind without discovering the Truth by oneself.
The questioner then asked:
“Some people who are born into families that call themselves ‘Muslim’ may believe in, or have an emotional connection with, Islam simply because of being born and socialized in a ‘Muslim’ family, and not because of any inner realization, reflection, realization or comparative study. What do you have to say about this khandani mazhabiyat or family-based religiosity of theirs?”
I replied by saying that these kinds of emotions are what I termed ‘qaumi emotions’, emotions that come from being a member of a certain qaum or community, membership being generally based on birth in that particular community. They are not ‘Islamic emotions’. Qaumi emotions are manifested in such cultural matters. People whose religiosity is of the qaumi kind never have the taste of love of God or fear of God. Their religion is ‘community religion’, not divine religion.
Naturally, this sort of religiosity is not at all adequate for salvation. Salvation is not a mysterious word. It is based on tazkiya, that is, purification of one’s soul. It requires a purified soul to achieve salvation. No other thing can qualify one to attain salvation.
The questioner continued:
“You have written against the perception that many people (both Muslims and others) have of Islam as a qaumi mazhab, the religion of a particular qaum or community. What exactly did you mean by qaumi mazhab?”
By qaumi mazhab, I replied, I mean an understanding of religion that is based on the culture of a community. Every religion begins as an ideology, but, after some generations, it gets reduced to a culture. And this is the case of present Muslims, too. There may be some individual exceptions, but the Muslim masses are living on this qaumi mazhab. Qaumi mazhab is a universal phenomenon. In every religion you can find a cultural form. It is a social phenomenon, and is not present only among Muslims.
True Islam, I explained, is that which is discovered through the Quran and Sunna. On the other hand, qaumi mazhab is based on and reflects a community’s traditions. The first is based on intellectual discovery, while the second is based on the traditions and culture of a community. There is thus a stark difference between the two.
Continuing his discussion about qaumi mazhab and the mistaken conflation of religion and culture, the questioner related:
“Some people (Muslims and others) relate Islam to a particular cultural community. So, they think that for a non-Muslim to become a Muslim, he must also completely accept the external trappings of the culture of that community so that he becomes indistinguishable, in cultural terms, from other members of this community. Thus, it is sometimes said that he should adopt not just the religious beliefs and practices of the Muslims but also their culture—for example, names, dress, food habits, the prolific use of Arabic phrases, language, emotional affiliation with Muslim countries and causes, etc.. It is also said that that someone who accepts Islam should give up all cultural practices associated with the community which he belonged to earlier, even some of those practices that do not violate Islamic beliefs.”
How did I see this approach, the questioner wanted to know. Was it Islamic?
I responded by saying that the present Muslims are obsessed with what in Urdu is called shanakht or identity. But according to what I have understood, there is nothing as ‘Islamic cultural identity’ as such. Cultural identity is based on geography, while Islam is based on belief or ideology. Thus, a Muslim’s identity is, or should be, his ideology, and not any kind of cultural form.
The Muslim community’s culture is thus not part of Islam, I stressed. It has to do with the community, not with Islam as such. And so, I added, if someone accepts Islam as an ideology, there is no need for her or him to accept the community culture of Muslims. Hence, I explained, the mistaken conflation of religion and culture is against the Islamic spirit. Also, it is against the universal approach of Islam. From the Islamic viewpoint, it is totally wrong, and undesirable, too, to expect such a total cultural transformation in a person who accepts Islam. In principle itself the insistence on the adoption of a particular culture in the name of Islam is wrong—the question of its possibility or impossibility comes later.
I then added that some Muslim scholars have categorized the Sunna of the Prophet into two parts: sunnat-e-sabitah and sunnat-e-adiyah. Sunnat-e-sabitah means that sunnat of the Prophet which was part of his prophetic mission, and we, as Muslims, have to follow it. Sunnat-e-adiyah means sunnat as a habit. The Prophet was born in Arabia, and some cultural habits were prevalent there. The Prophet, being an Arab, adopted some of these habits. However, these habits are not obligatory for other Muslims.
The Prophet engaged in dawah work. This is a sunnat of the Prophet that belongs to the sunnat-e-sabitah category. Thus, every Muslim has to follow it. Then, the Prophet used khizab, or dye on his beard. But this dyeing of the beard was an Arabian habit of the Prophet’s time. This is not an example of sunnat-e-sabitah, so we do not need to follow it.
The fact of the matter is, I went on, that there is no single Muslim culture. After the Prophet of Islam departed from this world, his Companions went out of Arabia and settled in different parts of Asia and Africa. There has been a very long history of Islamic presence outside Arabia, in different cultural contexts and regions. People in these lands embraced Islam in the ideological sense, but they retained much of their indigenous culture, and no one objected to this.
In every region of the world, Muslims thus retained or adopted, moulded and developed local cultures. There are many forms of Muslim culture: Arab forms, various African forms, European forms, Indian forms, and so on. Muslims have accepted all these forms. This fact itself is a proof that culture is rooted in geography, and is not an exclusively religious phenomenon. When a community lives in a region, it gradually adopts the culture of that region. No one, I explained to the questioner, can afford to live as a cultural island in any region or country, unaffected or uninfluenced by the wider cultural context. Hence, the insistence by some on the adoption of a particular community culture by those who accept Islam and totally abandoning their previous culture is not proper.
The fact is that Muslim culture is related to the Muslim community, and not necessarily to Islam as such. Everyone, I stressed, has the absolute right to accept Islam as an ideology, but it is not compulsory for him or her to accept the community culture of Muslims.
The questioner further asked:
“In line with the qaumi mazhab understanding of Islam, some people (both ‘Muslims’ and others) think that for a non-Muslim to accept Islam also must entail joining the cultural community that today calls itself ‘Muslim’. Is this approach correct? Is it necessary for someone who accepts Islam to also join this community? Or can one be a Muslim without choosing to culturally and emotionally identify oneself as a member of this community?”
I responded by stating that this thinking among Muslims is based on ghulu, or extremism. Ghulu means giving something the importance that it does not deserve. Muslims have strictly been asked to refrain from engaging ghulu. In today’s language, ghulu can be explained as a shift of emphasis. One cannot give emphasis to two things at the same time. If you give emphasis to one, the other becomes secondary. When Muslims began giving emphasis to so-called ‘Muslim culture’, the spirit of Islam became a secondary issue. Due to this way of thinking, Muslims are in great loss, because for them the form or externals of so-called ‘Muslim culture’ is of great importance while they lack the spirit of Islam. They are totally devoid of the true spirit of Islam. This is the result of ghulu.
The questioner then requested me to share my thoughts on how the qaumi mazhab-approach leads many Muslims confine their love and concerns only to fellow Muslims, and makes them indifferent, if not hostile, to the rest of humanity. How does this relate to the true teachings of Islam, he wanted to know.
In reply, I cited a verse in the Quran (33:4), which says:
“God has not placed two hearts in any man’s body”.
This verse refers to an aspect of human psychology. If a person makes his own community his concern, he will not be able to make the whole of mankind his concern. When this happens, he will think on the lines of “Muslim empowerment”, but he will not be at all concerned about engaging in dawat ilallah, that is, conveying the message of God to all human beings. Hence, the qaumi mazhab way of (mis-)construing Islam is a great hurdle in doing dawah work. Qaumi mazhab develops a ghetto and separatist mentality. And a ghetto mentality is quite against the Islamic spirit.
The questioner then asked:
“Today, the world over, Muslims are in a state of degradation—stricken with hatred, violence, narrow-mindedness, poverty etc.. In such a context, do you think people of other faiths would seriously want to consider Islam if this necessarily means having to become a member of a community that is in such a state?”
I replied that present Muslims are a major obstacle in causing people to come towards Islam. They are playing a negative role with regard to Islam. They are wrongly making Islam unacceptable for others. And so, it is obligatory on the part of Muslims to change this image and approach of theirs. I also added that to join a community is a social aspect, and not a necessary requirement of Islam.
If acceptance of Islam does not mean joining this community of ‘Muslims by birth’, then which community does or should a person who embraces Islam join, the questioner wanted to know.
I replied, saying that it is a matter of convenience. Man is a social animal. He needs a social life. Everyone is allowed to join the community which he likes, and which is convenient for him.
Suppose, the questioner went on, if someone who embraces Islam after studying it and engaging in reflection feels that his understanding of Islam is totally different from the narrow-minded sectarian interpretations and practices of the different maslaks and jamaats. Because of this and he does not want to consider himself as a member of any of these jamaats and maslaks. In such a situation, what community affiliation should he have? Or can he just be an individual Muslim, without any such community affiliation and identification?
I replied that such a person can be a Muslim without any affiliation. But every person needs to socialize, so in order to fulfill this need he can choose whichever of these he wants.
Many of those who follow the qaumi mazhab understanding of Islam, the questioner then pointed out, think that non-Muslims are ‘enemies’ of Islam/Muslims. Can such people do dawah? Or is their approach, in fact, a major obstacle to dawah, as it views others as enemies who have to be defeated through polemics and even war, and not as potential friends who have to be reached out to with love and respect through dawah?
This kind of mentality is quite un-Islamic, I replied. It is not acceptable to God or His Messenger. This mentality develops false pride, and there is no room for false pride in Islam. It is this that is mentioned in the Quran (2:111) as amani, or wishful thinking
The qaumi mazhab (mis-)understanding of Islam leads, I explained, to seeing people of other faiths as 'enemies' who have to be defeat or destroyed. In contrast, a non-qaumi, authentic understanding of Islam leads to relating to people of other faiths with love and concern and compassion. This is the prerequisite for dawah work.
Dawah work needs sincerity on the part of the dai, as well as madu-friendly behaviour. This requires that the dai should relate to the madu or the addressee of dawah through love and goodwill. Without inculcating this behaviour, neither is dawah work possible in the right manner, and nor will the dai be rewarded by God.
Dawah, I reminded the questioner, is a great Islamic action and duty, but it entails a necessary condition. And that is, the maintenance of a normal relationship between the dai and the madu. The responsibility of establishing such a relationship devolves unilaterally on the dai. It is the dai who is responsible for normalizing the situation. As the Quran (22:67) instructs us:
“Let them not dispute with you on this matter. Call them to the path of your Lord”.

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