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

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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)


  1. Maha- loved your post! I’m attending interfaith seminary and this month we studied Islam. We had presentations this weekend, ending with a Sufi zakr. I’m on the train, but will share later a different translation of the Koran regarding steps before divorcing one’s wife. (Short version- replace “beat” with “leave to cool off.” ) anyhow, really related to your view of religion,

    • Hi Betty, thanks for this! I also use “leave to cool off” rather than “beat”; learned about that possible interpretation in the Women in the Quran course, and it made sense in the context of the gradation of actions. However, what’s tricky is that in everyday language, for most ppl, unfortunately the meaning most ppl would attribute to it is “beat”, and God knew this would be ppl’s language, so why would he do that? I don’t know 🙁

      • Perhaps this beating should be socially contextualized. We still beat children and many regard this type of violence directed at even more vulnerable people as a totally legitimate form of corrective action. Why would anyone ever hit a child? It is the sort of thing people might do if they see others doing it and are then told that it is alright.

        • Which is then problematic… Why does the Quran use that term, which seems to most people to refer to beating? I am totally convinced that in the progressive context of that verse that it is more about “leaving” than beating, but most people would not read it as such. Why give room for people to interpret it this way? What are your views on this?

          • This is probably an epistemological question.

            Literalists would say that it is what it is and it means what it appears to mean. At the time of the revelation, it meant something to those who heard it. Are we asking about that meaning, or are we asking about some other? And if it is about some other meaning, what might that be?

            Those who would say that the Quran speaks to them, in their time, and in their contexts might say that this original meaning cannot be certainly known and in any event, would be irrelevant. They seek guidance for themselves in the text and look to the entire text to create this meaning.

            There are strong arguments to support both approaches. I have not heard of anyone acting on this “wife beating” text, or advising others to act on it. In the world I know, this is a fast track to jail or divorce, or both.

            And, as a contextual note only, the Torah advises parents to kill their disobedient children, and this is the foundation law of the Jews and a core text of the Christians. They both seem to have gotten over this.

  2. So – about the rules. Anarchists can have as many as they like – so we’d still have rules of the road and all of that. The point is that we internalise the rules – we choose them for ourselves. Rules of the road are a really good example because it’s arbitrary whether we all drive on the left or the right, but we need to make sure we all do the same thing, so we come to a consensus because it’s in everyone’s best interests, then we stick to it to avoud head on collisions.

    I think morality is not like that, I think there is moral right and wrong – and I really, really get your reservations here coz I share them. The optimistic anarchist says that humans have an innate morality that has shrivelled up coz we are used to the state deciding everything for us, and without the state we’d have chance to exercise our moral faculties and then, bingo, perfect society. But there would be an awful mess as we transition from state to no state. To quote Dudley Knowles again: if we didn’t have the state we’d never invent it, but now we’ve got it we can’t see how to do without it.

    • Well but i also think morality isn’t right/wrong but complex contextual and cultural. We wouldn’t agree on everything (neither would the state represent them all, so anarchy is no better or worse, i guess).

  3. Very interesting post, Maha. I’ve also thought a lot about anarchism and Islam and having lived in the tribal parts of the Arab world for so long believe I have built up a little better understanding of both. I think tribal society is relevant because this is the social origin of Islam and because tribal people live in a stateless world.

    Your substitution of INSTITUTION for STATE is useful, particularly when discussing Islam since this religion – at least the dominant Sunni track – has no institutionalized authority structures. The reason for this is the absence of sacerdotal authority. In this way, Sunni Islam resembles Protestantism, especially in its early manifestations, such as Lollardry, which outright denied the authority of priests and the right of every person to form their own interpretations of the Bible through private study and public dialogue, and to live by those interpretations.

    I agree with Sarah, it is about rules that are socially agreed. Modern Western political organization is based, to a large degree, on the notion of a social contract. This means that people in society voluntarily submit to society’s rules as a kind of condition of membership. Those rules may be changed by mutual consent, and this need to change the rules is what generates democratic institutions of governance.

    The key piece is coercion. Typically, the state will declare a monopoly on coercive violence which it will use to enforce its rules. Returning to tribal societies, those who placed themselves outside of the social and political structures were simply “removed from protection” and we find this type of formula repeatedly in Islamic sources to describe those who are both within and without the community of believers. In pre-modern European societies, this concept was known as “banishment” and we see this used as a punishment in Romeo and Juliette.

    A less idealized anarchism would focus on the importance of individual autonomy within a social and political world organized around democratic principles that included critical participation. This reminds me of an idea I recently found in David Rose’s book, An Intellectual History of the British Working Class – that ideology is the source of oppression and that culture is the destroyer of ideologies. Culture, very widely defined, could be seen as that body of amorphous personal and social experience that pervades society and roots it in its own past – the social memory of centuries. This is the collective experience of the “body politic” which we use to guide, to decide, to debate and to consider, outside of narrow ideologies which only serve to restrict choice and determine action based on the preferences or interests of a coherent minority of opinion.

    • Mark, thanks for another really informative comment that enriches my post 🙂
      My prob w socially agreed rules is tyranny of majority,.. What say you?

      • Maha. The tyranny of the majority is one of the salient problems of democracy. Different societies have dealt with this problem in different ways – and it isn’t necessarily a problem of scale. As anyone who has ever worked in an office can probably attest, oppressive power structures can emerge in very small groups.

        Referring to Islamic traditions, we can easily find classical analyses of law which identify the justification of law in terms of protection of a small set of individual interests. One such formulation attributed to al-Shaatibi declares that the purpose of law is the protection of five “essential interests”: life النفس, reason العقل, religion الدين, property المال, progeny النسل. Some add a sixth, honor. There is a lot of discussion in the classical literature of what these are and what they mean.

        The importance of this, however, is that people in this tradition at least have thought about the nature of law and its purpose and have then gone on to uncovered a concise and rational argument that is clearly focused on the protection of the individual in society – protection from the tyranny of the majority

  4. A description of what anarchy exhibits would change as we move through time. What constitutes ‘anarchy’ in Sarah’s original post, based on Wolff’s flawed premise, is rather cosy and twee.

  5. It’s probably worth adding that Wolff’s submission is on anarchism and not anarchy. They are not the same thing.

    • Did not know tha

      • This is probably my favourite description because it’s concise:

        “Anarchy is a condition of life without the intrusion of governance and the mechanisms and institutions of the state.
        Anarchism is the political philosophy which has anarchy as its goal.

        The tricky part is that some anarchists believe that the best and only way to achieve anarchy is through anarchism. The implication is that a majority of a given population would necessarily need to be anarchists, and only one type of anarchist. This would result not in anarchy as a condition of existence, but of the institutionalization of a particular type of anarchism. This situation would inevitably breed its own internal logic of conformity and orthodoxy.

        By way of contrast, there are many anarchists (those who believe in the desirability of anarchy) who recognize that most non-anarchists, left to their own devices in the absence of the state, would probably choose to live without institutionalized hierarchy — as humans have done for 99% of our existence. Not to get too metaphysical, but there’s probably something to there being a genetic memory along those lines; why else would most insurrections and rebellions that last for more than a couple of days begin to create deliberative and executive assemblies with mandated delegates, rotation of tasks, a (mostly) refusal of professional politicians, etc? Anarchists didn’t invent those forms of self-organization, nor do we have an exclusive monopoly on their use. Most reasonable people choose to implement their self-organization along those lines because they understand the justice and solidarity that they entail.

        Another way of looking at it is that anarchy does not require a majority (or even a minority) of anarchists in order for it to function (again, there’s that 99% of human history to draw on), while the implementation of anarchism absolutely does.”

        • “Anarchy is a condition of life without the intrusion of governance and the mechanisms and institutions of the state”.

          This definition suggests a binary relation state : anarchy. enforcing a Eurocentric view of the world that posits the existence of a state as an essential feature of political organization.

          It’s true that following successful revolutions, people often re-create the same institutions which they have just overthrown. This could be because people work within certain foundation paradigms, which, while they are learned, are often deeply embedded in the dominant world view.

          We see this in education, with a common insistence on irrational and destructive practices such as standardized testing, streaming, and separation of students into age groups. Many educators believe that these are essential features of education, though they could not tell you why. Similarly, people who have just overthrown their king, may immediately argue to appoint a new one.

          • Well re standardized testing, people would maybe argue for its importance for measurement and comparison, but not go to the next step of questioning why we find measurement of learning and comparison among peers to be essential, or more important than, the actual learning process itself which cannot be measured for the most part. They may talk about lack of trust in teaching or what happens in the classroom, the need for objectivity, when, in essence, standardized testing tell us nothing about teaching or learning, and there is no clear reason why objectivity is something to strive towards in the first place…

            I ignore the word “state” in discourse about anarchy and assume what is meant is any institution which enforces its rules upon its constituents, like a school or hospital or whatever. I was just reading an article by Carol Black on the website of the Schooling the World documentary… And it talks about learning in tribal is a long article, will read and blog later…

            • Yes. You can measure and compare and that does not have to have a direct pedagogical function.
              Generally, however, standardized testing is designed to dis-empower teachers (and then students) expropriating control of education from professionally self-regulated cadres and placing that power into the hands of politicians and the moneyed interests that own politics.

              Political cultures call this “accountability” but it is only possible once teaching has been so degraded as a profession as to inspire little confidence in people – even below the minimal confidence we have in politicians.

              The point is that people are desensitized to the sources of oppression, and when these sources are removed or disappear our impulse is re-create the missing tyranny.

              To avoid this, education needs to be re-directed toward nurturing and supporting the emergence of certain critical literacies that are essential to the competent self-direction of democratic society. One of the reasons why we keep going back to failed solutions is that we are unable, as a society, to competently evaluate conditions and rationally consider proposals for action. Some of the issues we are talking about here have been continuously discussed for four hundred years already.

  6. “This definition suggests a binary relation state : anarchy. enforcing a Eurocentric view of the world that posits the existence of a state as an essential feature of political organization.”

    Sorry, Mark, that doesn’t follow at all (unless I misunderstand you).

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