Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (IV)

So… once you begin to grasp that “Tradition” (TM) didn’t just fall from the sky, and is a human construct that developed (and continues to develop, however much some neo-traditionalists might like to claim otherwise)… then what?

Sometimes, searches for certainty end up becoming their own caricature....

Sometimes, searches for certainty end up becoming their own caricature….

Some would respond to this growing realization by deciding that neo-traditionalism is not for them, but another approach to Islam is. So, they go looking for something that seems more “solid”, more authentic, more rooted, less obviously a construct of humans. Or, they decide that nothing is really solid, so they opt for a sort of urbane liberalism, in which “historical context” can be invoked to explain away every past and present aspect of Muslim belief and practice that inconveniently clashes with the tolerant, open-minded and sophisticated image that they wish to identify themselves with.

Both of these reactions ultimately avoid dealing head-on with the full implications of the realization that “Tradition” is a historical construct.

To my mind, the full implications of realizing this are that you are left alone with no easy answers—maybe, no answers at all. Just your own conscience.

As conservative Muslims, Islam was the centerpiece of our lives. We would wonder whether or not such-and-such is “Islamic,” or “what Islam says” about X, or we would read or listen to talks on things such as “the status of women in Islam” or “Islamic economics,” or hear that doing or believing Y “is forbidden in Islam” or that it “takes you out of Islam.” (Neo-traditionalists who didn’t approve of this way of speaking, finding it “too modern”, would speak of “tradition” and “traditional” rather than “Islam” and “Islamic,” but the overall effect was much the same in terms of keeping us thinking and acting in certain ways and effectively foreclosing others.)

We spoke and thought as though “Islam” (or “Tradition”) was something out there, separate from ourselves, beyond human shaping, that certain learned people could and should speak on behalf of. And we honestly believed it.

But our entire means of “knowing what God commands” (as we saw it)—consulting texts and especially, their scholarly interpreters—depended on things constructed by human beings, in time. And not just any humans, either—elite men who mostly belonged to what the NOI and the Five Percenters would call the 10% (“the rich, the slave-makers of the poor”), who had vested interests in keeping patriarchal power structures intact.  And by being part of communities that gave authority to those men (whether living or dead), we also had played a part in keeping that process going. We had certainly done our best to ensure that our kids would buy into it.

One response to such a realization is to search for a golden age at the dawn of Islam—separating the views of the scholars from the time of the Prophet, and seeing later historical developments as a deviation from or even a perversion of his teachings. So (the argument runs) the “original” message was all about justice and egalitarianism and God-consciousness and all that good stuff, but the conquests and non-Arab influences and political infighting and so forth resulted in religion that sanctifies patriarchal power and political violence and is obsessed with drawing boundaries between “us” (the rightly-guided, the virtuous) and “them” (the misled, the sinful).

That sort of argument is not historical contextualization—it’s last-ditch apologetics with a vaguely “historical” fig-leaf. While “Traditional Islam” (TM) as we know it today is far removed from the Islam(s) of seventh century Arabia, the hijra did not inaugurate some sort of egalitarian social experiment.

To my mind, historically contextualizing patriarchy and violence should lead us to ask some hard moral questions, that lead us to take responsibility for the choices that we make (or don’t make).

We were taught as neo-traditionalists that patriarchy and violence are just “human nature” and need to be accepted as “the way things are.” The only realistic approach (we were told) is to channel them in order to serve God, and then the results will be positive for human societies.  This kind of argument was intended to make us believe that there was no point in even thinking about how to resist. The only thing to do was to get with the program.

But realizing that patriarchy and violence, whether in seventh century Arabia, or elsewhere down to the present, are socially constructed and maintained opens up the possibility and responsibility of choice.

We don’t have any control over the facts that most human societies past and present are patriarchal, that most religions are patriarchal, that most of human history is a blood-soaked affair, and that ever more horrible ways of torturing and killing people are part and parcel of modern technological advances. But what we can control is our response to these facts. Do we legitimate, justify, airbrush, rationalize? Or do we refuse to do this?

Realizing that we have choices—that we really had them all along, even when we sincerely believed that we didn’t—also opens up a raft of painful questions: Since “Tradition” (TM) is a construct, and we played our own small part in keeping it going in the communities we were a part of… well, why? What was it that really motivated us to believe and do such things?? And how can we avoid making such errors of judgment in the future?

I believed. I wanted to know the truth. And I was also privileged enough to assume that finding the truth would bring with it things such as security, belonging, community, a sense of purpose, inner peace…. (Reading the stories of the prophets ought to have been enough to have disabused me of that notion, but anyway….) So, when I experienced these things to an extent, and saw others in my community who seemed to have much more of these things than I did, I thought this was the “proof” that the way I was following was right.Now, I suspect that this was the “proof” that we were in effect engaged in idolatry, in making partners to God. Worshipping “tradition” and history and the scholars and community and our own desires for security and meaning.

But at the moment, I don’t really have any answers. I have mostly questions.




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  1. #1 by ahmad khan on January 6, 2013 - 8:05 am

    ” And not just any humans, either—elite men who mostly belonged to what the NOI and the Five Percenters would call the 10% (“the rich, the slave-makers of the poor”), who had vested interests in keeping patriarchal power structures intact. And by being part of communities that gave authority to those men (whether living or dead), ”

    I live in India so my experience may be different than yours but I would’nt classify most traditional alims to be some part of the elite class. Most students studying in Madrassas are poor and madrassas run on charity. Most imams in practice who are graduates of madrassas are paid poorly and are at the mercy of masjid commitees. Very few children from the middle class and elite study in madrassas and thus are religious leaders. Are they male ? Yes all of them ? Are they rich and influential No ? Yes there a few khateebs and part of a traditional religious families who are well-known in religious circles and thus may be elite but most of them are not.

  2. #2 by mary on January 6, 2013 - 10:38 am

    Spirituality is one thing – it is our relationship with our Creator – but religion becomes another. Religion is the human-made rules and concepts, the “traditions,” the history, that dictate how we put this relationship and our beliefs into our lives, how we “walk the talk.” Unfortunately, we are caught up i someone else’s ideas, always. Even the Prophet Mohammed, if he indeed revealed the Quran to us, could only do so through the prism of his own prior beliefs and culture. It is a basic thing in psychology, that we process input to our brains by using and relating it to what is already there.

    I think I am finding the answers to my questions simply by accepting this. Unfortunately, this takes me totally away from Islam as I thought I understood it, and puts me at the beginning of a new spiritual journey that may very well not involve Islam at all.

  3. #3 by (-_-) on January 6, 2013 - 2:36 pm

    To me this is at the heart of it: “To my mind, historically contextualizing patriarchy and violence should lead us to ask some hard moral questions, that lead us to take responsibility for the choices that we make (or don’t make).”

    In my experience, it gets easier and harder with contextualization. Easier because it allows me to see the Qur’an and the Prophet in a way that no longer creates cognitive dissonance (what you have been describing so nicely in the past few posts–and others) which allows me to reapproach the Qur’an and the Prophet for my own understanding. Without contextualization, I would probably turn into Hirsi Ali and find the whole thing inherently and irredeemably cruel. Harder, because now if I stay, I have to confront all of it and not take any answer, any interpretation, any bit of history for granted. Interpretation kills people. It nearly killed me. So if I were to remain Muslim (well, hell, even if I hadn’t I’d have to live the same way in any interpretive environment), then I would be responsible for how my interpretive choices affected my own search for wholeness inwardly and outwardly. For me, it is a process of leaving my victimization behind. Uncomfortably, this new consciousness of the responsibility of interpretation affect other people too. That’s even harder. I can’t be sloppy. In the end, I think the most moral thing is what you are doing here contributing to an environment in which people to take interpretation into their own hands.

    Maybe I can take my comments a bit further, the problem of being a victim goes through so many of your posts. It’s some of the most difficult stuff to read. At one in the same time we are truly victims…we did not deserve this harm…and we are accomplices to other harm because our victimization harmed others. All the struggles with our cognitive dissonance–articulated verbally, in writing, and in our behavior in which we justified these deadening interpretations–contributed to the further victimization of others. It’s f***ing awful to have to think about. It requires both self-forgiveness but also the admission of the harm we’ve done to others and an effort to repair that harm the best we can. The choice to contextualize the past leads to these kinds of horrific revelations, responsibility, efforts to set things right in ourselves and for others, and, the most difficult to do, forgive ourselves for being victims.

    To me your blog is a journey of truth, reconciliation, reparation, and self-forgiveness. It is so difficult and so beautiful to read.

  4. #4 by Vicky on January 7, 2013 - 2:02 pm

    Tradition is very heavily emphasized in my own religion also. It was shocking and quite frightening when I realised that these customs and understandings that are supposed to be so immutable and ancient were new once, and they have changed with time. It was like having the rug pulled from beneath my feet, which showed me how much I idolized tradition in my own way. I am still working out where to go from here.

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