Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (VI)

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.


, , , ,

  1. #1 by mary on January 21, 2013 - 12:21 pm

    You just have to let go and not expect everything to “make sense.” “Making sense” is what we are taught is the best thing, but the best lies, and the most adroit liars, “make sense.” And forcing oneself to practice a religion that our inner self is rejecting actually makes no sense at all.

    As a feminist who didn’t convert to Islam until I was in my 40’s, I was attracted by the supposed “fairness” of Islam to women, and the rather loose community of Muslims I associated with in my early years as a Muslima was able to conceal what went on within marriages (I was a single woman). Not until I moved to a “Muslim country” did I understand the truth about how women are perceived in Islam, and how a “good Muslima” is expected to live her life.

    A Muslima has no rights. Period. She is allowed to live her life only according to what her family and community deem proper. She can be “lucky” and be permitted to attend university and get a job (but she cannot accept any job offer without getting permission from her father). If she wants to marry, her parents must approve, and if she doesn’t, she will be pressured without mercy. She almost always wears the hijab (but if she doesn’t, that is no indication of her “freedom” either).

    Polygamy is the biggest fear for women here. In my experience, my ex-husband lied and said he was separated from his wife of 32 years, and when she found out about our marriage, all hell broke loose. Imagine a man having the right to turn the life of a woman completely upside down by, after 32 years and three kids, leaving a note on the coffee table one morning saying he has taken a second wife. This is what my ex did, while rationalizing that Islam allowed him to take up to 4 wives, and that “she isn’t losing a thing” – callously and selfishly disregarding her heart and overnight, turning a long-term marriage into nothing. Imagine how her self image plummeted, her whole reality fell apart. And imagine how mine did, when I learned that this was what he did, and realizing that this man basically had no respect for his wife or their relationship, but was simply being selfish as Islam gives him the right to do “as a man.”

    The humiliation and loneliness of a polygamous marriage is something I would not wish on anyone. Having to be alone while waiting for my “turn” at being blessed with this scoundrel’s august company just cannot be described. Being alone in a country and in a city where I had no friends was torture; I suffered bad psychological effects and had a lot of issues with anger after I finally left him. But I got the picture – he was an aging man, lonely and still wanting to feel “like a man.” I was a mistress, nothing more. Second wives almost always are just mistresses with the Islamic seal of approval (marriage) affixed to them. I sat alone while my ex took his wife shopping, to family weddings and parties. I spent Eid al Fitr alone eating leftovers from his family’s big party. I was locked inside my flat and couldn’t get out. My ex never told me where he lived, no doubt because he was afraid he would find me paying a visit to his wife.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 22, 2013 - 2:35 am

      Mary—IMO, whether or not things “make sense” or not, I have responsibilities. Meaning, I have to put food on the table and care for my kids and get up in the morning and go to work. There has to be a limit to the extent that I tear myself apart or a lot more people are going to suffer the consequences than me.

      You make a lot of points that need more discussion than I have time to at the moment (posts coming on…). One thing that I will say is that it has taken me a while to get a sense of how unrepresentative many of my experiences are. Converts tend to get the worst of both worlds. We got sold a theoretical, very over-simplified and idealized package of “gender equity in Islam” that turned out of have an awful lot of fine print that we found out about later—sometimes, very much later. As in way too late to do anything about it. And while we don’t have the limitations that often come with belonging to an extended Muslim family, neither do we have the advantages.

      Basically, we could be treated in ways that few middle-class educated urban born Muslim women would be (all other factors being equal). My ex wouldn’t have been able to get away with treating me the way he did if there’d been a Muslim family in the picture. Once he married the second wife, who was from his country and ethnic background, observing how he treated her even when they weren’t getting along was quite revealing. He was always worried about what her relatives would say, who they would say it to, and how this would affect his reputation. While he wouldn’t talk to me about the problems in our marriage or agree to go for counseling (not even to a conservative Muslim counselor), he did the whole “bring a mediator from each side” thing when he was trying to work out his differences with her. I found that confusing at the time. Now, I look back and realize that in his mind, the stakes of each marriage were very different. 😦

      Anyway. We need resources for converts recovering from abusive marriages and/or polygamy.

      • #3 by charmedshiva on January 22, 2013 - 6:08 am

        But the effect of polygamy isn’t unique to converts, and certainly in the days of the Prophet when there was actually concubinage and slavery, no matter how “kind” of a version it was, couldn’t have been the pretty-100%-fair to women picture that Muslims present Islam as. I’ve also never heard or seen a hadith where the Prophet ordered men to have a woman’s permission before marriage to a second wife, nor to a concubine ( which = a formalized mistress anyway). I’ve never seen any evidence that she’s allowed to divorce with exactly the same right as he has, and especially not for such taking a second wife. Regarding permission to leave the house, which would by extension mean permission to study at school or work, is a fact of Islam according to whatever I’ve seen. The best I’ve heard is that a woman is allowed a prenuptial agreement where she states that she basically revokes her husband’s rights. I don’t see how that solves the central problem, which is that a woman’s dignity and humanity would be degraded in the first place, so that she should have to chose to prevent that for her marriage if she so knew of that option. And I’ve also heard speculation that perhaps women in those days needed ‘protection’ and so husbands had the right to keep them locked up at home, and that society needs ‘protection’ from illicit sex and therefore polygamy makes sense. It’s hard for me to swallow that I used to believe these excuses. The truth is that Muslim men CAN treat born-Muslim women just the same if they wanted, but they don’t because of social repercussions. (But actually, sometimes they do! I have a cousin whose Iranian friend was married to an Arab man who she later found out hid a first marriage from her! This girl wasn’t a “convert” and actually these stories occur all the time in the Middle East…amongst born-Muslims! My family comes from there so it’s not news to my ears… I’ve heard it all before.) I don’t remember ever hearing that the Prophet notified his previous wives that he was about to marry Saffiyah, a woman whose story in itself is a serious moral problem for me… I mean really, there are problems not at all limited to converts. Some converts just happen to get hit the worst because they’ve seen life before this and without this, and because they’re easier to abuse.

        I agree that there is responsibility. I often feel so ashamed of myself and the battle I’m going through because I feel for my parents who have to suffer seeing their own child basically become the most awful version of depressed they had ever imagined possible. And I’ve been wanting to get married for years but now that I’m in this crisis, how am I supposed to marry? And to whom? Upon what standards, values, beliefs? How would I raise my children? It’s tough!

      • #4 by xcwn on January 22, 2013 - 1:54 pm

        Charmedshiva—Yes, you’re right, converts aren’t the only ones who suffer polygamy and abusive marriages. There are a lot of complicating factors (ethnicity, race, social class, whether the woman comes from a more or less influential family…) in marriages between born Muslims as well, that can lead husbands to be less worried about social repercussions if they treat their wives poorly.

        IMO, polygamy and concubinage are innately abusive, anyway. There is no way that they can really be “fair” to either the women concerned, or to any children they might have, because they are based on the idea that women are less than human.

        As for marriage contracts, well… those neo-traditionalists (and others) who try to sell stipulations in marriage contracts as a remedy for inequality are not being honest. Aside from the whole unfairness issue, those stipulations don’t necessarily work either. If a man wants to disregard them, or find a way around them, he can often do so. My marriage contract definitely didn’t do anything for me. But that’s another post.

        There are a lot of problems with the less-than-honest way that we were sold on Muslim marriage (post coming).

        I don’t like to give out advice. I don’t have the training. But I would suggest that you take it one step at a time. Feeling ashamed is normal, but it is unwarranted. Depression is something that you can’t help. Keep going to therapy.

        Neo-traditionalism teaches us to think that we must have pat answers to everything—or at least, that we must be following someone who says that he has those answers. So when we start to question, it is extremely anxiety-producing. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is nothing but a manipulative tactic: first, convince your market that they desperately want or need something that you have, and then make them dependent on you (or your friends) to provide it. But they don’t really know the answers either. They are either repeating “what my shaykh told me” or what they read somewhere, or what they themselves think sounds convincing. What they teach is apparently working for them, but that’s no guarantee that it should work for us. It clearly isn’t working for those of us who end up deeply depressed when trying to follow their teachings.

      • #5 by Yukimi on January 26, 2013 - 9:40 am

        While I agree that polygamy as it is practised in most of the world, it isn’t feminist and it isn’t usually very nice; I think polyamory, open relationships and polygamy (being polygyny or polyandry, group marriage or communes) aren’t anti-feminist in concept when they are done because it’s the desire and consent of all participants and all participants maintain all their rights. You may think this is a fantasy but at least in the part of polyamory and open relationships, it works for very sex-positive and pro-feminist people and the studies about kids upbringings in those communities (while still in the early stages) seem positive. I would love for my family to be more than my boyfriend and me (while my boyfriend doesn’t care one way or the other) but that’s my personal experience and I know most people don’t share it and it shouldn’t be forced it on them and that’s how polygamy usually works in the places where it’s legal (as a loophole for cheating and deceiving men).

      • #6 by xcwn on January 28, 2013 - 1:48 am

        Yukimi—I am not sure why it seems to be a law that when Muslims recovering from abuse post about polygamy, sooner or later a commenter will bring in polyamory. Why??

        To me, it seems rather like someone blogging about their struggles with an eating disorder, and people leaving comments about how great some diet-or-other is that their sister or neighbor tried. What is the point, exactly?

        I am still dealing with the damage caused by polygamy. And so are my kids.

  2. #7 by (._.) on January 21, 2013 - 7:13 pm

    When I was a traditionalisma, I loved an idea that I now despise beyond words. I asked once, “But what about the good deeds of atheists? I have friends who are atheist and they are ethical people, the best people? Are their good deeds worthless?” The answer: When atheists do good deeds, they have real effects in the world that everyone can see and benefit from. But the actions have no connection to the divine. It is as if every good deed created an angel. For believers that angel soars up to the Throne and announces your good works to God who counts that work toward your reward in the Next World. For atheists, their good deeds create angels but the angels simply fly around in circles never making their way to God. So God never knows any good of them to reward in the Next World…and so they are consigned to Hell.

    Can I just say this? WHERE WAS MY #(^$&!* MIND? Damn the things I thought! I have actually apologized to a lot of people for the crap I thought and actually said to them. Some have forgiven me, some do not respond to my apology. It is what it is.

    • #8 by xcwn on January 22, 2013 - 2:37 am

      (._.) —OMG. Ok, you wrote the next post for me….

      • #9 by charmedshiva on January 22, 2013 - 7:56 am

        Yes. Yes. Please write a post on this!

    • #10 by The Great Pretender on February 7, 2013 - 3:31 pm

      Oh, (._.)! (I am 90% sure I know you.) I haven’t forgotten but I have forgiven. Besides, I find some of the things you said back then pretty damn funny in retrospect. We were all equally insufferable in those days. I uncovered an old blog of mine last night (now, thankfully, deleted) that I couldn’t bear to even read, such was the pain caused by the flinch-worthy titles.

      • #11 by xcwn on February 10, 2013 - 11:40 pm

        Pretender—lol. Yes, so many of us were terribly, awfully insufferable. 😦 Good grief. I’m glad you now find humor in some of it. I’m trying to work on that.

  3. #12 by Ess on January 22, 2013 - 4:30 am

    I could have written every word here. I think you’re much farther along in your journey than I am, but this is the same path I’m walking now. I can especially relate to seeing the Islamic model that I’ve long held as the ideal being lived more fully amongst those I once judged as “misguided” than those who dress the part and talk the talk with such conviction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: