Smiling Faces: Religious Rules Don’t Matter…And Why
by Brother Dash
“Hijab?” he exclaimed incredulously with a huffing kind of chuckle. “You think all that fabric actually means something? You know how many of these Muzlim chicks I done had spread out on a hotel bed? Look! Just like this!” Apparently deciding I needed a visual to go with his gleeful description he threw his back against the office room wall and spread his arms and legs wide in the shape of the letter X. His paparazzi defying dark sunglasses made me even more upset for some reason. But I was at an unusual loss for a strong verbal comeback. I’m a writer and some say a fairly good orator. “So you’re proud of that?” I retorted rather weakly…I felt like the smaller smart kid standing up to the bravado of a bully with intelligence instead of brawn. The playground kids are never impressed with that however. He kept on. “Man all that fabric don’t mean nothing! Them Muzlim chicks be the freakiest ones!” he laughed mockingly. He had the kind of laugh that makes you feel as though you were just insulted. I felt like I was in the presence of a gigolo shaytaan. But I knew I wasn’t. He was just a big mouth ‘MO-FO’. And shaytaan can’t MAKE you do anything anyway. Even in Newark. I left angry. With my first taste of disillusion.
The above is a true story. This was in 1995. I was still what you call a fairly new shahada having declared my testification of faith in Islam. I was still on that new shahada high. It’s that somewhat euphoric state most converts to any communal faith feel. Born Again Christians can certainly attest to this feeling of joy in not only accepting Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior but also of being part of a faith community. You fellowship with a community of like minded believers. But I was also naive. I was upset with “gigolo dude” and his jubilant stories of sexual conquest mainly because he had more than willing participants. For me hijab signified piety and adherence to certain religious parameters. Even though I knew from personal experience that it was more complicated than that I thought that any instances of hijab wearing Muslim women engaging in religious rule breaking to be an anomaly at worst…a moment of weakness for that particular individual but certainly not something indicative of a larger issue. The rules were there and clear. And I thought the rules really mattered.
Before I continue let me provide some context for authenticity purposes. I myself became a rule breaker in various ways. I’d have years of “Mr. Good Boy” and several month stretches of not so good. I was able to eventually deal with the root causes of my behavior and “course correct”. This does not mean I have “arrived”. It just means I course corrected. But the takeaway from my experiences has been one simple thing: Rules don’t matter. I knew the rules. We all do. What I did not internalize however were the ethics. Rules don’t matter without ethics, love and belief.
Why Don’t Religious Rules Matter?
Simple. You can break them with no consequences. It’s easy…especially in a free pluralistic society. If alcohol or drugs are against one’s religion and you use these intoxicants anyway what will happen to you? Nothing. One can argue about the day of judgment (if your belief system has this) or karma or reincarnation as a lower animal or whatever you believe religiously but if you truly were concerned about something so “esoteric” as the afterlife or “what goes around comes around” that would have been enough to stop you right there. If you truly believed that God is all knowing and all seeing it would have felt like he was right there in the bed with you while you were banging some chick. So religious rules don’t matter.
What Do Religious Rules Do?
Rules are designed to help guide behavior, facilitate a just society and discourage violations that can cause damage to the community and oneself. They are to be a protection because human beings are flawed, fickle, diverse in understanding and temperament, basically good though prone to wrongdoing and most importantly they have free will. And that free will allows them to rationalize. There is nothing that FORCES you to do anything. You can do whatever you want to do and religiously there are no earthly consequences. “That Grand Marnier tastes damn good, oooh that booty is right, Damn he’s buff…he can get it! (and then you give it to him).” And if you especially don’t really like the rules anyway, find them constrictive, unfair, too much of an obstacle, etc. then you don’t internalize them. At best you become the habitual guilty sinner.
Compartmentalization, The Guilty Sinner and The Conflicted Self
Some years ago a friend of mine was involved with a Jewish girl. He was not Jewish. In Judaism marrying outside of the faith is frowned upon especially in her community but he was fine with seeing a Jewish girl. In fact her devotion to Judaism impressed him though not enough to convert (which would frankly be another problematic reality in the Jewish faith for him anyway). The problem is she continued to see him, spend time with him and even engage in romantic encounters with him all the while saying what her religion allowed and didn’t allow. She was compartmentalizing. They were a “sexy couple” when together but she was conflicted and not dealing with her “multiple selves”, her needs as a woman and frankly the fact she probably didn’t truly believe in this religious rule as right and beneficial. But ethically she was wrong for leading him on. She was saying one thing but doing another. When you focus on doing things because “it’s the rule in my religion” you often comply inconsistently and with internal conflict. You probably don’t really believe the rule is a good one or one that should apply to you. Maybe the rule doesn’t fit your lifestyle, personality, culture or more importantly your wants and needs. But you want to be a good Jewish girl or a good Christian boy so you comply but with varying degrees of success and consistency. You need to get out of compartmentalization. You need to deal with your TRUE SELF. You need to explore how you feel about those religious rules. That may mean you don’t comply for a while. I’m not advocating what you do as far as religious practice. That’s between you and God but you do need to deal with your “ish”. So what helps?
Ethics starts with a belief and an understanding that you do or don’t do something because it is what is right or what is wrong. And an even higher ethic is when you have internalized the wisdom behind something (a religious rule) to the point where it becomes your natural desire. For example I don’t drink alcohol. And the reason why I don’t drink is initially because my then new religion forbade it. After some time however I internalized the wisdom behind the ruling and I won’t drink not because my faith forbids it, though that’s the foundation, but because I don’t WANT to. This may have come from a religious rule but my adherence is because my desire transformed. But if I was still just focused on “I don’t drink because my religion forbids it” then there is still the chance that I would at some point at least sip a glass of wine at a meal.
Rules following creates compliance and from a social point of view you need them. Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other faiths recognize that. But the rules can and are broken all of the time especially in free societies. And theocracies aren’t necessarily any better. In fact they could be worse. People often simply comply because they don’t want to get flogged, stoned or jailed. That doesn’t mean they have embraced the ethics. They just don’t wanna die because they snuck a kiss in an alley or were seen dirty dancing with a member of the same gender. So the rules may advance a brand of social order but they don’t solve underlying ethical problems or encourage good ethics. Who do you want to be should be the question not “What is the ruling on such and such?” because we ultimately don’t truly care about the rules. So what else do we need?
You believe in God is the simple answer. I mean truly believe. To use Islam as an example there is a concept in the faith known as Ihsan (Ih-saan). The simple explanation is found in a saying attributed to The Prophet Muhammad where the Angel Gabriel comes to him and questions him as to what Ihsan is and he replies “Ihsan is to worship God as if you see him and if you do not then know that he sees you.” [Hadith found in the collections of Imams Bukhari and Muslim] But this can be applied to your Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Kemetic faith or ideaology as well. The point is you do what you do because you truly believe in a higher power. You internalize and actualize that belief. It isn’t just lip service…it is full body service.
The essence of ethics for me turned out to be love. I had someone in my life who I hurt but who I did in fact love a great deal. That love was crusted over by unresolved issues. When I dealt with those unresolved issues the crust fell off to the side and this intense love burst out. It was like a rebirth for me. I then began to do things purely out of care and concern with no agenda or expectation of reciprocity. In fact the mere act of doing good increased my love and made me feel even better. The converse became true as well. I would NOT do certain things because I would think of how it would make this person feel even if they would never know. And this love can be applied to one’s community, friends, and humanity. When you have a true love for humanity you want to be OF SERVICE to others. Related to love is the final component of this article and it is in the form of a question. Who do you want to be?
Smiling Faces: Who Do I Want To Be?
And this is where the title of this article comes in. You are that smiling face. You are those faces…often duplicitous. Religious rules don’t matter until you deal with why they would! Once you begin to love yourself you want to be the best you that you can be. What does the best you look like? A rules follower or an ethics, love, belief internalizer where PERHAPS then the rules follow. (I say perhaps because that’s up to you and how you navigate your own worship). But at the very least you have an ethical goal in mind…not merely a compliance goal. And then it will become not so much I do what I do because of the rule. In fact it may make it easier for you to follow the rules. “Well sure…I could go to this hotel with this brother. We are consenting adults. He wants me sexually and I want him sexually. But wait…how does what I am doing fit into who I want to be? Is this the Christianity or Islam that I want to SHOW him? Aren’t I representing in some way my faith? Am I one of the women in the opening paragraph of this article? Am I THAT cackling, full of himself gigolo bragging about the ‘religious’ women he has slayed?” So when you decide who you want to be, who you are now, and build your character on a foundation of ethics, love, and belief then religious rules will matter to you but more importantly help to make you a better person. Now walk good.
Brother Dash is a writer, recovering compartmentalizer and mirror avoider, and lover of God, Family and Good Humans.