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Taboo vs Sin

Hafidha Sofia mentions having been frequently asked about the consequences of accidentally violating Muslim laws -- e.g. eating food that you didn't know contained pork. She says that Islam is quite clear that you aren't held responsible for violations of the law that result from ignorance or necessity.

On the one hand, the question about accidentally eating pork isn't so off the wall -- it's just getting at the difference between sin and taboo. With taboos, the connection is causal, so all that matters is whether you do something -- just like the way you'd still be dead if you ate some cyanide by accident. (I recently read an interesting article about how indigenous people in the Andes will sometimes see misfortunes as punishments for having stepped in a holy place that nobody knew existed.) Sin, on the other hand, is a justice system, so the punishment is withheld if you have a good excuse, like ignorance or necessity.

But one has to wonder why the sin/taboo distinction was such an important issue to so many non-Muslims. Part of it may simply be that it's just that our culture has set these questions up as a standard "imponderable," which people fall back on in trying to make conversation (much like the supposedly deep and problematic question of whether vegetarians can engage in fellatio).

It may also be due to the connection between taboo and primitiveness*. To the Western mind, Islam's developmental status is ambiguous. On the one hand it has various intellectual trappings like a holy book, and it claims to be the next step in the Judeo-Christian tradition. On the other hand, it's stereotypically associated with cruel barbarian hordes from the East (including terrorists). Some people will seek confirmation of Islam's primitiveness (as evidenced by its use of taboos) so that they will be able to dismiss it as an intellectual threat and so that they can look down on its followers. Other people (and I suspect this motivation is more common) seek confirmation of its non-primitiveness (as evidenced by its use of a sin framework) so that they feel less threatened by their Muslim neighbors.

* Obviously I'm speaking here just of how our culture perceives things. Modern Western culture has its share of taboos -- just think of the pervasive anxiety among men that certain acts may "make me gay."


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