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Can one be a cultural Muslim?

Cultural Muslim is a compound noun. Cultural Muslims are people who don't believe in Islam but follow some of the practices of Muslims.


Posted 20 March 2023

I have long been familiar with the term “cultural Jew.”

While writing this page, I collected the following definitions:

A (UK) Jewish Chronicle article “So what is 'cultural' Judaism?” from 16 July 2015 talked about Jews who identify themselves as cultural or secular rather than religious. A short extract is below.

“In his 2012 book, This Is Not The Way, the emeritus rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John's Wood, David Goldberg, argued that most Jews, even many synagogue-goers, were no longer motivated by belief in God, at least not the commanding Creator of biblical tradition. There was a fourth type of Jew in town, he said, alongside Orthodox, Reform and Zionist - the "Cultural Jew".”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle article “Studying community: Culturally Jewish — proud of heritage but not religious” from 20 February 2020 offered a definition:

“There seems to be no conclusive definition of exactly what a “cultural Jew” is, according to Matthew Boxer, one of the researchers who conducted the Pittsburgh study. But it is a way by which some people who continue to identify as Jewish, though not connecting with many of the religious precepts, self-define.”

Conversely Leon A. Morris, rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York was quite critical in his Haaretz article of 9 October 2013 “Religion Matters: Beware the American 'Cultural Jew': When being culturally 'Jew-ish’ in America means little more than lox and bagels and a vague duty to repair the world, Israel should also be worried.” He was particularly critical of non-religious Jews whose Jewish cultural identity could be described as “thin” rather than “thick.”

I have never found it difficult accepting that people can be cultural Jews, since being Jewish can mean either or both of the following:

What about Muslims?

Until a few years ago, I believed that it was impossible to be a cultural Muslim.

My page “Who is a Muslim?” discusses both narrow and wide definitions of what it takes to be a Muslim. However even for the widest definition, I have an essential requirement of believing that there is no God but Allah, and believing that God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel.

Accordingly, it would be a contradiction in terms to say that of a person that:

Therefore I concluded that there was no Muslim analogue of “cultural Jew.” Another way to express it was to say that a cultural Muslim was an oxymoron.

However, I then realised that there was an assumption underlying the above thinking.

I was analysing the term {cultural Muslim} as if it was an adjective followed by a noun.

With that assumption, my analysis was correct.

Since a Muslim, by definition, believes in the existence of God, there are no {atheistic Muslims} or indeed {cultural Muslims} where the word {cultural} is used in the sense of the above articles about cultural Jews to mean a person who does not hold the beliefs of the religion.

However, there is another way to analyse the term {cultural Muslim}. That is to see it as a compound noun. That is a single noun made up of two words.

It is easier to see this if one adds a hyphen {cultural-Muslim} or better still follows the practice of the German language which often makes compound nouns just by concatenating the words together, so {culturalmuslim}.

In passing, I first came across this German practice as a newly qualified tax adviser at Arthur Andersen when, on an international tax course, I learned about Germany’s Aussensteuergesetz which is a compound of the German words foreign+tax+law.

As a compound noun {cultural Muslim} has its own definition. Something like my own definition offered below:

“A person who does not believe in the religion of Islam, but who likes and feels affinity for certain practices of Muslims such as fasting, greeting each other with “Assalaam Aleikum”, avoiding certain foods etc."

A key point is that a person who is a {cultural Muslim} under the above definition is categorically not a Muslim, since they don’t believe in the religion of Islam.

Despite that paradox, the term {cultural Muslim} is a useful compound noun for a category of person that really does exist, and which may be increasingly numerous in the future.

Other sources on "cultural Muslims"

The Wikipedia article "Cultural Muslims" puts most of its emphasis on whether people are religiously practicing. I think that is the wrong emphasis, since religion is fundamentally a matter of belief.

Obviously if you say you believe in Islam but do not observe a single Islamic practice, others might question whether you really believe in the existence of God, etc. However conceptually belief and practice are entirely different things.

I recommend the article by Saif Rahman "What’s a 'Cultural Muslim'? For years Saif Rahman has been an agnostic and an ex-Muslim activist. So why is he thinking of calling himself a cultural Muslim?" of 3 May 2013. He offers the following definition, which I regard as consistent with my understanding:

“Cultural Muslims are secular, religiously unobservant or irreligious individuals who still identify with Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up.”


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