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.