بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
والحمدلله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على أشرف الأنبياء والمرسلين
In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful the Most Compassionate
All praise be to Allah, and may peace and blessings be upon the most noble of the Prophets and Messengers
Someone recently told me that Islam is like the water of a river: it takes on the colour of the rocks or sand beneath, but its essence remains the same. The shaykh who first said this meant it as a metaphor for Islam’s ability to enter a land and manifest itself in the hearts of a people in all of its glory and splendor without eroding or disintegrating their underlying culture. Islam has never settled in a place except that it has enriched it and brought out the most beautiful elements of its people and culture.
Today, we live in such a global village that it is hard to differentiate between ‘customs’ and ‘culture’; but put simply: culture is what gives us values, culture is what helps us create a commodious environment, it is what makes us feel at home.
When we think of Islam’s relationship with “culture,” we tend to recollect the Andalusian era and talk about Islam’s “Golden Age” and how it permeated and spread westward, all the way into the foot of Spain. Or we talk about how Islam came to Malaysia via trade and mercantile practice. But something yet which most people don’t know is that Islam has actually been in China even longer than it has been in Syria or Iran; and it spread there early and wide because the Chinese who became Muslim learned the religion with deep understanding and then returned to China to preach the message of Islam beautifully: they employed Confucius language in their dawa in order to win the hearts of the people, they built mosques in their own unique Chinese style to attract passer-byers into her walls, and they proved by their actions that Islam adorns culture the way that it adorns the heart.
But the so-called Golden Age is just as possible and pertinent today; for the beauty of the Prophet’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) message is that it is for everybody. Islam is not just for the yeoman, it is for the philosopher as well. Allah created people with philosophical aptitudes, musical aptitudes, aesthetic aptitudes. He created all of these different types of human beings – and all of them have their place in the world, and many of them have their place in Islam, in the religion. We should honour the diversity. Many people have different ways of understanding the same thing. Culture is like this.
We’ve been given a great gift with Islam – more than any of us can ever appreciate – and we need to expand our knowledge, but also be humble with our knowledge. Like Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah said, “We’re ignorant in our knowledge, so how could we not be ignorant in our ignorance?” We need to remember that we are messengers of the Messenger (pbuh) and that the knowledge of Islam and of the Beloved (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has to spread as well; but it should also be broad-based so that it can encompass a lot of different perspectives within an accepted set of parameters. People need to feel that they have the stretching room to be they you are. This is a large part of what “culture” means, but it is also a large part of Islam…
The actual definition of “shari’ah” as we all know is: “the broad road to water.” Because it can encompass Spain just as it can encompass China. The ‘broad’ road. But we must be good stewards of the religion who show people that Islam is truly the river from which everybody is invited to drink, and it is the river that shall always flow. Islam is the river which will sustain & elevate our spiritual lives and lead us to the Hereafter, inshAllah.
What I think is most beautiful about the human being is that we are as if a meeting vessel between heaven and earth: on the one hand, we are from clay: our different colours are from the different soils of this earth – and this we cannot change (and why would we want to, for it’s how Allah made us!); yet our souls are not of this world… our souls belong to Allah (swt). And our speech – our words – this is how we get to know one another. How we remember that we are all children of Adam. This is how cultures intermingle, it is how souls intertwine. It is how we achieve perspicacity in this life, and Paradise in the next