Don’t look back in anger

Why do we make our lives so difficult for ourselves and others? It happens all the time: we adopt the most hardline positions in matters of religion, which we enforce on others as the only true way, impossible though they are to live up to.

How many times must we see it play out before us? Repeatedly we have witnessed those who once focussed zealously on the minutiae of fiqh later turn their back on religion altogether. In their eyes the rest of us were like faithless heathens, who could be lambasted for apparently doing our wudu incorrectly or for taking a photograph or for falling short in some other way. Every time we encountered one another, something new would be wrong with our practice, or our beliefs, or the way we dressed.

But where are these righteous ones now? In the end they decided they could no longer believe in the uncompromising path they had invented for themselves and, instead of looking back on all of those other ways they had so fiercely rejected, they threw out the whole, turning on it with derision and mockery.

Never did they ask themselves, “Is my understanding at fault?” Never did they wonder if those they had been taught to reject as faithless innovators had something they were missing. Never did they think to question what constituted orthodoxy, or to probe the force of politics and violence on their understanding of religion. Never did they allow themselves to question the assumptions that formed their worldview. Instead, both in faith and faithlessness, only absolutes would do: the absolutes of the past would be replaced by the new absolutes of the present. Never is there doubt, neither in belief nor disbelief.

Who dares look outside the self-imposed boundaries which confine us? Who dares ask those unsettling questions which bubble away deep within? Who will allow themselves to open that box which nobody dares open, to prise off the lid and look inside? Who will acknowledge the minuscule proportions of their knowledge with humility and reject the absolutism of the arrogant self?

Though individual truths and signs may abound, absolute truth is not found on YouTube or in the forums of the proselytes and rejectors. The one who rejects might lead toward a truer reality than the one who appears to believe. You might reject an absolute which has no basis and find yourself the true believer; you might insist on an absolute which has no basis and find yourself a disbeliever unbeknownst.

Why rush to judgement, replacing one set of absolutes with another? Why not hold back in shy humility and simply confess, “I do not know” or “I am not sure”? Why jump from dissatisfaction with your inherited worldview to rejection of every tradition you dared not contemplate or consider? Why, when you have rejected all, must you still insist that only the orthodoxy you rejected could possibly represent the whole, that only its scholars may be representative of its reality, that those ideas alone are significant? Why be like those ravaging absolutists intent on destroying the great libraries of Timbuktu, who would incinerate every inkling of a different reading of faith?

Pause for a moment, take stock. Let your questions be your guide. This road is long and wide. Take it slowly. Interrogate yourself and tradition. Be prepared to travel far; to walk that lonely road in search of answers. The crowded avenues of the online forum may briefly appear comforting and true to the traveller in search of certainty, but at best they offer but partial respite — but fragments of possibility. Why insist on such a narrow reading of history and religion, whether as a believer or disbeliever? Why narrow your horizons and restrict your view? Why make things so difficult on yourself, when everything else has always been made so easy?

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