Balancing the Sunnah of Embracing Innovation with the Challenge of Cultural Assimilation

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When encountering different beliefs and cultures in geographies where migration takes place, there may be certain concerns and fears within us about not being able to preserve our own beliefs and values and becoming assimilated. Therefore, we may try to create a closed community in order to protect ourselves and our future generations. However, migration means opening up to a new world and a new society, not closing ourselves off. Therefore, in order to become a member of that society in the migration destination, it will not be possible without being open to different cultures and innovations that are not contrary to the spirit of Islam, and migration will not be permanent and fruitful without it. Otherwise, migrants who isolate themselves from society by displaying a conservative attitude just to avoid assimilation or who take a stance against innovations or do not take them seriously, will miss out on the era they are living in and will face assimilation at that point.

The Messenger of God was always open to innovations in his life and encouraged his Companions/umma to develop individual and social projects in this regard, to open good and beautiful paths: “Whoever starts a good practice in Islam will have its reward and the reward of those who practice it after him, without decreasing any of their rewards. Whoever starts a bad practice among Muslims will have its sin and the sin of those who practice it after him, without decreasing any of their sins, still belonging to the one who started that bad practice”.[1] In addition, the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said in another hadith, “The wise saying is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he/she finds it, has more right to have it.”[2] and “Seek knowledge, even as far as China.”[3] He always directed his umma to be open to new wisdom and knowledge, to find it wherever and from whomever they can.

In this sense, for the believers, researching and finding the right and good words and practices in the places they emigrate to and incorporating them into their lives is a source of material and spiritual wealth. This openness and exchange will also contribute positively to the integration of the Migrants (Muhajirs) with that society. Innovations that are adopted in compliance with the basic standards set by the Qur’an and Sunnah will make the migrant community even stronger and more equipped.

Fasting During the Ashura

When the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) migrated to Medina, he learned that the Jewish tribes fasted on the tenth day of Muharram and celebrated it as a festival. He asked them about the reason and they replied, “This is the day when God saved Moses from his enemies and punished Pharaoh. Moses fasted on this day in gratitude!” Upon hearing this, the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “We are closer and dearer to Moses than you are. We have more right to follow his example than you do!”[4] and he fasted on the day of Ashura. He also recommended this fast to the believers, saying, “I hope that the fast on the day of Ashura will serve as an expiation for sins committed in the previous year.”[5] However, he cautioned his Companions not to imitate the Jews completely and advised them to fast on both the ninth and tenth days of Muharram.[6]

As we can see, the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) observed the Ashura fast, which did not contradict Islamic teachings, as a means of integrating with the new community he had joined after the migration. He did not object to his Companions who wanted to fast on this day and, in fact, saw it as an opportunity to connect with the Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) and to uphold the essential practice of fasting in the Abrahamic religions. He also had a social goal of bringing different groups together in the new land of migration.

The Use of Seals in International Communication

One of the initiatives of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) after his migration to Medina was to send letters to the leaders and kings of tribes and countries in the region to engage in dialogue with them and invite them to Islam. When the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) decided to enter into such a dialogue, some of his Companions told him, “If your letter is not sealed, they will not accept it.” Upon this, the Messenger of God accepted their proposal and had a silver ring made. He had the inscription (محمد رسول الله) which means (Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) engraved on the ring.[7] Thus, our beloved Prophet showed his Companions and the ummah that it was not harmful to comply with such customs among states and that it is necessary to be open to innovations in such matters.

The Proposal of Salman al-Farisi to Protect Medina with a Trench

The most important event that made Salman al-Farisi known was his proposal to the Messenger of God during the Battle of the Trench. The Ahzab army had set out to attack Medina and kill the Muslims. When the Messenger of God learned about this, he gathered his Companions and started consulting them. It seemed difficult to face this army with a field battle, which was much stronger than the Muslim army in terms of both military and weapons and equipment. A new defense strategy was needed. The Messenger of God listened to everyone’s opinions. Then Salman al-Farisi spoke and said, “O Messenger of God! In Iran, we used to surround ourselves with trenches against the attacks of enemy riders. Can’t we do the same now?” This original idea was attractive to both the Messenger of God and the Companions, and digging a trench began immediately along the northern part of Medina, which was the entrance to the city.

As we can see, the Messenger of God did not object to Salman’s proposal to offer a defense technique for the city’s and Muslims’ defense just because it has been used by Iranians. On the contrary, he found it appropriate and successful. This method was not a matter of faith, practice, or ethics that had a legal judgment attached to it. It was a technical issue related to the appropriate way to defend the city. Therefore, in such technical matters, it is necessary to be open to the tactics and methods used by different nations, not as a form of assimilation but rather to act with wisdom according to logic, reasoning, and contemporary conditions.

Spreading Pebbles in the Mosque

After the construction of the Prophet’s Mosque, nothing was laid on its floor. The floor was leveled and left as soil. However, when it rained, since there was no roof, the ground would get wet and turn into mud. Sometimes even the Messenger of God and his Companions had to prostrate on the wet ground. One night, it rained heavily and the floor of the mosque became muddy. The companions who came for the morning prayer knew about the situation and came up with a solution. Each of them brought some pebbles in their skirts, spread them on the floor, and performed their prayers on top of them. After the Prayer, God’s Messenger praised the innovation and said, ‘How beautiful this is!’[8] This solution would contribute to making worship easier and would be a beginning that would lead to the further development and beautification of the Prophet’s Mosque over the time.

Use of Lamps in the Prophet’s Mosque

The lighting project of the Prophet’s Mosque, led by Tamim ibn Aws al-Dari, is a good example in this context. When the Prophet’s Mosque was opened in the tenth month of the Hijri calendar, it was illuminated for nine years by burning palm tree branches when darkness fell. Tamim al-Dari, a newly converted Muslim, wanted to bring the lighting system he saw in Christian temples in Damascus to the Prophet’s Mosque. He ordered rope and oil lamps from Damascus, tied the ropes between the columns of the mosque, and hung the lamps on them. After hanging the lamps, he filled them with oil and lit the wicks after sunset. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) came out for the evening prayer, he saw the mosque illuminated and asked who had done it. They replied, “Tamim did it!” Upon hearing this, the Messenger of God called him over and said, “You have illuminated Islam, may God illuminate you in this world and the hereafter!” and praised and prayed for him. They also changed the name of his slave, who had helped him with the lighting project, from “Fath” to “Siraj”.[9] Furthermore, the Messenger of God stated, “If I had a daughter, I would have married her to you.” Upon hearing this compliment, Nawfal ibn Harith saw an opportunity and offered his own daughter to Tamim for marriage, and the Prophet approved it.[10]

The Messenger of God set an important example for his entire community to be open to innovation by allowing changes and developments related to the mosque while preserving its essence and meaning, It is because of this Sunnah that the current Prophet’s Mosque has expanded to encompass the entire old Medina and become the largest and liveliest place of worship on earth after the Ka’ba. Through their support and enlightenment of their mosques, the believers have transformed the old city of Yathrib into a center that beats the heart of two billion Muslims today.

Use of Coffins in Funeral Transportation

During her illness, the respected Fatima (may God be pleased with her) confided in the respected Asma bint Umays, who was with her, about a matter that greatly concerned her. She lamented, “Oh Asma! I do not approve of the practice performed on women after their death, before the burial process. A shroud is placed over the deceased, but it is not sufficient. Despite the covering, the person’s limbs can still be seen.”[11]

Upon hearing this, the respected Asma asked, “O daughter of the Messenger of God! Shall I show you a method that was used for the burial of a deceased person during the migration to Abyssinia that I witnessed?”[12] the respected Fatima replied, “Yes!”

The respected Asma then asked those present to bring palm tree branches and bent them into a half-circle shape and placed them one after the other on the ground. She then covered them with a cloth, creating a cage-like structure. This was the method that the respected Asma referred to as a “coffin.” The respected Fatima was so pleased with this method that she smiled more than ever before since the passing of the Messenger of God. She expressed her appreciation by saying, “Yes! This is so beautiful and appropriate!”[13]

With her approval and appreciation, there was no objection to adopting and implementing this method from the Abyssinians during funeral burial procedures. On the contrary, she even made it her will. As a result of her sensitivity, the tradition of carrying the coffin during the funeral started among Muslims. Therefore, not only receive but also seek and obtain the knowledge and wisdom that have spread throughout the world is a great responsibility that should not be neglected, as it may lead to the assimilation of Muslim communities.

Conclusion

Migrants who have opened up to the world through emigration and have become members of open societies cannot achieve their goal of not being assimilated and dissolved into the understanding of life in modern society by being inward-looking. Rather, they can succeed by renewing themselves and remaining open to innovations while remaining loyal to the faith, deeds, and ethical principles established by Islam. Renewing oneself and remaining committed to the essence of every field is necessary for Muslim communities to maintain their material and spiritual progress and existence. Otherwise, generations who cannot keep up with the rapid and dizzying developments of our age will not be able to protect themselves from assimilation and eventually belittling their own values. They become susceptible to all kinds of misinformation in terms of belief, action, and morality in the face of new philosophies, ideologies, and various movements. They will not have anything new to say to the societies they live in or anything new to offer, and they will also be doomed to disappear in the face of rich and powerful cultures that are open to innovation.

A believer is someone who never gets tired of knowledge and learning. Therefore, they can also adopt useful and beautiful practices from the society they live in while trying to live by their own values in the regions they emigrate to. Being open to innovation and new wisdom will facilitate their lives, make their migration more productive, and enrich it. At the same time, it is an indispensable condition for being able to recognize the era they live in. Those who cannot grasp their era cannot find the right path and method to transfer the values they possess to humanity. Therefore, being open to learning, researching, and discovering new truths is the future of a society’s faith, morals, and values. Closing oneself off, conservatism, and fear of different emotions, thoughts, cultures, and civilizations are the path to defeat.

In this sense, the migrants who spread to different geographies with emigration must manage to look at events from a wider perspective and realize that being open to innovation is not a threat but a great opportunity. Because bigotry, which hinders progress in science, wisdom, and material and spiritual development, is incompatible with the meaning and goals of emigration. In this sense, being open to science, technology, and innovation will accelerate the Migrants’ recovery of their lost items. Thus, progress will be made towards becoming a new human being and a new society that is needed both materially and spiritually.

Being open to innovation while preserving the fundamental principles of Islam is a tradition. In this context, the importance of renewing and developing ourselves in every area as individuals and society, without ever remaining attached, is clear. This tradition makes us more equipped and leads us to the potential and capacity to direct changes in the world we live in.

Dr. Selim Koç


[1] Muslim, Zakah 69 (1017); Tirmidhi, Ilm 15 (2675); Nasai, Zakah 64 (2554)

[2] Tirmidhi, İlim 19 (2687); Ibn Majah, Zuhd 15 (4169)

[3] Munawi, Fayzu’l-Qadir 1/542

[4] Bukhari, Siyam 69 (2004, 2005) ; Muslim, Siyam 19 (1130) ; Ibn Majah, Siyam 41 (1734)
[5] Tirmidhi, Sawm 48 (752)

[6] Tirmidhi, Sawm 50 (755)

[7] Bukhari, Libas 52 (5875); Muslim, Libas 13 (2093)

[8] Abu Dawud, Salat 15 (458)

[9] Ibnu’l-Athir, Usdu’l-Ghaba, 454; Ibn Hajar, Al-Isaba, 546
[10] Ibn Hajar, Isaba, p. 1627 (Qurtubi, Surah an-Nur, 18:36)

[11] In some sources, this expression is written as “Tomorrow, when my body is carried on the shoulders of men, I am ashamed to appear in public.” (See Numayri, Tarikhu’l-Medina, I/108)

[12] It is also rumored that the person who made this proposal was our mother, Umm Salama, who was also one of the Migrants to Abyssinia. See Numayri, ibid. I/108

[13] Hakim, Mustadrak, III/162; Numayri, ibid. I/108

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