Understanding Culture vs. Religion

culture

As we continue our foray into Medini seerah, we notice that Medinah, at the time of hijrah, was divided culturally. It contained three distinct groups: Al-Aws, Al-Khazraj, and the Jews. All three held roughly equal power, with no one being significantly stronger than the other; Medinah had no clear leader who all the groups answered to.

Medinah was not only multi-cultural, but multi-religious! Which brings us to an important discussion: what is the difference between culture and religion, and how do we find a balance bewteen the two?

First, definitions: culture consists of normal actions that people do. For example, it includes the way people in a certain country dress, or what foods they commonly eat.

Religion, in contrast, consists of divine acts of worship from Allah (directly, in the Qur’an) or rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam). Religion, or deen, makes up an encompassing way of life.

Consider, now, the rulings on these two facets. In religious actions, the default ruling is that they are haram, until they are proven acceptable by the shari’ah. This is based on the famous hadith of rasulullah, collected by Imam Nawawi in his famous 40:

مَنْ أَحْدَثَ فِي أَمْرِنَا هَذَا مَا لَيْسَ مِنْهُ فَهُوَ رَدٌّ

He who innovates things in our affairs for which there is no valid (reason) (commits sin) and these are to be rejected. (Saheeh Muslim)

For culture — normal, every-day actions — the default is that it’s permissible. To support this, rasulullah said:

لا طَاعَةَ لِمَخْلُوقٍ فِي مَعْصِيَةِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

There is no obedience to a created being if it involves disobedience of the Creator. (Ahmed, Haakim)

What kind of proof suffices to prove that an action is imperissble? Mainly two:

  • It doesn’t contradict a muhkam (clear, unambiguous) verse — not a verse that is open for interpretation and difference of opinion; and:
  • It doesn’t contradict any saheeh hadith from the sunnah of rasulullah.

Action Item: Read about natural and religious actions. Acquire a habit of changing your intentions so that you can get rewarded for normal, cultural, every-day actions (like eating and sleeping)!


References:

  • AlKauther: The Victorious One. Taught by Shaykh Alaa Syed. University of Toronto, Toronto, May 2012.
  • AlMaghrib: Code of Scholars. Taught by Muhammad Alshareef. University of Toronto, Toronto, August 2005.
  • AlMaghrib: Light of Guidance. Taught by Yasir Qadhi. University of Toronto, Toronto, May 2006.
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