Muslim Culture


Please check back in September, 2014 for our most recent update of these resources. The term ‘Muslim culture’ is used broadly to cover many diverse religious groups: the Asian Muslim culture, the Middle Eastern, the African, the European and American Muslims, each with their own variations on customs and traditions. Some customs and traditions may be more motivated by culture than by religion. All of these diverse expressions of the same faith can make the question of “protocol” a complicated issue. Nevertheless, some aspects of their religion or culture are accepted by all Muslims. For example, Muslims believe in the Oneness of God, the Holy Scriptures, and all Prophets from Adam to Muhammad without discrimination, the Day of Judgment, etc. Culturally speaking, commonalities include giving charity, expectation to maintain a balance between responsibility to the Creator and to their fellow man, and focusing particularly on the care of and love for the elderly. Islam is also seen as an all inclusive way of life rather than a strict exclusive religious code.

Muslim Culture Protocol
Muslim Culture
1. Prayer Customs at Home, during Travel, and In the Mosque Muslims are required to pray five times a day. They are encouraged to pray in the mosques instead of at home so that community bonds can be strengthened. Depending on lifestyle and work schedules, many Muslims now prefer to pray at home or in the workplace; however, Friday is the special day of prayer when most Muslims would make the effort to go to the mosque. In the homes, prayer mats may be spread in any room. It is also not uncommon to see Muslims keep a prayer mat in their cars and simply stop anywhere at the time of prayer and spread it out on the ground, offering their prayers toward the direction of Ka’aba, the center and starting point, of Islam in Mecca.
Inside the mosque, Muslims pray on rugs and prostrate themselves before God. Hence, special consideration is paid to cleanliness of the place of worship. It is considered disrespectful to step on the prayer mats with shoes on. In western cultures, where non-Muslim guests are invited for interfaith gatherings, a complete wall-to-wall rug is spread on top of the prayer mats so that guests do not have to take off their shoes.
Muslim women are granted a special concession if they wish to pray at home due to their family responsibilities.
While reciting the prayer, full meditative concentration is required. Talking or paying attention to surroundings is not allowed unless something urgent must be attended to. Older people or those who are in ill health do not have to perform all the motions of the prayer but may do so while sitting, or even lying in bed.
2. Wearing the Hijab For Muslim women, modest clothing is encouraged, and wearing the Hijab (head covering) is a mark of devotion and commitment to Faith. In some countries, wearing the Hijab is obligatory, but in others (as in the United States) it is considered a personal choice and is not considered a sign of repression and separation. The niqab, or face-covering, is more common in the Middle East, but not as much in South Asia, where women generally cover their heads and shoulders with loose scarves. In either case, it would be disrespectful to criticize women for wearing it.
3. Shaking Hands In Western societies where this is a common form of greeting, a handshake with a person of the opposite gender is not considered rude by some Muslims. However, some Muslim women may prefer not to do so. To avoid hurt American feelings should a handshake not be returned (and to avoid discomfort on the part of Muslim women when they try to avoid this), it is preferable to wait to see if they offer their hand and then follow accordingly, or greet with a slight nod of the head accompanied by a smile.
4. The “Namaste” greeting common to some Indian-Hindu groups This slight bow (palms together slightly under the chin) is not acknowledged in a similar manner by most Muslims, which may cause some unpleasantness to Hindus and to Japanese people who use a bow in greeting. No offense is meant to cultures which practice this form of greeting; it is only so because of the Muslim belief that God is the only supreme force to whom human beings should bow.
5. Eye Contact Maintaining eye contact when talking might make Asians or Muslim women and the elderly uncomfortable; a better way is to look into their eyes briefly every so often and then look away (perhaps at the collar, or an imaginary spot on the side) at the same time tilting the head and/or nodding gently now and then to show interest in the conversation. Asians living in Western societies are used to this and don’t mind direct eye contact at all. Children in some Muslim and Asian societies are taught not to stare into the eyes of elders as it is considered disrespectful. In Western cultures, this expression of respect may be interpreted as a sign of guilt by teachers or adults.
6. Social Distance “Social distance” is especially important to maintain when interacting with Muslim women. The difference may be obvious when dealing with a woman from a more conservative group. If she takes a small step backward it is indicative that, though interested in the conversation, she is uncomfortable and it would be kind to respect her space. Touching of feet to another’s body, even accidentally, is considered disrespectful. If that happens an apology is expected and is appreciated.
7. Politeness and Respect for Elders Muslims are very focused on the dynamic of the relationship between the young and elderly. Many gestures that might seem okay for young adults to indulge in are considered rude in the presence of elders, e.g. one may beckon a peer with the index finger, but never an older person. Such expressions from small children are not considered offensive. A certain amount of decorum is expected to be maintained when talking or interacting with elderly/older persons. Calling them by their first name or their last name without the prefix of Mr., Mrs., or Miss is considered rude among Muslims and Asians, though second generations living in Western societies might have become used to it. It is always best to let them clarify what they prefer to be called. Standing up to greet guests, especially elders, opening doors for them, giving one’s seat up for them, not interrupting and maintaining a generally respectful demeanor towards them is highly appreciated.
8. Dietary Restrictions Pork and its products and alcoholic drink are haram (forbidden) in Islam. Muslims eat halal meat which is meat slaughtered in the Islamic way and blessed with the name of God. Use of alcohol in products for medicinal purposes is allowed.
9. Emergency Treatment Generally, a doctor or paramedic of the same gender is preferred by most Muslims, especially Muslim women. However, in emergency situations to save a life or prevent injury, it is acceptable to be treated and handled by the opposite gender. Privacy is of utmost importance. The presence of a family member who might want to be present is also appreciated.
10. On Avoiding Pets Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and one of the requirements for prayer is to be clean in body and clothes. Animal saliva, blood, and human bodily secretions, etc. need to be washed off before prayer. To avoid having to wash excessively, Muslims generally do not keep dogs as pets in their homes and avoid contact with them beyond patting. No offense is meant to the dog owners.
11. Eid-ui-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which is 11 days shorter than the Solar calendar. Hence, Islamic holidays shift each year. Ramadan falls in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad in this month. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of month-long fasting. Fasting means Muslims do not eat or drink after sunrise and before sunset. The greeting of “Eid Mubarak” (Happy Eid) is used to wish Muslims well on this day. Eid al-Adha begins on the 10th day of Dhu’l-Hijja, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Lasting for three days, it occurs at the conclusion of the annual Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid-ul-Adha is an occasion to commemorate Abraham’s obedience to Allah.
12. Removing shoes when entering the home Removing shoes when entering a Muslim house is appreciated for cleanliness reasons, especially when shoes are muddy. Most Muslims keep separate shoes for wearing indoors. It is best to ask hosts if they would like the guests to remove their shoes: usually they will respond with, “No, that’s fine.” or “If you like.” Most people prefer shoe-removing by children because children’s shoes are often not clean. Emergency responders are not expected to follow any such custom.
13. Sitting with soles of feet or shoes facing a person sitting close by This may be considered impolite in some Muslim countries, Japan, Thailand, and also in France and England during business meetings.
14. Turning head from side-to-side to say “No” This means “Yes” in the Middle East and in parts of India and Europe.
15. Holding up the hand, fingers extended and palm facing outward meaning “stop” In Iraq, this gesture means “Come ahead.”
16. Passing an item to someone with the left hand This may be considered rude by some Muslims. It is also regarded as an impolite gesture in Italy.
17. Drawing prophets This is a sensitive issue for Muslims and has been the cause of much controversy lately. It is considered highly disrespectful to draw a visual representation of any prophet. This is attributed to the fact that it might lead to idol worship and challenge the whole concept of monotheism, which is a central tenet of Islam. Written accounts of the prophets’ physical descriptions are, however, present in historical texts and Holy Scriptures. In the Islamic Faith, the respect and consideration accorded to the Prophet Muhammad is extended to all prophets of God.