Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (II)

As I discussed in my last post, while neo-traditionalists taught us a lot, they certainly did NOT give us the tools to analyze their teachings from a historical point of view. Unsurprisingly. Because as far as they were concerned, they were teaching us Timeless Truth, full stop. So, there would be no reason to draw our attention to evidence that what they were presenting as timeless had actually originated at a particular point in time and developed in response to particular events.

We weren’t completely oblivious. Sure, we dimly knew that there had been differences of opinion among the early Muslims, and among later generations too. But we were taught to view those differences we knew about in two basic ways: Either they were minor differences, and therefore not indicative of anything other than God’s mercy to the umma, or they were major differences, aka heresy, that put those who had had those ideas outside of Islam. In either case, differences of opinion didn’t communicate to us that in fact what we were being taught is “Tradition” was the result of centuries of debate. Human debates, that took place in contexts in which the building and maintaining of the political dominance of various factions.


So many things were presented to us as though it were “the way that it has always been” when in fact, it had not “always” been that way. Or “the way the Prophet taught”—with any interpretations of early or medieval Muslims that differed too much from this carefully airbrushed out of the picture, and the role of human interpretation barely if ever acknowledged.

What Muslim history we were exposed to was sanitized and romanticized, so that it was for us an inspirational epic tale in which the winners of every debate ultimately ended up being the “good guys” (meaning, that they were usually Sunni and also often of the Ash’ari theological persuasion—not coincidentally, just like us).

The blame for this state of affairs was not completely on our teachers, however. Looking back, I can see that we longed for certainty. Partly because we had been told that having it was a proof of having faith, but partly also because we ourselves were trying to suppress doubts. So, we went along quite willingly with the oversimplified, ahistorical, apologetic and romanticized picture of “Tradition” that we were given. In many ways, we were sheep ripe for the fleecing.

We had been taught a number of what I now can only call thought-stopping techniques—ways to intercept any thoughts or doubts we had that might pose a challenge to our faith. They ranged from traditional Muslim pious invocations to contemporary, pseudo-postcolonial ad hominem labeling.

How can you question a scripture that you can’t touch unless you are in a state of purity, and that you recite “surely, God has spoken the truth” after reading?

How can you even question any act or word attributed to the Prophet when you are taught to recite peace and blessings after mentioning or writing his name (and your leaders go farther, referring to him as “the beloved of God” and other such-like titles that wrap him in a sort of reflected divinity)?

And how can you question the views of scholars who you have been taught were acclaimed by hundreds or thousands of the people of knowledge of their time as greatly learned? Whose funerals were attended by thousands of mourners? Whose books have been passed down and commented on by generations of scholars, and are read by scholars today? Whose names are spoken with reverence?

And if all this were not enough, how can you take seriously internal Muslim questioning or challenges to the “tradition”, when they are supposedly all westoxicated or misled by Orientalism or in the pay of the Rand Corporation??





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  1. #1 by mary on January 6, 2013 - 11:20 am

    Well, if you are anything like me, your questions and doubts have been responded to smugly by “good Muslims” who tell you that you weren’t taught right. If you had been taught Islam properly, you would not be questioning anything but would be “submitting to the will of Allah,” i. e., following what the dead men have written. Who are we as mere mortals to question what all these dead people have written, you ask? Simple – we are just like all humans, confronting a mystery and looking for answers. No one has all of them, but people can claim they do.

    I remember the day I read that Mother Teresa had ministered to lepers, cared for the sick, dying, and unwanted for many years while upholding an external image of total piety and adoration of God but had secretly abandoned her faith because it no longer made sense to her. Who knows how many of these dead scholars felt the same? And what was one to do when to question or disagree with established “teachings” was to fall into apostasy and be killed for it?

    • #2 by Vicky on January 7, 2013 - 1:55 pm

      This isn’t a totally accurate characterisation of what Mother Teresa wrote. She derived no emotional comfort or satisfaction from her faith (not religious dogma, but belief in God generally). She felt totally alone. However, she saw her experience as what the Spanish poet and mystic John of the Cross termed ‘ the dark night of the soul’. Faith for her was demonstrated in her choice to keep living the life she led and doing the work she did, and I think people do her an injustice when they assume she must have been faking it because her actions and her beliefs did not correspond with the desolation she felt. She herself never saw them as contradictory. She was a very interesting woman. I need to read her writings again, although they aren’t always my cup of tea.

  2. #3 by mary on January 7, 2013 - 10:52 pm

    @Vicky, that just begs the question of whether Muslims are meant to live life as a “dark night of the soul.” If one does not derive any comfort or satisfaction, if one feels that prayers are going unheard and unanswered, if one suspects the scholars have lied or had misled us, then what?

    • #4 by Vicky on January 8, 2013 - 9:18 pm

      I don’t think Mother Teresa’s experiences are a useful comparison for Muslims who feel this particular way. She didn’t feel that she had been lied to or deceived, and many of her doubts and difficulties stemmed from her leadership role – she left her former community of sisters to create something entirely new, which hadn’t been done before, and she had a lot of people looking to her for guidance rather than the other way round. Those are quite specific challenges, I think. She also interpreted her life as prayer: simple acts of kindness, even just smiling at someone. This is an idea I can relate to – seeing spirituality in ordinary things, including painful things, rather than focusing all the time on dogma debates or supernatural happenings.

      I think there is a difference between doing what she tried to do and just blindly accepting what we’re told. I have never felt that people in my own religious community have lied to me on purpose, but misled, yes, definitely. The most obvious time came when I was nineteen and my then-boyfriend tried to pressure me into marriage. He had this idea if what a devout marriage should look like, and he gave me this little booklet that made my blood run cold. For all the flowery language about the beauty and dignity of married life, there was a strain of misogyny in there that was unmistakeable, shored up by several quotations from saints and scholars. I could not have suppressed my intellect and conscience and followed him into that, in spite of his insistence that I was making a terrible mistake. I have never felt that amputating parts of ourselves is a good spiritual approach to take. Questioning is necessary like breathing, and doubt may be cold air, but at least it’s fresh and it reminds you you’re alive. I think that anybody who tries to set doubt up as the enemy is leading me wrong. I trust that as God is infinite, then she can handle my doubts and questions. That too is an affirmation of faith, albeit maybe not one scholars might recognise.

      Reading Mother Teresa’s writing, I can see that she suffered from depression (as I have done myself), where often no one’s love feels real or satisfying, and she found a way to live with the pain honestly – accepting that even this could be turned into prayer, because for her nothing was outside of prayer. Her approach was actually a very holistic one, a far cry from, “I must shut down what I feel about this, cut off what I think about that…” There’s an R.S Thomas poem that pretty much sums this up for me:

      I’m not sure whether this would resonate with someone of Muslim background, though. Growing up around Muslims, I was influenced by Islam, but never actually Muslim myself, so I have had a different set of experiences.

  3. #5 by mary on January 9, 2013 - 8:37 am

    In my childhood I was a Roman Catholic but I never accepted the religion, even as a child, avoided it as much as I could while growing up in a religious family, and I spent most of my adulthood as an atheist until turning to Islam in my 40’s. Islam feels like a journey I have taken whose destination became less and less desirable because I really do feel I’ve been duped, although not by Muslims but by the impression of Islam the so-called “Muslim community” is trying to sell to the world.

    We converts were told that our relationship with God would be simple and direct, that Islam is the perfection of religion and that as Muslim converts we will go to paradise when we die, if we follow the religion’s way of life. Islam promised all the answers to our questions as to who we were and how we should live, or so we thought.

    What I was trying to express by using Mother Teresa as an example was the feeling of having to keep one’s inner turmoil secret while presenting an external image of spiritual certainty and calm. And I am so grateful for such gift as this wonderful blog, because I am living in a “Muslim country,” and there are few people here who understand my doubts, my need for a spiritual life, but that as a feminist I cannot accept as truth anything that categorizes, thwarts, undermines or lessens me as a human being, because of my gender.

    I was told Islam “respects women.” But in the Quran it says my husband can beat me, and there is a hadith (I am told) wherein the Prophet gives his OK to female genital mutilation. My testimony is worth only half of a man’s. I cannot inherit the same amount as a man. I cannot divorce my husband but must ask him to divorce me. My husband can have up to four wives, does not need my consent to do this, but I cannot have more than one husband. I do not own my body or my sexuality; as a single woman I am committing zina and will go to hell for having a lover, or lovers, yet a man can “marry” a woman, have sex with her, and divorce her when he is done with her. I cannot dress as I like, because if a man sees me and gets an erection and breaks his wudu, it’s my fault. In fact, my whole body, including my voice, is “awra,” or a private part or genitals, so I must cover myself in shame. I can work outside my home, but I need my husband’s permission (in fact, I cannot leave the house for any reason without his consent) and I can only work in jobs that are halal, i.e., where I am never alone with a man or doing anything that compromises the proper behavior of a Muslimah. I am considered irrational emotional, potentially leading a man to sin, I am not “suited” to certain jobs because my ability to think and reason is inferior to a man’s, and my monthly period renders me impure and so I must not pollute the mosque or my husband’s body by having sex with him. My biggest role in life is to have children and raise them to be “righteous.” Where am I in this? Who am I in this? Is there any place in this identity that allows for a woman’s autonomy and the right of any adult to self-determination? Is there any day of my life when I do not feel insulted and belittled?

    • #6 by Vicky on January 11, 2013 - 9:30 pm

      I started to get interested in feminist thealogy when I realised that there is no pure simple unfiltered religion. There have always been mediators, and those mediators have always been men. In her Jewish feminist thealogy ‘Standing Again at Sinai’, Judith Plaskow writes of a need to go beyond the letters of Torah to the white space in between the words – space that should be peopled by women, but is not. Women’s experiences have mostly been written out. As I see it, if the lives and prayers and perspectives of half the world are missing from the things we call sacred, then the thing can be – at best – only half-true. Restoring what is missing is a crucial part of my own feminist spirituality (another reason why I like the focus on absence in the Thomas poem).

      It is a sore and angry realisation to make, because it means recognising that you’ve been robbed. I also sometimes feel quite frightened of how I think now, how I pray now – even over something as simple as using female pronouns for God – because I feel like I’m committing some sort of heresy. (Her-say, maybe?) And it would be very difficult for me to talk about any of this within my own faith community, so I relate to what you say about that. So far my best support in this journey has come from women of other religious traditions who are asking similar questions in their own contexts, which is why I started to hang out here.

      • #7 by shepardmary57 on January 12, 2013 - 9:13 am

        I came to understand that even what can be said to be “divine revelations” such as those received by the Prophet Mohammed could only be expressed by him through his worldview and understanding of reality. This means that we must remove the misogyny and sexism from Islam and look at what is really in front of us. I don’t know how to do this except in the most simple way, but what I see myself doing is rejecting most of the religion’s practices outright.

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