Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Psychology, Culture and Indigenisation

(Below is an excerpt from my article bearing the same title above to be published in the forthcoming publication Psychology from the Islamic Perspective: A Guide to Teaching and Learning, Noraini Mohd Noor (Ed.), IIUM Press)

The primary task of this section is to clarify the differences between culture and religion. That the two concepts are different is a pre-conclusion of this discussion, and a deliberate attempt to confront the conventional assumption that religion is merely a component of culture.

'Culture' has been defined in many different ways in the different areas of social sciences. Some definitions focus on the functions of culture while others focus on the structures, representing respectively the functionalist and structuralist perspectives. The definition provided by Matsumoto and Juang (2004) attempts to integrate both these broad perspectives. Culture here is defined as:

"dynamic system of rules, explicit and implicit, established by groups, in order to ensure their survival, involving attitudes, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviours, shared by a group but harboured differently by each specific unit within the group, communicated across generations, relatively stable but with the potential to change across time."

Two key components of this definition are the structure of culture as a 'dynamic system of rules', and the function of culture 'to ensure survival'. Although a universally accepted definition of culture remains elusive, these two components are incorporated, in one form or another, in all definitions of culture.

'Religion' similarly does not have a universally acclaimed definition. However, what is arguably the most referred to definition of religion in the social sciences is the definition provided by social anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz (1973) defined religion as:

"a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

Geertz’s definition of religion, on one hand, is a positive recognition of the function of religion, but on the other, a subtle attempt to de-sacrelise religion. Religion is described here as a cultural system that may not necessarily have a divine origin whose effect on human behaviour and emotions therefore, are merely matters of human perception.

As a cultural system, religion has to be dynamic. And a dynamic system, essentially, is not static, hence is always incline towards change and continuous revision. This, however, is not in agreement with the views of scholars of religions. From their perspective, religion is a system that clarifies the answers for five quintessential issues: theology, doctrine and rituals, scriptures, cosmology, and eschatology (Smart, 1989; Eliade, 1981). While there are indeed certain provisions for hermeneutic change and revision, these five issues are essentially religious dogmas from which pillars of religion are based upon.

Islam is dynamic as there are indeed avenues for new interpretations of the divine law (shari’ah). The door for ijtihad (revised interpretation) remains open for Islamic religious scholars to explore in view of circumstantial and contemporary challenges (Kamali, 1994). However, this avenue is restricted both in terms of subject areas and individual qualification. The five pillars of Islam for example, are not open for new revisions, nor are the articles of faith and other doctrinal aspects. Furthermore, the majority of opinion amongst the ulama’ (Muslim relgious scholar) would subscribe to the view that only a mujtahid (one with sufficient knowledge) is given the provision to exercise ijtihad. A Muslim who is not knowledgeable about Islam is to seek guidance from the learned, and not to decide on matters of religion based on his/her own rational justification and logical deduction.

Is Islam a cultural system? The Islamic faith is not a philosophy open for individual cultural perspective. Islam is a revealed religion, revealed by Allah SWT to His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). The message of Islam is preserved in the form of a book, the Holy Quran, which is divinely protected from all forms of corruption.

The cultural manifestations of Islam however, do exist. The two sources of the shari’ah, the Holy Quran and ahadith (Prophetic tradition); provide the general guide for Islamic conduct and responsibility. How these general guidelines are applied and manifested depends on cultural and individual preferences. For example, Muslim women are obliged to cover their awrah, which allows them to expose only the palm and the face. This is the general guide. How a Muslim woman fulfils this depends on her personal and cultural preferences. A Muslim woman in Malaysia would normally use the Malay traditional baju kurung, while a Muslim woman in Pakistan would normally use the traditional shawal kamis. Both these cultural manifestations are acceptable as long as they adhere to the guidelines in the shari’ah.

The religion of Islam is referred to in the Quran as ad-Din, a concept that explains Islam not only as a belief or cultural system but an all-encompassing entity that provides guidance for a distinct way of life and answers to the very purpose of one’s existence (al-Faruqi, 1982). Such attributes clearly goes beyond and above the realm of culture as explained in Western social sciences. With this Islamic worldview, compared to Western psychology, an Islamic indigenous psychology would naturally operate from a quite different epistemological assumption. As observed by Murken (cited in Khalili et al, 2002), secular Western psychology considers religion as merely one example of a cultural subsystem, i.e. a set of variable in research. In Islamic psychology however, religion (i.e. Islam) is the basis and framework for everything. Islam is not a variable to be evaluated, but the very principle that guides the judgment and understanding of Muslim psychologists both in research and practice. Herein lies the unique characteristic of Islamic indigenous psychology as espoused in much of the work on the Islamization of psychology.


Al Faruqi, I.R. (1982). Al-Tawhid: Its implications for thought and life. Virginia: International Institute of Islamic Thought.

Eliade, M. (1981). A history of religious ideas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Kamali, M.H. (1994). Freedom of expression in Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing.

Khalili, S., Murken, S., Reich, K.H., Shah, A.A. & Vahabzadeh, A. (2002). Religion and mental health in cultural perspective: Observations and reflections after the First International Congress on Religion and Mental Health, Tehran, 16-19 April 2001. The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion. 12(4), 217-237.

Matsumoto, D. & Juang, L. (2004). Culture and psychology. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Smart, N. (1989). The world’s religions. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Scooper said...

Islam is a revealed religion, and revealed religion must never become captive to culture. It is not the servant of culture but the critic of culture.

And yet the confusion of culture and religion results in things like the violence we have seen in Mumbai. I would be interested in reading your take on that.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Mr. Scooper,

Thank you for visiting my blog. When I started writing my post on terrorism, I intended to address the issue you raised. Somehow got sidetracked to something else. Will try to do so in later postings.

Greatly appreciate your great comments.