Thursday, January 12, 2017

When Did Islam Lose its Culture?


I'm a first generation Canadian -- born and bred in the True North Strong and Free. As I grew up and alongside that learned about Islam in a North American context, Islam had no culture of its own. It was comprised of the various races and nationalities that formed the congregation of my local masjid. We were often taught to dichotomize "religion" and "culture" with the latter being derided as jahl.

My parents had given me all the key ingredients of our culture: languages, attire, cuisine, etiquette, morals and ethics -- essentially, worldview. But because they weren't very social people, we were not surrounded by Pakistanis. As I entered my late twenties/early thirties, the mother of little children in a smaller city where I didn't have my family or desi friends to joke around with in Urdu/Punjabi, I began to long for my language in a way that exposed to me how important it really was to who I am as a person. I would go to an Indian doctor or to the Indian Grocery Store just so I could converse for those few minutes in my mother tongue. A few years into this, a good friend of mine was staying with me and sat down next to me turning on a Pakistani "drama" she was watching. Hearing my language, seeing the attire, the culture, the "homeland" -- I wanted to leap into the screen. It was also very good, as halal-as-it-gets entertainment. I was hooked in the sense that I haven't gone back to non-Pakistani television since. The usual responses of fellow first generation Canadians of Pakistani descent is a laughing "you're such a FOB!". Really? Why because I prefer non-English entertainment? The people have their clothes on, they don't curse, there aren't scenes of intimacy or nudity. One can generally see some character or another praying, doing tasbih or visiting a maqam. And there is generally some moral lesson (the end of those who have envy, greed, etc.). Because I have all the core ingredients of my culture, I have naturally felt very at home with it as I come into greater contact with it through media (television/music).

Music?! Well, yes. Why is that we have no qualms with English "nasheeds" -- I have a lot of love for the likes of Yusuf Islam, Sami Yusuf, and Dawud Wharnsby -- but other than that much of what is being pumped out is just an empty form of music (with some Arabic words or Islamic notions thrown in) that seeks to identify with pop culture which is itself rooted in a secular worldview and presents all the lower possibilities of the ego and the world to a person as the only way of thinking and living, and to the total detriment of higher things, including the quality and taste of the sacred that is quickly suffocated by this form of "egotistical invocation".  My five year old who hears Quran, qawwalis, naats, dhikr and never hears us saying anything about other forms of music has said on more than one occasion when sitting in a restaurant where secular music is being played, "I don't like this music -- it's so bad -- can they turn it off?" -- I never realized that at such a young age he would be able to discern beauty from grotesque, but this is what it is to be rooted in the Sacred. Yet when we talk about Qawwalis however, we think "no, no -- too many instruments" and ignore completely how deeply enriched it is with sufism, love of Allah and the Rasul (alayhi salam) and rooted in a sacred Islamic world. And quite frankly, there is major ikhtilaf on the use of instruments and there always has been. Do we really believe the Spaniards, North Africans, Yemenis, Turks, Persians, Indo-Paks, and so many other cultures were just ignoring a basic prohibition of the religion? If this were the case, instruments would have been avoided the way pork and alcohol have been. So long as the soul isn't taken to ghafla or anything haram because of the lyrics, many many ulema have said there is no harm in it -- but rather there is even benefit.

What actually got me thinking about all of this is the fact that for centuries Subcontinent and Central Asian Muslims named their children Persian (as well as Arabic) names, but my generation seems to feel that Muslim names are synonymous with Arabic names.  Where did we get that idea? Recently a very sweet Lebanese mom at my kids' school asked my name and when I told her, she replied "Oh you don't have a Muslim name?". My name is Persian -- everyone I know with that name is a Muslim -- it is a name that has been used for centuries in Iran, Afghanistan, and the subcontinent.

I read a piece recently (which I can't locate so if someone knows of it please post in the comments or email me), that also highlighted the fact that many beautiful Persian words and phrases are being erased from Pakistani culture and replaced with Arabic words/phrases. Again, when it comes to secular phrases we seem to have no issues saying things like "to each his own" which is relativism in a nutshell.

That led me to think about the fact that even at Muslim events, masjids, majalis we all wear Arab clothes…yes, sometimes the shalwar kameez fashion of the moment isn't the most conducive to those gatherings but those of us who adhere to the shariah parameters on modest garb do have lots of halal shalwar kameez. And it's beautiful! Islamic stores too, carry Arab clothing, but not modest options from other cultures -- why?

My Shaykh is Arab -- I love him more than anything.  Our majlis of dhikr is in Arabic without any instruments and is incredibly powerful -- Sh Alawi's poetry can move any heart that is even remotely alive. If I could choose where to die outside of Makkah and Madinah, it would be in that majlis. But not all souls are Arab and Sidi Shaykh understands that and has allowed me to really understand that. That's the the beauty of Allah's creation and the manifestation of His various Blessed Names. We must not let Salafis and Salafi-minded Sufis (for lack of a better term) which arose from the middle east to negate and seek to eradicate our centuries old, deep, rich, beautiful and inherently Muslim culture. Islam is not a monolith. Traditionally, Muslims did not see it this way. Our ancestors took the dictates of the religion and expressed their faith in a way that was true to who they were as inhabitants of the subcontinent and lovers of Allah and the Rasul (alayhi salam). Connecting with that part of my history is so heart-warming.

Embrace that. Love it. Allow your soul to be itself so that it can love Allah in its totality.

Salik recently said to me that seeing me listen to qawwalis is like watching me come back to myself again.

Have a listen:

Tajdar-e-haram by Atif Aslam

Ya Rahem, Maula Maula by Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan

Khuda Hafiz 


  1. Anonymous4:21 PM

    Music is kufr in the Islaam.!

    1. Music praising Allah = not believing in Allah (kufr)? Does that make any sense?

  2. Anonymous8:31 AM

    Heh heh good one Saleka. I agree with you and thank you for this beautiful posting. We need to have more open hearts Islam is very wide and vast. There is something here for every body. el-Mansour