References to Person X having a past are frequently thrown around, a bogeyman no one is quite willing to define. The term itself means nothing; by definition, everyone has a past. The real sting is contained in what it alludes to, in the whispers and the rumours and the idle speculation. This alleged past may consist of anything from drinking alcohol to clubbing to premarital sex, the common theme being a perceived inability to keep those urges in check.
There are many different facets of this discussion. A commonly used example is that of the partier turned mosque-goer who has seen the light and turned a new leaf and all those other feel-good euphemisms. This person, often a male but sometimes a female too, may try to erase the evidence of their previous lifestyle, but the social media traces are difficult to obliterate. Photos may linger of a uni costume party, a hug between a male and female who are obviously not brother and sister, and any half-decent Facebook stalker will be able to unearth it and share their findings with prospective partners, their families and friends.
How should a prospective partner view these activities? Are they to be dismissed as mere youthful explorations, or can they be held against the person as evidence of an unsavoury character? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. Each person’s story is unique and should be viewed as such, but it does raise the question of where a prospective partner draws their line in the sand. For some, a deal-breaker may be premarital sex, but this assumes that it’s possible to know who has and who hasn’t done the deed. The expectation that a person volunteer this information is unrealistic; for many, it may be preferable to suspect but never pursue the matter further. This may be particularly applicable when both parties are well into their twenties and thirties, an age at which it may not be unreasonable to presume the person has had multiple relationships, some of which may or may not have involved a level of physical intimacy. If a person volunteers the information that they were not a practising Muslim for most of their life, the logical assumption is that they would have engaged in behaviours contrary to the accepted norm.
A more uncomfortable example is that of the person who identifies and is identified as a practising Muslim, but who may have done (or be doing) things they are not proud of. The notion that the person in the MSA prayer room could be the very same person at a club or a brothel is too strange and disgusting for most people to contemplate. It disgusts us because it speaks to the essence of who we are: both base and luminous, spiritually elevated and sordid, all of these forces dwelling coexisting within the one body. It disgusts us because we have all done or have wanted to do or will do things we would never admit to anyone, things lying dormant in the dark recesses of our mind until awakened. If our feet have not physically walked us to unsavoury places, there are many, many things we may have engaged in from the comfort of our bedrooms, like watching things we shouldn’t or saying things we would never say in person. Where do these online activities sit in conversations about a past? Are they of any relevance to a prospective partner, or are they considered to be less reprehensible simply because they were confined to a computer screen?
It is perfectly understandable that people would prefer to marry someone who has not engaged in certain behaviours, particularly if they have been successful in avoiding these behaviours to date. It is for each person to delineate the precise boundaries of what they will and won’t accept in another person, and how willing they are to forgive past transgressions if conceded. However, it is also equally true that women are often held to higher standards of moral conduct than men, her ‘virtue’ fragile and prized, her reputation far easier to sully. This is partly due to a skewed discourse where men’s ‘urges’ are viewed as so strong that any lapse in judgment on their part is entirely plausible, even excusable. These men may still be considered to be fine marriageable material, whereas a woman who engages in similar behaviours may be considered to be irretrievably marked. Ultimately, whether male or female, the simple truth is that we cannot know everything about the person we marry, nor should we aspire to. It is easy to condemn, but the complexities of human character do not lend themselves as easily to broad strokes of sinner and saint. We are all broken in ways we cannot comprehend, let alone explain to others; we can only strive to make beauty out of the broken.