When your theological status is a game

When your existence, your theological status is a game. A counter in someone else’s hand, that can be used for scoring points against an opponent in a debate. A joke, even. What can you do?

So little is really given to us to know. But an important part of my recovery from life in a very conservative religious community is countering the messages I internalized that in effect made my life a triviality. One thing I do know is how damaging that can be.

As a female convert, I soon encountered two things: One, an apologetic discourse that claimed that “according to Islam” women had certain rights, that could not be taken away because God had given these rights to them. Two, communities and individuals with leading or influential positions in these communities who were never short of arguments explaining that although in theory a girl or woman might have the right to do or have X, in reality, taking that right away was perfectly justifiable in that circumstance.

The result was that almost any right that girls or women supposedly have was always up for debate. You could never count on being able to continuously enjoy rights you had, either, because it could at any time be decided that the circumstances that had previously made this justifiable had changed.

You could educate yourself in the ins and outs of the apologetic discourse all you liked. For many years, I and my convert friends were convinced that this was THE answer. Out-quote those who want to severely limit your education/keep you out of the mosque/tell you you can’t laugh in the hearing of unrelated men/prevent you from working outside the home/keep you from talking to your best friend because she’s getting some unorthodox ideas/refuse to pay you your mahr/etc. Quote the Qur’an, the hadith, the views of scholars past and present, historical examples… and get your “legitimate” rights.

It took us a while to realize that the whole thing was rigged against us. Because in the end, it is about power.


Those with more power, influence, access to education, leisure time to read and think, a greater voice in the community… would be heard, and we wouldn’t be. Because we didn’t have the power to define the terms of the debate. Our voices, our thoughts, our subjectivities didn’t matter. The voices, desires, ideas and subjectivities of our husbands/(male) leaders/senior males in the community were what counted. After all, it was they who had been given the position of leadership over women and children, and the right to make decisions for the supposed benefit of the family and the community.

This caused many practical problems in our lives, of course. But the larger question was theological.

Did God want things to be this way? Were we supposed to just put up with whatever others (typically, powerful men, but occasionally influential women) decided about what we were to do and be? If we resisted, even after we had been told that those with more power that according to the Qur’an/hadith/scholars/historical precedent everything was quite ok, were we rebelling against God?

As a former neo-traditionalist, I took the theological dimension of these types of questions very seriously. In the end, I was willing to seriously entertain the notion that yes, God did want things to be this way. Because there didn’t seem to be any logical way to argue against it. There is no shortage of proof-texts that can be quoted in favor of women (and children, and slaves, and subjects) submitting, obeying, being patient, and not resisting the authority of their husbands (or parents or owners or rulers). And before the nineteenth century, what Muslim scholar (or for that matter, what religious scholar of weight in any faith tradition whatsoever) had seriously questioned the patriarchal nature of marriage and the family, or challenged the legitimacy of slavery as an institution?

Could the overwhelming majority of human beings have been so very wrong about what God wants since the dawn of recorded human history, up until the nineteenth century??

If so, how do we know that we are closer to understanding what God wants now?

Reality did continuously collide with my attempts to make theological sense of our situations as female converts in a highly conservative, insular community (which turned out to be a cult), in really bad marriages. Things would happen that would make me seriously wonder if this could possibly be what God wants.

Did God really want to see grown, intelligent women reduced to child-like status, begging their husbands for “permission” to do this and that mundane thing?

Did God approve when men made religious arguments justifying outrageously irresponsible behavior toward their families, and the influential men in the community either nodded or kept quiet?

Don’t women as well as men want to be able to learn, grow, and make autonomous, considered adult decisions about their own lives? How is it that when pious men want these things, God usually approves and it is in accordance with men’s divinely given nature, but when pious women want these things, it is immediately problematic, and pious men have to lay down firm limits on how far this can go lest women go against their divinely given nature??

But I had been taught to ignore reality as a source of theological insight. The apologetic rationales (aka thought-stopping techniques) as well as pious derails would play in an endless loop in my mind:

  • The Islamic tradition is perfect, but human being are imperfect. So, injustice and abuse is the fault of humans and not the tradition itself.
  • You are overthinking this. The kitchen floor is dirty and the laundry needs doing; those would be better ways of spending your time and energy.
  • These questions are just the whisperings of the shaytan.
  • This is just from your nafs.
  • Modernity has misled us into thinking that this life is all there is. But everything that seems to be unjust here will be evened out in the next life.
  • Women have been warned about their tendency to be attracted to worldly things and to be ungrateful to their husbands. Most of those in hell will be women. How can you base a theological argument on your own female subjectivity and experience, when it is by nature flawed?
  • You are western and modern, so you are out of touch with your true female nature.
  • Your secular education has done nothing more than give you the knowledge of ignorance, so you can’t recognize true knowledge or wisdom.

…and so on.

I used to discuss these issues with convert friends of mine. I remember asking a convert who was about as independently-minded as you could hope to meet how she dealt with believing in obedience to her husband. Her response was that while she obeyed him, she could usually find a way to talking him into agreeing with anything she really wanted anyway.

In otherwords, subterfuge. Say you believe one thing, outwardly conform (at least, when the community is watching), but do another.

We had all sorts of ways of doing that, of dodging the real issue: Agreeing that “women in general” are deficient in intellect and religion, for instance. But privately resolving that this wouldn’t include us. Because we, unlike “women in general” were serious about our religion—at least, we hoped that it didn’t apply to us. We needed to work harder at doing regular sunna prayers and fasts, and step up our dhikr.

Forever looking for an escape hatch.

You can do that for a while, but in the end, the intellectual dishonesty involved becomes too much.

I asked another friend of mine about the “women are deficient in intellect and religion” hadith. She decided to ask one of the high-ups in the cult about it. That brother told her that yes, it is an authentic hadith, and yes, it is true. She told me that she expressed her reservations about it, but at the same time, her doubts that maybe as a woman, she didn’t have enough ‘aql to understand this hadith. The brother agreed. We both then wondered if perhaps God had given us brains as a sort of test. Like the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. To see if we would succumb the the temptation to actually use them. We were afraid that by thinking about these things, that we were already failing the test.

Yet in the end, I could not entirely surrender my mind. Mainly because I didn’t manage to kill what little remained of my conscience.

I really, really did my level best. But up it would bob again, like a cork that just won’t stay under water, finding logical fallacies in the beliefs that we had been taught about ourselves. I would silence and ignore it, as I had been taught to do. My salvation after all depended on it, I thought.

It was thinking about runaway slaves that began the process of unraveling the whole elaborate theology of self-deception that I was trapped in. The Cult, while wearing the mantle of Tradition, also went through a phase of glorifying Malcolm X, which was rather incoherent, given that Tradition (TM) also included the notion that slavery—at least in the past—was all part of the divine plan. Reading about Malcolm led to a whole lot of reading and thinking about American slavery and its aftermath. I found myself reading about slaves who risked their lives to be free, the measures taken by owners to prevent slaves from fleeing, the determination of black anti-slavery activists, and got a faint glimpse of just how strong the draw of freedom was. This didn’t accord at all with the vague apologetic bafflegab about slavery that I had encountered among certain neo-traditionalist Muslims. I began to read the hadiths warning that God will not hear the prayers of a runaway slave or a disobedient wife in a new light.

In the end, it was the realization that I couldn’t do this to my daughters.

No, I couldn’t in all honesty continue to inculcate these ideas into my daughters. I could and did teach them to wear hijab, to pray, to know the stories of the prophets, to recite the Qur’an… but I couldn’t tell them that they were in effect less than. To do this would be a violation of their trust in me, that I as their mother had their best interests in mind.

I couldn’t teach them that they are less intelligent. That their purpose in  life in the end is to cater to others (particularly, to their husbands).

I couldn’t teach them that it is an obligation to obey their husbands. Or that the angels would curse them if they ever said “no” to sex with their husbands, without a religiously valid excuse.

There were so many things I couldn’t teach them, I realized.

Which meant… what?

Surely, as a believing woman I should not hesitate to teach my daughters these things? Lots of converts did, I knew. Typically, after carefully wrapping such ideas in bubble-wrap, so that they don’t sound nearly as bad: Women aren’t lesser, they’re just different. That sort of thing. Why couldn’t I just go along with the bubble-wrapping and deal?

Because in the end, I couldn’t lie to them.

The bubble-wrap, I realized, was just modern eye-wash. Didn’t predate the invention of plastic by much more than a century. It was a departure from the hallowed past. Just as ideas of women’s legal equality are. But why was the first ok, and the second not, in the eyes of God?

Because in the end, I felt that I had to treat them in accordance with how I myself would wish to be treated.

And even more, because I couldn’t teach my daughters that in effect, their lives are trivial. That their future husbands, male community leaders, or any other men ought to be able to play dice with their lives, their aspirations, their consciences, their minds—whether due to religious scruples or on a whim. And that the only “legitimate” defence they have against this is the ability to quote proof-texts, or clauses that they had the foresight to insert in their marriage contracts… which might or might not work.

Such choices are in their own way traumatizing. Choices in which you feel forced to choose between the living up to what God wants, and following your conscience. They tear you apart in the end, and leave wholesale destruction in their wake.

In the end, we don’t know the mind of God. What we have is a cacophony of voices claiming that they know. And we have the evidence before us of what often results when we have humans who think that they certainly know what God wants in every situation, right down to the details of what everyone “should” be doing.

And, we have the wreckage that results from people trying to believe that they were created to be lesser, because people saying that they speak for God said so, and trying to stifle their minds and consciences in order to keep their belief-system intact. The psychological harm that can result, as well as damage to the children of such people is all too real.

When theological discussion about human beings turns into a game, a pursuit of logical oneupmanship that trivializes human lives, then it becomes immoral.

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  1. #1 by Ani on October 22, 2012 - 4:37 am

    Thank you for your honesty.

  2. #2 by mary on October 22, 2012 - 12:24 pm

    Why should religious faith ever be allowed to be used to exert power over anyone – unless the religion comes from those who want the power? That is the origin, unfortunately – the patriarchy from which Islam sprang, the power of a religion which was designed to control all aspects of the believer’s life. Islam is reflective of the culture of the Prophet and the insistence by scholars that Islam is “evergreen” and never to be reinterpreted (bidah is a sin) places the foot of its men on the necks of its women and girls. Women are to obey men, who are their “protectors”, are weak in their minds and subject to the whisperings of the Shaytan,, cannot be trusted to travel alone, cannot independently witness anything (“she can bring along a sister who can remind her”), are too untrustworthy and emotional to be permitted to divorce their husbands.. Where is God in all of this? I can ask him when I’m dead, but while I’m alive I’m supposed to suck it up. God is not a man, so why is he always speaking with a male voice? Maybe because it’s not God doing the talking.

    • #3 by NewtralHuman on December 6, 2012 - 7:16 pm

      I empathize with your view about the power politics in Muslim communities. Sincere query to you (or anyone here): how do we address The Creator with a gender-neutral pronoun in a reverent manner (in English) without distorting the idea of the Oneness of The Creator? I wish to consider your view.

  3. #4 by JDay on October 22, 2012 - 5:11 pm

    “Was Islam always like this? Was it always untouchable and beyond scrutiny? More serious study at graduate level led me to believe the case is actually the opposite. In the early years of Islam, free thinking was the norm. Muslims negotiated their religion with their current situation and absorbed whatever wisdom they encountered. If we read early Muslim philosophers, such as ibn al-Rawandi or Abu Bakr al-Razi, before orthodoxy reared its head and ossification took place, we would find that their notion of Islam was very different from what we perceive as Islamic today. They routinely questioned even the very notion of revelation and this was not a problem. Better to completely reject Islam than to lead a double life where one’s outward persona is Muslim but one’s internal state is elsewhere.
    ….Muslim self-loathing is not a pleasant experience. It eats at one’s soul and manifests as erosion of one’s commitment to one’s identity as a Muslim. You feel a distaste or dislike for some aspects of Islam or maybe even for Islam as a whole. This is not something that you can or should hide or push deep inside. You have to deal with it by acknowledging it. Then you have to question, investigate, critique, and ask if your self-loathing really has roots in Islam. And you have to have the courage to reject what you inwardly feel is wrong.”

    -Farouk Peru in his essay “I Hated Myself” pp 141-148 in “Critical Muslim” Issue #3 Fear and Loathing

    • #5 by ayasmom on October 23, 2012 - 5:46 pm

      wonderful quote. thanks

  4. #6 by rootedinbeing on October 22, 2012 - 6:51 pm

    Excellent piece! You have spoken to the core of it.

  5. #7 by Mary Rogers on October 23, 2012 - 4:53 am

    “In the end, we don’t know the mind of God. What we have is a cacophony of voices claiming that they know. And we have the evidence before us of what often results when we have humans who think that they certainly know what God wants in every situation, right down to the details of what everyone “should” be doing.”

    This statement speaks to the heart of the issue, and it is relevant for people from any religious tradition, including Christians. I know Christians who are outraged at the way that Muslim women are treated and yet do not acknowledge that the bible, particularly the OT. promotes the same kind of oppression. This should surprise no one, since these are sister religions. They blame Mohammed, but these attitudes were in place long before he came along.

    Abuse of women, supposedly commanded by God, is rampant in the OT. And yet good Christian women (and supposedly the ones who should be most concerned about this) twist these passages around rather than acknowledge it. For instance, I read an article by a supposed “progressive” Christian woman talking about how a passage in the OT supposedly supports the use of abortion to terminate pregnancy. She cited a passage where the law allowed a woman who was suspected of infidelity to be given a potion to induce abortion AGAINST HER WILL. How she came to the conclusion that this SUPPORTED women’s rights I haven’t a clue. If you take the modern conflict about abortion off the table what you have a clear case of abuse of a mother and her child. Of course the law also allowed for her to be murdered if she was unfaithful, too. A favorite method was pouring molten metal down her throat. It was considered more “merciful” than stoning.

    In the news not long ago, a young Muslim woman commited suicide because she was forced to marry a man who raped her according to Muslim law. (Please forgive me I don’t remember what country it was.) What few Christians realize is that this same law is in our own bible as well.

    (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT) “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.”

    Thankfully, most Christians would not allow such poor treatment of women nowdays. I am not vilifying them for the sins of the past. What I am saying however, is the underlying reasons for the abuse of women in Christianity has not been addressed. The same rational for oppressing women in Muslim culture is still with us in Christian culture. Even more disturbing is when it is camflouged and flowered over by Christian women themselves promoting books on “proper” behavior for women.

    Again you summed it up perfectly in your statement about the Muslim religion and I think Christians should pay attention to how it applies to their beliefs as well:

    “In the end, we don’t know the mind of God. What we have is a cacophony of voices claiming that they know. And we have the evidence before us of what often results when we have humans who think that they certainly know what God wants in every situation, right down to the details of what everyone “should” be doing.”

    Thank you for a well-written and honest article.

    • #8 by Umm Naadirah on June 24, 2013 - 8:07 am

      Actually this article was a remnant of colonialsm in Morocco – this law was based on Christianity and not Islam.

      This is not an attempt at apologetics. When examining most of the “Muslim world”, we are going to find situations like these where heinous practices were actually put in place by European colonisers and not by Muslims themselves. Blasphemy laws in Pakistan, as well as laws which “overlook” honour killings, were products of the British and not of Pakistani law makers.

      Of course, it’s the fault of these societies for KEEPING these laws on the books, but part of the blame does belong on some long dead white men.

      • #9 by xcwn on June 24, 2013 - 3:37 pm

        Umm Naadirah—I don’t know the history of that particular law in Morocco.

        I used to play that “blame game.” And now I don’t. Sure, a number of awful laws were put in place by colonizers for a variety of reasons. But what does that really prove today? Today, when you have some conservative Muslims arguing that these laws/practices are “Islamic”, and attempts to change them are “western interference”?

        My focus on this blog is North America, and my experiences with Islam here specifically. And I can say from my experience here that I have encountered some apologists and even advocates of honor-related violence and honor-killing in particular instances. For them, it had nothing whatsoever to do with colonial laws—it was local ethnic custom, mixed with ideas about upholding standards of “Islamic behavior” on girls and women by force if necessary.

        The real question in my mind is why community leaders here, who can’t help but know that these ideas exist, don’t take proactive steps to counter them. Why they wait until something awful happens and there’s a media frenzy about it, and then they mouth the usual sound-bites that don’t really address the problem.

  6. #10 by mary on October 23, 2012 - 9:24 am

    Exactly. I converted about 8 years ago and since about 2008 I’ve been wondering just what the hell has been “wrong” with me. What had attracted me to Islam was not the discipline (or restriction, or oppression, depending on how you perceive it) but the supposed freedom to question and to seek. I was not expecting to be thrust back into pre-feminism times when we were second class citizens, but that’s what I’ve gotten. I don’t experience self loathing but have felt the guilt that comes with doubt – I doubted that Allah really wanted me to be second class. I have so much doubt now that I’ve almost completely walked away from Islam, but now I’m beginning to understand why. Thank you for an excellent blog, and a wonderful post.

  7. #11 by ayasmom on October 23, 2012 - 5:31 pm

    Interesting. I also converted about 8 years ago and what appealed to me about Islam was the oneness of Allah and the simplicity of the 5 pillars. Needless to say your essay puts into words many of the same things I have felt over the years as I negotiate my Muslim identity. In my case I am more inwardly Muslim, and outwardly, not so much. The negotiation continues.

    Thank you for your work in putting together these carefully crafted reflections. May Allah reward you.

  8. #12 by Ani on October 24, 2012 - 3:47 am

    At Muslims for Progressive Values http://www.mpvusa.org we challenge the traditional practices when they contradict the values of the Quran. My question to them is: if the Islam you practice discriminates, is unjust, abusive, is hierarchical, is patriarchical, and misogynistic, then how can you call it Islam?

  9. #13 by prince on October 24, 2012 - 5:08 am

    Let me start by noting it is a nice article. The only thing I can say is we are only humans. I grew up a Muslim and I am proud to be one with the saying that I know Islam is a modern religion and people will try to explain it in their own way. I have learned one important saying from Imams that I respect when they always start or end their comments by: “ALLAH Aalam”, ALLAH knows best. What is in your heart is the critical part and what people perceive for a reason or another this is their perception. I know for fact that Women in Islam are important as I think it is somewhere in the Quran noted that Ridah ALLLAH min ridah al walidain. I think most scholars never thought how women supported their husbands in every way possible and not to be considered lesser, we are all equal (at least this is what I believe) and ALLAH knows best. Salam to all.

  10. #14 by Chinyere on October 24, 2012 - 5:09 am

    Few words, just great piece on so many levels. Great comments as well! I pray that you are able to find peace as you shut out all of those many counterproductive voices and narratives…

  11. #15 by mary on October 24, 2012 - 1:22 pm

    Why is it emphasized in Islam that women must obey and “support their husbands”? Where is the mutual obedience and support? This is just the tip of the iceberg of misogyny running through the Muslim world. Women are more than supporters of men; we have an identity and presence of our own. Recently on Facebook Bilal Philips posted a status saying, in effect, that rape does not exist within marriage and that it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband’s desires – and that he shouldn’t force himself on her, but if he does she should forgive him and try to get in the mood. The responses to that status were amazing. It was instrumental in my continuing alienation from Islamic “belief.” If a leading Islamic figure such as Bilal Philips can spout such rubbish and it is acceptable to Muslims, what am I doing in this religion?

    • #16 by NewtralHuman on December 6, 2012 - 7:30 pm

      According to Islam, on the day of Judgement/Reckoning, every soul will be accountable for what they did (within the context of circumstances) and believed (within the context of sanity).

  12. #17 by Halima Gose on October 27, 2012 - 6:23 pm

    I have a daughter too. And I cannot stand for my daughter’s sense of freedom or independence being threatened in any form or fashion. That’s one of the reasons why i have actively stopped practising Islam in my country.

    • #18 by NewtralHuman on December 6, 2012 - 7:31 pm

      Are you throwing away the “baby” with the “bath-water”?

  13. #19 by Sara on October 28, 2012 - 6:22 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I couldn’t put into words how I’ve been feeling, but this is exactly it. THANK YOU.

  14. #20 by A on October 28, 2012 - 10:56 pm

    Having been born to Muslim parents and raised in a Muslim household, I have also felt and thought what you have. I bought into the notion that women are “different” (read lesser) and not as capable as men. For the past few years I’ve completely shed this oppressive notion. The beginning of my shedding process came with massive feelings of guilt and embarrassment at what the Muslim community would think of me. Now, a few years down the line, I could not care less what the Muslim community may think of me. I am at peace with who I am and who I continue to evolve into because my choices and belief make sense to ME and the God that I continue to nurture a relationship with is a God who is fair and just and compassionate and ethical and all the other positive attributes it makes sense for God to be. I remain Muslim but I don’t buy into the gender roles that the Hadith and Islamic clergy push and I no longer feel guilty about thinking and believing differently with respect to my Islam. At the end of the day, a religion without ethics and morality is not for me and so I choose an ethical, moral Islam. I’m sorry you felt a disparity between God and conscience. I’ve felt that too and the shaming guilt was awful. Guilt is a symptom of the oppression and works excellently to keep women in their place. But God is conscience and once I came to that realisation, the weight of guilt was lifted. I don’t even want to consider how my life would be had the guilt not left.

    I, too, am a mum. I have a son and there will be no gender stereotyping in my raising of him. I refuse to raise him without conscience. And I applaud you for refusing to teach your girls that they are not and they cannot, despite your internal turmoil. Far too many of us don’t question the status quo and resort to the lazy rhetoric, “some things we don’t question”. Why the hell not?

  1. Link Love (08/11/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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