Islam as a Cultural Identity

In a new game of identity politics, non-religious people who only culturally identify with a religion are speaking up. Pakistani-Canadian ex-Muslim, Ali Rizvi, recently published a book called ‘The Atheist Muslim’ in which he describes his journey out of Islam into atheism, and what the seemingly oxymoron title of the book means. The term ‘atheist Muslim’ applies to someone who identifies with Islam only from a cultural perspective; being raised by Muslim parents, celebrating Eid or Ramadan without believing in the superstitions from which they originate, and so forth. Their identification is not on the basis of belief, but a community that was shaped up by that religion.

Islam is not a race, and hatred towards Muslims is not racism. Apart from the fact that it’s purely an ideology, assuming that Muslims all belong to a certain race, the Arab race as it is often thought, is wrong. In fact, Indonesia makes up 13.1% of the total Muslim population, a percentage higher than any other country. But in this sense, “Muslim” goes beyond the limits of mere religion. It even becomes genetic. Therefore, one’s identification as a cultural Muslim, as in being Muslim only by heritage without a belief in god, provides the license for the association between Islam and race, and hence allowing for an almost-legitimate use of the word racism.  So when those who are Muslims only in the cultural heritage sense make Islam part of their personal identity, Muslims become an ethno-religious group.

To be clear, it’s not the atheists from Muslim backgrounds who pose a problem, it’s the atheists who kept their identification as Muslims even after leaving the faith. The problem with people who identify as that is that criticism that was originally of an ideology and the people who practice it becomes one of an ethnicity. Criticism of an ideology becomes conflated with criticism of a people (even more for those who already conflate the two together.) The tendency to interpret an attack on an ideology as a personal attack is fast becoming common not just for moderate Muslims, but atheists, non-religious people, and Arabs in general, who are Muslims only by heritage, which in turn blurs the line between criticizing a religion and an ethnicity.

Muslims in different parts of the world have different traditions, and therefore it’s the location of the Muslims that determines what their traditions are. Some religious traditions have common origins, such as those that originate from the teachings of the Qur’an or the Hadith, but it is evident that other traditions differ according to the local culture. Yes, there are shared traditions all over the globe such as Ramadan and Eid, but in the bigger picture, the daily customs differ according to the society that accepted Islam. For example, in Islamic civilizations in West Africa, it is common that after greeting someone, you put their hand to your head.

You might wonder, what about the other cultural practices in Islam like animal sacrifice? Or pilgrimage? It also seems rather reductionist for an Arab to say that they are culturally Muslim. If they are culturally anything, it’s the belief systems of the Himyarite Kingdom and Qahtanite, as well as Arab paganism, and the spiritual affinities of the Quraysh. Hell, even Jewish and Christian cultures. All these cultures did so much to shape up the cultural history of the Muslim world.

This whole ‘atheist Muslim’ or ‘atheist Christian’ claim is causing unnecessary arguments and we need to find other ways to identify ourselves, given the flaws that are associated with such identifications that cause you to end up biting off more than you can chew.


7 thoughts on “Islam as a Cultural Identity

  1. I am glad to have found your writing on this important identity politics. My perspective is Subcontinental. Unfortunately, it is divided today on lines of religion. Otherwise, combined population of Muslims is higher than Indonesia. Almost 1 out of 3 Muslims is from Subcontinent. Reason for pointing this out is that atheist-Muslim identity politics must take into account ground realities on Subcontinent.

    Likes of Ali Rizvi must be challenged on tougher questions. He seems to be providing cover for segregationist idea of two-nation theory. Muslim identity is so intertwined with idea of Pakistan that he seems unable to detach from basic notion that Muslims of Subcontinent need separate nation and cannot live as minority amongst ‘Hindus’, Sikhs, Jains and Christians. This term, “Atheist Muslim,” conveniently avoids major question for Rizvi: since he has left Islam, will he denounce bigoted two-nation theory?

    I hope this term (Atheist Muslim) is soundly and rationally argued out of existence because it does more harm for genuine Muslim reformers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing this well-thought through perspective. My only point regarding Indonesia is that a great deal of Muslims come from non-Arabic countries, as opposed to popular belief. Perhaps a better replacement would be that more than half of the world’s Muslim population is not Arabic. Will edit that. Cheers.


  2. Culture isn’t any more genetic than religion. A white person could easily find themselves adopted into or raised by a Muslim family or in a Muslim community. Non-believing cultural Muslim and Christian parents could mix their traditional practices for the sake of their children, much like some Jewish children are also allowed to celebrate Christmas. None of this has anything to do with genetics.


    • Thanks for the comment. You make a good point but I don’t see it as necessarily disproving my argument. Your scenario doesn’t happen too often and claiming that this has nothing to do with genetics is wrong. It’s evident that there are many non-practicing Muslims who haven’t grown out of their Muslim parents’ culture, i.e. the culture they were raised in. Rizvi explains this in his book.


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