Idols, and breaking them

The story of Abraham is central to Muslim belief. Abraham the unbending monotheist. Abraham who broke the idols. Abraham who left his family and everything he had ever known for the sake of God. Abraham who was even willing to sacrifice his own son when he thought that God wanted it.

The Qur’an speaks about Abraham and other prophets in very positive terms, and holds them up as examples of faith. But the Qur’an does not say that they (much less their wives or other family members) as sinless, perfect, or beyond all criticism.

Centuries ago, Muslim scholars debated the question of whether prophets can doubt God’s promises, whether they can make small mistakes and errors of judgment or even major ones, whether they can commit minor or even major sins, whether their pronouncements are only error-free when it comes to the divine revelations that they proclaim or if everything on every subject that they said is unquestionably true.

But listening to most Muslims today (especially those who are neo-traditionalists, but certainly not only them), you’d never know it.

Islam as I was taught it, whether by Salafi-influenced Muslims or neo-traditionalists, had absolutely no room for questioning prophets, much less criticizing anything they did. You were supposed to hold them in reverence, take them as examples, and never, ever express any doubts about the wisdom or justice of any of their actions whatsoever. No critical questions could be asked. You didn’t question them any more than you questioned God.

The way we were supposed to relate to the prophets was made very clear in the language we used to speak about them—Hadrat Ibrahim—alayhi salaam, Hadrat Musa—alayhi salaam… and of course, Sayyidina Muhammad, salallahu alayhi wa sallam. Along with Hadrat Sarah alayha salaam, Hadrat Hajar alayha salaam, Hadrat Safura alayha salaam…. Their names preceded by honorifics, and followed by blessings. It was as if we wrapped their memories carefully in cotton wool, so that not a scratch would ever threaten to mar their highly polished visages.

And so that when their names, their stories, their teachings, their life-examples were wielded by the powerful to bludgeon people into obedience, the only damage done would fall on the latter.

Us living, breathing human beings would be marred by bruises, wounds, broken lives and damaged psyches. This did not pose any theological problem, because what is the suffering of humans living today (especially when these are “only” women, or children, or LGBTQ people) when compared to the faint risk of any blemish on the holy reputations of the prophets and their sacred consorts and righteous relatives in whose names such cruelties are religiously legitimated?

And now I think, is it not ironic that the likes of Abraham the idol-breaker should himself have become an idol at our hands? The boy who broke all the idols except one and hung a sword around that one statue’s neck, and when his people saw all the broken figures asked, “Who has done this,” and Abraham answered, “Why don’t you ask that one?” pointing to the unbroken statue.  And when his people replied that of course statues can’t talk, then Abraham pointed out the obvious: Then, why do you pray to them?

Is it really honoring the prophets or other figures of the past to place them beyond all question or criticism? Do they feel pain when we question them—or if they do, does that outweigh the harm done of human beings today when these questions aren’t raised?

Or does this whole issue really have more to do with protecting the racist, classist, patriarchal and homophobic status quo in our communities?

After all, what khatib or imam or shaykh would like to lose his ability to affirm that polygamy is a natural right of men because most of the prophets had more than one wife, or that LGBTQ people are all sinners because look what happened to the people of Lot, or that wives must obey their husbands and serve them just like the Prophet’s wives used to do?

While these are very obvious examples of ways that the stories of the lives of the prophets are used to whip people into line, what was probably more common in the communities I was involved in or had dealings with was people’s internalization of the patriarchal, classist, racist and homophobic messages underlying these stories as “just the way things are.” This tended to come through particularly in situations where certain things would be seen as shocking and demanding action on our part, and others as perhaps sad, but not really shocking.

That’s how I read Amina Wadud’s post on the story of Hajar. Looking at the Islam I was taught, and what it has left me with… I must say, I’ve seen too many Abrahams in the deadbeat dad sense: Men who don’t spend much time with their kids or wives, because they’re hanging out with “the brothers” instead, doing “Islamic work” or whathaveyou. Men who ultimately relate to women as bodies who exist to provide things they need—children (especially sons), sexual release, housework, status…—rather than as full human beings. Men who put their wives and kids in difficult, humiliating or even desperate circumstances as they go off to spend time with their other wives, or as they go prospecting for yet another woman to marry… or when they divorce and rebuild their lives, virtually unscathed.

And somehow, it’s all good. That’s how the community sees it: sure, maybe the brother could have done things in a bit better way, but who are we to judge? Make seventy excuses for your brother, and leave it to Allah to judge him. He’s got a beard, he prays five times a day and fasts Ramadan, he’s a pious, godfearing man.

Of course his wife, or ex-wife, doesn’t have anything like the same freedom from community judgment, especially if she dehijabs, or starts to question the patriarchal system that she was told would always protect her and her kids.

And even worse, we did internalize this double standard on a cosmic scale. That God will in the end forgive and be indulgent of all believing, practicing brothers, even if they basically ignore their wives and kids, or treat their wives like things that were created for their use, or go off and marry another woman and don’t support their kids from their previous marriage(s), because, well… God understands how men are, and good deeds like salat cancel out the bad. But that same God will consign women to Hell without a second thought if they aren’t grateful to their husbands, or allow any hair to show in public, or don’t give their husbands all their “rights” (first and foremost, sexual “rights”, but also obedience and service). Because, well, God has warned women about what a fitna they are for men and how easy it is for them to end up in Hell, so if they didn’t take heed then they only have themselves to blame.

Not only have I seen too many Abrahams of that kind, I’ve seen too many selfish Sarahs, who cut other sisters down and shove them out of the community. Both in other sisters, and in the mirror—I’ve been Sarah, and I’ve been Sarah-ed. The patriarchal structure of the communities I was involved in effectively put sisters in competition with one another for male approval, male patronage and male protection, both literally and figuratively. Because men had everything, whether it was status and decision-making power in the community, or access to that much-valued Islamic knowledge that they could dole out to the deserving if it pleased them. Women accessed such valued resources (as well as sustenance, given that women were supposed to be stay-at-home wives and mothers) through men. Many (most?) women responded to this by competing—claws out, if necessary, because they were playing to win. And thanks to the racism and classism and homo- and transphobia, it was certainly not a level playing field.

Looking back at the ways that I saw some black sisters (especially those who were converts) treated… should have made me seriously question the justice of the entire structure. Should have made me see that those pious platitudes about how nobody is better than anybody else in God’s eyes except through taqwa were just… verbiage, meant to soothe people’s consciences and divert attention from a racist reality.

One reason it didn’t wake us up was that demeaning attitudes to women were normal in our community. A man had the right to see the woman he wanted to marry so that he could decide if he felt any attraction to her before marrying her—and his mother or other female relative/friend could inspect her semi-naked body—her hair, her arms, even her breasts—in order to ensure that she would be “attractive enough” to meet his needs/requirements. (The reverse didn’t take place, of course—I can’t even imagine a woman sending her father or male relatives to check out a shirtless prospective groom.) Needless to say, this sort of thing didn’t play out in the same way for white or light-skinned women as it did for dark-skinned or black women.

And the sort of treatment that women could expect once married also varied in practice, depending on their race, ethnicity, social class, and the status of their birth families. The communities I was involved in typically held the husbands of certain types of women (aka those who came from “good” and “respected” Muslim families) to a higher standard of behavior. It was often assumed that while some kinds of women were “used to” being treated well, others weren’t… and there was no particular reason to change that. Also, treating a woman from a “good family” badly risked being socially disruptive, because her family would probably get involved and there’d be community discord. But women whose families weren’t with them, or converts? It was a different story. Though, in the case of converts, there could also be a double standard. Some born Muslims were critical of immigrant Muslim men who married white, middle-class converts, treated them badly, and then dumped them and any resulting kids, because such men had “given Islam a bad name.” But they wouldn’t often express the same concerns when the converts involved were poor or black (or both).

In the communities I was involved in, women’s competitiveness—which was often expressed through back-biting, exclusion, marginalization, giving nasiha in demeaning ways, and so forth—was used by the brothers to dismiss women as the inevitable sources of fitna, and to keep them out of positions of influence or power. But the brothers also encouraged it. Partly because it was a very powerful social control mechanism.

Women could be the most vigilant gender police. While I have some pretty unpleasant memories of being essentially told by brothers that my dress or mannerisms or behavior weren’t feminine enough, those memories that cut the sharpest are those of mockery and condemnation at the hands of sisters. Not so much because they weren’t correct—I did not manage to “pass” as the ultrafeminine “ideal Muslimah” that we were told that we had to be. But because in their minds, you were either male (aka you embodied the “ideal” Muslim masculinity) or you were female (which meant you were an ultrafeminine “ideal Muslimah”). There were no other options. Failure for a female-bodied person to be that “feminine” in those terms meant failure to be human. It meant that you weren’t worth anything, in the eyes of God or of anyone else.

We internalized that, too.

How strange it seems, to look back at my supposedly idol-free life. We looked up to Abraham, the unbending monotheist, the idol-breaker. We wouldn’t even have photos or pictures of humans or animals on our walls, because that was too much like idolatry. But in the name of pure monotheism, we bowed before the idols of patriarchy, social status, race, class, heteronormativity… and the story of Abraham helped make all this seem coherent to us.

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  1. #1 by nmr on October 20, 2013 - 3:41 am

    Just finished watching “Raise the Red Lantern”- patriarchy and polygamy in 1920s China, and if anyone reading this post doesn’t “get” what the author is saying, then I would highly recommend seeing the movie because all those red visuals ought to knock it into your head! Muslims don’t have a monopoly on patriarchy, but it plays out the same for the victims, regardless of any stated ‘religious’ associations.

  2. #2 by ki sarita on October 20, 2013 - 8:55 pm

    hey don’t blame yourself for not “seeing” it, its not your fault, its like you were marching along and they had put blinders on you to see only in one direction.

  3. #3 by Vicky on October 21, 2013 - 12:06 pm

    This is a beautiful post. I see a similar thing in certain circles in my own religion (Catholicism) with saints. If a saint did something, then it must be right. Padre Pio wouldn’t hear confessions from women wearing trousers? Women mustn’t wear trousers!! It’s not that prevalent, but it’s prevalent enough for me to notice that the people who do it tend to fixate on the saints whose attitudes and behaviours come closest to their own. Men who are obsessed with how women dress will be able to quote St Padre Pio word for word but not know one thing about St Vincent de Paul. Idolatry is very self-centred in that way.

    • #4 by xcwn on October 21, 2013 - 10:09 pm

      Vicky—Thank you for your comment. That’s a really true observation: idolatry is really about the self.

  4. #5 by rosalindawijks on March 9, 2015 - 12:53 pm

    By the way, this is an excellent post, because it’s so honest. Respect that you dare to be honest with youtself & others – even though I, of course, don’t fully agree with everything you write.

  5. #6 by rosalindawijks on March 9, 2015 - 12:56 pm

    “Looking back at the ways that I saw some black sisters (especially those who were converts) treated… should have made me seriously question the justice of the entire structure. Should have made me see that those pious platitudes about how nobody is better than anybody else in God’s eyes except through taqwa were just… verbiage, meant to soothe people’s consciences and divert attention from a racist reality.”

    Yes! This really resonates with me as a black convert! This is, alas, also the pervasive attitude towards black Muslim women in Moroccan, Arab and Desi communities in the Netherlands. (Which is why I rarely have dealings with your-average-Moroccan/Desi bread-and-butter believer anymore. The Arabs and Desis I had and have contact with, were/are always the rebels – wonder why 🙂 )

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