Trade-Offs of Community: Boxes Too Small 3

Yusef (left) and Jehangir. From the film adaptation
of The Taqwacores
Half-way through Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, the first-person narrator, Yusef, is struggling with his identity – and the tension between the box of rules and external authority and the box of spiritual laziness.
“Jehangir’s romanticism just equaled a spiritual, cultural and ideological laziness: in all things the path of least resistance. Allah wills, right? As a mumin [believer] I was ruined. How long had it been since I had attended a real jumaa? In a masjid, with men and women separate and khutbahs from qualified imams? Had I journeyed into apostasy? What did that even mean? We lived in a non-Muslim state where I had no fear of shari’a’s penalty, but there’s more than one way to chop off a head. What would it do to my parents to find out how this house really functioned?”
The way these questions are playing out for the growing numbers of American-born Muslims is merely one of the more recent versions of the basic American story of struggling for identity.

Both the fictional characters in the The Taqwacores, and the real-life American-born young-adult Muslims who resonate with the novel, are choosing to go in for a practice with a lot of rules. Even the hard-partiers get up before sunrise to make fajr. A number of them take on more rules, and adopt the straightedge identity: abstinence, no alcohol or drugs, no pork; five prayer times a day -- strict discipline.

The rules give life structure, and the structure gives life meaning. Most of all, rules give us belonging and community. You know you’re in the community of those who follow those rules. It doesn’t matter if the rules are arbitrary. It gives us an identity, makes a more-or-less coherent meaning out of the things we do.

The need for identity – for “this is who I am, so this is what I do” – is a universal human need. It’s nice to have identity: Muslim, Christian, UU, Punk, Democrat, Republican, teacher, lawyer, doctor. It’s nice to have the words to say who you are -- and whose you are. Yes, it can be limiting, but not having an identity can be even more limiting.

On the one hand, a community based on shared rule-following requires putting some energy into policing those rules: making sure everyone follows them: pretty much, most of the time. I understand the impulse to orthodox judgmentalism with its rules and strict procedures. If we don’t all follow our rules, then who are we? We don’t get to have the connection of a shared life pattern if you don’t follow the pattern.

On the other hand, I also understand that part of the human heart that rebels against orthodoxy’s constraint. A part of me -- and of most of us -- cries: come on, lighten up, open up, accept and embrace diversity of belief and of practice.

Community is hard. It’s hard for Unitarian Universalists, and it’s hard for Punk Muslims.

Community based on strict rules can be very attractive: it’s so clear and direct. But there’s a price to be paid for those rules.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to community is to have very little in the way of rules, to eschew the very idea of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, to celebrate diversity. There’s also a price to be paid for minimalism on rules. It isn’t so clear what binds us together. For a lot of people, religious liberalism doesn’t feel very satisfying.

Community is hard, anyway you cut it.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 4: Nothing Harder or Better
Previous: Part 2: Authority and Taqwacores
Beginning: Part 1: Nailing Things Together

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