Posts from September 2017

A walk down honesty lane: Consensual illicit relationships in the Muslim community

September 26, 2017

I’ve discussed the issue of shaykhy crush/fangirling from both the student and teacher’s perspective before and as much as many seem to enjoy creating villains and victims I don’t think most of these cases are as clear-cut as people would like to pretend they are. A victim is someone who is preyed upon, a villain (predator) is someone who preys upon others. The problem is most of these relationships are quite murky and don’t fit into this clear-cut victim-villain/prey-predator dynamic. In some ways I think people already know this. But newer definitions of what exactly a victim (prey) is, causes us to view even consensual relationships through the prey-predator prism.

It should be clear that a relationship merely being consensual doesn’t make it halal. At the same time, a relationship being haram doesn’t equal it being predatory. Nevertheless, many still categorize shuyookh as predators and their behavior as predatory in consensual illicit relationships. This is because they believe the uneven power dynamics in these relationships to be inherently harmful. The activist wing in and outside of the Muslim community believe that women can be victims even in a consensual relationship especially if the man is in a position of power. If a consensual haram act takes place between a sheikh, imam, or celebrity scholar and his female student he becomes the predator and she the prey. He used his power to tantalize her into a secret marriage, emotional relationship, degrading social (media) exchanges, and the like. I understand this narrative and for the most part, I geared towards until very recently. I understand the comfort a woman can take in portraying herself —both to herself and to the public, as a victim and the man as the evil sheikh. The problem is, it very often isn’t the whole truth. If women were completely transparent about these situations, they would admit to often being just as culpable as the men.

While it’s fair to say the one with more knowledge deserves more blame, it doesn’t take years of Islamic studies to know the basics of right and wrong. But what’s also problematic is the fact that quite often these relationships enter into a “grey area” without ever crossing any technically haram boundaries. For instance, what are we to think when a leader is accused of “spiritual/emotional abuse”? What does that mean and how do we deal with that as a community? Is a shuyookh “predatory” if he entertains marriage proposals from his students? Is it problematic for a female student to “offer herself” in marriage to her teacher? Is it an abuse of power if he accepts? I don’t know that there are explicit answers to these questions and I don’t know that its fair for our shuyookh to be labeled as predatory in any of these scenarios.

Yes, it may be true that a woman leaves one of these relationships feeling used and abused but it’s probably also true that the relationship was not one-sided, while it lasted it’s doubtful that the women in these scenarios didn’t enjoy the attention and special treatment that being around the sheikh permitted. The problem with seeing one’s self as solely a victim is that it alleviates one from responsibility, it creates a false picture whereby the woman is just an innocent party something happened to and not an adult with agency fully able to choose to engage or disengage in that relationship. It important to understand how difficult it is to get out of a relationship with a “power” man, but difficult doesn’t equal impossible and it’s in the difficult situations that we get to test our moral character. Even if you put most of the moral obligation on the man, the woman still has her part to play.

I also question the categorization of these relationships as predatory because I question whether or not an uneven power dynamic is an inherently negative thing. In some ways I agree with this stance because those in power over others naturally have an opportunity to oppress them through that power —if the man is more knowledgeable than she can be manipulated by him because of her lack of knowledge, if he is wealthier than her she can be oppressed through her dependence on his wealth, if he is her teacher she may fear bad grades if she doesn’t cave to his will, if he’s her boss she may fear being fired if she doesn’t do what he wants, if he is the community leader she may fear isolation if she doesn’t give in to his demands, and on and on. As real and as dire as this power dynamic is, it bypasses something more fundamental that we all intuitively know —women (often) desire to be with men who have a higher status (greater power) than themselves.

When things go bad it’s easy to blame the power dynamic and to categorize the more powerful person (the man) as a predator and the less powerful (woman) as a victim —for instance, once the secret marriage is in shambles it’s easy to say the sheikh forced her into such a union but the reality may be that she was willing to bypass her wali and agree to the marriage because she desperately wanted a part of the perceived power this sheikh possessed. If we’re honest with ourselves as women —despite society deeply desiring our dishonesty, we sometimes do crazy things to be with powerful men. Whether it’s the fangirls sneaking backstage to be close to their favorite musician or the fangirls sending secret messages to their favorite shuyokh “offering themselves” for marriage, many of us have a thing for powerful men and will do a lot of crazy nonsense to be around them. To pretend as if we don’t actively participate in pursuing these relationships is disingenuous and frankly, infantilizing.

None of this means men in power don’t bear the brunt of responsibility —they do (with great power comes great responsibility), and no man who engages in unIslamic characteristics should be put forth as a leader —we can do better than to have leaders who engage in blatantly haram or questionable activity especially involving the opposite sex, but it doesn’t do us any favors if we as women continue to play the victim game. Your Islamic knowledge is your responsibility and Allah gives us all an inner conscious to guide us in questionable situations. To pretend as if the women who get involved in these relationships don’t know —for instance, that zina is haram, secret marriages are questionable, sending illicit picture is a bad idea, etc. is to say that women are somehow desperately ignorant of the religion and should be treated like children who don’t know even the basics, that’s insulting and I have a hard time believing it’s anywhere near the truth.

This essay isn’t meant to overlook the actions of the shuyookh, men who behave like that or who constantly draw suspicious attention to themselves through questionable actions don’t deserve to be our leaders. But can we stop treating women like damsels in distress? Even if we put 90% of the onus on men when these relationships are consensual there are no victims and villains, just a lot of sinful folks in need of repentance.

May Allah restore our adab and give us guidance in this increasingly “grey” world.
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What is lawful is evident and what is unlawful is evident, and in between them are the things doubtful which many people do not know. So he who guards against doubtful things keeps his religion and honor blameless, and he who indulges in doubtful things indulges in fact in unlawful things, just as a shepherd who pastures his animals round a preserve will soon pasture them in it. Beware, every king has a preserve, and the things God has declared unlawful are His preserves. Beware, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound and if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt, and hearken it is the heart.” (Muslim, 1599)

[To note: I hope it’s completely obvious to any Muslim that in the case of non-consensual relationships we get the secular law involved. If anyone (especially among our leaders) is known to be involved in or in serious suspicion of committing domestic violence, molestation, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, etc., they should be prosecuted and punished in a court of law, as one sheikh said, “If someone acts like a kafir, treat them like one”.]

Q & A: Is African American style unIslamic?

September 4, 2017

Assalam Alaykum Dear Sister,

I pray this email finds you in the best of Iman and health.

I wanted to have your opinion on how can we reconcile the African American experience and the one of the Traditional Black Muslim experience?

The reason why I say this is because I find that whenever African American Muslims talk about their culture and how they wear hijab as African American Muslims, I see a lot of makeup and tight clothes: (I understand that this is an issue in all communities, as Muslim women we struggle with modesty. However, I was asking myself how can we work together to have more Ustadha and Black Muslim female scholars with the proper understanding of modesty and Islam.*

Jazakala Khair

E.M.

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Waalaykum Asalam Dear Sister,

I pray this response reaches you in the best of states. Thank you for such an important question and I pray Allah (SWT) blesses me to advise you and myself in the correct manner. First let me say, I know what you mean. Wanting to be a good Muslim and not wanting to lose one’s culture is something many of us face. And surprisingly it’s not only a convert issue, even Muslims born into Muslim families in Muslim majority countries can struggle to wean out some unIslamic aspects of their culture from purely Islamic practices. But since your question is about the black Muslim community specifically, let’s talk about us.

What is clothing typical of black culture? My mind conjures up images of hoop earrings, bomber jackets, gold teeth, perms, fitted hats, baggy jeans, timberlands, and Nike sneakers —I assume it’s the same for you? I’d also include dashikis, gold chains, head wraps, long weaves, fake nails, braids and more recently —natural hair in a myriad of forms. A few days ago on my commute; I smiled observing the various hairstyles of the black women around me, you’d be hard pressed to find a community that takes more pride in their hair and is so imaginative with style than our community. I’ll also admit that there were times I felt I was missing out on the black experience by covering my hair —with my hair covered, I wasn’t able to be culturally in sync with the women of my community. It’s true that in some significant ways we as African American Muslims have to leave bits of our culture behind if we hope to properly practice our Deen.

But again, that is not exclusive to us, any honest Turkish, Saudi or Pakistani Muslim will tell you there are parts of their culture that are unIslamic and the more devoted to God they are the more they steer clear of those conflicting aspects of their culture. But what unfortunately happens far more often is African Americans being told that our culture is uniquely blasphemous and we must leave it behind. We are told —for example, that rap music is haram in totality by the same people who have no problem listening to the music of their own culture no matter the content. I don’t believe that to be true or fair.

In order to remove ourselves from aspects of our culture that may be in conflict with our faith, we have to first learn something about our faith -let’s look at the example of music for a moment. It’s true that music is considered completely haram in some schools of thought and not so in others, nevertheless listening to “pull the trigger shoot the nigger” music, as my dad would characterize (some) rap music, should obviously not be the theme song of any believer’s life. The same formula applies to clothes –what specifically does God ask of us? Does He ask us to dress like an Arab or say that their clothes are superior? No, not at all. The cultural dress we choose is up to us but the guidelines are clear as to what that dress should be. The prophet (peace to him) tells us to cover everything but our hands and face (and feet according to some), Fiqh further clarifies by telling us this clothing should be loose and opaque. With that being clear in our minds it should be easy for us to figure out how we can fit our style and culture into the confines of God’s law. On the issue of makeup, all I can say is that I’ve been given different opinions (here’s one) on the issue -most of which have not looked upon it favorably. Common sense should tell us there’s a huge difference between a cat eye and red lipstick and more neutral makeup that hides flaws and slightly enhances features.

It’s apparent that nevertheless staying within the confines of God’s law won’t be easy for many —and we all suffer moments of discomfort especially in a society (and within our specific culture) that does not often support or promote modesty. For some covering their hair will be the biggest issue for others covering their chest or their arms or their necks, etc. I’d say to all of us what I said to my Muslim convert students over three years ago; do the best you can. Too many of us see modesty as a zero sum game. Over the years I’ve seen so many women go from being completely modest (covered from head to toe) to being completely immodest (cleavage bearing, arms, and legs showing, etc.) and I’ve thought, maybe if they understood the ruling on modesty more clearly they’d try their best and not give up completely when things get difficult. If a woman feels more comfortable wearing a head wrap than a scarf that drapes over her head and covers her neck and chest, it’s better she do than take off the scarf completely.

I don’t believe we need to abandon our culture, there are beautiful aspects of African American culture including the way we dress that we can and should keep if we choose. But we should remember that Islam overrides any aspect of culture, so when the choice is between the two we should always choose the former.

And God knows best,

Nuriddeen Knight

E.M.’s question was edited slightly for clarity*

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[If you’d like to ask me a question or hear my opinion on a particular issue feel free to inbox: m.me/Knight.Nuriddeen]

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