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I am a public health doctor who is cynically optimistic about most things.

Rabbit munching can’t possibly be a sin

Rabbit paints its newly laid egg

I was once sitting through a lecture given by a well-known Iranian thinker/dissident in the vain attempt at hearing something refreshingly controversial and possibly scandalous. It’s not always the easiest thing to do as while he is a nice guy and is blessed with an original mind, he is also rather dry, esoteric and can be quite boring.

I wasn’t the only one waiting for a scandalous morsel to debate and pretend to be shocked about, as when the speaker did finish, an Iraqi man launched into a scathing attack on the fact that he had congratulated us on the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas day had just passed a few days earlier and his remarks, at the beginning of his talk, seemed pretty innocuous. The attack was probably borne out frustration from a talk bereft of any controversy that the man could suitably get worked up about, but this now seemed like rant that we uncomfortably had to sit through.

This wasn’t an isolated case however,  as a lot of us seem to get really worked up about supposedly Christian or secular celebrations. Any engagement with them seems to signify a surrender of our Muslim values and identity. I get mildly amused reading emails warning me about the evils of celebrating Valentine’s day with my wife or sending a present to my mum on Mother’s day from the well-intentioned. If they did go back and scratch beneath the surface of a lot of our supposedly Islamic rituals and festivals they may not like what they see.

This is because Islam, during its breath-taking expansion, absorbed many of the ideas and rituals of the great variety of cultures and beliefs it interacted with invariably due to its solid self-confidence. Rather than weakening the faith, this open interaction actually embedded the core beliefs of Islam within new societies it came across. Unfortunately we are in a directly opposite situation at the moment and confidence in our religion is at a very low ebb, and thus our inherent fear is of being absorbed rather than absorbing new ideas.

All religious and cultural festivities have a moral thread embedded within them. Identifying them and celebrating them within an Islamic framework is  very possible. Furthermore, joining our fellow Christians, Jews and others in celebrating what is in common may do more to enhance mutual religious and communal understanding than handing out Ashura leaflets from random masiras through central London. So enjoy Easter, feast on egg-laying rabbits and do whatever else they’re supposed to do, within an Islamic framework of course.

9 Comments on “Rabbit munching can’t possibly be a sin”

  1. Ali D April 2, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    I quite like this article, very original points raised as usual Ali.

    Do you think that there is a risk of losing ‘Islamic identity’ by mixing too much with other cultures?

    But perhaps what is more relevant is the question regarding our Iraqi heritage. It is difficult enough to retain ‘Iraqiness’ in terms of language and culture purely by being outside of Iraq- would it be even harder if we adopted most aspects of the cultures that we now live in? Is this even a bad thing?

    Lastly, I would like to know your opinion about the benefits of engaging rituals and customs here- you mentioned the idea of social cohesion; is that what it comes down to? The way that I have seen it, we should take what is good and leave what is not beneficial or relevant. I.e. be happy on the occasion celebrating Jesus’ (a.s.) birth (even if he was not indeed born on 25/12) but why should I put a tree in my house? To what benefit?

    Many thanks.

  2. Yusr Al-Abadi April 3, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    Thank you Ali for this thought provoking blog.
    Referring to Ali D’s comment, I’m not sure if it’s a question of should, I think perhaps the key word is ‘could’. There is no necessity for putting up a Christmas tree or devouring truckloads of Easter chocolate eggs, there is however no harm in partaking in such practices without it compromising your religious beliefs. On the other hand, what may indeed prove to be useful (particularly for us as British Iraqis) is the participation in a shared national celebration to consolidate a common sense of national identity such as they have done in the USA on the 4th of July or Thanksgiving. The celebration of the ancient Zoastrian Nowruz festival in Iran and other regions within central Asia serves similar ends. It’s true that Jesus Christ may not have been born on December 25, yet taking into account the origins and history of Christmas (as a Germanic pagan tradition having been banned and readopted numerous times until finally revived in the 19th century as a seasonal rather than religious celebration with the help of works of literature such as ‘A Christmas Carol’) may place Christmas in a new light perhaps making it a feasibly suitable national celebration that even Muslims can join in (putting aside the consumerist agenda that it has come to serve). It’s also interesting to note the widespread and interreligious participation in Christmas celebrations in Iraq.
    Ali D you’ve raised the interesting question of ‘Islamic identity’ but I’m wondering what the relevance of Islamic Identity is when we consider that Islamic culture is a hodgepodge of practices and customs adapted from various cultures. In some cases the so called Islamic identity has served as an alienating and stifling labeling system that produces phony, artificial and confused identities compelled to run under an uncompromising categorisation of ‘Islamic’. All because ‘Islamic’ as it has come to be (erroneously) understood is neither broad nor accommodating enough. Would it not be more appropriate to rewrite or reshape Islamic identity so that we are no longer confined within meaningless stereotypes and classifications that restrictedly dictate who is and what is‘Islamic?

  3. Ali Latif April 3, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    Thanks to both Ali D and Yusr. I’m always find it difficult to keep my ramblings short but rely on perceptive comments to draw some of the points alluded to.

    I tend to agree with Yusr about the artificial construct of the Islamic identity. It is usually the cultural baggage that became static after the demise of Islamic civilisation that we seem to ascribe to Islam. The ethical core beliefs of Islam can exist within a variety of different cultural contexts and has done so for centuries if we only bother to examine our history.

    Celebrating British festivals does not have to include their own historical/cultural baggage and unfortunately a lot of them have become over-sentimental and commercial. However by celebrating the core ethical aspects e.g. community, family and charity, we can draw out what is meaningful and at the same time take the opportunity to engage with the wider community rather than explode now and again.

  4. Ali D April 3, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    Thank you both for your very helpful replies.

    Great post Yusr, very informative. I tend to agree with you that there is nothing wrong with partaking in cultural events that may have traditionally been seen as non-Islamic. However, I was after the benefits of doing something like this. As I stated earlier, the aim may simply be social cohesion or ‘consolidating a sense of national identity’ as you eloquently put it. To me, the ‘Islamic identity’ is one with core principles and is one that is free from all cultural implementation. My question was in regards to the dilution of the ‘Islamic identity’ with yet more cultural associations. We should look to separate Islamic (or ethnic) culture from Islamic identity, rather than going in the opposite direction. The Islamic identity, to me, should be universal to both time and place, though perhaps this was not clear from my previous post.

    So is there anything wrong with partaking in western cultural events? No. Is there any benefit? A likely possibility. Should it be attributed to the Islamic identity? This is what it boils down to: I would argue no. Rather, we should disassociate Islamic Identity from any culture. (Though, to re-iterate, culture has its place- a very important one at that). What do you think?

    However, one question which I still feel is important (as I alluded to in my first post) and unanswered, is the question of Iraqi cultural heritage. Is it important to retain this heritage? If so, then what steps could we take to preserve it (especially amongst the non-first generation Iraqis) whilst still adopting aspect of British culture (for example)? What I’m after is a practical methodology rather than specifics- a mind state or set of principles that need not apply solely to ‘Iraqis in Britain’, but all those in a similar situation.

    On a side note, Ali, I usually overlook the meaning of some of the sentences you write whilst skim-reading them the first time around. Your writing style is uniquely enticing and often induces more than a smile upon the second thorough reading (the last sentence of your reply was particularly ‘genius’). Keep it up 🙂

  5. Ali Latif April 7, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    Sorry for the late reply Ali D. Totally agree about the culture-religion separation if it could only be easily and painlessly done.

    As for our Iraqi heritage, I think we feel it is important to preserve it for two main reasons. A significant portion of us see ourselves possibly ‘going back’ to Iraq and thus preserving the cultural link is important. The other reason is simply because the heritage that we inherited is like an ornate piece of art that has been worked on for centuries. We’d like to preserve it because it is beautiful and precious as well as being handed down to us lovingly by our parents, so it would be a shame to let it erode away.

    If we were to attempt to preserve our heritage than it may mean following the footsteps of successful predecessors in this respect such as the Jewish or Khoja communities. They are characterised by quite an insular set up with respect to schooling, marriage and communal activities that try to keep as much within that particular identity space. There are pitfalls in trying to adopt this model but I’m not sure how else to it over successive generations. If that’s what we think is best of course.

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