September 21, 2015 By CT Abdul Raheem

Islam and Local Customs: A Reflection on Onam and Lamp Lighting


One month ago, the Kerala public sphere had a hot topic to debate on. At a function organized on the readers’ day in the state, Education Minister Abdu Rabb, who belongs to the Indian Union Muslim League which is a party in the coalition that rules the state, was reluctant to inaugurate the function by lighting a lamp. The minister’s action drew flak from ace film actor Mammootty, who was present on the stage. Abdul Rabb has the right not to light the lamp, as he is a citizen of a liberal democratic country. Also, a kind of universality has set in in the public sphere, in which elite Hindu symbols (savarna symbols) are presented and enforced as national icons, much same way that the customs and practices of the west are acknowledged as being universal.

But Muslim League Ministers as well as some other respected personalities who deny lighting lamps have not justified their standpoint as either an expression of their liberal choice or a critique of the elite Hindutva symbols attaining status in the national iconography. Rather they consider it as having to do with their faith. Their argument is that lamp is part and parcel of the Hindu tradition and, hence, runs counter to the Islamic tradition and faith. A precariously divisive dimension of the rhetoric can be seen in the argument that having Onam lunch as part of Onam celebrations-one of the important festivals in the state-is not permissible. There should be an attempt, as there has always been, to study the issue in the light of examples in the Muslim history. This article attempts to do that.

Social Life and Religious Customs

Every society has its own definite features related to its environment. Geography temperature, work culture, customs and rituals that stood the test of time; sartorial and dining manners, rituals related to birth, death and wedding; and festivals are examples. People take part in these rituals and celebrations irrespective of their religion and caste. Though a specific religion and caste influence these rituals, they have the participation of general public in a given society.

Islamic jurisprudence considers this aspect of public culture as uruf. Generally, Islamic jurisprudence and Juris scholars have no objection against observing and participating in uruf. That is because local customs emerge as part of human fraternity and solidarity in a given society. Religions that are born and nurtured in the fertile soil of humanness can’t help but support the local customs. There are several examples for this in the very tradition of Islam.

Rituals and customs of the Hajj pilgrimage are closely related to the tribal, social and economic situation of the Arabs. Islam continued the hajj pilgrimage towards Kaaba which all Arab tribes had respected and maintained. The seven-time circumambulation around the Kaba and the beginning of the ritual from the corner of hajarul aswad  (black stone) had all been traditionally instituted practices. The Quran does not mention hajarul aswad. However the traditional practice was maintained in Islam as such. While kissing the stone, Umar al Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, is reported to have said, “You have no special features. But I have seen Prophet Muhammad kissing you. So do I.” The importance of the stone was deeply enshrined in the belief and faith of the Arabs. Certain scholars opine that the practice of circumambulation and kissing of the stone was maintained with due respect to the mindset and beliefs of people in the society. Sacrifice and shaving of hair as dénouement of the pilgrimage have all been instituted without any major change. Like that the sanctity of the Makkah province as haram, where neither killing nor uprooting of plants nor harming animals and birds are permitted was also instituted as such with due respect to the shared beliefs of the Arabs.

The Prophet, who gave due respect to the rituals and customs of his predecessors, was giving a new Islamic dimension to them. While he rejected those that ran counter to the fundamentals of faith, he continued those that did not. He removed customs such as naked circumambulation, smearing the walls of ka’aba with the blood of sacrificed animals and a few rituals associated with the deities in the safa-marwa Mountains. The continuation of cultural norms gives us clues as to what approach should be taken towards a society’s traditional customs, while interacting with them, especially in a modern multicultural society which purports to respect other religions and maintain neighborhood based on love and mutual respect. The Prophetic wisdom was normatively instructing us to realize human nature and, while imbibing the essence of one’s faith, behave with propriety and decorum to others’.

Islamic history is full of lessons about the flexibility in sartorial manners. The Prophet continued the dress culture practiced in Makkh before Islam. Some of the Prophet’s followers adopted the dress codes of Christians and Majoosis. There were demands for avoiding the headgear called burnus, owing to its distinctiveness. Imam Malik was asked whether it could be put on, as it was a Christian headgear. He replied that people in Madina used to wear it. Purdha was a dress code of the Arabs, as well. Adopting local sartorial customs of the Arabs, the Prophet and the community of faith understood sartorial and other customs not as part of others’ faith, but as social customs.

What does jurisprudence say?

Prominent Islamic scholar Allama Shibli Numani refers to Allama Shami’s (Muhammad Amin Ibn Abidin)Nashrul Urfi fi Binai Baasil Ahkami alal urfi (Elaboration of certain legislation as basis of local customs). Jurisprudential rulings and edicts were formed in the light of findings and research on what was enunciated in the Quran and Hadith. The rulings are to be changed in the context of new local customs and situations if the customary practices are changed in a different time.

If rulings and edicts don’t change according to the change in time, not only does it cause difficulties for people and run counter to one of the fundamentals of law-to make things easier, but it spoils another fundamental that requires the organization of the world as per better systems and finer regulations. Allama Shami observes that the fact that women, who were allowed to pray in the mosque at the time of the Prophet, were not allowed later shows differences in jurisprudential practices as per temporal and spatial changes, he says.

Sha Waliullah says in his Hujjatullahil Baligha that the Prophets, after sorting out local customs and traditions, used to reform them if they were reprehensible as per the newly evolved traditions and time. Muslim movements that are renowned for reform and renaissance have to do soul-searching on whether they tried to study the relevance of urf in Islamic jurisprudence. Also the traditional scholars who grew alongside local customs should do research in religious texts and histories and explain the positions and postulates. In the absence of these attempts, rulings and edicts in the name of religion may veer away from justice and co-existence enshrined by the faith.

The lamp can be studied aesthetically, politically and religiously. In the religious analysis, the history of religion, contemporary experiences and the attitude of religion to local customs should all be given due weight.

CT Abdul Raheem is the founder of Daypuram educational and cultural Complex in Calicut and a prominent scholar on Islamic history.

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