In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Nations can be defined as a collection of people who share a common set of values and follow similar practices. Cultures are related to those sets of practices. Ideally, a culture encourages practices that honor a nation’s set of values and the people usually precede the formation of a nation.
However, for Ibrahim, the values and culture came first and he was the nation of one man. The values that Ibrahim articulated and the set of practices through which he honored those values established the formation of a new nation:
إِنَّ إِبْرَاهِيمَ كَانَ أُمَّةً قَانِتًا لِّلَّهِ حَنِيفًا وَلَمْ يَكُ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Verily, Ibrahim was a nation, devoutly obedient to Allah, inclining toward truth, and he was not of those who associate others with Allah.
Surat An-Nahl 16:120
The way of Ibrahim was so distinct that God prescribed it for all mankind; it started with values and practices and was awaiting the people who would follow. After Ibrahim, all the prophets who were sent by God came from his decedents.
This decree of God was misunderstood by many people to be aimed at honoring a group of humans over others, whereas it was directed toward building a nation following Ibrahim method by ensuring a group of people, his decedents, would always maintain the values and culture of Ibrahim. This is evident as God orders Prophet Muhammad, a decedent of Ibrahim, to follow the way of Ibrahim in his collective approach including his values, culture, and nation:
ثُمَّ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ أَنِ اتَّبِعْ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Then We revealed to you to follow the religion of Ibrahim, inclining toward truth, and he was not of those who associate with Allah.
Surat An-Nahl 16:123
The formation of the nation of Ibrahim in his time took the shape of a complete nation, including a defined culture and a name, but without followers:
وَجَاهِدُوا فِي اللَّهِ حَقَّ جِهَادِهِ ۚ هُوَ اجْتَبَاكُمْ وَمَا جَعَلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ مِنْ حَرَجٍ ۚ مِّلَّةَ أَبِيكُمْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ۚ هُوَ سَمَّاكُمُ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مِن قَبْلُ وَفِي هَٰذَا لِيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْكُمْ وَتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ ۚ فَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِاللَّهِ هُوَ مَوْلَاكُمْ ۖ فَنِعْمَ الْمَوْلَىٰ وَنِعْمَ النَّصِيرُ
Strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. It is the religion of your father, Ibrahim. Allah named you Muslims before and in this revelation that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give charity and hold fast to Allah. He is your protector, and excellent is the protector and excellent is the helper.
Surat Al-Hajj 22:78
Muslims (those who submit to God) was the name that Ibrahim choose for his nation and compassion was his culture, as demonstrated when God says the path of Ibrahim is not to make the matter of this nation difficult in practicing its faith.
Although cultures initially start by setting up practices to honor a nation’s values, those practices can grow distant over time from the values they once served. This distance is natural as practices change under new circumstances which might be very different from when the values were originally accepted. Change is the only constant in the circumstances of humanity and cultures are predisposed to grow distant from the values they serve unless they are continuously renewed.
When values and cultures collide
Given that cultures initially form as a set of practices related to accepted values, one would think that values always take precedence. However, practices and cultures are quiet visible while values are often subtle. This disparity between the nature of values and practices ensures that a clash between both is inevitable.
As circumstances change and time progresses, the same practices may not serve the intended values any longer. At the same time, nations become proud of their heritage more for their culture than for their values. For this reason, God made it clear that the values of Ibrahim’s nation shall always take precedence over any practice or culture:
قُلْ إِنَّنِي هَدَانِي رَبِّي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ دِينًا قِيَمًا مِّلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۚ وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Say: Verily, my Lord has guided me to a straight path, an upright religion, the way of Ibrahim, inclining toward truth. And he was not among those who associated others with Allah.
Surat Al-An’am 6:161
However, this is not the common occurrence among humanity. After all, culture is visible, people can relate to it, and it can easily identify a person relative to others. In other words, cultures are great for giving an easy sense of belonging. Values, on the other hand, require continuous soul searching, a process that may give a sense of uneasiness.
God has mentioned explicitly in the Quran that a major roadblock to understanding monotheism is culture:
وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمْ تَعَالَوْا إِلَىٰ مَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ وَإِلَى الرَّسُولِ قَالُوا حَسْبُنَا مَا وَجَدْنَا عَلَيْهِ آبَاءَنَا ۚ أَوَلَوْ كَانَ آبَاؤُهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَهْتَدُونَ
When it is said to them, “Come to what God has revealed and to the Messenger,” they say, “Sufficient for us is that upon which we found our fathers.” Even though their fathers knew nothing, nor were they guided?
Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:104
An interesting observation is that change in the Quran, relative to the nation of Ibrahim, is addressed in two forms: one desirable and the other not. Change in cultures and practices that restores the values of monotheism (outward change) is encouraged and required. In contrast, change in the values of monotheism (inward change) is forbidden:
ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ لَمْ يَكُ مُغَيِّرًا نِّعْمَةً أَنْعَمَهَا عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۙ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
That is because God would not change a favor which He had bestowed upon a people until they change what is within themselves. Verily, God is hearing and knowing.
Surat Al-Anfal 8:53
The formation of cultures is not restricted to nations. It seems to appear in every activity that involves a group of humans whether it is a company, organization, community, or institution.
In his famous book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen was on a mission to answer an important business question. Large technology companies are often disrupted by smaller ones with less resources or experience. His research concluded with a profound observation: a company’s competitive advantage lies in its values first, then its organizational culture, and finally its resources. Responding to a challenge from a smaller competitor often requires a change in the company’s culture to renew its values in a new set of practices which better respond to the new challenge, and this is exceptionally difficult.
Moreover, the company in this case is required to first understand its values. Whereas values are the most important, followed by culture and resources, the order is switched in terms of visibility. Resources are quantifiable and culture is observable, yet values by contrast are hidden, abstract, and very subtle. As a result, organizations tend to respond inefficiently to challenges by focusing on what is outwardly visible, a reversal of the order of priorities. This observation in business is related to human nature and can be extended to any activity that involves a formation of a culture.
The method of Ibrahim was formulated on the concept that God cannot be seen. In other words, his priorities were not ordered based upon their visibility, but rather based upon their impact and importance. Values are at the top of the list of priorities. Nevertheless, what happens to the nation of Ibrahim if people start to give precedence to culture over values?
When cultures takes precedence
The early generations of human beings after Adam were of the same culture and belonged to the same nation. Their culture was built upon the values of Adam who embraced monotheism. However, over time this culture started to grow distant from the original values upon which it was built and God sent messengers to address this:
كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ النَّبِيِّينَ مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ وَأَنزَلَ مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ لِيَحْكُمَ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ فِيمَا اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ ۚ وَمَا اخْتَلَفَ فِيهِ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ أُوتُوهُ مِن بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَتْهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ بَغْيًا بَيْنَهُمْ ۖ فَهَدَى اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِمَا اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ مِنَ الْحَقِّ بِإِذْنِهِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَهْدِي مَن يَشَاءُ إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
Mankind was one nation, then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between people concerning that in which they differed. None differed over the Scripture except those who were given it, after the clear proofs came to them, out of jealous animosity among themselves. Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission, for Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:213
This verse describes the natural tendency of cultures to outlive their initial values if they are not continuously renewed. So what happens if cultures are not reformed to honor their values?
God issues a stark warning to us not to let this happen. As practices become more and more decoupled from the values they originally served, maintaining them becomes a matter of convenience that follows subjective selection. Subjectivity naturally results in differences and, when mixed with religion, leads to the formation of cults and sects:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ فَرَّقُوا دِينَهُمْ وَكَانُوا شِيَعًا لَّسْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ ۚ إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُمْ إِلَى اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ
Verily, those who have divided their religion and become sects, you have nothing to do with them in any way. Their affair is left to Allah, then He will inform them about what they used to do.
Surat Al-An’am 6:159
When this happens, God orders us to immediately and completely disassociate with any approach that gives precedence to cultures over values. Furthermore, he orders us to restore the values of Ibrahim that are based on monotheism.
Nations can only prosper if their culture is continuously adapted to serve their values. Values are fixed and constant in nature, while cultures are transient and ephemeral. Giving precedence to temporal matters over what is timeless will risk making a nation irrelevant.
This is part of the dilemma Muslims are facing today. Complex modern issues involving many factors are reduced to the ruling of lawful (halal) and unlawful (haram), often over simplifying complicated matters which deserve to be fully explored from a variety of perspectives. The reality is that these modern issues involve a compromise between conflicting values and a definitive ruling in Islamic law is difficult to obtain.
A more compelling approach is to ask what values are at stake in the issues under discussion and how those values can best be served. Such thinking is not at all foreign to the Islamic tradition. For example, the classical Muslim jurist Ibn Al-Qayyim (d. 1350 CE/751 AH) believed the values or “spirit” of the law (maqasid ash-sharia) should take precedence over the letter of the law. He wrote:
فَإِنَّ الشَّرِيعَةَ مَبْنَاهَا وَأَسَاسُهَا عَلَى الْحِكَمِ وَمَصَالِحِ الْعِبَادِ فِي الْمَعَاشِ وَالْمَعَادِ وَهِيَ عَدْلٌ كُلُّهَا وَرَحْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا وَمَصَالِحُ كُلُّهَا وَحِكْمَةٌ كُلُّهَا فَكُلُّ مَسْأَلَةٍ خَرَجَتْ عَنْ الْعَدْلِ إلَى الْجَوْرِ وَعَنْ الرَّحْمَةِ إلَى ضِدِّهَا وَعَنْ الْمَصْلَحَةِ إلَى الْمَفْسَدَةِ وَعَنْ الْحِكْمَةِ إلَى الْبَعْثِ فَلَيْسَتْ مِنْ الشَّرِيعَةِ وَإِنْ أُدْخِلَتْ فِيهَا بِالتَّأْوِيلِ
Indeed, the law is founded upon wisdom and welfare for people in this life and the Hereafter. In its entirety it is justice, mercy, benefit, and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, benefit for corruption, and wisdom for foolishness is not a part of the law even if it was introduced into it by an interpretation.
Iʻlām al-muwaqqiʻīn ʻan Rabb al-ʻĀlamīn 11
For many modern issues our discussion should be directed toward the realization of our values such as mercy, justice, reason, and welfare instead of the usual superficial approaches. This is the way of Ibrahim, after all, to give precedence to values over culture.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.