Religion and culture


When I interviewed Mr. Shalabi, an award-winning charter school principal for our MAP (Muslims for American Progress) research study at ISPU (the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding), he shared with me an interesting finding from his dissertation research.

Entitled “The Identity Crisis of Arab American Students in American Public Schools”, he shared that students who tried to fit in by completely shedding their cultural and religious identity were prone to low self-esteem, which translated into poor academic performance.  Similarly, students who clung to their own culture and resisted any integration were isolated and were equally prone to low self-esteem which therefore limited their academic progress.  Only those students who were able to blend both cultures – remaining proud of their own heritage but able and willing to assimilate selected aspects of their new culture – had the best self-esteem and academic progress.

This issue of religion versus culture is an important one in the Muslim experience today.  This issue affects not only American or Western Muslims, but Muslims throughout the world.  We struggle to reconcile our culture – or cultures – with our religion. Sometimes when push comes to shove, we deny or distance ourselves from one or the other.  Oftentimes it’s difficult to tell which is which.

The one thing we know for sure is that Islam is a universal religion meant for all times and places – but our cultural baggage may not be.  We may be holding on to certain aspects of our culture, assuming these are an integral part of Islam when in fact they may not be.  This is not to say that we should disown our culture.  Our language, our history, and our heritage – even our clothing and cuisine  – each represents a vital part of who we are, and we should be proud to own that.  But should we ever put our culture ahead of our obedience to God?  Or does faith come first?


Already Beautiful


Sometimes in our feverish attempt to defend our faith, we forget that Islam is already beautiful.  It is already perfect, because it is Divinely ordained.  To change anything that is already perfect can only bring about its imperfection.

When we stick to the authentic method of interpreting the texts of Islam, we will leave with one finding:  that Islam is balanced.  It is neither overly focused on outer actions, not solely focused with achieving a certain inner state, but rather values both.

Some stress the importance of rigidly adhering to the ritual aspects of our faith, but routinely ignore the inner work.  And others place all their emphasis on the inner work, and routinely dismiss the importance of rituals such as prayer and fasting in the attempt to just get us to be “better people”.  Actually one reinforces and informs the other.

If we really do have a strong moral compass then it will show in our actions.  If we do the outer actions correctly, then they will develop us internally:

Testimony of faith is intended to develop sincerity

Prayer is intended to develop discipline

Charity is intended to develop generosity

Fasting is intended to develop self-control

Hajj is intended to develop patience

We owe worship to God alone.  But we also owe care and concern for our fellow humans – not just Muslims but all people – and nature as well.  As Muslims, we believe all living things – both animate and inanimate – worship God.

We also practice care and concern for ourselves, as our bodies have a right over us.  Islam is not a monastic faith:   we fast but we also eat, we stay up to pray in the night but we also sleep, we spend in charity but we also fulfill our own needs.


They are all important.

Education in the critical faculty

i agree

“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators … They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.” -William Graham Sumner

This quote perfectly sums up the art and science of critical thinking. It comes from a book I was reading as part of my professional development as a business analyst at the corporate office of a large healthcare company.

You might wonder, how does critical thinking relate to Islam?

The Islamic sciences are rooted in critical thinking.  As Muslims we should develop our critical faculties, so that we are not interpreting Islam according to our own whims but rather according to the rigorous, evidence-based models established by scholars throughout the centuries.

Nowadays we are quick to use logic and reasoning to dismiss long-held traditional interpretations of Islam. Why not use reason to uphold them instead?

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