November 11, 2007

Binary Logic

For some reason, I had this post in my drafts for the last six months, unfinished and forgotten. I didn't like it much then, but I might as well post it. In the absence of anything else, here it is.

"What is the matter, you don't like Eid? Why do you hate Eid?"

This was one of the stranger questions I've ever been asked by someone, and I had a really hard time explaining myself. As was the case nearly every year, there was division on the date of Eid-ul-Fitr, and I had chosen to follow the local mosque. My Egyptian roommate, who was nearly twice my age at the time, found it very offensive that I was not praying on the same day as himself. As much as I tried to explain the difference of opinions to him, he took my autonomy as a sign of hatred towards Eid itself.

I've heard the same sort of logic applied in many cases, where one is unable or unwilling to recognize a middle ground, or practice subtlety. Everything is simple, black and white, and not worthy of discussion. Particularly on matters related to Islamic rulings, I would encounter the same sort of mindless argumentation from Muslims who were simply incapable of understanding opposing viewpoints. For many, there is nothing between forbidden and required, between good and bad, between right and wrong. Such polarization occasionally leads to these people taking very principled stands on what they believe to be right, but often it reduces them to silliness.

I recall being out for dinner with a group of volunteers at a recent Islamic conference. Among the volunteers was a contingent of international students of Arab origin, who matched nearly every stereotype thrown at the Arab community. In earlier years, we found it nearly impossible to tap into the potential of this community; they would typically shun such volunteer work, and ignore these sorts of events. But through the outstanding people skills of one of our volunteers, one of the more influential brothers from this group offered his help. And once that one individual came in, dozens of others joined him. This group stuck together, for better or for worse, in whatever pursuits they found themselves.

As we ate our shawarma, one of the Arabs brought out a case of non-alcoholic beer. The Arabs jumped on the case quickly. A few of us, who happened to all be born in Canada, hesitated to touch the cans. While we knew it was non-alcoholic, the very idea of sitting around in a loud restaurant drinking beer did not sit well with us. We all politely refused.

This offended the Arabs. "Who refuses to drink this?", one yelled. Another interjected, "Wallahi! Who do you think you are!"

I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, until this comment:

"Brother! Allah has said not to make haram what is halal! Why won't you drink?"

And there it was. The faulty reasoning that plagues so many Muslims coming to North America - that anything that is not forbidden automatically becomes required. The mentality that we need to do something, just because we can. Above all, it is the mentality that wants to emulate the West as much as it can without blatantly overstepping the boundaries of Islam. I have heard this argument used to support everything from divorce to Loblaws chicken to smoking. That, coupled with "but the Prophet said Islam was easy!", make for a formidable duo in justifying any number of activities.

What transpired then was just one amusing episode of a bizarre addiction to non-alcoholic beer. I remember another friend telling me that he hates the way it tastes, but keeps drinking it anyway because "it is good for his kidneys". This friend was by no means the picture of good health and nutrition, so his insistence on strengthening his kidneys seemed rather absurd. In practice, he came across as someone who simply needed to feed a desire to appear Westernized while remaining within the realm of permissibility in Islam. There is nothing wrong with the action per se, but the silly justifications are tiresome and unnecessary.

Regarding divorce, I recall when a friend of mine complained about his then-engagement going through some bumps. "But I think we'll still get married," he told me. "If things don't work out, we can always divorce." Shocked by how casually he could consider divorce even before getting married, I pleaded with him to reconsider if he had such negative thoughts going in. He replied by telling me that even the Companions of the Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam divorced, so who are we to argue against it? The gaps in his logic baffled me. He never did end up marrying, eventually realizing himself that he could not make things work, and "divorcing later" was not an option he should ever have considered.

The lesson that must be learned is that things really aren't so simple. The ability to think critically on issues appears to be lacking in much of the Arab world, a cultural weakness that betrays the Islamic principles of reason. And this, in my personal opinion, is one of the main reasons that extremism does exist in the Muslim West. I don't think it's nearly as bad as the media would make it out to be, but it would be rather naive to say extremism doesn't exist at all. Individuals are lead to believe that there is no room for nuance, and that everyone must pick a side. And for a few, the side they pick is one which deviates from classical teachings. Admittedly, it is a rather large leap from halality of chicken to all-out religious extremism, but the commonality is in the failure to critically analyze and understand other opinions.

Education is the key. And producing hundreds of Engineers every year from every university is not the type of education that's needed; critical thinking needs to be taught from a young age. Debate and discussion needs to be part of the curriculum. Solid ethics needs to be the underlying principle in the pursuit of all education. And we must all learn that it's okay to be wrong every once in a while; it's a reality we need to accept.

Of course, I'll never hate Eid, but the fact that such a concept could even be imagined continues to tickle me all these years later. But the same mentality could be stretched to hatred of other things, and hatred breeds many dark ambitions. We don't live in a world where "good guys" and "bad guys" are as easily discerned as in the cartoons we grew up watching, and hatred is too strong a feeling to dispense so freely. As such, we need to do away with the lines being drawn in the sand, and take our positions based on our own critical analysis. Like Islam itself, the truth will lie somewhere in the middle.


  1. As-salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

    Yay, a new post! And a good one, too :)

    I haven't come across this mentality much (...yet), but when I have, it's always frustrated me.
    I don't understand how some people can deny the existence of the zillions of shades of grey (almost all of which have been demonstrated by British Columbia's fall/winter skies... sigh)! The worst thing is when they refuse to listen to any other opinion or reasoning. Grrr!

    (Desis are pretty guilty of this too!)

  2. Mouse: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh,

    JazakAllah - I wasn't sure I had any readers left!

    As I was writing this, I was thinking of including Desis in this, but my own experiences with this mentality have been overwhelmingly from one culture.

    But yes, they refuse to listen! I wonder, though, if there are people out there on other blogs narrating their similar experiences with me being the annoying one. Allahu'alim.

  3. assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,

    I've noticed a decrease on my blog traffic too. I guess our readers have found better blogs - blogs that don't confuse them with pigs and wolf stories :D

    @ the masjid, a sister once "corrected" me on my sujood position. I waited until she finished - trying to sense her position - and her awareness of the different opinions. Obviously, she wasn't open to even a thought of it.
    So I just jazak'ed her for correcting me. In all due respect - she cared so much about me that it hurt her to see me do something "wrong"

    I wonder if I was wrong in not mentioning to her the other opinions, and how they differed. I was just avoiding an argument.

    p.s: speaking of blogs and readers.. some people don't comments on my blog anymore :(

  4. Hafsa: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah,

    Hey, the wolf and pig story is my top content!

    I hesitate in leaving comments at your blog because I don't want to cause confusion with the other Faraz who regularly comments.

  5. Assalam-o-alaikum.

    I really enjoyed reading this - that's another reason to check back to this "irrelevant" place much more often.

    I wish more people in the Ummah would begin to think rationally, weighing the different arguments in Fiqh! I should be optimistic though because the very fact that we are talking about this today, and agreeing it to, indicates it's a move in the right direction. Few people in our parents' generation had the knowledge and the awareness to adopt this approach to Deen.

    It's really hard sometimes, to explain this concept to people. I'll start with myself - I didn't know about it either until I started studying Deen from different angles, Alhamdolillah, through different teachers. Ofcourse, it's all informal and light but I've got a good idea now about the proceedings in deciding something's "Halality".

    Over here though, in my own community, the issue is more about introducing people to this interactive and exciting aspect of Deen. Obviously, one of the main reasons why people have little time to dwell on Deen is that it's considered a long list of do's-and-don'ts listed in black and white.

    Share more with us on this issue, please, from time to time. I need all the logic and reasoning I can get on this.

    JazakAllah khayrun!