The Dichotomy Between Religion and Culture in Sudan (Part 1)

12 Nov

I love Islam. I love Islam in a silent and profound way in which I seek to understand the fundamentals of the religion, but not become a fundamentalist who showcases how “religious” they are. I love Islam in the pragmatic sense, and I love how it all makes sense. I have repeatedly dissected the religion to miniscule pieces in attempts to find meaning—my own meaning–that is not imposed on me by others, yet still adheres to the overall message of the religion. What I found was indeed reassuring: it all makes sense. Islam’s unique quality, in my opinion, is that it makes sense, at least more than any other religion I have studied.

Having said that, it is deeply disheartening when people who claim to love Islam dissect it to understand it, yet they choose the pieces of the religions that will augment their agenda or outright wrong beliefs, and decidedly throw the rest out. Now, if you dare to challenge them, you will either: observe them struggle with their cognitive dissonance, or be accused of blasphemy—the latter being the likelier outcome of challenging a fundy’s beliefs. What bothers me the most is how unwilling most people are to even discuss religious matters, or accept another interpretation, heck, even listen to another interpretation. What makes this laughable however is that some Sudanese people seem to have blurred the line which separated religion and culture. I have had countless arguments with Sudanese people who are so narrow minded that it seems scary to even suggest rationality in an argument. I have always been a skeptical person, and whenever I meet someone who is so attached to a particular mentality, I like to oppose everything they say, so as to test their convictions, and the depth of their knowledge about the subject matter. If I am going to listen to a person with strong views about religion, I would hope that they are at the very least sufficiently knowledgeable to form and challenge counter arguments. I would love to have a conversation with a Sudanese person about culture vs. religion, and end the conversation with something other than: “is that what you were taught in Amreeka? Gooli astagfarullah ya bit.” No, I am not an apostate. No, I do not enjoy blasphemy. I just want to discuss the religion I love, because there’s always more to explore. Religion and culture, while often intertwined, are not the same “institution.”

So, let’s talk. Don’t scare me, convince me.

10 Responses to “The Dichotomy Between Religion and Culture in Sudan (Part 1)”

  1. Omar Elfadli November 15, 2008 at 12:43 am #

    Truly interesting topic and personally I value your quest for conviction.
    First, as Muslim I would like to think that I am a sincere one but I am far from being a scholar there for I will not try to convince you about Islam or anything else.
    I would simply like to comment on your brilliant “blog”? or topic by reflecting my personal view on the matter hoping it may lead you to a better understanding.
    I feel from your post that you might be of a fairly young age hence it explains your quest for conviction and I congratulate you for this. We have all passed on this road at your age or close enough but only the ones with continence stop to ask and think and search to learn more. You began by saying that you love Islam and that it makes sense, at least more than any other religion you have studied.
    If you have studied other religions, have you studied Islam?. and if yes, I really think that you suffer form a case of disliking the method of teaching rather than the subject it self.
    I remember hating mathematics in a certain year at school only because of the teacher’s method that was not clear nor civilized enough for me.
    and so teaching Islam is like any other subject you can find good teachers and bad teachers to teach it, however I would like to humbly say that in my view, Islam is not a conviction but is a belief. for example you can convince someone that seeing is believing, hence you cannot believe in something you cannot see. in reality every one of us see things differently and some of us do not see at all even though they have perfect eye sight. I am sorry if I seam to confuse you but what I am trying to explain is that Islam is a way of life, a state of mind and a choice. here I say this with full conviction because I believe that Islam is not a subject limited to the concentrated curriculum within the Quraan and sunna, although indeed they form the foundation for one’s belief on the entire matter being the creator, life, death, and what follows. if we then chose to believe because as you say it makes sense, then we should profound our knowledge to use it as guidance through our life, and the more we learn the more we become closer to Allah our creator, and the closer we become to our creator by using Islam as our way of life, the stronger and more confident we become. In-other wards we need to be convinced to learn about Islam but once we gain full knowledge then we become believers in what Islam represents, and for some people believing is seeing rather than seeing is believing. I am sure that you are still young but one day you will understand the meaning of this. and once you follow your beliefs to see things then you will realize that you are being a sincere Muslim and doing it for yourself and your creator as a free choice nothing else.
    If you love Islam then I advise you to learn about it fully but like any other subject try to find a good teacher.

  2. optimist November 15, 2008 at 1:43 am #

    Fantastic Omar, I really appreciate everything you said. That was exactly my goal, to get the conversation going.

    However, you seem to be slightly missing the point here, and it is completely not your fault. After reading your comment and reading my post one more time I realized how I was misleading– after all this is only part one– so you could consider it a preface if you will. The essence of my “rant” is about people who mix religion and culture, and seem to be so convinced that certain aspects of Sudanese culture are islamically acceptable; some even value tradition more than tradition (i.e some social stigmas such as females marrying a muslim who is not Sudanese.)

    This “blurred” line between the two, the dichotomy between them within Sudan is what I was objecting to.

    I am in no way doubting, questioning, or being skeptical about Islam itself. I have studied Islam extensively, and like I said, I love Islam. I do not mind religious people at all, on the contrary,I envy them. However, it is the people who claim to be religious, yet confuse culture and tradition with Islam itself.

    I hope that clarified my stance.

  3. Eḏ Tränslëtorälus November 15, 2008 at 8:37 pm #

    It seems that your objection is against people who attempt to intellectually address something they hold strictly emotionally.

    Here’s the example:
    Question: Does God exist?
    Intellectual Answer: Provide a logical argument, such as the cosmological argument.
    Emotional: “Astağfiru (A)llāh!!! BLASPHEMY!!!”

    If someone believes that the Qur’än is the literal word of God, the individual should refer to His word, which is rich with many logical arguments.

    Thus, for example, don’t go argue with an Islamophobe without expecting to be exposed to some hardcore vitriol if you can’t handle.

    Mistakingingly believing that un-Islamic cultural behaviors to be mandated by the religion stems from the ignorance of those who exhibit them. This is why it is mandatory for Muslims to learn as much as they humanly can about their religion if they want to represent it appropriately.

  4. Omar Elfadli November 15, 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    this is very interesting mind bending stuff but guys have mercy I haven’t slept for 2 days still I am very tempted to dive in again but I have too much work at the moment.
    however we can definitely make a rendezvous for as soon as I get some rest. keep it rolling guys.
    at last some heavy substance.

  5. optimist November 16, 2008 at 5:27 am #

    Ed Transletoralus-

    You hit the spot. You have a really good point and your comment is a perfect addition to what I was trying to say.

    I do have a question though, why do you think it is mandetory to learn all that is humanely possible about Islam in order to represent it properly? I think that places a huge burden on people who would like to discuss religion, and gives more power to people who claim to be “religious know-it alls.” We all strive for better understanding, but after all, I think religion is about how well of a relationship with God you have, and how good of a person or are, not so much how well you can memorize scripture or regurgitate information about the religion.

    What I do believe to be an absolute necessity on the other hand is learning to distinguish between what you know as a result of culture, and what you know as a result of religion. If you know a little or a lot is not as important as knowing where it all came from, and knowing how to prioritize ideas accordingly.

    Dontcha thinks so? 🙂

  6. Eḏ Tränslëtorälus November 16, 2008 at 7:57 am #

    I do not think there is any disagreement there.

    I personally follow the school of thought that states one should generally attempt learn all that is humanly possible about virtually everything, especially things that affect the individual directly. Thus, a Muslim, should make a serious effort in learning about the religion’s beliefs, practices and moral code. The idea is that it is an obligation to seek knowlege. Acquiring it however depends on factors that differ from one individual to another; or else we would all be memorizers of the Qur’än, Ṣaħïħ Al-Bukhärï and Muslim.

    This is analogous to a physician being required to know a minimum amount of information about the subject in order to retain the title of MD. Simialrly, there is an ethical code the physician needs to follow regarless of skill and amount of knowlege about the subject. Affiliation with the religion requires a learning and practice of its moral code which is often neglected by many. That includes compassion, generousity, humbleness, patience, and many other behaviors encouraged by the Qur’än and Sunnah.

  7. Anonymous November 16, 2008 at 8:49 am #

    Miss. Optimist, i agree with Ed that one should learn about Islam before getting into discussions with those who know more. Those who don’t know much but simply shout “astaghfarullah” back at you are probably ignorant and resort to the safest thing to say.
    But religious knowledge is important. It helps you understand stuff in both culture and tradition. I for one had a tough time understanding the marriage of Saydna Mohammed Rasul Allah (3aleyh alsalat wo alsalam) to alsayda Aisha (radi Allah 3anha) while she was 9 years old. I failed once long time ago to defend it to a non-muslim. I was embarrased coz i wanted to defend the fact the in our culture girls used to get married in their 15 years of age. (let alone younger). I was not ok with it, but then it was not forbidden and i was attacked by the fact that Islam allows wrong, inhuman things.
    So, i once heard a very rational and good explanation of Saydna Mohammed Rasul Allah’s marriage to Alsayda Aisha. I was happy and content.
    We have to agree that religion is a dangerous subject to talk about without knowledge. It is more than ok ta discuss it so as to gain knowledge. But not argue blindly. The sense that the other person knows more than you, thus makes you unable to explain your point is what scares you more i think (“you” is anyone of us).
    In Sudan, culture overcomes religion in some areas, tribes, families, and older generations concerning certain matters. It’s a pity and a great shame that this is happening. You are right, if you start discussing it, you almost get hated.

  8. optimist November 17, 2008 at 1:34 am #

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is dangerous to discuss religion without knowledge, because then people who lack religious knowledge will not want to ask questions. I think no human being can ever be all-knowing, thus how well one knows a religion is relative and objective. People with all levels of religious understanding should be able to discuss it, so everyone can gain a greater understanding. I wouldn’t really be scared to discuss religious matters with say, a Saudi cleric, because if he is giving off a “scary” impression, then he shouldn’t be teaching religion at all. One of the greatest things about our prophet (PBUH) was that he was approachable.

    That being said, I think it is more dangerous for people to defend cultural traditions and pass them as religious rules. Culture and religion are two independent aspects of life. If you are going to advocate a certain cultural practice, do not use religion as an excuse to back up socially constructed practices that have no Islamic grounds whatsoever.

    ya know? 😉

  9. Anonymous November 17, 2008 at 4:23 am #

    That being said, I think it is more dangerous for people to defend cultural traditions and pass them as religious rules. Culture and religion are two independent aspects of life. If you are going to advocate a certain cultural practice, do not use religion as an excuse to back up socially constructed practices that have no Islamic grounds whatsoever.

    Hear, hear!

    And I would extend that to thought systems and trends that are un-Islamic such as the mysogyny of those under the wahabi lore.

    People in Islamic communities get complacent and just go through the motions whereas my belief is that all the mandatory tenets of worship are designed to ‘renew’ the faith, to challenge and push and inspire.

    Just one thing, don’t be too harsh on people in Sudan.

    Not everyone has the exposure and experiences that have forced them to think outside the box…

    I remember my cousins saying that 7i99at aldeen was always the joke and when my cousin who was based in the States was asking difficult questions they were like ‘dude, we’re Muslim and that’s that’.

  10. Omar Elfadli November 17, 2008 at 9:06 pm #

    Salaam Guys,
    I have been enjoying reading your posts and greatly admiring your serious interest and analysis regarding this very complicated subject. I was really hoping for a scholar to join the discussion but you seem to be doing just fine so far.
    However I still think that there is a little miss conception somehow where as some of us keep thinking of religion (and in this case Islam) as a material subject such as any scientific subject with the understanding to learn and memorize it in the same way we learn medicine as it was mentioned in one example.
    Please let me emphasize on the absolute importance in correctly comprehending the essence and concept behind the existence of religions and the need for our creator Allah to send and resend those sets of rules and guidelines upon us. If we stop to contemplate and correctly understand the “conception” of religions then we will easily begin to understand its formula, necessity and involvement in our culture building as Muslim nation in general then individually as Sudanese.
    Those sets of rules and guidelines that were brought upon us through religions were sent to reshape a major part of nations old beliefs, practices and traditions and hence creating new Islamic based culture.
    This is reflected on our daily practices, customs, upbringing, education, and our concept of life in general.
    The problem brought up on your topic or “Dichotomy” between the two as I see it, is the conflict between the old traditions prior to Islam and the adoption of the new (Islamic) rules and guidelines. specially in a country like Sudan where the geographic Carrefour factor imposes a vast diversity in traditions and customs of African and Arabian origins. Remember that Sudanese culture is formed from this mixed formula and thus making it even harder to adapt it with Islamic rules. You can very easily study the example of east and west Sudan to notice the great difference in culture and traditions to do with the adaptation of Islam. And we are right in saying that the influence of Islam is very limited when it comes to old traditions, This is demonstrated very clearly in our wedding and death ceremonies where traditions clearly gets the upper hand with Islamic rules.
    In other way we can notice the clear difference between a born Muslim who follows the same “tradition/ Islam” combination, and a converted Muslim who drops his western traditions to adopt a more complete version of the Islamic faith.
    I would like to repeat what I have mentioned in my previous posting and again describe Islam to be a belief not a conviction and a way of life, a state of mind and a choice, but unfortunately in Sudan and the Arab world not many Muslims are prepared to give up their traditions and culture for the authentic faith, and the few who manage to do so they are immediately accused of being radicals, and at this point the issue will turn into POLITICS.

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