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.

* * *

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.