This series on neo-traditionalism would not be complete without discussing the role played by our leaders, and our bonds with them.
When I first began reading about Islam, I didn’t encounter much that led me to think that following a leader was important. In fact, the opposite impression was often created—that Islam is all about the individual’s relationship with God. The individual believer is responsible for his or her beliefs and practices before God, and there are no intermediaries comparable to, say, priests in the Catholic church.
It would be some time before I consciously realized that very few of the Muslims I encountered actually believed that. The way that such “individualist” rhetoric was used was pretty misleading, at least for a naive outsider—on one hand, yes, each individual is responsible before God, but that doesn’t mean that each individual can actually decide how the Qur’an or the life of the Prophet or the hadith or legal rulings relate to their life. Especially not if that individual is not only female, but a “western” convert. Such weighty interpretive decisions can’t be made on one’s own. Though, there was no consensus over who exactly should make them.
Where I was living in North America back in the early ’80’s, actual scholars were rather scarce. There were a few imams who had studied abroad. There were a couple of Muslim university professors who were seen by some as knowledgeable. There were Arab and South Asian conservative, bearded engineering students who attended halaqas of like-minded men, and were basically self-taught. There were Tablighis. There were followers of Warith Deen Mohammed. And there were a few Sufi teachers.
There was no consensus as to who should be seen as knowledgeable enough to guide others, and plenty of disagreement. Some (particularly the engineering students and their hangers-on) attempted to bolster their claims to having a corner on “the true Islam” (as they called it) by distributing anti-Shia pamphlets.
At Friday Prayers, I heard from the bearded engineering students who took turns preaching the sermons that we should be following “the Qur’an and the sunna.” While that sounded as though it meant that individuals are responsible for reading the Qur’an and the hadith and then coming to their own conclusions, it soon developed that this was absolutely not what these students meant. Many were Arabs, and they didn’t believe that any non-Arab—especially not a female convert who didn’t even know Arabic—could possibly understand these sources “properly.” These students were also heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and/or the Jamaat-i Islami, and they believed that the Qur’an and sunna should be read and understood through the filter provided by their leaders.
As converts, we were confused by all these claims and counter-claims about who has “the true Islam” and whose interpretations ought to be followed. And as women, it was especially hard to us to learn much about our religion. On one hand, we were told that certain things are basic to the proper practice of the deen, but it was made so difficult for us to learn about them, much less to sort through all the conflicting information we were given.
So, we were in a position to be receptive to would-be leaders who could speak to us in clear North American English. Who would claim to understand where all these different groups and factions were coming from—and why they all fell short of understanding “the Tradition” (TM). Leaders who shared our cultural references, because they too had attended public schools in North America.
They could combine their exposure to “the Tradition” (TM) through their studies of Islam in Muslim countries with the ability to reference Shakespeare and Plato, as well as some aspects of North American pop culture. They could quote the Qur’an and hadiths in Arabic, and then explain it in English, referring to medieval commentaries on these sources into the bargain. They could explain points of law so that it made sense. They would boldly refer to medieval authors that the Salafis thought were tainted by “Sufism.” They said that “Tradition” held all the answers that modern Muslims need, including Muslims in North America. It all seemed so profound. And they were so very, very self-confident.
Unlike the many of the Salafis (and those influenced by them) that I knew at that time, these neo-traditionalists promoted women’s learning. Mind you, women had a significantly lesser degree of access to learning than men did, but the bar was very low where I was living. Any group that not only provided all-female halaqas, but “allowed” women to attend the (more advanced) men’s halaqas was radical in that place and time. This concession made us feel valued, and recognized as human beings with minds and spiritual aspirations. Which was definitely a first.
At the same time, the more that we learned about “the Tradition”, the more we encountered things that bothered us. And up until now, we had never really encountered anyone who could answer our questions about these things in any satisfying way.
Before, we had had people give us shallow apologetic answers to such questions—and when we indicated that we didn’t find these convincing, condemnation or challenges to our status as believers usually followed. But now, we had leaders who could provide profound-sounding answers.
Looking back at many of the answers that we received to such questions, I can see that some were less than honest. While these leaders claimed to be conveying “the Tradition” (TM) as handed down by “the great scholars of the past” and without any modernist contamination, in reality, they did edit what they taught us to varying extents. Sometimes because they read these texts ahistorically, so they retrojected modern concerns and perspectives onto them, without necessarily meaning to do so. And sometimes because they felt that there are certain things that modern, North American audiences aren’t prepared to hear. They believed that a leader should teach each person according to his (or her) capacity—and that capacity is decided by the leader, not by the person seeking guidance and innocently assuming that they are getting a complete answer.
Some of these answers we received weren’t really answers at all. They could be more accurately described as “bait-and-switch.” Once, I remember that my friend and I screwed up our courage and asked a question that had been bothering us for some time, but hadn’t dared to ask because it was one of those topics that community standards made just about impossible to discuss openly: How is it fair that a wife has to allow her husband to have sex with her whenever he desires it (barring a religious excuse), and that if she doesn’t, the angels will curse her all night long? The answer we received was basically that if a wife permits her husband sexual access even if she doesn’t want to, then she is giving her husband sadaqa (charity). And shouldn’t she be delighted to have this chance to do a good deed??
What could we possibly say to that? Nothing, of course. Because a true believer can’t say she’d rather pass up a chance to obey God and earn merit by giving charity. We were in effect manipulated into silence by our aspirations to be pious. And our question still wasn’t answered. But what we had been given was a fig-leaf—a plausible-sounding excuse that we could use in order to explain to ourselves why oppression isn’t actually oppression. And that was what we thought that we needed at that time. In order to keep our worlds from collapsing. Although we would never have been able to admit it, not even to ourselves.
So, we needed leaders who would be able to provide such “answers,” that were not really answers so much as reassurances that we were really on the right path and that our (deeply buried yet somehow durable) doubts were baseless. And as we read and studied more, and our kids grew older and had the knack of asking questions that we couldn’t answer convincingly… we felt that we needed our leaders even more. So that our world would continue to make sense. We needed leaders who could quote hadiths from Bukhari and what Ibn Hajar had said about them and expound on al-Ghazali and dismiss secularism and modernity as shallow and rootless. We needed to feel that we were rooted in true, authentic Islam, and that we had a hand-hold that would never fail us, as long as we did not let go of it.
And most of all, we needed a shaykh in order to walk the Sufi path.
We aspired to walk the path. And we were told that “he who does not have a shaykh, has Satan for his shaykh.” As women, we couldn’t very well travel and search for a shaykh, as some men were able to do. All we could do was hope that somehow a shaykh would come and live in our area. We were taught that “when the student is ready, a teacher appears.” And, that a student must be “as a corpse in the hands of its washer” in relation to his teacher.
All this was pretty much a recipe for would-be leaders to arise, and to manipulate their followers. It is not too surprising that this is what happened.
One challenge for those of us who are now recovering from these kinds of experiences is learning to think clearly again. To not allow ourselves to be fobbed off with emotionally manipulative “answers.”
Another is learning healthy ways of relating to people we look up to—not giving our minds and consciences over to them, not putting them on pedestals.
Yet another is learning how to determine whether and to what extent a person merits our trust—something that is particularly difficult to do after having one’s trust betrayed to such an extent by would-be leaders, who claimed to have knowledge beyond what they actually possessed.
And yet another—for those of us who still do have faith—is to reclaim the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet and the hadith and the rituals and so many other things from those leaders who so thoroughly poisoned these for us.