Culture & religion

05 Apr 2019


The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

OFTENTIMES so many traditions and cultural practices get absorbed into religion that people tend to replace the latter with the former. The lines between the two become blurred and over time, basic tenets of faith are forgotten and replaced with customs and traditions.

Migration of peoples to other countries causes absorption of local values and customs and these can seep into religion. During his lectures in Madras in the 1930s, the great Quran scholar, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, talking about the pathetic situation of Muslims and especially women in India, claimed that the system of purdah came neither from Islam nor from Arabia. It was a cultural system adopted from Zoroastrians, Persians and Christian Byzantines. Its implementation differed (and still does), depending on the class and economic status of the women.

Pickthall goes on to say that Indian Muslims adopted the idea of women’s subjugation to the man in marriage from other cultures. Marriage in Islam is a social contract with equal say by the partners. Many scholars now argue that it is based on equality with equal rights, although the man had financial responsibility, relevant for those times.

Women had the right to choose and sometimes even initiate proposals. Now, women’s choice is not only disregarded but often punished with death. Although an issue of culture, in the minds of many Muslims, this is religiously sanctioned — an erroneous concept.

Local traditions should not replace basic beliefs and be seen as part of faith.

Another cultural practice that has become accepted as part of religion is the declaration of pious individuals as saints and the giving up of children to shrines.

There have been many pious Muslims who have spent their lives in search of the truth and praying to God, but neither the Quran nor the Sunnah present any injunction for their treatment as saints. The system of pirs and shrine-keepers is based on the cultures of converts in Iraq and Syria, developed further through the influence and amalgamation of local cultures in India. Pious people should be venerated and even emulated in some cases, but they should not be worshipped, as the case appears to be in some countries.

Both religion and culture are closely related and influence each other. Many practices used by Muslims in the subcontinent differ from those in the Middle East and elsewhere because of how Muslims accepted traditions that existed in the region. There is no harm in this, as long as they do not replace basic beliefs and get absorbed as essentials of religion. As an example, getting orphans from a mosque to recite verses from the Holy Quran upon the demise of a person is deemed part of religion. It has no such status.

Anything that is added as a part of Islam is called innovation or bidah. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said: “The most evil matters are those that are newly invented (in the religion), for every newly invented matter is an innovation. Every innovation is misguidance and every misguidance is in the Hellfire” (Sunan Al Nasa 1578).

Consider the matter of women observing iddah when widowed or divorced. This period of 90 days-plus was meant to determine pregnancy, during the times when no other means was possible.

Many families in the subcontinent adopted the practice of restraining the movement of women and refusing visits of any man. No religious precedent exists for this. Such a practice also comes from the cloistering of women in the old Hindu system.

An even stranger tradition is that in some families upon the death of a man his women relatives are not allowed to see his face. The dead body becomes a na mehram. There are even cases when the husband has not been allowed to view his dead wife’s face because the marriage stood annulled!

In case of marriage, culture has introduced a caste and biradari system which is abhorrent to Islam. This is so prevalent that society in the subcontinent, in particular, relies on cousin marriages, even in cases when the couples are completely unsuited, mostly to keep inheritance within the family. This could be one of the reasons why societies in which such marriages abound rarely flourish in intellect and creativity. Family planning is frowned upon as un-Islamic, but multiple marriages, a practice allowed under certain conditions, are seen to be a man’s right.

Such distortions and regressive practices are hugely detrimental but have gained much acceptance and legitimacy. Culture should develop with time, but once it gets amalgamated into religion, the practices become fossilised. Sifting simple religious acts from traditions that should be given up becomes impossible, with rational thought and debate being a major casualty. Instead of the Quran, unverified ahadith and rote learners are adopted as religious guides.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019