The way we were: Games we weren’t really supposed to play

Even though I left my insular, very conservative Muslim community several years ago, there are still times when I feel like an immigrant in my own country.

Somehow, we believed that using playing cards was wrong because it might lead to gambling... but that gambling with your and your kids' futures in the name of trusting in God is a-ok.

Somehow, we believed that using playing cards was wrong because it might lead to gambling… but that gambling with your and your kids’ futures in the name of trusting in God is a-ok.

Not only when the people I work with refer to tv shows, movies and music from the ’80’s and ’90’s (which I missed out on…), but when they matter-of-factly refer to various things that some people do for fun, and I realize that I don’t know how to do that. Because either I’ve never done it, or it’s been so long since I’ve done it that I’ve forgotten how.

And I then realize how much my ideas of “fun” have been molded by my life as a conservative Muslim. Particularly, by certain Salafi-influenced ideas that were common when I first converted.

In the ’80’s, I remember a fair amount of anxiety in the conservative community I was living in about various recreational pursuits. Not just about things that you might expect—men and women swimming in the same pool/at the same beach, Muslims going to the beach even if they weren’t going to swim, women playing sports where men might see them (even if the women were wearing hijab)—but about certain games that we had played when we were kids.

Questions were raised about whether any game played with playing cards was allowed. Or, any game played with dice.

 

Those who argued against any game played using dice pointed to a hadith that compares handling dice to touching swine-flesh. (The correct response to such a hadith would be “ewww”—to the very idea of putting your fingers anywhere near either.) And also, that dice are used for gambling, which is haraam.

Those who opposed playing cards would say that they are yet another thing that are usually used for gambling. And even if the particular game you are playing with them—Old Maid, say—doesn’t involve gambling, it still is kinda like doing something forbidden. Along the lines of drinking non-alcoholic beer, or drinking some non-alcoholic liquid in a wine glass.

Sure, what you are doing isn’t technically haraam, but it’s desensitizing you to things that are similar to or typically associated with something that’s haraam, so you should stay clear of it. Because “what leads to haraam is itself haraam.” And also, because doing things that a casual observer could mistake for haraam leads to the normalization of things that are really haraam. Which is not only bad, but a sign that the end of the world can’t be far off.

Looking back, I realize that this is just the slippery slope fallacy, served up to us as God’s truth.

And also, that it was yet another of those weird coincidences (which actually probably weren’t coincidences…) when North American Muslims (often converts) are manipulated into getting all steamed up about something that some conservative North American Christian churches are taking a stand against.

But at the time, we took these scruples fairly seriously. I and other converts I knew were very wary of cards and card games. I remember finally letting my kids play card games provided they used the specially made kiddy cards tailor-made for one game—one set for Old Maid, one for Go Fish, and so on. And, feeling that I was compromising. For years, we didn’t have regular playing cards in the house. I never learned to play the card games that adults play. It never even occurred to me to try.

When it came to dice, we would play some board games such as Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly, but with the awareness that more conservative Muslims wouldn’t approve. Because of the dice. We played those games because we remembered having enjoyed them as kids, but at the same time, we were wary of games involving dice, so we didn’t expose our kids to games using them that we weren’t already familiar with.

Behind all this was fear of somehow falling into gambling, or being involved in something that was somehow similar to gambling. For the same reason, we didn’t buy raffle tickets that neighborhood kids were selling door to door to raise money for their sports team. Because, gambling. Which is haraam. We forbade our kids to use the phrase “I bet that…”, and we were careful not to use it ourselves either.

Meanwhile… we were making quite a few poorly considered “religious” decisions that in effect gambled with our and our children’s futures. But we did not notice the irony of that.

We had been taught that being careful to stay as far away as possible from even doubtful things was the more pious thing to do, and that trying to do that would increase our taqwa. At the same time, living that way consistently was basically unworkable. People tended to deal with this in one of two ways: either by compromising with reality and feeling guilty about it, or by theoretically upholding conservative rules while making exceptions to these when it would make their own lives easier… and judging others for doing the same.

These ways of “dealing with” the huge (in not insurmountable) gap between our lives and the pious ideals we had been taught we should have were corrosive, in my experience. It was this—not the glasses we used for drinking water—that desensitized us. We became focused on the appearance of piety, and oblivious to common sense. We didn’t ask why it is exactly that gambling was forbidden in the seventh century, much less ask whether those circumstances really were relevant to us today.

 

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