Imam Luqman Ahmad


The Lotus Tree Blog

American Muslim Culture Confusion

Culture as defined by Webster, is the customary beliefs, social norms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group. It it also defined as the characteristics features of everyday existence (as diversions or way of life) shared by people in a place or time. Islamic scholarly inquest regarding the merits or harms of American culture, what’s haram, what’s halal is legitimate. However, when assessment of our culture by Muslim scholars or average Muslims is based upon disdain for America or because of our countries political or military relationship with the Muslim world , or because most Americans are not Muslim, or ‘kuffaar’ infidels, the query becomes illegitimate, and the conclusion is tainted. .

You can’t issue rulings about American culture and customs and exempt all other cultures from scrutiny. Judging permissibility or prohibition of anyone’s culture or aspects of it based strictly upon the belief, race, geography or nationality of the people has no valid sharia basis. You can’t label clothing as the ‘kaafir clothes’. Clothing either conforms to Islamic moral standards or it doesn’t. You can’t haram clothing and customs because it’s western or they do it in America or because Americans do it or because rappers do it. Unless, according to Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalaani, the clothing bears religious significance or distinction. Many people wear crosses because of custom not devotion. However, a Muslim cannot wear a cross because other the religious distinction or representation.

Customs and culture is are fundamentally different from worship from a fiqh standpoint . Worship is validated by submission, intention, method, adherence to the Quran, the sunna,.and the Islamic legal process and regulation. Customs and culture on the other hand are naturally validated unless the Quran and the sunna prohibits it. People are created in a state of ‘ftira’ (natural disposition to good). Some of customs are going to reflect that natural goodness and some customs will reflect spiritual ills. That goes for anybody; Americans, Arab, Pakistanis, Africans or Asians.

The Prophet (SAWS) was sent to teach and to purify people and their lives. Assigning or dismissing moral value to anyone’s culture or custom without distinguishing between the good and the bad is flawed reasoning from the very start. One of the functions of the revelation was to clarify the boundaries of both worship and custom and to apply distinction. The nature of fiqh is that each proof (daleel) is assigned its appropriate merit in order to arrive at a sound conclusion. Several years ago, a well known Muslim scholar wrote a book in which he

Islamic verdicts for or about American culture and customs, rendered without understanding Americans, subverts the Islamic legal deductive process. It wreaks havoc amongst American Muslims and creates discord around issues as petty as wedding rings and birthday parties. It effects converts especially because they come to Islam ready to drop everything and forget everything that grandma taught us.

We are starting to get a handle on this problem but it will take time. The damage to our communities has been profound. Much of the confusion and dysfunction in the African American Muslim community is rooted in imported foundational distortions of this type. Not that the information we were given was incorrect although some of it was. It’s that some of the information taught to our folks was misplaced and some of it was tainted by other peoples spiritual ills and their conflicts with our government and our reckless, misguided polices in the Middle East. Add that to our own pre-existing issues and you get dysfunction on top of dysfunction. This is why we argue about things like thikr beads, beards, names, or clothes.It’s almost like someone said: “I understand yall like to argue with each other. So do we, so here is a list of some things to fight about. have a nice day!

Many American Muslims have because of someone else’s miscalculation, treated customs and culture as worship. Frequently condemning that which has merit. Social customs which we have aways known to produce good were suddenly banned.. A sad consequence is that some of us are loosing the ability to recognize good when we see it. Failing to distinguish deen from custom has affected immigrants as well. It causes some of them to regard their national and local customs as religion. This is what led some people to regard their culture as superior to ours. This may also explain why suicide bombing is considered by its perpetrators to be a religious act while in reality it is a murderous, evil insertion into the culture of war. Though some Muslims scholars have condemned suicide bombings Others has given it legitimacy as a religious act. .

Actions, whether worship or custom are judged primarily by intention. Verily deeds are (judged) according to intention [Muslim] Thats because the only part of an action that actually reaches Allah is the unseen part, which emanates from the heart. “Verily Allah does not look at your hearts or your bodies but He looks at (the condition) of your heart“. ” [Bukhaari] “The meat of (the sacrifice ) will not reach Allah, nor will it’s blood but your piety (taqwa) will reach Him.” [Quran; 23:27]

This is not a matter of blaming anyone. African American Muslims concerns and sometimes near obsession about American culture and identity and its status in Islam is sometimes motivated by our desire to be good Muslims, sometimes because of our lack of knowledge and self confidence, and sometimes because the idea that hating America is a part of faith still resonates with many Muslims. Some of us are still in a state of rebellion. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Face it, we’ve been damaged, we’re naive and we have unresolved issues contributing to our condition. However, we are working through it.

This is one issue that we need to put to rest. Let’s not go back an forth with it. Yes we are African Americans, don’t make a big deal out it. Blackness offer no special privileges with Allah. Neither does whiteness, or any other hue. Its encouraging to see that we’re finally starting to break the taboo about openly discussing the realities of race and culture clash. I remember an article I wrote in 2002 about Racial Politics in Muslim America. Some African American Muslims, bristled that I spoke openly about our internal problems others applauded it. .

The sharia addresses customs in several ways. 1. It abolishes it all together because it is harmful, evil, unjust, or it measurably undermines the religion of Islam. As in the case of the pre-islamic practice of burying infants girls. It was an Arab custom that violated innocent life which Allah holds sacred. They might have been thinking; hey, it’s our tradition, plus we get to save a few dirhams. Prohibited; cut and dry. 2. It sanitizes the custom by prohibiting it’s harm and allowing its good. Such was the case of poetry; that which praised the idols and invited to wrongdoing was prohibited, while that which entertained and dazzled without inciting to evil was allowed. 3.Allah affirms the customs benefit and goodness and places blessing in it and attaches reward and spiritual value to it as in the case of the Arabic tradition of honoring the guest. It became a branch of faith.4. It legislates it or part of it as part of divine law as in the Arab practice of blood money awards for personal injury.

Culture is not the natural enemy of tawheed, or righteousness. However, idolatry (shirk), falsehood, and wrongdoing are contrary to deen, no matter whose culture or custom it is encased in. Allah has no standing opposition against anything He has created or customs and norms of those he has created except that which is false, harmful, evil or unjust. American culture, African American inner city culture, southern redneck culture, or Arab culture has no more has no legitimacy over the other except by is level of righteousness or corruption.

Islam is neither eastern or western and does not favor any side of the globe over the other. Culture and cultural practices only become prohibited when it definitively contradicts Islamic law or an established and agreed upon moral thresholds , or if its harm to religion and faith is explicit and conclusive. . Many scholars are not familiar enough with American culture and subculture to understand the true nature of some our cultural practices, customs and environment. That does not diminish the value of sound religious knowledge. Knowledge is necessary if want wants to distinguish good from evil or truth from falsehood. However, religious knowledge and teachings needs to be free of politics and cultural bias.

In America, cultural practices are not generally considered religious acts although some practices have religious undertones. For example, .Thanksgiving is an American tradition that has a religious undertone.It was started by Christians and it centers around thanking God. Hardly anyone considers it a religious holiday. Some scholars have rendered fatwas against Thanksgiving without even tasting the collard greens. Some have allowed it. I’m not going to debate the issue here. Some people have never been to grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, or tasted a four cheese, baked macaroni and cheese dish. If they had, I’d doubt that they would rule against it. Sometimes Thanksgiving dinner is the principle connection (sila) to the family as a whole. some immigrant communities have started the practice of going to churches to have inter-faith Thanksgiving to show tolerance and solidarity. I know that as awkward. Again, culture ignorance at work. If they would only ask us…

American Muslim scholars and imams are not represented on most national or regional shariah councils. So some rulings regarding cultural practices and habits of Americans and American Muslims are rendered without an intimate and full assessment of their detail or impact. MANA (Muslim Alliance of North America) is in the process of establishing its own independent council of scholars to address issues pertinent to the indigenous American Muslim and other issues relating to Islam and Muslims in America. In sha Allah some of its efforts will contribute to achieving balance in Muslim America, cultural and otherwise.

Imam Luqman Ahmad



Filed under: Black American Muslims, Fatwas and American Muslims, , , ,

6 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article, and truly agree with what you said. My question is how do we create a balance within out own homes as Muslims if spouses do not agree on where to draw the line when it comes to boudaries of Islam and bad cultural influences. ie, protecting our children from bad influences, such as friends, music, tv shows, and non muslim relatives and family gatherings.

  2. As Salaamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi

    May Allah Ta’ala bless us all with right guidance Amin. There is no right balance with what is haram and what is halaal. We can not force anyone to agree with or honor our way of life (Din). However we can not compromise it for the sake of “getting along”. The din al Hamdulillah -It is what it is and it has not had any legislative changes sent from Allah Ta’ala since the ending of the Prophethood of Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam. My biggest example of holding on to the rope of Allah Subhanah wa Ta’ala is one evening I was riding to Philly with a beloved sahabiat. She told me she had to stop off at a friends and take her to a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday auu’thu billahi minash shaitanir rajim. My friend’s exact words to me were “I know it’s haram but I promised.” My response to her was “drop me at Makkah Market I will wait there or I’ll be at the Masjid across ther street”. 3 hours later she came to get me and ya Allah she and her friend tried to convince me now how it was halaal and my dear friend no longer felt it was haram. Well my only response was that “If the Prophet of Allah Ta’ala sallallahu alaihi wa sallam did not do it then it is haram and if ya’ll want to keep talking about it let me out at the next light I’ll get the train home.” What is wrong with doing what Allah and His Messenger mandated is what is wrong with amerikkkan Muslim Imams. Those that adhere to adding to the din that which has never been legislated and those that permit subtracting from the din that which has been legislated – that is the problem with amerikkkan Muslim Imams. The perfect din of Islam is what it is and Allah Azza wa Jal made it perfect no need for anyone’s help.

    O Controller of the hearts make my heart steadfast in your religion AMIN AMIN AMIN

    Ukhti Fillah

    Umm Makkah Sakinah bint Philip Hyman

  3. Taahir Abdur-Rahim says:

    As-salamu alaykum . . .

    I pretty much agree with this article, I think that as American Muslims we need to really study and learn TRADITIONAL Islam as practiced by the people of sunnah and Jamaah and leave this wahabi influence where everything is shirk and bid’a. I heard one of the present day scholars say if everything is haraam, then by default everything is halal. We need to leave this salafi-wahabi influence find a madhab to follow and learn fiqh and tassawuf how to purify our hearts. And like the people of tassawuf say “If you want to be harsh, be harsh on yourself.
    p.s here is a link to a article on bida

  4. gassus says:

    As-salaamu alaikum,
    This was a very nice article. I saw this topic addressed on other blogs but it was from the stance of emotions and personal experiences of the writers. I have no horror story from immigrant muslims in America or in their lands. So, I could not relate and it seemed like immigrant bashing to me. Remember, they are broken people as well.Once American Muslims acquire knowledge of Islam in its proper form a lot of these propblems will dissapear, InchaAllah. The biggest hurdle is providing teachers in America, not everyone has the money or time to travel overseas nor should they.

  5. To: Taahir

    As salamu ‘alaikum akhi. I pray for your guidance and mine.

    I would contend that Muslims going after “Traditional Islam” would only (and is actually producing the same dichotomy as Umar related in the Salafi Dawah series that he chronicled on his blog. The reason being is that there is an intellectual reality to “Traditional Islam” that is not really discussed in the circles of the “Traditionals”. Also, to quote “Tradtional Islam” is another attempt an identity politic that may or may no speak to the reality of “studying the tradion” as opposed to taking to “Traditional Islam”.

    That is, for the Ulema as Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi said, “The way of the Ulema is Truth”. What is the reality of this then, is it simply to; pick a madhab, tariqa, and coin yourself as an Ashari? I would argue that this approach is an oversimplication as that the truth and the issue for us really lies in the profound general principle of the Qur’an, “If you don’t know as the people of dhikr”.

    Perhaps you might argue that turning to a madhab etc fulfills this command. I would argue that it’s reality is not fulfilled in our context and within our situation here in America. The reality is, that for all that is discussed in the discourse of the proponent of “Traditional Islam” we have yet to see the establishment of fatwa and research dealing with the contemporary issues of those of us here, right-here in the hearts of urban society. Why? People there are few amongst the proponents of “Traditional Islam” as it is being conveyed in the West that are stepping up to plate and dealing with fiqh and it’s application as it related to QUALIFIED SCHOLARSHIP and not necessarily tied up in the trappings of this-Madhab-or-the-Madhab. We don’t want narrow or path with a very narrow approach to fiqh especially.

    Be sure that this is not a sufi-salfi argument. I would consider myself as a person concerned with Tradition but not Traditional Islam as and identity. I hope you can make the distinction Insha Allah. When you look true Ulema, though they may ascribe themselves to a school of thought. What you are sure to find is that they are well versed in the rulings of other schools and turn to apply the law appropriately for the particular issue. This, we won’t find in our entry-level texts of madhabi fiqh nor will you find the reality of dealing with talfiq (mixing and matching madhabs) as you can be sure that most Muslims on this soil are talfqi by necessity, athari in creed – because there are few that have studies aqeedah that deeply and most of us don’t have the basic discipline to take to a tariqa. How many brothers are still on The Forty Grand after nearly 10 years?

    What I contend is that we need:

    1. Scholars and students of knowledge amongst us that are concerned with the proper application of the law following the correct methods of Usool and are engaging with the people day-to-day (Nod: To our Shaykh Luqman [h]).

    2. Layman that are ready that have the confidence to follow qualified scholars and students and are committed to building communities and doing work. We have to be confident with our identity of being Muslim and seeking Allah pleasure rather than taking to a rhetoric and adopting it as “the whole of our being”.

    3. Institutes of fatwa and research that extend to bring legal legitimacy to our marriage/divorce contracts, business contracts and are engaged in issue-resolution and conflict management. Additionally, the institutes should be working with the Islamic workers to develop frameworks and principles as they relate to the various spheres of knowledge and human endeavor so as to provide principles and what I call “Skill For Living”. Whereas, the average man feels he contribute economically, physically and intellectually to the development of Islam. It’s a shame that every brother and sister gets the ilm-itch and are ready to abandon the fields of science and social work to fly off to the madrasah.

    4. Curricula and Educational venues that help with the intellectual and spiritual orientation of the community from K-University and Post University research.

    I apologize for the long-winded reply and I hope I did not offend anyone. But we can’t continue to fall under the sway of identity politics whether they be salafi or sufi or whatever other ‘i’ that comes along in the future. We’ve seen too many strands that have come and disrupted and stunted the growth of the community. At the end of the day there was nothing but more confusion and distance between the hearts of the believers.

    I argue that right now Muslims need legitimacy by way of legal institutions and services by way of social services and help. All the fancy talk and discourse has to amount to something at the end of the day. Otherwise you and I will turn around and we will see our children with nowhere to turn to contribute to the Ummah in a meaningful way or worse turning to the Ummah in America and finding no resources available to support them.

    and Allah (swt) knows best.

    Your brother,


  6. […] 11:58 pm (Islam, Thoughts, Weblogs) (Fiqh, Islam, Suhaib Webb, Thoughts, Unity) Assalamu alaikum, this post made me start to ponder again on the “traditional Islam” label. I guess if you say that […]

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