The Culture of Islam or the Muslims?

All religions are embedded and exist in cultural forms while the religion itself is the most powerful thing in changing culture. Islam as a religion also presents such cultural scene in all of Muslims’ living spheres. But the key question is the position of Arabic culture in the practice of Islam because this religion is born and spread in the Arabic context. This issue was raised by ICRS Professor, Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, in his talk at the Wednesday Forum (9/9/11).

In his presentation entitled ‘Islam and Culture: Educational Perspectives’ Bernie (how he is usually called) stated that he has been impressed by the Islamic culture in last twenty years living in Indonesia. He found that the culture of Islamic society or umma is multi-facets and not monolithic while the religious practice is not always in accordance with Quranic teaching. Based on his observation of Muslims in Indonesia Bernie categorizes Muslims’ thinking toward the culture.

In continuum, the five categories include the following views: First, Islam should replace human cultures, second, Islamic Arab culture is the highest culture, third, Islam is in tension with all human culture, fourth, Islam is creating diverse Islamic culture, and fifth, both Islam and culture have mutual benefits and therefore culture should have autonomy from religion.

Bernie argues that the first and second types are the dangerous, while the last is the best for the Muslims to achieve. He sees that the majority of Muslims tend to follow the third type of the views. He added that the continuum is displayed in circle diagram because all the types can be combined one with another by the Muslims. The types can also be synthesized into an Islamic critical standpoint toward the culture of modern capitalism and consumerism.

The question and answer session started with a question refering to a hadith or prophetic tradition stating that the Muhammad’s era is the best among eras of Islam. For Bernie the claim of Islamic pinnacle era is related to political development of the umma after Muhammad era. This view was supported by a participant who said that the hadith must be understood in relation to other hadiths and verses of Qur’an.

The use of the terms Islamic culture and Arabic culture provoked further discussion. Bernie asserted that Islam is a conviction but Arabic culture is a context; the relation of the entities is therefore problematic. He said religion is a form of God’s mind translated into human life and it therefore needs an understanding about cultureal context including the language. No one knows the true essence of religion in God’s mind and human only understands it through the forms of culture.

Professor Mark Woodward joined the discussion. He suggested that academics cannot essentialize the so called ‘Arabic Culture’ because the land of Arab is vast and its people have diverse cultural forms. With regards to Islam and culture, he suggested that the term ‘Islamicated Culture’ is better than ‘Islamic Culture’ but the people are still reluctant to use it. He also added that the term ‘Muslim Culture’ is less problematic and yet is more accepted. [MoU]

This post is also available in: Indonesian

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