The Ethics of “Because-I-say-so” and its theological companion
by Dr. Amina Wadud
As one of 8 children, (and a “PK” preacher’s kid) I gave a lot of thought to how I hoped to raise my own children as ethical persons. I did not wish to resort to the old standby: “You do it, because I said so..” (remember that?!) Anyway, after a brief stint into the independence of the teenage years, every kid realizes that if the parent is not around, such non-rationalized rules go down the toilet. I wanted to see if I could instill enduring values in my children. Now they are all adults. Without exception, they are ethical people. (Not that I’m singularly responsible for that either!)
This had me thinking about the Muslims who use the same logic and theology about moral behavior, only this time they drag God in there with it. Islam is “a way of life” (or din, pronounced “deen”), and not just “religion” (in the western sense of separate mundane and sacred). In the first century after the death of the Prophet, an intense intellectual period began that lasted for a few hundred years. However, much of the Islamic classical intellectual traditions were preoccupied with the law. Islam became a religion of do’s and don’ts. The Qur’an commands us “to order what is good and forbid what is bad”. This is equated with the Qur’anic command to “obey the will of Allah”. To follow through with the logic of this, you will find many Muslims actually make God out to be a kind of abusive parent. If a person doesn’t do EXACTLY as S/He wills, punishment will rain down forever and ever (and ever!)
To start with, interpreting that Qur’anic passage as “order what is good and forbid what is bad” is reductionist, missing the forest for the trees. (or is that, the trees are missed for the forest?) The passage could be read as: “order, or establish, what is known to be good (ma’ruf) and avoid or prohibit what negates the harmony of the universe (munkar). That is because the purview of ma’ruf, (from the verb ‘arafa, to know) presumes what is good is well known, common sense, or obvious. (Like, it’s obvious you don’t harm innocent people. Or, it’s common sense that you must take turns if everyone is going to get a fair share, etc.) The idea of munkar is also not just some kind of personal “bad”. It is more along the lines of disrupting cosmic harmony, or order of the universe. You cannot arrive at this just by the simplistic black and white or good and bad binary. You really have to overlook the obvious to participate in the munkar.
In a theo-centric religious worldview, black and white ethics reduce God to a kind of abusive parent. Some Muslims are quick to set up a closed imaginary box into which they put their favorite ideas and practices and outside of which they locate the deviant, unbelievers, or other Muslims who do not agree with them. When Muslims conceive of doing good, avoiding bad as our duty to “obey the will of Allah”, the will of the Great and Sublime Creator of all the universe is reduced to a Dictator’s list of do’s and don’ts. Contradictions in this clear cut list happen all the time because it has to be derived from a large corpus of sacred texts, revelation, Prophetic statements and practices, or juridical conclusions about the first two.
Failure to act “according to Allah’s will” can only result in eternal punishment. If you follow this out, ethics is reduced from a substantial reflection of the greatest human potential—the exercise of free will—to a simple matter of robotics. You don’t have to even understand what you do, just do it. (and I didn’t get that from a tee shirt!) The rationale for just doing it, is Allah’s will. This I equate to a “Because I said so” idea about God.
Muslim ethicists and theologians debated these issues to a frenzy. During medieval times, they argued with Christian and Jewish Theologians (think Maimonides, Ibn Maymun, the Jewish Philosopher). Such arguments hinged upon the very notion of God that each philosopher espoused. There is a small book called Your God is Too Small (not to be confused with Arundhati Roy’s book The God of Small Things…) from it I take away the understanding that many believers have not outgrown their childlike notions of God: the One who answers all your prayers, the One who knows and writes down everything you do, the One who sits in a cloud in the sky.. etc. Amongst these is the God who demands that you do what She says, because He says so.
I confess, it has been some times now since I lost all faith and confidence in the God of requisition or the Giant Judge in the Sky. I also no longer linger on ideas that somehow God has nothing better to do than to sit around and wait for me to screw up, make the wrong count of some ritual repetition, or drop the ball in some part of the game of life, and shazam; here comes the ultimate wrath. That is all well and good within my personal choices, but I am confounded how to express this when OTHER people still sic their abusive God on me. Oops I don’t wear socks to prayer in a mosque in India; I actually have friends and family who are homosexual and I keep their company(!), or I don’t keep my scarf tied around my neck.
My notion of the Sacred is both a comfort and a transcendent challenge to me. It is not reduced to gender, not subject to numbers, not living in a cloud or under the dirt. Yet, It is present…EVERYWHERE at all times. So I don’t have to DO anything to be intimate with this One. I surely will not be punished for just saying so.
For those who do feel motivated by such a God/dess, however, I more than respect your choice, I leave you to It. Just don’t be bothered if I fail to respond by obeying It.