An Attempt to Make Sense of Culture in Islam: Raoof Mir

Guest post by RAOOF MIR

Purity and corruption has remained one of the recurrent themes in the entire history of Islam. The arrival of Islam in Arabia did not mean a radical departure from the past. Wael B. Hallaq, a noted scholar on Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history establishes through his commendable work that “much of Arabian law continued to occupy a place in the Shari’ah, but not without modification.” Prophet Mohammed, who founded this new faith by introducing new nomos, also let several old customs and institutions to remain unchallenged. Despite his critical attitude toward the local social and moral environment, Prophet Muhammad was very much part of this environment and was deeply rooted in the traditions of Arabia.

Though the new converts to Islam entered into a new cosmological order, they at the same time, continued to adhere to the practices of old pagan culture. Since the arrival of Islam many individual reformists or reform movements have intended to reform Islam and decontaminate it from its ‘accretional’ aspects. These reformative endeavours envisaged a Muslim community that is not only socially distinct but also repudiates the pre-existing cosmological order. However, so far, there has been no end to this conflict. This conflict between the formal ideology of reformists (Textual Islam) and functional behaviour of the majority of the Muslims (Lived Islam) continues till today.

Well known anthropologist, Clifford Geertz through his works on Muslim cultures delineated how Islam succeeded in adapting to different contexts and how comfortably Islam blended with local customs and practices. This adapting to local conditions of a given place has been the one of significant strengths of Islam. Islam no doubt is characterized by its literate aspects, however the foundations of its success in winning new adherents lay in its making sense to those who could not read or who depended on oral modes of thought. At the same time, many attempts have been made to develop a normative paradigm of Islamic faith that could remove multiple variants of Islam and wipe out the differences. However, the openness of interpretation and plurality of sources in Islam has always made it impossible to determine a single authority on Islam which can determine finality of Islamic law.

But what are the contours of the debate on purity and corruption in Islam in the age of globalization? Has globalization changed the nature of age old debate on purity and corruption in Islam? Some scholars in the West have argued that there exists a deep connection between religious rationalization and globalization. Some of these scholars also go to the extent of stating that globalization and religious puritanism perform the functions of each other. One noted scholar, who has produced abundant literature on the Muslim societies in post-globalization scenario, is Olivier Roy. The literalist movements like Salafism in Islam according to Roy leads to “de-culturation of Islamic society”. According to Roy, whether it is Taliban in Afghanistan forbidding kite-flying, animal fights or the destruction of historical sites by ISIS or destruction of the old city of Mecca Saudi Wahhabis, all signify the attempts of the de-culturation process. This “de-culturation” is at the same time vital part of globalization according to Olvier Roy.

However the theories on multiple modernities easily dismantle this notion of globalization as homogenization process. The local social, economic, political and cultural conditions have been significant in shaping modernity to its plural form. In addition, there is always an underlying danger to define what culture is and what it is not. The definition of religion as culture by Geertz does not merely see religion a subset of symbols but also as a force that persuades people to fit between the nature of world reality and the way people live. The process of ‘de-culturation’ spearheaded by puritanical agents consequently creates a new set of nomos, which in turn leads to creation of a new culture. Therefore any attempt to categorize the religious reformation as ‘de-culturation” not only leads to the postulation of sweeping generalizations but also ignores the context and the importance of history.

Unfortunately, the actual lived history of Islam has now been largely forgotten – both by ‘Islamists’ as well as by Islam-baiters. The beauty of early Islam lay in its inclusiveness. The Muslims in Andalusia did not contribute merely to the development of their own religion but also contributed to the expansion of a wide range of fields of knowledge, from the sciences to philosophy. In that sense, their contributions also contributed to the emancipation of humanity at a larger level. Most of the important thinkers from Andalusia were polymaths.

Just as modern science excludes every form of knowledge that does not stand the test of rationality, so does the literalist insistence in the religion of Islam in modern times. With the purging of the Dionysian elements from religion, religion loses its basic function. In a manner of speaking, it begins to mimic the instrumental rationality and individualization characteristic of modern forms of knowledge.

The debate on the puritanical Islam and Lived Islam can be best exemplified by taking the example of Prophet Muhammad. To build a new community Prophet Muhammad did not reject the past but incorporated many founders of other faiths of the past as an essential element of his message. In propounding his message, Prophet Muhammad plainly wished to break away from pre-Islamic values and institutions, but only insofar as he needed to establish once and for all the fundamental tenets of the new religion. Being a pragmatic individual, he could not have done away with all the social practices and institutions that prevailed in his time and win new adherents to his, what at that time was fledgling faith. This shows that foundationally Islam has been accommodative to customary laws and local traditions. Even the foundation myths and historical evidence of Islam makes it compatible with plurality.

Raoof Mir is currently pursuing my PhD at from Centre for Media Studies, JNU

2 thoughts on “An Attempt to Make Sense of Culture in Islam: Raoof Mir”

  1. The author of this piece repeats the old Orientalist interpretation of Islam which claims Islam to be an “Arab” religion “founded” by it’s prophet with his “own ambition”…Utter nonsense…He didn’t detail what this Arab thing is !


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