Customs are not sacred

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In the same way that ingrained habits have control over individual people, customs regulate the thoughts and behavior of communities, and become integrated into the collective and individual identities of the members of society. 

This is why, when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) wished to change his society’s pre-Islamic customs regarding adoption, he made his own family life a practical example. This caused him considerable pain and discomfort , as we know from the story of his adopted son Zayd b. Hārithah, about whom the following verse of the Qur’an was revealed:

And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah had bestowed favor and you had bestowed favor: “Keep your wife and fear Allah ,” while you concealed within yourself that which Allah was to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear Him. So when Zayd dissolved his marriage with her, We married her to you in order that the believers would have no reservations concerning the wives of their adopted sons after they dissolved the marriage. And the command of Allah must be fulfilled. [Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 37]


All the same, it is good for people in society to have respect for their customs, within limits. It only becomes a problem when people become dogmatic about them and prepared to fight and go to extreme measures over trivialities. 

Individuals, communities, and societies need to be able to change and adapt in all matters that are open to change. This is the case with most of life’s concerns. A society is strong when the acceptance of change becomes one of its customs. It is also a strong society that realizes it does not have to interfere in the customs and habits of its individual members when those customs and habits do not pose any harm to others or undermine essential values. It is good for change to become a habit and custom in and of itself, so that people will not be bound by harmful or unethical customary practices. 

One of the biggest problems is where people cannot distinguish between religious values and customary practices. Often, they react to a change in social norms by treating it like a sin against God. This was the mistake the pagans in Mecca made. The Qur’an makes this clear:


And when they commit an immorality, they say, “We found our fathers doing it, and Allah has ordered us to do it.” Say, “Indeed, Allah does not order immorality. Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?” [Sūrah al-A`rāf: 28]


They had the habit of conflating their societal norms with Allah’s will. If it was their forefathers’ practice, they regarded it as Allah’s command as well. In this way they regarded many crassly unethical, unjust, and indecent practices as being sacred. 

Allah rejects their claim, saying: “Indeed, Allah does not order immorality…” This refers to the harmful customs of their forefathers that they wrongly attributed to Allah. 

Then Allah presents us with the correct approach to critiquing customs, saying: “Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?” In other words, if you are going to argue that a practice is commanded by Allah, then you must bring direct proof to support your claim. This strips social customs of their sacred authority. 

Some people are more committed to their society’s customs then they are to their religion. Moreover, conditioned behavior and cultural perspectives affect how people understand and interpret the sacred texts and practice their religion. This can even affect their performance of the essentials of faith. For instance, it is common for residents of Mecca to shorten their prayers during the Hajj pilgrimage, and a good number of religious scholars are hesitant to clarify their mistake, even though the matter pertains to one of the pillars of Islam. Nowhere in the Qur’an and Sunnah is the Noon prayer ever to be performed as two units except for an excise like being a traveler. 

As for people’s general customs, they can fall under any of the legal rulings, being sometimes obligatory, sometimes preferable, often merely permissible, sometimes disliked, and sometimes prohibited. The default ruling however, is permissibility in the absence of any indication to the contrary. For instance, various styles of clothing are generally permissible, though every culture has its own norms of dress. 

It is a natural tendency for people to revere what they have been accustomed to all of their lives, what they were brought up on since they were small. They resist any change, even when it is clearly for the best.


Sheikh Salman al-Oadah

Source: en.islamtoday (Oct. 3, 2013)