As events unfold in Syria and Iraq, I am brought face to face with so many deeply troubling aspects of what we used to believe. As well as what we weren’t told. And yeah, chose not to see.
For several weeks now, I have been debating whether or not to actually try to blog about some of these issues. These are really difficult issues to think about, much less talk about. And how would trying to talk about this be at all constructive?
But I see that threekidsandi has blogged about the situation in Sinjar (northwestern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi minority are trapped on a mountain by the so-called “Islamic State”, formerly known as ISIS). So, I suspect that I’m not the only convert/ex-convert who is being triggered by these events and is having a great deal of difficulty processing them.
Why? For a number of reasons, I guess. As converts or ex-converts who were part of very ethnically diverse communities, some of us knew people from those areas, or who now live there, and we now worry and hope that they are ok. In that, we are not so different from many other Muslims in North America.
But there, the similarities end. For some of us, the antics of the so-called “Islamic State” (I’ll use “IS” from here on in) raise serious theological questions, evoke survivors’ guilt, and finally undermine whatever lingering trust in or regard for our former leaders that we might still have.
To begin with the obvious. IS invokes “the Quraan and the sunna” for what they do, including: Destroying shrines and tombs. Killing Muslims whose theological beliefs they do not agree with. Offering Christians the “choice” between paying the jizya, being killed, or being driven out. Slaughtering religious minorities who are neither Christian nor Jewish. And now apparently, abducting Yezidi women as “spoils of war.” When we hear this or read about it, we immediately know what verses from the Quran and hadiths can be quoted in order to justify these things.
As to “why” IS actually does these things, I don’t presume to know. I definitely don’t buy the claim that “the sunna makes them do it.” It’s not that simple. For one thing, anyone with any knowledge of what Iraq was like under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein will recognize a certain modus operandi. Saddam didn’t impose the jizya, but he did just about everything else—usually, in the name of secular Arab nationalism, but towards the end he “got religion.” But even before he got religion and put “Allahu Akbar” on the Iraqi flag, his genocidal campaigns against the Kurdish minority in the ’80’s were code-named “Anfal” (aka “spoils of war”—and yes, that’s also the name of the eighth chapter of the Quran, which is absolutely not a coincidence). But then, his propaganda machine also called his war against Iran “Saddam’s Qadisiyya” (after the famous early battle in early Muslim history which was key in the Arab conquest of Iran). Basically, the deeply cynical use of religiously flavored sloganeering for politically motivated atrocities has a long (and secular) history in Iraq. It’s a handy way to justify anything and everything. It’s less about Islam than about governing an already traumatized population through a politics of sheer terror.
There are also complicated historical questions involved in such apparently straightforward attempts to claim “the Quraan and the sunna” as an alibi. Despite what even Salafi rhetoric might suggest, Muslims (even Salafis) in practice are always selective about what they choose to implement. Just because something is in the Quran or the Hadith doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is going to take it very seriously. The issue of backbiting is an obvious case in point—it is condemned in the Quran in the strongest possible terms, everybody knows this, there are even more scary hadiths about how much God hates it… but everybody does it, and it’s usually no big deal. The pious even have superficially pious rationalizations for why it’s righteous to do it in certain circumstances.
But somehow, certain things (such as polygamy, and hijab) become elevated to these untouchable symbols that can’t be debated or rejected because “it’s in the Quran.” There’s a history to this process. It’s not inevitable. It’s a politically motivated process. It’s about power. Things (like backbiting) that don’t really pose a threat to social power relations don’t become untouchable symbols, because who would gain from that? But something like hijab can be made into such an untouchable symbol, because it has direct ramifications for debates about women’s access to space and resources, as well as the power of others to police women’s bodies.
As far as IS is concerned, they are differentiating themselves from other Muslim groups that they do not agree with by upholding jihad, jizya and (apparently) slave concubinage as unalterable symbols. It’s a horrifying political calculus, and game of brinksmanship, a “more Muslim than thou” move. And it puts religious scholars and ideologues in an interesting position. On one hand, they can easily point out that IS has no authority to declare jihad, and dismiss them as brigands and criminals who are “spreading corruption in the earth” (as the quranic expression has it), and who therefore if they are going to be consistent should give themselves up to be tried and executed for their crimes.
But that is in the end a technical argument, that avoids dealing with more fundamental questions: If this were a “legitimate” jihad, would it be morally justifiable for IS to impose jizya, give religious minorities who are neither Jews nor Christians (as well as “heretical” Muslims) a “choice” between (Sunni) Islam or death, and take women captive and make sexual use of them? Really?
As converts, we were taught a lot of mutually contradictory things about the Prophet, early Muslim history, and the Sharia.
One one hand, we were taught that the Prophet is a mercy to the worlds (and this teaching was constantly reinforced by rituals such as sending peace and blessings on him…). That he was just, and compassionate, that even his enemies trusted him and testified to his moral excellence. That he cared for the weak and the vulnerable, and protected them.
But also, that he was a military leader who went to war against several Jewish tribes as well as Arab pagans. These battles included taking women and children as captives and enslaving them—though this aspect of the battles was not dwelled upon much in the circles that I moved in. But we did read that the Prophet himself had two or three wives who were originally war captives (Safiya, Juwairiya, and possibly also Rayhana, who may not have been a wife but a concubine).
We were told that the Prophet was perfect, and criticizing anything that he did is a serious sin that amounts to unbelief and takes you out of Islam. And that whatever he did is by definition moral, and is a moral guide for all places and times until the day of judgment.
We were taught that when the early Muslims conquered Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, they dealt with the conquered Jews and Christians fairly and justly. That often, they were welcomed, because their former rulers had not been so just. That imposing the jizya was only fair because Jewish and Christian men were exempt from serving in the Muslim army, and that it was just a token amount in any case. Oh yeah, and that Jews were treated far worse in Europe by Christians at that time (which somehow made it all ok).
We were taught that the Sharia (depending on how that was defined, whether by Salafis or neo-traditionalists), is divinely given, that it is perfectly just. That even though it sometimes treats certain groups (whether women, or recognized religious minorities) differently, it all works out fairly in the end, and is vastly superior to anything that the United Nations or any secular movement or government has ever come up with.
But now, the actions of IS bring those questions that used to hover somewhere in the back of our minds to the fore. When it was all in the past, 1400 years ago, it was not too difficult to fall in line and look through rose-colored glasses and assume that it must have all been different back then. That even though now, taking captives and making them sex slaves is recognized as a war crime by the United Nations, that people felt differently about it back then and we can’t judge the past.
I don’t doubt that people felt differently about it back then. It is only very recently that the assumed connection between marriage and the wife’s 24 hour sexual availability to her husband regardless of how she might be feeling about it has been openly rejected and (in North America) legally broken. The notion that a woman’s enthusiastic and ongoing consent matters and that violating it is immoral is a very modern idea (that continues to be contested by some, in North America and elsewhere, and is unfortunately far removed from the lived realities of many girls’ and women’s lives). I don’t doubt that people back then also felt quite differently about religious wars, discriminatory taxes, slavery in general, harsh punishments, and so on and on. These things were part of their world. Some people may not have liked them very much, may have even been critical of some of them at times (especially when another group was doing it and not their own group), but they didn’t and couldn’t have ever envisioned something like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
But still, seeing footage of Yezidi women with their conservative attire (including headscarves covering their faces) fleeing with their many children… Do they flee because they have been culturally contaminated by godless western feminists telling them about human rights? Are those women any whit less “authentically traditional” than those know-it-all neo-traditionalist white North American convert shaykhs who continue to soft-pedal slavery and concubinage? Because a modern framework of human rights was lacking 1400 years ago does not mean that being made war against, being made to pay the jizya, being taken captive and enslaved was not sometimes that people would flee from and resist if they could (as certain hadiths make chillingly clear).
Doing such things and giving them a religious justification means giving a religious justification to treating others as one would not oneself want to be treated—as one would violently resist being treated, if that were at all an option. This is a “morality” based on double standards, on hypocrisy, however you slice it.
But whatever we want to do with the past, it’s not as if we still lack the ability to envision a more equal and just world today. Some immigrant Muslims I met back in the day were severely traumatized by war and had no use for the United Nations or any statements coming out of similar institutions, and couldn’t take them seriously. For them, it was all a miserable farce. Perhaps for them it still is. Maybe that’s some of what was/is up with some of our conservative Muslim leaders here of immigrant origin. Maybe there are similar considerations going on for some African American Muslim leaders.
But what the hell was/is going on with the North American who are white middle class converts? Those great white shaykhs? Why did they teach us such things? Did it really not bother CONVERTS to endorse Sharia laws that discriminate against others for their religious heritage or religious choices? When they traveled to places like Syria or North Africa in order to study Islam, did they happen not to notice that some of the people living there are not Sunni or even Twelver Shia Muslim, Christian, or Jewish? Did it never occur to them that these laws and texts that they were romanticizing have no place for such minorities who cannot be classifed as either “Muslim” or “ahl al-dhimma”, think that they shouldn’t even exist because they pose a theological problem? Did they even care?
This is really disturbing. Though, when I think about it, whereever I went in the Muslim majority world, I sort of noticed that there were these religious minorities there, and kind of wondered how that is possible “Islamically”… but it didn’t really register. I certainly never thought about what would happen to them if an “Islamic government” came to power. I guess we see what we want to see, and ignore what doesn’t seem to make sense. One reason for ignoring such minorities and their likely fate under a hard-line Sunni “Islamic government” was that it would have disrupted our sense of ourselves as Muslims—as underdogs, as part of the righteous umma which is today the world’s most persecuted. It would have cost too much to admit that reality is far more complex. That “we” could be and were sometimes the persecutors.
Unfortunately, I suspect that the issue of slavery and slave concubinage didn’t really bother those Great White Shaykhs. After all, some of them have only recently begun to publicly acknowledge that domestic violence is an issue that Muslim communities have to face up to and deal with, and some of their teachings on marriage don’t really address the issue of marital rape. They’d much rather deal with issues like hijab and whether women can lead a “mixed” congregation in prayer and dating and… well… keep right on policing women’s bodies. That’s something that their studies fitted them for, and that many of their conservative North American audiences are receptive to. But dealing with complex ethical issues, not so much. Squarely facing rape culture and how their readings of old texts might be contributing to it in their communities… I doubt they’ll ever see a reason to get around to it.
But whatever they do or don’t do… what does this selective blindness, this refusal on the part of those we trusted and followed mean for us?
How could we rely on the religious “guidance” of those who when it comes right down to it, don’t really have a problem with texts that sanctify these things? Who go out of their way to romanticize such texts, in fact?
I remember way back when, when I first met a certain convert shaykh, heard some of his “traditional” teachings and was convinced that he was one of the saints of God. But I was wrong. I was so very very wrong.
Falling in line with that way of looking at the past, at old books, at Islam means keeping silent when I should speak and listening passively as straight-up cruelty—things I would never, ever want to happen to me or to anybody I cared about or even people that I don’t particularly like—are airbrushed and presented as right and just. I can’t and won’t do that. Nor can I take anyone seriously who does.