by Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad

Cross-posted from The Lotus Tree Blog

Islamic scholars occupy a special place in Muslim society. They are often considered to be amongst the elite of our faith. In one tradition, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) stated; “One scholar is harder against the devil than a thousand worshippers”.

In another tradition; “The Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets”.  The Qur'an states that people are elevated by their religious knowledge.

“O ye who believe! When ye are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (ample) room will Allah provide for you. And when ye are told to rise up, rise up Allah will rise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) Knowledge. And Allah is well-acquainted with all ye do.” Qur'an 58:11


As the preservers, and often times interpreters of sacred law, Islamic scholars deserve our respect, support, and our gratitude.

Additionally, scholars of Islam are responsible for upholding the sacred trust that accompanies the acquisition of sacred knowledge; which is to explain the religion clearly and concisely and not cover up any part of it, “Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah's curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse” 2:159.

In today's turbulent times a, the role of Muslim religious scholars and qualified[1] teachers takes on a special significance for three reasons, the first being; the scarcity of people available who possess sound and accurate islamic knowledge, It was related in the hadith of Anas ibn Malik that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “From among the portents of the Hour are (the following):

1. Religious knowledge will be taken away (by the death of Religious learned men).

2. (Religious) ignorance will prevail. 3. Drinking of Alcoholic drinks (will be very common).

4. There will be prevalence of open illegal sexual intercourse”.[2]

The second reason is the responsibility to stand as barriers between ignorant Islamic leadership and the Muslim people themselves; “Verily, Allah does not take away knowledge by snatching it from the people but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars, so that when He leaves no learned person, people turn to ignorant as their, leaders; then they are asked to deliver religious verdicts and they deliver them without knowledge, they go astray, and lead others astray”.

The third reason is that the world has changed, people are mixing cultures, ideas, ethnic tendencies into one big melting pot in America and Muslim scholars need to help break down barriers between the diverse Muslim peoples living here. That means that they have to get out and understand what's going on in the land. Scholars of Islam have to take the added step whenever and wherever possible, to familiarize themselves with the common people, and the intricacies of American life and culture, about which they render judgments and opinions. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “The Muslim who mixes with the people and is patient with their ills is better than the Muslim who does not mix with the people and is not patient with their ills”[3].

Some Islamic scholars find themselves either woefully unfamiliar, or subtlety indifferent to America, American people specifically, and in the process, Muslims Americans who are socially integrated into our country's fabric. Some, due to their ignorance of American culture and her people, and often operating from abroad, have managed to demonize virtually every aspect of American culture and way of life. Sports, birthdays, Thanksgiving, family photos, decorating homes, designer clothing, thikr beads, wearing jeans, baby showers, attending graduation ceremonies, saying what's up brother to a stranger on the street, being in a good mood during Christmas season, gospel music, wedding rings, visiting graves of relatives, bereavement practices, women entering masajid, loving one's country, and a host of other things have ended up on the haram list of one scholar or another.

Some American Muslims find themselves apologizing for being born in this country of ours as if it were a curse. The average Muslim, especially the convert, who simply wants to worship his or her Lord, and live an Islamic lifestyle, is often left in an almost perpetual state of confusion. Scholars, as they learn more about American society alternately prohibit things in one instance and then make them permissible according to their own evolutionary knowledge of our country, our culture and our way of life.

Anti-American oratory has surreptitiously made its way into the modern canonical dialogue of Islam. Many American Muslims have been morally blackmailed into having to repudiate American culture in order to find acceptance as Muslims by immigrant scholars. Even today, rhetoric from a minority of Muslim scholars and some imams are replete with anti-American invectives or rallying cries against so called 'western culture' or values. It is ironic however, that from an Islamic theological perspective, morality has no hemispheric basis; “to Allah belongs the east and the west, wherever thou turnest, ye shall find His (God's) Face”.

Islam for many Muslim Americans has become too complicated to be user friendly. The dozen or so, often conflicting spheres of scholarly influence has created a virtual merry-go-round of Islam in America, and we need to do something about it. Understanding how to apply Islamic law and morality, in the United States, require a thorough understanding of the shariah, the culture norms of the people, as well as the inclusion and consultation of indigenous American Muslim imams, laymen and intelligentsia.

The famous 14th century jurist, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya alluded to this issue very succinctly; when commenting of the necessity of understanding people's cultural practices, he said: “This is a major foundation that every mufti (legist) or ruler needs; he must be both well-versed (in peoples' traditions) as well as matters of command and prohibition and then apply them both simultaneously. Otherwise, he will do more harm than good. If he is not intimately aware of an issue in which people have particular understanding, a transgressor will appear to him as the transgressed and the truth will appear to him as falsehood and vice versa.”

Ibn Qayyim went on to say: “Because of his ignorance of the people, their traditions, their conditions and their habits, he will not be able to distinguish (between truth and falsehood), Thus, it is imperative that (the scholar) understands the machinations of the people, their deceptions, their cultural traditions and their habits because fatwa (religious rulings) change with the changing of time, place, culture and condition, and all of this is part of the religion of Allah.”- Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (D. 751 A.H.) quoted from: “Ii'laan al-Muwaqqi'een an Rabbil aalameen” vol. 4, p. 157

American Muslims need to realize that this is our country, and for indigenous American Muslims, and others who intend to stay here permanently, this is our homeland. We don't have a “back home” to go to. So we need to be certain that the teachings of Islam in this country are not tainted by anyone's political prejudices, cultural sensitivities, or ignorance about America and our way of life.  Granted, this is a difficult topic. Nevertheless, it is one that must be addressed if we have any hope from curbing the undercurrent of extremism that still germinates in the minds of some of our youth. As Muslim Americans, our first duty is to our Lord, and our number one priority is our own salvation.  As American Muslims, we have the God given right to look out after our own spiritual self-interests.


[1]We mention qualified teachers because unqualified teachers should refrain from teaching religion.

[2] Collected by Bukhari

[3] Mishkaat al-Masabeeh

22 Responses

  1. ItzPress

    Might as well copy and paste this as it is my own..

    I’ve heard this saying by Ibn Qayyim before, and I of course see it’s validity. It’s just that my confusion ensues from this; which or what kinds of rules *don’t* change? For example, I know attitudes towards workplace, ethics, and norms are subject to change due to their backbone being culture (i.e. staring is rude here, don’t stare, but in another culture where staring is not rude, it’s alright(?)), but what about something like the daily prayers, or attitudes towards sujud (or bowing), or of that sort? For example, maybe here the attitude towards sujud (or bowing) could be that since it’s not related to the culture here, reserve it for prayer only, but what if one were to look at a bow-heavy culture? Would all forms of bowing be prohibited? Would just a “ruku” or minor bow be allowable but an entire “sujud” not allowed (out of respect)? etc. In the end, my confusion is that since this is left off so vaguely (the fact that legal rulings change depending on the human condition in relation to a culture), is *everything* susceptible to change, or are certain things not? And if not, what doesn’t change with relation to legal ruling? Any input at all is valued.

    Hope the comment/question is clear s well.

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    • Inqiyaad

      The scholars, because they are inheritors of the Prophets, ‘inherit’ the knowledge given to the Prophets. They have never been and never will be given any special ‘mystical’ knowledge. Mystical, as it is understood by the wider society, implies some hidden or esoteric meaning. As far as the scripture is concerned the ‘mystic’ part ends at the Prophet’s door. Whatever we need to apply has been clearly explained and not hidden one bit by the Prophet sal Allahu ‘alahi wa sallam. Are we implying that Allah chose a random person over the Prophet to deliver ‘mystic’ knowledge to?

      The author by listing things that have ended on someone’s haram list does not clarify what his position is with regards to individual items. If anything, I see it as a tacit approval. Also, it does not prove in any way that people who disapproved of these items have done so on the basis of whimsical hatred of ‘American Culture’. Consider for example, gospel music and Surah: 8, Ayah: 35.

      “Their prayers at the Sacred House are nothing but whistling and clapping. Therefore, taste the punishment for your disbelief.”

      The list also hints toward the author’s lack of proficiency with the primary skill suggested by Ibn Al Qayyim, i.e, “familiarity with matters of command and prohibition.”

      From the Islamic perspective there is no hemispheric basis to morality. However, from the ‘western’ perspective and the ‘American’ perspective, there is hemispheric basis to morality. Only the west can be ‘moral’ enough to appreciate and value homosexuality, ‘art’ that mocks Prophets, and nudity (read freedom of expression), for example.

      “As Muslim Americans, our first duty is to our Lord, and our number one priority is our own salvation.” However, unfortunately, our efforts are sadly misdirected at making Islam ‘user friendly’ and prioritizing culture, and morphing Islam to suit culture. Rather we should start here, “So we need to be certain that the teachings of Islam in this country are not tainted by anyone’s political prejudices, cultural sensitivities…”

      P.S: 1. The author also manages to slip in a veiled ‘cause-effect relationship’ between extremism and eagerness to prioritize Islam over culture.

      2. What aspect of American culture is constant? Can we not define American Culture our way? Everybody else feels comfortable defining culture his or her own way. It’s just the Muslims trying to conform to culture.

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  2. Sudhir Mainkar

    Most of the Christians and Islamic religious Clerics strongly believe that their own religion is superior and it should be accepted by other faiths.This is a false belief and is leading to inter-religion hatred and fear..This belief in extreme form leads to terrorist activities. Assassination is an extreme form of Censorship.It is therefore the social and moral responsibility of the religious heads to promote message of brotherhood to their followers and not to issue Fatwas creating hatred.

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    • Inqiyaad

      Hi Sudhir,
      Thanks for commenting. It is the conviction of all Muslims and not just clerics that Islam is the only way of life acceptable to Allah, my Creator and your Creator. Of course, this is not acceptable to other people, who choose to worship other humans, or even stones and animals as gods. We are fine with them as long as we have conveyed the message that there is none worthy of worship except Allah (our Creator). Why do people insist that Muslims do not preach this message? Don’t you think a lot of problems will be solved if all of us just worshiped our Creator? Because, all Hindus and Christians, whom I have talked to, insist that there is only one God. But, I haven’t seen them emphasize worship to this one God. However, they are very offended when someone tells them to worship that one God in which they claim to believe. Will you help us increase brotherhood by praying just to our Creator?

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  3. Brudda from a Mudda

    Bismillah,

    As salaamu alaikum,

    Dear brother, before we can have an honest discussion about adapting fatwa to suit the context of American Muslims and their American culture we need to define what culture is, both as a general concept and specifically in regards to American culture.

    I offer this sample from merriam-webster online dictionary:
    1cul·ture
    noun \ˈkəl-chər\

    : the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

    : a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

    : a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

    After establishing the fundamental qualities that are shared by Americans and distinguishes American culture as a distinct culture we can intelligently apply the various fiqh tools at our disposal to produce culturally sensitive and appropriate fatwa.

    The word American culture is thrown around too loosely in lay and academic discussion. Based on the ideological foundation of the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and American Constitution, theoretically, America is set up to be a land that lacks a central unifying culture. By it’s very nature American culture is a mix of different groups that live (theoretically) in cooperation with one another under the law of the land which (theoretically) allows each group the maximum possible freedom to live how they see fit while safeguarding others’ right to do the same. We have Mexicans, Germans, Irish, Arabs, Asian, and so many other unique groups here with long histories and well defined (though not necessarily narrow) cultures that form niche communities, cultural centers away from their countries of origin. The vast majority of people in this country are immigrants from all over the place! So what then are those elements of American life and perspective that unify all these different communities and define American culture? Surely it’s not belief in freedom and observation of individual and communal rights (as if people have not believed in those ideas for ages!). Is it a love for celebrity worship, an infatuation with sports/entertainment, hyper-sexuality, mindless consumerism that defines American culture as a distinct monoculture? If these are the dominant qualities of American culture then surely these elements of culture should be shunned by Muslims in America (and elsewhere) vigorously! If these are not the qualities that define American culture, can you suggest some other qualities that are “typically American”?

    When we can take elements that are common to the people of America that can be used to define our culture (the way we can of the French or German or Chinese, for example) we often find that many of those elements are inherently incompatible with our aims and objectives as Muslims, which is a reason one finds so many scholars dropping “haram bombs” on basically anything American (or western, not uncommonly). It always boils down to intention for Muslims, and how our culture serves or sways us from our fundamental intentions is something we have to objectively reflect upon.

    I’ve generalized a bit with my assertions regarding celebrity worship etc as defining characteristics of American culture only for the sake of stimulating discussion about specific qualities that we can agree define American culture. No harm was intended by it, and I’m sure there are positive qualities people can mention that are “typically American” as well as negative qualities. The bottom line is that we need to have a clear idea of what American culture is before we start talking about applying appropriate cultural filters to our fatwa. Until we’ve established that, we’re all throwing around platitudes and emotional arguments that don’t change on-the ground, day-to-day realities that Muslims who were raised here or emigrated here struggle with. It would also be dishonest of us to move forward with the claims that we need an “American Islam” without first having a clear(er) idea of what it means to be an American in the light of one’s identity as a Muslim.

    May Allah grant us clarity and open for us a way.

    Allah bless you for your efforts. I look forward to hearing other’s thoughts! Please forgive me for mistakes made, and if there is any truth in what I have written it is from Allah.

    Wassalam

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  4. ummabdullah

    I’m surprised this article ended up on Muslim matters.

    I think if the author is looking for every muslim to follow specific fatawa that he considers moderate..he may be waiting a long time.

    The scholars have differences of opinion and they aren’t going to disappear because the evidence is there.

    Personally I don’t care how many shuyookh in America make it permissible to partake in halloween and birthdays..I won’t be partaking. Alhamdulillah my idea of fun or giving thanks is not dictated or limites by what society thinks it should be. And Alhamdulillah haven’t died of depression or isolation yet :-)

    Also to assert that many of these things have ended up on haram lists due to being associated with western culture is very odd. I wonder if the author has had a chance to live or reside overseas in the East? Does the author think family photos and birthdays are something western alone?

    Sports – who said sports is haram?

    birthdays – Thanksgiving – the hadith where the Prophet told companions that their two days of celebration from pre islam Is REPLACED with two days of Eid. Notice the days were NOT religious in nature.

    family photos- some scholars have opinion that taking pictures is haram. Others say digital or video is diff..if I have the right understanding. This is a legitimate difference of opinion and has nothing to do with east or west.

    decorating homes–scholars say decorating homes is haram?

    designer clothing-the east is firmly hooked onto designer clothing so im not sure how this point makes logical sense…?

    thikr beads-Some companions used to count with stones. How is this a western thing?

    wearing jeans- wearing jeans is haram in the west? Scholars come to the US and give fatawa saying jeans are haram?

    baby showers–About 9 years ago i asked ustadh yusuf Idris to ask a SALAFI scholar student of sheikh uthaymeen, shaykh shubaily about baby showers from the ma’had and he allowed baby showers. I doubt it gets stricter than that in the US. Baby showers aren’t “eids”..so again are there ppl in the US saying baby showers are haram and western?

    attending graduation ceremonies-?
    I need to see this fatwa so I don’t go away thinkinh this is a complete exxageration.

    saying what’s up brother to a stranger on the street–??

    I’m tired of typing now and the following look like either blown up exagerations or diff of opinion..

    When I got married I really took a conservative opinion and instead of ring I preferred necklace instead because in my ethnic culture traditionally there isn’t this concept of ring as far as I knew. When I moved overseas ha try telling an Egyptian woman she is copying the west by wearing a ring lol. They alll wear rings this is part of the Egyptian culture.

    being in a good mood during Christmas season, gospel music, wedding rings, visiting graves of relatives, bereavement practices, women entering masājid, loving one’s country, and a host of other things have ended up on the haram list of one scholar or another.

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  5. ummabdullah

    Yes I get the point of the article but it seems to be very poorly researched. And just because Muslims in th US are part of society there why this push to make evvverything halal as if considering some things rightfully Haram will make us look eastern and not accepting enough of western culture.

    With all due respect I do not buy this argument at all.

    The west is made up of tons of subcultures so really what we should work on first is perhaps our confidence.

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  6. ummabdullah

    Many people will surely go along with what this scholar or that scholar makes halal but I have faith many will continue to look to the substance or lack thereof in these new rulings that I’m hearing about ironically from muslim American scholars raised overseas. I’m sure there are others but this is how it reached me.

    I am under no pressure to make my Islam more palatable to my neighbors but I am under pressure to present it in the best genuine way I know how.

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  7. umabdullah

    http://imamluqman.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/the-islamic-ruling-regarding-celebrating-the-fourth-of-july-independence-day-by-shaykh-luqman-ahmad/?relatedposts_exclude=46

    I decided to visit the link posted at the beginning of this article. The above links to a post by the same brother who authored this post.

    With all due respect I as a complete layman can take apart that post. I cannot even believe it’s referred to as a ruling.

    Each person and website is surely free to post what they believe in. I am just shocked to see the standards of MuslimMatters gone to this level.

    After 5 years of living overseas I feel like horrible traffic is a very minute fitna compared to what some of us back home are exposed to in terms of deen and that too without realising.

    Seriously do we think that we also don’t view Islam through a very cultural American lense.

    Who cares if some saudi or azhari shuyookh make halal this or that independence day. What practicing upright ppl are following the fatawa coming out of some azhar scholars for whom the mb are equal to khawarij? Seriously? That just betrays a complete lack of knowledge about the Muslim world. And that’s quite odd given there’s a huge criticism of these shuyookh from overseas making things halal back home while they make things haram in America!

    I won’t waste my energy on laughing or crying.

    Differences of opinion aren’t really the issue. It’s the premise coupled with the very non academic way the topic is approached. Allah knows best.

    May Allah protect our deen and guide us to the truth. Ameen.

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    • saeed khan

      What a lame article. You’re right even a lay person can tear this article apart. May Allah protect us and keep us on guidance.

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  8. saeed khan

    These are deceiving times we live in. Every Muslim has an obligation to follow revelation and not their own desires. Haqq is clear from baatil. May Allah guide us and keep us on His deen and protect us from those who wish to divert us.

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    • rmirza

      I can’t help but agree with ummabdullaah and sa’eed khan above. This article does look poorly researched. I think shaykh uthman gave the article a name that was very general and he only discussed one specific issue: making sure the fatwa is applicable to the place one lives in.

      A fatwa has much more parameters than just that aspect. One, for example, has to be knowledgeable of the shari’ah, the maqaasid as shari’ah and what things are flexible
      (the length of someone’s beard, hijaab versus niqaab) versus what things are not that
      flexible (christmas, taking the kuffar as awliya over mu’mineen).

      So i think that the article title was a little too broad and that is why some of us readers were offended. With that said, i don’t agree with the approach of bringing up other articles (like independence day) to try to refute this article.

      Because independence day, while to some, is a religious differentiation from the kuffar…to others, it is a cultural holiday. And hence, one doesn’t have to speak out against it to show ‘how muslim’
      they are. I don’t personally endorse independence day but i dont consider myself more pious than other muslims who do for the sake of ‘appreciating the freedom they have in america’.

      ‘Abdur Rahman

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  9. Mustafa

    I really don’t know what planet the above commentators are residing on. I’ve been a convert studying and working for Islam since 1987. The vast majority of converts will leave the community after realizing they’ve been forgotten and abandoned by their immigrant “brothers and sisters”. I work in a community of over 100 converts, most of whom can’t stand being in the “masajid”. They’re tired of being left out of discussion, of having their pre-Islam tattoos pointed at, of having their needs swept under the rug after they’ve lost family and friends to enter Islam. The immigrant Muslims have done well for themselves, in a worldly sense, but have failed to bring Islam to America in any meaningful way. In da’wa, they are utterly inept. As Brothers and Sisters to converts, they don’t recognize basic rights, or have a basic sense of humanity. They have lost over 90% of their own children to the environment because they’re so out of touch with reality as parents. If articles like this aren’t respected, and are inanely ridiculed, the situation here will only continue to get worse.

    “Muslim scholars need to help break down barriers between the diverse Muslim peoples living here. That means that they have to get out and understand what’s going on in the land. Scholars of Islam have to take the added step whenever and wherever possible, to familiarize themselves with the common people, and the intricacies of American life and culture, about which they render judgments and opinions. ” – ABSOLUTELY

    “Some American Muslims find themselves apologizing for being born in this country of ours as if it were a curse. The average Muslim, especially the convert, who simply wants to worship his or her Lord, and live an Islamic lifestyle, is often left in an almost perpetual state of confusion. ” – AS A CONVERT WHO WORKS WITHIN A CONVERT COMMUNITY, I HAVE TO SAY THIS IS ABSOLUTELY CORRECT

    “Anti-American oratory has surreptitiously made its way into the modern canonical dialogue of Islam. Many American Muslims have been morally blackmailed into having to repudiate American culture in order to find acceptance as Muslims by immigrant scholars. Even today, rhetoric from a minority of Muslim scholars and some imams are replete with anti-American invectives or rallying cries against so called ‘western culture’ or values. ” – ALL THE TIME, EVERY MASJID I ATTEND, AND THE DINNER-TABLE TALK OF ARABS AND PAKISTANIS. Particularly offensive, given that the Arabs have completely lost connection to Islam, and the Pakistanis have a horrible sensitivity to having their harshness and lack of humanity mentioned.

    This article is spot on, and anyone actually working for Islam in America knows this. It isn’t an article about making haram halal. Whoever thinks that is unable to read.

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    • rmirza

      Mustafa,

      You are a convert speaking. You haven’t grown up as a muslim like me, sa’eed and ummabdullah above. Thats why we are at different wavelengths than you.

      No one is disagreeing on the shaykh’s general points of making islam ‘user-friendly’ and so on. But your experience with ‘some arabs’ and ‘some pakstanis’ is once again from a convert lense.

      If you were born a muslim and you saw this article from our viewpoint, then i think you could relate. At the same time, i do disagree with ummabdullah on independence day.

      The point comes down to culture versus religion. If it is religion oriented, then we don’t accept it. But if it is american culture that does not contradict religion, then we have no issue with that.

      That is why we have a big problem with Christmas but not as much of a problem with birthdays. Allaah knows best.

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    • Samy Merchant

      I totally agree. American Muslims scholars should be required to take college level Cultural Anthropology classes and learn concepts like cultural consonance and disonance, and how to see things from a cross-cultural perspective. Islam is more than theology and Fiqh!

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  10. O H

    Am I the only one concerned about some recent posts and articles appearing at Muslimmatters. Differences of opinion in the deen are permissible within certain guidelines but some of the recent content is way beyond this. The problem is unqualified people discussing critical issues of the deen and many authors as well as those commenting on the articles maybe guilty of this. I maybe guilty of this at times too! Some recent things on MM have really disappointed me :(. By the way this is just a general statement and I do not intend to launch a personal attack on Imam Luqman-May Allaah reward him for his efforts.
    Freedom of speech and allowing all sorts of articles to be posted which are viewed by thousands globally on such big platforms maybe a source of fitna in certain cases if the filters and criteria of article selection is not well set.

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  11. Naajiyah Jannah

    This article left me sitting in awe. I’m an American who could care less about which country I reside.The Qur’an and sunnah will be put into practice by me in shaa Allah and should be by every muslim regardless of the country in which they reside or the customs of that country.

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  12. Samy Merchant

    Very nice article. I would also say that cultural baggage is really damaging to Islamic propogation in the West. For example, wearing a thowb, shalwar khamis, khamis, skull cap etc in the US is like a slap in the face to the average non-Muslim American.Yes, Muslims are allowed to dress in foreign cultural attire, but it is best that we do not take that concession! Better to dress like Americans (pant/shirt) and show them that Islam is the ONLY “religion” in the world that does NOT have a particular dress; Islam is 100% user friendly! In fact, dressing like the locals is ESSENTIAL for message communication (Cultural consonance vs cultural disonance)

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