Friday, November 13, 2009

Defining Cultural and Religious Identity

I recently returned from the Common Ground conference.  I am planning on posting more about the conference later, but Common Ground Consultants are a group who advocate that Muslims who come to Christ should retain their identity as Muslims, the so called "insider movement."  They emphasize incarnational movements to Christ within the fabric of Islam. 

Here is the big question: Should a Muslim who follows Jesus remain a Muslim?  How you answer that question depends greatly on your meaning of the word "Muslim."  And part of the the way you understand Muslim depends on your definition of identity.  Here is how the July-Aug 2008 edition of Mission Frontiers defines Muslims as a sociorelious category (pg. 19):
From a sociological perspective, Muslims are people who have a social identity as members of a traditionally Muslim community. They may be religiously observant or secularly nominal, but they are in the same socioreligious group, that of Muslims. For many Muslims, being a Muslim is an inseparable part of their self-identity, their background, their family, their community, and their cultural heritage, regardless of what they actually believe about God. It is this everyday sociological sense of the term “Muslim” that is used in what follows.
So this definition appears to say that "religious identity" and "cultural identity" are inseparable.  Certainly there is a lot of overlap, but is it possible to distinguish between the two?  How can one be united with Christ spiritually and have a religious identity (i.e. not a cultural identity) as a Muslim? (It is highly probably that I am missing the point somewhere.)

I really need YOUR HELP on this.  In the comments section of this post, please define
1. cultural identity, and
2. religious identity.

And if these two are inseparable, then please explain why.  Or are there other categories we should also define first?


abd-al-masloob said...

I'm afraid that this already complex question is in need of further definition of terms.

Are we talking about self-identity or the community-assigned identity? The question of whether or not social and religious identity can be separated depends on which you are talking about and on the community context.

I think that in an individual MBB's mind, and even in a community of MBBs it may very well be possible for them to separate cultural practices, social norms, and even many religious forms (e.g. salat) from devotion to Mohamed as God's final and authoritative prophet and from the Qur'an as God's final and authoritative word. So I’m suggesting that with regard to self-identity it may be possible to consider one’s self both culturally Muslim AND fully submitted to Christ and belonging to His wider Body. So with regard to self-identity separating cultural and religious identity may be possible to some degree.

This distinction may also be possible with community-assigned identity in some contexts, but it all depends on how the community answers the question, “What does it mean to be a Muslim?”. The percentage of nominal Muslims, the presence or absence of other ethnic/religious groups in the area, the level of indoctrination in Islamic theology, proficiency in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, are a few of the factors that determine the preciseness with which the term “Muslim” is defined and its relationship to religious belief and practice in a given community.

On one end of the spectrum are former Soviet countries in Asia where Turkic languages are prevalent, there is little religious training, and where most have never read the Qur’an. The other extreme are countries on the Arabian Peninsula where most educated people can and do read the Qur’an extensively, there is compulsory religious education in the schools, and people have been indoctrinated heavily in both Islamic theology and in anti-Christian polemics. In contexts such as the first category, Muslim identity is defined loosely; often more on a socio-cultural basis, but in the second category, the term is usually closely associated with complete submission to the will of God as defined exclusively by Mohamed’s teaching in the Qur’an and by his example as recorded in the Hadiths. In the first context the possibility of a separation between community-assigned religious identity and social identity seems very possible. In the latter context it would seem unlikely, and regardless of self-identity, one who openly confesses faith in Jesus probably will not be viewed as a Muslim by those outside of the faith community regardless of the level of conformity to social/cultural norms. Those of us who are practitioners can evaluate our context by asking our friends questions like, “What does the term ‘Muslim’ mean to you? What makes someone a Muslim?” And looking for common elements included in the replies.

It is important in light of the self vs. community-assigned identity distinction to ask, “Which is more important?”. I would argue that in communal cultures (which would include most Muslim contexts) community-assigned identity is decisive. This is interesting given that most of the discussion on contextualization (e.g. C1-5 spectrum, the insider movement) appears to focus more on self-identity.

For further reading on the importance of community-assigned identity, I recommend Gary Corwin’s article in the January 2008 issue of EMQ, Issues of Identity in a Muslim Context: Common Ground?.

Warrick Farah said...

Thanks abd-al-masloob, that was a very insightful post. Corwins article is a good reference: Issues of Identity in a Muslim Context: Common Ground?

I would agree with you that community assigned identity is more important in areas of high identity, hign practice where the term "Muslim" exclusivley identifies you with Mohammed (and Jesus' irrelevance).

If the point of contextualization is to convey the proper meaning with the words we choose, then it seems ironic that the Insider Movement would advocate that MBBs self-identify as "Muslims" even though that term (for an MBB) is rejected by high practice, high identity Muslims.

At this point I am wondering how much of the Insider Movement is another way of importing post-modern Western culture?

Timothy said...

If the point of contextualization is to convey the proper meaning with the words we choose, then it seems ironic that the Insider Movement would advocate that MBBs self-identify as "Muslims" even though that term (for an MBB) is rejected by high practice, high identity Muslims.

Contextualization is not synonymous with accomodationist ministry. I would say that Abuna Zakaria Butros is highly contextual but rejectionist in his philosophy of ministry. He is contextual in that he communicates in a way in which his audience understands, he is rejectionist in that he encourages conversion from Islamic religion/society to Coptic religion/society.

Warrick Farah said...

Ok so I will try to define cultural and religious identity-

Cultural Identity: a person's self-affiliation or categorization by others as a member of a group wherein that group is defined by the integration of beliefs, systems, and values shared which are expressed by means of patterns of behavior, signs, and products (adapted from Hiebert and Wikipedia).

Religious Identity: an affiliation with members of group who share a common allegiance of faith, where that faith is a trusting hope of a transcendent reality (adapted from Wikipedia).

Cultural Identity is a byproduct of where I am from and who I hang out with, and Religious Identity is an association that is either self-chosen or given by God that elucidates to others where my ultimate faith allegiance lies.

The reason this distinguishing between the two identities is difficult is because of the group/collective worldviews of the lands most Muslims live in- those identities are often one and the same or blurred together.

In the New Testament, those who have faith in Jesus Christ are encouraged/commanded/allowed to remain in their Cultural Identity, but are given from God a new Religious Identity as members of the Body of Christ.

So when we say a Muslim can remain a Muslim and follow Jesus, it all depends on how Islam is viewed by that cultural group. If the word "Muslim" identifies one's ultimate faith allegiance with Mohammed, then a believer cannot with integrity remain a Muslim. Furthermore, in that instance it could damage the witness of the believer and possibly be akin to idolatry.