Even the “Friend of God” had doubt

At a recent iftar dinner, as soon as we introduced ourselves as doctoral students in Islamic Studies, we were bombarded with a barrage of hard-hitting questions, one after the other, for about an hour and a half: “why is homosexuality condemned in Islam? why does the Qur’an allow husbands to hit their wives? why does the Qur’an allow men to have sex with their slave women? why are Muslim women not allowed to marry non-Muslim men? why are there no female prophets? why would the Qur’an contain things that are not applicable anymore if God is all-knowing? how do we even know that the Quran is the word of God? what logical and rational proof do we have that Islam is the truth?” and so on.

Generally, when many of us have such questions and doubts, we face a communal attitude that sees such struggles as due either to waswasah (evil whisperings) from Satan that should be ignored, or to something wrong with our iman (faith). After all, our scholarly tradition has generally defined iman as “definitive belief, without any hesitation or wavering, in which the believer does not consider even the possibility of any error” (Ghazali, Iljam al-awam).

However, in reading through the Qur’an together this Ramadan, the stories of two prophets have struck us as powerful examples for those of us who struggle with our faith or face uncertainty and doubt in our belief.

“…just to put my heart at rest…”

We have first the story of Ibrahim, the “friend of Allah”. As is well known, in his youth Abraham finds his community’s worship of stones distasteful, and proceeds to reflect on the cosmos around him. Through an extended process of contemplation and rational examination, he realizes that God must transcend all finite created entities, and is rather the originator of all existence (6:74-79). After arriving at rational certainty about the truth of God, Ibrahim is anointed as a prophet and messenger and is in direct communication with God. As a messenger of God, he goes on to challenge his community’s beliefs, is consequently thrown into a blazing fire, but is saved by God who miraculously cools it {21:51-70}.

And yet, despite all this – despite the rational proof, the miracles, and the direct communication with God – we find a very peculiar story in the Qur’an that shows us that there is still something in Prophet Ibrahim’s heart that feels unsettled:

“And when Abraham said, ‘My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.’ [God] said, ‘Do you not believe/have faith?’ Abraham said, ‘Yes indeed! But just to put my heart at rest.’” {2:260}

Even Abraham had doubt. Something in the Prophet Ibrahim’s heart needed to be comforted and put at rest, and he was comfortable expressing this need to God. The verse continues with God responding through another miracle to quell Ibrahim’s unsettledness.

But what about us? Here we are, in the 21st century, far removed from any direct revelation, any prophets, any miracles, any objective proofs, living in a secular and post-modern world defined by uncertainty and skepticism. Is it really so strange that we may often be unsettled in our faith? That we may have questions, objections, and skepticism about our religion? Is it so unthinkable that we may doubt as Abraham doubted despite the direct proofs, miracles, and revelation?

 “Let us see God with our own eyes!”

It may be countered: and yet, throughout the Qur’an, God criticizes and condemns those who doubt and question God and the Prophet. It is clear through such cumulative verses that questioning is not allowed in faith – as the Qur’an says, “we hear and we obey!” {2:285} (It is perhaps for this reason that we find the classical commentaries on the Qur’an going to great lengths to try and explain away Prophet Ibrahim’s story as not actually indicating any doubt on his part but something else.)

The story of Moses and his people, however, sheds light perhaps on what the Qur’an is actually condemning in such passages.

In one passage in the Quran, we find reference to how a group among the people of Musa “said [to Moses] ‘let us see God with our own eyes!’ and were struck by the thunderbolt for their wickedness” {4:153}.

And yet, in another passage, oddly enough, we find Moses himself making precisely the same request: “He said, ‘My Lord, show Yourself to me so that I may see You!’ God said, ‘You will never see me.’” {7:143} God then descends (metaphorically of course) close to the mountain and it crumbles under the weight of the Divine presence. Moses faints in witnessing this Divine majesty and power. Thus he is taught an important lesson: that it is not possible for our limited human capacities to observe God’s transcendent reality. Yet he is not rebuked or punished, his request is not deemed infidelity or hypocrisy or sin.

So why the disparity in the two situations? It seems that what is being condemned in the first scenario is not the question or request itself, but the motive and disposition behind it. The Quran’s frequent critique of those who raise questions and argue is not directed to those who do so for the purpose of understanding or knowing the truth. Rather its critique is directed at those who argue and question for the sake of avoiding their moral duties, or avoiding what they know to be true. For instance, in one passage the Qur’an criticizes those who say “shall we feed those whom, had God willed He could have fed?” {36:47} This is not asked out of genuine curiosity or philosophical inquiry. It is questioning and argumentation as an excuse for being immersed in one’s ego and selfish desires. Such examples are amply found throughout the Qur’an.

There is a clear and important difference between this form of self-serving questioning and genuine, sincere questioning that is trying to arrive at the truth, trying to “put my heart at rest,” trying to reconcile religion with what I intuitively and experientially know to be moral or true.

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Returning to the example of Abrahim, we should strive to become what this prophet is described as in the Qur’an: “khalil Allah.” The close friend of God. A dear friend, someone we are in conversation with openly. An intimate relationship, in which we express what is in our hearts without fear or reservation, since God “knows the sigh before it leaves the heart” (Khaled Abou el Fadl). It is this intimate relationship that made Ibrahim comfortable and bold enough to “argue” with God on behalf of the people of Lot due to the mercy and tenderness of his heart {11:74-75}.

We should take comfort in Prophet Ibrahim’s example, and embrace the questions and doubts we have without fear or shame. We must also work to develop communities in which we can ask such questions and be honest with our doubts, without being accused of heresy or weak iman, and without being bullied and silenced into submission. It is heart-breaking to see the spiritual violence that is done to people through such silencing tactics, as so many of us are robbed of a sense of faith and connection with God. We can be faithful even as our minds remain curious and thirsty, even as our hearts are unsettled and seeking comfort and answers. For we are lovers of God, seekers on a path. Our doubts, unsettledness, and questions then are all part of this lifelong journey towards that Ultimate Divine Reality.


Related post:
 Spiritual Crisis and the Breaking of Dawn

Group fervor is not piety

I left the mosque a few weeks ago having experienced a fascinating Jumua performance that got me reflecting on the nature and purpose of spiritual experience. I departed thinking, “Just because we get all riled up in a bout of group fervor, that is not piety!”

The khatib was probably the most charismatic and powerful American Muslim preacher I have witnessed. His sermon was an agile combination of a spoken word performance with serious Abdul Basit-style recitation peppered throughout for added effect. Before and throughout the prayer, he took deep protracted breaths very loudly (adding to the aura), and recited Quran almost musically. At one level, I was impressed by and appreciative of such rarely seen charisma and talent. And yet, the almost theatrical manufacturing of emotion, and the energy and fervor which this inspired in the audience, made me uncomfortable. The loud “AAAMEEEENNNNN”s at the top of people’s lungs, and their expressions of wonder and inspiration afterwards even though they couldn’t recall the sermon’s content, struck me as signs of a problematic sense of spirituality.

I’ve often felt that our communal religiosity is too focused on emotional experience. We move from religious function to function, seeking out experiences that evoke in us an emotional high that we equate to a sense of spirituality and piety. But group fervor is not the same as piety.

It is one thing to have a powerful experience due to a concert-like overflowing of group emotion. But that is easy. Group fervor is easily manufactured (thus also making it easy to deconstruct from a naturalistic/materialist/atheist perspective). Real spiritual growth on the other hand is not easy. It is rather an arduous and toilsome journey of self-transcendence (“the upward climb” as the Qur’an puts it – 90:10-18).

Even Sufi shaykhs and mystical teachers – who are masters of evoking spiritual experience in people – often emphasize that hāl (or the spiritual highs we may feel from ritual devotion) is not the aim of worship, it is merely a fruit that we may at times be rewarded with. The point is not that such spiritual charisma, collective ritual, or even the manufacturing of emotion are illegitimate or problematic in and of themselves. They are indeed important (perhaps indispensable) dimensions of religion. The problem is that this often ends up being the primary or even exclusive goal that we end up seeking, substituting for more genuine spiritual growth. The problem is that we end up seeking such religious highs without much attention to whether there is substance in our religious practice and rhetoric.

The reality is, if our goal in religious devotion is to achieve such emotional states, then we are still caught up in our own selves. We are simply trying to feel good. And this is ultimately just a symptom of the broader problem of religious feel-good-ism that plagues our community. A religion that is about feeling good, however, is not a religion I’m interested in.

Related post: Omid Safi, “Religion cannot promise happiness”

Speaking of “prayer privileges”

On Facebook I recently posted: “Note to self: if you want to nurture your faith, stay away from the masjid!” It’s a sad reality of being a Muslim woman. What should be a space that is the center of our spiritual and religious life becomes a space of humiliation that we run from. A recent experience at a local mosque brought a renewed appreciation for Side Entrance, a project that showcases women’s prayer spaces in mosques around the world with the aim to bring attention to the often inadequate and unwelcoming spaces allotted to women. Hind Makki, the convener of the project, rightfully points out that often “mosques seem to be built to cater only to the male experience.” As a fellow Muslim woman I share her experiences and frustrations on the inadequacy, and at times complete absence, of prayer spaces for us in the mosque. The project has not only my support but I am also very grateful to Hind for initiating the endeavor and to the many people who have contributed pictures from around the world. It is my hope and prayer that these images will achieve their intended purpose! However, while focusing on the spatial elements of women’s prayer spaces in the mosque is important, I think we also need to take to task a communal discourse that privileges male religious experiences. This discourse presents “religious practice” as a universal standard that is supposedly achievable by all. Yet women, we are told, must and do fall short of it, particularly in their roles as mothers, as menstruating individuals and as the embodiment of fitnah, to be policed at all times, especially in the mosque. To me, the unequal allocation of female prayer spaces is only symptomatic of a larger communal attitude that devalues the lived religious experiences of women.

What do I mean by this? Let me offer an example: Ramzan/Ramadan is around the corner and I’ve already begun to hear the voices of women expressing their frustrations about not being able to make it to Tarawih or not being able to take much time to concentrate on their spiritual development and nourishment during this blessed month due to their responsibilities as mothers. This month is a time of tremendous spiritual growth and reward we are told, a spiritual boot camp you might say and it’s emotionally crushing if you are not able to partake in it both communally (through long hours of tarwih and tahajjud at the masjid) as well as in your own personal practice. As myself and my female friends and family members hit our menstrual cycle I will also begin to hear them recount (as I myself feel) a disconnect not only from Ramzan/Ramadan, from fasting, from prayer, from the Quran, but from the very space of sacredness itself (the mosque) as menstruating women cannot enter spaces designated for prayer. I feel their pain: when one is engaged in night after night of intimate commune with the Divine, it is painful to be cut off so instantly. The blood that flows from my vagina comes to mark not only the promise of life but also a spiritual death.

Unfortunately, our communal response to these frustrations expressed by women is nothing beyond empty rhetoric. Imams and Shuyukh extol the reward that mothers receive for their years of toil and sacrifice in the face of reduced prayer and opportunities for ritual worship. Women are also rewarded, we are told, for desisting from prayer, fasting and recitation of the Quran while menstruating out of obedience to Allah. That mothers, in our current gender dynamics of parenting, are breaking their back day and night out of devotion to their family is beyond a doubt. That they will be rewarded for their efforts is also what our beloved Prophet (saw) has told us time and time again. That is not the issue. The issue is a religious discourse that does not speak of women’s religious experiences except as peripheral conversations. There is a reason why year after year I hear women express the same emotions and year after year I hear the same empty rhetoric glorifying and valorizing maternal self-sacrifice in the interest of maintaining patriarchal gender norms. The responses don’t address the very fundamental issue: we are all deeply socialized into male normative conceptions of religious piety and righteousness, but then there are those of us (i.e. half of humanity) who are unable to fulfill it!

This is how this religious discourse works: growing up we emphasize prayer, reading Quran, and involvement in the masjid as fundamental acts of piety. If we are dedicated to our faith, we are told again and again, then we must pray on a daily basis (and more if you wish to increase your piety), read Quran regularly and keep the company of pious people (hence the emphasis on communal prayer and frequenting the mosque). We teach this to little girls as well as little boys. But here’s the thing: that little girl hits puberty and is no longer able to fulfill this male-centered model of piety: this idea of a pious person that assumes that we will always be able to pray without bodily processes interrupting us for significant periods of time, that we will not only have full access to the masjid but that it will be a space that caters to our needs, and that we will, in terms of time constraints as well as our responsibilities, be able to engage in communal prayer at all times, anytime and anywhere. If you’re a man, you can pray every prayer, every day. You can fast throughout Ramzan/Ramadan without interruption, no “days off” is going to spoil your groove. You can go to the masjid and have access to the most aesthetically pleasing sections of the masjid as well as comfortable access to the beautiful recitation of the Imam (not through TVs and speakers that might stop working in the middle of prayer). You can come and go from the masjid as you please, at any time (for tahajjud, fajr, late night tarawih) without having to worry about having a man escort you and you can be certain that I‘tekaf arrangements will be made for you at the mosque so that you can spend the last ten days of Ramzan/Ramadan in intense worship without much discussion on whether it is required for you or not, whether you need to, whether you will cause fitnah by your presence, whether you have a mahram with you or not or even whether leaving your children for days at a time will be possible because who will care for them in your absence? Our standards of piety and ritual worship work for you perfectly, they are, in fact, meant to work for you!

As women we find our ways of remaining spiritually connected by taking time out to make zikr, using technology to read the Quran on our period without “touching” it. But many of us also feel that it’s not quite the same. There is something absolutely intimate about prayer, brief moments throughout the day to commune with Allah (swt) that are hard to experience through other forms of worship. Not fasting during Ramzan/Ramadan we try to mimic fasting by not eating and still attend tarawih sitting to the side (not in the prayer area of course, because we would not want to pollute it with our menstruating presence) and yet the “fasting” feels like starvation, and the experience of standing for long periods in prayer and listening to the words of Allah (swt) resound in your head, punctuated with moments of humbling oneself in prostration, cannot be felt as you sit to the side following along. We have been deeply socialized into a piety defined by prayer, fasting and reading Quran and being cut off from it due to our biological processes as women feels like a handicap, it feels like our piety is thwarted.

So, while working to ensure that women have decent prayer spaces in the masjid and a welcoming atmosphere is certainly a worthy endeavor, it is only the beginning of the battle. We must also create a religious discourse that defines piety in a way that takes women’s religious experiences seriously. The problem of prayer spaces for women in the masjid is not only spatial but is also symptomatic of a larger communal attitude that discounts and demeans women as faithful believers.

the spiritual response to privilege

The following was written for a Friday sermon at Duke University a few weeks ago:

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In the name of God, the infinitely loving and compassionate. May the peace and blessings of God be upon His noble messenger, our beloved master Muhammad.
Indeed all praise is God’s alone, whom we praise and thank endlessly, in whom we put our reliance and trust, and whom we ask for forgiveness. And we seek refuge and protection in Allah from the evils within our souls, and the evils of our actions. Indeed whomsoever God guides, then they have true guidance, and whomsoever God leads astray, then they have nothing to turn to for guidance. And I bear witness and testify that there is nothing in existence worthy of devotion other than Allah alone, the Ultimate and Transcendent; and I bear witness and testify that Muhammad is the beloved servant and messenger of God.

In today’s khutbah, I will be sharing some reflections on a single verse in the Qur’an that has been a beautiful yet challenging companion of mine for many years. At the conclusion of Surat al-An`am, Chapter 6 of the Qur’an, after a series of verses discussing the believers’ pure devotion to God alone, the final verse of the Surah proclaims:

“It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you. Your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is indeed most forgiving and merciful.”

This verse, in conjunction with other passages of the Qur’an, provides us with a spiritual orientation towards the uneven distribution of blessings or privileges in the world that we see around us.

Let’s go bit by bit. The verse begins by recalling the concept of khilafah. The divine voice states that God has established human beings as “khalifah”s on earth. More literally, this term means to be a successor or inheritor. Thus for instance we know that the leader of the Muslims was called the khalifah of the Prophet, the Caliph, the successor to the Prophet’s leadership and authority. And of course, to have inherited this position entailed responsibility to manage and take care of the affairs of the ummah. Thus when the Qur’an refers to humanity as the “khalifah” of the earth, it is saying that we have inherited the earth, and the moral implication of this is that we are responsible for managing the affairs of the earth with justice and excellence, according to God’s will. We can translate “khalifah of the earth” then perhaps as caretaker or steward of the earth. God has made human beings caretakers or stewards of the world, we are responsible for its functioning, for the wellbeing of the creation. It is in this light that the prophet said “the creation is the family of God, and the most beloved to God are those that are most beneficial to God’s family”.

Thus the verse begins by reminding us of this responsibility, of our role as caretakers and stewards of the world. It is pointing our attention to this role, to keep it in mind as it moves on to the main message of the verse. The verse continues: “and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you.” Before reflecting on this message, a brief note about translation. When we translate, we have to be aware to not just literally convey the words of the Qur’an as they appear in the original Arabic, but try to understand what is being conveyed in that language in that context, and how to express that in our own cultural linguistic habits, and not just try to be faithful to the literal meaning. So before, the best translation that I could think of for the word used here, “darajah”, was “degree” or “rank.” Literally darajah means a step, or a degree, and thus socially implies “rank”. But more recently, upon reflecting on the message here, and thinking about how we talk about this idea in our society today, I’ve realized that what is being referred to in this verse with the word darajah is what we today call “privilege”. And this is the central message of the verse, and thus the central message of my khutbah today will be thinking about privilege in light of this verse.

So what is privilege? It’s a commonly used word today but what is meant? The basic idea as we all know is a special advantage in life and in society that some people have and others do not.

What is important to note is that the wording is not specific, it just says “degree”, and this ambiguity allows the verse to be understood by each of us in a way that relates to us individually. Because Allah has given each of us privileges in very different things: in wealth, in intelligence, social status, some specific talent or skill, in emotional well being, in family background, even in things such as character, etc. These are not things that we have acquired by some merit of our own, something we deserve; rather our conditions in life, where we come from, almost completely determines who we are and what kind of person we are and what we have in life. Thus the verse says that God has “raised some of us above others in degree,” that some of has been given privileges that others have not — why? To try you, to test you through what He has given you. The unequal distribution of privileges in this world, of wealth, health, social status and respect, comfort, power, authority, enjoyments of life, etc, all of this is a trial. What we generally see as “blessings” and “privileges” in life, therefore, are not necessarily good or positive in an ultimate sense. The Qur’an says elsewhere, “We will test you with both evil and good fortunes, as a fitnah, as a temptation and trial.” Everything in life has the potential to be a fitnah, everything is both a trial and an opportunity, either to grow in God-consciousness, mindfulness of the Divine, to grow in Other-centeredness, or to become more absorbed in the nafs, in one’s own self and its egoistic desires and whims.

Now I should note that I’m going to be speaking about this from the perspective of a position of privilege, as someone who has experienced an immense amount of privilege in life. My position and experience in life leads me to reflect on this verse and think about what it means to respond to having privileges in a spiritually upright way. I believe this should inshallah be helpful and not just relevant to myself personally, since we are all a privileged bunch in some way or another. Definitely, in many ways many of us may do suffer from various struggles, pains, scars, in life, etc that are very serious. But the fact that we are here in this audience, means that the vast majority of us at least enjoy certain important privileges, of class and educational access and opportunities, as well as natural capacities and talents (book smarts, work ethic etc), able-bodiedness and general health, etc… Every blessing we enjoy that gives us an advantage in life are privileges that this verse is pointing to, so think to yourself, reflect on the various ways you are privileged…To be sure, this verse also can encourage us to think about what is expected of us with regards to our lack of privilege in various realms and dimensions of life, because that too is a trial. The Quran calls on us when we are underprivileged to still strive to live up to certain moral ideals and standards of decency and dignity, to grow spiritually through one’s struggles in life, to be God-conscious. But my focus in the rest of the khutbah will be on the other side of things, how to respond to the privileges we enjoy in life in a spiritually upright manner that brings us closer to God.

So? How do we respond to privilege? This verse is telling us that we have been given uneven privileges in life as a trial – well what is this trial, what is expected of me in this trial? In religious contexts, we usually talk about recognizing the blessings and privileges in your life, and being grateful to God for them. Be grateful that you have been given these things in life. That is a given right? But what is gratitude in the first place? We usually think about it as a feeling and thought, as an emotional or cognitive thing. I see the blessings in my life, and I think “thank you Allah,” alhamdulilah. And there. If I’m sincere in this expression, then I’ve done my gratitude. In my understanding of the Qur’an, however, this is not actually gratitude. That is more about feeling good. For instance, in describing the immense blessings and privileges and power granted to the Prophets David and Solomon, at the end of this long list of blessings they were given, the Qur’an says: “Oh family of David – enact gratitude! Work in thankfulness and gratitude! And indeed few of my servants are truly thankful.” It is making it clear to us that gratitude is not a state of mind or an emotion – it is a way of life, it is an embodied, active response, it is good work. Similarly, in describing the immense riches and privilege of Qarun, the companion of Musa, Qarun is told: “Do good to others just as God has been good to you.” Respond to privileges through righteous action in serving the creation. Similarly, and perhaps most powerfully, in surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessing and hardship in life, privilege and lack of privilege, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” This is one of those beautiful moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the traps of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Thus we see that gratitude is not to say “thank you Allah!” but it is to act, to respond to God with God-conscious action, in service of others, and in transcendence of one’s ego.

So the first lesson we’ve found in the Qur’an in responding to our various privileges in life is to recognize the moral imperative of action, of doing good. And we’ve begun to see in this last example that this is tied to serving the creation, moving beyond our preoccupation with our privileges and the desire to indulge them, and instead concerning ourselves with others. This is why the verse we are discussing today begins with a reminder that we are khalifahs on the earth, as I mentioned before, we are caretakers and stewards of the earth, we are responsible for the wellbeing of the world around us and its creatures. Thus the obligation in response to the trial of privilege is to seek out the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and to serve, to support, to empower. The Qur’an speaks endlessly of the yatim, the orphan, like the in the verses I just mentioned – you do not care for the yatim! The ultimate accusation. Why? What does the yatim represent? The yatim symbolizes the most vulnerable in society, the most disadvantaged, one who has the least options. The Quran exhorts us endlessly in this regard – to give to those who have less, to empower the weak. To give up the advantages we have been given in what capacity one can, in order to even the playing field, to mitigate the unfairness and suffering of inequality, to use one’s privilege to make things better for others, to empower others.

This of course brings with it a danger — When we use our privileged position to seemingly help others, we can easily re-create certain kinds of power dynamics and hierarchies that simply re-inscribe various privileges and bring hurt and humiliation to others. This is something to be deeply aware of. In surat Baqara, eg, we find a powerful set of verses that warn very strongly against giving sadaqah and helping others in a patronizing or condescending way, in a way that emphasizes your goodness or your “favor” to them – as the verse says, “following your generous giving with reminders of your benevolence or hurtful words”. These verses tell us that such charity is not charity at all, and is negated, empty, and fruitless, like rain falling on a barren rock, or like a garden burned down in a fire. It yields no fruit. Giving from a position of superiority and entitlement, making others feel indebted and inferior, all of this is the antithesis of the true spirit of giving. We have to be deeply aware of our privilege, and how it can seep into everything one does. Even when we think we are doing something good, it can often become a way of subconsciously asserting our superiority, our power, our privileges over others. It is in light of this that we have to be ever vigilant of our nafs, our ego and its sense of entitlement, and how it can take any opportunity at all times to assert itself, to try and be on top.

This manifests itself in innumerable ways that we must be constantly vigilant about. We must learn to read the movements of our heart and soul, to be aware and question what is motivating particular behaviors, why am I feeling a particular way in this or that situation, what is bothering me? Is it some principled issue that I am concerned with, or is my ego feeling threatened that some of its privileges are being challenged or taken away? This manifests itself very often in issues of gender eg, where all sorts of arguments are constantly being thrown around in support of some inequality or another between men and women. My point here is not about any particular issue itself, but the ability to ask oneself what is motivating my concern, am I seeking the pleasure of God, or is it entitlement and privilege? This is particularly of concern in religious contexts. Eg why do we as an American Muslim community at large feel religiously outraged when changes and adaptations to certain rules in the religion are proposed that would be inclusive of women, but we don’t have the same reaction to changing other things. For instance, there has been consensus for many centuries that the khutbah is part of the act of ritual worship, and thus must be delivered according to the Sunnah of the Prophet, in the Arabic language. Thus a khutbah in English as I’m doing now would not be valid. Yet as American Muslims, you’d be hard-pressed to find masajid that insist on the khutbah being in Arabic. That is considered an acceptable and reasonable change to religious rulings. Women giving a khutbah on the other hand, that is an outrage and an affront to our religion and an imposition of the West. Why the inconsistency? What is motivating this reaction? My point here is not actually about the validity or invalidity of this issue, what the right position is on such issues. Rather I am concerned now with the movements and stirrings of our hearts, for each of us (particularly the men) to ask inside ourselves: is it truly religious devotion to the sunnah that is motivating this or that position I have on an issue, or is it perhaps a sense of collective privilege and specialness that we feel entitled to

Or for instance, we often hear a slew of critiques of giving charity to the homeless and the poor – “these handouts just make them lazy, make them depend on our charity! They are abusing the system, taking advantage of our generosity! They are going to use the money we give them for drugs!” yada yada. These may well be valid concerns sometimes, the point here again is not to make policy arguments about best-practices. The point is that the Qur’an frequently calls us out on this tendency to make various intellectual objections to things, but in fact what is motivating us in our hearts is the ego. Is our sense of entitlement to our privilege. I should ask myself: Why does it matter to me if the homeless man is deceiving me? What exactly is bothering me? That this exchange is not entirely on my terms? That I’m not one to be fooled by that kind of person? These are questions we must become comfortable asking ourselves, interrogating ourselves; as Umar (r) said, we must hold ourselves accountable, before God holds us accountable. Let us ask God for forgiveness for our actions and our shortcomings. Aqul qawli…

* * *

To recap, I have been reflecting in this khutbah on a single verse, at the end of surat an`am, that reads: “It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has given some of you privileges over others, to test you through what He gives you. Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” This verse then is just one manifestation and reminder of the ultimate spiritual and moral message of the Qur’an and the Sunnah: to push us to move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Because, to indulge in one’s privileges, to uncritically and heedlessly enjoy what one has been given without mindfulness of God and God’s family, is to be caught in self-centeredness, the prison of the nafs, the ego and its desire for gratification. The message of our spiritual tradition, our calling in this worldly life, is to transcend that ego-centeredness, to struggle day in and day out to overcome that attachment to the privileges we enjoy, to give them up when possible, to use them for the benefit of others and serve the creation, rather than indulging in them to satisfy one’s own desire. That is to become Other-centered, to transcend one’s own self to become centered on God and the family of God. This is the journey that all of of us are on each and every day, a struggle, an upward climb as the Qur’an describes it, that is a heavy moral burden indeed. The verse ends sharply, in a way that both makes us feel the immense heaviness of this moral burden while also giving us deep hope in the grace, mercy, and love of God. The verse concludes: “Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” The verse employs a very common technique in the Qur’an, to evoke both fear and trembling in front of God, as well as love and hope. The divine voice warns us severely in the first part of the sentence, reminding us that the fate of those who take the pleasures and privileges of this world as the only reality and are heedless and careless of their moral responsibility to give back, and are lost in the pleasures and desires of the ego, their fate is a frightening one. And yet, the divine voice also recognizes our inherent weakness and imperfection and shortcomings as humans, and that we cannot entirely live up to this ideal of perfection, all we can do is strive and struggle, and we are comforted by the fact that God is forgiving, God is loving, God is merciful, and with God’s grace we can be embraced in love by Allah swt.

Ya Allah, guide us to that which you love, guide us to moral excellence, and purify our hearts. Grant us your love and proximity and closeness to you, and make your love the most beloved of things to our hearts.
Ya Allah, give us the excellence of this life and the next and save us from the torment of the fire.

‘And the male is not like the female’: Reading Gender Justice in the Qur’an

Watch the video above to hear Saadia’s lecture presentation on feminist interpretations of the Qur’an, particularly in the English-speaking world.  This lecture was part of the “And They Spake These Word…Women’s Voices in Religion” series at Duke University’s Women’s Center, February 20th, 2014.

Gender and spiritual wholeness: a response

In response to the previous blog post on the concept of spiritual equality in light of Ramadan parenting discussions, we received a thoughtful and intelligent comment on the piece by a very sharp and insightful sister, challenging the assumption that women’s spirituality and spiritual needs/experiences should be evaluated and judged on the basis of a male-centered standard and perspective that prioritizes ritual worship over child-rearing. Women’s spirituality, she argued, is unique and particular to their experiences and roles and should be respected and appreciated as such. While I very much value and appreciate her contribution to the discussion, the following is a clarification and further elaboration of my perspective on the matter:

To begin, I did not in any way intend to suggest that ritual worship is more important than taking care of children. Rather, I said that it has a unique function and role, i.e., that it provides different fruits than other forms of spiritual life and worship, but not that it is better or more beneficial than those. Indeed, I would be the last person to promote ritualism as the ideal of the spiritual path. I firmly believe that spirituality is about holistic living. And a life of ritualistic devotion without engaging in the world and without attention to one’s various social and moral obligations and responsibilities is a shallow and superficial spirituality that means very little. But that doesn’t mean that ritual devotion doesn’t play an important role in that journey, as a connection to the Divine through ritual brings the sacred dimension into the rest of our experiences and engagements in life so that those things can be experienced fully and contribute to our spiritual growth. So I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of child-rearing (and other forms of social/familial responsibilities) in one’s spiritual growth.

As for the very crucial point regarding the need to acknowledge the particular experiences of women and not evaluating them on the basis of a male normative standard, I agree that this is quite important, and in fact my partner-in-crime Saadia is currently in the midst of writing a blog post on that precise topic, on the need to develop a communal discourse that positively recognizes and validates women’s unique and particular experiences in a life of faith and spirituality rather than simply treating them as an exception and afterthought.

That being said, I also do not see such a rigid bifurcation between male and female experience and spirituality that should not at some level be bridged. In fact a good portion of my motivation in taking the positions I do on gender stems from a desire to see more “femininity” inculcated in men. A number of years ago, I began to realize that my own moral and spiritual growth was being hindered and held back precisely because I was lacking in qualities, traits, and values that we normally associate with “femininity”, and I have since very self-consciously tried to inculcate those in myself.

We can I think understand this matter through the prism of the concept of “acquiring/embodying the traits and attributes of Allah” (al-takhalluq bi khuluq/asma’ Allah) that has been so famously and beautifully discussed by such towering figures as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, among many others. In order to become more whole and perfect human beings and radiate the Divine light within us, we must inculcate and manifest in ourselves the various “beautiful names of Allah” (as appropriate to our servanthood of course). And in order to reach towards perfection, we must manifest those names and attributes in the most balanced and holistic way possible, giving each attribute its due and appropriate share (e.g. “mercy precedes wrath” as a principle). We also know that among these names and attributes of Allah, there are the “jamālī” and the “jalālī” names, that is, those having to do with beauty and those having to do with power/majesty. These have also often been associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. God, of course, encompasses the entire spectrum of attributes, both the beautiful/feminine as well as majestic/masculine. And in light of that, the most perfect and whole human being will also manifest a balance of the various attributes, both “feminine” and “masculine”. We see this most beautifully illustrated in the example of our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who clearly embodied many beautiful qualities and traits that would normally be deemed feminine, to the extent that it was said that he was “as shy/modest (haya’) as a virgin girl”. (The prophet’s femininity in the context of a machismo culture of masculinity is the topic for a future blog post as well, inshallah.)

The point I am making is that the spiritual well-being and wholesomeness of men is also hindered by being restricted to “male” roles and modes of existing in the world. That is a severe limitation on one’s experience of being human. We should not box ourselves into these idealized categories of femininity and masculinity, they are not rigid empirical categories that map directly onto being women and men in real life. So we men should also be trying to cultivate in ourselves the beautiful feminine qualities of nurturance and self-sacrifice that are so crucial to child-rearing, as a crucial part of our spiritual development.

Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.

~Zaid