No one is free from sin. I repeat: no one is free from sin. But from an Islamic perspective, we’re instructed to hide our sins as best we can. We’re encouraged to repent and be thankful that Allah swt has covered up our sins for us. I understand the wisdom behind this. It prevents sinful behaviours from being normalised and it also protects us from the scorn and malice of others. But what happens when the things we hope to bury in a deep dark ditch somehow come crawling out? In a small community, it’s almost inevitable that someone will know something about someone, and that someone will tell someone, and before we know it, it’s Muslim whispers galore. The story gets distorted, and someone’s reputation gets ruined. This is often due to cultural standards rather than religious ones; the most deeply religious people I know are the least likely to condemn others. But just as no one is free from sin, no one is immune from a good gossip either.
A story featured on the Daily Mail (don’t judge me, it’s shoddy but enjoyably so) got me thinking about this very issue. A 16 year old Muslim girl in the UK had become intimate with a guy, and this same guy then tried to blackmail her using footage he’d taken of the two of them. Nasty, right? The judge in the case commented that ‘it’s of some significance you both come from a background where the shame of teenage sex would have more impact than perhaps it might in other circles.’ I didn’t doubt that. As embarrassed as your average 16 year old girl would be about being filmed doing something like that, the guy in question deliberately played on the ‘shame’ aspect any Muslim family would feel if their child was engaging in this behaviour. The blackmailer in fact stated that if she didn’t give him money, he’d post the video on Facebook ‘so her family would see what kind of daughter they had’.
As dramatic and uncommon as this scenario is, it’s indicative of the strong social taboos in place when it comes to sinning. As awful as we might feel about our sins, as long as they remain hidden we have the chance to atone in private. But when the Muslim community gets a hold of it, it’s judged in the public court of opinion, and they are never as forgiving as Allah swt is. In the eyes of many, a person is irreparably tainted because of a moment of wrongdoing. It isn’t even strictly Islamic wrongs people will hold others accountable for. As I mentioned previously, if you’re a girl and you’re known to have pursued a guy, many people will have a negative perception of you. If you’ve been in some sort of relationship and it didn’t work out, people may be hesitant about considering you for marriage purposes.
Those judged most harshly will often fall into one of two categories:
1.) The person with a ‘past’
In this case, the person has in fact ‘outed’ themselves by making their sins public because they went through a period in which they weren’t too fussed about sinning altogether. We all know these types of Muslims. They’re the ones posting photos of themselves out clubbing and partying and hanging out with people of the opposite sex. Some of these people will continue along this path and will be perfectly happy for everyone to know about it. But for others, this is nothing more than a brief period of youthful experimentation.
For the latter, things become rather awkward when they do decide to remove themselves from that scene. We know that Allah swt forgives sins, but many in the community aren’t nearly as forgiving.This is especially true when it comes to marriage. They might be happy to befriend this ‘reformed’ person, but they’d think twice about suggesting the ‘reformed’ person marry their sister. It’s understandable, if sad. It’s not always easy to reconcile the ‘new’ persona with the image they once projected of themselves.
Besides, what to do with all the ‘evidence’? Some people I’ve seen untag themselves from all their old photos or even create new social media accounts to make a completely clean break of it. Others forge on, the photos of their previous exploits sitting side-by-side with their new ones at Islamic events. If the ‘evidence’ is still there, it can be confronting for people who might have otherwise considered them for marriage.
2.) The ‘good Muslim’ with a secret
People love knocking others off their pedestals. If you make it known that you’re an observant Muslim, such as by constantly posting Islamic content on your Facebook, people will be unhappily surprised if they find out you did something rather un-Islamic. They’ll assume you were being a hypocrite, that the entire fabric of your religiosity is full of holes. I admit I’ve indulged in this type of behaviour. (Who hasn’t?) I’ve found out things about people, and for a moment or three, I thought ‘wow, so much for all the mashaAllahs and Islamic lectures they constantly post.’
This is perfectly ridiculous, of course. It’s not like the person claimed to be infallible, and if they did, you’d know they were off their rocker. But it’s just how we’re socially geared. This isn’t even specific to Muslims. Why do people get so outraged when a politician is exposed for having an affair? Many of them appeal to our family values, and therefore when they diverge from these same values, we bay for their blood.
I feel very conscious for this reason about posting Islamic things on social media. I worry people will think I’m trying to promote myself as being one type of person when I’m really another. But I decided I didn’t care. The thing we overlook when we condemn someone for a single act is that people are complex beings. I’ve met girls in mini-skirts who approached me to ask where the prayer room is. Drug dealers and criminals still attend Friday prayers. We’re all works in progress, as long as we’re actually aspiring to progress.
Sin is sin, let’s make no bones about it. That’s why we hide them wherever possible and feel deeply ashamed when we commit them. It’s also why we shouldn’t get all shirty when people tell us we’re doing wrong when we are. It’s how we grow and improve. But that person with a ‘past’ can change. The ‘good Muslim’ can still be a good Muslim despite a few tears in the fabric. Perfection is for the next life; the best we can do in this one is to get up every time we fall, and maybe even help the person next to us get up too.
Do you worry about people’s perceptions of you? Do you ever feel people misunderstand or judge you based on something you’ve done?