Islamic Message and Tradition – What’s the Relation?

A tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past.

A tradition is also said to be the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.


Elements of a culture passed down as traditions are normally institutionalized customs, beliefs, precepts and practices. They signify modes of thought and behavior followed by a particular people continuously from generation to generation.

Tradition could likewise be bound to rituals, where rituals guarantee the continuation of tradition. The concept is often seen as a polar opposite of modernity in a linear theory of social change in which societies progress from being traditional to being modern.

Tradition is also found in political, philosophical, religious and artistic discourse where the idea is increasingly being projected as more dynamic and flexible, heterogeneous and subject to innovation and change than what some oversimplifying viewpoints and theories presuppose.

The word tradition is derived from the Latin tradere or traderer literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to deliver and to entrust for safekeeping. Tradition is customarily translated into Arabic as taqlid.

However, when juxtaposed with the true meaning of the Islamic message, neither tradition – above all the one based on the conventional Western interpretation of the concept – nor taqlid is fully qualified to be employed for the purpose of signifying the act of implementing and following it continuously as a heavenly-sanctioned life paradigm. Both of them fall short considerably of the required qualifications. This could be explained as follows.

Following Islam means following divine revelation (wahy) in the form of the Holy Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s authentic Sunnah. The two stand for the revelation of the ultimate truths with respect to God, man, angels, the Jinn, life, death, Akhirah or the Hereafter, and many other absolute ontological verities pertaining to the physical and metaphysical tiers of existence.

Numerous ethical values, standards and norms, as well as definite injunctions and sets of laws, regulating a man’s relationship with his Creator and Master, his self, other people and the rest of animate and inanimate beings, also fall in this category. These are transcendent existential realities, ideas, beings and experiences. They are not affected, nor bound, by the confines and limitations of time and space factors, nor are they thus to be subjected to the relative criteria and standards dictated by such factors.

It goes without saying that Islam, by definition, can never become antique, archaic or obsolete. Nor can it become a mere tradition or a set of traditional or evolved beliefs, rituals and customs, in that it was not people who created or generated it in a space and in a moment of time, and as such transmitted and handed it over from generation to generation.

This is so because as transcendent and absolute truth, Islam is ever-fresh, dynamic, original and inspiring. It always spurs a productive pursuit and spawns a cultural and civilizational legacy. Islam itself has never been generated or evolved either as a legacy or a tradition.

As far as Islam as a comprehensive and global religion that covers every aspect of life is concerned, the only thing that is eligible to be to some extent called a tradition and traditional is Muslims’ internalization and implementation of certain aspects of the perpetual Islamic message within their diverse terrestrial contexts where, nevertheless, qualified changeability, impermanence and diversity of styles and methods in relation to answering the pressing exigencies of time and space are not only expected, but also invited and appreciated.

It is here that blind following is categorically rebuffed, and innovation and creativity anticipated and highly valued. It is here, furthermore, that Muslim customs morph into Muslim traditions, and the latter matures and subtly amalgamates itself with Islamic culture.

As components of Islamic culture, conventions and traditions are still deemed only accidental rather than essential or substantial to the former’s being both a product and reflection of Islam as a total way of life embodied in the behavioral patterns of its adherents.

Hence, Islam has a distinct culture and civilization. The culture and civilization in Islam are not Arabic or eastern or Middle Eastern. They are also not monolithic. They have varieties and a rich diversity.

There are elements in Islamic culture and civilization that are universal and constant, and that are collectively accepted by all Muslims. But there are also elements that are diverse and different from country to country and people to people.

The universals are based on the Qur’an and Sunnah while the variables are based on local customs and traditions of various people. The latter has been acquired on account of actualizing certain dimensions of the Qur’an and Sunnah in localized milieus under their prevalent inherent and man-generated circumstances.

The particulars of Islamic culture, though legitimate and deeply embedded in the very fabric of Muslim societies, are by no means to be considered sacred, unqualified and immutable. Their meaning and significance are inexorably tied to Islamic revelation, and their appropriateness and functioning conditioned mainly by it.

This existential paradigm could also be identified as a principle of following religion and innovating cultures and civilization.

Without a doubt, following religion without innovating, and innovating in sheer worldly cultural and civilizational matters, which from time to time was ingeniously combined with borrowing from others, was a Muslim rule since the early days of Islam and its nascent civilization.

Since customs and traditions are rather generic terms that encompass a wide variety of things and concepts that are a part of the complex culture, such an approach surely was a sign of Muslim religious fervor, enthusiasm and maturity, as well as a sign of their cultural and civilizational predisposition, potency and astuteness.

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About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].