This title is a bit of a misnomer, at least in my experience. Because yes, I needed to think through what we were taught as neo-traditionalists and begin to see the gaps and the fallacies in order to be able to leave it. But there was more to it than that. Desperation, which pushed me to look beyond neo-traditionalism for answers. And glimmers of hope that found their way through those gaps, and made me sometimes think that things outside might possibly be better.
I’ve written about several aspects of the desperation before. Being stuck in a rotten marriage that had turned polygamous, and scared to death about how my kids and I would survive. But I haven’t written about the hope, really.
As someone who is idealistic and thinks a fair amount about ethics, I was inspired by two main aspects of the lives of several Muslims that I encountered who had either left neo-traditionalism or had never been in it: their intellectual integrity, and the way that they dealt with others. They were accepting and non-judgmental, and a couple were in loving, egalitarian relationships. For me, the superiority of intellectual integrity over thinking that slides into apologetics when Tradition was in danger of being questioned was evident—as was love and acceptance over the judgmental social interactions and duty-based, hierarchical marriages that surrounded me.
Intellectual integrity posed a painful theological dilemma. Surely, it was our duty to avoid questioning Tradition—especially in public, so that the faith of others wouldn’t be endangered? After all, what did we know? How could whatever we did know possibly compete with what the great scholars of the past knew? Didn’t they know what God wants far better than we moderns could ever hope to do? Surely, the only safe thing to do is to follow them, and keep on shoving my doubts and questions aside as static from my nafs or satanic temptations due to my contamination by modernity… except that that would be self-deception.
I would be attempting to deceive myself so that I could in effect deceive God so that God wouldn’t punish me for having the hubris to question although God knows everything anyway so trying to deceive God not only doesn’t work, it’s kufr.
Either way, I was apparently done for. And even worse, it didn’t make theological sense.
It was a real shock to me to realize that people who my community would have scorned for their lack of “orthodoxy” treated others far better than any of the conservative Muslims that I knew. I could hardly believe it. And I hardly knew what to make of acceptance either. Didn’t they realize that I came from a community that absolutely despised people like them? Why didn’t they see me as an enemy? Why did they trust me?
It was very strange to feel acceptance instead of judgment. But this also posed theological problems for me. Much as it was pleasant to feel accepted, aren’t standards necessary? Don’t lines have to be drawn somewhere? And hasn’t God laid down very exacting standards for what is allowable and what isn’t? How can any community ignore these, and still be Muslim? And loving, egalitarian relationships look wonderful from the outside, but what about the divorce rate?? Do they really work any better than the marriages I was used to?
These questions were not the sort that had ready answers. But they pushed me to ask myself what I was trying to become. What did I want to be “when I grew up”, so to speak? Did I want to be self-deceiving and judgmental, in the name of safety in the hereafter? Was this the sort of life that I would be able to look back on when I lay dying, and honestly feel that this had been a life well lived? Were intellectual dishonesty and narrow-mindedness and fear really what God wanted from me?
And could I in all conscience teach my children to live this way?
Something was really, really wrong here.
But it was one thing to begin to realize this, and quite another to begin to leave behind all that is familiar. Neo-traditionalism had offered security, a sense of belonging, the hope of salvation and a sense of purpose. Now that this was falling apart. Without those friends who basically loved me back to life, I would not have managed. It was they who gave me the hope that life in the wider world might be possible, and that I could even survive there. Being able to sit in the presence of a few people at least who were accepting, at a time when little or nothing was making sense, and I could hardly be honest with anyone in my community about what I was thinking and feeling, made all the difference.