The Big Cost of Big Love: A Scholarly Analysis


Big Love is a popular show about a Mormon fundamentalist, Bill Henrickson, his three wives, and combined nine children. The issue of polygyny came into national spotlight following the government seizure of 416 children from the Mormon ranches in 2008.(West). While the issue was rape and physical abuse of minors through forced marriages, the practice of polygamy within this branch of Mormon Fundamentalists brought the question of polygyny to national attention. The show Big Love has also added to the popular imagination about polygamous households. While the Mormon Fundamentalists were in the national spotlight, Muslims have quietly practiced polygyny in America. Barbara Hagerty writes, “No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families. But according to academics researching the issue, estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 people” (HAGERTY).

Many people wonder how can that be? Bigamy is illegal in the United States. That is true, but the reality is that many Muslims Muslim religious leaders will contract religious marriages and do not record them with the state. In fact, two Muslims don’t need an imam to contract a marriage. They just need the groom, the bride, and two witnesses (which may include the wali who acts on behalf of the bride). Many Muslim marriages are not recorded, making it difficult to quantify polygynous marriages or study their success rates. Most of us go off anecdotal evidence.

Just want to be clear, as a Muslim I cannot make something halal (permissible by Islamic law) haram (forbidden). If three or more people choose this as their lifestyle, I say more power to them. But I do have strong feelings about women who get polygyny thrust upon them by or women who are berated because they do not want to participate in a polygynous marriage. Polygamy is a controversial topic that probably draws more heat than hijab or niqab. The discourse on the issue often insults and belittles both the Muslim women who practice it and those who chose not to engage in it.

While many people critique Islam for curtailing women’s rights, Islam ensured women’s rights and put limits on the exploitation of women that occurred in Pre-Islamic Arabica. The reality is that during the 7th century, Islam put restrictions on the practice of polygamy. There was not a limit on the number of wives a man could have 10, 20, 30, 40, etc. Men could inherit their father’s wives. Also, the way polygamy was practice did not emphasize the husband’s responsibility for maintaining his households. It was common for the wife to remain with her family and that the man visited her. Muslim marriage made the men shoulder the responsibility as women moved to their husband’s households.

Muslims are encouraged to marry and it is considered half of our religion. Imam Ghazaly writes, “For earning lawful gain, supporting a family, seeking to obtain offspring, and tolerating the manners of women constitute forms of worship whose merits do not fall short of supererogatory acts of worship” (Ghazaly). The Qur’an tells us: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…(Surah al-Nisa, 3). Many of those opposed to polygamy will point out that shortly after this verse Allah warns Muslim men that is impossible. [quote] Most Muslims in America do not condone polygamy. In fact, many polygynous families are often shunned. Carolyn Rouse, who wrote a thoughtful study on African American Muslim women, Engaged Surrender wrote, “Men who have cowives are judged by how well they follow the edict to treat the wives equally and provide for them financially”(Rouse 68).

For many years I have steered clear of this subject, even though I’m known for courting controversy. One reason is that this is not an issue in my marriage since we have decided that our marriage will not be polygynous and it is stipulated so in my marriage. But even more so, a major reason is because of my ambivalence towards the topic. Well, let me correct that, I have some strong feelings about it on a personal and ideological level. My strong feelings about polygyny have came out in a recent discussion on a sister’s blog as I defended a sister who was critiqued for raising the question about how financially prepared one Muslim man was to engage in polygyny. The sister wrote:

Please stay strong and always expect your rights to be fulfilled. It is about 55K to support 2 adults and 2 children for your spouse/yourself and his children from the other marriage. If he chooses to add to your family with another wife – he better be able to pay for it. I know you are gainfully employed but it would make me sad for you to subsidize additional wives by paying your own bills. I don’t wish to seem rude and I don’t how it is in the BAM community but I do know many White coverts who end up subsidizing a husband’s additional wives by paying their own bills or collecting welfare in various forms and that is wrong. If he can have more than one, he needs to fully take care of what he has. I know you know this, but love can make us not always act in our best interests.

Another sister had a major problem with this sister’s comments. And that’s when I intervened in the conversation. It was that intervention that inspired this long drawn post. My aim is to show that it is possible to ascertain the minimum amount a man should have before taking on a second spouse. Further, I will argue that Muslim men should strive to create self sufficient households where their families can live without need of government aid or assistance (unless unforeseen circumstances such as disability, unemployment, or illness). The same goals that apply to monogamous marriages applies to polygynous marriages. The goals of marriage in Islam are for the husband and wife to provide each other with comfort and support and to help ensure the propagation. Carolyn Rouse writes, “statistics in the African American Sunni community on divorce and out-of-wedlock births are high, and the social expectations and pressures of keeping these statistics high are at odds wtih the Islamic ideal” (Rouse 153-154).
Two people are the basic social unit, and a marriage is a social contract that helps build community. The Quran states:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means.” (Qur’an 4: 34)

Muslim men have a duty to provide for and support their wives. And men who are not able to support a family are encouraged to fast, as evidenced by what the Prophet (saws) advised a group of young men without wealth:

“O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e. his private parts from committing illegal sexual intercourse etc.), and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power.”

Muslim scholars have outlined the duties and obligations men and women have towards each other. Rouse writes, “Women, however, are usually attracted to the man’s requirement to provide an income, to women’s rights as stated in the Qur’an, and to the role model of the Prophet and his wives.” She points out that men often assert their dominance without fulfilling their role of provider (Rouse 56). Financial problems are a major strain in most marriages. Islamic law speaks about the suitability of marriage, where a man should be able to provide for his wife according to her social station. That is why Zaid’s (r.a.) marriage did not work with Zainab (r.a.). In the case of Zaid and Zainab, lineage played a part in their incompatibility. lslamic scholarship has outlined suitability factors in determining marriage matches. This comes into play when scholars determine what a man should pay to support his wife. So, if a woman grew up in a one bedroom shack and is accustomed to that then that’s fine. However, if she is used to having servants, then a man is obligated to provide for that. Islamic law does take into consideration local custom, so it is possible to consider standards of living in the 21st century. Instead of tribal lineage or servants, occupation and class may be determinants in suitability. For most Black American Muslim women, the question is not type of occupation, but whether or not a brother can be gainfully employed. This is especially an important question considering the numbers of Black American Muslim men who convert in prison. Rouse writes:

Marriages rarely end because the woman refuses to fulfill her Islamic obligations. She will take care of domestic chores, willingly seek employment to supplement her family’s income, educate her children, dress conservatively, and have sex with her husband when he so desires. But women often find that fulfilling their obligations is no guarantee that their husbands will be good providers, fathers, or husbands. (Rouse 56)

This is even the case when a woman acquiesces to polygyny. Often, American Muslim converts, and as one sister pointed out, Black and White, are not financially supported in marriage as their husbands look to polygyny as a viable option.

Now is this fair? Was this sister correct in bringing up the standard of living issue? Was $57, 000 an arbitrary number just thrown out there? Is it reasonable for American Muslim women to expect a man to be the sole provider? Finally, is it reasonable for an American Muslim women to expect that her husband can financially support two households before taking on another wife. First, let us look to the basic requirements for having a wife?

Islamic law also states the MINIMUM that he should be able to afford, which is shelter, food, some clothing, and grooming. I am not saying that women shouldn’t contribute to the household. But I am interested in what is the Islamic position on rights and obligations in a marriage. How can we reasonably determine what a man needs to make to maintain a household free of debt, without the help of public or private assistance.

Imam Ghazaly writes, “Thus the husband’s rights toward the wife are many, but most important are two: the first is safeguarding and sheltering; the other is to be spared unnecessary demands and the need for having to provide them if they are unlawful” (Ghazaly). As far as support, he outlines:

One should not be stingy toward them nor should he be extravagant; rather he should be moderate. The Almighty said, “and eat and drink but exceed not the bounds” [Qur’an 7:31 (Ali)]. He also said, “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck nor open it with a complete opening” [17:29].87 The Messenger of God said, “The most favored among you is the one who is most generous toward his wife.”“ The Prophet also said, “A dinar spent for the sake of God, a dinar spent for ransoming a slave, a dinar offered [as charity] to a poor man, and a dinar spent on your wife -the one that earns you the greatest reward is the one spent on your wife.”(Ghazaly)

Shaikh Mohammad Iqbal supports this view:

It is narrated by Abu-Darda (radhiallaho anho) that the Prophet (sallallaho alaihi wasallam) instructed me: “Spend as much as possible upon your family. . . ” (Kanz) This is indeed a source of encouragement to spend for the comfort of women. The husband is also under an obligation to maintain his wife irrespective of whether she is rich or poor. Those who are not generous with their wives should take heed of this advice (Iqbal)

Within the context of polygyny, the obligation towards support does not diminish. A Muslim man is still required to support his wives. Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari writes:

It is one of the foremost requirements from a man who has more than one wife to treat all his wives equally and justly. There are grave warnings mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah for oppressing, mistreating or not being fair with the wives. The Qur’an conditioned the permissibility of marrying more than one wife with justice and fair treatment.
Allah Most High says:
“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, three, or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…(Surah al-Nisa, 3).
It is a grave sin to treat the wives unequally. Any man who wishes to take a second wife also has to meet the important condition of fair treatment of all his wives. The verse quoted above includes the command to treat wives equally, and anyone who is unable to do so should marry only one wife.
Sayyiduna Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “A man who has two wives and he does not deal justly with them will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment with half his body paralysed.” (Sunan Tirmizi, no. 1141)
Equal treatment includes all social, economical and physical needs. It is very difficult for human beings to be completely fair, a fact which is recognised by the Qur’an:
”You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air)… (Surah al-Nisa, 129).

The above verse alludes to the fact that, a man must be fair in his external treatment of his wives, in that he should spend equal time with all of them, spend out on them equally, etc. However, if his heart is inclined towards one or he has more love for one wife over the other, then that is not blameworthy, for it is beyond his control. (Second Marriage and Rights of Wives)

Now considering the edict to try to treat wives equally, we need to look at the basic requirements for marriage. Shaikh Muhammad al-Kawthari writes, “it is your husband’s responsibility to provide you with financial support and maintain you according to his means. He must provide you with adequate shelter, food, clothes and pay all the normal bills, for the responsibility of maintenance rests entirely on the shoulder of the husband” (al-Kawthari). In another question where a young woman asked about marrying someone without income, Ustadha Zaynab Ansari answers:

According to Reliance of the Traveller, a book of Shafi’i jurisprudence, “a man who needs to marry (because of desire for sexual intercourse) and has enough money (for the bride’s marriage payment), for clothing for the season of the year in which he marries, and the expenditures of one day) is recommended to do so (to protect his religion). One who needs to marry but does not have enough to pay for these expenses is recommended not to marry, but rather to suppress his sexual desire by fasting…” [Reliance, m1.1]
Once married, the husband is required to provide financial support in the form of:
1. Food
2. Articles for personal hygiene
3. Clothing
4. Housing
5. And any expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth
[Reliance, m11.0-11.8]
Sacred Law sets down the minimum standards for financial support. In other words, a man has to have these minimum requirements in order to get married. If a man does not have the means to marry, he should fast because this is a way of guarding his chastity. If fasting does not suppress his desire, then he is permitted to borrow what he needs to get married.(Ansari)

Note: I will include a more complete selection of Reliance of the Traveler following the notes section.
I alluded to these positions in my response on the blog post. However, there was some contention that outsiders were trying to impose our own standards. The reality is that Islamic law has a tolerance for customary law. So, we can find out what are normal standards of living for women of different stations. But, if we want to be more democratic, you can use a general figure to see what is the mimimum that a husband needs to make to sustain a family without need of public or private assistance.

I have not yet found a ruling where a Muslim scholar tells a Muslim women to contribute to her household so that her husband may take a second wife. Taking these rulings, we are left with an important question: What is reasonable? In order to answer this question, I looked to several studies conducted by the United States Government census, California, Wisconsin, and University of Washington. First, I sought to find out what was poverty level. According to the US government, a two member household earning $14,570 or less is at poverty level. For a four member household, that number is $22,050.00(Govt.). Most studies on poverty have indicated that the government measurement of poverty is outdated. It does not take into account many of the changes in cost of living. So, I began to look at more sophisticated studies to get a figure of how much it costs to “get by,” meaning that a family can afford to pay basic expenses including, housing, utilities food, transportation, childcare, and health care costs without government aid. One article states, “…the poverty level does not reflect the true cost of supporting a family. In addition, the current poverty measure is a national standard that does not adjust for the substantial variation in the cost of living from state to state and between urban and rural areas” (Measuring Poverty in the United States). I first considered the state I grew up in, California, which is known for its high cost of living. Getting By, was a fascinating study that showed how many families are driven into debt or public assistance. “ The standard of living envisioned is more than a “bare bones” existence, yet covers only basic expenses, allowing little to no room for “extras” such as college savings, vacations, or emergencies”(California Budget Project).

The study found that, on average, a two parent family with one employed parent needs an average annual income of $54,039 or almost $26.00 per hour to get by. Two parents working, need to make much more to cover childcare costs. They must make $75,000 or both parents working at $18.15 an hour. (California Budget Project) Now where I currently live, a recent study on Self-Sufficiency Standard in Philadelphia explains:

“To survive in Philadelphia without food stamps or other government assistance, a family of four needs to make nearly $60,000 a year – a hard-to-fathom ’sticker-shock’ number that shows how expensive life has become. According to a study being released Thursday, two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child have to take in $59,501 a year to live on a bare-bones budget in the city. In 2008, the same family of four needed $53,611 to make it in Philadelphia. That’s the word from the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania, a highly respected University of Washington analysis that comes out every two years. The problem is that nearly 62 percent of Philadelphia households take in less than $50,000 a year, according to census data analyzed by Dave Elesh, a sociologist at Temple University…” (Lubrano)

The other issue that the blogger brought up was that women could make a contribution to the household and these things are frequently negotiated within monogamous and polygynous households. This is also recognized by renowned scholars, such as the late Sheikh `Abd al-`Aziz Ibn Baz, the former Mufti of Saudi Arabia. He wrote:

The issue of sharing the household expenses should be settled by mutual consultation and consent. It should not be a matter of dispute.
However, if we are to talk about what is obligatory, then we have to discuss it in detail:
1. If the husband has stipulated in the marriage contract that expenses are to be shared or else he will not let his wife work, then Muslims are bound by their conditions, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Muslims are bound by their conditions, except for conditions which forbid something that is permitted or permit something that is forbidden.” And he (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The conditions which are most deserving to be fulfilled are those by means of which sexual intimacy becomes permissible for you. “
Hence, the wife becomes bound by this condition.
2. If the wife has not made any condition, the household expenses are all the responsibility of the husband and the wife does not have to pay any of the household expenses. Allah says: ( Let the rich man spend according to his means)(Al-Talaq 65: 7).
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “You (men) are obliged to spend on them and clothe them according to what is reasonable.
So, managing the expenses of the household is the duty of the husband. He is the one who has to take care of the needs of the household, his own, and those of his wife and children. The wife’s money and salary belong to her alone in return for her work and her efforts, because the husband concluded the marriage contract on that basis, and he did not stipulate any condition that she should share in the household expenses – unless she gives away a part of her salary out of her own good pleasure, as Allah said: (But if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it, and enjoy it without fear of any harm) (Al-Nisaa’ 4: 4)

However, we advise the wife to give away part of her salary to her husband in order to please him, resolve the dispute and solve the problem, so that they may live in peace and harmony.(ibnBaz)

In conclusion, a Muslim man should be prepared to take care of the basics of his household when pursuing marriage. Ideally, the goal is to be self-sufficient and to do more than just get by. Several studies have shown that the actual cost of living is much higher than we imagine. Many Muslim Americans live below this basic standard and can only dream of going on Hajj. Finally, all Muslim men considering polygyny should take into account Islamic injunctions their financial responsibilities. Their wives should not be forced to work or turn to government aid to subsidize their lifestyle. If cowives choose to remit their dowries and spend their income in support of their families, no one should judge them. But no wife should be forced to give up her rights to minimum support on threat of divorce. Muslims should move beyond moral platitudes, but take into account real life circumstances when making rulings on these situations. Black women should not be expected to take the crumbs on the table or be forced to share a man with limited emotional and financial resources due to the shortage of men. Finally, Muslim women who do make contributions and sacrifices for their families should be respected and honored. No sister should be forced to accept the role of halal girlfriend in a shady misyar marriage, playing second fiddle to another woman who gets all her rights. However, if that is her choice, then I hope she makes it with full knowledge of her rights.

If there are any mistakes in this article, they come from me. And any good from it is from Allah.

And Allah is the Most Knowing.

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WORKS CITED
al-Kawthari, Muhammad ibn Adam. Second Marriage and Rights of Wives. Sunni Path.
http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=2456&CATE=121.

al-Kawthari, Muhammad ibn Adam. Stipulations on Marriage Contract Concerning Financial Support and Maintenance. Sunni Path.
http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=2937&CATE=205.

Al-Misri, Ahmad Ibn Naqib. “Reliance of the Traveller with English text and commentary by translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller.” 30 June 2010 http://www.nku.edu/~kenneyr/Islam/Reliance.html.

Ansari, Ustadha Zaynab. Sunni Path. http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=3&ID=7355&CATE=329.

California Budget Project. Making Ends Meet: How Much Does it Cost to Raise a Family in California? Government Report. Sacramento: California Budget Project, n.d.

al Ghazali, Abu Hamid. “The Etiquette of Marriage.” Revival of the Religious Sciences translated by Madelain Farah.
http://www.ghazali.org/works/marriage.htm

Govt., US. “2010 Poverty Guidelines.” 30 June 2010 https://www.cms.gov/MedicaidEligibility/Downloads/POV10Combo.pdf.

HAGERTY, BARBARA BRADLEY. “NPR.” 2008 May 2010. Some Muslims in U.S. Quietly Engage in Polygamy. 30 June 2010.

ibnBaz, `Abdul-`Aziz. Islam Online.
http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?cid=1248187495971&pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar%2FFatwaE%2FFatwaEAskTheScholar

Lubrano, Alfred. Philly.com. 20 May 2010. 2010 30 June.
“Measuring Poverty in the United States.” National Center for Children in Poverty. 30 June 2010
http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_825.html.

Translation of the Holy Qur’an.

Rouse, Carolyn Moxley. Engaged Surrender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Sahih Bukhari translated by M. Muhsin Khan
http://www.usc.edu/schools/college/crcc/engagement/resources/texts/muslim/hadith/bukhari/

West, Brian. “Deseret News.” 9 April 2008. Final Tally: 416 children removed. 30 June 2010
http://www.deseretnews.com/article/695268743/Final-tally-416-children-removed.html

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Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-Misri’s : Reliance of the Traveler translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller

(O: Support means the financial rights of a wife.)
M11.1 (A: The rulings of this section are not recommendations for how much to spend, but rather define the minimum permissible, which a stingy husband may not lawfully spend less than. Extra spending on one’s wife is charity.)

M11.2: Food
The husband is obliged to provide his wife’s sustenance day by day. If affluent, he must daily furnish her with one liter of the grain that is the staple food of the town in which they live. (O: By the grain that is the staple food of the town, the author means if people eat it. If not, then whatever they eat, even if it is hardened, dried white cheese. If the wife asks for something other than the staple food of the town, the husband does not have to provide it for her, and if he gives her something besides the staple, she need not accept it. The staple food is what is obligatory.) If he is not affluent, then he is obliged to provide 0.51 liters of grain a day for his wife; while if between affluence and nonaffluence, he must provide 0.77 liters per day.
He is also obliged to cover the expenses of grinding it into flour and baking it into bread (O: even when she is used to doing it herself, as there would otherwise be need for this expenditure), and to buy the foods that normally accompany bread to make it savory and agreeable, as much as is customary in the town of meat, oil, and so forth (O: such as dates, vinegar, and cheese. The obligatory measures differ with the seasons, it being necessary in each season to provide that which is proper to it. Fruits might predominate in one season, and thus be obligatory. As for the obligatory amount of meat, one sees how much is customarily consumed in town per week).
If husband and wife agree that he give her compensation in place of the above-mentioned (O: grain and other things she is entitled to, the compensation being in money or clothing), this is permissible.

M11.3: Articles for Personal Hygiene
The wife in entitled to what she needs of oil for her hair, shampoo (lit. “sidr”), and a comb (O: to keep her hair clean, of the kind and amount that is customary in town, in order to prevent harm to herself. If oil scented with rose or violet is the custom of the town, it must be provided, though not things which are merely cosmetic and not for cleanliness, such as eyeliner or henna, which need not be provided, though the husband may provide them if he wishes. It is also obligatory for him to provide deodorant (lit. “litharge”) or the like to stop underarm odor if water and soap will not suffice), and the price of water for her purificatory bath (ghusl) when the reason for it is sexual intercourse or the end of postnatal bleeding, though not if the reason is the end of her monthly period or something else (dis:m11.1).

M11.4: Cosmetics and Medicine
The husband is not obliged (N: but rather is recommended) to pay for his wife’s cosmetics, doctor’s fees, the purchase of medicine for her, and similar expenses (A: though he must pay for expenditures connected with childbirth).

M11.5: Clothing
A wife is entitled to the kind of clothing that is customary in town for dressing oneself (O: and not just anything termed clothing will suffice. What is obligatory is the amount necessary for the woman, which varies according to whether she is tall or short, thin or fat, and with the hot or cold climate of various towns. In the summertime, it is obligatory to provide her with a head covering, shift, underdrawers, shoes, and a shawl, because of her need to go out; and the same in the wintertime, plus a cloak quilted with cotton to protect her against the cold. If she needs tow cloaks because of the extreme cold, it is obligatory to provide them. If she needs fuel because of the severity of the winter, it is obligatory to buy the necessary wood and coal) and (O: he must also provide the amount customary in town of the) bedding, blankets, and pillows that are suitable for someone of his income. (O: She also deserves cooking implements, and utensils for eating and drinking).

M11.6
It is obligatory for the husband to give his wife the expenditures for her support at the first of each day, and to provide her clothing at the first of each season (O: meaning the beginning of winter and summer).

M11.7
If he gives her clothing for a season, and it wears out before the end of the season, he is not obliged to furnish new clothing, though if it lasts beyond the season, he is nevertheless obliged to provided new clothing for each new season. The wife is entitled to dispose of the clothing as she wishes, whether by selling it or other (O: means of disposal, such as giving it away, the reason being that it is her own property).

M11.8: Housing and Servants
The wife is entitled to housing of the same quality as that of similar women. (O: The standard of housing depends on the wife herself, while the standard for her clothing and support takes the state of the husband into consideration. The difference is because the expenditures for her support and clothing become her own property and are not merely for her use, while housing is solely for use (N: meaning that while she can take compensation in place of food or clothing and buy some other kind, she cannot rent a different house). In any case, she is obliged to stay in the lodgings (ibnBaz)her husband arranges for her.)
If she had servants in her father’s house, the husband is obliged to provide servants for her.
(Al-Misri)

The Ignorance that Begets Overconfidence and its Ramification on the Ummah


In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell

Early this morning I read Errol Morris’s New York Times Opinion Piece, The Anosogosic’s Dilemma,  an intriguing article which sheds light on a groundbreaking study that shows how sheer incompetence leads to overconfidence [1]. Morris highlights how sheer incompetence can lead to overconfidence, what many now call the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning, one of the study’s authors, writes, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.” The scientific explanation of this phenomena opens up so  many possibilities for explaining many of the struggles both my husband and I have face as intellectuals who are committed to educating and empowering both the Black American and Muslim communities.

Daniel Hawes explains that the Dunning-Kruger effect is, ” a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.”[2] The Widipedia article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, outlines their hypothesis on the way typical humans assess a skill as  follows:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill. [3]

In their Study, Dunning and Kruger cite numerous psychological studies which show how the incompetent are less able to gauge their own skill set than their more skilled peers. They write, for example, “high school students tend to see themselves as having more ability in leadership, getting along with others, and written expression than their peers….Mediocre students are less accurate than other students at evaluating their course performance….Unskilled readers are less able to assess their text comprehension than are more skilled readers.”[4] The reality is, most people see themselves as above average. And this is a cognitive bias, which has some negative ramifications on our self improvement and can lead to continual bickering and debates as we discount expert opinion.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains my observations of the the debates and struggles over legitimacy in the Muslim community. I found that the less informed a person was, the more he/she was absolutely sure of their opinions. I never knew there was a name for the inability of incompetent people to recognize their own incompetence, but it is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.

Socrates

Strangely, my quest for mastering Arabic illustrated the inverse effect of gaining knowledge only to learn how little I knew. After nearly five years of studying Arabic, I was in Egypt to shore up my skills. However,   I felt as if my progress was stalling. Whenever I spoke, I could hear the mistakes roll out of my mouth.  I constantly self corrected in mid-sentence and my conversations felt even more stilted. I thought I hit a wall, partly due to the quality of programs I had previously enrolled in. Even as I studied in  some of the most prestigious and rigorous programs, I became much more self conscious about my language than I was two years before. Back then, I spoke with much more confidence.  My dear friend and roommate at the time, who was earning an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language, reminded me that it was a good thing. My language was improving, as evidenced by the awareness of my mistakes. My other teachers reminded me that my growing self-consciousness in language was a good sign. I was aware of the grammar mistakes that I made even as I spoke them. Earlier, I was not able to distinguish the nuances of language, so this was a clear sign in my development. My self-consciousness contrasted with some newbie students who were so self-assured that they’d master the language in less than half the time only to become frustrated that they couldn’t hold a conversation after a year of study.

The more you know, the less you understand.

Lao-Tse

In addition to language, I found that my student of the history of Muslim societies opened up huge chasms of questions. When I got to graduate school I found it increasingly hard to write a definitive essay about anything.  It wasn’t just reading post-modern literature, and its refusal to acknowledge that there was truth in the world, that confused me. Well, Foucault and Derrida’s difficult language did befuddle me and plenty of incoherent texts  perplexed me. But even more than the boring theoretical texts, it was the inverse effect of specialization on my sense of mastery of any particular subject. I found each exploration to be like peeling an onion, layer after layer. One could never get to the bottom of it all.

I remember a Muslim artist who was cocky enough to tell me, “I can know just as someone with a doctorate by just watching documentaries.”  I jockingly agreed  acknowledging the increasingly narrowing specialization that made it difficult to make one’s study relevant. I was self-effacing about what I knew in order to diffuse the potential the battle of wills.  The reality was that the Dunning-Kruger effect had inflated his sense of his own ability to grasp the Humanities, let alone Social Sciences. The self-assured Muslim man made the assertion in an effort to put me and my knowledge in place. And I had learned from many negative encounters with lay people with strong opinions and little backing that it could turn ugly really quick if I weigh in with my expertise.  You can find the dismissal of scholars, and especially anyone who has been trained in Western institutions, in most public discussions. Some people will even accused scholarly people as “asserting privilege” as part of some ruling class and “silencing voices.” While that is sometimes the case, often this language is meant to dismiss a valid argument made by someone like myself who did not come from a privileged background and was a non-traditional student.  The Dunning-Kruger effect can explain many of the exasperating interactions I’ve had as a student, a teacher, public intellectual and mentor.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin

As a student of history, I found that many lay people would often assert they knew more about a particular subject than most experts. And of course, most people would assert that they knew more about a particular subject than I did, especially when it came to Islamic history, Middle East history and politics, and African history.  This was especially the case when it came to non-Muslims telling me about the history of Muslims. Often I sit and nod silently as I get mini-lectures from someone who watch too much history channel. Gaining a graduate degree has been an ultimate lesson in humility.

While in the social field I avoided heavy handed intellectual discussions, I made my splash in the blogosphere in defense of a friend who was getting slammed on Umar Lee’s Blog. I remember those early discussions where I would openly tell people they didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t see me until they read up. I’d give them a list of books read before they could discuss any further, knowing full well that they wouldn’t read them. It was harsh, but I wrote that stuff with sincerity. And it was some vindication for all the crap I had to go through dealing with people who would become resentful, talk me down, or become passive aggressive once they knew I was a Stanford grad student. Over time, my approach became less heavy handed. I had sharpened my writing chops enough in the blogosphere. But over time, I didn’t enjoy the fitnah or the intellectual smack down. But still the Dunning-Kruger effect pops up time and time again.

In a recent blog entry, A Basic Primer on Sunnah, Marc Manely posted a selection of Sherman Jackson’s book, Towards Empowering The Common Muslim,. Someone posted the following well meaning comment that illustrates my point:

May Allah bless you in your effort to help Muslims new and old in better understanding the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet {PBUH}. But I am feeling that to much emphasis is put into what the scholars say {which might be a little to hard to digest for new muslims} and not what the Quraan and The Prophet {PBUH} have to say on the necessity of not only following his {PBUH} sunnah but obeying The Prophet, which is initself is a requirement to attain Allahs pleasure, which would be pointed out if the whole the verse was quoted and not only part of it.
Secondly, a better understanding of following his sunnah or in this case his behaviour would be to explain the series of verses that this particular verse is in and also why it was revealed.

Within this quote is a basic assumption that an untrained layman can fully understand the Qur’an and Hadith without the aid of scholars. There is also an  assumption that scholars are not following a consistent methodology to unravel the meaning of a verse or hadith in an effort to understand what Allah intends in that revelation. Often Muslims in the West have a rugged individualist approach to Islam, without understanding the intertextual nature of the Quran and Sunnah. Last year, as I tried to organize a halaqah, a sister told me she felt that tafsir was not necessary because the Qur’an was straight forward. The sister did not understand tafsir as a legitimate Islamic science. For her, reading the Qur’an’s English translation was straight forward. But the thing is, the translation is not the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the reading in Arabic. But even with Arabic, can we go back to understand something written 1400 years ago and understand it without the aid of generations of scholars?  Without coming to terms withe the layers of meaning, in addition to bridges that help us arrive at the text, we will probably be lost.

Finally, I’d like to get into how lay people with too much confidence in what they think they know who involve themselves polemics. These are the same people who were offended by the “Pledge of Mutual Respect” which states:

Likewise, detailed discussions in matters of theology are the specific domain of trained specialists, and proceed on the basis of well-defined principles and methodologies, which are beyond the knowledge of the generality of Muslims. Our forebears in faith, with all the dedication, brilliance and sincerity clearly manifested in their works, have debated and discussed abstruse and complex issues of creed and practice, and have failed in most instances to convince their opponents of the veracity and accuracy of their positions. The average Muslim is only responsible for knowing the basics of creed as they relate to a simple belief in Allah, His Angels, Scriptures, the Prophets and Messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree.

Some claimed that this pledge was meant to silence average Muslims. Instead, it was to let the unskilled and ignorant know that they should not quibble about that which they don’t understand. And that includes myself, I can’t argue about Kalam, Islamic theology because my training is limited. The pledge goes on to do the following:

  • Urge Muslims in the West, especially our youth, to leave off unproductive and divisive discussions of involved theological issues that are the proper domain of trained specialists, and we especially discourage participation in those internet chat rooms, campus discussion groups, and other forums that only serve to create ill-will among many Muslims, while fostering a divisive, sectarian spirit;
  • Urge all teachers to instruct their students, especially those attending intensive programs, to respect the diverse nature of our communities and to refrain from aggressive challenges to local scholars, especially those known for their learning and piety;
  • Urge our brothers and sisters in faith to concentrate on enriching their lives by deepening their practice of Islam through properly learning the basics of the faith, adopting a consistent regimen of Qur’anic recitation, endeavoring to remember and invoke Allah in the morning and evening, learning the basics of jurisprudence, attempting to engage in voluntary fasting as much as possible, studying the Prophetic biography on a consistent basis, studying the etiquettes that guide our interactions with our fellow Muslims, and the performance of other beneficial religious acts, to the extent practical for their circumstances [5]

Ignorance is breeding overconfidence, and overconfidence is nothing short of arrogance.  And I have found that some of the most ignorant people are the most boisterous in causing problems both within and outside of the Muslim community. Before the accusations of intellectual elitism go flying, I want to emphasize the importance of public scholarship and empowering the common Muslim. “The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent. The key is education.”[6] My overall goal is to increase the Islamic literacy of average Muslims in order for us to be aware of our own shortcomings in knowledge. By doing so, we can rectify the situation. We can also increase humility. Once we have gained a greater competence in our Deen, we will see where our gaps lie. I think that through education, many lay Muslims will avoid disputations. We will also have better etiquette in doing so. Further, by educating ourselves,  and becoming aware of our own shortfalls in knowledge, we can work towards solving discord and respect the rights of our our brothers and sisters. Through education initiatives in the Muslim community, such as the Alim program, Madinah Institute, Zaytuna Institute, The Madinah Way, Maghrib Institute, etc, we are slowly reversing the disastrous consequences that the Dunning-Kruger effect has had on our community.

Notes:

1.Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)” New York Times. June 20, 2010.

2. Daniel Hawes, “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect” Psychology Today Published June 6, 2010 Retrieved June 21, 2010

3. “Dunning-Kruger Effect” Wikipedia. Last modified June 18, 2010 Retreived June 21, 2010

4.  Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated
Self-Assessments”Psychology, 2009, 1, 30-46

5. Pledge of Mutual Respect and Cooperation Between Sunni Muslim Scholars, Organizations, and Students of Sacred Knowledge

6. Daniel Keogh, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect.The Science Show May 8, 2010

See also:

Katherine A. Burson, Richard P. Larrick, and Joshua Klayman”Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006, Vol. 90, No. 1, 60–77

1001 Inventions Our Heritage and Our Future

Hat tip to Noura who gave me a heads up on 10001 Inventions when we were discussing the camp curriculum. I really wish we had an exhibit like this in the states. I think it would go over well in Philadelphia, with such a large Muslim population. In addition, it could do well in helping bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims and dispel myths and stereotypes.

Ben Kingsley, the default Muslim in so many films, starred in the award winning short film “1001 inventions and the Library of Secrets. I like him better as Ibn Jazay over Nizam any old day.

While Persian, Arab, South Asian, and many Muslim actors were excluded from this Hollywood film, Muslims have done a lot in history besides protest Danish cartoons.

It is nice to feel part of that rich intellectual heritage dating back 1400 years. Although people believe that Muslim societies are basically stagnant and that most Muslims are anti-science, the reality is that there are many Muslims involved in scientific development. Many of the American Muslim are highly trained professionals with degrees in medicine or engineering. There are brilliant Muslims working in the sciences, from genetics to sub-atomic physics. We even have some Nobel Laureates, such as Ahmed Zewail, who won a prize in chemistry and Muslims involved in developing travel in space such as Kerim Kerimov and Fouk al Baz.

I believe our children’s understanding Muslim cultural and intellectual heritage, as well as our continual contributions to today’s society, will have the similar effect on their self esteem as when I learned about Black American inventors in Junior High. When I was in elementary school, I used to feel that the only thing that Black people contributed to American society was menial work and slavery. I remember the day one of my teachers brought up Black History and pointed me out in class, “Margari do you have any ancestors who were slaves?” I felt that sinking feeling, a sense of shame. That year the little white boys began to tease me calling me “slave!” The question constantly ran through my head, “If I came from nothing, how am I going to be something?” Then I learned about George Washington Carver, Granville T. Woods, Elijah McCoy, and Charles Drew.

It opened up so many possibilities. Some time in High School I decided my ultimate education goal was to earn a PhD. I just never thought I’d be in the humanities.

While many immigrant Muslims encourage their children to go into the hard sciences, American Muslims often decide to study sacred knowledge or worse become rappers or performers. In fact, we’re encouraged to either go on the lecture or tour circuit by our brothers and sisters who have family obligations and expectations to keep them on that more stable career track. The other problem is that many Black Americans are anti-intellectual and believe that their children will be corrupted at “kafir” institutions. This is why we have to begin rethinking what does it mean to live authentic lives as Muslims. You will find that many of the greatest Muslim thinkers mastered several disciplines, worked for their governments or public institutions (even if they acknowledged that there were problems), and had their own independent means. Muslims were innovative and creative in the arts and sciences. My hope is that we inspire some of our young Black American Muslims to become doctors and engineers. Many of my students are thinking about careers in medicine, but most of my Black American girls only want to go as far as nursing. Why not researchers? Why no chemists? Why not doctors? It has a lot to do with our imagination about the possibilities for the future. My goal as a teacher is for my students to discover their strengths and explore the possibilities. It is hard work, but definitely worth it.

Planting Seeds


Seedlings June 18, 2010, planted June 15, 2010

This morning I noticed my herb garden is beginning to germinate. I was so delighted by the discovery. Transplanting plants provides immediate gratification, but planting seeds is much more rewarding. My little concrete garden is growing well and developing. Each day I pray I don’t kill my potted plants and houseplants, hoping I won’t drown them or let them dry out. Each morning I wake up pleasantly surprised that my flowers continue to bloom and my plants are taking root. As I care for the seedlings, I have much more time to reflect on the process of growth and development. Its hard to imagine my husband at 6’5″ starting out as a single fertilized cell. But each one of us came from such humble origins and those seeds are reminders. It’s really a miracle how I got here, that I’m still standing here. I am grateful for the little signs of Allah’s creations.

As I plan the curriculum for summer camp, we’re thinking about a science class featuring gardening, nature walks, and visits to the museums. Children often enjoy watching their classroom gardens grow. Children as seeds is an obvious metaphor. Everything we do in life requires cultivation and care. Finding our strength requires patience and diligence. I have my seeds and transplants for the fall. I look forward to the fall harvest and what I’ll learn about life between now and then.

Can We Rally for the Girl who Got Punched in the Face?

Activists are outraged by a Seattle Police officer punching a 17 year old girl in the face. If you haven’t seen the this, here it is:

Yes, it is was a brutal punch. You could see her neck snap back from the impact. I’m totally against men hitting women. But was there some basis for his actions? The video clip doesn’t tell the whole story. It is much more complicated. Please watch the full video and keep in mind what is our legal obligation as citizens when facing the force of the state, the police.

I’m going to lose some friends now. But let me preface this with my own perspective on police brutality. It’s a sensitive subject in my family because my uncle was shot and killed by police. My brother would get pulled over and hauled off to jail for nothing less than playing music loud in his car or having tinted windows. He’s been roughed up a few times also. My husband has been held at gunpoint, because he’s fit the description. Most black people have the %$#@ the police attitude. While this attitude may come from some negative interactions, it also comes from some dubious behavior. How many brothas and sistas have a bag a weed on them (if not worse), drive without insurance, or have some equipment of some questionable legal status in their ride or house? While there are many law abiding Black folks, if you’re doing something illegal you’re going to not be good friends with the police. Unfortunately, many Black people are treated as suspects due to racial profiling. So the over-all combination of mutual suspicion and animosity is bad.

I’m 100% against racial profiling. I think that police should be held accountable for their actions, especially in cases like Oscar Grant. But I don’t have the $&#@ the police attitude. I’ve been home during a home invasion and the suspect attacked the police officer who came in response. My mom’s friend came to the officer’s aid when the suspect attacked the police officer. The cop pressed the panic button and it ultimately took 5 cops to subdue the suspect. Turns out the suspect was high on PCP or something like that. I’ve known someone who attempted to harm themselves with a razor blade, and the cops pulled out their guns and subdued the person, pressing their face into the searing hot concrete. This person was out of their mind, and there was no way the police were going to endanger themselves for someone in a psychotic spell. I’ve seen people arrested numerous times, but I’ve never seen anybody try to get away from the police or insult the police. That’s called resisting arrest. I’ve never seen anybody put their hands on the police to help a friend get away. That’s called assaulting a police officer.

Who tries to get away from a cop who’s going to give you a jay walking ticket? Why would your friend not take something like this seriously, but instead try to rush the police officer? Is this a street fight?
Should this incident be investigated? Yes. But should we rally around this incident to fight police brutality? Al Sharpton may jump on it. But we will do Black people a big disservice if we start marching for ignorant teenagers who don’t know that if you fight a police officer, you may get punched in the face or something much worse.

I was going to write a long article, but David Spates says it all (with some funny twists on expletives) in his Vlog.