Posts Tagged holy women
In the last post, I gave some of my initial reactions to a recent article about early pious and Sufi women on the Feminism and Religion blog. A stroll down memory lane, basically. Yes, reading and retelling these stories was a way that we sought validation, and tried in some limited ways to resist the patriarchy-on-steroids that otherwise surrounded us in our very conservative Muslim communities.
But what was their impact on us? Sure, they inspired us to make greater efforts to try to engage in certain stereotypically “pious” acts such as praying at night and fasting extra days—and also, to beat ourselves up when we failed. But did they help make us better people? Were they really spiritually uplifting, or did they function more as an opiate that temporarily distracted us from the tedium, poverty and petty cruelties that hemmed in our lives then?
I was particularly struck by the author’s bald statement that conservative Muslim “talking heads” use these stories “to lie about the past.” She points out that:
“These… narratives of the past… do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today….
I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.
What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much” interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?
And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦
I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.
Sorting through all the mental baggage that those experiences have left with me, one thing that I notice is… shame. There is still a residue of shame about the body. My body, as well about other female bodies. The idea that a woman who is sensibly dressed for jogging or yard work or whatever-it-is in the middle of the summer is being “immodest.” The idea that being uncomfortable in order to cover a bit more skin is better than the “shame” of exposure. And that judg-y undercurrent that still to some extent filters my perceptions.
As well as the constant awareness of being (for lack of a better word) seen, whenever I am in places that Muslims might be. Seen, and judged.
Back in the day, we used to interpret feelings of shame about our bodies and others, as well as that feeling of being “seen” as a positive sign that at last we were managing to internalize “true modesty.” Our consciences had become Islamified, we thought… and that could only be a good thing. We must be increasing in iman and taqwa.
The story of Abraham is central to Muslim belief. Abraham the unbending monotheist. Abraham who broke the idols. Abraham who left his family and everything he had ever known for the sake of God. Abraham who was even willing to sacrifice his own son when he thought that God wanted it.
The Qur’an speaks about Abraham and other prophets in very positive terms, and holds them up as examples of faith. But the Qur’an does not say that they (much less their wives or other family members) as sinless, perfect, or beyond all criticism.
Centuries ago, Muslim scholars debated the question of whether prophets can doubt God’s promises, whether they can make small mistakes and errors of judgment or even major ones, whether they can commit minor or even major sins, whether their pronouncements are only error-free when it comes to the divine revelations that they proclaim or if everything on every subject that they said is unquestionably true.
But listening to most Muslims today (especially those who are neo-traditionalists, but certainly not only them), you’d never know it.
Islam as I was taught it, whether by Salafi-influenced Muslims or neo-traditionalists, had absolutely no room for questioning prophets, much less criticizing anything they did. You were supposed to hold them in reverence, take them as examples, and never, ever express any doubts about the wisdom or justice of any of their actions whatsoever. No critical questions could be asked. You didn’t question them any more than you questioned God.
When I read Amina Wadud’s post today on the blog, Feminism and Religion, I thought: The ice is breaking.
Her post is about the Hajar story. It was wrenchingly honest.
She points out that when Hajar was left in the valley, she was left in a situation where she was a hair’s breadth away from death. She discusses several ways that this story is whitewashed in the usual ways that it is told, with Hajar’s slave status and Africanness all but bleached out.
She calls Abraham a dead-beat dad, and Sarah a selfish bitch.
Being the well-trained former neo-traditionalist that I am, I reflexively cringed at that… and then, it was as if the ice was breaking.
As if those figures from all those stories we were told and that we read and believed about the prophets and their wives and the Companions and the awliya and shaykhs and other pious believers… began to move from beneath the ice where we had entombed them—and where we had entombed ourselves. As if I myself felt the layer of ice that I hadn’t realized was encasing me begin to crack.