Whenever a Allah sent to a Prophet or Messenger to a nation, he sent one who spoke the language of his people. Most of them were from the very people they were sent to. This ensured that they shared the same cultural background and would know best how to address the people, increasing the likelihood that their message would be accepted.
While the question of Allah’s existence and the principle of monotheism are perfectly clear, universal, and non-negotiable, there are many matters of life that were not addressed by revelation. In these matters, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) generally preferred to conform with the people in their customs. He did not change their norms and practices unnecessarily. When he opened up Mecca, he left the people to their way of building, their manner of cooking , their modes of interacting, and their broad social institutions, except in those few matters where ethical considerations made reform necessary.
Islam prohibited a number of behaviors that were prevalent in Meccan society. These included drinking, gambling, burying infant girls, killing infant sins, lewd dress, taking mistresses, tribal bigotry, and clan feuding. These were harmful, corrupt customs. They stemmed from the widespread ignorance that pervaded Meccan society before the coming of Islam.
At the same time, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) upheld a number of customs, like respect for the sacred months, the prohibition of incest, the requirement to bathe after sexual intercourse, clipping the fingernails, and male circumcision.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) approached the customs and traditions of the people of Madinah in the same way. He encouraged their practice of lawful and moderate singing on special occasions. Once while attending a wedding, he said to `Ā’ishah: “Do you not have any entertainments for them? The people of Madinah like entertainment.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī
As for their style of cuisine and other similar matters, they were left entirely to their own tastes.
The women of Madinah were far more assertive than their Meccan counterparts. The Prophet encouraged the Madinite women to ask questions and seek religious knowledge. Indeed, they were praised that their shyness did not prevent them from asking about what they needed to know. `Ā’ishah particularly admired this quality of theirs.
Asmā’, the daughter of Abū Bakr, describes her married life in Madinah, which was quite different than Meccan custom would have had it:
When al-Zubayr married me, he had no real property or servant or anything else except a camel which drew water from the well, and his horse. I used to feed his horse with fodder, draw water mend the bucket for drawing it, and prepare the dough, but I did not know how to bake bread. So our Madinite neighbors, truly honest ladies, used to bake the bread for me.
The women of Madinah used to help their husbands in home repairs. They were also assertive in securing their Islamic rights against the bad customs of their day. They appealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) against being forced into marriage. The case of Khansā; bint Khidām is a good example. They complained about being barred from their inheritance, as we see in the case where the Prophet intervened to distribute to the daughters of Sa`d b. Rabī` their father’s estate. They appealed against the tendency of their men to make an oath of abstention by declaring their wives to be “like their mothers’ backs”, as we see in the case of Khawlah bint Tha`labah. We also see how they sought to secure divorce from their unwanted husbands by resorting to a no-fault divorce (khul`
), like in the case of Thābit b. Qays.
Anas b. Mālik once asked the Prophet about marrying from the Madinite women. He advised Anas by saying: “Know that they have a tendency to be extremely jealous.” [Sunan al-Nasā’ī
A number of Madinite women, like Nusaybah bint Ka`b, were present at the great oath of allegiance when Madinah opened its doors to the Meccan Muslims.
Umm `Atiyyah, the Prophet’s Madinite wife said: “I participated in seven campaigns with Allah’s Messenger. I stayed back at the camp preparing food, treating wounds, and tending to the sick.” [Sahīh Muslim
Once, a Madinite woman was taken prisoner, and she managed to escape on the Prophet’s camel al-`Adba, which had also been seized by her captors. [Sahīh Muslim
The Madinite women were also known for the extra care they took in beautifying themselves for their husbands, as we can discern in the story of Abū Haythamah when he was late in departing for Tabuk, and in the story of Umm Sulaym when she beautified herself for her husband Abū Talhah on the day their young son passed away.
`Umar once said: “Assembled tribesmen of Quraysh, we are a people who had our women under control, but when we came to Madinah, we found a people whose women had control of them, and our women have learned their ways from them.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī
and Sahīh Muslim
Even the customs of sexual intimacy were different between the people of Mecca and Madinah, which led to some difficulties. Ibn `Abbās explained the incident surrounding the revelation of the verse: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you like.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah
: 223]. He said:
A certain sector of Quraysh engaged with their women in a number of unusual ways, enjoying approaching (the vagina) from the front, the back, and lying on their backs. When the Emigrants came to Madinah, one of their men married a Madinite woman. He went and behaved this way with her, and she considered this to be wrong. She said: “We have a particular custom in the way that we are approached. Either do it that way, or keep away from me.”
Their problem was brought before the Prophet, and the verse was revealed: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you like.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd]
The Madinites had a superstition that if a man approached his wife’s vagina from the back, the child would be born with a squint. Islam clarified that this was just a superstition.
The woman of Madinah had their own mode of dress. `Ā’ishah relates:
When the verse was revealed “Let them pull their head coverings over their bosums” the Madinite women cut pieces of cloth from the edges of their skirts and covered their heads with them.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī]
The fact that she mentions the Madinite women specifically in the manner in which they complied with this command shows that they were dressing different than the Emigrant women, and therefore responded to the verse in their own way.
Of course, a number of other Madinite customs were changed. They had a variety of customary greetings which were replaced by the greeting of peace.
Also, Madinah had a number of communities living in it with various customs. In matters wherein the Prophet received no revelation, he generally gave preference to the customs of the People of the Book who lived in Madinah over the pre-Islamic pagan customs.
Ibn `Abbās relates:
People of the Book used to let their hair fall (on their foreheads) and the polytheists used to part their hair. Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) liked to conform his behavior to that of the People of the Book in matters in which he received no command from Allah ; so he let his hair fall his hair upon his forehead. Afterwards, he began to part it. [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim]
In another narration, it reads:
If he was in doubt about a matter wherein he received no command from Allah, he would adopt the practice of the People of the Book.
The Prophet later on parted his hair, since doing ceased to be a distinguishing feature of the pagans, especially after most of them embraced Islam, keeping their hairstyle.
At times, the Prophet specifically departed from the customs of Madinah’s Jewish community when the matter had religious or ethical dimensions. We see this in his fasting `Āshūrā’ two days instead of one, his turning the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, and his rejecting the practice of shunning one’s wife during her menstruation. The Prophet only prohibited sexual intercourse at this time. Otherwise, the husband and wife continued to interact as normal.
When it came to adopting general customs, the Prophet simply did what he thought would bring about the best result. The jurist al-Qurtubī observed: “The Prophet used to conform with the customs of the People of the Book to win their hearts. When he saw this did not have the desired effect, he preferred to differ from them. But this way just a preference and not a religious obligation.”
The idea of conforming with one practice or another in permissible matters was simply a matter of choice, not a matter of Islamic principles, one in which the Prophet considered the sentiments of the members of the community in which he lived.
The jurist Ibn `Aqīl observed: “It is inappropriate to depart from the customs of the people in anything unless that custom entails something forbidden in Islam.”
There are texts that encourage the Muslims to distinguish themselves from other religious communities in their beliefs, religious rites, and outward expressions of religious identity.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “You will follow in the ways of those who came before you so closely that even if they were to enter the hole of a sand-lizard, you would follow them into it.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī
and Sahīh Muslim
We must take note that the Prophet chose as his example that of following them into a lizard hole, an action wherein there is no benefit, wisdom, or significance to warrant doing so. The Prophet’s words also indicate that this following would be commonplace and not something exceptional or unusual. However, his tone is one of warning, calling our attention to the negative aspects of such behavior.
There are clear cases where differing from people of other faith communities is emphasized, particularly in religious practices. We see this in the Prophet opting for the call to prayer instead of using a bell, his prohibition of certain behaviors in prayer that resemble those of the Jews, his prohibiting offering further formal prayers after the Morning and Afternoon prayers, and his prohibition of fasting consecutive days without breaking the fast at night, which is a practice of the Christians.