Last week, I visited a sister’s house and as I was leaving I noticed a small sign in front of a little knick-knack that read “Do Not Touch”. This object that I had not noticed when I entered the room and would not have cared much about had I seen it, now held a strange allure.
I wanted to know what was inside, I wanted to touch it, and I asked her about it. She said that she made the sign for her grandchildren because they loved to go in her room and play with the items on her dresser. So I said, “Then the sign is not for adults”, and she opened the container to reveal its rather mundane contents for me.
From childhood, I have rarely cared for warnings from others to keep away from this or that. When I was a kid, I was definitely afraid (and perhaps I’m still afraid) of my parents, older relatives, and my parents’ friends because there was no concept of not disciplining children.
In church, we knew we did not mess around or make any noise, we sat there quietly sometimes through 4-hour plus services so I’ve never quite understood why children run around crazily in the masjid but then again I don’t have any kids yet.
Our parents used to tell us not to go down to this one gas station in the neighborhood but we would sneak down there with our pennies and silver coins put together to buy some candy and there was always the extra added delight of knowing we didn’t get caught.
As I got older, any book that was banned or controversial or warned against I wanted to read it. I felt that clearly those that have warned against it must have read it or read extracts from it and if they could read it then I felt that I should also be able to read it. My dad has an extensive library of books in our house and I used to read those books both nonfiction and literary classics and benefited immensely from them.
I’ve read many books that were at times banned in one school district or another or boycotted by religious groups, or just have been historically controversial and in general do not feel any worse for the effort. I would much rather have people warn me against reading poorly written literature (I never read anything Oprah has recommended, I made that mistake once) than to warn me because they fear my naive and innocent mind would not be able to cope with the material.
It was a rare occasion that our parents used to send us out of the room if they intended to watch an R-rated movie. So then for us, watching R-rated movies became highly desirable and by this I mean the R-rated films edited for television so that we still were not getting the full haraam aspects but we felt a bit like rebels for doing so.
In school, we were always warned about the dangers of cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol so of course we wanted gum that looked like chewing tobacco, candy cigarette sticks so we could pretend to smoke, soda in bottles particularly in Nigeria or non-alcoholic drinks that came in bottles so we could pretend to drink. We mocked the drug commercials i.e. “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs”.
It seems to be a little spoken about fact that kids that grow up in the suburbs with lots of easy disposal income and lax parental supervision find that the gates to all haraam are open to them. When I was in high school, we saw the movie Traffic and had to laugh through much of it because it was so preposterous that rich kids from the suburbs would have to go into “the city” to satisfy their street pharmacy needs when no doubt drugs are easily available in and around well-to-do schools and suburbs.
I read the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie before I became Muslim and loved it and read afterward and indeed it was offensive but I would never say that anyone should not read it if that is what they have chosen for their edification.
I tried to watch the film Submission by Ayaan Hersi Ali and Theo van Gogh but could not even with my gaze lowered on mute just reading the subtitles and on fast-forward. It was obscene and disgusting and melodramatic and ridiculous so I just shut it off. It wasn’t worth it. Now if someone asked me about that film, I would say don’t watch it because it’s filth but I’m not going to start a campaign against it or try to kill the director or screenplay writer.
When I came into Islam, I had the opportunity to mix with Muslims from many different ideological backgrounds. I found some people calling themselves salafi that warned against just about everybody so much so that I could not take them seriously and many of the people that were warned against were people that had benefited me in my Islam and my emaan. When I look at the person warning and the person warned against I remember the quote of one shaykh to think of the opinions of laypeople as if they are small children.
I remember one distinct lecture by Hamza Yusuf where he warned against reading anything by Fatima Mernissi, I did not know who she was at the time, but made a mental note to read some of her works, I haven’t gotten around to it yet but it’s there in my mind to do so.
I have heard many people warning against reading Irshad Manji or Asra Nomani (a former AlMaghrib alumni) but I don’t see any benefit in that either. I find Irshad’s voice annoying and her arguments weak as I read or listened to interviews with her so she is not on my reading list. As for Nomani, there are parts of her story that resonate with me so I may read her book but she also isn’t high on the reading list when there is so much good Islamic literature out there like Ibn Qayyim.
In general, I think it is counterproductive to warn against people, books or ideas because it only serves to increase the publicity for it in the minds of people that ordinarily would not have given it a second thought.
I do not think most people are stupid and I hold them to a very high standard, a standard similar to the one I hold for myself i.e. Allah has given us an intellect not so we can let it atrophy but to exercise it regularly in the process of filtering out the good and beneficial from the harmful.