Archive for July, 2013

Ramadan question #1 — What about thinking, and questioning?

I know the scripted answer to this question, of course—at least in North America, especially as found in popular dawah literature and online stuff:

Lake_Hopatcong_State_Park_NJ_fish_in_bucket

Yes, of course! Islam is the religion of logic, thinking, science, and seeking knowledge! Sister, haven’t you heard about all the scientific miracles in the Qur’an?? And look at this white convert brother’s youtube video where he explains why he left Christianity and embraced Islam, because his pastor used to always tell him to “have faith” when he had questions, but Muslims could answer all the questions that he had!!….

But that’s NOT what I’m talking about. That’s apologetics. It allows thinking and questioning, but only as long as your questions remain within the predictable, and the answers don’t undermine “mainstream” conservative Muslim ideas of “what Islam teaches.” It is meant to support faith, and as soon as the questioning threatens to not do that, it is shut down immediately with pat answers and dismissive claims.

Or another scripted answer:

Yes, of course! Muslim scholars of the past discussed everything, from God’s attributes to prophethood and revelation, as well as the relationship of faith to deeds, fate (qadr)… and many other theological questions. Have you read al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error? Read kalaam. With a teacher who is qualified with an ijaza, of course. You start out reading basic aqida, and then students with the aptitude may progress to more advanced texts. And for very advanced students, there is Sufi metaphysics, again, with a properly qualified teacher….

Again, not what I mean by thinking and questioning. Those sorts of texts are complex, and thinking through them is certainly a very cerebral process… but in the end, the thinking and questioning must remain within strict limits. There are certain questions that cannot be asked, really, and the results of the questions you are allowed to ask are essentially predetermined.

The entire exercise reminds me of shooting fish in a barrel. Or, of Forugh Farrokhzad‘s lines in her poem, “Wind-up Doll”: “whether adding, subtracting, or multiplying / like zero, one can obtain a constant result.”

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Ramadan questions

Years ago, what I would have meant by “Ramadan questions” are questions about the technical minutiae of Ramadan, and particularly, the fast: Has the moon been sighted yet? Do we start fasting if some people are saying that it has been sighted, and some people are claiming that it hasn’t? Does swallowing one’s spit by mistake nullify the fast? What if you eat thinking that it is still night, but your clock is off by a few minutes and it’s already fajr, and you find that out later in the day—is your fast null and void? Should tarawih prayer be eight rakats or twenty?… and so on.

There’s an endless supply of questions of that kind. They kept us so busy that we seldom got around to asking the kinds of questions that I ask now. But that was just as well, I suppose—because in the communities that I was involved in, Ramadan wasn’t the time for asking the kind of questions I ask now. Ramadan was not a time for questioning (aside from asking the technical, legal kinds of questions just mentioned…), but a time for strengthening one’s faith—which to us meant fasting, feeding fasting people, praying extra prayers, reciting the Qur’an and listening to it recited, giving charity… and for us women, doing all the cooking and housework and other “support work” required to enable husbands and kids to fast, in addition to fasting ourselves.

Cave_Hira

The Cave of Hira, in the mountains above Mecca.
[www.wikimedia.com]

We didn’t have time to question, and anyway, we were far too occupied with attempting to rack up as many good deeds as possible. Asking searching, existential questions wasn’t really compatible with that. What if we unknowingly slid into heresy, or even kufr by questioning, and then unintentionally nullified our fasting and our good deeds?

We wanted to be able to sit in the congregation on the morning of Eid in our Eid clothes (if we got the time to sew them…), with our freshly-scrubbed kids in their new Eid clothes beside us, and feel at least some sense of accomplishment: We had fasted x number of days, prayed tarawih prayers x number of times, put on x number of iftars and brought food to x number of iftars that we had been invited to, read through x number of juzes of the Qur’an, managed to stay up watching for lailat al-qadr at least once…. Even though our kids and our heavy domestic responsibilities made it very hard for us to carry out such acts of worship, we tried hard to do them. Because wasn’t that the point of Ramadan?

But somewhere in the back of my mind was a hadith—something to the effect that a believer’s meditating for an hour is better than praying all night. But meditating on what? And why would meditation be superior to prayer?? I asked that question once—why meditation is better than prayer—and was told by the shaykh that what it means is that a worshipper who understands what he is doing and how to properly do it is superior to someone who doesn’t know the details of fiqh or aqeeda. This didn’t satisfy me—in that case, why didn’t the hadith praise the man who seeks knowledge or asks legal questions? Is learning the fiqh of worship really the same thing as meditating? Isn’t meditating more like asking oneself questions, and thinking deeply about things? But I didn’t pursue the issue further.

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What reflects poorly on Islam

A recent comment I received from Shereen concluded with her stating that “5% of me is just really bothered with how your posts reflect poorly on Islam, without noting that you still choose to be Muslimah even though you are not fond of the Muslim community.”

An interesting attitude—and one that I certainly recognize. We were taught to always avoid saying or doing anything that might make Islam or Muslims “look bad.”
This was a multi-layered issue. First, we were taught that we needed to be extremely careful of saying things that might possibly imply that we had doubts about the truth or wisdom of anything to do with “Islam,” because that could very easily nullify our faith and any good deeds that we might have, and we would end up in hell. It was a sort of “slippery slope” kind of thing. So, objecting to the ways that certain practices were carried out was strongly discouraged, because such objections might suggest some weakness in our faith in the divine wisdom—even if our objections were clearly aimed at the ways that such practices were implemented by certain overly zealous people without regard for context or common sense. Even suggesting that certain practices might have been intended for seventh century Arabia but were not practical in twentieth century North America was branded as kufr in the communities I was involved with.

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Hijab and the objectification of women

Today, I tripped over a modern neo-traditionalist Muslim scholar’s discussion of reasons why hijab is a Good Thing when I was looking for something else.

Advantages-of-Wearing-the-Hijab

Translation: Wearing hijab makes you pious, protected, dignified, noble… and unlike those slutty women who don’t wear it. Which is really the point.

According to him, there are three main benefits to wearing hijab. First, because women supposedly always dress with the idea of whether or not men will find them attractive (even when they are supposedly dressing in order to impress other women…), hijab protects women from being constantly concerned about the male sexual gaze. Second, because wearing hijab trains the wearer to behave in a chaste and self-disciplined way. And third, because it marks gender difference, allowing women to look like women while not also being sexually alluring to men.

This type of pro-hijab rhetoric was all too typical in the conservative community that I used to belong to. Back then, I used to say similar things when I was asked why I wore hijab. While the argument that it marks gender difference always made me uneasy—after all, if gender differences are so “natural,” why do they have to be highlighted through clothing?—I was very happy to go on about hijab as a shield against the male gaze. As a young woman who experienced street harassment (which had sometimes turned quite threatening…), the idea that I could wear what amounted to a magical harass-repellent suit was appealing. (Even though in my experience, hijab didn’t really repel harassment so much as change its tune—instead of receiving frankly sexual comments, I routinely got told to “go back to where you came from” and worse.)

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Crowns… and really bad advice

Libby Anne has posted disturbing quotations from a Bible study addressed to women, that tells women in unhappy or even abusive marriages that even if their husbands don’t change, they (the wives) can take comfort in the knowledge that for their patient endurance, they will be crowned in heaven. Reading her post took me back to some “advice” that I received years ago, from a (convert) male community leader who I had approached asking for advice on how to deal with my awful and highly dysfunctional marriage, “Islamically.”

In retrospect, it was advice that should have sent me running for the hills. But it didn’t.

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