Culture Clash: Between Superiority & Diversity

"Mosques divided along the lines of Ethnic or Creedal adherence dominate the landscape…..

Islamic leadership seems out of touch with the realities faced by the community….

Tensions between indigenous and immigrant communities simmer beneath the surface, most notably when it comes to issues of leadership and marriage….

Second and third generation Muslims struggle to practice their faith in a culturally relevant way, with many falling to way side……"

You may think these comments originate from our current post 9-11 American Muslim identity politics, but the sentiments of these words were written in the mid 11th Century by Ahmad Ibn Gharsiya (Garcia) Al-Bashkunsi (The Basque), a famous literary figure of Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus). His sentiments came to mind recently for me when I was invited to deliver a sermon (Khutbah) to a small suburban Washington congregation. After the Khutbah and prayer some elders of the dominant culture complained that they did not understand my message, because I delivered it in English. Others claimed that it did not count as it was not in Arabic. A diverse group of young professionals and youth were appreciative simply to hear a sermon that was somewhat coherent. As I approached the lobby to fetch my shoes, I noticed a few sisters praying outside. After they had finished, they complained that they are not given adequate space to pray inside the hall, and are often told to leave as their professional attire (while wearing Hijab) was deemed “un-Islamic”.

Less than a 100 years after the migration of the Prophet Muhammad, ﷺ, from Mecca to Medina, Muslims in a united front made up of Arabs, Berbers and Africans (recent converts with a fervor for Islam) crossed the straits of Gibraltar (Jabal Al-Tariq) in 92 AH /711 AD. Successive waves of migration as well as indigenous conversion of those of Iberian descent (Visigoths, Galicians, Franks, Calabrians and Basques) resulted in Islam becoming the dominant faith of the peninsula by the end of the 10th century. Along with bringing over a new faith, and the thought and tools from an advanced civilization, the Muslims from the Near East imported old prejudices and conflicts. From the outset different factions, based on creed and clan, divided the community. Homes, mosques, and kingdoms would eventually divide along the lines of ethnicity and creedal adherence.

Ibn Gharsiya lived in this politically fragmented Al-Andalus, following the dissolution of the Arab dominated Umayyad Caliphate in 316 AH/1031 AD. Amidst the simmering ruins of the Umayyad capital city of Madinat Az-Zahra, separate independent states (Taifa) broke away. Exclusivist minority Arab policies and leadership, in the face of an overwhelmingly indigenous Muslim (Muladi) population, brought up questions of Spanish Islamic identity. Converts were over taxed and in some cases excluded from societal contributions and leadership roles. This often fomented into popular uprisings and, in some instances during the 9th century, expulsions to Fez and Egypt.

Not unlike our current discourse amongst indigenous and immigrant communities, stereotypes and mistrust eroded religious camaraderie. While harsh in his critique, Ibn Gharsiya promoted the leadership and contributions of indigenous Muslims in his masterfully written Risala (Epistle). Composed in classical Arabic prose, to the chagrin of critics, Ibn Gharsiya did not reject Arab culture, only its self-perceived ascendancy.

In a time in which we think of ourselves in sometimes monolithic terms in pursuit of a Puritan religious and cultural paradigm, we in effect deny our heritage and uniqueness as Americans, Africans, Arabs, Asians and others. It becomes quite clear from the past of the need to highlight and appreciate the variant cultural streams that feed into the vast ocean of American Islam. There has never existed in one nation the diversity of the Ummah of our Liege-Lord Muhammad, ﷺ, as it exists today in America.

By considering our history, it hopefully becomes clear that the image of the past and our contemporary period are connected to one another in complex ways. However, in our mosques, schools, and community forums the impact of the past is often neglected, or presented in an over-simplified romantic manner. It is hoped that this short article underscores that our self-image of our past and today pose complex questions that we as a community are in dire need of asking and dialoging together to reach our own conclusions.


  • Larsson, Goran. Ibn Garcia's Shu'Ubiyya Letter: Ethnic And Theological Tensions In Medieval Al-Andalus (Medieval And Early Modern Iberian World)- Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003.
  • Monroe, James T. (Trns). The Shu'ubiyya in al-Andalus. The risala of Ibn Garcia and five refutations (University of California Press 1970).
  • Monique Bernards and John Nawas. Patronate and patronage in early and classical Islam. BRILL, 2005.
  • S. M. Imamuddin, Muslim Spain 711–1492 A.D.: A Sociological Study, BRILL (1981), ISBN 90-04-06131-2.