The Multifaceted Concept of Culture in Islam

Most people know Pickthall only as a revert who translated the Holy Qur’ān unless they have stumbled upon his other notable works like The House of Islam and a collection of his lectures called Cultural Side of Islam or sometimes, Islamic Culture. I recently had the good fortune of reading the book. It is well…

Written by

Saman Raees

Published on

Book: Cultural Side Of Islam

Publisher: White Dot Publishers +918447622919

Author: Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall

Editor: Usama Hameed

Reviewed by Saman Raees

Most people know Pickthall only as a revert who translated the Holy Qur’ān unless they have stumbled upon his other notable works like The House of Islam and a collection of his lectures called Cultural Side of Islam or sometimes, Islamic Culture. I recently had the good fortune of reading the book. It is well edited and effectively put together comprising sound and anecdotal discussions on some interesting and underdiscussed topics related to the concept of culture of Islam, making it an engrossing read.

Islam is the fastest-growing world religion, with over 1.8 billion Muslims in the world representing a vast span of geographic and cultural areas. As the number of its followers increases, so do the misunderstandings and conflicts. The author accurately explains the conflicting cultural values and ignorance of East and West and does an excellent job in addressing multifaceted concept of culture in Islam, its agency and manifestations in the connected realms of science, religion, and the arts.

Originally published in 1927, by The Committee of Madras Lectures on Islam, the book is equally relevant in today’s day and age. The author points out several things that the reader will remember for years to come. It is a brief account of Islamic culture, its ascension and downfall with clear and compelling delivery.

The author paints a graphic picture with his words. He’s a maestro in his ability to parcel out information at just the right clip: with allusion and cross-hatches, a smartly paced build-up of multiple possibilities followed by a thrilling and dislocating pull of the entire narrative rug.

It provides unique knowledge about the creative diversity and complexity of Islamic culture and highlights its fundamental contribution to the progress of humanity. This is the outcome of an unbiased deep understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. The author quotes verses of the Qur’ān and hadith to build the discourse one by one. The reader draws easily the inference that the main reason to adhere to un-Islamic practices is lack of knowledge about Islam.

In order to understand what Islamic culture is and what cultural Islam is, he first defines Islamic culture and cultural Islam, and then describes the stark contrast among them. The author very beautifully established the fact that “Islamic culture is not a remote idea of theocracy to be contemplated only at hours of worship and forgotten at all other hours; but an actual, practical, complete theocracy acknowledged and obeyed at all times”.

The chapter on Science, Art and Letters reinforces Albert Einstein’s view that “science without religion is lame”, and gives examples of the maiden contribution of Muslims in the field of science. It reflects the broader Islamic understanding of the undivided and unpolarised nature of knowledge, which was a major reason why Islamic culture neither experienced a divisive split between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as two distinct modes of knowledge nor witnessed a liberating divorce of art from the religious/   scientific concerns until the wide infiltration of European influence.

Next, he emphasises the importance of tolerance, by calling it the spirit of Islam and how it is essential in building a community that is full of peace, harmony and unity. The chapter concerning “The Relation of the Sexes”, verifies a distinction between Islamic and extra-Islamic traditions with reference to the status of women. The position of women in Islam is the subject of ongoing debate in both the Muslim world and the West. To a large extent, it is a debate triggered by the cultural encounter between Islam and the West.

Islam provides women a position of honour and respect, with clearly stated rights and obligations. The Qur’ān affords legal protections in all areas of life that are considered to mark a vast improvement in the situation of women. It offers her dignity, respect, and gender parity. In the Qur’ān, Allah Almighty instructs both men and women separately and collectively regarding their role, duties, and responsibilities both as men/ women and as practising Muslims.

It is not an overstatement to say that Islam is the first religion in the world to offer a system for the protection and well-being of women and their rights. This chapter beautifully instil the understanding in the reader how this system is absolutely perfect.

The limited literature on fatalism reveals that it is not a simple concept, with religion, culture, superstition, experience, education and degree of perceived control of one’s life all being implicated in accounts of fatalism. The topic of fatalism is also carefully analysed and offers a compelling interpretation.

The author quotes verses that emphasise the all-encompassing power of Allah and how he is omniscient and omnipotent and that the will of Allah supersedes people’s wills.

At the same time, he quotes other verses that emphasise people’s individual accountability to what they do: whoever does what is just and right, does so for his own good; and whoever does evil, does so to his own hurt: and never does Allah do the least wrong to His creatures.

Islam has been implicated as especially associated with fatalism, although the validity of this presumption is contested. It has also been associated with a specific brand of extreme fatalism that is often depicted as irrational. Erroneous interpretations have been made about Islam and fatalism that stem from a shallow understanding of Islamic theology, construing the idea of fate, as a matter of ongoing and continuous interaction between human will and Allah’s will.

The primary error in interpreting Islam as a fatalistic religion lies in not properly addressing the cosmologically oriented dimensions of personal efficacy and the reliance the individuals may place on metaphysical powers to determine worldly outcomes. This chapter addressees that a religion which strikes a beautiful balance between faith and action, could not be accused of being “fatalistic”.

In the end, the reader will find a much interesting discussion on the establishment of Islamic city/ society. It asserts that the landscape of knowledge has significantly changed, and the Muslim mind, which has been historically calibrated to be particularly sensitive towards knowledge, can and should open new horizons of knowing where science, religion, and art can meet again on freshly cultivated and intellectually fertile grounds. What Pickthall does magnificently is drape the reader in the culture: the religion, the manners, and the customs. By the end, one gets the feeling of having travelled alongside the pages of the book.

[The Reviewer is a research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University.]