What’s a ‘Cultural Muslim’?
Above: Muslims for Secular Democracy demonstrate against fundamentalists
For years Saif Rahman has been an agnostic and an ex-Muslim activist. So why is he thinking of calling himself a ‘cultural Muslim’?
For years I’ve been an ex-Muslim activist.
My transition from being a Muslim to ex-Muslim was sudden. After spending years frustratedly attempting to reconcile my personal and religious beliefs, I realised I was being intellectually dishonest and often bending Islam to fit with my personal ideals. My religious cousin from Pakistan crystallized this perfectly when he came to stay with us.
We would often get into long debates about Islam, lasting long into the night. They would often end on a heated note, where he would say something like “You are either Muslim or you are not” or “Either accept everything in Islam is right because it’s been produced by an infallible God, or don’t call yourself a Muslim.”
I can’t recall which contentious issue broke the camel’s back, but on one occasion I was not willing to compromise and called his bluff. I conceded that he was right, and that I was no longer a Muslim. His face registered his shock. In an effort to reverse the damage he asked me to write all my arguments down so he could take them to a learned scholar of Islam.
I did so in an eleven-page letter. I eagerly anticipated his response and even copied in each of my siblings. After three months my brother received a phone call from the cousin saying that he hadn’t forgotten and was still working on the reply. It’s been eight years, and I still haven’t heard back. I turned the letter into a blog post which has since been viewed 50,000 times. That post morphed into my book The Islamist Delusion.
I now run an online forum, Debating Islam, that has 7,300 members, evenly split between Muslims and ex-Muslims. I took over this group from moderate Muslims, who had originally set it up in support of the Imam of Leyton Mosque, Usama Hasan, on whom a fatwa had been declared for his defence of Darwinian evolution in a mosque lecture. When the forum became overrun with extremists trolls issuing death threats it was dissolved and I took over the carcass and repurposed it as a free speech site dedicated to hosting debates between current and former Muslims. The same extremists tried the trick again, and even hacked the site, but eventually with the help of other ex-Muslims, we chased them off. During these battles I collected 139 death threats, but, for me it’s worth it when I see yet another Muslim embracing humanism. I keep a public record of people who have renounced their faith on the site – the Murtad (Infidel) Register – and there is literally no more space for another name.
Yet, despite my busy life as an ex-Muslim activist I’m growing less convinced that “ex-Muslim” is always a useful description. It can come across as confrontational and overly simplistic, and has the tendency to close down debate before it starts.
Lately I’ve become more comfortable with another term, one which is equally unpopular on both sides of the debate: “cultural Muslim”. Muslims don’t like the term for obvious reason: asking why “Muslim” should need a qualifier or questioning the right of an atheist to use the word “Muslim” at all. For ex-Muslims it can sound too accommodating, like a prevarication about belief when a clear rejection is what is required.
Certainly it’s not perfect. I would much prefer the description “secular agnostic utilitarian rationalist reductionist humanist with cultural Muslim influences”, but that won’t fit on my business card.
The point I am trying to make is that merely describing yourself by your lack of belief in a particular religion does not do justice to the tapestry of different influences and experiences that go to make up a person. Nor to the fact that we are located in particular socio-cultural context.
I was raised in the UK and went to a Protestant primary school in Manchester where every morning during assembly I clasped my hands to the Lord’s Prayer. It always seemed alien to me. Yet, had the prayer been in Arabic, it would have felt perfectly natural. My early cultural life, like that of most people born of Muslim parentage, was saturated with Islam and Islamic idioms. Even now I still visit my family on religious festivals, greet elders in Arabic and still murmur “Alhamdolillah” subconsciously when I sneeze. My father recently passed away, and I went to his Janazah (Muslim funeral). I entered the mosque for the first time in years, and made my prayers in the usual way. What other way is there?
Much of this will be familiar to British humanists who at weddings, Easter and funerals revert to a default mode and become cultural Christians. Even Richard Dawkins proudly asserts that he is a cultural Christian and enjoys singing Carols along with everybody else. These patterns are comforting, familiar and a way to stay connected to your community. They are not so easily sloughed off when you renounce your belief in god. Nor should they be.
Of course I did not invent the concept of the Cultural Muslim, but I do maintain author rights to its Wikipedia entry. Here’s how I describe it there:
“Cultural Muslims are secular, religiously unobservant or irreligious individuals who still identify with Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up.”
The writer and Islam expert Malise Ruthven has compared this kind of cultural Muslim to a secular Jew, someone who “takes on his or her parents’ confessional identity without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with the faith.”
In my view most Muslims are against extremism and deep-down have much more in common with humanists, although they are practising a form of Pascal’s Wager, than they have with Islamists. Subconsciously, many question the traditional interpretations of the Islamic faith, yet remain proud of their religion’s architectural, literary and poetic heritage. They embrace the positive aspects of its culture – its camaraderie, charitability, hospitality and respect for elders – and still enjoy its cuisine, clothing and music. As one ex-Muslim joked to his wife, “I can give up God. I can give up Religion. But I can’t give up Sufi music.”
This raises the million dollar question: can you be a cultural Muslim and a Muslim at the same time? Traditionalist Salafists would scoff at the idea and boot you out of the mosque quicker than you could say “Allah hu Akbar”. Modernists entertain the idea, if only behind clenched teeth, because it still holds you within the throes of Islam.
For me the issue is about engagement. I believe we have an opportunity to explore, reflect and engage with our common heritage in a positive fashion, rather than focusing on the dissociative stigma of the ex-Muslim tag for which I am, rather unfortunately, well known. I find believers are more amenable that way, and more importantly, it yields results. For the first time this debate can bring two important and largely ignored groups together; the self-segregated irreligious and the forsaken Muslims liberals. Together they hold the key to lasting bottom-up reform within the Ummah, just as the same groups did with the Church’s Reformation.
We can each support and promote our common cause against Islamic extremism. If anything can bridge the existing impasse, negativity and inertia within the today’s Islamic World, I’m all for it.