A new book released this week, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, seeks to alter stereotypes outside the community and perceptions within it. Muslim men are often depicted as possessive, bearded conservatives bent on going to a heaven full of virgins. The slightest indignity to our perceived honor will inevitably result in rioting or death. The twenty-two writers hail from diverse backgrounds and speak candidly about love, sex, and relationships “just like any other American man.” The book comes off the heels of a previous collection of accounts from Muslim women entitled Love, InshAllah.
This (and other recent media) can be seen through an anthropological lens. At the moment, we live in a “fame” culture. Muslims, as a minority, have a mystique that is layered in politics and insecurities. We are low hanging fruit for exploitation. Pieces like this document our communal shift. Muslims primarily followed their faith in traditional shame-based cultures. Immigrants and their children attempted to imbibe or negotiate that "old" practice with the "new" paradigm of American guilt society. Diet fads, eating organic, “Green” initiatives and faith in America are driven by guilt. In our guilt society the primary method of social control is the inculcation of feelings of guilt for behaviors that the individual believes to be undesirable. Our emotions control our behavior, swaying them into the norm of obedience and conformity. Our American guilt culture is an alternative to the shame cultures many Muslims migrated from or adopted, and it is being readily consumed worldwide in the new “mono” culture. Typically our parents, and the cultures they emerged from, sought to gain control over their children and maintain social order via the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism. This is plainly visible in the reaction of Muslims to such self-disclosures as this book, and the loneliness of those on the fringe of the community, in terms of social behavior, deemed suspect.
These tell-all intimate portraits, exorcizing communal guilt and shame, should not necessarily be depicted as disloyal or self-serving. They may serve to "humanize” Muslims (men in this case) to both brothers and sisters in faith and to the wider population. The now frequent media forays into American Islam allow for a broader conversation on Muslim identity at this point in time. Yet, it would be naïve to not see this as part of a broader thread, that Muslims of modernity may not be fully cognizant of—Secular Humanism.
"Humanism is a movement of philosophy and ethics that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism)."1
As we grow and fragment as a community, and more importantly ascribe to the dominant social narratives of our cultural era, we will see the same critiques and cleaving of the community from within that other faith communities have experienced. Calls to question established sacred cows of religious authority, doctrine, interpretation, and in this case, social norms, will increase in frequency. This revolution will be documented.
There has been a huge buzz this week about Salaam, Love. Recently a leading news website posted a racy, salacious entry from the book, called “The Sacrilegious Love Affair I Couldn’t Resist.” Stories on sexuality not only sell but may be prescriptive, especially in a community that is full of emotional novices in need of understanding the other gender. This particular brother (writing under a pseudonym) depicted his predicament in seemingly raw emotion and honesty. He described his sexual frustration, pre-marital indiscretions with his future wife and his extra-marital affair with another married woman, both of whom were hijabi Muslim women. Understanding from the above that American Muslims posit both shame and guilt in their cultural analysis, I offer both:
A “Shame” Muslim’s Critique:
First and foremost, Astaghfirullah! The Prophet ﷺ stated, “If you feel no shame, then do whatever you wish" (Bukhari). The author depicted his scenario as an emotional child (not unlike other sheltered Muslims unleashed onto the world) blaming others and not owning his failing marriage and infidelity. It may be otherwise, but the scant reference to his one-year-old child stood out as an absent factor in his love triangle dilemma. This tell-all of a past flirtation documents for future generations a huge flaw in your faith and character. Is not a believer to hide his indiscretions? “Allah had kept your secret, why did you not keep your secret?” (Sharh Muslim). This book is a reflection of the selfish, sensitive Muslim men we have become. Don’t be afraid of our beards; just know we are self-absorbed jerks that will blame our spouses, families, and communities for our unhappiness.
A “Guilt” Muslim’s Critique:
The author was flawed, but was faced with a lack of choices, due to his heritage and beliefs. The cover of dissatisfaction masks deeper issues for this brother and us all. Guilt is shared by his emotionally unavailable wife, his mistress looking for a way out of a hopeless marriage, and his upbringing that resulted in him eventually breaking under the weight of passion denied. It is possible that the brother is speaking most of all against the Muslim Americana contradiction he grew up in, where he learned his duplicitous practice via a father with a secret second wife, and the communal charade of “honor” while juggling identities.
Regardless of which critique you prefer, despite its graphic nature, his narrative is very interesting and very real. I think one of the biggest things to glean from it is that this can happen to anyone, whether we want to believe it or not. None of us are invulnerable, although our self-righteousness deludes us into thinking otherwise. Recall the apocryphal account of a pious monk who resisted satanic advances for sixty years only to fornicate with a patient, murder her once it was disclosed she was pregnant, then after being arrested and in a hopeless state forsook God, succumbing to worshiping the Devil.2 “Sin” rarely just happens in a single moment of passion. There is a series of progressions and pushing the limits and beyond them that lead to sins, which is very evident in how the author describes his pre-marital relationship with his wife and the other woman. We should constantly recall our vulnerability to not only sin but also disbelief as stated frequently by the Prophet ﷺ and exhorted in the Quran,
“Our Lord! Pour out on us patience, and cause us to die as Muslims.” (Al-A'raf, 7:126)
There was one point where the author says about his torrid pre-marital indiscretion, "we knew we were approaching zina", highlighting that their intent was not evil, that they wanted to follow the rules, and honor their faith. Many of us face attraction and even infatuation, but remain unaware of the reality of our condition. How then are we to refrain?
“Nor come nigh to adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road (to other evils).” (Al-Isra, 17:32)
Perhaps the narrative of this brother serves as a discretionary tale that none of us are immune, and that we must keep checks and balances to distance ourselves from people and scenarios that may not only jeopardize our families, communities, and reputations but also our very salvation. Having not gone through a similar trial should not create the false “holier than thou” psychosis within us and alleviate our sense of responsibility, but rather necessitates an obligation to be concerned, empathetic, and to account for the communal ramifications of infidelity. We are not judges, but are judged: "He is not questioned concerning what He does, but they (the servants) are questioned concerning what they do” (Al-Anbiya, 21:23). Aside from participating in mosque gossip, what are we doing to address the shame and guilt that hampers relationships and families? Why is so much importance given to the wedding day, and very little in terms of resources or support afterward? If the ideal is delayed gratification via a planned course of abstinence, education, career, marriage, and children (in that order), are these realistic? The conversations stirred by recent literature, like Salaam, Love, only mimic what has been whispered in our homes and houses of worship for decades: Muslim American culture is shifting.
1. An account of the evolution of the meaning of the word humanism from the point of view of a modern secular humanist can be found in Nicolas Walter's Humanism – What's in the Word (London: Rationalist Press Association, 1997).
2. See Stories in the Qur'an, Ibn Kathir, 110:
The Leader of the Believers, 'Ali Ibn Abu Talib (May Allah be pleased with him) said: “A monk worshipped Allah alone for sixty years. Satan exerted himself to seduce him, but could not. He went to a woman and touched her with evil (maddened her). The woman had brothers whom were visited by Satan who told them to take her to that monk to receive treatment and cure. She used to spend the night in the monk's cell. The monk committed adultery with her and she got pregnant. Satan came to him and said: Kill the woman and then bury her for you are a reputable and highly respected man (i.e. don't risk your own reputation for such a simple woman). The monk killed her and then buried her. Thereupon, Satan visited her four brothers in a dream while they were asleep and said to them: the monk committed adultery with your sister, and because she got pregnant, he killed her and buried her in such-and-such location. In the morning, one of them said: "By Allah! Last night I dreamt of something and I do not know whether to relate it to you or just keep it to myself?" They said: Relate it to us. He did so and one of them said: By Allah! I saw the same dream. Another said the same. And the fourth one said the same thing. They agreed on that there must be something serious about that dream. They went to the king and appealed for his help against the monk. The king's troops came to arrest him and he was taken away. On the way, Satan came to the monk (and whispered in his ears): I set you up. No one else can save you from this. Prostrate yourself before me just for once and in return, I will save you from this. Thereupon, the monk prostrated himself before Satan. When they presented themselves before the king, Satan said to him: I am free of you! Finally, the monk was killed."