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