“Imitating the Kuffar”

Salaam everyone.

This post has been a long time in the making, basically ever since I wrote my slightly rant-y post on divisive (and super offensive) language in the Muslim community. I mentioned a certain aspect of this rhetoric, namely calling everything haraam just to try to make everyone’s life as ascetic as your own, and I want to delve a little deeper into one facet of that: the idea of something being haraam on the basis of “imitating the kuffar (non-Muslims).”

For me, and for many converts, this is something that hugely impacts my life and the way I practice Islam, because my culture, the culture I was born into, and the culture I lived with for the first 21 years of my life before Islam, is a “non-Muslim culture.”

In my case this is growing up in the United States of America, for some it may be growing up in other non-Muslim majority countries such as a European country, China, India, or various African nations. At any rate, there is another predominant religion in the country, and many aspects of the culture you come from may not match up with principles of Islam.

The example I gave in my other post to illustrate this was about my wedding ring: it is haraam because in “Islamic culture” we don’t wear wedding rings, and therefore you are imitating the kuffar.

So, I want to stick with this example and take it from a few different sides, and hopefully show why I often find this argument to be problematic.

First of all, there is no such thing as an Islamic or Muslim culture. There are the cultures of Muslim majority countries such as the Arab world, Iran, North Africa, Southeast Asia, etc., but parts of these cultures can be just as problematic as aspects of non-Muslim culture that are often criticised.

For example: Valentine’s Day turned out to be a bigger thing here in Algeria than I have ever seen it in America. Many of the most famous singers and celebrities in the Middle East come from Muslim majority countries such as Egypt and Lebanon. Alcohol is widely available in the UAE (or at least in the bits where there are tons of expats). And the list goes on.

The things that could potentially constitute an “Islamic” culture are the things that we all share no matter our country of origin: love of the Prophet saws, reading Qur’an, dressing modestly (in whatever form that takes for you), having good manners, good hygiene, etc. These can be practised in any language and in any place, and are in no way tied to some idea of a national or ethnic culture.

Secondly, and I am no scholar, but it feels to me like this whole issue of imitating the kuffar becomes truly pertinent where it has to do with habitual/ritual or even religious practice, not necessarily my choice in jewelery or shampoo.

“Whoever imitates a people is one of them.”

Narrated by Abu Dawud

So yeah, imitating Christians by worshipping on Sunday, or Jews by lighting a menorah, these are glaringly obvious things that we should not do. And of course if there is something very specific to a certain religion, such as a festival on a certain day that no other religion or culture shares, obviously that should be left to them as well.

But where do we draw the line? Are we going to start going so far as even to say it is not permissible for me to have freckles because most in Muslim majority countries do not have freckles, but many Catholics do? That is ridiculous.

So, let’s circle back around to the wedding ring thing.

Haraam, or at best markrooh (disliked) because I am imitating the non-Muslims, yeah, OK, got it.

The thing is, I’m not imitating anyone; it’s just my culture. I grew up in a non-Muslim country. Like any other culture we have specific tastes about clothing, food, entertainment, jewellery. A part of that is that it is normal for a woman to wear a ring on a certain finger to show that she is married.

I pay my zakat on the ring, it is small and not ostentatious, it is not made with any haraam materials, and neither I nor my husband had to take out any interest (or even loans in general) to purchase it. In theory there should be nothing haraam about it.

Even if we can go back and say that at one point in its history it was a specifically Christian practice that meant this, that and the other, the point is, it’s not that right now. It is an American cultural symbol that I am not to be chatted up on the bus. Other cultures have other traditions surrounding wedding rings, some do them on different fingers, some do diamonds, some do silver.

There are some really specific definitions that can make something truly haraam. And one of the things that must be taken into consideration are the time, place, culture, and context of what it is that is in dispute (that’s not to say we can make alcohol halal or some such, that is clearly laid out in the Qur’an and that’s not what I’m talking about.).

This paragraph from an article I recently read (and shared)sums it all up much more eloquently than I could:

“But all too often converts are made to feel like everything about them is haram and they have to be reprogrammed, often being told that being who they are is an imitation of the kuffar. Imagine how far Islam would not have spread if this same line of thinking was applied to Southeast Asians, Africans, Persians, etc, who at some point in history did in fact also come from non-Muslim cultures. Islam is for people of all cultures at all times, and it would make a huge difference to a new Muslim to know this and that their very being is not haram.”

-from “What Converts Wish Raised Muslims Knew: We Want to be Good Muslims, But…” by Theresa Corbin on Al Jumuah [bolded emphasis mine]

And I have found that this excerpt from an article about the permissibility (or not) of yoga, which was written by a contributor to muslimmatters.org and proofread and approved by a specialist in the field, can be applicable to the issue of cultural practice in general:

“In this case, yoga is placed under the category of mu’aamalaat (general actions) rather than that of ‘ebaadah (worship). Thus the principle of everything is permissible until proven otherwise kicks in.

It is argued that even if it began as something with haraam origins, the removal of any type of action or acknowledgement related to shirk renders the action as permissible. Comparisons are drawn towards the ruling on various martial arts, where the forbidden or doubtful elements are omitted and the entire activity revolves around permissible themes of physical exercise, discipline, respect, and so on.

[…]

Sine the current buzz about yoga revolves around the specific incident in Malaysia, there is something else to note regarding the permissibility of the activity. Cultural issues, amongst other things, also play a major role in deciding such matters [emphasis mine]. One of those factors is the environment and society within which the issue in question is based. By this token, an action which may be halaal in one society may be considered haraam in another. Indeed, a fiqh principle which deals with the issue of cultural practices and their effect on legal rulings is that of ‘custom shall be given the status of law.’”

Full article here.

So there you have it, some of my more developed thoughts on the issue of imitating the kuffar and my entire being being haraam. I realise today ended up being a bit more of an “academic” style post, with some extra sources thrown in there for credibility and whatnot; please do let me know what you think of it in shaa Allah! I have been drifting more towards this kind of writing lately it seems, sharing resources and knowledge, but I plan to also keep a bit of my personal experience and certainly my personality in the posts that I share with you!

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P.S. Remember that thing I have with gummy bears? I found the most awesome photo for this post…

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20 thoughts on ““Imitating the Kuffar”

  1. The things that are unique to the non Muslims are haram eg. To wear a cross coz is unique to Christians or to wear a sari coz is unique to Hindus. I’ve never heard of a wedding ring being haram before but I wouldn’t think it is coz is not unique to any religious group having religious connotations. I’ve heard that its better to wear it on another finger bit not that it’s haram altogether…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ashleybounoura

      Oh I have never heard that perhaps you should wear it on another finger-I have always just heard don’t do it because you are imitating the kuffar, which like you said in your comment could be anyone as it is not a specifically religious tradition, but a cultural one (in my view at least!). Jazakillahu khairan for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know I love you & I love your blog but I disagree with this point. Perhaps we are looking at it from different angels so it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am right & you are wrong or vice versa….. but….. the example you chose about wedding rings especially lol.
    Needless to say we don’t wear, I had people ask me before and I just replied that it’s not part of Islam. I am a very literalist person anyway but as soon as there is proof that something is from another religion I automatically know that that’s not the Sunnah…
    In some cultures/traditions they wear dots on their forehead to show that they are married. In others, they get married to same sex. In others, they get married at 12 y/o. All depending on culture and social norms. But as Muslims we are Muslims first and then for example Scottish. Not the other way around so, as long as my Scottish traditions don’t contradict with Islam I can still practice them but if they do, I have to cancel it even if I’ve been Scottish my whole life/my whole family are and I am literally the only one who doesn’t do (it).
    I asked myself did the Sahaba, our role models or the Prophet’s (saw) wear a wedding ring? The answer is no, it’s a modern invention originally accepted in the Christian religion so for that reason I prefer to be the odd one out.
    It won’t stop men from looking at me even proposing the only thing that protects women is her hijab. I hope that you don’t mind my explanation and my thoughts but I just prefer to be honest. May Allah guide all of us to the best versions of us. Ameen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ashleybounoura

      It’s totally OK-in fact I welcome a bit of disagreement and discussion if done respectfully (which of course you do!) I think specifically about wedding rings, it is not something that directly contradicts our religion, or at least not from my perspective. The sahaba wore rings, jewellery is halal under certain cirumstances (zakat, etc.). And today a wedding ring is truly a cultural practice- atheists wear them, Christians wear them, Jews sometimes wear them, Americans, British, Germans, etc. It isn’t a tradition that is specific to one particular religion anymore, and to be quite honest I don’t even know what the original tradition was. Now if I am wearing a wedding ring with something like a little star of david on it or some such, I completely agree that that is overstepping the boundary. But I feel like where things like clothing, etc. is concerned, as long as they meet the proper conditions for hijab, and they are not a very obvious display of another religion (like the cross mentioned in another comment), I don’t really see any harming my iman or my practice of Islam. Another example would be like saying, no sahaba wore a three piece suit to work, and that was originally worn by Christians, so it is haraam for a Muslim man to wear a suit. Obviously that is quite over-simplified, but yeah. I think we just have a difference in perspective of what does/does not match up with Islam. I totally agree with you about leaving parts of my culture, such as going out to the bar on a Friday night, or having a mixed group of friends that I regularly hang out with, etc. clearly don’t line up with Islam and are gladly left. But if you tend to be more of a literalist like you said, I tend to be more of a grey-area thinker sometimes, so we may just have to agree to disagree! =) At any rate, jazakillahu khairan for your comment, I hope my reply wasn’t too rambling! Ameen to your dua as well!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wa iyyaki sis!
        I understand though your way of thinking for example, to a bedoin who wears abaya I look like a “Westerner” with my bright clothes, converse etc… lol
        But we all do things & learn new things & we are always progressing. I always learn new things which make me look at things differently. A few years ago, if you had asked me this I wouldn’t even know what my opinion was on it but there’s something I like about being the odd one out… in all places home & abroad.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ashleybounoura

        I think it also probably stems from the fact that you live full-time in Egypt, whereas I live, for the most part full-time in the USA, or for the last year or so, England, so maybe that causes some differences in perspective as well =) But as for Converse, that is something we can agree on!! I have the bubble-gum pink ones, that contrast quite interestingly with my brown and grey jilbabs haha

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t think so because living in Egypt is worse than living in the UK. Lol!
        But anyway difference of opinion is healthy! Two of my favourite shaykh’s Dr. Muhammad Salah and Dr. Zakir Naik have difference of opinion on certain things but they are still friends/brothers in Islam. It’s just about perspective & way of thinking…

        I love that. I’m all about originality and doing things/wearing things that are YOU as long as it doesn’t not compromise the values of Islam ❤

        Like

      4. ashleybounoura

        Oh no I didn’t mean that one was any better than the other, I just meant that since we have spent the majority of the time since we converted in very different places, we probably have some different perspectives on things, being a product of one’s environment and all that =)
        But I agree totally, as long as we can respect and love each other as sisters in Islam, differences of opinion are a mercy in the deen, and a way of opening new ways of thinking and learning for everyone =) Alhamdulillah for that!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I had never heard this wedding ring thing! It’s common practice in Morocco and I never heard anybody arguing about it. As long as the man’s ring is made of silver instead of gold, it’s fine for everybody here. (Actually, I thought there was some hadith about the man giving a ring to his future wife before mariage. Isn’t it the case?! I have to check this out!)
    I totally agree with you about this question of imitating others. I think it concerns religious aspects, not cultural ones – and therefore we have to distinguish what is what. The beauty and the richness of Islam is that it can be integrated and lived in all kind of human cultures. And we, the “western new comers”, are like pioneers!!! We have something new to invent. We have to re-invent our cultures in the light of Islam (like other communities did by the past). Isn’t it fascinating?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ashleybounoura

      I absolutely love the way you worded that last bit- we have to re-invent our cultures in the light of Islam. That is so beautiful! I didn’t know it was a bit thing in Morocco, how interesting. Women here in Algeria often wear them too, but it is more of a “look how big of a rock I can afford to put on my finger,” thing that a cultural wedding ring thing. In fact, the mahr, or dowry, here is slightly out of control. My husband had a friend that got married and spent the first three or four months literally working around the clock in order to pay off the debt from all the gold his wife demanded (bracelets, tiara, belt, necklaces, the whole works!) But that is an entirely different issue…
      I have never heard of the hadith about a man giving his future wife a ring before marriage, but she may have demanded that as her mahr, who knows. Please do let me know in shaa Allah if you can find the exact reference, it would be interesting to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. While I enjoyed your post, with all due respect I must say I disagree with you on a few points.

    You have related your experiences in Algeria to illustrate your argument, but you do so without contextualizing what you have observed in the broader historical context of the country. The reason why certain secular behaviours and norms are the standard in Algeria (as it is often in most Muslim countries) is rooted in the very history of the country. Too often people use Islamic and Muslim as interchangeable concepts, when in fact they are not. A country can be a Muslim country in the sense that the vast majority of its population identifies as Muslim without being an Islamic country, since that would entail the socio-economic management of the country to be shaped primarily by the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and its political rule to be in accordance to Islamic Fiqh. In fact most Muslim countries follow a secular system rather than an Islamic one. It is not surprising then that the societal norms and behaviours observed in Western secular societies are also found in these Muslim countries. Colonialism left a very deep imprint in these countries. The systematic dismantlement of their native institutions, the forced assimilation and acculturation, the ongoing exploitation and political interferences, all of this has led to the situations we see today unfolding in Muslim countries like Algeria. In fact the chaotic period of the 90s in Algeria is a perfect reminder of why “applying Islam” is not a simple affair in the Muslim world. Those who have repeatedly called for a return to an Islamic socio-political management of Muslim countries have met with dire circumstances ranging from prison, to exile, or worse.

    So when Muslims often “obsess” about not “imitating the Kuffar”, it is more often than not a direct response to the onslaught of Westernization experienced by Muslims since the late 19th century. While to you something like wearing a wedding ring is a fairly simple matter and part of your own culture, to others taking on aspects of “Western culture” is part of an ongoing pattern of assimilation. The difference in these perspectives is based in the differences in lived experiences and backgrounds. Understanding one another entails that we collectively take into account and respect each others experiences. While I agree that the community needs to make a better effort in understanding and honouring the cultures and experiences of converts, I think it is equally important that converts of Western descent understand that for Non-Western Muslims, Western culture harkens to a history of violence and forced assimilation.

    I agree with your assessment that Muslims adhere to different cultures instead of a single one. However, while Muslims come from diverse nations, and adhere to diverse cultures, one cannot deny that the advent of Islam in these societies has led to massive cultural shifts, where certain aspects that were incompatible with Islam were abandoned, and the values and norms championed by Islam were now integrated to these cultures. Islam has a specific ethos which shapes cultures and creates a standard of values, norms, and behaviours; in the public and in the private sphere, as well as in the various fields of human activity (politics, economics, etc…). In fact a lot of the issues that often plague Muslim communities are the direct result of culture superseding Islam. So when Muslim refer to an “Islamic culture”, they are referring to the ethos of Islam, and the values and norms that are championed by Islam.

    I understand that this post is primarily about your own experience as a convert to Islam. I truly appreciate your candour in sharing with us all what your experience entails. I certainly have learned a great deal from your posts. If I may so bold as to make a suggestion, I think if you read a little more on the history of the Muslim world (from the 19th century to the present context) it might give you a better insight on the current issues of the Ummah.

    Jazak’Allah khair for your wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ashleybounoura

      Salaam!
      Firstly, I want to say thank you for your comment; I truly do appreciate the opportunity to hear other perspectives and learn from them!
      I think I may have left this quite ambiguous in the actual post, which is definitely my mistake, but the “imitating the kuffar” issue has never actually come up for me here in Algeria. Most of these kinds of experiences have occurred in the community in the U.K., specifically London, and to a lesser extent back in the communities in the U.S. It is usually first or second generation American or British Muslims that criticise these types of things, usually citing prominent Saudi fatwas that come from a very specific cultural situation, and even a very specific madhhab, and an ideology within Islam that I do not necessarily subscribe to.
      But I do understand the point you are making about the resistance to all things Western stemming from years and years of forced assimilation and cultural violence perpetrated by the West. I think there is certainly far more work to be done in the world where Western converts and non-Western Muslims coming to understand and embrace each other is concerned. I can only hope that I am doing at least some small share-alhamdulillah at least with my marriage I feel I have achieved a small victory. My husband knows that I do not expect him to become American and he does not expect me to become Algerian, and I have learned so much in the short time we have been together.
      As for your comments on the difference between Islamic and Muslim, I also understand what you are saying there. I certainly don’t expect the governments of Muslim majority countries to be very Islamic, as you noted they are all run on secular systems. I think where much of my shock comes from living here in Algeria is firstly that when I converted, I did so surrounded by books. And to find that it is not all one big happy brotherhood of wonderfully practising Muslims was a bit of a blow to my naivete. And secondly, what I find so shocking are the things and practices which people here call Muslim or Islamic, which are the farthest thing from. For example, a friend of my husband was legally and religiously married to his wife for six months, but they weren’t allowed to be alone together because they weren’t “technically” married yet, which means they hadn’t done the whole, giant mixed party, ostentatious dressing, loud booming music thing. I truly understand why implementing Islam at a governmental level in Algeria, or anywhere really, is not feasible at this point in history, but it is the people who tell me how devout they are as Muslims, and then turn around and tell me to take off my hijab if I want a job that baffle me.
      At any rate, it is a bit late in the day here and I have to be off to pray. Unfortunately I am sure I didn’t get to all of the points in your comment, but I hope my comment makes some sense and isn’t just wandering!
      As for the last part, if you have any book recommendations for where to start, I would appreciate that greatly! This is something I have been wanting to delve deeper into since taking a few history classes during my BA arounda more general history of the MENA area, but I have regrettably not yet got around to it. Please do let me know if you have any off the top of your head in shaa Allah!
      Jazakillahu khairan for your informative comment, I hope it will be a spring board for me into more learning!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jazak’Allah Khair for your response sister. I enjoy having these types of discussions with my fellow Muslims, and learning from each others experiences. I think a lot of what you are observing in Algeria pertaining to un-islamic behaviours is due largely to a problem of religious literacy and a pattern of Westernization. The first one explains why certain customs, behaviours that have nothing to do with Islam, but are cultural in essence, continue to be practiced. An example of that is people visiting the graves of holy men to get their blessings, or women dancing and drinking perfume to exorcise their jinns etc… All of these behaviours are not only foreign to Islam, but they would be considered as Bid’ah (innovation). Yet people will find all sorts of way to justify it as being Islamic. The second one would explain the comments you get about removing the hijab to get a job. Unfortunately, for the longest time (from the 30s well into the 80s) the wearing of the hijab was ascribed to a certain class of people, usually the working class. While the more affluent classes (who were also usually more educated) did not. Later in the wake of the rise of political islam, wearing the hijab was seen as a political act and a sign of fundamentalism. These lingering prejudices toward the hijab still shape these societies. So, if you apply for a job and your are wearing a hijab, it might be very true that you will be seen as less educated, less modern, or too fundamentalist, which obviously has an impact then on how easily you can land a job.
        There are a few books I have in mind that might be a good place to start.

        1) The History of Islam by Akbar Shah Khan Najeebabadi https://dar-us-salam.com/english/biography-history/110-history-of-islam-3-vol-set.html

        2) Lost Islamic History by Firas Alkhateeb http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/lost-islamic-history-2/

        3) Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6240926-destiny-disrupted

        4) A peace to end all peace by David Fromkin https://www.amazon.ca/Peace-End-All-Ottoman-Creation/dp/0805088091

        5) The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality by John L.Esposito https://www.amazon.ca/Islamic-Threat-Myth-Reality/dp/0195130766

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ashleybounoura

        Thank you for your comment-I agree these kinds of conversations can be so beneficial! As someone who entered the community only a few short years ago, I do have plenty to learn, and I feel like I can also offer a perspective that many raised in the community do not often get.
        At any rate, jazakillahu khairan for the book recommendations; I will save those for when I am in a country with a more extensive library/book store selection in shaa Allah!
        And what you said about the un-Islamic practices does make a lot of sense. Within that framework it is even more interesting to observe many of the things I have experienced here, with the hijab for example.
        I wear a two-piece jilbab, no makeup, no perfume, covered feet, all of that. It is interesting to see how being American and being a convert actually kind of takes me out of that framework, and makes me the “exception” to the rule. For instance, much of my family-in-law looks with disdain on the wife of one of the cousins, and says she is dirty, some sort of extremist, backwards, etc. because she wears jilbab. The very same people then turn to me and tell me how lovely I am, I look like a “doll,” I’m dressed better than all the women in the city, and I am wearing the very same jilbab as the other woman! I am actually friends with her, and we have very much the same way of thinking and practising Islam, but in her it is labelled backwards and extreme, in me it is quiant, cute, and attributed to my (perceived) high iman.
        That is within the family itself though, like you said where things like a job interview are concerned I think I do fit right into perceptions of being too fundamentalist and un-modern.
        Sorry for another long comment-your comment got me thinking and I was just kind of reflecting out loud here. I hope you don’t mind!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. People also need to really lighten up about clothing. What’s “sunnah” clothing? If you think that means “what the Sahabah wore,” then you really need to research what 7th-century Arabs dressed like, cuz thawb and salwar qamīs ain’t that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ashleybounoura

      I agree! I mean, I can 100% understand why someone would choose to stay away from a wedding ring, or a pink jilbab, or whatever, themselves, and I will totally respect that choice that someone else is making. The biggest issue I have is when they come at the rest of the world talking about how “haraam,” the other option is, when really it is just a matter of difference in perspective and practice, and perhaps culture.

      Like

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