by Mysara Aljaru
An ‘Islamic’ Toxic Positivity
“You just need faith in Allah, you are where He wants you to be.”
These were words I frequently heard growing up, especially from religious teachers in weekend madrasahs I used to attend as a child. It seemed reassuring at that time. Why wouldn’t it be, right? It calmed uneasy feelings I had for a short while, thinking that all I had to do was to be kind and patient regardless of what life throws at me because God is always there and will always be there. As I was taught, what better way to prove your faith than to leave it all to the Almighty?
But as I grew older, I began to feel more frustrated. Whether it was my weekend madrasah classes or in secular schools, I couldn’t remember being taught any form of emotional intelligence or how to deal with the despair rooted in experiences of injustice. As a minority Muslim woman, what does Islam teach us when it comes to dealing with racism, sexism, Islamophobia or abuse? How do we deal with emotions that stem from these injustices? In the classroom, we are not taught to think critically about the root causes of our unhappiness. We are not taught to question.
With a lack of resources and a lack of knowledge on how to teach emotional intelligence in the mainstream and Islamic education system, society has come up with another way to cope with overwhelming thoughts and feelings: the culture of toxic positivity.
In such circles, toxic positivity is also used to silence oppression.
As a minority Muslim woman, my identity has made me even more aware of injustices in society, aside from those I personally experience. While it was easy for me to reject superficial positive thinking from countercultures like the neo-hippies that are more self-indulgent, toxic positivity in the Muslim community that often silence injustices was harder to fight off. We are often hushed, taught to be silent and to never, ever question the teacher.
In the Muslim community, trauma is hardly addressed. Religious leaders and Muslim social media influencers who use spirituality as a form of escapism without seriously addressing trauma, encourage a more “Islamic” version of toxic positivity. One is encouraged to think positively of God, believe that there’s a silver lining to everything and to pray away the pain. But the pain never really goes away and will eventually manifest itself in other ways.
Take, for example, when cases of domestic abuse are addressed in religious circles. Women are often told to have faith in God, to put their trust in the religion, and in some cases, that they will be rewarded for their patience in putting up with an abusive husband. Some narratives I have heard from the community even tell the victim that they are the ‘chosen one’ by God for going through this ‘test’. This toxic positivity approach takes away the need to hold the perpetrator accountable for any form of abuse.
None of these suggestions addresses the trauma caused by an abusive husband. Even when trauma is addressed, religion is immediately taken as a solution without taking into consideration the welfare of the victim. This becomes a problem if religion itself has been used as a tool by the abuser to abuse, guilt, and oppress the victim. Toxic positivity also becomes more prevalent when the perpetrator holds some sort of religious authority. The abuse of the perpetrator is silenced, more so if he is male, and is especially silenced by other religious figures. Additionally, children who grow up in violent households risk being stuck in a vicious cycle if they do not receive proper support.
Toxic positivity in religion can also be used to justify violence against the vulnerable, where one is told that certain verses in the Quran are there ‘for a reason’ and we should have faith in the religion without studying it with any form of context or in a critical manner.
Just two years ago, Ustaz Zaid Isahak wrote in a column for the local Malay newspaper that it is permissible for a husband to hit his wife if she “unreasonably” disobeys him, and even gave guidelines on “beating” the wife. There were rebuttals from other religious teachers such as Ustaz Irwan Hadi, who mentioned that the term “wadhribuuhunna“, used in the verse, “must not be understood literally as a license to ‘hit’, hurt or abuse your spouse, be it verbally, physically or emotionally”.
While the rebuttal was published fast, it is disturbing that some religious teachers still see violence as a way to solve a domestic conflict. It is also disturbing that we have normalised the idea of having a guideline on hitting women. Furthermore, a lot of narratives on handling domestic conflict still revolves around the idea of the “problematic” or “stubborn” wife.
Instead of addressing the issues openly and ensuring the safety of other believers and worshippers (as Islam would teach), the victim and the society are encouraged to think positively. One is told to not just think positively of God, but also of the perpetrator. One can hear the word ‘husnuzon’, (which means to think positively and not make assumptions) being uttered continuously as a form of silence towards any protest of the abuse and acts by the perpetrator.
The perpetrator’s past ‘good deeds’ are instead resurfaced and the case silenced. There is no justice for the victim, for the abused and marginalised, despite the importance of being just in Islam:
“God commands justice and fair dealing…” (Quran 16:90)
Bringing Social Justice Back to Islam
Toxic positivity taught in Islamic schools and encouraged by Muslim influencers on social media also erases an important part of the religion: social justice. Teaching someone to place complete faith in the religion and God without any form of action not only silences oppression but also erases the essential aspect of striving for justice in Islam.
Our society still grapples with the idea of having faith in God and fighting for social justice at the same time. We don’t know how to avoid staying silent towards oppressors, whether it’s state oppression or oppression happening within the community itself. While Islam has a history of teaching and encouraging the ending of social injustice, society has unfortunately shifted far away from that focus when its practice is reduced only to its rituals.
This can be traced to how we teach religion in schools and in the home, where it is heavily focused on rituals: how many times we pray, when we fast, or how often we read the Quran. The message of empathy and humanity is lost as we silence the cry of those who need our help. We are quick to diagnose religion as the solution to issues such as drugs and poverty, without looking at the lived realities of the community. The education system encourages us to accept what is taught without questioning while the constant policing by society produces a Muslim society with a mass-man mentality.
I remember one day at my weekend madrasah, the Ustaz brought up the topic of teenage pregnancy during class. His immediate suggestion in ‘tackling’ the issue was to get the pair married. I raised my hand and questioned him about the importance of getting them married immediately when many of these teenagers had urgent socio-economic realities that were being ignored. I also raised my concerns about creating a vicious cycle by forcing teenagers to get married, to which he responded:
“I’m thinking in an Islamic point of view, you’re thinking in a secular point of view.”
Many of us who grew up in conservative household and communities knew what it meant. Secular was a code word for not Islamic. My views of wanting a secure future for the teenagers and their child without forced marriage when they were not ready, was somehow seen as not Islamic. After class, some of my classmates told me they did not agree with him, but none of them spoke up.
This toxic positivity, assuming that we don’t need to take an active response in critiquing ideologies comes through when the community is thrown with alternative ideas that they may not be comfortable with. While we are told to give a benefit of the doubt to people who may hold toxic ideologies, any other form of ideas that goes against the mainstream view is immediately dismissed.
A person who shares their bad experiences in Islamic circles such as in a madrasah or in mosques (which is not isolated but just not talked about) would be immediately shunned. Some of my friends and I have faced online harassment by a man who simply did not agree with the work we have done. Toxic positivity creates a monolith of ideas as it usually just defends only a specific thought and destroys any potential safe space the community needs to understand diversity, while at the same time not realising it is unacceptable and disturbing for a grown man to harass women online “in the name of Islam”.
As another example, passive thinking can be seen especially in Ramadhan, where we’re taught that one reason we fast is to put ourselves in the shoes of those living in poverty. We see an increase in commendable acts of charity; everyone wants to donate cash or food items to the needy. But nobody thinks about or wants to question the system that perpetuates poverty. Very few question the structural barriers that prevent the poor from getting the help they need and deserve.
Acts of charity, while important, is useless if we do not challenge the status quo. We, unfortunately, do not use this month to really understand the root cause of inequality and to fight the system that causes it. A feel-good Islam also sees people in the community happily sharing their charity acts on social media, while taking away attention from the important issue that needs to be discussed. Such acts allow them to see themselves as saviours to the poor, with no form of reflection on the structures that need to be changed. The poor are treated as “life lessons” on how we should “appreciate what we have”.
Once a year, we’ll see an article or commentary about food wastage in Ramadhan, but hardly any critique linking it to an increasing capitalistic middle-class Islam that encourages consumerist behaviour. Their idea of social justice is passive, one that doesn’t encourage any form of action or critical thinking.
However, when they do fight for social justice and speak out against oppression, it becomes selective. They define humanity based on someone’s faith, gender, class and sexuality. Anyone who does not fall into their limited checklist is immediately deemed as deviant and thus, not deserving of any form of kindness, humanity and sometimes they’re not even seen as human.
You see the community raging as they decry the oppression of Muslims in Palestine and Myanmar but are either silent or are in support of Brunei’s law of stoning the LGBT community. Any form of human rights are only for specific groups of people like themselves, yet they will cry oppression while being completely fine with another marginalised community being oppressed.
An Islamic based justice response should be one that is critical. It should be just and ensure the safety of the victim and marginalised. The well being of the victim and marginalised should not be ignored at the self-interest of the abuser, nor should the plight of the marginalised only be used as a ‘life lesson’. Faith in Allah means not doing injustice or restricting humanity from someone, regardless of who they are. Social justice in Islam goes beyond protecting the sanctity of the religion, especially since God does not require or need our protection. God needs us to protect the vulnerable and not to weaponise religion to protect perpetrators of abuse and oppression, regardless of the power they hold. Justice in Islam permits no favouritism.
We need to be more critical of the patriarchal interpretation of Islam that is often used as a tool of abuse and we should not lead passive lives when it comes to fighting abuse and oppression. We must fight against injustices and abuses in our community, for God does not favour the unjust.
Mysara Aljaru is a former documentary producer who is currently pursuing her Masters in Malay Studies at NUS. Her interest includes representation of minorities in media, decolonising environmentalism and intersectional feminism. She has facilitated with Penawar, a support group for women/non-males raised in the Muslim community, dealing with negative experiences from patriarchal interpretations of religion.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu