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.
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?