I’ve come to really dislike the word “nuance.”
As a college student at Harvard, I took a class one semester on women in Islam. It was taught by a fellow Egyptian Muslim woman, who was a non-hijab-wearing feminist, and wouldn’t you know it–the main thrust of this class was the critical importance of understanding this issue with nuance! I was the only visibly Muslim woman in this small-group seminar. My references to normative Islam carried very little weight. The real question was always: how does this make us feel?
One week, the reading we were assigned was regarding women’s dress in Islam. The author of the book we were reading (Fatima Mernissi, a Muslim feminist) insisted that wearing all black was oppressive and terrible and showed no female agency.
So I showed up to class wearing all black: black abaya, black hijab, black shoes. Over the course of our discussion on Islam, feminism, and women’s agency in dress, it slowly dawned on my classmates that my choice in dress was the very same one bemoaned by the author as showing no choice. Awkward.
Finally, the professor decided to ask me point-blank during class: “Did you choose to wear all black today on purpose?”
I shrugged, “Maybe. Maybe I’m a strong, empowered educated Harvard Muslim woman who is using my agency to wear what I please. Or maybe my father forced me to wear this. It’s really nuanced. We will never know!”
Harvard professors absolutely love nuance. But this one, just now, looked rather displeased, a little stunned.
I was just sick and tired of all the nuance at that point.
Aside from academia, we also find nuance in spades in everyday conversations and exchanges on social media.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve come to realize that “nuance” is a code word for “random things I would like to add to Islam.”
In matters that are simply known, that are and have always been black and white, our friend “nuance” is there to introduce shades of gray. In matters where the whims and desires of individuals have no place and it’s simply a matter obedience, our old friend “nuance” is there to persuade us that really, it’s not so cut and dry and we should make some room for emotion over principle. Instead of saying, as our noble predecessors have said, humbly putting ego and whims aside, “سمعنا و أطعنا” (“We hear and we obey”), we can instead talk a lot about nuance.
Some celebrity Muslim speakers are absolute champs at talking about nuance. Should we support gay rights? Nuance. Should we accept blasphemy? Nuance. Should we trust علوم القرآن (Quranic studies) and qira’at? Nuance.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course certain issues are truly, genuinely complex and require making room for caveats, and our long tradition of Islamic scholarship has examined the issue from every angle and made allowances for the varying circumstances of different people. Some issues have legitimate differences of opinion in the different schools of thought. Not everything in Islam is black and white, of course.
BUT — and this is a big ‘but’ — in the rest of the cases, things are, have always been, and should always be clear-cut. There is no ambiguity. There is no room here for this sly notion of “nuance,” which is really a crafty, underhanded attempt to introduce blameworthy innovation and unnecessary change in the deen, to inject the perfect and complete deen of Allah with an wholly un-needed dose of “new considerations.” It is a ploy to change the deen into something that will sit well with modernist sentiments and not offend modernist sensibilities and just be more palatable to your average non-practicing modern person. We don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, do we?
The word “nuance” has been weaponized. With remarkable success, I might add. If you don’t like what someone is telling you about Islam’s stance on the impermissibility of homosexual acts, all you have to do is call that person “un-nuanced” in their understanding. If you are offended by the plain tafseer of an ayah in the Quran about the destruction of qawm Lut, you can accuse the mufassir of being woefully lacking in nuance and just insist that the sin of the people of Lut was the lack of consent. If someone tries to tell you that hijab is wajib and you don’t appreciate that fact stated so plainly, just say that everything is nuanced.
Anyone who disagrees with your preferred, custom-made hodgepodge concoction of “Islamic” stances that help you fit in with the mainstream culture, gets labeled un-nuanced. Next, please.
This attitude has trickled down from our famous “compassionate” imam role models down to your average Muslim.
I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman who said frankly to me, “When things are black and white, it seems so final to me, so unchangeable. It kind of intimidates me! But I thrive in the gray. In the gray areas, I can interpret things how I want, the way it feels to me.”
I had this conversation 8 years ago, and I still remember what she said verbatim. It disturbed me then and it has stayed with me since that moment. Her words show the modernist need for the subjective over the objective.
Feelings over facts.
We have been taught by modernity to over-value the individual to the point where we even place individualistic whim, convenience, emotion over Truth. Hello, nuance.
Another angle that some people take is the old “everything is relative” line. This is the continuation of “nuance.”
On the topic of dress, a Muslim female acquaintance of mine once mused aloud with me, “What does it mean to dress modestly, really? If I wear a t-shirt and shorts, that’s less modest than a burqa, but it’s more modest than a bikini! Really, it’s all so relative.”
I was dumbfounded. Basically, this is the bald strategy some use to try to eliminate absolutes. If everything is relative, then there are no absolutes. Nothing is a given. Everything is on the table, open to negotiating and reinterpreting and re-examining. By laypeople, not scholars obviously. Duh. Laypeople want to opine on the rules of Islam and tell us which of them they would like to keep, which they would like to throw away, and which they would like to mutilate into some unrecognizable form so it fits their fancies. Let’s reinterpret modesty.
The same acquaintance said to me one day, “Everything is so unknown, and so unknowable. Who knows what the future holds? We only have the here and now, and we just have to do what feels good and what makes us happy, and just be good people.”
This is now an attempt to erase the existence of our sources of knowledge. As Muslims, what is our epistemology? The Quran and the Sunnah. The words of Allah and His messenger, peace be upon him. But if you play dumb and pretend that we have no sources to inform us of the world, the future, that rules governing our existence, then you can freely float in a sea of nuance, unmoored by anything and led purely by your desires.
The remedy for all this nuanced chaos is what Allah says in Surat Ali Imran, beautifully:
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ (7)رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْوَهَّابُ (8)
“It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah . But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.
“Our Lord, don’t let our hearts deviate after You have guided us and bestow upon us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower.” (Surat Ali Imran, 7-8)