There’s a problem with the way Islam is taught in orthodox conservative circles in the East and West. While laudably trying to inculcate a respect for the textual sources of Quran and hadith and what are seen as the more authentic or authoritative interpretations, there also tends to be an enormous emphasis placed on rote memorization and repetition of other people’s actual ingenuity and critical thinking.
There’s a certain predominant ideology among many newly practicing Muslims including converts that seeks to emulate the Islam as espoused by a few scholars in Arabia in the 20th century. No doubt, they were knowledgeable in the religion and deserving of respect and now most of them are dead, so I’ll just say may Allah have mercy on them.
It’s okay to want to follow a certain interpretation of the religion that one feels is most authentic, however, it’s not okay to try to force those interpretations on others. On MuslimMatters, a few posts here and here this past week discussed the overthrow of the Tunisian dictator and here come the Salafi orthy conservatives, many living in the west, of course, with their copy-paste fatawa from men long dead (may Allah have mercy on them) revered as though their words are like the revelation given to the Prophets and hadith devoid of the richness of context to say it’s always impermissible to rise up against any ruler, no matter how unjust, despotic, and tyrannical.
Is that what Islam asks of us? For them and their selected copy-paste quotes, yes. But thankfully for others, no. Tariq Ramadan and the scholars at Al-Azhar have stood in support of the actions of the Tunisian people noting that the obedience to the ruler is not absolute but predicated on a number of conditions.
I know sisters previously strong-willed and independent (and I include myself, although I’ve been actively fighting to regain my voice and my personality these last several years) who become almost unable to cross the street without first asking imam so-and-so or going to this or that online fatwa site to see what the “real scholars” those often long dead or perhaps still living in certain parts of Arabia and it’s always certain parts of Arabia have to say on the issue.
It’s never let’s see what the scholars of Nigeria or Malaysia or Indonesia or Sudan or even America have to say. Perhaps, only more recently some of us have begun listening more carefully to those scholars, imams, and activists that were primarily born and raised here in the U.S.
The struggle of Islam in the western countries in the 21st century will be to imbue Muslims in these lands with an authentic and uniquely western vision of Islam. It must be organic – rising from these lands and not cheap copy-pastes or immigrant culture-based Islam. It must flexible and able to adapt to and respond coherently and effectively to the realities on the ground. I’m not really into the TED-talk fad but I listened to one called The End of Men after reading an article by the speaker Hanna Rosin: Are Women Leaving Men Behind? The author is happily married and the mother of boys so she’s not some stereotypical western lesbian man-hating feminist and even if she was, so what? The interesting thing for me about her talk were the phenomenal stats she referenced reflecting the advances women have made in educational, workplace, and personal attainment.
In a society like ours, the penalty boxes, balconies, curtains, basements, one-way mirrors and other shady accommodations are no longer going to fly. I’ve made a decision that I’m no longer going to go along with the status quo of poor and inferior treatment of women in our mosques. Drawing strength not only from our religious sources but also in this week where we reflect on the life and passing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his words still inspire me to great hope and action.
You don’t need a fatwa for everything. The religion is easy, we all have to find our baseline and above that there is so much fluidity and expansiveness built into the shariah because it’s a divine message made for all people at all times. There are matters that well-known and even if you never encountered a scholar in your life, you would still be able to discern through the use of your God-given critical thinking capacity.
You don’t need a fatwa to tell you that murder, rape, theft, lying, betraying trusts and harming innocent people is wrong. You don’t need a fatwa to know that you are allowed to leave your house for any number of reasons or for no reason or at all. You don’t need a fatwa to know that the way men abuse the authority they’ve been given to relegate women to inferior spaces in mosques is wrong. These things are well-known, it’s part of the pure and natural fitra (human nature).