The lights were out. I was nestled in one of the many sleeping bags scattered on the floor of the prayer hall. Some of the men from our mosque in Raleigh were hosting a sleepover for us Muslim boys. It was a Friday during Ramadan so in a few hours they’d be waking us up for breakfast (which, of course, wouldn’t have any bacon), followed by Fajr (dawn) prayers.
Our instructors began walking up and down between the sleeping bags. They held flashlights and I watched the bulbs move about like bumblebees flying from one flower to the next. They wanted to make sure none of us boys were lying down on our stomachs. Some hadith had recorded it that Muhammad always slept on his back, so we were obviously supposed to do likewise. I wondered, even at thirteen, how on earth a detail like that had any bearing over good and evil.
As a Muslim I was taught to view sin as a “what” that a person did — that people became a sinner by sinning. The list of “whats” a person “should” and “shouldn’t” be doing can get incredibly extensive for the serious Muslim. A Muslim “should” break his or her Ramadan fasts by eating dates, since Muhammad did the same. A Muslim “shouldn’t” shake hands (bear in mind I was Muslim in pre-COVID times) with someone of the opposite sex, and “shouldn’t” yawn without covering his mouth (otherwise jinn could jump into their mouth!), according to some of my Sunday school teachers.
Providing adherents an extensive list of “whats” isn’t solely the domain of theistic religions. Ideologies, which often substitutes theistic religion, do so as well. The culture of political correctness, through the excesses of cancel culture and theories such as microaggressions, demonstrates that the lists of “whats” can become just as arbitrary as those of any religion, seeking to find prejudice and discrimination in every corner and under the cushions of every couch, determining whether a person is “good” or “deplorable” according to adherence to that list. The religious instinct still very much thrives even in the absence of formal religion.
There’s no shortage of Muslims, those more casual or nominal in their practice, who find tremendous humor in just how detailed the list of “rights” and “wrongs” in Islam can get. My own experience has taught me that it’s not difficult at all to meet a casual or nominal Muslim who drinks alcohol. But it’s very rare to find any Muslim who will violate one particular “what.”
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