Towards An Islamic Theory of Culture Part I: On Culture & The West

This series will address the subject of culture in relation to the Islamic faith, asserting that culture as a subject of academic interest is largely discussed and conceptualized through Western paradigms (i.e. traditions of thought rooted in and speaking to experiences in Western societies). In other words, this series questions the epistemology of the study of culture, inviting readers to envision an alternative discourse on culture. Rather than a study of art or culture from predominantly Muslim societies, it is an investigation of how culture has been discussed by Muslim intellectuals and writers with a vested interest in the Islamic faith.

On a hot, dry day in the open garden of a refurbished Ottoman Madrasa in Istanbul, I was privileged to share a pleasant afternoon with a motley crew of fascinating individuals, both from Turkey and abroad. Among them was a professor of sociology at Ibn Haldun University and his wife.

In a frankly haphazard and frantic manner I was attempting to explain my thesis on Islam and Culture. Sparing me from further embarrassment, the professor interjected with his own analogy. 

Pointing to his wife’s silver ring, with an impression of a Greek figure raised within it, he said “No Alexander, no Versace.” By Alexander I believe he was referring to Medusa, whose icon is the insignia of the brand Versace. 

The point he was illustrating, however, was clear as day. 

Art, and more broadly, culture, does not exist in a vacuum. All discourses rely upon foundational ideas, assumptions, and narratives. This of course is not a novel observation:, the post-modern thinker Jean Francois Lyotard discusses the concept of metanarratives — the cosmology of a given discourse — at great length. 

The discourse of culture has been discussed largely through what we might consider inherently Western metanarratives, in the sense that the ideologies and philosophical assumptions adopted in these discussions emerged from — and in many ways speak to — Western societies. 

Thus, in this first part of the Islam and Culture series, we will take a glimpse at the discourse of culture as it emerged in the Western world, with a specific focus on perspectives from three influential forces in this field of study.

Culture in Question

Within the discourse of cultural studies, perhaps the most contested term is that of “culture” itself. It must be understood that culture, in its most generic operational use today, is a fairly modern term. With that, we are left to grapple with two heavy and vast concepts to reckon with: culture and modernity. 

Any attempt to concretely define either term would be beyond the scope of this series, however, it is imperative to this investigation that both terms are addressed in some capacity. 

While the term “cultural studies” would not emerge as a distinguished academic discipline until the 1960s (with the establishment of the Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham), culture as an aspect of social life was first given serious consideration in the nineteenth century. During this period, many of the thinkers occupying the academic sphere of Europe — and by extension America — observed what they believed to be distinct and radical shifts in the social and intellectual currents of their respective societies. By the early twentieth century, these observations of “culture” were explained as symptoms of a new historical era.

It was a matter of distinguishing new, radically different aspects of individual and social life from their “traditional” precursors. Bertrand Russell summated this modern turn as “a profound revolt, both philosophical and political, against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics” which “gave rise to attacks upon many beliefs and institutions that had hitherto been regarded as unassailable.”[1] Describing, in effect, the bedrock of what we refer to now as “modernity.”

Modernity then, can be understood as a series or collective of changes that altered the social fabric of Europe and the West at large, and continued to stoke new debates across academic disciplines. From that same set of (arguably ongoing) changes emerged commentaries that formed the foundations of what we now call “cultural theory.”

On Culture & Anarchy

For many scholars, the earliest theorist of relevance in this field was the poet and polemic writer, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). His work responded to the rise of mass culture (a product of the Industrial Revolution) and what he deemed as a trend of degradation in art. It could be said that his thought was in many respects grounded in ideals akin to early liberal and humanist thinkers. He is credited with initiating the discourse of “culture and civilization” and introducing a particular paradigm for the study of culture.

For Arnold, the height of culture represents the best of human achievement and serves to preserve, enable and understand those aspects of humanity. In his seminal essay Culture and Anarchy, Arnold evokes Montesquieu in his claim that the “The first motive which ought to impel us to study is the desire to augment the excellence of our nature, and to render an intelligent being yet more intelligent.” [2] It is upon this assertion that Arnold arrives at the conclusion that culture is “properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.” [2] 

Arnold’s perspective on culture is based on the axiom that human nature is fundamentally pure and good. His perspective also assigns a spiritual objective to culture: “To make reason and the will of God prevail.” An idealistic undercurrent pervades his outlook, tying it to Christian ideals; for example, one might observe parallels between Arnold’s words and the following statement by St. Paul: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It also resonates with the ideals of early liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau. The assertion of man’s inherent perfection harkens back to Rousseau’s The Social Contract, wherein he states that “man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” [3] The chains here refer to the constraints of the nation-state apparatus.

Another source of influence for Arnold were the romantics, a literary movement challenging the social attitudes they perceived as being ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. “Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary and the transcendental.” [4] According to some scholars, Arnold’s own sentiment toward Industrialism was influenced by the thought of the 19th century poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

For Arnold, development in the political, economic and religious arenas “hindered the appreciation and expression of cultural ideals that would access a smoother course for personal and social advancement in troubled times.” [5] One can derive an operational definition “Arnoldian” view of culture consisting of two faculties — to examine perfection, and to pursue a vision of truth and meaning. 

John Storey expands this definition into four parts: “(i) the ability to know what is best (ii) what is best (iii) the mental and spiritual application of what is best (iv) the pursuit of what is best” [6] The question of course then emerges as to what exactly constitutes “the best” (culture) and the “anarchy” that contrasts it, in Arnold’s view?

Arnold appears to be focused on the “great arts,” those art forms in which people of his social standing (i.e. the middle and upper classes) would typically participate or observe. Consider ballet, fine art, the novel, and other such mediums which fulfill this remittance. Arnold openly regards his hierarchy of cultural significance as follows: “Almost all my attention has naturally been concentrated on my own class, the middle class, with which I am in closest sympathy, and which has been, besides, the great power of our day.” [2] He gives particular attention to his social class, dubbed the “Philistines,” as distinct from the “Barbarians” – the aristocracy too consumed by industrial and monetary ambitions to value the arts — and the “Populace” — the working class whose form of culture he considers unworthy of serious consideration.

The Arnoldian perspective did not remain unchallenged by later cultural critics, but it nevertheless represents a turning point in academia whereby the concept of culture emerged as a subject of discussion.

On Culture & Mass Media

Another influential text within the study of culture originated from the combined efforts of philosophers Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) in The Culture Industry (1944). Adorno and Horkheimer belonged to a society of intellectuals known as the Frankfurt School. Established in 1923, the school gained prominence for introducing critical theory into the humanities, rooted in Marxist thought as well as Freudian psychoanalysis. 

Adorno and Horkheimer employed this theoretical framework to critique popular culture as a product of the Industrial Revolution. Much like Arnold, the two were heavily cynical towards popular or mass culture and its influences upon the arts. However, their criticisms dealt with material aspects of culture rather than its overtly spiritual and idealistic qualities.

The Marxist influence on the writings of Adorno and Horkheimer should not be understated, however, its manifestation differed in many respects to what might commonly be understood as “conventional” Marxist thought. The culture industry concerns itself less with conflicts of class, and more so with the subject of commodification.

Their work focused on the complex by which popular art forms of their time were produced. The complex which they dubbed the “culture industry” was “composed primarily of primarily the advertising and mass media industries that influence the consumer’s judgment of the usefulness (or ‘use-value’) of commodities.” [5] In effect, their thesis claimed that “the Ford model and model hit song are all of a piece”; thus, their success/value is determined by the same metric as physical commodities (i.e. by profit) which in turn creates the standard by which they are produced within the culture industry. [7]

Like Arnold, Adorno and Horkheimer distinguish popular culture from an idealized countering force. Adorno adopts Immanuel Kant’s ideal of beauty, “purposiveness without a purpose.” [8] For Adorno, “A work of art is purposive, in the sense that it is an intentionally constructed human artifact. It is purposeless in that it does not wholly pursue the dominant purposes of capitalism.” [7] In sum, a work of art is not a commodity that exists solely for exchange and material value.

Through this prism of understanding, Adorno almost reveres niche artistic movements contemporary to him, such as the Avant Garde. Avant Garde art, in this context, emphasizes a deliberate departure from coherence, structure, and definitive meaning; examples include the works of Samuel Becket and others of the “absurdist” movement. As such, the Avant Garde provides a “purposive purposelessness” to contradict the capitalist function of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry.

Whereas Arnold’s definition might appear as somewhat vague in comparison, Adorno and Horkheimer provide an analysis that attempts to define mass culture as well as an explanation of the processes through which it is driven.

On Culture As a Way of Life

A third and arguably broader perspective on the issue of culture comes from the Welsh socialist academic, Raymond Williams (1922-88). 

Williams contends with the issue of defining culture arguably in response to the aforementioned thinkers, and attempts to both broaden and simultaneously critique the understandings they present.

He provides two definitions which we will focus on for the remainder of this chapter:

1. A general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development.

2. A particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behavior.

Williams’ definitions of culture are distinguished from the Arnoldian perspective on a number of fronts. Firstly, Williams’ definition is comparatively inclusive, i.e. it does not operate on the grounds of “best” or “worst,” culture or anarchy. It broadens this definition by giving equal consideration to “mass culture,” which Arnold and his contemporaries considered Great Art. Secondly and perhaps more significantly, he expands the idea of culture to consider more than the textual reality of it, i.e. the act of culture/creating art, but the way of life surrounding those acts. “Rather than culture being television as text, culture is embodied in the particular way of life that is involved in, say, the production, circulation and consumption of television.” [9] 

Thus, Williams removes culture from the idealized moral and spiritual criterion which Arnold, and in some respects Adorno and Horkheimer, attempted to create. Unconcerned with idealizing the arts, Williams expands the realm of culture beyond objects and practices, instead directing his focus towards the environment which sustains and is sustained by these objects and practices, and which creates the meanings or “signification” attached to aspects of culture. 

While these perspectives in no way encapsulate or encompass all definitions and perspectives on culture, what I hope they draw the reader’s attention to are three important points of consideration: 

1. That culture in its current occupational use is a relatively recent concept, and as such the study of culture is itself a “modern” field of knowledge. This is important to consider when in relation to traditions of thought and social order which are premodern, by which we mean predating historical phenomena such as the Industrial Revolution, the nation-state, and capitalism.

2. Culture as we understand it has developed – and continues to develop – within Western intellectual currents, be they Arnold’s Romantic Movement, the Frankfurt School and Marxism, or Williams’ perspectives (reflecting “the new left”). Though this does not denote an absolute alignment between these discourses, all of them nevertheless speak within particular contexts and respond to situations specific to their social climate.

3. All discourses depend upon certain foundational assumptions, ideas, or thought patterns. As we see in Arnold and Adorno’s works, their understandings of culture rely upon prior understandings about the nature, ideal, and function of culture; they each assume certain parameters for what delineates “culture” and its antithesis. 

With these considerations in mind, we can now approach the question of culture from the Islamic perspective paradigm, which shall be the focus of the second part in this series, with Allah’s permission.

Works Cited: 

[1] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (1967) 
[2] Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, (1869)
[3] Jean Jacque Rousseau, The Social Contract, (1762)
[4] Britannica Online
[5]Edgar & Sedgwick, Cultural theory: the key thinkers (1999)
[6]John Storey, Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction (2006)
[7]Theodor Adorno and Mark Horkheimer, The Culture Industry, 1963
[8] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1790
[9] John Storey, Culture and Power in Cultural Studies (2010)

Photo by Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash

About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a junior copywriter and contributor at Traversing Tradition. A graduate of English Literature with a Masters in Global Creative and Cultural Industries. His interests include Literature, Film, Cultural Studies and Islamic History.

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