Learning from immigrants

Me and Omar and some other folks were flogging a horse to death over at Umar Lee’s website on the topic of immigrant muslim culture in the US. We managed to agree that [American] muslims should be

accepted as authentic Muslims without having to turn away from our cultural heritage, and there is plenty in that heritage that is not haram

and that

immigrant muslims need to realize that Islam is bigger than their own culture of origin and all us muslims have an equal claim on Islam and where it goes from here

, while allowing that immigrant muslims have a right to maintain and perpetuate their culture in the US to the best of their ability and not assimilate into the surrounding society if they don’t feel like it. Great! That was more difficult than I could have imagined, but common ground was reached on a point or two and all is good.

There still seemed to be this idea though, that mainstream American culture did not just have lots of things that are not haram, but that it is somehow equally as good as or better than traditional muslim cultures from an islamic point of view. I don’t want to start talking about my culture is 10 points better than your culture or some other nonsense like that, but I think when people talk about culture in generalities, it misses some of the specific benefits of specific cultural practices from an Islamic point of view, that we can compare and learn from. What I’m getting at here is that culture is a code of behavior: in the case of islamic cultures in general, the code of behavior is, in many though by no means all aspects, an implementation of the sunnah of Nabi Muhammad, saws. That’s what it means to say it is an islamic culture: it is one in which the patterns of dress, manners, art and architecture, family relationships, and so on, have been impacted by an awareness of Islam. With that in mind, I think it is fair to say that those aspects of an immigrant culture that are in correspondence with the sunnah are better than those same aspects of culture in America that are not in correspondence with the sunnah, from an Islamic point of view. What am I talking about? Let me give a small example:

Malays eat with their hands. Americans eat with fork and spoon. We all know, as muslims, that our Beloved Prophet, saws, ate with his hands, and licked them afterward, and he told us that those who love not his sunnah are not of him. That is a clear indication that even such mundane and seemingly unimportant aspects of life like eating our food, there is a Prophetic way to do it, and we should follow it. Malays, in their culture, have internalized and made rote the Prophetic way of eating their food, and it doesn’t matter if a Malay has completely forgotten that it is sunnah when he does it, it is still praiseworthy and carries a blessing with it that God will reward him for in the Hereafter, with every bite he eats. Of course it would be better if he took that bite with the intention of fulfilling the sunnah – the reward would be greater – but it does not take away from the fact that he has committed a good deed, and our Lord, who is Most Generous, will reward him for it. So, in the very mundane and not terribly important area of dining ettiquette, we must conclude as muslims of the Ahl as-Sunnah that Malay culture is superior to American culture.

Now, I’m not an anti-fork&spoon crusader, I’m not saying eating with a fork is blameworthy or wrong, and I’m not saying that Malay culture has the ideal implementation of the sunnah. Allah’s Beloved licked his fingers when he was done, while that is considered bad table manners by Malays. So nobody’s perfect and we can all do better. But wait, I’m just getting started.

A little while ago, I was in Singapore for a function at a mosque, and afterward, a meal was served. In the US, you could just imagine the scene after Eid prayer: everyone goes out of the prayer hall, takes a styrofoam box off a table that has an individual portion of lamb and rice inside, and eats it with a plastic spork while standing around having small talk. Contrast that with this: platters of food were brought out, with one heaping mound of rice and three different kinds of meat in gravy poured on top. These platters were put on the ground, four or five men sat around each platter, dug in with their hands, and ate that mound of rice until not a morsel of food remained, and then licked their fingers. A guy would be like, pass me some lamb, and the other guy would use the hand that had just been putting food in his mouth, tear some meat off the bone, and place it within reach. When we were just about done, a guy came over with a platter that still had some food on it, and was like, those guys couldn’t finish, and unloaded the mess of rice and meat onto our platter. Brothers and sisters, that meal pushed me to the limit of what I can tolerate, and I’m sure I’ve got American readers who are nauseated just thinking about it. But the fact is is that meal accomplished a half-dozen sunnah deeds that would not be accomplished in an American setting:

  • Eating food with the hand
  • Licking the fingers
  • Sitting on the ground while eating
  • Many hands touching the food
  • Finishing every bit of the food and not wasting
  • Encouraging brotherhood: It makes you close with your brother the way standing shoulder to shoulder in salat makes you close: You are in fact and in deed close to him. There is about six inches between your head and his as you crouch over the food.

Each and every one of those things is a blessing on the participants in that meal, that God will surely reward them for in the Hereafter, Inshallah, and you would miss out on that if you were to say, “I don’t get my eat on like that – I’m an American muslim.”

Hang on, I’m not saying American Muslims in America have got to adopt this implementation of the Prophetic Sunnah. But if we are serious about developing a new culture in the US that is both fully American and as close to the Islamic ideal as practicable, then that means finding some American way to implement the communal meal that hits all the Sunnah actions that the Singaporean way does, but still satisfies our cultural preoccupation with germs, personal space, and not letting our hot dogs touch our potato salad. If we can’t do that, if we cop-out and say we’re going to let that sunnah go, brother, it doesn’t work with our American-ness, then we have to be willing to admit, that in this particular area, however small and unimportant it may seem, our culture is not as good Islamically speaking as theirs. So, is there a way to do it? Sure! How about this: Platters of organic veggies with lo-fat ranch dressing to dip! Bowls of potato chips that everybody just reaches on into! Great big platters of Freedom Fries, with bowls of ketchup on the side! Just don’t forget to lick the salt off your fingers when you’re done.


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