Islam Explained Part 2 of 5: Islam and Culture

First publication of a pamphlet from Intellectual Muslim

What Is From Islam and What Is From Culture?

The last prophet of God may have been born into an Arab nation, but that does not mean Islam is only for Arabs anymore than it means Jesus’ message was only for Jews.

We in America tend to think that most Muslims are Arab, but a look at the statistics shows that that just is not true. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center report, more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia, and only about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa where Arabs are centralized. China, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. each have millions of Muslims.

Muslims themselves, and non-Muslims, need to realize that some of the things a Muslim does are dictated by the culture in which he or she lives and some of the things are dictated by religion—there is a fine line between cultural and religious influence.

The Quintessential Muslim Country Is Not…

In the collective American psyche, Saudi Arabia is the quintessential Muslim country which is unfortunate because many of the rules governing life in Saudi Arabia are not based in Islam, and not everyone knows which are and which are not. The infamous example of women not being allowed to drive is a law based on culture, not on Islam.

Even if a law in Saudi Arabia is said to be based on Islam, that does not mean it is based on true Islamic teachings. The Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia violates Islamic teachings, and it is well-known that the ruling family pays off clerics to preach untruths that suit the ruling family.

The Average Muslim Is Not…

Muslims who are raised in a predominantly Muslim culture do not always realize the boundaries between their cultural practices and the practices that are based in Islam. For example, many Somali immigrants in the U.S. think that Muslim women are not allowed to wear pants/trousers. While they may not wear pants in their culture, Islam does not prohibit women from wearing pants.

TV Is Not…

Muslims who instigate violence are surely not examples to look to see what Islam teaches. Christians say it again and again—do not look at the behavior of Christians to judge Christianity. We Muslims ask others to apply the same wise words when judging Islam. Do not judge Islam by the bad actions of Muslims.

…the Place to Find Out What Islam Really Teaches

One would think that the obvious way to find out what Islam teaches is to read the Quran, and , yes, we do not discourage reading the Quran, but it can also be another source of confusion. Like Lesley Hazleton says in her short speech titled On reading the Koran, “I know many well-intentioned non-Muslims who’ve begun reading the “Quran, but given up, disconcerted by its otherness… Part of the problem, I think, is that we imagine that the Quran can be read as we usually read a book—as though we can curl up with it on a rainy afternoon with a bowl of popcorn within reach, as though God…were just another author on the best-seller list.”

The Quran has clear and difficult verses, abstract and obvious verses, abrogating and abrogated verses, public and specific verses, unlimited and limited verses, and other verses which humans cannot understand. The Quran itself speaks to this:

It is He Who has sent down to you (O dear Prophet Mohammed—peace and blessings be upon him) this Book (the Qur’an) containing the verses that have a clear meaning—they are the core of the Book—and other verses the meanings of which are indistinct; those in whose hearts is deviation pursue the verses having indistinct meanings, in order to cause turmoil and seeking its (wrongful) interpretation; and only Allah knows its proper interpretation; and those having sound knowledge say, “We believe in it, all of it is from our Lord”; and none accept guidance except the men of understanding. 3:7

The Quran should be read alongside a trusted commentary. Here is one we recommend: S. V. Mir Ahmed Ali (Translator), The Holy Qur’an, Translation and Commentary

Another reason that reading the Quran may not be the best route for getting answers is that it would take a long time to read the entire Quran and the answer sought may not even be in the Quran. Many times people just want quick answers to a few questions.

Because so many Muslims conflate cultural practices with religious practices, there is a good chance of getting misinformation by asking any Muslim one knows or can find. It is best to ask questions of a Muslim who has been to seminary or who has read extensively about Islamic law, and, unfortunately, finding the imam (pastor, cleric) of the closest mosque is not a good way of finding a Muslim who has been to seminary. That is because most mosques are run by Wahabi or Sunni Muslims, and those sects do not require their clerics to have been to seminary in order to serve as a cleric. Shia Muslims DO require their clerics to have been to seminary, so looking up a Shia mosque is a good way to find a cleric who has been to seminary. It is also true that Shia clerics will be able to accurately present both sides of what makes Sunnis and Shias different because it is a part of their seminal studies whereas Sunni clerics are generally ignorant of Shia Islam’s true viewpoints.

Islam Is As Native to America As Christianity Is

For many of us Americans, our study of history ceases upon graduation from high school, and since history textbooks for children in America do not talk about Muslims being in America before Columbus was, we tend to think that contemporary Muslim immigrants are bringing Islam to America for the first time.

We know from historical records that involve Native Americans and from linguistic studies of Native American languages that Islam and Muslims were in America before Columbus. Islam and Muslims also came to America with the slave trade from Africa, and it was voluntary Muslim immigrants who built the first known mosque in America. Some Muslims in America can trace their generations in America further back than some descendants of European immigrants who want to send Muslims “back where they came from.” Needless to say, unless you are a Native American in America, we could all be sent back to where we came from.

Islam Is American

According to a 2007 Pew Research Center report, 35% of Muslims in America were born in America. These Muslims born in America were probably were raised in one of three types of households: 1) a household where the Muslim parent(s)/caregiver(s) were the ones who migrated to America and their children were born here, 2) a Muslim household that has had many generations raised in America, or 3) a household where the parent(s)/caregiver(s) were not Muslims. One in three Muslims in America are as indigenous as any other American (Native Americans notwithstanding).

Culture and Islam in Practice

One may not realize that practicing Muslim households in America can look quite different from each other given the different cultural influences on different Muslims. God has commandments to be followed, and some are manifested based on cultural norms.


Beef is allowed for Muslims to eat provided that the animal was raised humanely and slaughtered according to Islamic law. The kind of food the beef is made into is the cultural manifestation—casseroles, hamburgers, kebabs, biryani, tacos, etc.

Female Clothing

A female Muslim must cover her hair and neck, and her clothing must be loose, opaque, and cover most of her skin. Given that these requirements are met, the style of clothing that Muslim women wear varies greatly and is a cultural manifestation. Pakistani-Americans like to wear their ethnic shalwar kameez (pant/tunic set) in America; Iranian-Americans like to wear long suit coats and pants/trousers; Somali-Americans like to wear long skirts and blouses; and Muslim youth will often wear the latest mainstream trends but with modifications for modesty (e.g., pants worn under a dress; a long-sleeved shirt under a maxi dress with spaghetti straps). These are generalizations to illustrate a point—in reality, Muslim women mix and match styles from many cultures and choose what to wear based more on where they are going than anything else.

To see the kind of clothing an American convert to Islam may wear, check out Shukr Islamic Clothing.

Worship Services

Because most Muslims in America today are first-generation immigrants, worship services in most mosques reflect immigrant languages and cultures. Able-bodied congregants sit on the floor, are physically separated by gender, and have non-English programming. As converts to Islam and second/third-generation immigrants age and take responsibility governing congregations, and as they graduate from seminary, immigrant cultural aspects of mosques in America will wane. Mosques will take on some American cultural aspects as long as they do not conflict with requirements of Islam.

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