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Notes on Religion and Culture

“Religion” is not simply a set of propositions and actions, a list of beliefs and rituals. Religion unlocks the nature of reality for us, and then provides us a way to live in accordance with that reality. True religion offers us a metaphysics, which tells us what is real and therefore possible, but also an ethics and aesthetics, which tells us what is good among those possibilities. Moreover, religion provides not only verbal abstractions, but also a concrete embodiment of them. In Islam, the embodiment of the metaphysics and ethics of the Quran is the Prophet and his way of life, his sunnah, which is then transmitted through the ummah in a multitude of manifestations.

As for “culture,” it is not simply a concrete embodiment of the way people do things: customs, habits, and artifacts that are simply there like some neutral fact of the matter. To say “culture” is to imply that a people consider some things worth repeating and others not worth keeping, some admired and others reviled, some cherished and others thrown away. And by logical necessity what one considers to be good implies that one has an idea of what is possible, and having an idea of what is possible implies having an idea of what reality is. There is no ethics or aesthetics without an ultimate worldview (a metaphysics), whether that root is acknowledged or not.

So in some sense religion and culture overlap and intertwine: one’s ultimate beliefs will filter down into one’s everyday judgments, and one’s everyday judgments are illuminated by (or exist in the shadows of) one’s ultimate beliefs.

There is something absolute and intrinsic to culture. Imagine 10,000 saints and sages, steeped in learning and nourished by the Quran and Sunnah, being placed on a tropical forest to create a civilization, versus 10,000 criminals and fools placed in an identical place. What would happen in a hundred years? If the two groups begin from the same set of conditions it is hard to imagine that the same culture would result. We intuitively understand that the answers to questions such as, “What is a human being?” “What is the nature of reality?” “What is the moral structure of the world” have a concrete effect on how we live.

But there is also something relative and extrinsic in culture. Imagine the same group of 10,000 saints and sages from the example above, only this time placed in a desert environment instead of a tropical forest. Is there any doubt they would produce a different culture? Factors like climate, resources, political context, inherited skills, all have a determining effect on what is possible and hence what is good.

When Muslims are careful to make a distinction between what is “religious” and what is “cultural” they are often trying to differentiate between the absolute and the relative, the essential and the accidental, the universally valid and a particular manifestation, the instrinsic and the extrinsic. For all Muslims, what is absolute in Islamic civilization and in various Islamic cultures is to be found in the Quran, in the Sunnah of the Prophet, and what is relative comes from other sources.

At its best, a “culture” is valuable insofar as it transmits to us the best of things. That is what makes them worthy of preservation, because no human being can acheive cultivation and refinement alone. One must recognize and repeat what is good, and not presume the ability to discover everything anew through trial and error. Imagine having to constantly arrive at the best recipe for baking bread! The great Islamic cultures that have gone before us and which in some ways are still with us arose from the diligent exercise of judgment by human beings who not only chose certain ways of doing things but went to the trouble of discarding the wrong ways of doing things.

Muslims follow the Sunnah of the Prophet not only because God chose the Prophet Muhammad and commanded us to follow him, but also because we understand that his Sunnah is a manifestation of the his own virtues, and we want to attain these same virtues ourselves which the Prophet possessed perfectly. Who waits until a child can understand the meaning behind “please” and “thank you” before they teach them to do it? Similarly, we adopt the ways of the Prophet hoping to grow into and understand the human qualities that produced them. God Himself refined and cultivated the Prophet, who then did the same for His Companions through teaching and serving as an example. That generation did the same for the subsequent generation, and so on until now.

Generations before us worked to apply the Quran and Sunnah to all aspects of life, found ways to nurture the spiritual life, to create beautiful obects, to live harmoniously with one another and with the world of nature, to maintain and transmit the virtues. They not only found the good, but discarded the bad whent they encountered it. One can conceive of Islamic civilization as a repository of expertise about how to do and make things well, as a record of what was left after bad ways and bad ides had been discarded. This enables one to act and do well, and make things beautifully, without having to go through the process of invention and improvisation, which can consume huge amounts of mental and physical energy.

Islamic Law (SharÄ«Ê¿ah) has always recognized the place of Ê¿urf or “custom”, not as something merely allowed by the law, but as a living and indispensable part of the law. For example, Islamic law stipulates that a husband must maintain his wife financially, but what is considered adequate maintenance will vary from locality to locality, and it is the customs of the place that determine what is enforceable under Islamic Law. The SharÄ«Ê¿ah thus both shapes and is shaped by culture.

But the power of the Quran and Sunnah in influencing culture goes much deeper than rules and legal institutions and the cultivation of personal qualities. The revelation in the Book and Sunnah also affects how people wear clothes, design buildings, and create art. Human beings are surrounded by human artifacts: clothes, furniture, houses, markets, mosques. These objects are not nuetral. They are possibilities amongst possibilities, chosen because their makers deemed them to be good and worth making at some level.

Just as a chisel or brush or pen’s shape determines in a sense the form of the product, the “shape” of the soul determines what it will fashion. The Quran and Sunnah shape the soul like a calligrapher carving his pen or the painter shaping his brush. The Quran nourishes the soul morally, aesthetically, and intellectually, giving it a sense of relation, or proportion, of hierarchy, of silence and expression, of expressability and ineffability.

To use an example from Islamic art, it is no accident that the intricate patterns that adorn Quran covers and mosques exhibit a quality of finding the center everywhere, of interlacing lines, of a motif repeated over and over but in a slightly different way, of each ending of a line being the beginning of another line, of an implied endless expanse of pattern as you reach the end of the rectangle that circumscribes the pattern. These patterns are a crystallization of the very structure of the Quran itself, which re-states tawḥīd (the Oneness of God) again and again, never in exactly the same way, with Divine Names repeated and connected with all aspects of life, in a Book that can be recited beginning anywhere and ending anywhere, whose very grammatical structure of elision and changing perspective (called iltifāt in Arabic) implies a limitless truth that cannot be fully captured.

Thus an important dimension of Islamic culture–and one might say, an extension of the Sunnah–is the spontaneous creative activity of souls given life and nourishment by a revelation and way of life: “Quranized” souls making what they deem to be beautiful and harmonious and in this way prolonging the truth of the Quran in stone, ink, cloth, and rhyme. When we experience this culture we do not only see and hear pretty things, but also the way in which Islam enabled oneness to manifest in multiplicity to create harmony and beauty in forms. All beauty has an intelligibility that communicates something of the view of the truth of who created it. The beauty of the world of nature are signs of God Himself. But in human culture this beauty (or lack thereof) transmits the metaphysics of its makers insofar as the culture represents a set of choices among possibilities.

Of course we should also always remember that Islamic cultures are also the result of extrinsic conditions, and what was good for them might not actually be good for us. Moreover, cultures are always subject to decay and error. The Quran does not look kindly upon the argument that one does something simply because one found one’s father doing it. No collectivity is infallible and by their fruits will you know them. But what is wrong with Muslims that so many of us think that we can just throw away over a thousand years of culture because we think we can find what we need in the Quran and Sunnah alone? How can we be so naive as to believe that living immersed in the forms produced by a materialistic civilization guided by a mechanistic worldview will not affect our ability to see and appreciate the true nature of things? Muslims should refine all aspects of their lives wherever they are, but we should also be wise enough to benefit from the treasures left by those who went before us. Far from being a luxury, culture can be a key to unlock dimensions of the truth and provide added means for souls to grow closer to God.


Caner K. Dagli

Caner K. Dagli, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, is a specialist in Sufism, Islamic philosophy, interfaith dialogue, and Quranic studies. He is a general editor of the The Study Quran (2015). His other publications include The Ringstones of Wisdom (an annotated translation of Ibn Ê¿ArabÄ«’s Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, 2004), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Science, Philosophy, and Technology in Islam (senior coeditor, 2014), and Ibn al-Ê¿ArabÄ« and Islamic Intellectual Culture: From Mysticism to Philosophy(2016).