How I know I’m still Muslim: because I’m still as critical as all hell :-(

Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—“awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”

And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.

Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.

Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?

Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.

And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).

So, where does this come from??

Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.


Watching the “halal version,” I was unfortunately not surprised that the women without headscarves, or the dancing women were edited out. Sure, lots of Muslim women don’t cover their heads, and lots of Muslim women (hijab-wearing or not) like to dance. But reality is one thing, and public representations of “The Muslim Community” are quite another, especially where adult females are concerned.

I was vaguely disappointed that a headscarf wearing woman in loose, subdued clothing riding a bike also had to be edited out, but again, not all that surprised. I could follow the “logic” at work there. To be sure, she was sitting upright and fairly sedately on a very unremarkable bike, and unlike the bare-headed and/or dancing women, there isn’t an obvious proof-text that would immediately call for her expulsion from the video. It isn’t as if bikes are mentioned anywhere in the Qur’an or the hadith. But women’s participation in any kind of sport is controversial even if they are fully covered, since any motion potentially draws men’s attention to the fact that women have… bodies. So, precaution would dictate that she too be edited out, especially since she also appeared to be moving her head in time to the music (which is too close to dancing for comfort).

Where does this internal critical voice come from, again?

A conservative explanation / self-serving rationalization would be that this critical voice is the last remaining vestiges of my conscience. That even though I no longer rationally believe that it’s morally wrong for a woman to choose not to wear hijab, or to dance or act goofy in public, that I somehow innately know that it is in fact sinful. That all people in fact innately know this in accordance with their fitra, but choose misguidance and pretend not to know and are therefore self-deceived.

But back before I converted, I actually didn’t “know” those things. I strongly believed that sex outside of marriage is wrong, and I was concerned about “modesty,” but I didn’t regard uncovered hair or dancing (of the sort in the video) or goofiness as morally problematic issues, much less as sexually charged—I saw them as a mundane part of life. It was only after I converted that I gradually learned to see these things—and every part of life, actually—through hyper-critical lenses.

Islamic law and its categories (haraam, mustahabb, mubah, makruh, haraam) was the vehicle for this endless carping criticism of everything, but the driving force was actually identity politics. Concerns about Islamic authenticity and who was “in” or “out” of the conservative communities I became involved with. Authenticity was built on binaries:

“Islam” / “the West”

akhira / dunya

guidance / misguidance

halaal / haraam

divine revelation (wahy) / human whims (hawaa)

(Islamic) morality / immorality

and so on…

So, as convert I was presented with a series of binaries. This was socialization that (especially for women) worked rather like aversion therapy. You quickly learned which was the “right” side of the binary and which was not, because if you seemed about to gravitate toward the wrong one then you’d soon be shamed into compliance.

I learned the rules and their associated proof-texts for three reasons, essentially: in order to better obey God, because it interested me (I wanted to understand…), and because it was my way of sorting out all the different and often conflicting messages that I received from conservative Muslims about what I was supposed to believe and do. With knowledge (we were given to understand), we would have firm ground to stand on, because we would know what is “Islam” and what is “culture” (or for neo-traditionalists, what is “Tradition” (TM) and what is sentimental ungodly liberalistic hawaa).

But such “knowledge” turned out to be a two-edged sword in my experience.

It gave me some sense of power over my own life—that I could know and determine what I did or didn’t have to believe and do, regardless of what “advice” I might receive from well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning Muslims. With time, it protected me from most inadvertent slip-ups, where I would say or do the “wrong thing” and be admonished or gossiped about (aka shame). It gave me a sense that the world I lived in was orderly, and that I was somehow safe and protected, because there apparently were clear answers to any and every ethical issue.

Yet, this “knowledge” bred a breath-taking arrogance. In me, and in those I looked up to. Because we thought that we had the keys to the answers to every question, no matter how apparently ethically complex. Although I might not personally know those answers, I was taught (and I believed) that the great scholars of the past did, so we had access to them through their books and scholars today who authoritatively pass on their teachings. It apparently followed that we had nothing much if anything to learn from those who didn’t share our beliefs, or who were Muslims but didn’t accept the authority of the scholars. I was deaf to what people had to say about their own lived experience when these didn’t accord with The Way Things Are Supposed To Be.

What was it that was really so attractive about this hyper-critical mindset? No matter how powerless we might be in reality, we felt powerful, because we had privileged access to The Truth. Although we wouldn’t have ever admitted it, we felt that we were better than others, who didn’t have this privileged access (or who had it, but hadn’t managed to make such good use of this divinely given bounty as we thought we had).

We knew that pride and arrogance are major sins, read about how sinful they are, and piously tried to combat them by affirming that “God knows best” and “above every knowledgeable one is one who knows more” and so forth. But we were so steeped in pride and arrogance that we didn’t recognize it, even as we prayed to avoid falling prey to them.

Considering this automatic hyper-critical reaction of mine and the future of my faith, it seems rather like looking at the remains of a building that has been burned out. What survived the fire is what was most solid, most fire-resistant. What was really there all that time, whether I had recognized that or not.

Although this was not what I had converted for, this was what I ended up with.

So, yes… I still have “values.” Faugh. As bitter as ashes.



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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on April 28, 2014 - 3:25 am

    Yes, yes, and yes. I am having arguments in my head, daily, against the same voice. It is a deep private shame for me, this cold and judgemental inner voice, and I want it surgically removed. I don’t want my daughter to understand why her feet should be covered, much less know all the technical details of HOW her feet should be covered acceptably, for example. If I could rip that voice out of me, I would.

    • #2 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 4:29 am

      That is a very powerful comment. Thank you. I absolutely agree.

  2. #3 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 8:11 am

    To be honest, I wouldn’t consider that “voice inside” as a proof of Muslimness, but rather a proof of patriarchal conservative “guilt” wrapped in an Islamic gift wrap.

    I think we as Muslim women should stop equating piety with patriarchy and conservatism.

    (I know that you agree on this and yes, I understand that being brainwashed into these views leaves trails and scars…)

    So, instead of talking about women’s clothes/chastity/whatever, let’s talk tawhid and spirituality. 🙂

  3. #4 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 9:19 am

    This thought just crossed my mind: If you are saying that you know you’re still Muslim because of the judgmental patriarchal voice inside, doesn’t that mean that you agree that to be a Muslim means to have that “voice inside”?

    That ideology/interpretation of Islam claims that to be a Muslim, one has to have a binary, judgmental, androcentric, heterosexist, patriarchal worldview.

    You now reject that worldview, but somehow still seems to believe that that is what Islam is all about. (I also remember you writing that you think Islamic marriage and the rules of it cannot be changed. I don’t agree on this. Scott Kugle has an awesome take on that in his Homosexuality in Islam)

    • #5 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 10:29 pm

      I’m saying that this patriarchal, judgmental and self-righteous attitude is finally what the Muslim communities I was involved in and/or who produced the literature, etc that informed my understanding of Islam have left me with.

      And not just Salafis and their ilk, either. Neo-traditionalists even more so. Which is ironic, since neo-traditionalists claim that while Salafis are like that, they are not, and that this makes them better than the Salafis (or as they would phrase it, that they are following “Traditional Islam”, which is all about adab and balance and humility and all that good stuff… except when it isn’t).

      Theoretically, I don’t believe that they have the lock on Islam. And practically, I know that they don’t—an increasing number of Muslims don’t agree with either them or Salafi-influenced approaches. But the reality on the ground where I live at the moment seems pretty inescapable. Dealing with most Muslims (including family), encountering anything connected with “The Community,” encountering most representations of Muslims in the media… back to the binaries and harsh judgmentalism, though sometimes camoflaged not very expertly by anodyne-sounding talking points.

  4. #6 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 9:25 am

    The essence of what Kugle says about reforming Islamic marriage law is this.

    He explains how the jurists from the classical period constructed marriage on an analogy with slavery.

    He proposes to construct Muslim marriage on an analogy with a company/copartnership. I really like that idea because it’s not only egalitarian, but also theoretically and theologically sound.

    So, liberation and feminist theology it is. 🙂

    • #7 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 10:33 pm

      Yes, I agree that this idea has potential, at least theoretically. At the same time, I realize all too well that the conservative Sunni “mainstream” in North America doesn’t believe that anyone’s marriage can or should be egalitarian, even while they rather misleading use egalitarian-sounding rhetoric from time to time.

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 9:41 am

    “What was it that was really so attractive about this hyper-critical mindset? No matter how powerless we might be in reality, we felt powerful, because we had privileged access to The Truth. Although we wouldn’t have ever admitted it, we felt that we were better than others, who didn’t have this privileged access (or who had it, but hadn’t managed to make such good use of this divinely given bounty as we thought we had).

    We knew that pride and arrogance are major sins, read about how sinful they are, and piously tried to combat them by affirming that “God knows best” and “above every knowledgeable one is one who knows more” and so forth. But we were so steeped in pride and arrogance that we didn’t recognize it, even as we prayed to avoid falling prey to them.”

    And this is essential to all conservative and fundamentalist interpretations of religion. Up untill shortly, I never really realized the enormous arrogance of thinking to “know it all”. And yes, in many cases “God knows best” is just a fig-leaf for the judgmental rants that come before that sentence.

  6. #9 by rosalindawijks on April 28, 2014 - 9:46 am

    And yes, there is nothing like feeling morally superior……..which I also felt, quite a while ago (9-10 years ago, when I was a new convert of 17-18 years) towards born Muslim women who didn’t “play by the rules”.

    Rules that I choose, but THEY didn’t choose to begin with.

    And of course, both my theoretical interpretation of Islam and my life as Muslim in practice was -and is!- quite different from theirs. I was -and am- totally free to choose the interpretation that suits, pray when- and however I want, wear what I want, socialize with who I want, etc. and didn’t have a judgmental, patriarchal, and often racist and sexist community surrounding me- something because of which I, o irony, long envied them. (I’m mostly talking about the Dutch Moroccan community, because I have the most experience with)

    Now I’m glad to just be me, alhamdulillah. 🙂

    • #10 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 10:37 pm

      Yes, converts in “the west” have “convert privilege” because at least initially, in most cases they chose to adopt Islam, and they often also chose which version(s) of it to follow.

  7. #11 by Laury Silvers on April 28, 2014 - 12:31 pm

    F’em. Burn the shell of that building down. Let the ashes become compost. Let the worms break it down. May you find new growth. The sprout of a plant you’ve never seen. Happiness is the best revenge on these rancid excuses who enjoy destroying people’s loving relationships with God.

    I certain am no fan of his views on women (super blech on “Retrieval”), but at least Abdel Hakim Murad came out in support of the film and offered a harsh critique that ended up, perhaps inadvertently perhaps not, fatwa’ing the permissibility of dance and music….and filming such things on video.

    Anyway, I like this video better. It’s got none of the weirdness. Even the white convert at the center of it is not weird (not trying to be an Arab…maybe the Muslim Eminem….no crime in that if you’ve got his talent).

    • #12 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 10:58 pm

      All I can say is… thank you.
      Letting go of the shell of that building is scary stuff. Even though it’s rotten and dangerous. We were taught an absolutely horrible idea of God–like an angry shaikh (like Hamza in his pre-9/11 mode…) standing up there watching with eagle eyes just waiting for us to doubt something or fail to be properly grateful for blessings and then he’d strike us dead before we’d have the chance to repent, and chuck us into hell. That was believable, because hey… making technical mistakes during salat could invalidate it no matter how sincere one’s intention. That was a god who evidently cared about correct form above all, no matter what the rhetoric about “actions are judged by intentions” and so forth.

      As for the video… thanks. (My daughter is rolling her eyes, cuz if I listen to it it is by definition not cool.) LOL at the idea of a Muslim Eminem. There’s a Christian one out there too (or who knows, maybe more than one). This vaguely Eminemesque number is (unintentionally?) hilarious. Guess he doesn’t know what “cruising” is… or it means something different where he’s from… or something.

  8. #13 by nmr on April 28, 2014 - 1:30 pm

    I don’t think you can surgically remove it, it’s fire resistant, remember? If you tried to rip it out, it would grow back again, like cancer.
    What you might consider doing is learning to live with it, to acknowledge it, and to question why does this voice want to be heard at this particular phase in my life? What is it about this voice that makes it so appealing/comforting — and xcwn I think you have done a great job on the Truth Monopoly analysis.
    What works for me is after I have the voice banging around my head for a bit, then I start to make fun of it. It’s kinda like that old Star Trek episode where the only way to make the entity that feeds on anger and fear leave is for Captain Kirk and the Klingons to start laughing.

    • #14 by xcwn on April 28, 2014 - 11:01 pm

      Thank you for your comment. That sounds like a promising idea.

  9. #15 by Ex-H on April 28, 2014 - 9:50 pm

    You have this way of taking every thought I have and putting them to paper and describing them so perfectly, I swear you’ve been in my head. I watched the video and I had those same two reactions of “hey, what a cute video!” and “that’s not proper hijab”. I understand the criticism and the “need” for the halaal video, and that’s what I hate the most. I understand where they’re coming from.

  10. #16 by chinyerebrasil on April 29, 2014 - 4:00 am

    I saw that video and the one that Chicago Muslims recently made…and I know from my old Boston circles that the ISBCC is about to do the same. I at first could not bring myself to watch the video because I believed the united and happy, interracial Muslim communities represented in these videos to be a farce…then, I watched it, and I agree, my first reaction was that it was cute. My second reaction was, yes, the identification of the haram, though my thought process was, “Someone else will certainly think this is haram, but oh well.” And my third reaction was…hope. Because here are a group of Muslims who did not worry if their dancing and hijab-less women would offend/was halal or not and posted, anyway. And then Chicago Muslims followed with the same vibe. It helps to remind me that not everyone has that list of Muslim’s can’ts and betta-nots that I came of age with.

  11. #17 by Aicha B on May 4, 2014 - 7:14 pm

    Great write-up. Also love the title: “How I know I’m still Muslim: because I’m still as critical as all hell”. Conforms to an interview with Ziauddin Sardar in which he talks about critical Muslims and transmodern tradition.

    • #18 by xcwn on May 7, 2014 - 1:36 am

      Awesome article—thanks so much for drawing my attention to it.

  12. #19 by dervish on May 14, 2014 - 10:27 am

    I’ve just stumbled across this blog looking for an old blogging friend and nearly fell out of my chair. My journey has been different but so many of the issues you mention resonate with me. Especially the waswas of the hyper-critical inner thoughts. I think it has invoked an almost pathological scrupulosity in me. To this day eating with my left hand makes me feel guilty.

    I think what saved me was the very thing that gave me so much internal grief for so many years: having a non-Muslim husband. It gave me the freedom to walk away even though I know folks will blame him for leading me away from Islam ‘danger: this is what happens when you are married to a kafir’. But it wasn’t him, it was me! (and what gave me the mental permission was the old blogging friend who left Islam first).

    • #20 by xcwn on May 22, 2014 - 12:00 am

      Thank you for commenting. Yeah, me too—about the left hand thing. I still find it really hard to do, and I still feel guilty when I put on my left shoe first. Good grief. I’m not sure what causes that. We used to think it was a sign that we were growing in faith. Now I suspect it’s more like an OCD-ish thing. But whatever it is, it sure seems long-lasting.

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