Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (I)

Or (for an alternative title): Up From the Bottle Dungeon.

The bottle dungeon at St. Andrews Castle, Scotland, looks almost ethereal in this photo, due to the floodlighting installed for the sake of tourists... isn`t Tradition (TM) beautiful---at least from a safe distance.

The bottle dungeon at St. Andrews Castle, Scotland, looks almost ethereal in this photo, due to the floodlighting installed for the sake of tourists…. Ah, isn’t Tradition (TM) just transcendently beautiful—at least when viewed from above, by those who aren’t subject to the full weight of its harsher dictates.

Years ago, I remember reading about bottle dungeons in Scottish castles. These are underground, bottle-shaped prisons, with only one possible entrance, source of air or light—a narrow shaft leading to a hole in the ceiling, which would have been far above the prisoners’ heads. Prisoners would be tossed into the dungeon, or let down on ropes. Escape was well-nigh impossible, except with outside assistance. And I wondered what sort of people those lairds and their families were, calmly going about their daily lives while prisoners suffered and moldered away below.

Looking back at my former life as a neo-traditionalist and how difficult it was to even begin to see my way out of it, I am reminded of bottle dungeons in more ways than one.

As a neo-traditionalist who was also heavily involved in a Muslim neo-traditionalist group (which turned out to be a cult) for some years, I lived in an almost entirely self-referential world. It was built like a fortress. Built to last. And that was not accidental.

It was a mental prison that was self-sustaining. And oddly enough, it was incredibly hard to leave, mentally and psychologically speaking—even once I began to recognize how much harm it was doing to myself and my children, as well as to dear friends of mine.

One of the reasons why this world-view not only drew us in, but was so very durable was its emphasis on certainty and knowledge. We wanted certainty. And what was more, we believed that any faith worth the name should be able to deliver it. We also felt as though we were under siege from the wider society, so we wanted our beliefs reaffirmed. So, we were primed for leaders who would provide affirmation and promise certainty.

One of the main ways that our leaders promised us certainty was by continually referring every issue, every question back to the 1400-year tradition of Muslim scholarship. Unlike some other leaders and organizations of the time, they did not simply quote quranic verses or hadiths and argue that this is what Islam says about X.

We had already heard and read more than our fill of those Salafi-influenced leaders and groups who did the latter, quoting verses and hadiths as though they have one self-evident meaning, and disingenuously denying that they were in fact interpreting the texts at all. We had come to the conclusion that they were being less than honest in their claims, and felt that it was inane as well. Any time any contentious issue came up (such as women’s worth as witnesses, say, or the “correct” interpretation of Q 4:34), you could pretty well predict which proof-texts would be trotted out… and discussions never seemed able to progress beyond a very shallow point. We were intellectually starved, so we were ripe for leaders who would present Islam in more intelligent ways—and honestly, the bar was pretty low.

We sincerely wanted to understand all those aspects of Islam that didn’t make sense to us. As we learned more, and become increasingly steeped in that neo-traditionalist world-view, we encountered much that bothered us. It turned out that a number of beliefs and practices that we had sort of assumed (or at least hoped) were due to bad modern (mis)interpretations were in fact part of the Tradition (TM)—and that they were in fact a much more central part of it than we had realized.

But we thought that our discomfort and doubts were due to our lack of faith, our ungodly western upbringings, our lack of wisdom, our supposed feminine emotionalism… and that if we simply pressed on, we would eventually understand what must be the divine wisdom behind these things. Or at least, if we never did manage to achieve that, we would at least be able to silence those lingering misgivings for once and for all.

In the process of trying to enter into this way of seeing the world ever more deeply, we did not notice an important thing: The closer we got to what we thought (and we were told) is certainty, the more our minds and consciences were constrained to function only in certain, well-defined ways. But then, who notices how strong a current is when one is swimming with it and not against it? It would not be until we tried to seriously question this way of seeing the world that we began to realize how boxed-in we had become.

Charmedshiva expresses this boxed-in situation quite movingly in a recent comment:

“…I’m also interested in more perspectives about Islamic studies and scholarship, because honestly, how am I going to look a scholar of hadith in the face and tell him that hadith #x is not trustworthy? I have no background in hadith studies and he has spent his whole life on the subject. So when seemingly all of scholarship accepts certain hadith, then who are we to question? I think the traditionalists, in that sense, have a really strong argument in their favor, and they are also the most educated ones with regard to all areas of Islamic studies. To me, when we question the traditional approach to Islam, it sounds like we’re directly saying that it is possible for all of Islam’s mainstream scholarship, since the beginning of its time, to have been heavily mistaken. That’s a really far-fetched assertion. I admit that it is possibly the heavy extent to which traditionalists have been able to convince me of their authenticity that I have so much trouble seeing things clearly.

This stuff often leads me to think, maybe what I have a problem with is really Islam itself and not Muslims or Muslim scholars. I don’t know…”

Yes, well. As a woman, who is a convert, a non-Arab, born into a non-Muslim family, there is little that one can say to scholars of hadith who have been studying this discipline for their whole lives. And that is absolutely not accidental.

Because this is what hierarchical structures of religious authority look like. Not only in Islam, but in any religion that has them. A minority of people, who are usually male and often also privileged in other ways are singled out to receive specialized training that most people (especially, most women) simply do not have access to. How can non-specialists argue with them? That would be like expecting someone who only barely scraped through introductory high school physics to go straight from high school to teaching graduate-level physics at MIT.

“Tradition” (TM) is a fortress, built to last. Because “Tradition” (TM) didn’t just fall from the sky, as we were led to believe.

“Tradition” (TM) developed as a result of centuries of debate among Muslims on almost every conceivable issue. So of course Tradition had acquired most of its ready answers centuries ago. Those Sunni Ash’ari scholars who had succeeded in marginalizing the views of all who didn’t agree with them—the Khawarij factions and the Mu’tazila and the Shi’a (Ithna-Ash’ari, Zaidi, various Ismaili groups…) and the philosophers—could of course rationally explain and aggressively defend their teachings and methods of interpretation. Over the centuries, they had had plenty of practice.

And, for centuries in most places in the Muslim-majority world, theirs had been the voice of “orthodox” self-assurance, the voice of the socially and politically and also often economically powerful. The voice of those who have the luxury of presuming that God and history are on their side. The voice of those who have a monopoly on the goods of salvation in this world AND the next.

Their modern Western would-be heirs—particularly when these were male converts, often though not always white—were only too glad to assume for themselves that self-assured and supremely self-confident voice of “orthodoxy.” And in some cases, to build controlling communities that ended up being more or less cultish (if not straight-up cults).

Neo-traditionalists taught us plenty—but not how  to read the Qur’an, the hadiths or fiqh texts or sira or any other text historically. In the absence of any historical sense, we were led to assume that somehow, the way things ended up being presented by neo-traditionalist conservative Sunni leaders in North America in the late twentieth century is just… Islam, pure and simple. The Islam that God and His Prophet had intended. “Tradition” is like an oak tree growing from an acorn, we were told. What other kind of tree would grow from that kind of seed? Beech trees grow from beech-nuts, not from acorns. The type of Islam that we were taught (Sunni, Ash’ari, conservative) was what had of course always been intended to grow from the Qur’an, the sunna, and the authoritative teachings of generations upon generations of pious scholars.

So, we were taught that to question the bases of “Tradition” (TM) was the height of sinful and absurd arrogance. After all, who in their right mind would question 1400 years of scholarship? If the community is divinely guided—and the Prophet said, “My community will not agree on an error”—then how could “the great scholars of the past” have been wrong about fundamental issues?  And then, how could the modern Muslim leaders who claimed to be authoritatively transmitting the wisdom of “the great scholars of the past” to Muslims today be seriously questioned?

Now that I look back on it, I can see that this “orthodox” way of looking at the world is built on a number of presumptions that are intended to close off other possible ways of thinking. But this was not something that we could see when we were inside a community that thought this way. Partly because we were terrified of losing our salvation, and also because thinking along the “approved” and “orthodox” lines was far less anxiety-producing. There were certain questions that we had learned early on that it was not acceptable to ask, and when we naively asked them, it was as though we had managed to set off two dozen very loud smoke alarms. In this way, we had been conditioned to avoid thinking along certain lines. There was no way to ask some kinds of questions, even if we kept the questioning entirely inside our own heads, because we had been taught that such questions are by their very nature impious and wrong.

Neo-traditionalism is constructed so that it is extremely difficult to think one’s way out of. On purpose.

Religious people—especially, female converts who have given up a great deal for their faith—are especially unlikely to be able to think their way out. Partly because of the practical barriers to leaving (especially when you have been a stay-at-home mother in a highly conservative Muslim bubble for years), and partly because you have been systematically taught to distrust your own reasoning processes and feelings as a “Western woman” who was unfortunately raised in a misguided, ungodly secular society. But also because you have been led to believe that there is a stark choice: either you follow divine guidance (which you have been taught to equate with neo-traditionalist interpretations of Islam), or you follow your nafs, effectively turning your back on God. There isn’t really any visible middle ground. And as someone who loves God and sincerely seeks to obey God, or doubts that they really love God enough but knows that they definitely don’t want to go to hell, it can seem like no choice at all.

So, it should not come as a surprise that some converts who manage to leave neo-traditionalism and build new lives for themselves did so through agnosticism or atheism.* Because they came to the conclusion that they didn’t believe in God (or at least, that they weren’t sure God exists), then they found a way out, because when the very foundations of the fortress are undermined for an individual, the whole thing crumbles for that person.

Individuals manage to escape, but in the end, the neo-traditionalists win. The fortress is still in place for all the true believers residing inside it. The escapees are derided as people who “never really believed in the first place” or pitied as dupes of satan and/or their nafs, and life goes on as it did before. Those who are having doubts are all the more afraid to pursue those doubts, lest they lose their faith—which is the core of their existence—altogether.

This is one of the ironies of neo-traditionalism as I experienced it. That it was seen as better to in effect push sincere believers into making a choice between belief in God and staying in situations that were destroying them, even as we were also taught that neo-traditionalism was all about saving souls, and that there could be no salvation for atheists. (cont.)

*This is not intended to be a criticism or dismissal of atheists or agnostics. For those of you who were once neo-traditionalist Muslims, decided that you didn’t believe, and left and built new lives, more power to you.
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  1. #1 by Anonymous// on December 26, 2012 - 11:31 pm

    The idea that modern ‘orthodoxy’ is the result of a long period of intense contestation(s) is both interesting and true. I also agree on the importance of cultivating an historical sense i.e. an awareness of historicity. That said, you can go in any one of a number of directions with these critical faculties, and you should never be deluded into thinking that even basic categories of analysis themselves are simply given. The preoccupation with gender is a characteristically modern concern, for example, and those of us who aren’t feminists can easily dismiss it as such, morally speaking, though it is very fruitful, intellectually. And that’s why Kecia Ali’s work is so great- throw away the prescriptive crap and you have serious, descriptive erudition underneath. I guess that’s sort of why I read this blog- though I would call it more thoughtful than learned. And since I’m always wearing my Muslim hat I should add that it’s also partly concern for you , and a hope that God makes a way out for you. God help you and make things easy for you, Ameen.

  2. #2 by ki sarita on December 27, 2012 - 3:34 pm

    how would you define the diffwrence btw your group, a cult, and other non cult neotraditionalist patriarchal groups?

  3. #3 by charmedshiva on December 29, 2012 - 4:30 am

    “It turned out that a number of beliefs and practices that we had sort of assumed (or at least hoped) were due to bad modern (mis)interpretations were in fact part of the Tradition (TM)—and that they were in fact a much more central part of it than we had realized.” At what point can we replace the word “Tradition” in this sentence with the word “Islam?”

    I hope one day I can blog as well as you do.

  4. #4 by xcwn on December 30, 2012 - 1:28 am

    Charmedshiva—I use the word “tradition” because this was a buzz-word among some of the neo-traditionalists that I had dealings with. It was important to them because it was a way of differentiating their views from those of the Salafis and various Salafi-influenced groups.

    But those neo-traditionalists saw themselves as having the one and only truly correct definition of Islam, so they would also use “tradition” and “Islam” interchangeably.

    I am not using these words interchangeably, though, partly because I don’t agree that neo-traditionalists have a monopoly on “Islam as it really is.” Historically, that isn’t the case, and it isn’t the case today either. They know that very well, but they make such claims as a way of asserting that they alone have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslims. It’s a power play on their part.

    • #5 by charmedshiva on December 30, 2012 - 8:56 am

      Agreed. Do you think for you it’s simply traditionalist Islam that has troubled you?

      For me personally, I think much of my troubles aren’t just with ‘traditional Islam.’ It’s just Islam. I think wishful thinking is the way religious folk comfort themselves.

      I could be wrong.

      I don’t know where I’m going. Still searching. Still looking. Still thinking. And I’m trying to come to terms with that.

      • #6 by xcwn on December 31, 2012 - 2:31 pm

        Charmedshiva—No, not only the Islams of the neo-traditionalists. Cruelty, oppression, intellectual dishonesty, apologetics and double-standards all trouble me, and even in more liberal/modern/progressive interpretations of Islam, you find plenty of the last three.
        Post coming on…

      • #7 by charmedshiva on December 31, 2012 - 11:37 pm

        Yes, I’ve noticed that as well.

        As a result of my confusion I’ve become interested in searching trough opposing perspectives about religion in general and just remaining agnostic until I figure out what I believe. I even looked up different atheist groups to find out what their perspective is. But I don’t belong with them either.

        Have you ever searched through the so-called “Ex-Muslm” groups that exist (such as CEMB)? They are equally as intellectually dishonest and very hateful people. If you read through their objectives it becomes clear that they aren’t interested in the rights of those who left faith or the secularism of their nations. Rather, they want to eradicate Islam from the public eye altogether. People like Maryam Namazie disgust me. She is ill-informed about Islam and it really seems like she was never actually a practicing person anyway. They show no respect for religious diversity.

        I saw on one forum thread on their website that a person accused Muslim dawah pamphlets of being dishonest because it said that each prayer (salah) takes only a few minutes. He then supported his accusation by saying that Isha used to take him 20 minutes at the least.
        What?! A 4 rakat prayer, even in congregation, does NOT take 20 minutes (unless you decide to lengthen your recitation). Isha takes me around 4 minutes on average; if I go really slow, maybe 5-6 minutes. What’s interesting is that no one who posted below him objected to his claim at all or even raised concern.
        Another girl talked about how she was trying to deconvert people she knows. I take objection to that. This makes it clear to me that the people involved in these groups don’t really know what they’re talking about. They are dishonest, unlearned, and scheming.

        I’m also really turned off by people in atheist and “ex-Muslim” groups who treat the Prophet Muhammad as if he was a completely evil villain. What happened to a balanced perspective on things? You can object to certain things without overriding the positive aspects. It’s also important to look at context and historical certainty. I think a secular view that puts Muhammad as an important and rightful leader for 7th century Arabia, but not for all time and not absolutely moral, to be much more fair than those who completely disparage him because their modern standards are so different than 7th century Arabian culture. These same people wouldn’t disparage ancient primitive tribes for practicing what we today see as incest, because it’s clear that through time, people evolve. Yet they disparage the Prophet with utter hatred.

        I feel like there are no Muslims out there with a perspective similar to mine. Both options, faithful and faithless, are problematic for me, and even more problematic are the communities that come with both options.

  5. #8 by mary on January 3, 2013 - 2:58 pm

    Neo-Traditionalism is alive and well in the middle east. In some of its aspects (mostly political) it is called Islamism.

    I am appreciating this blog more and more because it is articulating my own doubts and confusion so well. My personal experience is that of a feeling of having passed through a long tunnel and come out on the opposite side. My confusion between what is true and what is merely “tradition” has generated feelings of guilt, and also of loss; I miss the security of my former devotion and am stuck with the bare bones of something that many people would not call Islam. Charity, compassion, kindness, justice – I keep those. I can’t do the five daily prayers, always had difficulty performing them just as I had difficulty praying as a Christian (I cannot pray with someone else’s words and I despise schedules and routines). I fast. I wear the hijab only because I don’t know what to do with my hair. I have no interest in making haj or umrah. I pray by talking in my head to Allah, just as I have done all my life. I don’t think he minds that I’m not on the floor and I didn’t say Al-Fatiha first.

    I am also a feminist. How can any woman not call herself a feminist if she believes in equality, justice and respect for all human beings?

    • #9 by xcwn on January 5, 2013 - 3:28 am

      Mary—Islamism (aka political Islam, Islamic revivalism/fundamentalism) and neo-traditionalism aren’t the same thing. Neo-traditionalism doesn’t usually have an overt political agenda, for one thing.

      But when it comes to ideas about women’s roles or the family, there are a lot of commonalities and cross-pollination, certainly.

      As for your religious practice—if you have stuck with “charity, compassion, kindness, justice”… wow. Aren’t those the things that matter most? But how well we have been taught that no, what REALLY is the core of Islam is distinctive rituals and (for women) wearing the hijab and justifying oppressive social arrangements as god-given…. If Islam as taught to converts has a tragedy, it is this, IMO.

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