Q&A: Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat is the President of the Islamic Affairs Council in Maryland and founder of Civilisations Exchange & Cooperation Foundation (CECF). Born and raised in Damascus, Imam Arafat was an Imam in Damascus in the 80’s before moving to United States and continuing his work there. He has taught Islamic Studies and comparative religion in various universities in the States and is currently teaching in the college of Notre Dame of Maryland. Imam Arafat talks to Minivan News about whether there is room for individual cultures within Islam.

Minivan News: In recent years there has been a lot of debate about whether the concept of different cultures is compatible with Islam. Do you think there is room for diverse cultures within Islam?

Mohamad Bashar Arafat: In the past 50 years or so there has been an effort by certain countries to influence other countries with their own school of thought, their culture and their tradition. This created a lot of tension between Muslim communities. During my travel to different continents, I have come across this problem with students from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, who talk about this issue. This imposing of a specific culture is something that contradicts the true teachings of the Quran.

The Quran, first of all, gives people the freedom to worship, the freedom to choose their own religion, right or wrong. Allah says ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. So, even when it comes to religion itself, Allah is saying you should not force people to adopt it. Then what about culture, dress or certain ways of life or even songs?

This is a problem we did not see in the lives of the early Muslims that spread out of Arabia in the 7th century AD. They didn’t ask Syrians to change their culture or Egyptians to change theirs as long as it did not contradict the teachings of Quran and the core principles of Islam.

MN: Were there instances in the early days of Islam where a cultural practice contradicted the teachings of the Quran?

MBA: Yes. For example, in Egypt, during the time of the Second Caliph of Islam, Omar ibn al-Khattab, an issue arose over the tradition of ritual sacrifice of a girl to the Nile River. Amr ibn al-A’as, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and the military commander who lead the conquest of Egypt, wrote to the Caliph.

He explained that Egyptians have a tradition of sacrificing a beautiful girl to the Nile every year and believed that this would get the Nile to flood and overflow onto their parched land. Amr refused permission for the sacrifice, however he wrote that the Egyptians were getting upset over this as the land had little water and the crops were failing. The Caliph praised his actions and sent a paper addressed to the Nile saying, ‘If you flow on your own, then we don’t need your water, but if you are flowing by Allah, we pray to Him to keep you flowing.’ Amr was asked to throw the paper into the Nile as a symbolic gesture for the people to put their trust in Allah. The Nile flooded that year and the practice of sacrifice was stopped. The point of this incident is that in cultural matters, where a person is going to be harmed or where it’s contradictory to Quranic teachings, it should not be practiced.

The Quran created a standard for basic human rights and understanding such that no matter what your culture is, people cannot be harmed or killed as sacrifices to obtain good luck. We cannot deny the basic human right to life in the name of culture. Likewise cultures that associate days of the year in celebration of drinking or eating pork, which is in contradiction with Islamic teachings, should not be continued. The Quran came to curb these cultural practices and improve them. But other than that, when it comes to certain behaviors, folklores and even group dances such as the ones that do not have mixing between men and women, which are in the DNA of societies like Egypt, they are acceptable practices.

Travel through Muslim countries in Ramadan and you will see the cultural diversity in the types of food eaten, clothing worn and ways they honor Ramadan. We should celebrate this diversity and the beauty of Muslims around the world, which varies from country to country in their color, languages and accents, shapes and architectural preferences. Muslims in China have their own cultural flavor, even when it comes to the structure of their mosques.

MN: What about one’s choice of clothing?

MBA: When it comes to clothing, Muslims in Arabia have the Jalaabiyya and the Abbaya, which is part of their culture. The Prophet Mohamad (PBUH) was an Arab. If someone wanted to dress like that out of love for Allah’s Prophet (PBUH) and wanted to dress his children that way, it’s fine, but to impose that on others is wrong. In recent years we started noticing indirect pressure on people and especially on new Muslims – those who have not read a lot or gone deeper into the spirit of the religion. The pressure is to wear his Jalaabiyya a certain way, smile a certain way or even talk in a certain manner, and the same Hadeeth (tradition of the Prophet) is repeated.

The Quran, revealed in Arabic to an Arab in Arabia, is particularly instructive. Despite this, the Quran imparts stories and information about an array of cultures and customs. It tells us about the Egyptians, the Pharaoh and the stories of King Suleiman. It talks of magic carpets and about how the jinn (supernatural creatures) served Suleiman. The Quran talks to us about foods of different people, about other civilisations, and even speaks to us about people of Hell. It is not exclusively a compendium of dogmatic do’s and don’ts; instead it is a treasure trove of cultural, historical, ethical, spiritual, and civilisational information.

The Quran has inspired people, their behavior and even Muslim architectural style. Their cultural diversity is what makes Muslims around the world unique. When you go to Hajj, or pilgrimage in Mecca, you will see Muslims from around the world and can identify them by the unique way they are dressed. You can see that she is from Malaysia, Africa or other regions. The Prophet (PBUH) used to receive garments as gifts from other areas and he wore them. There is a hadeeth about the Prophet (PBUH) wearing an Omani garment, which shows that the Prophet (PBUH) appreciated gifts from other cultures.

MN: How do we differentiate between cultural practices of that time, and ways of living that we have to follow?

MBA: The Sunnah (way the Prophet lived his life) about praying and fasting should be observed. Those that talk about people’s eating habits, like saying the Prophet used to eat with his hands, so you should discard cutlery, is not right. During his time, there was no cutlery. Instead, he taught a proper and hygienic way of eating out of one main serving dish – to use only three fingers and eat from the spot closest to oneself only. Each culture is special and valid in its own practices.

Whether or not they use cutlery does not determine their worth. It is wrong to look down on people when it comes to such. When it comes to breaking the fast, there are certain things the Prophet said to do or recommended, and these we should follow. But when there is no emphasis on other things, it is up to the people to do it the way they want. There are things the Prophet liked to do personally such as fasting on Mondays and Thursdays or fasting for three days in the middle of the month. He liked to do it that way, but nothing exists that prevents us from not doing it.

There is the example of how once when the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions were eating together; the host put a plate of lizard as part of the “meal.” The Prophet (PBUH) asked what it was and when told, he pushed the plate away. One of his companions, Khalid Ibn Waleed, said, “Oh Prophet, is this forbidden?” The Prophet (PBUH) said, “No, I don’t like it, I am not used to it.” Khalid then pulled the plate closer and started eating it.

Some Muslims eat shellfish, while others don’t. As long as there is no prohibition on the food from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, you can eat and indulge in whatever food your culture is accustomed to. Islam’s etiquette about food is that one should not eat until one is hungry and when he eats he should not overindulge.

MN: Give us an example of a time in early days of Islam when there was diverse opinion on issues?

MBA: When the Prophet (PBUH) passed away, the companions spread to other countries. This eventually gave birth to two schools of thought, the Ahl Al Ra’ee (School of Opinion) and the Ahl Al Hadeeth (School of Hadeeth). In areas where there were few companions or people who met them, people would reflect upon issues and come up with their own fatwas, or legal opinions, based on the guidelines of the Shari’ah. They used to be in Iraq. In places like Medina many companions and people lived, who met the Prophet and remembered his life. They relied more on Hadeeth. This shows the diversity in Islam and those from the two schools of thought did not speak badly about one another and differences of opinions were respected.

Nowadays the issue of music is contentious; there are those who say all music is forbidden, those in the middle and others, who are all the way to the left. Keep in mind that during the Prophet’s time, people were taken with the love of the Prophet and no one would think of music and other things because their hearts were filled with something much higher. Music used to be associated with dance, mixing of men and women, drinking and all kinds of vices. It depends on which kind of music you are talking about. Is it music that leads you to haram, or unlawful practices, or is it music that you hear in the news today? Is it a kind of music, which will lead you to forget your Quranic duties and fill your heart more than the love of Allah?

The dress of women is another issue, in certain Middle Eastern countries women cover their entire bodies, while in Africa where it’s really hot, the dress is not as conservative.

Likewise, we see in one school of thought, that of al-Imam Malik is more lenient in certain issues than the School of al-Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, who is stricter. Muslims, who live in the dessert, have characteristics and a culture that are different than those who live in Syria where there are far more trees and water and natural beauty. Even the opinions of scholars living in tough environments are stricter. Environment, culture, and beauty impact people and we see this in the way Muslims live and behave.

MN: It was traditional in the Maldives until very recently to celebrate Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday with huge communal feasts. However there has been a drive to stop this practice on the grounds that celebrating birthdays are unIslamic. What is your opinion on this?

MBA: This is another issue; the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday was something that was not practiced by the Prophet (PBUH) or his companions. It was something that started in Egypt during the time of the Fatimid dynasty.

They were the ones who started celebrating the Prophet’s birthday. Yes it’s a bidaah (innovation), but it’s a good bidaah. You are inviting the entire community to make salaah upon the Prophet, to chant, sing and praise the Prophet’s life and character (PBUH). It’s also important to see what people do in terms of celebration; if it’s not contradictory to Islam, then it is fine.

As a boy, I remember that I used to wait for this celebration. For me, it meant having candy and lots of food, but it also brought me to the adults that were sitting and chanting songs about the prophet. When people get together for the celebrations, it’s a reminder to the younger generation about the life of the Prophet (PBUH).

Allah tells us in the Quran to constantly remember the Prophet (PBUH), his devotion and his struggle.
Celebrating the “birthdays” of other people are cultural practices. It was not the culture in Middle East, and so the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions did not practice it. If you want to celebrate it, it is up to you. It is not forbidden like alcohol. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one.

I celebrate the birthday of my children sometimes. They live in America and see other children having birthday parties. We have parties to celebrate, but we also read the Quran and memorise a chapter for that day. In Lebanon, it’s a tradition to celebrate birthdays with fireworks. Today we have to understand what is religious and what is cultural. If you want to do something that is OK Islamically, just make sure there is nothing wrong done while you are doing it.