PREAMBLE: WHY DOING WHAT?
The aim of this article is to provide series of teachings on why Muslims do certain things. Take for instance wearing of caps by men and other dress codes for both men and women. Today such codes are viewed by some Christians (and many Muslims) as Islamic. It is important to distinguish between Islam and Culture. The purpose is to provide Christians with a positive attitude towards Muslims.
There is a relationship between culture and Religion. Man is born to a culture before he is made aware of religion. Christianity has a Jewish cultural background, Islam has an Arab background. Similarly, African Traditional Religion, Buddhism etc. all have cultural backgrounds. These cultures affect the way adherents of these Religions behave, dress and interact socially. Every culture has good and bad sides. Critics of a particular culture might not see anything good from the culture they criticize; however culture is neither, totally good nor totally bad.
There are practices that are adopted today by adherents to certain religions in various places that have little or nothing to do with religion. Notwithstanding, such practices have gained national or regional acceptance. The origins of such practices are unknown to many people. They are given religious significance (without necessarily any theological definition) but in the real sense, they have more of cultural inclination than religious. It is right to trace some of these practices in Northern Nigeria and how they shape Christian-Muslim understandings of each other.
When I was a Muslim, I observed some of these practices without asking their origin or meaning – or even their significance. These were less important as long as I saw my parents and other Muslims observing them too. This gives birth to this thought of “why doing what”?
The danger with interrelation between culture and religion is when it became syncretism. Every African had his/her cultural backgrounds as well as religious consciousness before the coming of both Islam and Christianity. (Northern Nigeria, and Kaduna in particular, were not exceptions). Since the dominant religions of this region and Islam and Christianity in their order of arrival in the region, the focus will be in practices that might have been cultural but are now adopted as religious in both Islam and Christianity. Some of these practices include: dressing, eating with hands, sitting posture etc.
In both Islamic and Christian faiths, men and women each have patterns of dressing. Also culturally, people have particular dress meant for men as well as for women as it has been the pattern with Islam. Conversion
should have had no intention of pulling a convert out of their culture. Christian conversion from traditional African Religion was often contrary to this. The process of baptism was the first step at which converts were stripped of their cultural dress and issued with shorts, white shirt and sandals. This was the missionaries’ way of dressing to cope up with the hot weather of the region. It was cultural, with no significance to their faith – nor even their way of dressing before they came to Africa! The emphasis on Muslim converts was a modest way of dressing which is what the Bible recommends for both sexes (1st Timothy 2:9) The modest dressing with decency and propriety here does not forbid covering the body or appearing in a particular dress. Even culturally, there are dress codes specified for men and for women. The point I want to make here is more of the dressing that carries Islamic and Christian image or inclination. Before the coming of both faiths, Africans had different dress codes for both men and women. Christianity imposed the western way upon Christian converts while Islam accommodated the African with their way of dressing.
The question is: does it actually change anything in the mind of the one who dresses like a Muslim (which is more of African plus Arab)? Does one’s faith have anything to do with dress? Is non-western dressing a compromise of the good? My personal answer to all of these questions is “NO”!
In reality, modest dressing simply means covering our nakedness or dressing in a way that one may not be a snare to someone.
Conclusively, the ways we dress have little to reveal of our faith but more of our culture.
Before the coming of the western missionaries, the African people ate with their hands – probably because they never knew about spoons or had any access to such implements. When they were introduced to the use of spoons, only those who had the means to acquire them used it. Another factor was only those who identified with the West completely felt the need for change from the use of hands to the use of spoons. However, carved wooden spoons were used as an alternative for the aged.
My father told me when I was younger that using our hands to eat added honor to the food and to the giver of the food and was a means of blessing. What I was not sure of was the assertion that the prophet’s peace would be upon him who ate with hands. I suggest that whatever was used in the days of the prophet had more to do with the scientific and technological development of that era. It also had to do with what parents had passed on to their wards.
Eating with bare hands was not easy for the white missionaries who were already hot and saw our continent as dirty, therefore they needed a way to reduce the risk of contracting diseases such as diarrhea and cholera since they were already struggling with malaria fever as a result of mosquito bites.
The kind of food also determines what will be used in eating. For instance what is popularly known as pounded yam demands the use of hands or fork, knife and spoon for gbagyi people whose fufu (tuwo) use to be hard, it is not easy to use a table knife (which most families cannot afford).
I was taught in an Islamic school (though I do not know how true this is) that when we eat with hands we attract blessings. Of course if this is true (everyone needs blessing) no one will blame Muslims in Northern Nigeria for eating with hands.
Another issue I am not quite sure about is if eating with bare hands is Islamic. I was in Dubai International Airport, where I met some African Muslims Arabs and an Asian Muslim who were returning from pilgrimage in 2006. Despite the availability of cutlery available in the restaurants, they ignored them and ate most of their meals with bare hands.
However if the assertion above is true islamically that eating with bare hands earns or attracts blessing because it was a sunnah observance by prophet Mohammed (peace be upon Him) no Muslim from every part of the earth as long as we professed the faith will fail to do so.
For me what we use for eating does not have or may have little or nothing at all to do with our faith. Two important things here are; eat the food and stay healthy. How this is done may not be too significant in the north. When one attended a Muslim gathering around early 1980’s in the north, he may not be offered any spoon even if rice was the meal. But today, they may be provided with the alternatives of a spoon and a bowl of water. Here one will be free to choose either to use hands (wash hands before and after the meal) or use spoon and be free from the washing.
The unfortunate aspect of it is, today many Muslims as well as Christians alike have never bothered to find out why one eats with hands and another eats with a spoon. Instead they “religiolised” the action. Seeing eating with hands as Islamic while with spoon as Christian (because spoons first came from the western world).
This is easier to comprehend, since we sit on what facilities are available. However, most Christians find it uncomfortable to sit on mats, while some Muslims offer mats as a mark of cultural identity. On the other hand, some offer mats to their guests because they do not have the modern facilities. Again, some of those modern sitting facilities or ideas of making them came from the West. Culturally, the Northern man will build a mud side stool by the wall of the room or put big stores or logs of wood by the walls of their rooms. Any guest will be offered such a place to sit on. For the Hausa, Fulani Muslims in the north, as a mark or sign of honour, a mat is offered. Of course when a mat is offered there is no option but to sit with legs crossed. Certainly no one can sit comfortably without first removing his/her shoes – even if one does not mind to dirty the mat. (We shall mention removing shoes later)
It may be right to conclude that how we sit is determined by the facilities offered. This also has some cultural connotation. The first time I visited my mother with my wife before we got married, this was new to me when we go were offered a mat, but my wife found it strange to fold her legs.
However, this does not matter since it may not alter the purpose of the visit or the message to be passed. But our attitude towards the people we are visiting will determine their response to the message we are seeking to convey.
The most important thing is to ensure that the purpose of our visit is not defeated simply because of the kind of seat one is offered. It will be wise to ask why doing what? than to infer any religious significance.