Towards An Islamic Theory of Culture Part II: On Islamicates and Third Ways

This article is part two in a three part series discussing culture and Islam. You can read part one here.

Culture is a relatively modern term in the Western lexicon, and even more so in the Muslim world, as observed by twentieth-century Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi in his work The Question of Culture

In attempting to define an “Islamic” equivalent term for culture, we must consider two points of significance.

Firstly, the significance of classical Arabic in the Islamic faith cannot be ignored, as this is the language in which the primary authoritative texts of the faith (the Quran and the canons of hadith) are preserved. While secondary and tertiary bodies of knowledge in the Islamic tradition may utilize other languages, such as Farsi, Urdu, Turkish, etc., Arabic holds a place of primary significance as a language of liturgy and scholarship. As such, enquiry into an Islamic definition of culture demands a consideration of Arabic terminologies.

In contemporary Arabic dictionaries, you might find “culture” denoted by the word thaqafah, which linguistically refers to the process of straightening, such as the straightening of an arrow. The term is used in relation to knowledge, learning and, more specifically, the mastery of knowledge.

Upon examining the works of early scholars of sociology, such as Ibn Khaldun, one would not find the word thaqafah used in this context. [1] There are, however, other terminologies that arguably recognize the concept of culture in the Islamic tradition in some capacity.

There is another term, adab, that might provide some semblance of a definition of culture. Hans Wehr’s dictionary defines adab as “to be well-bred, well mannered, cultured, urbane, have refined tastes.” [2] Adab in its primary usage extends throughout Muslim civilizations, beyond Arab societies. Embodying adab is an ideal within the Islamic faith, as the Prophet ﷺ stated in the following famous hadith: 

“I was sent to perfect good character.” [Al Adab Al Mufrad, Bukhari]

However, adab only encompasses a qualitative definition. It addresses a metaphysical ideal but does not in and of itself accommodate the practical aspects of culture. 

In the context of Islam as a legal tradition, many classical treatises of legal theory highlight the significance of ʿUrf and ʿAdat in arriving at legal judgements. ʿUrf refers to a custom which encompasses three categories: “the way common people maintain order, engage in social interactions, or conduct business locally.” [3] ʿAdat, though often used synonymously with ‘urf, refers to customary usage.

The consideration of local custom is considered a legal maxim among the four orthodox schools of Islamic law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafiʿi, and Hanbali, on the condition that such customs do not contradict or conflict with apparent textual maxims. The principle here is that in acknowledging lived realities, the legal system is deemed paramount. As Majid Khadduri remarks in his commentary on one of the earliest treatises of Islamic legal theory, “closely associated with the Islamization of law, perhaps the inevitable result of it, was the tendency to idealise the Shari’a as the perfect legal order.” [4] However, even while doing so, the tradition recognizes the lived realities of people and does not assert itself within a social vacuum devoid of existing customs; rather, it attempts to synthesize these customs. 

This principle was established early on in Islamic civilization, “pre-Islamic law, customary or otherwise, that was not repealed by divine legislation was incorporated into Islam after a long process of synthesis.” [4] Whilst ʿurf and ʿadat might present elements of the modern concept of culture, neither concept presents us with an encompassing definition of what we envision to be “culture” today. What might suffice instead, is to consider this Islamic vision of culture as an amalgam of the aforementioned terminologies. By bridging between the concepts of thaqafah (mastery of knowledge) and adab (ideals of good character and civility), we may derive a somewhat Arnoldian understanding of culture, i.e., one that encompasses “the best that has been known and said in the world.” 

Our Islamic understanding of culture might then pair the qualitative and idealized understandings of thaqafah and adab with the classical legal terms of ʿurf and ʿadat to holistically define the term in a way that addresses the practical realities of custom, social conventions, and institutions. Thus, it would consist of four appendages, four concepts within Islamic thought and the Arabic language. 

With this working definition of culture, we will next examine how culture has been discussed by writers of Islam in the twentieth-century, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and specifically for this instalment of our series, we will be exploring the thought of two particular writers: Alija Izetbegovic and Marshall Hodgson.

Islam On The Cultural Compass

The modern history of the Balkans region presents a great analogy for the West’s anxieties towards the Islamic world, an uncanny image of an Islamic heritage which the heirs of Christendom wished to forget. From the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, through to the rise and fall of Yugoslavia such an image would remain. During the Bosnian civil war of the 1990s, Serbian nationalist propaganda would evoke this Islamic past in order to alienate the Bosnian Muslim population, pejoratively referred to as “Turks,” to illustrate their supposed foreignness and therefore lack of belonging to the region. [5] In this light, Bosnia finds itself in geographical and cultural limbo. Such was the world which Alija Izetbegovic (1925-2003) was born into, and such was the world molded him.

Izetbegovic was a devout Muslim, well-versed in Western philosophy and art. An activist and lawyer, he eventually became the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Izetbegovic was deeply troubled by the condition of Muslims across the world and the encroachment of secularism and other Western ideologies on Muslim societies. 

Simultaneously, he believed that Western civilization itself faced a myriad of crises in the post-industrial age and that Islam presented a solution to these issues. Much of his limited corpus of written works was concerned with Islam as a force for political change. However, a significant portion of his most renowned work, Islam Between East and West (1984), dedicated itself to the subjects of culture and the arts. 

The book focuses primarily on the condition of the modern West. In it, Izetbegovic posits Islam as a counter to what he deems as the cultural and ideological dilemmas facing the contemporary world. 

Understanding Izetbegovic’s views on culture requires understanding how he frames his critical analysis. Rather than speaking of the West in an alienating fashion, he adopts what can be described as an Abrahamic categorization of worldviews: “There are only three integral views of the world: the religious, the materialistic and the Islamic.” [6] Each of these categories is paralleled in the book by one of the Abrahamic faiths. The term religion here is understood in a post-enlightenment European sense i.e., “faith as an esoteric experience which does not go beyond a personal relationship with God.” [6] As such, Izetbegovic equates it with Christianity. Likewise, materialism in the second half of the book is often conflated with Judaism; however, he also applies it to describe secular ideologies such as socialism and Marxism. 

Culture, in Izetbegovic’s view, is a manifestation of the religious. It is where the irrational and metaphysical aspects of human life are expressed. In this respect, culture gives no room for pragmatism or practicality. It is informed by the metaphysical rather than the physical. Art then, as an element of culture, holds a similarly spiritual position in the human experience. 

“Art has been repaying its debt to religion even more obviously through painting, sculpture and music. The greatest works of art of the Renaissance deal with religious themes almost without exception, and they have found parental hospitality in churches throughout Europe.” Izetbegovic uses architecture as a vignette for this case, stating “architecture has reached its greatest inspiration in the building of temples. This applies equally to the temples of ancient India and Cambodia, mosques all over the Islamic world.”  

Art in this light is valued based on its attempt at unravelling or reaching the metaphysical. Another distinguishing feature of this paradigm, however, is that it is not predicated on an anthropocentric spiritual ideal wherein the human form is assumed perfect. Instead, the supernatural function of the arts points to the Divine. 

Civilization, in contrast to culture, is deemed a wholly materialistic enterprise. In this context, culture “has a structure that is fed by the human soul.” The phenomenon of civilization, however, “can be explained by the human body and it is a result of the material relationships between human beings and nature” [7]. 

Izetbegovic asserts that Civilization is concerned with science – or rather the social sciences – whereas culture champions art and religion. Culture favors the afterlife whereas civilization favors the world. For Izetbegovic, this presents an irreconcilable conflict between these matters of life which has been a matter of contention in western societies. For him, secularism, atheism and state interests are antithetical to the spirit of art and culture. 

One might observe parallels between Izetbegovic’s analysis of the Western cultural condition and that of the aforementioned writers in Part 1 of this series.

Islam, in this context, offers an alternative to the exclusively religious and materialistic worldviews. It is a “third way” which combines the approaches of its Abrahamic siblings: “The first [i.e., the religious] takes as its starting point the existence of the spirit, the second [i.e., the materialistic] the existence of matter and the third [i.e the Islamic] the simultaneous existence of spirit and matter” [6]. Thus, Islam is understood here as a balancing act between the first two approaches.

Islam is, for Izetbegovic, a naturally dualistic tradition where “body and soul, heart and brain, science and religion, physics and philosophy meet at points which mark the peak of life.” This assertion is applied to Islam as a means of reconciling the conflicting dimensions of human life in the Western world, culture, and civilization. The author directs the reader’s attention to the practices and rituals of Islam to demonstrate its duality.  

He gives particular attention to two of the five pillars of Islam, rites and acts of worship, which occupy the bulk of Islam’s fundamental practice: “The union of Salah and Zakah is confirmed by the Qur’an which constantly stresses their interdependence […] This premise can be explained only as a claim against parting faith from doings and man from the world.” [6] In other words, this union represents the duality of the inner and outer dimensions of devotion to the Divine.

In Islam, spiritual reality is inseparable from the material and vice versa. It does not relegate the matter of religion solely to a private and personal relationship with God  as has been the case in the post-enlightenment West. It does not leave for the possibility of a secular or wholly materialistic order to influence or direct the trajectory of culture. The apparatus of civilization complements, and arguably serves, the objective of culture. 

Whilst the book does not explore this “third way” theory in great depth, the case could be made that the “Islamic” element can be read retroactively from the former half of the book containing Izetbegovic’s analysis of the West. The theme of dualism he observes in Islamic discourse is a constant throughout the book and gives the reader  a glimpse into his methodology and its basis. 

In sum, Islam Between East and West can best be understood as a critique of the West through the prism of Islam, or more specifically through a personal experience and observation of Islam. It may not establish a detailed argument for  its “third way” and how it could manifest in the Western context, and it does avoid deliberation where it might have been necessary. Despite these issues, it provides a useful critique and serves as a valuable vignette of how a Muslim versed in the Islamic faith and Western history might understand the nature of culture and its purpose. 

Navigating The Islamicate

The Venture of Islam (1977) is a multi-volume study of Islamic history published posthumously by the academic, Marshall Hodgson (1922-68). It is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important studies of its kind, not only for its breadth and depth of critical analysis but for its impact on the language constituting the study of Islam in the modern world. 

In the book, Hodgson interrogates the terminology used in Western Islamic studies, both redefining and introducing new terms with which to discuss the subject. Specific attention is given to three essential terms: Islam, Islamic, and Hodgson’s coined term “Islamicate.” This can be extended to include a fourth term, “Islamdom,” which refers to Islam as a polity in the same vein as Christendom (though this is used relatively sparingly). 

This process of re-evaluation became necessary, in Hodgson’s view, due to a schism between how Islam has been understood classically and in the modern world: “A study of ‘Medieval Islam’ or of ‘Modern Islam’ may be primarily a study of religion, or it may be a study of an overall culture in which religion simply takes its place; or it may be a mixture, sections of it differing according to different sources of information.” [8] “Islamic” in its simplest form may be understood as “pertaining to Islam,” however, if what is understood as Islam falls into the second category (i.e., a culture in which religion takes place), then the parameters for what constitutes the Islamic become ambiguous, argues Hodgson. 

Thus, he clarifies: “When I speak of ‘Islamic literature’ I am referring only to more or less ‘religious’ literature, not to secular wine songs, just as when one speaks of Christian literature one does not refer to all the literature produced in Christendom.” 

His framing this terminology can best be understood in terms of a structure with each term having a degree of separation from the fundamental subject of Islam.

Islam here is not defined exclusively by its linguistic definition of submission (to God), but more broadly it is defined by “the whole social pattern of cult and creed which, at least for the pious, follows from or even grows out of the personal Islam of the individual devotee; that is, to the ‘religion’ in the historical sense.” [8]

The Islamic, therefore, encompasses that which pertains directly to the religious complex of Islam — its creed, legal theory, institutions etc., it is secondary to the primary term of Islam. At the tertiary level is the idea of the “Islamicate,” perhaps Hodgson’s most recognised contribution to the discourse of Islamic studies in the West. As he defines it, “‘Islamicate’ would refer not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.” [8] 

This new term is perhaps one of the most crucial innovations in the study of Muslim societies and the relationship between Islam and culture. It points towards the influence of Islam and the Islamic on the various societies historically governed by Muslims. It suggests that the seemingly “irreligious” and mundane aspects of social life within Islamicate cultures have been impacted by the social order of Islam itself. 

Islamicate societies have historically towed a very particular line in their cultural development, with Muslims neither wholly assimilating into nor eradicating pre-existing customs of the societies they encountered. This is true in areas such as the arts, as Hodgson observes: “the artistic traditions of which Muslims found themselves at first patrons and later also practitioners had been launched in pre-Islamic times. Only as Muslims […] found special viewpoints toward elements in these traditions […] did the continuing development of those traditions introduce any features that might be called Islamic.” [8]

As the Islamic realm expanded, both foreigners and indigenous converts in new territories would see a process of negotiation between historic customs and this newly adopted tradition. The American scholar and religious leader Dr Umar Farooq Abd’Allah points to examples of this across various art forms, such as in narrative prose. He refers to oral tales of West African folklore which “contained creation myths and cosmologies imbued with animistic values and beliefs,” but were subsequently reimagined by Muslims of the region and retold for centuries thereafter giving the character of Auta as a notable example. [9]

Hodgson observes this dynamism in the context of languages. For example, he notes that “all the lettered traditions of Islamdom have been grounded in the Arabic or the Persian or both.” Whilst there is nothing inherently “Islamic” about the use of Persian in day-to-day dialogue, as religious activity occupied more of daily life within Islamicate societies, a certain process of coding naturally occurred to modify existing terms and idioms in existing languages to reflect an idea of religiosity. The range and extent of these influences varied tremendously depending on the cultural context. Across North Africa and the Levant, Arabic itself was indigenized with different dialects forming a common tongue, whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa it impacted the development of other languages such as Hausa. 

Hodgson attributes this cultural development to an Islamic “vision” of civilization. He quotes the verse in the Qur’an declaring, “You have become the best community ever raised up for mankind, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, and having faith in God” [Qur’an 3:110, Translated by Maududi]. This outlines an objective for Muslim communities across Islamdom. To represent the best of their respective societies by imbuing it with the value system of their religion. 

This does not necessitate a total abrogation of indigenous customs and traditions, but a re-evaluation of them against a new standard:. “Muslims succeeded in building a new form of society, which in time carried with it its own distinctive institutions, its art and literature… all bearing an unmistakable Islamic impress.” [8]

The Islamicate concept is most useful when viewed as a by-product of the practice of Islam —- the “vision” Hodgson refers to — as opposed to a rigid or explicit category of culture. As Hodgson remarks, “Muslims have yet to implement the Qur’anic prophecy fully in all its implications. But they have perennially renewed their hopes and efforts to live the godly life not only as individuals but as a community.” [8]

Works Cited: 

[1] Bennabi, M., 2003. The question of culture. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust
[2] Wehr H. & Cowan J. M. (1966). A dictionary of modern written arabic. Cornell University Press.
[3] Oxford Dictionary of Islam
[4] Shāfiʻī, M. and Khadduri, M., 1987. al-Imām Muḥammad ibn Idris al-Shāfıʻı’s al-Risāla fī uṣūl al-fiqh. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society
[5] Suljagic, E., 2019. Targeting ‘Turks’: How Karadzic Laid the Foundations for Genocide. Balkan Insight
[6] Izetbegovic. A. 1984. Islam Between East and West (3rd ed.). United States, American Trust Publications. 
[7] Akin, M.H. 2017. “Culture and Civilization in the thought of Alija Izetbegovic” in Sunar, L. (ed.) Debates on civilization in the Muslim world: Critical perspectives on Islam and modernity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press
[8] Hodgson, M. G. S., 1977. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Volume One, The Classical Age of Islam (Paperback ed.). Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press
[9] Abd-Allah, U., 2009. Islam and the Cultural Imperative. ICR Journal

Photo by Mujo Hasanovic 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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