Islamic Culture?

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Islamic Culture? What is that? If you can define Christian culture, then you can define Islamic culture. Only then are we comparing apples with apples. I have read in missiological literature statements emphatically denying that there is a Christian culture. Yet the same authors speak of contextualizing into Islamic culture. There are 56 countries with a Muslim majority and each has many subcultural groups. It is naive to lump all Muslims into one culture. Anyway, praying in a mosque rather than church is not a cultural act. It is religious. Denying that Jesus is the Son of God is not cultural it is theological. If culture is the sum total of a group’s lifestyle, values and beliefs can we as Christians endorse the whole package? Visit http://www.engagingislam.org.

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About Author

Georges Houssney was raised in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon. He came to faith in Jesus Christ as a teenager. Soon God grew a deep love for Muslims in his heart, and he began to sense God's call for full-time service among them. Well-known for his work supervising the translation and publication of the Bible into clear modern Arabic, Georges and his family moved from the Middle East to the United States in 1982 to minister to international students. Georges is passionate about reaching internationals here and abroad with the great news of salvation. He writes and lectures internationally about ministry to Muslims, and he strives to awaken a new generation who will proclaim the gospel boldly. Georges is founder and director of Horizons International and does Muslim evangelism training through his training Engaging Islam.

5 Comments

  1. In line with what has been said above, I wonder if it would be helpful to look at the origin of the word ‘culture.?’ I know that the Oxford English Dictionary relates it to an origin based on the modern word cultivation and gives two definitions pertinent to what has been said, namely “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” or “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society///the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group.” If however we expand our search and see that it is related to the technical word ‘cult’ which derives from the Latin meaning ‘worship.’ [OED gives one meaning as a “system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object:” ]
    If the two ideas are combined, humans are innate worshipers, and they do this with all parts of their lives, both individually and collectively. The critical question is “to whom is this worship directed?” For we must remember that after the fall, nothing is left untainted, and as John Calvin said, “the human heart is an idol factory.”
    Blessings
    JS

  2. Hi Mike,

    Yes, I think this has at times been a problem in missiology. It is interesting that even secular anthropologists are less inclined to complete cultural relativism than perhaps they used to be, recognizing that there are often elements of cultures that are destructive of human flourishing (e.g., various cultural practices judged oppressive of women). I’ve seen them make a distinction between “moral relativism,” which they reject, at least in its absolute form (the idea that all elements of culture are essentially morally equivalent), and “methodological relativism,” which they argue is necessary to good anthropological analysis. Methodological relativism simply asserts that good anthropological analysis involves coming to a deep understanding of the “insider’s” perspective. As an anthropologist I need to adopt a method of study and an approach to another group of people that will allow me to understand things from their point of view and their reasons for living as they do. This does not mean that in the end I will adopt their point of view or agree that their way of living is morally right. But I will be able to describe things from the perspective of how they see them.

    It seems to me that this is a valuable distinction. We cannot adopt the attitude of moral relativism with respect to other cultures (or our own!). Every cultural pattern needs to be evaluated in light of the whole of God’s self-revelation in Christ and his Word. Methodological relativism, on the other hand, can be really helpful, encouraging us as missiologists/Christian anthropologists to work toward the goal of understanding how people in a given group view themselves and how they themselves understand their life-ways. Again, this does not necessarily mean agreement or approval, but it does involve a conscious effort to understand things from the insider’s perspective. It seems to me that this is a correlate of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

  3. While I think that those missionaries that interact with the academic world need to understand how the word “culture” is used within the academic world, they desperately need to recognize that that the academic definition of “culture” is in conflict with the biblical understanding of culture because it fails to recognize that humanity is fallen. One of the problems in missiology today is that some missiologists have blindly accepted the secular anthropological definition of “culture” and believe that nearly all aspects of culture are essentially amoral. So while we would hope that missiologists would be discerning about what shared patterns of practice and belief in a given context are worth continuing and which will need to be laid aside, much of the current debate in missiology has originated because this discernment is too often not taking place.

  4. Tim- Excellent analysis!

    Religious acts are cultural, but that doesn’t exempt them from transformation. Culture is anything but neutral – if it encompasses all human patterns and mindsets, doesn’t that include a whole lot of sin as well?

    I love your point about “oh, that’s just cultural” – that’s an unfortunate but ubiquitous fallacy in missiology. Sometimes it’s essentially saying “oh, idolatry? that’s just cultural…”

    I think my dad would agree with adding the word “merely” to that sentence, to make it:

    “praying in a mosque rather than church is not MERELY a cultural act. It is religious.”

    Blessings Tim, and thank you for your post!

  5. Yes and no :-) (from an anthropological point of view). Yes: I’m sure it has to be right that there are many different cultural contexts that could be referred to as “Muslim.” There is not going to be one single “Islamic culture” any more than there is one single “Christian culture.” Islam, like Christianity, finds expression in a variety of cultural configurations/contexts. Where I want to suggest another way of expressing things here is with regard to the statements above to the effect that “Praying in a mosque rather than a church is not a cultural act. It is religious” (etc). From an anthropological point of view (and “culture” is generally used in missiology in an anthropological sense) praying in a mosque IS a cultural act. Religion, anthropologically speaking, is subsumed under culture. Culture is everything we learn about how to live and what to believe as we live in (usually grow up in) a given social context. It is the patterns of belief and behavior shared among people in a given group. People growing up in Islamic contexts learn from those around them to deny the deity of Christ. They learn particular ways of understanding what the affirmation “Jesus is the Son of God” means. So these things are by definition “cultural” (which is not to deny that they are also “theological.”)

    It seems to me that there is often confusion in the way “culture” is used. This term has at times (sometimes by missiologists) been used to refer to those behaviors and beliefs that are supposedly “neutral” (i.e., neither required nor prohibited by the Bible, according to our understanding of these things). We will sometimes speak of a particular behavior as “cultural” if it is neutral in this sense. “Oh, that’s just cultural.” So if we think that the Bible does not require everyone everywhere to “greet one another with a (‘literal’) holy kiss,” we say, “Oh that was just cultural.”

    But the way that anthropologists use the word “culture,” everything we learn from others — anything that is not biologically innate — is an element of culture.

    The question at the end of the above post is right on. “If culture is the sum total of a group’s lifestyle, values and beliefs [a good anthropological definition of “culture” — and one that would include “religious” and “theological” beliefs and practices] can we as Christians endorse the whole package?” I would suggest that there are few missiologists who would say that Christians ought to endorse the “whole package” of any culture–be it Western, African, Asian, or whatever. Good contextualization is always about discerning what shared patterns of practice and belief in a given social context are worth continuing (not contrary to what the Bible requires of us) and which patterns those who want to submit to Jesus’ authority will need to learn to lay aside and replace.

    Does that make sense?

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