[Be sure to read Part 2 and Part 3 on Istikhara after reading Part 1 below.]

When examining the reality of our existence as human beings, it is often necessary to consider the various aspects of our lives from four interconnected perspectives. The first, and most important perspective, is the connection a person has with their Creator. The nature and scope of this relationship shapes the way a person perceives themselves and their place in this world. The second and third perspectives concern the world surrounding a person, which includes the physical environment in which they live and the social interactions they have with other people, respectively. As such, these three perspectives represent ongoing simultaneous, and sometimes potent, forces pushing and pulling a person in different directions. The fourth perspective, which is often the hardest to consciously recognize, is the actualization of what eventually drives us to do something. In this sense, human beings are unique as creatures because they possess the freedom of choice, but it is a choice that is influenced by many conditions and circumstances, some of which we are conscious of and some of which we are not.

Human Psychosocial Development

The Holy Quran describes that “When God brought you out of your mothers’ wombs, you knew nothing. He gave you ears, eyes, and hearts so that perhaps you would give Him thanks.”1 Thus, human beings develop and have the potential to advance and become increasingly cognizant of the world around them using those faculties. This is a gift from God that warrants constant gratitude and, at the same time, a heightened realization that the environment in which we grow up and live, and what we experience moment-to-moment has an impact on the way we think and how we behave. A significant amount of research endeavors to explain the psychosocial development of human beings; this includes the biological, social, emotional, cognitive, and even moral changes a person experiences from infancy through adulthood, and into old age. For example, one of the best-known theories in psychology states that human beings face challenges and crises at each of eight stages during psychosocial development. The stages span a person’s life and include the fostering of trust, progressively increasing autonomy, self-initiative and worth, formation of identity and personal relationships, continued productivity and value, and fulfillment. Moreover, the crises that occur at each of these stages serve as turning points in the life of the person, whether during adolescence or adulthood, because their psychosocial traits are shaped and reinforced depending on whether the crisis is resolved.2 Other theories suggest that people, particularly children, develop in stages through the mastery of various cognitive and moral skills, which are rewarded and encouraged by society.3,4 Thus, if we consider these stages to be critical in our development as Muslims, it is imperative that we consciously recognize the developmental crises in our lives and the norms and standards that determine personal success.

Cultural Cognition

Islam recognizes that humanity is comprised of many diverse groups, God says, “Other evidence of His existence is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the differences of languages and colors. In this there is evidence (of the truth) for the [worlds] (mankind).”5 Similarly, God also points out that “… We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other.”6 From examining the trends of human migration and the development of modern society, it becomes clear that the intermixing of cultures, traditions, and languages has steadily increased over time. Thus, from its advent, Islamic wisdom advocated not only greater familiarity with people of other backgrounds to build bridges of understanding, but perhaps also a realization that the inevitable exposure to social customs that may not be our own will likely have an impact on our development.

Yet, even though humanity is comprised of countless cultures and numerous approaches to performing universal tasks, we all share a common goal of seeking benefits in life and reducing risks to ourselves and our families. Often  we limit those benefits and risk considerations to our physical and our apparent mental well-being; however, they can impact our spiritual status as well. Moreover, a person’s cultural identity strongly determines how they perceive and form beliefs about the putative benefits and risks of a given activity (i.e., what they end up doing).7,8 This begs the question of how these perceptions change when people migrate to a foreign country and adopt it as their homes. More importantly, what is the culture and identity of the children of these immigrant people in terms of the drive or motivation behind making life decisions?

Self-perception in a Melting Pot

A person’s religion influences their cultural beliefs, and sometimes their culture also impacts the way they practice certain aspects of their religion. For example, although a Muslim family in India shares a common religious holiday (e.g., Eid al-Fitr) with a given Muslim family in Iraq, Niger, or America, they each have their own unique way of dressing for the prayers on that day, the foods they eat, or the way they celebrate with their families and community. Clearly, the society in which they live and what it considers normal,  also shapes this, and as a result, the person develops an image of themselves as not only Indian, Iraqi, Nigerian or American, but also as a Muslim. Religion and culture seemingly become intertwined, and there is no objection to this (i.e., being Muslim-Indian or Muslim-American) from an Islamic perspective if religious practices are not altered, diluted, or disregarded by cultural and societal norms.

The challenge often arises when a person blurs the line between religion and culture. This might not be a significant risk to the faith of Muslims in a predominantly Muslim environment, where Islam is ingrained into the identity of people; however, in the West, most Muslims must navigate not only a secular culture but also one that is different from the Islamically-based culture of their parents’ homeland. The resulting forces can pull a Muslim in opposite directions and can lead to conflict in identity, both from a cultural and religious perspective, and it can cause deficits in faith and its practice, as well as the inability to make sound decisions. Moreover, if so-called religious practices are just based on culture, what happens when the children of immigrants born and raised in the West do not ascribe or relate to that culture? Do faith and religious adherence suffer? Muslims in the West are facing such a challenge, and unfortunately it is shaking their Islamic development and creating confusion in their lives.

Islamic Culture and the Ideology behind Sound Decision-Making

Just before we make a decision, we must ask ourselves what is driving us to choose a certain course or one option over another. Is it culture, societal norms, peer pressure, or even what we perceive to be essential based on some conception of ourselves (e.g., I am Lebanese therefore I must…)? In certain cases, cultural or societal practices (e.g., caring for the poor and indigent) are rooted in the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and thus, justify preservation. On the other hand, Muslims sometimes engage in cultural practices that are propagated and justified as being Islamic when in reality there is no religious basis for them. A Muslim must be able to differentiate, through investigation and discernment, what is a commandment of God, a tenet of Islam, or even a recommended (i.e., mustahabb) religious act, versus a purely cultural practice, before it becomes a driving force for their actions. In addition, a Muslim should know the ideology behind that driving force. If the choice we make violates the laws of Islam, its code of conduct, the ethics clearly defined by God, or even the laws of our homeland, then there is no question that ideologically the driving force behind the decision is not taking us in the right direction.

When crises shape our development during various stages of life, which code becomes the recourse for establishing our thinking, behavior, and actions? Only religion provides the surety and immutable standard that applies in all times and circumstances and guarantees true happiness and success. Unfortunately, many times Muslims apply the code of Islam only when convenient and choose to give priority to other motivations in life. For this reason, it is critical to develop an Islamic culture as our foundation and not be like those described by Imam Hussain (p) when he said, “Verily, people are the slaves of the world and their religion is superficial, only on their tongues. They are attentive to it as long as their material benefits are provided, but when they are tested, the number of true devotees dwindles.”9

In addition, Islam recognizes the nature of people and the need to connect to others on a cultural level. Therefore, it fosters and maintains the positive aspects of culture. In fact, in his letter to Malik al-Ashtar, who was sent to be the governor of Egypt, Imam Ali (p) advised, “Do not discontinue the [beneficial] practices which the earlier people of this community had acted upon, by virtue of which there was general unity and through which the subjects prospered. Do not innovate any line of action which injures these earlier practices because [in that case] the reward for those who had established those practices will continue, but the burden of discontinuing them will be on you.”10

From an individual perspective, this indicates that if the choice we are making is within the bounds of Islam, then it does not matter whether we choose to follow a course based on culture, societal norms, or even personal preference. For example, many immigrant parents in the West forcefully push their children to pursue careers of status, like medicine, engineering or law, whereas Western ideology promotes pursuit of careers that are of personal interest. In such a situation, when the youth is confused in the decision-making process due to a conflict in cultural identity (i.e., Eastern vs. Western), adherence to Islamic ideology will drive them to consider service to humanity, betterment of society and good citizenship to be important factors in determining what they choose to do. From the Islamic standpoint, pursuit of a career should always keep in mind the needs of society, so that if a Muslim’s community does not have a doctor and desperately needs one, they should strive to become a doctor. However, if a doctor already exists and there is no immediate need for a certain profession, as is the case in the West, a Muslim is free to choose any career they want as long as it is within the bounds of Islam. This ideology is the basis of Islamic culture, and as such, when faced with a dilemma, a Muslim always seeks the loftier path of achieving greater good. Even then, it is clear that cultural hybrids are an inevitability given the increased blending in our societies and people from many different backgrounds living together. Thus, even though it is perfectly acceptable for a Muslim to hold onto their native culture, it is also entirely reasonable that they adopt the culture of their homeland in the West, or blend the two, if the foundation builds on a culture that adheres to the tenets of Islam. For this to happen, we must make the pleasure of God be the impetus for any decision that we make and live our life according to His religion and consider each choice carefully in terms of the motives behind it and the desired outcome.

Click here for part 2 of this article series to learn about istikhara or seeking the best recourse in God, and what a Muslim should do when they have investigated the choices before them and still are unable to make a reasonable decision.

1. The Holy Quran 16:78. Quranic quotes for this article are from the Muhammad Sarwar translation.
2. Erik H. and Joan M. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
3. J. Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World (New York: Littlefield Adams, 1990).
4. Lawrence Kohlberg, Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1981).
5. The Holy Quran 30:22.
6. The Holy Quran 49:13
7. Dan Kahan,  (2010a), “Fixing the Communications Failure,” Nature, 463 (7279): 296–297.
8. P. DiMaggio, “Culture and cognition,” Annual Rev. Sociology, 23 (1997): 263-287.
9. Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 44, p. 374.
10. Nahj al-balagha, Letter 53.

1. (وَاللَّـهُ أَخْرَجَكُم مِّن بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالْأَبْصَارَ وَالْأَفْئِدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ)
5. (وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ)
6. (يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا)
9. عن الإمام أبي عبد الله الحسين (ع): الناسُ عَبيدُ الدنيا والدِّين لُعَقٌ على ألسنتهم يَحوطُونَه ما درَّتْ معائُشهم فإذا مُحِّصُوا بالبلاء قلَّ الدَّيانون.
10. عن أمير المؤمنين علي بن أبي طالب (ع): وَلاَ تَنْقُضْ سُنَّةً صَالِحَةً عَمِلَ بِهَا صُدُورُ هذِهِ الاْمَّةِ، وَاجْتَمَعتْ بِهَا الاْلْفَةُ، وَصَلَحَتْ عَلَيْهَا الرَّعِيَّةُ،لاَ تُحْدِثَنَّ سُنَّةً تَضُرُّ بِشَيء مِنْ مَاضِي تِلْكَ السُّنَنِ، فَيَكُونَ الاْجْرُ بِمَنْ سَنَّهَا، وَالْوِزْرُ عَلَيْكَ بِمَا نَقَضْتَ مِنْهَا.

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