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?
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.