Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

“On Changing Perceptions. Article 2 of 3”

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“On Changing Perceptions. Article 2 of 3”

Sajed Bhandari

I left off the previous article touching on the idea of approaching identity from a value-based perspective instead of a rule-based perspective.  What is meant by rules-based perspective is that a person’s identity, in this case being Muslim, is distinguished by what rules and laws govern an individual’s belief and practice.  This understanding of identity is intimately linked with morality.  If one approaches Muslim identity from a rules-based perspective, then the laws established by tradition and orthodoxy define his or her morality as well as what it means to be Muslim.  In this understanding, a Muslim is as defined in certain theological terms (relative to which school of creed) and a Muslim’s piety is defined by his observance of what he has been taught is haram and halal.  The rules of creed and jurisprudence become the very definition of what it means to be a Muslim.  This notion creates an absolute identity and an absolute morality.

However, a shift towards a value-based understanding of identity creates a subsequent shift in how these values manifest themselves in what is called in Arabic, al muamalat. This is roughly defined as social interactions.  A discussion on how personal morality is affected by this shift in perception is beyond the scope of this article.  However, not only is it beyond the scope of this article, a discussion on how personal morality is affected by this shift is neither important nor desirable when one speaks about reform in the Muslim mind and society.   The primary focus is on how my views of social interactions have changed from an absolute morality to a contextualized morality.

Socially, I have never been particularly conservative.  With that said, how I internally viewed homosexuality, gender-relations, and sectarian relations were influenced heavily by the orthodox/traditional understanding.  Homosexuality, although not something I personally abhorred, was an issue that I was taught had certain rules.  It was not permissible to be homosexual.  I was taught they chose to live that lifestyle and it was a lifestyle that God hated.  The verses usually quoted to defend such a position centered on the verses describing the people of Lot and their “lewdness”.  With respect to gender relations, I was taught that women are essentially sources of temptation and that the spheres of male and female were separate but equal in Islam.

The most orthodox influence on my thinking however, was in the realm of sectarian relations.  Sectarian here is defined as both inter-religious and intra-religious.  With respect to the non-Muslims, I was taught that they did not believe and would only corrupt my faith and my actions.  With respect to other sectarian groups amongst the Muslims, they were for the most part innovators, deviants, or severely misguided.  The manifestation that this perception of the other undertook was isolation.  As a side note, as much as I would like to say it is only one tradition or orthodox sect that has this mentality, in truth, Shia, Sufi or Salafi sectarian views permeate internal religious discourse and study.

The aforementioned social issues are taught from a rule-based perspective.  What is the rule regarding one’s interaction with homosexuals?  What is the rule regarding one’s interaction with people of the opposite gender?  What is the rule regarding one’s interaction with other sectarian groups?  All of human interaction had a specific rule and specific law that had to be followed.  Again, the level of an individual’s piety was determined by how many of the laws he or she outwardly followed.  This classical understanding of human social relations and the laws that they established were forged within a very culture and time-specific context.  As 21st individuals, one still had to ascribe to this absolute understanding of social relations.  This absolute understanding was presented as the Will of God as understood in the interpretations of the early Ulema.

However, at this point in my life I cannot see the laws regarding social interactions as applicable to me.  I am an American Muslim living in a 21st pluralistic society.  Bangladeshi immigrants who never stressed the separations of genders or hatred of those who believed otherwise raised me.  This idea that my upbringing and my current situation were somehow incorrect because an Imam in the early centuries of Islam had deemed it so according to his understanding was laughable.  Beyond it being laughable, it was inherently incompatible with who I had become as a person.

I began to realize that my Muslim identity could not rest in the pious observance of the laws or memorization of certain points of dogma.  I found myself following a social ritual that did not make sense to me anymore.  This was the trend towards a contextualized morality in terms of social interactions.  I had to define for myself how I would interact with the civil society around me as a New Yorker and with the polity as a whole in as for as my being American.  But in this I had to be true to myself.  I could not pretend to despise homosexuals for a lifestyle that was different from mine.  I could not mock Christians and Jews for their beliefs.  I could not sever my relationships with individuals that I held as sacred simply because they were female and not married or related to me.  These were absolute morals that I simply never truly held.

So the trend towards a contextualized morality was the beginning of an understanding that laws and dogma did not define my identity as being Muslim.  Rather, there was a history, a set of peoples, food, clothing, literature and scientific achievements that formed the core of my Muslim identity.  In addition to this, the discovery of the five higher objectives (faith, life, intellect, wealth and the future generations) and Islam’s intention to protect these objectives became the basis of my contextualized morality.  The issue became an effort to be true to these five higher objectives in a context of being American by nationality, New Yorker by locality and immersed in a pluralistic society that included freethinkers, non-Muslims, homosexuals, women and any other category different from me.  It meant being true to the values within my immediate context and not true to the laws as established by earlier Imams.

This was the shift from an absolute morality to a contextualized morality with respect to social interactions.

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Written by sajedbhandari

March 1, 2010 at 3:52 am

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