One thing I absolutely don’t miss after having left my conservative Muslim community: much of the reading material on Islam available in English.
Every so often, there’s a minor dust-up in the media when some non-Muslim reporter or advocacy group or curious individual runs across a book or pamphlet in an “Islamic bookstore.” Or gets a glimpse of teaching materials used in weekend “Islamic schools.” Or something of that nature.
Nowadays, I’m afraid that my response to such media attention to what some Muslims apparently read (or want their kids to read) is two-fold. First, I look the article over, and think to myself, “What? They’re only fussing about that?” And then I realize that I have become pretty much unmoved by so many ideas often found in Muslim books and pamphlets (and nowadays, on the internet) that in any other context, I would find shocking or outrageous.
Down through the years, the usual response of most Muslims that I have observed to such media dust-ups has tended to fall into three main categories: First, those who shrug and refuse to get excited about it one way or another (i.e. the majority). Second, those who go on the offensive, claiming that this is an issue of freedom of speech as well as religious freedom, and challenging the media to go after other religious groups propagating illiberal ideas instead for a change. And third, those who assert that this is an anomaly; that it isn’t representative of the literature that most Muslims in North America write or read, and that the media is blowing the issue way out of proportion.
There is one other response: Those who feel strongly enough that the existing books and pamphlets are inadequate try to write their own, alternative literature. Which is another post altogether.
Sure, there may be sensationalistic motives afoot in some media coverage of this type. But whatever the motivations or concerns of reporters or other “outsiders” to conservative Muslim communities that I lived in or associated with that used, read or circulated such controversial books and pamphlets, looking back, I can see that they did in fact have a lasting and mostly negative impact on me, and on some of the converts I knew too. To say nothing of our kids.
It may well be true that relatively few North American Muslims in general read these things, and that even fewer really take them seriously. I would also question the extent to which reading materials assigned to Muslim kids in a weekend or full-time Islamic school are carefully read over or internalized by most of the kids who attend them. When religion is forced on you—especially when you’d much rather be off with your friends or doing something fun—it doesn’t tend to hold your attention.
But in our case, we were converts, in a pre-internet world. Books on Islam were few and far between, and many of those that did exist were inaccessible to us for various reasons. Few libraries had much, except some university libraries. Even university libraries (if you happened to live near one and could get into it) mostly had books that either weren’t in English, or were written by academics for academics, so they were way over our heads, and didn’t tell us the things we most wanted to know anyway. Mainstream bookstores didn’t usually have much if anything either.
We needed books for several reasons. Partly, to learn the basics of our faith. I learned how to pray from a book rather than from people. Early marriage coupled with poverty, plus living in an area where Muslims were few meant that I did not really have access to a community at first. I don’t know if there were any sisters’ halaqas in that place, but even if there had been (and they’d been in English), I wouldn’t have been able to afford the bus fare to get to the mosque to attend them.
Even once I had access to community, I and my convert friends continued reading this stuff in order to see images of ourselves, and to feel not so alone. We were looking for guidance and inspiration. As women, our access to mosques and teaching circles was restricted, and as English speakers, we couldn’t understand many of the sermons, talks and other events anyway. Once we had small children to care for, our ability to attend such things was even more limited. As people with very limited financial resources, the few cassette and video tapes of sermons, conference talks, etc in English that we sometimes saw were often unaffordable.
So, the books and pamphlets it was. Cheap stuff, usually. Published in places such as Pakistan or India, typeset on cheap paper, full of typos and words and expressions that we weren’t sure of the meaning of (“lakh”, “lungee”, “tank” [of water]….) This material was often admonitory, and presented Islam in very black and white terms. It quoted a lot of hadiths as proof-texts. Many of them were pretty scary.
It was from literature like this that I first learned things such as: Muslims must not greet non-Muslims with salaam. Muslims must not pray for dead non-Muslims. A woman must give her husband sexual access whenever he desires it, or the angels will curse her until morning (it’s a hadith). Most women will be in hell, because they aren’t grateful to their husbands, and they curse too much and are worldly (another hadith). The prayers of a disobedient wife will not be heard by God (hadith again). Using birth-control is sinful and shows a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for his creation. That if it were allowed for any person to prostrate themselves before another, then women would be commanded to prostrate themselves before their husbands (hadith again). If a woman asks for divorce without a strong reason, then the fragrance of the Garden (of paradise) will be forbidden to her (it’s a hadith).
These books and pamphlets were often heavy on rules. And on laying on the guilt. Especially those books and pamphlets specifically aimed at women. They were also very anti-“west.” “The West” and “Western culture” was presented as the polar opposite of everything Islamic, wholesome or virtuous. “The Western woman” was usually depicted as a “loose” woman who dresses provocatively, neglects her family, and has no moral or religious values. The main thing that distinguishes her from a whore is supposedly that she doesn’t charge men money to sleep with her.
From this type of literature, I learned certain attitudes and mental habits: A strong focus on rules and rule-following. The idea that the most important thing about being Muslim (aside from the Shahada) is rules and rule-following, especially the rules that make you most different from non-Muslims (dress, halaal meat, purity practices, etc). That a very literalistic way of reading religious texts was the only acceptable “Islamic” approach to them. That I shouldn’t ask searching questions about what the likely end result will be of certain decisions (such as not using birth control), because all you need to know is what God supposedly wants. That I should always feel guilty, because for sure I hadn’t managed to be modest enough, obedient enough, self-effacing enough, domestic enough. That there is something fundamentally wrong with being a Western woman, and that I am irredeemably tainted simply by this accident of birth.
In time, I would encounter other conservative Muslims (often Arabs) who thought that most of those books and pamphlets were not a very reliable source of Islamic knowledge—sometimes mainly for racist reasons (because they had been authored by Pakistanis and Indians), and sometimes because they had somewhat more liberal views on certain issues, and felt that this type of literature oversimplified these. I also encountered more nuanced views of hadiths, which differentiated between hadiths that were “authentic” and those that were less so, as well as those who explained hadiths with reference to others rather than taking each hadith at face value. And, I encountered apologetic readings of some of these hadiths that were intended to make them less troubling to modern, educated audiences.
However. By and large, I would say that the main attitudes and mental habits that I learned from this literature were more often reinforced than called into question in the conservative Muslim communities that I associated with or was involved in.
These books and pamphlets were often deeply troubling to us. Partly because a lot of what they said didn’t seem to jibe with what other materials that we had encountered before or soon after converting, such as Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Qur’an (with notes), or pamphlets such as Jamal Badawi’s “The Status of Woman in Islam,” which claimed that Islam is about fairness, justice and equal dignity in the eyes of God. So, we were forever busy trying to reconcile these two apparently divergent views of our place as women in Islam. Trying to make it work, to make it all make sense. To somehow find fairness, justice and dignity in guilt, self-hatred and internalized misogyny.
It was crazy-making, really. And the results seem to be more lasting than I had ever anticipated.
I was shocked recently when I was walking down the road, thinking about nothing in particular, and the hadith that states that a woman who asks for divorce without a strong reason will be denied even the scent of the fragrance of the garden popped into my head, unbidden. Followed immediately by a sinking feeling, the fear that “that’s me; I’m damned.”
Where did this come from? I hadn’t been thinking consciously about divorce, or even about anything related to marriage or family!
I am finding that the guilt dies hard. The guilt, the low self-esteem, the self-hatred. Even once you don’t rationally accept the ideas in these pamphlets and books any more, that stuff can stay with you for a long, long time.