Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 4 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Religion, Anarchy, and Disequilibrium


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 4 seconds

I’ve got 3 blogposts in draft but this one seemed more urgent and might pull loads of other stuff together, including a request to explain my critical religious stance; how Sarah Honeychurch’s explanation of anarchy helps, and my reservations about the concept of anarchy in practice.

Let me start by admitting that i haven’t got time or brainspace (i keep using this word, don’t think it exists, but u know what i mean) to read this week’s readings (i am sure Adam won’t mind my using my autonomy to ignore the non-rules 🙂 )

But i also didn’t want to blog about anarchy without knowing what we mean by it. Sarah did a great job explaining it briefly on her blog and in response to Ann Gagne’s earlier post. On her blog she cites Wolff (i am quoting parts from her quoting him below):

The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled… Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions, he will resist the state’s claim to have authority over him. That is to say, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws. – Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism I, 3

I read this and thought, I am a religious anarchist! I would take something away from the above statement. I’d replace “state” with “institution” and apply it to any context.

But let me express reservations first. Any situation where we remove the hegemony or dominance of a state or institution and leave it to autonomous humans, we make really optimistic assumptions not only about the inherent good of human nature (which i truly believe in) but about the lack of power differentials amongst human beings (which is silly to ignore). In the small part of the Shantz reading I read, he mentions replacing stifling authority with relations of conviviality and gift-giving. Ummmm, really? Sorry. I didn’t finish the reading, so I have no right to say this. I am sure it gets better later 🙂 I do like what he starts to say about skool …

But let’s come back to the reservation. Autonomy, like agency, is not something all people are equally good at using/doing. Just by removing authority, of state, of institution, of teacher, we do not necessarily produce better outcomes or even better processes. I would suggest that we “do not know” what would happen, and i have to assume anarchists are ok with that?

Sarah says anarchy isn’t about no rules, but no ruler. My question is, then, who sets the rules? Do we each set them for ourselves, or do some set them for others? If the latter, that’s a new hegemony, so i assume anarchy rejects any imposition of rules from one person to another. But if the former, if we each are autonomous and set our own rules, this is problematic, because humans are socially interdependent. Our freedoms impose on the freedoms of others in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

I could argue about healthcare and education, but that’s already in another draft blogpost, so I’ll focus on things related to religion in the #moocmooc twitter chat last Wed, and try to respond to Sean’s request to write about this. I’ll make the anarchy connection in a minute.

I mentioned remaining critical of authority while remaining religious ; Kris mentioned divine vs human authority, and i talked about religious authority being mediated by humans, often dominant males. U also mentioned how teaching religion is tricky coz often indoctrinating. I also said how spirituality balances my rage/critique of human-based religious authority.

Ok, now ur up to speed on the twitter chat (with lots of Sean in between asking me to write about it, and me resisting his authority hehe)

Ok, serious now.

So, I seriously hate that i am going to appeal to authority to start making my point, but i promise i’ll make my own argument independent of it in a minute.

First of all: Islamic “rules” are generally open to interpretation, as a “rule”
There’s some clear things like praying to just one God, and some clear sins, but many other things are open to interpretation, and that’s the “rule” – Islamic scholarship is about critically and creatively working with the data you have in your present context and deciding whether it fits with what’s written in the Quran (which is open to multiple interpretations) and Sunnah (prophet’s teachings which are not taken as “gospel”, not for me anyway, because a. He’s not God, and b. Their credibility is more questionable than the Quran’s, tho i’m perfectly capable of questioning the Quran’s credibility rationally speaking – it’s a spiritual part that keeps me going; coming up later; hold on). Anyway this approach to Islamic scholarship is not my own interpretation (see Edward Said on this, and wasn’t Muslim) but i might be more liberal than most ppl in how i interpret it.

There is actually something in Islam which is “استفت قلبك و لو افتوك” which I translate as “ask your heart even if others give you their opinion”. This seems like a call to listen to your heart or inner voice. This can be tricky because there is a concept of “هوى” or “whim”, and also the “نفس امارة بالسوء” (i.e.a part of ourselves that urges us to do wrong; there are other parts of us that urge us to do right, and parts that make us feel at peace). So i take the “ask your heart” to mean “follow your conscience” and that’s the epitome of free will and autonomy, isn’t it?

Second, the Quran encourages critical reflection
One of the highest forms of worship in Islam is reflection, meta-reflection or “tafakkur”. Also, lots of verses in the Quran are stories or examples or thought experiments, followed by, “doesn’t that make them/you think/see?”

Now, me, on Islam and spirituality
Rationally speaking, I can totally imagine how spirituality might be my imagination needing to connect to a higher being. But it,s really difficult when you’ve had moments where you’ve felt God inside you to then be able to deny his existence.

I wonder if this is what born-again Christians are? People who have had the opportunity to feel God’s love inside them? It’s a powerful feeling and very difficult to let go of.

Religion is another matter. I was born Muslim. I’ve questioned it, read other religions, not found another that answers my questions better, even though Islam doesn’t satisfy me 100%

So my general philosophy is this; it’s a deal with God. I believe in Him, and this seems to be to the best of my knowledge, a good way to stay close to Him. If I find things in it that my mind struggles with, I will question them. If He really wants me to understand where He’s coming from, He’ll guide me to the right path. (I had to go back and capitalize all the he’s. I wish there was a gender-neutral reference for God in Arabic… I am more attracted to God’s more feminine qualities of nurturing than masculine qualities of power; not that women can’t be powerful hehe). But I digress.

So when I find things in the Quran or in Islam that contradict what seems right or rational to me, they fall into one of several camps:
1. It’s been interpreted by men for centuries, so we tend to see it how they interpret it, not necessarily how God intended it (however, God knew this would happen, so…?)
2. I look for alternative interpretations or come up with my own. The Quran is a live text for me. I read it regularly and interpret the same verse differently depending on what’s happening during my day or week… Sometimes a verse comes to mind at just the right time. So for example when terrorists kill in the name of Islam someone who has satirized Islam, I remember this (from 4, 140 Pickthall translation). :

“when ye hear the revelations of Allah rejected and derided, (ye) sit not with them (who disbelieve and mock) until they engage in some other conversation”

I haven’t copied the entire verse, which isn’t advisable in general, but when i am blogging it often feels like it would distract from the point i am making. Note how it says not to talk to them until they change the subject – i.e. You can talk to them later, just not while they’re making fun of God’s words.

An important caveat is that there is a verse that says one should not believe in parts of the Holy book and not others. That means there might be a verse elsewhere in the Quran that says something different, so we need to take it all.
For example there is a verse about not praying while drunk. There are other verses that prohibit drinking as one of the big sins. Historically it is said that the verse on not praying while drinking came first as a gradual prohibition of alcohol. True, but why does it end up in the Quran we read NOW? When it was meant to be read in the future? My opinion is that even knowing that drinking is a sin, if you DO drink, don’t pray while drunk. And since you pray 5 times a day, that’s a lot of time you’ll avoid being drunk. So…

But anyway

Back to questioning authority
3. Sometimes I’ll try my own feminist interpretation, coz let’s face it, most of what bothers me in the Quran is gender stuff. I once took a course “Women in the Quran” and read and conducted my own feminist interpretations of the Quran and it was liberating. I wrote papers on the possibilities of certain women in the Quran like Mary and Moses’ mom being “prophets” in certain ways (as a kid i questioned why all the prophets had been men) and another one reinterpreting e laws of inheritance.

The question you’re asking now, probably, is, why continue to believe while you question so much?

There’s the matter of spirituality. And it’s not something in the plane of the rational, so i can’t explain it, tho Sufis do a great job of it. I’m not Sufi, though.

And there’s the matter that I actually like a lot of what is in the Quran. And another matter of a reservation on anarchy which I’ll explain in a minute.

(But let me give a small example of something; and this is kind of a blasphemous comparison but bear with me, ok? I love Hybrid pedagogy as a journal, its entire ethos; i read it quite regularly; i quote it a lot; i also critique some of what is in it, but when it is written by someone i know well and like a lot, if i don’t like what they’ve written i stop for a second and think if i might have misunderstood them… Of course, i could always just ask them, but you know what i mean? Does that make sense? That’s how it is with me and the Quran; i like most of it and strive to reconcile myself with the rest, but i don’t take it unquestioningly).

Now comes anarchy. I think all i am doing with my liberal interpretation of the Quran is all well and good for my own self. Free will is an important premise on the Quran, and ppl without free will (like slaves, or girls forced to do stuff by their parents, or mentally ill or ppl w certain disabilities) are not held accountable. But i can’t really apply this free interpretation to social things, like marriage. If each person could interpret marriage as they pleased (well we do anyway, but i mean the laws of marriage, divorce, etc) there’d be social chaos. So there are some things where it’s useful to have a common set of rules. And know why they’re there. So for example a woman can’t marry within 3 months of divorce (for two reasons: to give the couple time to reconcile; and to ensure she isn’t pregnant – if she is, they stay married until she delivers). Those rules are there for a reason. I’m ok with that reason, but i can also see how autonomy in this case would be really weird.

There are also things like this. Like yes, adultery is punishable in Islam as a big sin. But there is a HUGE catch. You can’t “punish” someone for adultery unless there were 4 witnesses to the act. Like how is that ever going to happen? (Only thing i can think of is the filming of porn films). It never happened during the time of the prophet, so i assume that it’s more of a warning than a real threat, or at the very least a request to be discreet(!). The only situation where someone was known to be adulterous at the time of the prophet was when that person admitted of their own accord to having done so. But I digress!

When I think about religion, a large part of it is a spiritual connection, and some parts are social – for those parts, rules are important but they’re still open to interpretation, within reasonable limits of context.

Anarchy. Like what do anarchists think of traffic lights and traffic rules? Is there no need for driver’s licenses and agreed upon rules of traffic? What about parenting? You can be pretty open with kids, but there must be rules against things like… Jumping off the balcony or drinking detergent, at the very least, right?

So.. You can love someone, or God, yet have some rook to question them, right? The difference is that my reverence to God makes me feel that my questioning is am act of worship, of trying to understand better, rather than a rebellion, if that makes any sense? It’s limiting, I know. But it’s much less limiting than you expect, I think. It’s a little like something Kris said in the twitter chat – divine vs human authority. But also recognizing that even divine authority is interpreted by humans, and thus remaining open to reinterpreting it in such a way that my heart can follow it.

So I am always moving between equilibrium and disequilibrium in my life, including in things related to religion.

(Omigosh this post is sooooo long)


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