How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #89

Because it gave us knowledge of everything. And knowledge is power.

The conservative brands of Islam that I came to know intimately all had one thing in common: they gave you knowledge of everything. Everything in this world that mattered, anyway, as well as a glimpse of the next.

We thought we knew it all. Or at least, that the leaders we followed knew it all. So, through them, we had access to all the secrets of the universe. Every aspect of life could be fitted into this handy template that they supplied us with… so we thought we knew where everything (and everyone) belonged. (

Whatever question you might have, there was a plausible-sounding, coherent answer for. Often, a fairly straightforward answer. All you had to do was to ask an imam, a shaykh, or a person known for their Islamic knowledge.

Any question at all. Ritual questions. Legal questions. Ethical questions. Practical questions. Theological questions. Eschatological questions. Questions about how Islamic beliefs stack up against other religions. Historical questions. Psychological questions. And so on.

Of course, there often wasn’t one single answer. Especially not if you were asking ritual or legal questions, because the Sunnis have four main legal schools (as well as others that did not survive until today). But regardless of the technical details of the answer, there was a template, which (with a little practice) you yourself could use, and bring order out of the chaos of your experience.

The world made sense, because we learned how to slot every question, every experience, every situation or thing that we encountered or read or heard about into its “correct” place in the scheme of things. And because we could do that, we gained a feeling of control over our lives. And, sad to say, over the lives of others.

As new converts, we found a lot of things confusing. So many Arabic words, so many different legal views, so many scholars (living and dead), so many sects, so many hotly debated issues…. Not only were all these new things a lot to wrap our heads around, but the question of how all this applied to our daily lives as Muslims was even more difficult for us to determine. And we weren’t left in peace to try and gradually sort it out for ourselves, either—from every side, we were being pressured to do or not do (or believe/not believe) certain things. Pressured not just by other Muslims, but by our circumstances, as well as sometimes by our (non-Muslim) birth families, who were often less than thrilled by our conversions.

And to make it all even more anxiety-producing, our salvation depended on us determining the “right” answers to so many complex issues. Or, so we were given to understand. What if we chose wrongly? And what about our kids’ salvation?

As we worried about these things, unfortunately enough (though, we thought it was very fortunate at the time), there were lots of self-appointed would-be Muslim “leaders” in search of followers. They told people like us that we absolutely needed a dependable source of Islamic guidance. Trying to make our own choices about such heaven-and-hell issues would surely lead us to follow our nafs (lower self), our base desires, our whims… we had to follow “the people of knowledge.”

These would-be “leaders” had various approaches to Islam—Salafi or Salafi-influenced, neo-traditionalist (of various types), Sufi…. But whatever their approach, or the level of “Islamic knowledge” that they had (or claimed to have), they had a common mistrust of the human conscience, as well as the ability of the average human being to make reasonable decisions. They did their best to undermine their followers’ confidence in their own decision-making abilities—especially when these were female followers. Because when you don’t have the ability to make your own decisions (or you think you haven’t), then you need their guidance. For just about every detail of your life.

But with their guidance, nothing could disturb your faith. Because everything has an answer. At least, an answer of a sort, because you can categorize things. Disturbing questions about the justice of certain Sharia laws are just misgivings brought on by having been raised in a secular modern society.  Muslims who pose disturbing questions are either misled by modernity, or they just don’t have any understanding of “what the great scholars of the past said.” Or, they don’t have the spiritual stature to appreciate the inner meanings and elevated wisdom of Islamic teachings. Muslims who say that they were abused by people or governments justifying themselves by Islamic laws are reacting wrongly and impiously to the trials that God has seen fit to place on them. Our faith was bullet-proof… and compassion-proof.

Looking back, I can see that these sorts of arguments appeal to a false humility which is really pride and snobbishness. We felt chosen, set apart, honored by God (and by the leaders) to have been given such guidance—guidance that most other modern people (especially in godless North America) hadn’t received.

Looking back, I can say that my conscience was pretty much gutted by this type of approach to Islam. In the midst of all the rules and regulations and admonitions about not causing fitna by voicing doubts about the wisdom of such-and-such “scholar,” or how we can’t disagree with Brother X doing what-ever-it-is because the Qur’an says x and the hadith says y and Imam Shafi’i and most of the scholars in the Shafi’i madhhab say z so it’s ok for Brother X to do that, even if it seems wrong and abusive to us…. that “still small voice” within me almost died.

When you barely have a conscience any more, what do you have? A set of legal rules, approved sunna behaviors and pious attitudes. The opinions of the (male) scholars, past and present. The decisions of the (male) scholar(s) or leader(s) that you follow. Highly idealized stories from the lives of the Companions or saintly people, usually of the past, and most often male.

All other people’s ideas, other people’s decisions, other people’s rulings, other people’s lives. Not yours.

What results? Or at least, what can result?

This sort of thing can create a very favorable climate for abuse to take place. Since what is mean, unfair, petty, unfair, or abusive is defined by religious texts (usually, old religious texts) as interpreted by scholars and leaders, then how a given course of action might actually be impacting a real, live human being becomes rather irrelevant. And, “religious excuses” for those with more power to act in ways that further disadvantage others with less power are legion.

Sometimes, especially in small, insular, conservative, inward-looking groups, a lot of nastiness results. Small-minded stuff, though it can be traumatizing to some people over an extended period of time, and also to children raised in such an atmosphere. But sometimes abuses result, especially in marriages and families. Abuses that everyone pretty much knows are going on, but that are excused. Winked at. Or even hailed as moral.

Without a functioning conscience, you have no independent basis from which to judge anything that is going on. Perhaps it is making you uneasy, for reasons you can’t explain—but that must be a trick of the nafs. Or, it is satanic whisperings. As a westerner born into this secular, blasphemously modern society, you are especially vulnerable to being tricked by your nafs. You need to keep quiet, and stay out of stuff that isn’t any of your business.

You know everything. You have the keys to the secrets of the universe—or at least, you have access to them through your leaders, who have told you what God and his Prophet want you to do.

But you have little or no moral sense. Little or no conscience.

What dignity, what integrity are left to anyone after that?

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  1. #1 by x_x on July 15, 2012 - 12:59 am

    “Trying to make our own choices about such heaven-and-hell issues would surely lead us to follow our nafs (lower self), our base desires, our whims… we had to follow ‘the people of knowledge’.” Grrrr.

    “Looking back, I can say that my conscience was pretty much gutted by this type of approach to Islam.”

    For me, not gutted. Stultified, maybe? Beaten into submission? Tortured? If it had been gutted, I’d still be there, I think, spouting the same old crap I used to spout. I *knew* when I was going against my conscience but my intellect kept telling me I must be wrong because the ulama are right. I used to argue so strongly for the way of the ulama, like my life depended on it. I think now I was so damn earnest because I was waiting for someone to prove me wrong and let me know my conscience was right. Unfortunately, I am really good at arguing. lol.

    I was at a talk today given by Mahdi Tourage in which he made a similar argument by means of some philosophical playfulness (that included Juha stories and some ribald Persian poetry). I think he said that morality is when one is gives oneself over one’s conscience and the struggles that arise from that.

    • #2 by xcwn on July 15, 2012 - 1:57 am

      X_X: I am not sure if I really `knew` when I was going against my conscience, at least not consciously. There was a small part of me that kept asking critical questions about what was going on, and it refused to die entirely. But I definitely distrusted it. I often thought it was satanic whisperings, or traces of modern secular indoctrination that I hadn`t yet managed to expunge.

      The ideal kind of woman in The Cult was to be what they called a `Traditional Woman`. Which meant that you didn`t ask reflective questions about things, you just fulfilled your duties as a woman, wife, mother, etc. in a quiet, self-effacing way. You served. You bore children. You prayed and fasted. You didn`t question the justice of the Sharia, or your place in the world (or in the group). There really was no place for having a conscience in that world, especially not for women.

      • #3 by x_x on July 15, 2012 - 3:02 pm

        Yes! Totally! I thought they were Satanic as well! But when I look back, I interpret that to mean I knew. The knowledge never left me but the manipulation made me distrust what I knew. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

  2. #4 by xcwn on July 15, 2012 - 6:47 pm

    x_x: Yes, we lived with killer amounts of cognitive dissonance. Yet our leaders were the same folks who told us that intoxicants of any sort are haraam because they interfere with your ability to use your mind….

  3. #5 by Saliha on July 15, 2012 - 10:47 pm

    ” Yes, we lived with killer amounts of cognitive dissonance. Yet our leaders were the same folks who told us that intoxicants of any sort are haraam because they interfere with your ability to use your mind….”

    Oh, that’s one hell of a point.

    Compassion has always been such a key part of my worldview, I think when the Islam that I’ve practiced clashed with compassion in a major way, that’s when I really balked. That was my “no.” In my Courting Kufr posts, my breaking moment was really about not only a fatwa that justified the unjustifiable, but the way I saw people react to it. I was just shocked that other people tried to wrap their minds around it, that other people didn’t go, “okay, that’s it. This is bullshit. I’m done.” But then, even though I stood my ground on that issue and a few others, I still continued to hold on to things that weren’t worth holding on to. I guess that’s why I find myself in a similar place today. I didn’t do *all* the work. And, as you note, it’s the answers.

    I didn’t do all the work I needed to do because I could only justify my rejection of some things that I had been taught were essential to faith. I couldn’t find an “Islamic” way to justify my rejection of other things. I didn’t have the answers anymore and that was terrifying, because if I didn’t have the answers then I couldn’t really call myself a Muslim, could I?

    Right now, I’m in a place where I need to embrace the unknown. I consider that a key part of my spiritual journey. I’ve grown to understand that I don’t owe anyone explanations for what I believe or what I reject, not even myself. It’s okay for me to say , “no,that’s unacceptable and I refuse to believe it.

    I read this in a book on self-love last night, “Loving myself enough to follow my heart through and beyond the walls of my religion has been one of the most challenging and rewarding acts of
    love that I’ve committed.”

    That spoke to my soul.

    • #6 by xcwn on July 15, 2012 - 11:35 pm

      Saliha: If I had held made compassion central to my faith, I wouldn’t have remained a conservative Muslim nearly as long as I did. But we didn’t see compassion as all that important. In fact, we were taught to distrust it. Because compassion was probably a cover for sentimentality, and it might lead us to choose human sentiments over divine laws. Which would be shirk. But this needs another post… anyway, I am so glad to be (mostly) out of that way of thinking. Though, it tends not to fade very quickly, I’ve noticed.

      I’ve been reading your “Courting Kufr” posts, and finding them really thought-provoking. Yes, I agree that we have to be willing to embrace the unknown. The idea that being a Muslim means knowing everything (or thinking that someone else does) has led to such awful results in my experience.

  1. Worthwhile Reads: An answer for everything

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