“Leisurely Islam: Youth Negotiations of Morality in Shi'ite South Beirut”
April 12, 2012
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Professor Deeb discussed portions from a forthcoming collaborative book project with Mona Harb entitled Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut. Her remarks focused on the way in which “youth” negotiate moral norms in regards to “leisure,” specifically listening to music and contending with the drinking of alcohol in cafes, and sexual activity. With the growth of the Shi’a consumer class, the number of cafes and restaurants has grown. The “vanguard” generation that fought and established stricter notions of Islamic piety during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s believes that listening to music that is conducive to dancing is religiously forbidden or haram. However, in recent years a number of Shi’a institutions has arisen, representing various notions of what is religiously acceptable among the pious. One Shi’ite cleric, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, issued a fatwa that said that the content of the lyrics of popular music and the effect it evokes in the listener should determine whether listening to a particular song is permissible. Many pious youth agree with Fadlallah’s fatwa. However, Deeb and her colleague found that some youth were confident in their ability to exercise self-control no matter the content of the songs’ lyrics. Yet, half of these same youth refused to drink or be at a place that serves alcohol, but the other half were okay with being at a place that serves alcohol as long as they did not drink. This contrasts with the vanguard generation that overwhelmingly refuses to purchase anything from a place that sells alcohol.
Deeb argued that the variance among some youths has to do with the conflict in rubrics—social, religious, and political-sectarian. She found that, unlike the vanguard generation, the youth often time expressed more concern over the social rubric than religious rubric. According to the social rubric, not offending one’s company or the host is an important social rule; and sharing food and drink is a common socio-cultural practice. Deeb also found, in an area where job discrimination is a growing concern, many youth were afraid of suffering economically from a refusal to be in the company of those drinking alcohol. Deeb argued that the multiplicity of Shi’a institutions and number of varying fatwas regarding alcohol and music has allowed for youth select the fatwa that best fits their lifestyle.
ISS research assistants reflect on Prof. Deeb’s presentation:
Dr. Deeb's reflections on research design particularly impressed me. At the beginning of her talk, she proffered that "morality" is sometimes-related but not synonymous with piety. Nuancing this handle allowed her and her colleagues to probe deeper into the ethics of Southern Beirut's Shi'ite youth culture and the various spheres of influence at work. As the ISS attempts to register the presence and engagement of scriptures in different communities, we will need to continue to think critically about how our handles and vocabulary shape our understanding of the larger phenomenon.
The two issues discussed as examples by Dr. Deeb provide useful point/counterpoint for how people negotiate cultural norms in terms of sins of active participation versus sins of association. It seems likely that the majority opinion - in Lebanon or anywhere - is that a person sitting in a café cannot help hear the music playing, which is inherently a problem for the Lebanese youth Dr. Deeb discussed. On the other hand, people in Dr. Deeb's study said that they would not want to be present when alcohol is being consumed, for fear of social repercussions, even though bans on alcohol are almost universally against consuming it, not merely existing near it. So the way that the two situations impute sin seems to differ. Further, of the "big three" sins that Dr. Deeb named –alcohol, adultery, and murder—alcohol is the only sin with a social element. One way to continue the discussion is to examine the different ways that people negotiate the various "levels" of sin with respect to the social nature of the act(s). Dr. Deeb mentioned that two young men she talked with spoke in terms of embarrassment, but did they choose that language because it was specifically appropriate to the subject of two social sins, alcohol and public music? And if norms regarding sins of different levels are negotiated with similar strategies, does that have any effect on their relative standings? That is, people might assume that alcohol use would become more tolerated as more people are seen drinking. But might a Lebanese individual also be more apt to re-evaluate where alcohol consumption stands on her personal scale of "big" versus "little" sins because she considers it using the same terms she uses when thinking about the smaller sin of music?
Professor Deeb offers a stirring analysis of how Islamic youth navigate the moral and social norms of society in South Beirut. By choosing to analyze the decisions and implications of said decisions with sociological tools, she offers a view that purely theoretical and especially “text-based” analysis cannot offer. Dr. Deeb and her colleagues interviewed a number of Shi’ite youth about how they made decisions with respect to the moral norms subscribed by their religion and these interviews revealed that while most youth obliged to these norms, they often reacted differently according to their social situation as well as their moral obligations. In hindsight, we know that different people have different values and these values are a combination of factors, as well as the observance, negotiation, and straying from these values. Overall, the dialectical nature of contending with issues and decisions that are in dialogue with said values seems to be part of what it means to be human.
Professor Lara Deeb’s presentation was both imaginative and touching. Her handle of the lecture brings up a rarely talked about aspect in Islamic discourse. Juxtaposing the tensions between Muslim piety and leisure, she rings home a truly human situation among a people who sincerely seek meaning for their life and lived-faith. What is significant for me throughout the lecture was the fact that she opens up the discussion “outside” of the faith community which privileges the religious heads as the arbiters of moral, spiritual and secular affairs. Thus significant also for me is the fact that pious people in religions believe in the gradations of sin, which then creates layers or rubrics of morality and piety.
She argues that alcohol is prohibited in Islam, and in the region where her project was located. But their research showed that alcohol was also allowed in select public spaces. I find this problematic and interesting: Problematic because it is even allowed nearby, and interesting because that is an easy negotiation. And on the whole, despite the fact that youth are often considered to be energetic and freedom-desirers, it is quite fascinating that the religious youth are as “religious” as the older generation, which one would consider in the west as being “traditional.” I then wonder what makes any significant difference among the young, compared to the old, when yardsticks of acceptance and piety are measured with the same tools of morality!