Archive for February, 2013

Musings on Muslim identity (II)

Some time ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating discussion on Stephanie’s now-defunct blog, about Muslim identity among Muslim converts—who were mostly either fairly liberal, or had deconverted. It’s in the comments of one post, as well as in another entire post on this topic (plus the comments).

One comment from Signy outlines a view that I have often encountered on Muslim identity as it pertains to converts in particular:

“It is interesting to think about what labels we apply to us, and what meanings they hold and what a community or society at large says we are or aren’t, and what meaning that holds. There are people who call themselves “Muslim” who would not be considered thus by the mainstream sunni or shia or even some progressives. Are they still Muslims? Is a Muslim one who says he or she is? And my question always has been, if one rejects some of the core tenets of the faith, then why bother with the label unless it is for nostalgia or heritage? I think a lot of us – not all of us – go through a “still Muslim, but not like that…” phase. And then we get past it.”

Yes, what’s the point of identifying as a Muslim if most “mainstream” Muslims don’t think that you are one?

For converts, this opens up a lot of difficult questions, because in my experience at least, even believing and doing the right things to the best of one’s ability doesn’t necessarily mean that born Muslims will really accept you as one of them. Quite the contrary.

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Musings on Muslim identity (I)

As God says, “Fa-aina tadhhabun?” (Where are you going?)

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In the beginning, it seemed quite simple: belief that God is one (as opposed to belief in a trinity), belief in the prophets with Muhammad as the last, reading quranic passages in my personal prayers more frequently than Bible verses… I couldn’t even pretend to fit into any Christian church any more. My religious beliefs, my ritual language, were undeniably becoming more and more Muslim.

But that was before I had encountered a Muslim community. I had met individual Muslims—most of whom were students who weren’t very practicing, although a few nonetheless plied me with dawah literature. But they were not an organized conservative community, with clear ideas of who was “in” and who was “out,” or an interest in policing what people believed or did. So at that point, gradually becoming a Muslim was primarily about my own individual, private spiritual practice.

Once I married my ex, however, the specter of community slowly began to rear its head now and again.

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Today, I tripped across a Muslim woman’s letter, asking for advice on how to deal with the fact that her pious, Muslim husband had cheated on her.

Don’t read it, every instinct told me. Don’t read it. It will only trigger you.


Because I thought that I knew what the answer will be. Some slight bits of sympathy will be tossed this woman’s way by the advice-givers (so as not to seem too harsh)… and then the words of blame would inevitably follow: Hints, perhaps tactfully delivered, that she probably hadn’t been doing her wifely duty “properly.”

That she needed to try harder to dress up for him at home, to cook nice food for him, to keep the house even tidier and the kids even better behaved… and that she needed to make sure that she never, ever denied him sexual access within the limits of Islamic law.

That she needed to look critically at herself in the mirror: Maybe she needed to lose weight? Get her hair done? Join a sisters’ exercise class and tone those flabby arms? Do more crunches and reign in those sagging stomach muscles? Or that maybe the problem was more about her character: She needed to be more feminine, more content, more grateful for everything he does for her, and never let a complaining word cross her lips in her husband’s presence.

Or even, that she needed to just accept that her husband was the sort of man who could not be content with just one woman, so she needed to encourage him to marry another wife rather than committing zina.

I braced myself for some or all of that… and didn’t find it.

I was astounded that the advice given to the woman was actually reasonable and compassionate.

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VIII)

(Continuing the section on the treatment of girls…)

“The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P) said, ‘Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.’ (al-Bayhaki) Muslim as used here including both males and females [sic].”


Early ’80’s ghost: So, according to Islam—whoops, sorry… this “Islam says” habit sure is hard to break!—the hadiths, girls and women have the same right and duty to seek knowledge as boys and men do. This seems to mean that girls and women are seen as equally intelligent, and are valued for their minds. And, that it’s a religious obligation to educate girls just as it is to educate boys.

Commentator: The author is reproducing a common apologetic/Islamist claim here. This particular hadith has become something of a slogan. But its wording is so general that it can mean a variety of things, depending on who is interpreting it, and when.

With hadith, it is important to consider several things, including how they have been interpreted over time, as well as how they fit into the larger body of hadith. So, even if you read this hadith in light of the other two in the section on girls, you will begin to see some of the problems with understanding it as an unambiguous endorsement of girls’ and womens’ rights to education on par with that offered to males. Is it really likely that anyone who assumes that girls are “intrinsically” less desirable than boys and “naturally” financially burdensome to men will want to invest the same resources in girls’ education? Especially if educational resources are limited (which is the case for almost every society to some extent)? When the assumption is that the most important thing for girls to do is to remain absolutely chaste until (early) marriage, at which point they will not even be able to leave the house without their husbands’ consent?

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Idealism… and genetic consequences

Recently, I tripped across a clip on youtube of a very young FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) woman, who was being asked by a reporter how many children she wanted to have when she got married. She replied enthusiastically, “As many as possible!”

I sat in the clinic, and heard babies crying in other rooms. I remembered my own kids at that age. It had all seemed so simple then. Trust in God, and it'll all be fine....(

I sat in the clinic, and heard babies crying in other rooms. I remembered my own kids at that age. It had all seemed so simple then. Trust in God, and it’ll all be fine….

It was like looking in the mirror—though back in time, to when I was still a very conservative Muslim. Yes, that was our attitude, all right. We were pro-natalist to a fault.

The clip went on to explain that their church believes that God creates all these spirit children, and that the women regard it as an honor to enable these spirits to have bodies, and to provide good homes for them. So, they have as many children as possible.

While we didn’t believe in spirit children, we did certainly believe that it is God who wills whether or not a child comes into existence—to the point that some sisters would speak of birth control as “a waste of time”, because whatever God wants to happen will happen. Birth control was also widely denigrated in the conservative literature that we read as a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for every living creature. And we were constantly told that a woman’s highest and most important calling was to marry and bear children. There was no real place in any conservative community that I was involved in for single women who had never and would never marry—or even for married women who were childless.

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VII)

(continuing where we left off…)

2. The Social Aspect

a) As a child and an adolescent

“Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur’an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder: ‘And when the female (infant) buried alive is questioned, for what crime she was killed’ (Q 81:8-9)

Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur’an states:  ‘When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With same does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on!’ (Q 16:58-59)”


Early ’80’s ghost: Before Islam, some Arabs used to kill baby girls? How absolutely horrible. Isn’t it wonderful that Islam put a stop to that. This seems to be a religion that is pretty pro-woman.

Commentator: The author here is reading these quranic verses forbidding condemning female infanticide in a particularly modern way, that takes them out of context. Actually, the Qur’an forbids  “qatl awlaad” (killing boys/children) in five verses—Q 6: 137, 140, 151; 17:31 and 60:12. If you take a look at those five verses, you will see what is being criticized about infanticide is that it is a pagan practice that is associated with worshipping deities other than Allah, and with failing to trust in His ability to provide.

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Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (VI)

And so, we have come to the end of the section on “the spiritual aspect” of “the status of woman in Islam.”

It is this section that is really the linch-pin of the argument that the booklet is trying to make.

Looking back at how I read this section of the booklet in the early ’80’s, and the impact that it and other similar pamphlets, books and talks had on my life (and also on the lives of other converts I knew), I am taken aback at all the word-games that were going on—and how we didn’t recognize this.

We did actually believe that “woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities” because we read that this is what the Qur’an says—at least, according to this booklet. And once convinced of this “fact”, we read the rest of the booklet (and others like it), as well as the Qur’an and other Muslim literature, through that “equality” filter.

It was fairly easy to fall into doing this, because similar claims were commonly made in books and pamphlets written by conservative Muslims, and in talks on “women in Islam” given at events sponsored by the MSA and other Muslim groups… and also in conversations with average Muslims.

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