As of ten days ago, Muslims entered the first month of the Islamic New Year 1433, a month known as Muharram. To non-Muslims, this will most likely not mean very much, so I shall explain. Muharram is a period of 40 days in which some Muslims, the majority Shia, mourn the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussein. Traditionally, the first ten days of Muharram which lead up to the day of the Imam’s death are spent learning and reflecting upon his message and relating the stories of Karbala. This is intended to inspire believers to remember the trials that this man and his family went through, so that we don’t take our freedom and beliefs for granted.
For anyone who has experienced or taken part in Muharram ceremonies, they will know that this month not only has massive religious importance but also a very significant cultural aspect. The rituals and traditions of this mourning period vary from mosque to mosque in accordance with the ethnic background of those who run them. Mourning for the death of a religious figure in the same way one would mourn for the death of a family member demonstrates the amount of love and respect these people have for their leader. However, having such a strong cultural presence may undermine the underlying spiritual message of the ceremony. It is this variety in the way in which this event is commemorated that first prompted my confusion about where culture ends and religion begins.
Culture and religion are very similar concepts. A religion is a system of beliefs based on ideas regarding origins, existence and purpose, and a culture is a network of values and practices based on the similar beliefs of a population. A synergy exists between the two where it is often impossible to differentiate between them. Take the English tradition of a Sunday lunch, for example. Most of us will know the religious origins of the Sunday lunch; before leaving for church on a Sunday morning, the roast is put in the oven to cook during the service so that when the family return home, they can all sit down together and eat. Nowadays, the Sunday lunch has fewer religious connotations but is still a staple of British culture which represents a peaceful end to the weekend.
Culture is something that cannot be taught or learnt like a science, rather it is something to be lived almost instinctively. Yet, if you are lucky enough to be mixed-race, like myself, you may find you have a slightly more acute awareness of culture. While being mixed-race is undoubtedly enriching, it is also, inevitably, an endless awkward situation. Never knowing where to stand, what to say, not to mention my awfully unconvincing Iraqi accent, I spend most of my life tripping over my own two feet as I attempt to stumble my way through marriages, engagements, funerals and even the simple act of talking to my elders. I recently committed the huge faux pas of saying ‘excuse me’ to someone older than myself when trying to walk past, a crime which hitherto I was blissfully unaware of, prompting countless gasps and apologies from my embarrassed friends. I always seem to be doing that one thing that metaphorically slaps the Iraqi culture in the face. The same is also true when I endeavour to be English, but fortunately, to a lesser extent.
When considering mere traditions, my lack of cultural identity is inconvenient, but it’s not the end of the world. Yet when it comes to religion, things become a lot more complicated. Like many people, I started taking a greater interest in my religion when I started university. This solo exploration wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy. With each culture comes a subtly different form of Islam, each with its own language, traditions and ideologies. And when you become part of a religion, you also become part of a community. This community not only influences its people but also the religion they practice, and the two become almost inseparable. But must this be the case?
It need not be said that without culture, the world would be an awfully boring place. The massive cultural diversity that exists globally brings us the food, music, film, fashion and art that make life interesting. However, religion is a very personal journey that must be explored with intense thought and deliberate intention. When religious acts become intermingled with cultural traditions, the ultimate focus can become somewhat obscured. Being surrounded by unfamiliar or indecipherable cultural practices while one is in a vulnerable state of prayer can be both a daunting and isolating experience.
The relationship between culture and religion is what makes the world what it is today. I can in no way deny that exploring different cultures and meeting new people has enriched both my spirituality and my worldly outlook. However, when pushed to extremes, certain cultural practices can overtake these beneficial aspects and religion is in danger of becoming more a show of piety rather than a genuine effort to worship. This dynamic has always and will always exist, but with more and more western Muslims, we may be looking at a new version in the making. Who knows, maybe Friday lunch will catch on…
Photo Credits: Mixed Brittania - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015qms8
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.