How we were sold on patriarchal religion: reason #97

In a word: adab.

Not so much how we were sold on patriarchal religion initially, but definitely an important reason why we couldn’t ask critical questions about it for the longest time.

Knowing your “proper place” and staying quietly in it is the best way to avoid being told to watch your adab. Even if your “proper place” is small, cramped and doesn’t allow you to see or hear properly….

Adab. Good behavior, refinement of character. It sounded like a much-needed antidote to the harsh angry black-and-white take no prisoners Salafi-influenced rhetoric that we had had way too much of. As in, let’s have a civilized Muslim discourse in which the speaker doesn’t accuse those he doesn’t agree with of being kafirs, and different perspectives can receive a hearing. Nice idea, in theory. But in practice?

Too often, adab became a handy way to shut people down. And up. Especially women. Most especially young, convert women. Because in the end, adab was all about power, not civility or respect for others. So those with more power  (or aspirations to cozy up to those with more power) played the “careful of your adab” card on others.

There was such a long list of things that were bad adab, in a conservative, insular and cultish community I was involved in:

-Asking most kinds of critical questions, whether about the Qur’an, the hadith, fiqh, the life of the Prophet… and so on.

-Not unquestioningly following what we were taught is the sunna. Even if it didn’t make sense, or seemed absurd or unnecessary.

-Any kind of parody, joking, satire, etc about scholars or religious leaders who were deemed worthy of respect.

-Questioning the decisions of the leaders. Especially if you were a woman.

-Especially, any public questioning, or “airing dirty laundry.”

-A woman not behaving with the “appropriate” degree of reserve in public, or not contentedly staying in the space allotted for “the sisters”.

-Not giving the benefit of the doubt to other Muslims (at least, if they share your beliefs), especially if they are scholars or respected leaders.

The notion that you had to watch your adab was used basically as a thought-stopping technique. Its effect was to declare large swathes of thought off-limits. As well as to make a lot of important topics of conversation difficult to discuss in any depth.

So, for example, a friend of mine had heard the story of Lot referred to once too often as THE quranic justification for why homosexuality is a terrible sin, and had the temerity to ask how the story of Lot could possibly be used as a source of moral guidance, given that Lot offered his daughters to the mob, to do with what they wanted. The answer my friend received? It’s bad adab and totally unacceptable to question the reported actions of any of God’s prophets.

This of course got the leader faced with this question off the hook—he now didn’t have to answer it, which was lucky since he probably didn’t have a coherent response. And my friend felt too ashamed to try to press the point. Which solved the short-term problem, from the leader’s vantage-point, at least—but ultimately was a loss for all concerned. Rather than engage with a theologically challenging question, both the leader and my friend short-circuited what could have been an enriching process, in favor of falling in line with received ideas of what is proper and acceptable.

It was such a poisonous atmosphere, especially for any kind of critical thought. We were often second-guessing ourselves, afraid of inadvertently erring by posing a question or making a comment that would constitute bad adab. And it was yet another tactic in the arsenal of religious bullies, who wanted to silence, exclude and belittle their fellow believers—all in the name of giving nasiha, of course.

It’s depressing to see the whole “adab” argument often invoked in Muslim discussions online, especially in order to shut down discussion critical of certain leaders or ideas, or satire. Including by people who pride themselves on being anti-racist and know full well that “the tone argument” is a derailing tactic—but somehow don’t see a problem with reproving angry or satirical bloggers for their “lack of adab”, which supposedly prevents whatever valid concerns they might conceivably have from being heard.

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  1. #1 by Anonymous// on September 19, 2012 - 9:28 pm

    In the case you mention it doesn’t sound much like evasion, more like your friend was insulting a Prophet. I’m sure she would have got something closer to an answer had she actually posed a real question as opposed to insulting a Prophet with a rhetorical one. If she is a Muslim she should understand that there is such a thing as respect. No moral high ground for you on that particular occasion.

    • #2 by xcwn on September 19, 2012 - 10:59 pm

      Anonymous//—Insulting a prophet? How so? My friend was asking an honest question, and she asked it respectfully. She didn’t see how Lot trying to give his daughters to the mob (which was bent on raping Lot’s guests, so little doubt about what they would have done with his daughters…) could be a moral act. And if it’s not a moral act, then the entire story can’t be read literally as a simplistic morality tale.

      The whole “watch your adab” mindset found in that group prevented thoughtful questioning, no matter how carefully or respectfully it was phrased. Once using your intelligence and being willing to ask hard questions becomes labelled as being disrespectful, then this becomes a means of silencing and control. In the end, the loss is the community’s.

      • #3 by Anonymous// on September 20, 2012 - 6:03 am

        Sorry, from the way you described it it sounded like an indignant outburst. I have absolutely no problem with any question at all, as long as it is put politely. I don’t feel that thoughtless provocation deserves an intelligent response, otherwise. I can offer an answer to your question if that would help.

  2. #4 by mary on September 21, 2012 - 8:55 pm

    I got kicked out of a Facebook group 2 days ago for daring to ask why neckties and business suits are sinful, as is not wearing a beard. I was called “crazy” and was blocked. But the question I am booted out most often for is the one where I challenge what is meant by the idea that a wife should be “obedient.” By its very nature it is a “disobedient” question.

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