The Eleventh General Conference: Towards a Civilized Project for the
Renaissance of the Muslim
Basis Cultural Factors of Muslim Society
Basis Cultural Factors of Muslim Society
- A View from Without -
By: Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann
(i) For the purpose of this study I will not distinguish, as usual, between the
overall civilization which all Muslim societies have in common and local culture
typical of specific Muslim societies only. Thus I approach my subject with a bird's-eye
view, from above and from without. Such a distant view on the entire picture will
necessarily overlap with related topics like "globalization".
(ii) Since all Muslims are human beings, and since human beings are subject to
many influences other than religion - world views shaped and transported by
languages, historical memories, climate and geography, etc. - it is not easy to isolate
those factors of Muslim society which are at least mainly due to their exposure to
Islam. There is no use denying that Islam is both a religion and a civilization
(culture), both interpenetrating each other to some extent. But for the purpose of this
study it is neither necessary nor consequently to identify the Islamic sources in
Qur'an and Sunnah or Muslim history of existing dominating social factors. What
counts is that these factors are there today.
(iii) Focus of the study are not cultural values. The focus is rather on value-
neutral factors of Muslim culture and society. This choice opens the option to show
that some of the factors isolated are ambivalent, both positive and negative two very
different side of the same coin. The same factor may represent both virtue and vice.
Consequently, the list of cultural factors given below can be read simultaneously as
listing some major obstacles to Islamic da'wah inside and outside the Muslim world.
(iv) Samual Huntington when presaging a cultural clash between the Occident
and Islam was correct at least in his diagnosis of cultural stability. As Turkey has
been experiencing for 80 years now, it is virtually impossible to change cultural
borders through social engineering. In that sense, despite the effects of globalization,
the Islamic world is indeed a stable and enduring social entity, almost regardless of
the intensity or laxity of Islamic religious practice. (Has Europe not retained its
Christian culture long after having been de-Christianized ?) This being said, we must,
however beware of falling in the trap of essentialism, i.e. the insidious notion that
Muslims, at their very core, were basically different human beings (1)
(v) This study is not based on reading other analysis or scientific documentation
but on my own experiences and observations as a "wanderer between two worlds".
The literature listed at annex is not constitutive but supportive. As a Westerner I am
not sufficiently qualified to speak about Muslim society. But it may be legitimate to
list those factors, which frequently, and very strongly, have drawn me into Muslim
societies in order there to recharge my human batteries.
II. Muslim cultural factors: an open-ended List.
These are the cultural factors I intend to isolate as prominent in Muslim society
(1) Family ties (9) God-consciousness
(2) Hospitality (10) Dignity of Women
(3) Cordiality (11) Discretion
(4) Respect (12) Pluralism
(5) Soberness (13) Racial Tolerance
(6) Relaxation (14) Equalitarianism
(7) Harmony with Time (15) Oral culture
(8) Leanness (16) Learning by rote
(1) Especially insidious if Bassam Tibi's allegation that the Muslim world was culturally incapable of
observing human rights and democratic control procedural: Tibi, Bassam, Human Rights in Islamic
civilization and in the West, in : The West and Islam, Istanbul 1999, pp.49 - 62.
While these factors my be ambivalent, there are two others which I consider entirely
(17) Fatalism (18) Gender segregation
III. Selected factors from up close
1. While in the West the family is shrinking to mini-size and under assault from all
directions (media, leftist governments, homosexuals, and consumerism), in Muslim
societies the extended family is still a veritable bulwark, providing emotional and
physical, social and economic security. This happy fact is symbolize for me by the
weekly majalis I have been able to attend in Manama (Bahiam) and the extraordinary
social cohesion in the `Ibadi M'Zab region in Southern Algeria. The Muslim family -
the very foundation of State and society - is of course under the assault as well of
cultural globalization carried by Occidental media and Western tourists which
transport the glamour and sexual liberties of the American way of life. But Muslim
families, thank God, so far are still basically intact. In the West, however, there are
already alarming symptoms of an imminent breakup of the families as institution:
spiraling divorce rates, single motherhood as an institution, child pornography,
juvenile delinquency, autistic children glued to their computer screen - totally alone
within the INTERNET cyberspace "community" - and homosexual "marriages" (2)
Yet, there is also another side to strong Muslim family links, and that is the danger of
corruption under which virtually all Muslim societies suffer. Nepotism - favoring
one's relatives - is a virtue in Muslim societies, in the Occident it may lead you
straight into prison. Objectively speaking nepotism is likely to produce a situation in
which most important positions in a State - from the theater to the customs office and
even the university - are occupied by unqualified or second-best people. Such a
country can never perform beyond a limited level and will remain below its real
This is the economic price of corruption that every citizen has to pay for.
2. Family and hospitality go together. There is of course no society worldwide
in which hospitality is not valued. However, there are different degrees in the exercise
of this (not always pleasant) duty, and Muslim hospitality may be unsurpassed. It is
often so intense that it can become an embarrassment for Western visitors who, in
accordance with their own regulations and customs, frequently cannot reciprocate
3. In the West, in stark contrast to the Christian moral doctrine of "loving thy
neighbour like yourself", society dramatically suffers from cold social relations. The
Greening of America has been predicted; what happened was a Cooling of America.
Lonely neighbours may die without anybody noticing as "one's house is one's castle".
In contrast, the human warmth the Muslim ummah usually exudes is a tangible - if
not cozy - reality. Humanity is indeed the factor, which can even mitigate the
hardships of Muslim bureaucracy.
4. This fact is not contradicted by the pronounced Muslim respect for
authority shown not only towards Allah and His word in the Qur'an, the Prophet (s.)
and his Sunnah, but also towards fathers, big brothers, teachers, and elders in
general. Grandfathers and grandmothers in the West can only dream of such respect
and the ensuing care.
However, this very virtue can transmute into a negative stance when respect
for authority supresses the structural scepticism necessary for scientific research or
degenerates into a notion of taqlid. After all, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it
"Everybody has to acquire what he inherits in order (really) to possess it". To be older
does not necessarily imply to be wiser, and Islamic knowledge, as well, is
accumulative. Thought taboos and mental censorship are indeed negative factors to
be found in many Muslim societies. Why else are imams instructed what to preach
during their Friday khutba, and that from Ankara to Algiers and from Bahrain to
In the educational system the respect for tradition has resulted in a culture of
learning by rote, i.e. more by memory than by thought. This is an entirely outdated
cultural trait of Muslim societies, and yet, it is still noticeable even at university level.
5. In contrast to the Western world (which is structurally sober. The difference
is evident: In the West one is constantly exposed to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. The
techno-music scene with its nightlong dancing parties would be unsustainable without
Speed and Ecstasy pills. In a New York subway car one can immediately detect
passengers "under the influence" of Crack, Cocain or Heroin. Muslim societies are
not free from toxic substances. But, here again, such use is not pervasive because
Muslims have maintained the sense of doing wrong when consuming drugs of any
kind. Thus, American Muslims have become the only and last hope for American city
fathers in their endeavour to make drug-infested city quarters drug-free.
6 - In many places of the Muslim world people seem to be a little sleepy, be it
as a result of hot climate or of their good habit of rising for the early morning prayer
(fajr). Whatever the reason, Muslims more often than not seem more relaxed than
their Western counterparts, less "stressed", and less in need of psychiatric help than
Americans, virtual all of whom consult "their shrink"(3). Trust in God and
communication with Him in prayer may indeed prevent a Muslim from feeling
cosmic loneliness or social alienation.
7. At any rate, Muslims never seem to be as rushed as Western people who
never seem to have time even though for them "time is money". Alas, this attitude -
to arrange a meeting for sometime "between dhuhr and `assr" - may turn into a vice.
This is so when lack of punctuality becomes a habit, regardless of how much precious
time of others one is wasting that way. At worst, this contemptuous attitude towards
time may degenerate into the "manana" attitude found in Southern Spain and Italy:
to postpone to tomorrow what one should and could have done today.
8 - Muslim society is not only notorious for its sobriety and relaxed attitude
but also for the leanness of its population. Whenever I visit the United States,
already at the airport I am struck by the number of fat people of all ages, some of
them being overweight to an absurd degree. For Muslim societies, on the other hand,
obesity is no problem. The phenomenon is of course complex. But it had not only to
do with junk food and resulting hormonal disfunctions but also with the psychological
state. Unhappy people, particularly when feeling deserted and empty (in a
metaphysical sense), are known to overindulge in food.
It may seem simplistic to give credit to Ramadan for the different situation in
Muslim societies; but Ramadan is not just a non-activity (in terms of daytime
consumption) but a whole state of mind (of taqwa) going with it.
9 - God-consciousness - at-taqwa - is indeed a major factor in Muslim
societies and would be so even if it were formal only. Independent of the sincerity
involved, it does make a difference for the public climate whether or not God figures
in public speeches and events. The difference can be observed in the West where - not
only in France and Mexico - God has been privatized and marginalized to a point
where people are embarrassed to mention Him in conversation.
10 - Western women seek to defend their dignity just as much as Muslim
women; but the latter have been more successful in achieving this goal. In the West,
by competing with men and copying them under the legal fiction of identity, Western
women may have gained job opportunities and economic independence. But sexually
they remained as much fair game as before - and even more so as a result of their
cultivation of nakedness - as any beauty contest will demonstrate. On the other hand,
when lecturing in Muslim universities I have always be struck by the dignified
elegance and self-assurance of Muslim female students glad in their galabiya.
11 - In this context it is obvious that discretion is a major positive factor in
Muslim societies. It is symbolized by house entries and roof terraces, as in Fes or Sal.
They neither permit a view from the door into the interior nor a glance into the
neighbouring courtyard. Remarkable is also the protectiveness of Muslim male toilets
in comparison to Western ones, which show no regard for intimacy. Muslim society is
simply trained to be less obtrusive.
12 - Young people in the West have come to hate hierarchies in every field,
including their families, jobs, and churches. But hierarchies continue to dominate
their lives. Islam, on the other hand, is basically pluralistic. It knows of no Pope nor
of sacraments that only a specific clergy might be qualified to administer. Without
any possibility for intercession, directly facing Allah (and Him alone) Muslims are in
fact grass rooys democrats and the most emancipated believers imaginable. This
structural diversity, reflected in legal schools (madhahib), the absence of a khahfa and
the prevalence of Islamic sects, may of course turn into a distinct disadvantage when
Muslims fail to speak with one voice be it at governmental or private level.
The Muslims - inspite of being the most emancipated believers, in spite of
Islam being the most rational of all religions, and inspite of the fact that Abu Bakr
had been the first democratically elected head of State in world history - failed to
achieve a general shura - cratic development of their societies. Even in Muslim
countries formally organized as democracies, the question has been raised whether
civil society has enough developed for that. (4) In fact, even Islamic opposition
movements claiming to work for broader political participation are usually organized
internally on authoritarian lines. Muslim societies will therefore be asked ever more
frequently and insistently what their cultural potential is for human rights in general
and democratic control mechanisms in particular.
13 - The Occident and much of the rest of the world in spite of all human
rights declarations still suffer acutely of racial prejudice. Serbia, Israel, Rwanda-
Burundi but also the United States of America are cases in point. Islam, too, has not
been able entirely to eradicate this evil. But no other religion has done better in
combating it, Qur'an and Sunnah both in theory and practice. In a sense, the annual
hajj is a festival of racial brotherhood. Where Muslims do discriminate others on
grounds of ethnicity - and this happens mainly towards so-called "expatriate" guest
workers - they do know that they are doing wrong.
14 - In spite of a feeble growth of nobility here and there, Muslim societies
have basically remained equalitarian in the best bedoum spirit. When Crown Prince
Abdullah of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during his weekly open house receives
deprived petitioners from all over the country, they speak to him as equals and even
raise their fingers towards him. There may be a some more Byzantine protocol
elsewhere in the Muslim word, the basic feeling of equality among Muslims is
nevertheless a fact, re-bowed each day when the question is settled of who is to lead
the prayer: It is not the most noble nor the richest nor the oldest but the most pious
or the most knowledgeable.
And yet, inspite of this visible factor of equality, there is also the opposite
trend within many Muslim societies: The appearance of extreme riches right next to
extreme poverty, most visible in, but not limited to, Petro-Dollar countries. The
Orient has always been known for its luxuries - in terms of spices, perfumes, refined
kitchen and savoir-vivre but not for today's contrast of rich and poor.
15 - The equality factor is related to the fact that Muslim societies have been
oral societies ever since (with Q. 96: 1) the command came - not to read but to recite
(iqr !). Ever since the Muslim ummah has continued to treasure the oral command of
its Holy Book, symbolized be the hafidh who preserves the Qur'an in his memory, not
on paper. Indeed, from casida recitations to political and religious life, oratory has
maintained its place of prestige in Muslim society, in marked contrast to the Western
This is not to justify or belittle the fact that the Muslim world suffers from an
appallingly high level or illiteracy - as if this meant following our ummi prophet (s.).
16 - Islamic countries not only share an oral tradition but an even stronger one
of giving higher social prestige to the adab sciences than to natural sciences. Nobody
can yet rival with the prestige of the fuqaha, the chief mufti, the Sheikh al-Azhar.
Indeed, an `alim, sheikh or ustadh is normally not thought of as a
knowledgeable person in bio-chemistry, micro-physics or cosmology but someone
versed in Qur'an, Hadith, Sira, Tafsir, Grammar, Poetry and Literature. In as much
as we are all bound for the Akhirah this is a rational rating. In as much as we live for
some time fl-d-dunya it is not.
As long as Muslim societies culturally opt for al-adab they will not only continue
to fail producing their first Nobel-prize winning natural scientist; these societies will
also continue to suffer from bad quality fixtures in their bathrooms, running toilets,
and a disproportionate amount of mechanical accidents a situation which is
incompatible with the fact that Allah has manifested Himself not only in His book but
also in His creation.
17 - A possible but not imperative reading of the Qur'an from early on had
fostered a belief in predestination to the point of entirely denying any role to free will
(doctrine of al-jabr). Muslims had been warned against trying logically to solve the
conflict between these concepts and against giving absolute weight to either one - as
the Qadarites and the Mu'tazila did in favor of free will and Ibn Hazm in favor of
predestination. Nevertheless, all too many Muslims now act as if fatalism was a
virtue. They not only practice submission to God's will after an event but already
before it has occurred. As a result, Muslim societies are pervaded by a certain sense
of resignation towards what exists, good or evil. Such Muslims are culturally
conditioned to tolerate almost any status quo.
This is of course incompatible with the idea of citizenship and inimical to a
moral engagement for the sake of bettering the fate of one's society. In the case of
certain Sufi turuq this attitude became not only unpolitical but passive vis-?-vis
societal concerns. I am not supporting Muslim activism for activity's sake. But Islam
after all is din wa daulah, and that alone should forbid fatalistic (if pious) passivity.
18 - Islam commands the protection of Muslim women against exploitation.
Muslims, however, in gross exaggeration have over-protected their women in form of
a segregation which, in the final analysis, amounted to a violation of their rights to
individual human development. In a way, Muslim women were veiled out of public
sight - following a crass misunderstanding of the rationale of the ayat al-hijab
(Q. 33: 53). Instead of "taking full care of women" (Q. 4:34), by placing themselves
protectively in front of them, men acted as if they ranked above women in terms of
status. Instead of taking the conditions for polygamy (Q. 4:3, introductory clause) and
Allah's warning against multi-marriages (Q. 4:3, final clause; Q. 4:129) seriously, men
acted as if they had an unqualified license for maintaining a harem.
In the process the memory was lost of the public role early muslimat had
played - on the battlefield, in theological discussion, in collecting the Qur'an and
ahadith, and as equal partners of the companions. Cumulative result of this negative
trend has been widely to reduce Muslim women to second-grade citizens, if not lower
human beings. The gravity of that situation cannot be over emphasized because
uneducated or cowed women will fail as the mothers of the very boys who might
change the social climate among the two genders.
Also in their economic development, Muslim societies will remain handicapped
to the extent they refused to draw on the female potential in their midst. The issue
here is not female modesty of behaviour or of proper Islamic clothing. The issue is
merely whether or not to give Muslim women their full Qur'anic status as advocated
by Hasan al-Turabi already 25 years ago.
IV. Summary and Conclusion
As seen from the outside the Muslim world seems characterized by a number
of cultural factors, which set it off from other civilizations. It is immaterial for this
study whether, and to which degree, these factors reflect true Islamic values or
norms; at any rate, Islam has deeply penetrated Muslim society without fully
replacing other civilizationary influences.
The study isolates 18 such factors, many of which are ambivalent; their
negative potential is an obstacle both for Islamic renewal within Muslim society and
for Islamic dawah outside.
While the several factors under discussion do shape the culture of Muslim
societies and Islam is likely to remain their overall guidance for all times, it would be
a mistake to indulge in essentialism. Although it is true that cultures largely resist
social engineering from within and globalization from without, it is equally true that
Muslim societies are as open to development and as culturally vulnerable to
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