“Eid Mubarak” and taking faith as regulative and persuasive culture

Muslim faithful gather for prayers at Sir Ali Muslim Club in Kariakor

Muslim faithful gather for prayers at Sir Ali Muslim Club in Kariakor, Nairobi on April 21, 2023, during the marking of Eid Ul Fitri, a celebration that marks the end of the Holy Month of Ramadhan. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

“Eid Mubarak (blessed festival)!” This, indeed, is the most felicitous greeting I can offer you today since the day marks the end of the holy month of Ramadhan.

My greeting is not restricted to Muslims, much as we appreciate and respect their exemplary discipline, devotion and charity throughout the period. For me, whether it is Eid-el-Fitr, as today, Eid-el-Adha, Christmas or Easter, we are all always in it together, for two obvious reasons.

First, as I keep reiterating from my own family experience, many of our families are delightful blends of languages, ethnicities and faiths, among other identities.

It would be preposterous if one should wake up on a fine festival morning and not say “Eid Mubarak” or “Merry Christmas” to one’s relatives, in the same house, just because they do not belong to the same faith. Secondly, and closely related to the above, is the fact that we live in a culturally pluralistic society. In Kiswahili, we call this pluralism “uanuai” or “mseto”, if you want to simplify.

The beauty and power of cultural pluralism, or cohesion in variety, should not be taken for granted. We constantly build and maintain it on the four pillars of respect, knowledge, understanding and tolerance.

Respect is the common-sense acceptance of the variety of human approaches to how we live. Knowledge is the active and systematic acquisition of information about our own lifestyles and those of our neighbours. Understanding is the “know-why”, as the late Philip Ochieng used to put it, the insight into the reasons for our doing what we do. Tolerance is the ready and humble acceptance of one another, despite the infinite differences in our approaches to life.

In the case of faiths or religions, for example, we should have a thorough and functional knowledge of what we believe and practise, and also a sensible awareness of the beliefs and practices of our neighbours. It is not acceptable, for example, to go along claiming “I’m a Catholic because I was born a Catholic,” without bothering to find out what Catholicism entails, its beliefs, history and practices.

Nor does it make sense to say you became a Pentecostal “because of problems” or because you “wanted miracles”, or Pastor-so-and-so was “powerful”. What does it mean to you? Where does it lead you? How does it help you to relate to your God and to your fellow human beings?

Equally important is a clear understanding and unbiased appreciation of our neighbours’ faiths. I am often saddened by the apparent ignorance of Christians about other people’s faiths, and even sheer indifference to the beliefs and observances of other faiths.

Yet all the necessary information is readily available, especially in today’s digital age. Obviously, without adequate knowledge and understanding of one another’s faith, the respect and tolerance necessary for successful pluralism cannot be realised.

Basic values

My recommendation for a healthy inter-faith co-existence is that we should look beyond the mere organisational formalities and ritual observances and reach towards the basic values of divine acceptance, moral uprightness and, above all, a genuine love and practical concern for one another.

This framework, obviously, has no room for the hordes of megalomaniac demagogues and opportunistic conmen and conwomen who masquerade in sham “churches”, “temples” and other suchlike in search of their own passions for power, wealth or plain bloody-mindedness.

My friend and former KU student, Dr Ahmed Sheikh, who pursued a brilliant academic career at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) and in West Africa, used to say that I should have been a sufi practitioner.

Sufism, from the little I understand of it, is a trend in Islam that emphasises an intense internalised and meditative approach to matters of faith. I guess what Dr Sheikh suspected in me, rightly, is an aversion to external ostentations and declarations of adherence to denominations, as opposed to internal reflections of spirituality.

Faith, or religion, is the highest form of that aspect or category of culture I call “regulative” in my studies. I may have mentioned to you somewhere that I see culture, the way societies live, as falling into four main categories, namely: “identitive”, regulative, productive and expressive. We identify ourselves, saying who we are, mainly through language, history and territorial origins. Regulation entails the ways in which we organise ourselves to ensure a secure and positive relationship to our environment, ourselves and to one another.

The productive arm of culture is technology, the ways in which we produce our materials and means of survival and sustenance. Expressive or creative culture is the art department, where we create by reflecting on our whole struggle to be, to grow and to make meaning out of life, and maybe impact it.

Expressive culture is the realm of literature and orature, music, dance, drama and the visual arts. We will, inshallah, talk about these in greater detail in a future chat.

Back to regulative culture, the devices that govern and control our relationships, it comprises such institutions as customs and traditions, kinship patterns, education, political and legal systems and faiths or religions. These, as we said, help us to know what to do and how to do it and, above all, how to relate to one another. Otherwise, we would be under the law of the jungle, survival of the roughest and the most violent. This is what I have called the “shenzi” (savage, barbaric) in human nature, which must be minimised or controlled through regulative culture.

Faiths, religions or spiritualities play a crucial role in this process. Instead of resorting to sanctioning or coercive devices, as some of the regulative institutions do, faiths characteristically adopt persuasive approaches, highlighting the inherent goodness in us and the supreme splendour of our origin and destiny (God).

Once these are inculcated into us, virtues like the discipline of fasting (saum) or the generosity of giving (zakat) become logical and natural practices.

Faiths do not enslave us. Instead, they ennoble us, and we have cause to celebrate their rich fruits.

We all answer, “Alhamdulillahi!”

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]