Hey mom, I’m a “cultural Muslim”

Posted on July 24, 2014 by Mahnaaz Dattu

The Islam I’d like to be part of is one that embraces the realities of living in the West and acknowledges the various Muslim identities that attempt to inform, shape and revolutionize the religion. Call it à la carte Islam for the 21st century (or being a “cultural Muslim”). As early as the age of nine when I was considered “baligh”, my Muslim identity has been double edged, negotiated with the tides of time, and compromised by the realities of place and circumstance.

Compromised out of guilt. Compromised for the sake of my parents. Compromised for the sake of everyone else except my ‘self’, my own inner being; who I really am, what I really do, say, think and believe when family reputation is not at stake. (Of course this blog changed that to some degree and I can ‘come out’ and say, “Hey mom, I’m a “cultural Muslim””)

Since childhood, many of us Muslim women have negotiated, modified and projected ourselves not as who we really are but what others deem acceptable. I do it for my parents all the time: No shorts and tank tops worn in public, bathing suit no bikini, Mosque attendance for major religious holidays, which I question the relevance of and feel largely disconnected from. And it’s not because I don’t care, it’s because I am not spiritually motivated by them.

“What are you?” “What do you believe?” my mom asks. Questions that arise every year during Ramadhan and Muharram, a time when observance is tightly woven into the ritual practice and definition of what it means to be (Khoja) Muslim. I believe in God, Judgment Day, the Prophets, and being a good person.

I don’t eat pork. I don’t pray five times a day. I don’t feel safe going for Hajj nor do I applaud the aggressive behaviour of those who push someone out of their way to touch something sacred and then stone something else. There are positive experiences that unify the masses in attendance at Mecca, but I prefer solitude with God in a language I understand. So, where do all of these I do’s and do not’s leave me?

I look forward to and celebrate Eid with my family every year. I am amazed at how Sufis integrate poetry and music into their meditation and praise for God. Rumi rocks solid. Nadia Ali, Trance music vocalist queen, shows me it’s possible to be Muslim and pursue the alternative. These are the dots that connect me to Islam and they have nothing to do with the five pillars.

Then there are the unexpected emotional triggers that remind me no matter how much I distance myself from being a Muslim in the conventional sense, I still have a pull to my people. I am my people. The politics of what’s happening in Gaza played out locally on the streets two weeks ago at Bloor and Queen’s Park aroused in me something attached to my (negotiated and compromised) Muslim identity.

As I walked through a throng of Palestinian protestors, for that brief moment, I felt their plight. This is even though I do not take any one side or advocate the death and brutality of any civilian – Jewish or Muslim. A life is a life, and let’s face it, had Islam not emerged, I’d be just as Jewish as the people I grew up with in junior and high schools. (Ditto to matzah. Happy Hannukah to all. Mazaltov on your son’s circumcision.)

Other times and also unexpectedly, I feel a sense of Muslim pride. I never watched an entire episode of the CTV reality television series The Amazing Race until two girls from my mosque, Shahla Kara and Nabeela Barday were featured as contestants. I felt their victory when Nabeela completed the high tea challenge before the other team. I felt their disappointment when they got to the finish line and learned that they were eliminated from the challenge. I really wanted them to win and that’s because I know them as girls from my community. They were up there representing me and as close to the kind of Muslim I identify myself with.

Since who I am is relative to what I do, say, feel, think and believe, I am, then, a “cultural Muslim”. This is a concept I first came across in a Huffington Post article by Ali Rizvi on why he calls himself an ‘Atheist Muslim’ and explored further in Saif Rahman and David Shariatmadari’s articles, as well as Richard Dawkins’s position on being a “cultural Christian”.

To be a “cultural Muslim” is to be a modified Muslim because it is not Muslim in the conventional sense. It’s not Muslim in the “I believe and practice word-for-word what’s in the Qur’an and Hadith” sense. It is a Muslim who questions beliefs and conventions; it is a Muslim who has chosen to practice those parts of Islam that resonate with the realities of here and now and yet are still reflective of the family background and personal experiences he or she has grown up in. As such, a “cultural Muslim” encompasses a wide variety of Muslim identities: Atheist Muslim, Agnostic Muslim, LGBT Muslim, Humanist Muslim, and so on.

The common thread holding all of these Muslim identities together is their hope for a pluralistic Islam where terrorism and fundamentalism are expelled from the Islamic identity. An identity I hope continues to be engaged by the progressive Muslim mindsets of the 21st century, who want an open and intellectual dialogue to define the Islam of the future.




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