Civilisation and religion
THE study of religion has been a phenomenon of interest. It is because of this curiosity that historically different perspectives have been developed to understand, interpret and extract meaning from religious concepts and practices.
Some of the dominant approaches have been theological, jurisprudential, spiritual etc.
However, with developments in human knowledge, particularly with the emergence of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, the civilisational or cultural perspective has become a dominant feature in the study of religion.
Broadly speaking, the civilisational or cultural perspective attempts to understand religious concepts and practices through cultural viewpoints and expressions. According to this perspective, faith cannot be exercised in a cultural vacuum. Rather, it needs a context.
Therefore, faith and culture are integrated. Where religious concepts shape the culture of a society, religion gets influenced by culture. Hence to understand religion one needs to explore and reflect on the multidimensional expressions — such as literature, music, art, architecture, philosophy etc. — of a culture or society.
Islam is a revealed religion with a long and dynamic history. During its extended history, Islam has voyaged through different societies and inspired them. The inspirations from the divine message have been expressed differently in various contexts. The colourful expressions of Muslim societies can be observed in their rich cultural/intellectual heritage such as literature, architecture, art, calligraphy, theology, philosophy and so on, that they have contributed to civilisation.
The civilisational dimension of Islam has received less attention from academia in comparison to the theological dimension. Even today Islam is discussed narrowly following the mediaeval logical approach. The majority of educational institutions in the Muslim world are still concentrating on the theological aspect in their study of Islam.
However, a few institutions and individuals are making conscious efforts to include the cultural dimension of Islam in the areas of research and study. For instance, Marshall Hodgson’s book The Venture of Islam is one of the examples that explore Islam as a civilisation rather than a set of theological, abstract concepts.
Why do we need the cultural approach to study Islam? This perspective may be significant for different reasons. First, this approach provides a broader perspective to look at a religion. It does not focus on one area. Rather, it encompasses all the activities taking place in a society. It does not judge the different cultural expressions. Rather, it explores them to understand. It encourages making space for differences by appreciating the diverse expressions.
Secondly, this approach attempts to understand the process of cultural and religious diversity in society. Today, in many Muslim societies the question of ‘pure’ culture is emerging as a challenge. Sometimes certain cultures are seen as superior or more Islamic and efforts are made to impose these on others by force. This question has created internal polarisation among different groups of people.
There is a dire need to understand that cultural purity is a relative concept and one culture cannot fit all Muslims across the world. The context matters in different aspects of life such as clothing, food and housing. For example, living in a desert area demands different clothes and food as compared to people living in mountainous areas.
The cultural approach provides space for people to tolerate and appreciate differences rather than put others down by force. Hence, it would be helpful for Muslims to understand each other and reduce the conflict within Muslim societies.
Thirdly, the cultural approach is important to learn from history how Muslims responded to challenges in the past in different contexts. It would be helpful in identifying and analysing the factors that support or contain a society’s development and progress. It will lead towards devising new responses for emerging challenges rather than only depending on the past.
Furthermore, this perspective provides an opportunity to people to understand the interaction between different civilisations and faiths. Historically, civilisations have interacted and negotiated with each other. Where there are differences among civilisations there are many commonalities as well.
The process of studying religion through the cultural perspective facilitates understanding and creates harmony between different faiths and civilisations. The civilisational approach will be helpful for Muslims as well as others to understand the common ground for coexistence.
In addition, the civilisational approach also encourages learners to be creative in learning from the past and applying it to the present. This approach leads the learner to move from the domain of memorisation to comprehension, application and creation. Ultimately, as a creative approach it leads to a higher level of learning and understanding.
This perspective also includes the practices of common people. Historically, it has been observed that while exploring the history of religion mostly the elites and rulers have been in focus while the common people have been left out. Thus the civilisational perspective in studying religion is a more inclusive one.
In sum, today we are living in a complex and multicultural world. Such a world demands creative and inclusive approaches to understand the complex issues of contemporary societies.
We need to reflect on our understanding of religion in order to reconcile it with the challenges of the contemporary world. In this regard the civilisational approach can be instrumental in bringing a fresh outlook to understanding and reinterpreting religious concepts and practices.
We need to include this perspective in our curriculum along with other traditional approaches. It will help our younger generation to understand their religion in a broader perspective, particularly in comprehending the importance of context in religion.
The writer is an educator.