The Weaponization of Nuance in Reforming Islam

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)

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The other one that really grinds my gears is “Deen is easy” Ofcourse Deen is easy in it’s application but brothers and sisters think it should be easy for the desires.

  2. A few thoughts. I understand the ideas put forth about ‘nuance’ and how it may be used to appease sentiments or emotions promoted by secular or liberal ideologies. That said, I would ask, in our presentation of Islam to a Western audience (Muslim and non-Muslim) who breath the air of liberalism/secularism, is it not important to remain mindful of this and shape our discourse accordingly? Often times, in some of the pieces on this site, it comes off like everything is a matter of how things are packaged/presented for one to consider intellectually/rationally, when in reality, I think we can all agree, it’s not always a rational argument that will influence your audience’s faith. Hence, considering the full context of your audience matters while presenting the Deen, would you disagree?

    I’ll share an example to hopefully demonstrate the point. I had a high school teenage girl who learned her non-Muslim mentor/professor passed away while she was in our Sunday school class, and she got really emotional and broken hearing this news. A few of other girls in trying to comfort her suggested they make du’aa for this non-Muslim professor’s forgiveness. As their teacher, I understood intellectually that this is not permissible. But, in that very moment, would it be best for me to engage in a back and forth on the technical matters related to making du’aa for a non-Muslim with these young girls who are (A) not intellectually grounded in the faith yet (B) overcome by emotion ? Or instead, would you consider an alternative approach whereby I lead the girls making du’aa, only making du’aa for things that are permissible (IE – praying for guidance of the deceased person’s family)? In doing the latter, I would satisfy their immediate emotional needs to help them cope with the tragedy, and can still revisit the conversation on the technical details when they are in a better place emotionally where they are more likely to receive and understand the message? If I do the latter, one could accuse me of appeasing emotions and not being ‘unapologetic’ about what the faith teaches, and would possibly brand me as someone not being forthcoming on what the faith allows. But, I view it more along the lines of exercising wisdom, and giving what’s necessary in the correct doses at the correct time. Some may disagree with my approach. But, there are many da’ees, teachers, youth mentors, etc. who are simply doing their best to ‘navigate the environmental and cultural waters’ we’re in while keeping the ship afloat.

    Not picking on this piece in particular, but in general, there’s a considerable amount of effort to undermine da’ees on this site who may not share the same vision in how to spread da’wah to a Western audience. In nearly every article I read, there is almost an undercurrent of ‘disdain’ against the ‘celebrity shaykhs’, and it’s presented as though there’s some malicious and deliberate ulterior motive by these celebrity shuyookh to water Islam down and lead us astray. But really, to an objective person, I would argue what they are attempting to do in a macro-scale is what many of us try to do in a micro-sense while we engage with young people and laymen who find their Muslim identities ‘at odds with the dominant culture’, and hence, under attack. Allah knows best what the best way to navigate this environment is. I admire the expertise of the team assembled here. You all are clearly very well educated and have loads of potential to make impact using whatever vision you think would be most impactful. But, there just seems to be so much time spent on undermining the ‘celebrity shuyookh’ rather than promoting a platform that will help our communities and coming generations.

    • Let’s go with your example.

      ****
      QUOTE- only making du’aa for things that are permissible (IE – praying for guidance of the deceased person’s family)? In doing the latter, I would satisfy their immediate emotional needs to help them cope with the tragedy, and can still revisit the conversation on the technical details when they are in a better place emotionally where they are more likely to receive and understand the message? – UNQUOTE
      ****

      What the celebrity shaykh or compassionate imam (as Muslim Skeptic calls them) would do in such a situation is pour water on all your hard work and hikmah.

      If the celebrity shaykh caught you doing what you suggested, they might mess up the situation for you by such comments (taken from real life scenarios):

      – “Allah knows the state he died in best.” (True of course, but our job is to act on the apparent. If we do not know of any uttering the Shahadah by the deceased, we call them kafirs. It’s called using true statements with intentions to spread falsehood.)
      – “If I can’t add a rahmatullahi a^laih after his name, I’m in the wrong religion.” (Stoking idiotic emotions here. We are not allowed to pray for deceased kafirs. It’s kufr in itself.)
      – “But he did so many good deeds that only a Muslim could do.” (Good deeds are useless without Shahadah)
      – “May he rest in peace. He was a man of God.” (Multiple kufrs here.)
      – “A kafir is someone with a lot of puffed up arrogance and evil character traits like Gargamel.” (Deliberately changing the definition here. A person is Muslim or kafir based on belief only and not on good or bad actions, which by the way, to the compassionate imam, are dictated by popular culture. So gay rights activists are supposed to be ‘good humanists’)

      If the celebrity shaykh had his way with your student, he’s ensure you never had the chance to “revisit the conversation on the technical details when they are in a better place emotionally where they are more likely to receive and understand the message.”

      So hope you can see how the celebrity shaykh will prey on your vulnerable student’s imam and the need to expose his lies is a necessity from Islam.

      ****
      QUOTE – it’s presented as though there’s some malicious and deliberate ulterior motive by these celebrity shuyookh to water Islam down and lead us astray. – UNQUOTE
      ****

      You don’t have to think of it as some type of a complex and grand conspiracy by the Illuminati and those celebrity shaykhs being pawns in it. Some of them may be so, but certainly not all.

      It’s just that the love of the world, that is, fame and/or riches, coupled with pledging allegiances and loyalties to the enemies of deen, working with and for them – the rich ‘n famous powers that be in the first world spheres of influence – will elicit such behaviors from the celebrity shaykhs, and cause them to even cross the boundaries of deen without realizing it. It’s really that simple.

      Hope it makes sense.

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