Tradition and ‘Cultural Appropriation’

Pictured: Great Mosque of Xi’an, China

‘Appropriation’. The term refers to taking something for one’s own use, usually without first obtaining permission from whomever the thing in question ‘belongs’ to.

Recently, on Twitter, the conversation surrounding the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ would appear to have been re-ignited: this time, from certain (online-presented) corners of the Muslim world. White reverts* being accused of the crime, as a result of, for example, wearing thobes to the masjid.

            These are just my own personal views on the subject, but frankly I think that such accusations are absurd. I find it especially uncomfortable – ridiculous – that some individuals are childish enough to treat individual white people as though they are guilty for some of their ancestors’, perhaps, misdeeds.

Firstly, in Islam, we are reminded (through the words of the Qur’an) that those who have lived and passed on have lived and passed on: the people who are alive today “will not be asked about what they used to do.”

“That is a nation which has passed on. It will have [the consequence of] what it earned, and you will have what you have earned. And you will not be asked about what they used to do.” [Qur’an, (2:141)]

Accusing somebody of ‘fetishising’ a ‘culture’, because they have donned a scarf or a dress or a coat or something that tends to be associated with that ‘culture’ is quite unfair, and it would appear to be rooted in a mentality that is quite… ahistorical. This attempted ‘reification’ of culture; this (quite modern) idea that ‘nations’ and ‘cultures’ are these solid, solidly consistent, entities. That these food items, artistic tendencies, clothing styles ‘belong’ to these cultures; those ones ‘belong’ to those.

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.” [Qur’an, (49:13)]

There is a clear difference between mocking what is associated with a group of people, and with appreciating something that may be common among them. ‘Blackface’ belongs to the former category. A white revert wearing a Moroccan-style thobe… is, most likely, of the latter.

The Muslim idea is that every human being in existence had been born of, by Allah’s decree, a single male, and a single female: Adam and Eve. Every single group of people – every nation, every tribe – had eventuated as a result of this primal partnership. We were made into various “nations and tribes”, in order to recognise one another; in order to learn from one another; in order to interact and converse with one another.

In conversations between people, we become inspired by what others do. We learn from them. We often proceed to (sometimes subconsciously) imitate what we like, of them. Some of the things they may say; some of the ‘life hacks’ that they may swear by; some elements of their clothing styles.

And this phenomenon of conversation and exchange is precisely what takes place on the macro level, also. Like the way that ‘Karak chai’ – a cardamom tea beverage that is extremely popular across the Arab world – had come about as a result of South Asian expats drinking their masala chai in the Khaleeji nations. ‘Vimto’, also, a drink commonly associated with ‘Pakistani culture’, apparently (as I learned this week) had actually originated in Manchester, England. What we, here in the West, refer to as night robes (or, as ‘housecoats’) had actually been inspired by robes that are commonly worn in ‘East Asian cultures’. Things – and new styles, developed ways of doing things – come about as a result of being inspired by other things; through people’s, and nations’, and tribes’, interactions with one another.

The vast collection of stories that make up human history. Some of these subtle tales find themselves woven into our languages. Another random example: the word ‘camiseta’ in Spanish, which means ‘shirt’. ‘Shirt’ in Arabic is ‘قميص’ (‘qamees’). In Urdu, one of the words for ‘shirt’ is ‘kameez’. And then, in Bengali, we also say ‘kameez’. Fascinatingly, the word ‘camisia’ is ‘shirt’ in Late Latin. Awesome sauce. The links between parts of Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Nations and tribes, getting to know one another: through trade, through friendships, through marriage, (through bloody wars). Taking on the things they have liked, of one another.

Tea, also. Tea ‘is’ Indian, and it is Chinese. British, and Arab. ‘Tea’ is ‘té’ en español, ‘te’ in Danish, and ‘tee’ in Afrikaans. ‘Chai’ in Hindi; ‘shai’ in Arabic; ‘cha’ (or ‘sa’) in Bangla; ‘tsaa’ in Tagalog. The result of different nations and tribes, coming to know [parts of] one another. Sharing tea; sharing words, and more.

Am I ‘appropriating’ – taking something that is not mine, and without permission from whomever it ‘belongs’ to, if, say, I wear the clothes I had bought while on holiday in Turkey? Am I ‘appropriating’ if I enjoy some mint tea in a ‘Moroccan-style’ cup? What if I had a bag with some Japanese floral artwork on it? If no, then would the rules have to somehow be different for me, if, say, I were white?

Is ‘cultural appropriation’ only a thing of clothes? Or is it meant to extend to other things – like food, recreational activities and art – also?

Human personalities are certainly not solid, reified entities that are set in stone. As time goes on, we are ever-changing, ever-learning and -developing. The same thing is true for what humans are on larger scales: nations, tribes, societies, ‘cultures’.

Identities are living, breathing things, almost. [‘Culture’ is defined as ‘the complete way of life of a particular group of people’, and so therefore:] Our ‘cultures’: micro (e.g. the nuclear families that we belong to) and macro (e.g. ‘Desi culture’). We are theirs, and they are ours, and none of it is set in stone! We, past and present (and ‘future’) are constantly in active conversation with, affecting, one another.

I know that I, for instance, as a second-generation Bengali (Sylheti) immigrant, here in East London do not speak, nor think, nor even eat, the same (things) as my grandmother does. So what is ‘Bengali culture’, then? Well, it is my lived – living – experience, and it is also her own; it is millions of others’, too. It is the age-old traditions that we accept and follow, and it is also the things we change, and/or introduce, as a result of our interactions, our conversations, with various other people(s).

What is important, for us, is our conscious adherence to Objective Morality. Everything else is not really set in stone. There is so much room for discovery, and for creativity, and for individuality; for learning, inspiration, and development. [Islam is not ‘the Arab man’s religion’. You can keep whatever is yours, granted it fits into Islam’s moral frameworks, and be 100% Muslim. If you are a revert, you can keep your name, also!]

Some white British Muslims, perhaps, like to wear thobes sometimes, and classic tweed jackets at other times. Some Bengalis love the taste of ‘Korean-style’ chicken; find it so fascinating that some Bengalis have the (generally-associated-with-Portuguese-people) surname ‘Pereira’, as a result of certain historical interactions between the two places, and so on.

Tres cool, tres cool indeed. And instead of closing our eyes to these truths, and defensively seeking to present our identities as being solid, untouchable entities that somehow ‘belong’ to us and only us (probably out of insecurity, fear of losing them, somehow), perhaps we ought to act more in line with our belief that… everything in existence is from Allah. Some things we do, we have learnt from what our ancestors have done, perhaps for centuries. And some things we do are newer.

(So let the man wear his jubbah and Converses to the masjid in peace!)

“This story has not happened before. […]

Let the future begin.

Anne Carson

*We tend to use the term ‘revert’ to describe people who have come to Islam from other faiths. This is because we believe that every human being is born upon Fitrah – the innate disposition – naturally, as a Pure Monotheist.

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

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