Although they share a number of basic human values, American and Islamic cultures are very different, as one might expect. Perhaps the most significant contrast between American culture and Islamic culture is the status of women. In Islam, especially in the more traditional Islamic countries, women are compelled to dress extremely modestly when in public. When wearing a chador, which covers her from head to foot, all that is revealed to public view is a woman’s eyes.
This practice reveals the very sexist attitude the male-dominated Islamic culture has towards women. A Moslem male may have more than one wife, he is the undisputed master of the household, and in most cases expects his wife or wives to be completely submissive to his will. Unlike in American culture, where the relationship between a husband and wife is considered to be a partnership of equals who have joined together out of mutual love and respect for one another, and where women are valued as vital members of society, in Islamic culture the relationship between men and women is defined by the will of the husband, and women are compelled to submit to rigid religious and cultural mores. (Altorki 322-327)
American culture is far superior to Islamic culture in regard to the status and treatment of women. The Islamic approach to gender relationships is medieval and wastes the talents of half the population, while compelling women to live lives lacking in selfrespect and dignity.
In religious terms, in contrast to American cultural attitudes towards marriage, in Islamic cultures marriage is not a sacrament, but a simple, legal agreement in which either partner is free in theory to include conditions. Marriage customs thus vary widely from country to country. As a result, divorce is not common, although it is not forbidden as a last resort. According to Islam, no Muslim girl can be forced to marry against her will: her parents will simply suggest young men they think may be suitable, but in actual practice it is not uncommon for marriages to be arranged, despite the wishes of the woman. (Pickthall)
The family is the foundation of Islamic society and is much more a cultural norm than in American culture. The peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued in the Moslem world, and seen as essential for the spiritual growth and well-being of its members. In Islamic culture a harmonious social order is created by the existence of closely-bonded, extended families; children are treasured, and rarely leave home until the time they marry.
In contrast to the family in Islam, in American culture the family is losing its status due to social, economic, and cultural pressures. Single-parent households are very common as is divorce. The crumbling of the traditional family structure in the United States is undoubtedly contributing to the social instability the nation has been experiencing for the past two or three generations. The Islamic attitude towards the family is an element of Islamic culture which should be reintroduced and reaccepted into American culture.
Another significant difference between the two cultures is their treatment of the elderly. In the Islamic world there are no old people’s homes. The strain of caring for one’s parents in what can be the most difficult time of their lives is considered an honor and blessing, and an opportunity for great spiritual growth. Moslems are expected to not only pray for their parents, but act with limitless compassion, remembering that when they were helpless children their parents were there for them.
Mothers are particularly honored. When they reach old age, Muslim parents are still valued and treated mercifully, with kindness and selflessness. In Islam, serving one’s parents is a duty second only to prayer, and it is their right to expect it. It is considered despicable to express any irritation when, through no fault of their own, the old become difficult. Moslem cultural respect for the aging is another aspect of Islamic culture which Americans should emulate. (Altorki 322-327)
Unfortunately, this is not usually the case in American culture. Very few aging or ailing parents are taken care of by their children in their children’s homes, most of them must live alone or in nursing homes, neglected by their families and thrust into the care of strangers. Extended families, consisting of three or even four generations living in one household, were not uncommon a century ago in America, but today it is extremely rare to find aging parents living with their children. Unlike in Islamic culture, aged and failing parents are generally looked upon in America as burdensome and inconvenient, and all too often die unwanted and forlorn.
Another major difference in American and Islamic cultures is contrasting attitudes towards alcohol. Intoxicating liquors are forbidden to Moslems, while in America the consumption of alcohol is not only socially acceptable, it is socially encouraged, and considered quite normal. With the exception of the brief, doomed effort to prohibit alcohol in Depression-era America, alcohol has always been a common element of American culture.
Another significant difference in the two cultures is the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state in American culture. Religion has no formal connection with politics or government in the United States. In contrast, in Islamic cultures, especially in the more traditional, conservative societies, religion and government are bound tightly together and inseparable. (Delk 67)
The Islamic Republic of Iran provides a good example of this. The government has been run for the past two decades by a religious hierarchy of ayatollahs and mullahs, who control every aspect of life in Iran. Saudi Arabia and some of the Persian Gulf states are also extremely conservative societies, and are for all practical purposes are theocracies governed by religious principles. (Gieling)
Islamic cultures tend to feature a greater attention to public rituals than American culture. For example, once in his or her life every Moslem is expected to make a ritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Another notable example is the public call to prayer in the Islamic world, when five times each day muezzins announce from minarets that it is time for the faithful to kneel and pray to Allah. All over the Islamic world, at the same times each day, millions of Moslems respond to the call to prayer by kneeling to face Mecca and praying in the required manner for the required time.
This sort of public ritual would be unimaginable in America, where religion is much more of a private affair, and for the most part is practiced inside churches. Both cultures of course practice religious rituals, but rituals play a much more public role in the Moslem world.
The role of language in Islamic and American culture is also different. Profane language is very common in the United States, but quite rare in the Moslem world, at least in public. Public blasphemy is also quite common, but is also extremely rare in Islamic culture. Moslems show much more personal respect for others in interpersonal communications, and much more respect for God than is common in the United States. This is another positive aspect of Islamic culture that should be more appreciated by Americans.
In terms of symbols, the star and crescent holds much symbolic significance for Moslems, as do the symbols of renewal, reform, reasoning, and dynamism, and the Ka’ba, and The Dome of the Rock. (Gieling) Symbolism in American culture is more diverse and less identifiable. To many Americans, the flag is perhaps the most revered symbol, for it stands for freedom and liberty.
In conclusion, Islamic and American cultures share a number of human values, but differ significantly in many ways, including accepted norms, social practices, religion, gender issues, symbols, and language. American culture would benefit from adopting the Islamic reverence for the family, especially for aging parents, while Islamic culture would benefit from American culture’s respect for and equal treatment of women. Each culture could learn much from the other, for each has positive and negative aspects which sometimes are not so readily evident to those within the culture itself.
- Altorki, Soraya. “Women and Islam.” In John L. Esposito (Ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Delk, Cheryl. Discovering American Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.
- Gieling, Sakia. “The Iconography of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Online. Available: http://isim.leidenuniv.nl/newsletter/1/regional/01AC19.html. 17 February 2001.
- Pickthall, Marmaduke. “Islamic Culture.” Online. Available: http://www.muslimcanada.org/pickthallculture.html. 17 February 2001.