How do belief systems become established as “legitimate”?
In Our Eyes
On the Creation of Legitimacy in Religion
I remember a classmate asking once, “Is all that separates religion and cults time?” Our teacher couldn’t quite answer, but he agreed that that might be all there is differentiating the two. We were in middle school, or maybe just beginning high school, but I still remember that moment because the logic of my classmate’s question was simple and impressive to me. There was such a finite quality to the question and to the answer—it was the perfect gotcha if you were seeing a religious, overbearing relative at a holiday, or at least you could think it to yourself privately when forced to go to Mass: Don’t these people know they’re participating in nothing more than an old cult? And cult to me, at the time, was associated with New-Age fanatics who holed themselves up, abused each other, followed an obviously incompetent, very human, very twisted, leader, and eventually killed themselves or others. That, or, hippies, another delegitimized group of people, following a sketchy and somehow obviously naive spiritual path, like the hipsters of today. So, if you disregarded the seemingly neutral factor of time, then it’s clear that the “legitimate,” older, religions would be contaminated by the illegitimate status that cults retain, almost like realizing an authoritative father figure had an embarrassing teen past that undermines all his directives.
Whenever I made this argument as a child, with any adult, this defense could be expected: Tradition. That was it, though, and not very convincing to me. In fact, the very problem, the very blindness, lay in the reason why tradition meant anything at all—just because it was old! Rituals based on a faith that we know does not answer the questions it once did for us–us being the clear eyed youth who reject religion. Empty foundations for a heavy structure, made heavier by time.
Even as I became more sympathetic to religion (all it took was phasing out of a combative, know-it-all prepubescence), I never really investigated this thought again. Like the adults I once questioned, I knew intrinsically that to put religions and new religious movements, or cults, on the same ground wasn’t quite fair, wasn’t quite accurate. There was something legitimate about these religions that new religious movements did not quite share. It wasn’t until I read Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety and Candis Callison’s How Climate Change Comes to Matter that this old line of logic was remembered and dismembered.
Candis Callison, in her book How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, argues that the fact of the climate change phenomena is an “form of life.”1 This is to say, climate change as a phenomena is now becoming translated and interpreted through many different lenses of identity. As different groups take up the challenge of understanding climate change on their own terms, or rather, within their culture’s epistemic traditions, they animate the facts of climate change beyond the realm of the physical and into the metaphysical.
Encountering this line of thought, I immediately became enthralled. Of course facts are not static, and to claim that they are animate comes as close as possible to defining their transformative abilities, even their fertility. After all, the idea, the fact, the phenomena, are all translations of the real into thought, and crossing that boundary from the external world into human thought means retaining the characteristics of the physical and non-physical. In a very simple way, once we see knowledge as animated, or “alive” we are more easily prone to understanding its transformations as its ontological journey which perhaps also follows a loose developmental pattern, specific to its non-living animate form. For instance, the development of a knowledge body isn’t caged by a lifespan, yet is so intimately tied to the mortality of individuals, cultures, and eventually species.
But what are the mechanics of development? As with any human, there is software and there are inputs; there is nature and there is nurture that governs our minds and bodies. Similarly, a body of knowledge depends upon debate and critique, which is fueled by external inputs (events and experiences) that catalyze questions. As Callison says, “one must choose what to study and how to study, keeping in mind that worlds are made and unmade by what is considered significant.”[2.Candis Callison, How Climate Change Comes to Matter, 35. Emphasis original.] It is this two-pronged process of developing knowledge that develops worlds, and vice versa, that Mahmood describes in her book Politics of Piety, as she investigates how female students and teachers of Islam create and decimate knowledge together. Mahmood’s scholarship revealed to me the give and take of tradition and questioning that builds knowledge systems over time.
As we know, Muslim women are often characterized in Western media as blind to their conditions of oppression, just as many strongly opinionated atheists deem any religious person to be performing under a state of false consciousness, especially, of course, when it comes to religious women. These statements both make the assumption that religion lacks logic and curated, useful, knowledge. This is not the case. It is my argument that what provides the patina of legitimacy to older religions is the very reality that over long periods of time, a developed system of thought comes into being and is constantly being negotiated in modernity. Take, for example, a case Mahmood reflects upon.
The dā’iya Hajja Samira, a female religious teacher in Egypt, and her students (also all female) consider the problem of correctly performing modesty when in the presence of their male tutors. First, Hajja Samira outlines a prerequisite to female interaction with non-kin men—which is that the interaction must be necessary; elective interaction should not occur. She claims education is necessary, so now the problem is understanding how a female student should navigate her comportment when it comes to male teachers. Citing Qur’anic verse, she explains that they must all wear their hijab and wear clothing that does not reveal the shape of their bodies, not speak to their male teachers unless it is related to their education, and to always lower their eyes when speaking with them. Finally, she counsels that their mothers try to arrange female teachers or tutors so this question of chaste behavior doesn’t have to come up to begin with.2 Many of the students protested, saying it would be too difficult and awkward to learn if they had to behave in this manner. One student, Maryam, asks
But if I know the [male] teacher well and he is well respected, and I know myself that I am responsible and pious [mas’ūla wa mittaquiyya], and my intentions is pure [niyyiti naqya], then what is the problem with taking lessons with a male tutor?3
Hajja Samira begins her response by asking a rhetorical question (and I’m paraphrasing): Who were the most virtuous and pure people on the Earth? The Prophet and all those he surrounded himself with, of course. So if even the Prophet’s wives had to interact with non-kin men separated by a screen, then it is not a matter of intention but of a standard of propriety.4
To this Maryam responds “‘But those verses were meant for the Prophet’s wives, and they were not like other ordinary Muslims. There is another hadīth that says there are special issues, which only pertain to Muhammad’s immediate female kin, that are different from those for the remainder of [Muslim] women [ya’ni awāmir khassa bī-hum mukhtalifa ‘an bā’i an-nisā]’ She concluded emphatically, ‘These verses are not meant for us!’”5
It is worth describing Mahmood’s account of Maryam’s exchange with Haajja Samira at length because it shows how, over time, Islam has been able to form a wide body of knowledge that has been refined through centuries of debate. The ability to refer back to this knowledge for a diverse range of questions and concerns is, perhaps, the most defining quality of a religion’s legitimacy, for this archive provides two essential services. First, one could say the application of religion is to help us organize and understand our lives. Second, the creation of this archive of knowledge drives the formation of a world in which that knowledge is relevant and widely understood—in this way, a social contract can emerge, in which a community can agree, more or less, the knowledge to which they will collectively refer. Obviously, there are many interpretations of Islam, and the existence of a body of Islamic debate does not necessarily lead to complete harmony; as with most major religions there are many different sects in existence and disagreement. Yet, the point remains, time is key to generating the knowledge and world building that people can live within and work through.
Some may argue that the legitimacy of a religious body of knowledge cannot be argued because it is not based on objective principle, such a knowledge produced by modern scientific methods, but rather is grounded in something emotional and unprovable. To this I would respond that the questions people ask of religion are those which cannot be answered by simple fact, these are emotional, and social questions, all of which are based on one essential query, How do I live my life properly? Religious debate, grounded in divine texts, assures us that we are responding to the best possible information. Additionally, experience allows the practitioner see how those within the canon have responded to a multitude of problems. So it is precisely the longevity of a religion also provides a record of debates from which a people can scaffold their arguments and interpretations. But at a certain point, yes, those with strong atheist beliefs may think that this essential question must be discarded, or there must be attempts to answer it within a secular setting.
To be clear, when I refer to the abilities of ancient religions to build a discursive history, I am not only referring to Abrahamic religions. Where these constantly negotiated archives differ is in their form of preservation (oral versus written histories, for example) or where a religion bases its ideas of divinity. Where Christianity attributes divinity to certain actors within the Biblical narrative, nature religions often see knowledge of the many non-human and even non-animate (such as water or mountains, for those who commonly do not see elements as animate) actors as sources of divine knowledge. At the end of the day, I might generalize that no matter how the sources of divine knowledge differ, they all contribute to the believers understanding of the comportment necessary for survival and success.
To further examine the ways in which time is perceived as a non-neutral factor in the establishment of legitimacy, let’s consider the phenomena of appropriating another’s past in search of your own. Hammer and Rothstein, the authors of The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, note that “religions throughout history have incorporated and reused religious and cultural elements, and have recombined and reinterpreted myths, doctrines, and rituals that were already available.”6 When it comes to NRMs (new religious movements) especially, the urge to present “…themselves as the culmination of all previous history,” allows them to claim that, “the spiritual insights found in existing scriptures and the revelations imparted to the prophets of bygone times are merely precursors to the absolute values available through new religion.7 For without a past, how could they claim legitimacy to their followers? Yet, claiming to be a part of a certain past is not the same as developing values over time, specifically because their is a crucial and temporally dependent factor missing: world building.
The communities and social spaces created over time are not so easily commandeered, which perhaps explains why cults and NRMs are often looked down upon in some way. We might consider the practice of spoilation, a practice where the repurposing of old stones in new construction, allows one to adopt history without representing its “genuine” continuation, to further emphasize how the use of the past looks different (and in considered differently) in the present and the future. As Gunter Bandmann explains in a book on semiotics in early medieval architecture,
A conqueror of a newly subjugated state who wanted to continue his deposed predecessor’s rule and to erect palaces or churches outside its former borders where no traditional holy places were yet established that could transfer their sacred power to the new edifice . . . [by transporting…] parts of the old buildings into the new one as architectural relics, so to speak.8
Banmann speaks of spoliation as a case of the new attempting to create legitimacy through signs of affiliation with the past. We might wonder, when the citizens saw this appropriation, were the skeptical? Would you be? But let us also consider the passage of time, once your grandchildren are born, would they see something ancient and forget how recently that history came to pass? The NRM of today, if it survives, could become, in the eyes of other, just as legitimate as many other religions in fifty years, maybe less or more. This is particularly true if a practitioner looks back on the past of the NRM in question, and sees a long history, where in the present we see the crude stitches that brought past and present together.
Obviously though, I am basing my claims on assumptions drawn from my position and experiences with tangential references to NRMs; many NRMs enjoy participation, and modern sects of new religions do, as well. And when I reference crude stitches, I don’t mean to assume that ancient religions have a seamless past—in fact, I know they don’t, for histories are always the products of messy human collaborations, mistakes of environment and moment. Yet, how difficult is this to see, three hundred or three thousand years into the making?
For the purposes of this essay, I have been concentrating on a narrow frame to flesh out the way in which religious knowledge comes to be developed, but there are many sites of potential study that could provide further insight on how time and legitimacy interact in other spiritualities and religions. For example, one might consider how gurus, predominantly in India, obtain legitimacy in the eyes of others, seeing as how the spirituality surrounding them is based strongly on the individual’s claim to reincarnation. This mix of the new human with old knowledge may be very interesting to consider, if it hasn’t been already. Additionally, we might ask, when it comes to the legitimacy of knowledge and community (and community knowledge) how do we consider those who have been violently severed from their pasts and are now trying to recover it without fully archived and living knowledge? We would consider, for example, Native American individuals and tribes who are doing the hard work of trying to piece together ancient traditions and languages with the fragmented parts of them which remain. We might also consider how formerly enslaved and colonized populations consider the legitimacy and their own identity within the religions they practice, knowing their oppressors had forced the faith on their ancestors, yet feeling they belong to it. And what of the people who feel they have no past, no knowledge to draw from, the community to enact knowledge within—is this just the modern condition? Is it really possible to build the knowledge and community one craves in one lifetime, without joining in something that already has a past? As we consider these questions and the potential methods in which we can study them, the entanglement of identity, time, and religion begin to reveal the different ways in which we come to form our assumptions and perceive different, yet logical, realities.
- Candis Callison, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 1.
- Mahmoud, Politics of Piety, 101.
- Quoted in Mahmoud, Politics of Piety, p. 102
- Samira quoted in Mahmood, 103
- Quoted in Mahmoud, 102. Bracketed insertions Mahmoud’s.
- Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 6
- Hammer and Rothstein, The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, 6.
- Gunter Bandmann, Early Medieval Architecture as Bearer of Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005),146-147.