Contraband Valentine

Upon reading about the hullabaloo in Saudi Arabia to prevent the pernicious spread of the Valentine’s Day spirit (“Saudis Clamp Down on Valentines”), I am saddened but not terribly surprised. For me, it is just another reminder of why so many Muslims are ambivalent about the Kingdom’s prominence in Islamic and Middle Eastern politics. What really brings the absurdity of it all to life for me is this tidbit:

“Sometimes we deliver the bouquets in the middle of the night or early morning, to avoid suspicion,” one florist said. Others were planning to travel to the more religiously liberal neighboring countries, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, to celebrate.

Here we have valentines being smuggled like contraband. (Will we be hearing of Valentine’s Day “speakeasies,” next?) Were it not affecting the lives of millions of people, this would be comical.

Even as a kid growing up in a Muslim-American family Boston in the 1970s, I found Saudi Arabia’s “Islamic” pretensions exceedingly fishy and hard to swallow. My parents were neither politically active nor involved in the then-small Boston Muslim community, so I had little awareness of international affairs and my exposure to the Middle East was quite limited. Nonetheless, I instinctively sensed that Saudi Arabia’s claim to being an “Islamic” state was decidedly tenuous, given what I instinctively understood about my faith.

Later, as I grew older and learned of the state-sanctioned religious thuggery and vigilantism of the dreaded mutawa (and the equally outrageous ban on non-Islamic religious gatherings in a country that relies heavily on foreign laborers) this conviction grew stronger. And then there’s Saudi’s long history of oppressing Sufis and Shiahs. So this latest Valentine’s Day farce in the Kingdom illustrates succinctly why I and many other Muslims often find ourselves shaking our heads at the happenings in the Arabian Peninsula and decidedly uneasy over the tendency of observers to conflate Saudi religious policy with Islam.

Sure, the Kingdom is proverbially strict and militantly “traditional” (at times schizophrenically so) in its religious mores, but I would contend that it is, in most important respects, far less “Islamic” than the United States. Like many Muslims, I can rattle off a litany of Saudi’s paradoxical qualities given its religious pretensions—e.g., Muhammad’s wife, Ayesha, led troops into battle after his death, yet Saudi women aren’t allowed to get behind the wheel of a car—but I will confine myself to a particularly notable one for these purposes: religious pluralism.

Few rights or principles are more clearly enshrined in the Qur’an than that of freedom of religion, even if it must be admitted that Muslims have not always lived up to such a lofty ideal (scoffers are gently referred to the Golden Rule and Christendom’s own rather spotty application thereof). Not only does the Qur’an emphatically forbid the imposition of one’s beliefs on others, most famously in verse 2:256, “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” but it even enjoins Muslims to protect from oppression churches, synagogues, and monasteries along with mosques as places where “God’s name is remembered” (22:39-40) in the strongest language. And many other examples could be cited.

Contrary to all the Islamophobic rhetoric one now hears, I would respectfully contend that the presumption of personal freedom is more explicitly enunciated in Islam’s foundational texts than in those of most other religious traditions—Christianity and Judaism included. (For more on this widely-misunderstood and sometimes ruthlessly misrepresented—by Muslims as well as non-Muslims—aspect of the Qur’an, see Riffat Hassan’s “Religious Human Rights in the Qur’an” and Hesham Hassaballa’s “What the Qur’an Really Says About Violence.”)

Man being made of a crooked timber, the question becomes more complex with subsequent Islamic juridical tradition. It should come as no surprise that many rulings—set forth in medieval Islamic legal codes, produced over many centuries by scholars living in a very different world from ours—sometimes fit much less neatly into a modern secular worldview, if at all. But I think that if one factors in historical context, the emphasis on freedom in Islamic tradition is unmistakable. And the tradition is evolving. But that’s another, involved discussion.

The Saudis are cracking down on valentines because they consider them bid`a, or impious innovation. There is a principle in Islam to which all Muslims subscribe, even if they disagree on its practical application, that the example of the Prophet Muhammad (and by extension the early Muslims who knew him firsthand) is intrinsically normative and worthy of emulation. The sunnah or “way” of the Prophet is considered a trustworthy guide in all circumstances of life, dramatic as well as mundane. This comparison would no doubt horrify some on the right, but it’s not unlike the notion of “WWJD.”

All societies and cultures have their fogies who react to all that is new and not explicitly sanctioned in received tradition with fear and outrage. Thus, for many centuries duller knives in the drawer of Islamic scholardom have argued that all manner of ostensibly innocent—and, I would argue, primordial—social practices that are not explicitly attested to in the extant records of the Prophet or his Companions are illegitimate, and in some cases even heretical. Out the window go many of the sweet touches that make civilization a smidgen more humane, such as celebrating a child’s birthday or sending a valentine. All in the name of tradition and obedience to God’s will.

The problem here is that the understanding of Islam informing these policies is a truncated—and, most Muslims would argue, quite atypical—sliver of a rich, dynamic Islamic intellectual system that contains a wide range of perspectives on such questions. Such know-nothing superficiality is a by-product, in my view, of the excessive literalism that plagues so many revivalist movements today. Rigid scripturalism can lead to an impasse where tradition must come at the expense of common sense and basic human needs. Thus, the Saudi overreactions to Valentine’s Day remind me of the of hand wringing over the supposed evils of telling ghost stories and reading Harry Potter novels caught in “Jesus Camp,” a fascinating and touching documentary on a small but significant wing of American evangelicalism.

The stern moralists in Riyadh forget a basic axiom of Islamic law, “That which is not explicitly forbidden is allowed,” which places the burden of proof on those seeking to censor or ban new practices. Moreover, it is well established in Islamic law that innovation and change are not intrinsically bad. I won’t get into the finer points of the difference in Islamic jurisprudence between bid’a hasana (“good innovation”) and regular, blameworthy bid`a here to avoid putting all to sleep, but suffice it to say that such matters were not dealt with in so simplistic a manner by traditional scholars as a whole in the premodern era. (Those interested in some of the details of these arguments are directed here and here for starters.)

It’s sad to see the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia continue to trample on basic freedoms that are controversial nowhere else, not to mention waste its intellectual resources debating such trifles. But hardly shocking, alas.