Cultural diversity

© Cardiff University
© Cardiff University

As we have already seen, most Muslims in Britain have originally come from many different parts of the world.

Whether they originate from Africa, the Middle East or the Indian sub-continent, their practice of Islam has often been shaped by their various cultural backgrounds. And of course, as Muslim communities have developed in Britain over time, there has been a good deal of cultural ‘fusion’ and blending of cultural traditions. Sometimes, it can be difficult to discern when a social practice is religious, or cultural, or a mixture of both. In this article, we reflect on this conundrum, and explore some of the cultural diversity that shapes the practice of Islam in Britain today. Let’s start with the vivid imagery of a wedding.

If you attended a Muslim Bengali wedding, you would notice that the bride is elegantly donned in richly-coloured red attire. You will observe that she will accept the marriage proposal with apparent hesitation (which may give the impression that she is being forced). Throughout the wedding, you will notice the joy and happiness of those around her, while she will probably look somber (which may consolidate your suspicion that she has been forced into the marriage). In contrast, if you see an Arab Muslim wedding, you will see that the bride is donned in white. She will look happy, and will probably dance with her husband.

What you have glimpsed through these two pictures in your mind is the difference between Muslims from different cultural origins in relation to marriage celebrations. Once the religious dimension of the ceremony is completed through the signing of the marriage contract – and this will be the basis for any Muslim marriage – the festivities that follow will reflect particular cultural traditions that have relatively little religious connotation.

Religion is often interpreted and practiced through cultural traditions. Sometimes these traditions are assumed to be ‘religious’ but are in fact merely ‘cultural’. Not all British Muslims will necessarily be able to discern the difference between the two, such is their complexity. So for example, Islam offers Muslims guidance on a range of issues, including dress. There is no such thing as ‘Islamic’ dress, but simply a set of basic standards and requirements for both men, and women; Quranic verses regarding dress are often as applicable to men as they are to women. Men must minimally (that is, at least) cover from the navel to the knee, while the Prophet Muhammad instructed women to cover their bodies, except for their face and hands. The majority of Muslims interpret this to include covering of the hair. Both men and women are required to wear clothes that are loose, opaque, dignified, modest and clean. Clothing should reflect gender, and thus both men and women are encouraged to express their masculinity and femininity through dress. Apart from these basic expectations, Muslims are free to wear whatever they choose. Muslims in Britain today wear all manner of different styles of clothing and head-covering. None are ‘Islamic’ per se, but simply reflect varied cultural interpretation of religious requirements about dress.

Some Muslims in Britain are now three or four generations removed from the original migration experience. These young British-born Muslims are marrying both within and outside the cultural and kinship groups of their parents and grandparents, and any notion of culture as a singular phenomenon is becoming redundant. Cultural traditions are being fused in all manner of permutations, and research demonstrates the myriad ways that young Muslims will make strategic use of their cultural origins according to context and circumstance.