The Racism of Being Told to Keep Your Audience in Mind

When I was an undergrad about a year and a half ago, I had a professor whose class was such a frustrating experience that even the memory of it is discomforting. Aside from the horrifying discussion she entertained in the classroom about whether a student in a novel we were reading had actually been raped by her professor or whether the student in fact was the one taking advantage of him, I found myself tirelessly called over and over to explain the simplest things.

One of the assigned weekly readings happened to be about conservation. I can’t remember the author now—it might have been Aldo Leopold. The article, I recall clearly, cites Native American philosophies pertaining to the land and to land ethic, with specific mention of the Pueblo Indians. And yet, although the author cites indigenous approaches to land throughout the piece, he makes bizarre claims like “we have no land ethic yet.” The excerpt was published, I noted then, after the formation of the United States; it might have been as late as the 1950s. By then citizenship of marginalized races had been recognized, and Native Americans had certainly been forcibly assimilated.

To say that “we” have no land ethic while citing the very land ethic of a people who are forced to become “us” does a number of things: (1) it remarks on the lethal dynamics of a dual identity in which Native Americans are either assimilated or Othered depending on the convenience of what befits the author’s argument (2) it erases the contributions of indigenous tribes to ethics by implying that what the writer explains is unprecedented since “we” don’t have it yet and (3) it addresses one audience, a white audience, in a nation under the pretense that Native Americans are now seen as one of us and all has been made right, when the claim “we don’t have this yet” demonstrably excludes them from “us.”

Responding to the article, I wrote that it was clear who Leopold’s—or whoever this was—audience is. To my amazement, the professor returned the response with a comment along the lines of, “You mean he shouldn’t have been addressing people? He can’t talk to the environment.”

Really? She thought I wanted him to talk to plants? She needed me to explain this to her? How did this woman ever—

No. I mean his audience was white people during a time when the United States was supposed to include Native Americans, and he’s pretending his audience isn’t just white people. He’s pretending—like you—that it’s just “people.” I mean why the hell should I care what white people say to each other, especially when they’re just regurgitating things that’ve already been invented? Why aren’t we reading about land ethics from the Pueblos, whom he even admits were the source? This is so second-hand—and second rate. Don’t even try to tell me we can’t read land ethics from the Pueblos because the work isn’t in English ‘cause ya’ll went out of your way to translate the Greeks and feed me the bullshit that is the Odyssey.

This guy even had the audacity to write something like, “Their civilization ended, but it wasn’t because their land expired.” No shit, it’s because you killed them. Did he go on to expand on this bizarre way of clarifying-but-not-really-clarifying how their civilization expired? Of course not. He just left it at that.

Perhaps white people should concern themselves with preserving people. I don’t think they’re quite advanced enough for land ethics yet.

This is one example of an aggravating phenomenon I’ve noticed throughout my entire academic career. Every professor is quick to say that a good writer is aware of her audience, and if her audience doesn’t understand her writing, it’s probably because she’s explained it poorly, or needs to explain further. But sometimes it’s because your audience is composed entirely of idiots. Or of white people. Who are also idiots. One of my classmates submitted an excerpt of her thesis for workshop once, and despite the fact that she referred to her cousin with the feminine pronoun about 50 times in the piece, people in the class (guess which race of people) were still confused as to whether the cousin was male or female, because the name was too ethnic for them to discern a gender. Consequently, this writer received terrible advice, like “All your names start with B, and that’s confusing in foreign names. I can’t tell who’s who so you need to change the names.”

No she doesn’t. You read the feminine pronoun over and over. You wouldn’t be confused if you actually knew how to read English. Your own language.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to explain what “hijab” means and its cultural and religious context. I can’t stop and do this every time. It distracts from the larger point of what I’m actually writing. I don’t have time to explain things to those who refuse to crawl outside the rocks they’re living under. If you don’t know what a word means, put down the book and look it up.

At this extent, “keep your audience in mind” becomes nothing short of racist advice. When directed at people of color, it means they should always remember the majority of their audience is white, and should therefore not only explain simple, “foreign” concepts until the writer is blue in the face, but cater to that whiteness with a tone it finds acceptable.

Posted in feminism, privilege, race | 5 Comments

I recognize no “founding fathers.”

“[…]we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us…”
–the words of Christopher Columbus, quoted from “El Requerimiento” in Wilcomb Washburn, ed. The Indian and the White Man

Many are under the wrongful impression that the United States of America not only embodies all the ideals of liberation and compassion required in a just nation, but that the formation of ideals in the creation of a utopic society is unprecedented. At best, the concepts of freedom and individual rights on which America was (supposedly) founded were borrowed, pre-established wisdom, appropriated from the Constitution drafted (unwritten) from the Iroquois by racist slave-owners (your beloved founding fathers) and imposed on an unsuspecting population, while modern-day white feminism championed by Abigail Adams and her like was in itself appropriated from Native women. None of the ideas of tolerance, acceptance, or freedom for which the United States are famous–and infamous–are unique or even attributable to the white patriarchal league of so-called “founding fathers.”

While non-Native recipients of the sneer, “Go back home if you hate it here so much” are accustomed to retorting with, “Go back to Europe,” a poignant response to the non-Native non-African circumstance is to draw attention to the fact that Europeans have illegally invaded, slaughtered, conquered, and raped populations in all but 22 countries and now fear the repercussions in “their” country. The reality that a white person would spew anything along the lines of, “Go back home,” to a person whose country he invaded, which includes not only Native American nations–though let’s not be mistaken, Natives should be the focus as we both unwillingly and willfully reap the benefits of stolen Native land–is nothing short of preposterous. I’ll get out of “your” country if you get out of mine.

In Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, Juan Gonzalez has the same thought,

“If Latin America had not been pillaged by the U.S. capital since its independence, millions of desperate workers would not now be coming here in such numbers to reclaim a share of that wealth; and if the United States is today the world’s richest nation, it is in part because of the sweat and blood of the copper workers of Chile, the tin miners of Bolivia, the fruit pickers of Guatemala and Honduras, the cane cutters of Cuba, the oil workers of Venezuela and Mexico, the pharmaceutical workers of Puerto Rico, the ranch hands of Costa Rica and Argentina, the West Indians who died building the Panama Canal, and the Panamanians who maintained it.”

All countries contemporarily viewed as “backwards” or “depraved” have been made so by an influx of white illegals (the only kind), who ravaged the land and population of its resources. Based on the precedent–and divergent from the precedent–established by these war criminals, I claim the US against the wishes of white settlers as negatively incorporated into my identity, and I live within it with as much peace as I can muster considering the violence in the history of this nation, because those who rule it colonized and occupied the country of my birth. I recognize that the land on which I live rightfully belongs to the Ohlone, was built by slaves and immigrants, and is wrongly credited to white patriarchal and false founding fathers who should be stripped of all dignity. White violence continues to plague Native peoples as well as the descendants of African slaves, and the recent violence in Ferguson perpetuated by white supremacy can attest to this.

I am a settler, and I am prepared to undo this history.

The violence with which Native American nations and the women of which they were composed were tortured, imprisoned, and dehumanized is glossed over even despite clear documentation. A childhood friend of Columbus, Michele da Cuneo, recounts amusedly in his journal the rape of a Native woman,

While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked—as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But—to cut a long story short—I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought that she had been brought up in a school for whores.

Native American girls as young as three were sold in slave markets by the colonists, trafficked for both labor and rape.

Much like the abstract concepts of freedom and protection are falsely attributed to the United States, so were many of the innovations invented by the Natives. Contrary to what is taught in history textbooks, Native Americans did not “live like animals”; in fact, while Europeans fetched drinking water from fetid rivers for centuries even after encountering the complex irrigation systems of the Natives, refused to bathe and never removed their clothes, and dumped the corpses of their dead into open pits, the white men were astounded by the Natives’ cleanliness and hygiene. The Natives of Tenochtitlan had a complex network of canals as well as gorgeous floating gardens. They attempted in vain to teach the white men how to bathe.

History books deliberately paint an inaccurate picture of how advanced and well-equipped the Native Americans were, and how strategic the organization of Native cities, because Europe was so shamefully backwards in comparison. In fact, the word “city” is rarely used, if ever, in history books to describe the living organizations of the Natives, relying instead on the connotations of the word–outrageously enough–“settlements.” Even the white colonialists, however, had referred to these places as “cities.”

When we entered the city of Iztapalapa, the appearance of the palaces in which they housed us! How spacious and well built they were, of beautiful stone work and cedar wood, and the wood of other sweet scented trees, with great rooms and courts, wonderful to behold, covered with awnings of cotton cloth […] we went to the orchard and garden, which was such a wonderful thing to see and walk in […] the paths full of roses and flowers, and the native fruit trees and native roses, and the pond fresh water. There was another thing to observe, that great canoes were able to pass into the garden from the lake through an opening that had been made so that there was no need for their occupants to land. And all was cemented and very splendid with many kinds of stone monuments with pictures on them, which gave much to think about. –journal of Bernal Diaz del Castillo

Instead of learning from the Natives, the white settlers dug random holes in search for gold, until they began to starve and dug up corpses of passed away indigenous persons to eat, at which point they captured some Native Americans to force them to teach the settlers how to farm. As Robert Beverley recounts in History and Present State of Virginia on what is known today as the “Thanksgiving” feast, “the colonists offered the Indians a toast to eternal friendship, whereupon the chief, his family, advisors, and two hundred followers dropped dead of poison.” The extermination of the Native American race was approved by the “founding fathers” including George Washington, who wrote, “The Indian country must be destroyed.”

Untold in most history books is the slavery of both Native Americans and Black Africans, so immense and horrifying that entire cities of Natives and Blacks would join to overthrow white settlers. Together, they had been a strong force and white settlers would face defeat over several years.

Settlers of color, these are the rightful founders. You owe the recognition of your rights not to the illegal confiscation of a nation by war criminals, but to the Native Americans who suffered to overthrow them, and later to the Black Power Movement that secured your rights.

Denounce the term “founding fathers” and all its associations; it is unacceptably patriarchal and devotes itself to a legacy of genocide, rape, and nonconsensual governance.

Posted in feminism, privilege, rape culture, social justice | Tagged | Leave a comment

Black Hair

I used to teach at an Islamic school, situated within a masjid, when I was around 17. There was a lot that didn’t sit well with me; the mosque had a barrier–I also taught students who were about 8 years old, and I believed it to be ludicrous that I was expected to cover my hair around 8-year-old boys. Or that any of the 8-year-old girls were expected to do the same. But I followed the “rules” in terms of my appearance, if only to appease the parents, who I imagine must already have been suspicious of what on earth I might be teaching their children.

One day, for a school-wide event, though I can’t remember what, the boys were pulled out of class. I bid the last one goodbye, closed the door behind him, whirled around and exclaimed, “The boys are gone!” and threw off my hijab. The black waves leapt to the air with the blow of the rising fabric and then fell to my waist. The young girls laughed and did the same, pulling off their headscarves.

Except one.

“Can I leave my hijab on?” she asked me.

I gave her a funny look. “Of course!” I walked back to the front of the room, ready to continue the lesson, but the girls were talking excitedly amongst themselves, clearly distracted, and I thought it was unfair to expect them to study as long as the boys weren’t also in a stuffy classroom learning to read Arabic with them. And to be honest, I had a desire to know these girls. So I walked among them and we spoke while they braided each other’s hair and talked about faeries.

“I love your hair,” said the small hijabi. She ran her fingers through it. “It’s so pretty.” Then she added, “I wish I had hair like this. My hair’s not like other people’s hair.”

The child was black. Something hurtful burst inside me.

“Is this why you didn’t want to remove your hijab?” I gasped.

She nodded. “My hair’s not pretty like yours.”

“Darling, your hair is beautiful!” What else could I have said? I spoke what I knew, to her, must have been empty words.

She made a face. “You haven’t even seen it.”

“I can imagine it.”

She looked worried. “It’s not like you imagine.”

“No, love, it’s not like you imagine.” I sighed and sat on top of a desk. Was it too early to speak to her about white privilege? I looked around at the other girls, none white, but none of them black. Neither was I. I tried to form words but I couldn’t, not over the force of my heart breaking. I wanted to hold her and sob, an act I was certain would alarm her.

“Sometimes, when you help the other girls fix their hijabs, I feel bad,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because you do their hair. And you’re so nice. And no one knows how to do my hair.”

“Your hijab is always on so perfectly, it never needs to be fixed,” I remarked. It was true. The other girls’ hijabs would constantly slide off; they would struggle with it for a few minutes before complaining loudly, at which point I walked over to their desks, did their hair, and neatly fixed their hijabs over it while still teaching off the lesson plan. But this girl’s hijab was always firmly planted wrapped around her head, as though it were a protective second skin. “But if it ever slid off, of course I would help you fix it.”

“Do you want to see my hair?” she asked.

“Do you want me to see it?”

She pulled back the hijab. Her hair was sectioned into five different parts at various heights and braided.

“You see?” I said. “It’s lovely.”

She looked less sorrowful, though I was uncertain whether it was my imagination. She seemed to warm up. I began to align the hijab along her forehead again, and she grinned and tampered with my hair. “You think it’s pretty?”

“Yes.”

Maybe the words weren’t empty to her yet. Maybe she hadn’t yet gotten to the point where white beauty standards were so forcefully bombarded on her person that wouldn’t believe her hair was pretty matter how many times she heard it, to the point where your hair is lovely was just something people said to be kind or even dismissive.

Obviously, I was unequipped to deal with this. I don’t know if I did well at all. There was so much I wanted to say–but I was afraid of overwhelming the situation. My point is that I should have been prepared, that I should have known what to do; that we, as Muslims, majority non-white, ought to know how to handle circumstances pertaining to the comfort of black students in our classrooms, to the struggles of races that are not our own.

And that is the purpose of a caring, giving, and supportive community. Not one that’s just preoccupied with going through the movements, preoccupied with merely discussing Islam with a reluctance to confront the anxieties that deter us from living it in its full compassionate capacity.

Posted in hi'jab, privilege | Tagged , | 4 Comments

On whether the hijab is mandatory

I’ve been avoiding this post. I’ve successfully avoided writing it for four years. As most of you know I’m conscious of the context to which I contribute exegesis (or anything), and whether or not hijab is mandatory is a question that is irrelevant in a context where women are harassed for wearing the hijab—and for not wearing it. Because of this context I have, reluctantly, written more posts here about hijab than I ever cared to write, and all about men minding their own business.

There is one verse that is used by male scholars to “encourage” women to cover their hair. Humorously (or not) enough, this verse does not explicitly make this command; it reads, instead,

And say
to the believing women
that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty; that they should not
display their beauty and
ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
that they should draw their veils
over their bosoms
(Qur’an 24:31)

In case you’re wondering how “bosoms” is understood as “hair” when they are pretty clearly distinct body parts (insert joke about judicial male “expertise” knowing nothing about female anatomy here) let’s look at the word “veil.” The verse already hints that a veil existed; it doesn’t command, for example to veil as though the action is revolutionary or unpracticed, but to draw their veils, as though the women already owned fabric they understood could be used as a veil. And that’s exactly correct. The area where male scholarship is wrong, however, is in arguing that the veil was already used to cover the hair, and that 24:31 merely commands the inclusion of the bosom with the hair, thus advising that both the hair and bosom are covered.

But there are problems with this—mainly that the assumption that the sole purpose of the veil was exclusively to cover the hair in pre-Islamic Arabia is an incorrect one.

As Lee Ann explains,

“The cloth was more utilitarian in purpose than just as a piece of clothing. It served to protect against weather, to carry babies, to haul such things as wood. It was tied around the waist and used like a tool belt of sorts, to stick things in it, etc. The “hijab” [before the Revelation] was never exclusive to be used as a head covering because it would have to be removed from the head in order to use it for those other purposes. The ayat in the Quran is basically telling women to use that piece of cloth, that they already have and are using (to make it easier on them, no need to get a special “hijab” so to speak) and use it to cover your chest/breast.”

If the line of argument for scholars is that hijab is commanded in the Qur’an because the cloth to which the Qur’an refers in advising women to cover their bosoms is the same cloth women used to exclusively cover their hair (which is the male scholarly line of argument) then it is an inadequate one. And it’s inadequate for the simple reason that hair-covering was not the exclusive purpose of this fabric. Would it have made sense to interpret that women should cover their bosoms and with the same fabric we use to hold tools? If our logical standards are that all previous purposes of the cloth have now become mandatory with the inclusion of covering the bosom, then it does. Otherwise, there is no reason for scholars to focus solely on the cloth’s purpose to cover hair as an extension of the command to conceal the bosom.

The command to conceal the bosom was given because non-Muslim men would harass Muslim women due to prejudice (you know, all too familiar) while knowing full well these women were Muslim, but since all Arab women exposed their chests, when confronted the men claim that they did not recognize that the woman was Muslim and couldn’t tell, and therefore had not been harassing her for her religion. The verse was revealed to blast away this poor excuse. Muslim women were defined clearly from non-Muslim women, so that, in Lee Ann’s words “those men had no excuse other than they were assholes.”

This is why the verse cites the reason “so that they will not be harassed” in advising the hijab—it’s not meant to be interpreted as the responsibility to avoid harassment is placed on the woman: it’s meant to be interpreted so that the excuse given by men (“I did not recognize her as Muslim and therefore was not committing the 7-century version of a hate crime.”) is rendered illegitimate.

Posted in feminism, hi'jab, misconceptions, Quran | Tagged | 8 Comments

Guest Post: Culture, nationalism, and the myth of a monolithic Islam

Does our last guest writer even need an introduction? Metis, wife, mother, academic, and a writer on topics related to religion and feminism, is the badass behind MusFem, where feminism is spoken fluently–and the gridlocks of conventional wisdom is challenged. Under different names, Metis has always been a subversive voice of uncompromising reason and astounding patience. Please welcome Metis and her exploration of religion and national identity–as well as her contention as to whom it truly concerns.

It has taken my neighbour’s six-year-old daughter nearly a year to vaguely understand the difference between religion and nationality. Every time her mother tried to take her to church because ‘good Christian children attend church’ she would promptly declare that she was “American, not Christian!”

Most immigrant or expatriate families who live away from home tend to focus more on their “own traditions” which manifests itself either in the form of people interacting closely with their national community or in the form of strict adherence to religious traditions. It appears to me that in my neighbour’s case the focus of the family has been more on their American identity in a foreign country. This made me realise that Quran never refers to ‘nationality’ as we know it today. There are references to ‘peoples’ (49:13) and ‘tribes’ (7:160) like the ‘Children of Israel’ (10:90) and ‘Pharaoh’s People’ (43:51) and the ‘Quraish’ (106:1), for example, because people were known to exist as tribes with their personal beliefs becoming ‘Jews, and Sabaeans, and Christians’ (5:69). Bible doesn’t refer to nationalities either. Yet, in the modern world there are constant references to Islam as it started in the 7th Century Arabia versus the modern idea of nations and nationalities. Muslims are repeatedly reminded that a thousand and four hundred years later Islam is a sum total of the verse 12 of chapter 8 of the Quran, while the ‘West’ is ‘democratic’, ‘free’, and ‘just.’ Muslims who migrated to the ‘West’ (sometimes two generations ago) have, like any other immigrant/expat community, tried to remain faithful to their traditions – in this case their Muslim traditions. For that they have been blamed for “bringing that desert stuff into our world.” Constant references are made to ‘the West and Islam’ or ‘America and Islam’ as if these are mutually exclusive entities, and Muslims are regularly asked if they can be “British and Muslim”, and taught how to exist as hyphenated identities: American-Muslim. We vaguely understand what is meant by ‘West’ and we are fairly sure about what we mean when we refer to America or Britain or France. But what do we mean by ‘Islam’? What is ‘Islam’?

In 2001, the then President of the US, George Bush said, “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Thirteen years later, the famous Muslim scholar and writer, Reza Aslan said in reference to ISIS (2:13) that “if a member of ISIS said I’m chopping off the infidels heads because I’m a Muslim and Islam tells me to do so, you’ve got to take his word for it; he’s a Muslim and that’s his interpretation of Islam.” One cannot help but notice the difference between the two men’s understanding of ‘Islam.’ For Bush Islam is a monolithic bloc that is black and white – peaceful Muslims practiced the ‘true Islam’ while the terrorist Muslims hijacked Islam and were “traitors to their own faith.” At least that is what he said. Aslan, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone has their own interpretation of Islam; in effect, every Muslim’s Islam is their personal understanding of the faith and hence those who are terrorists are also Muslim, not “traitors to their own faith.” Bill Maher infamously condemns all Muslims as following one type of Islam, while Aslan and Jebreal try to argue that there is no one type of Islam.

Apparently there are 73 sects within ‘Islam.’ Whether one believes this number as true or not, it is true that most Muslims identify themselves as belonging to a branch of Islam and even within a particular branch there are diversities in beliefs and practices. There are also ‘cultural Muslims’ (aka secular Muslims) like Jebreal (who told Maher that she is a secular Muslim) or Mandvi who recently acknowledged that “Religion is so much more than the god you pray to. The religion that you associate with, it’s culture, it is family, it is background… culturally, yes, I feel like I will always be culturally Muslim.”

Very recently a radio programme focused on the history of Islam in America the introduction of which made a valuable observation that “Islam has some 1.6 billion followers practicing a wide array of religious traditions and speaking hundreds of different languages. And yet, even as more and more Americans convert to the faith and foreigners emigrate to the U.S. from all over the Islamic world, Muslims are still often caricatured in the American imagination.”

This ugly caricature of the American imagination has to stop but first we must also realise that an ‘American’ does not automatically mean a Maher-version of white, non-Muslim, ill-informed citizen of the US. What is an ‘American imagination’ about Muslims if an American also happens to be Muslim? Inadvertently the programme’s introduction is making the same dangerous mistake of stereotyping, and alienating Muslims from America, which it is accusing ‘Americans’ of doing. An American can be a Muslim. They can be white, brown or black. An American Muslim can be a Sufi or Salafi or Progressive or Quranist or Shiite or even just a cultural Muslim.

To understand if people have, even a vague, universal definition of Islam I asked Muslims and non-Muslims to give me their definition of Islam. Twenty seven people kindly shared their definition – each one different from the other. Interestingly only one Muslim made a reference to the Prophet Muhammad while four non-Muslims referred to him as essential to the Muslim faith. Muslims generally focused on the worship of One God and most further defined their identity for example as ‘Ritualistic spiritual muslim’ (sic) or ‘Spiritual Muslim’ or ‘Sufi Muslim’ and even ‘Quranist.’ Furthermore, while non-Muslims were inclined to offer a text-book definition of Islam highlighting the mechanics like “organized religion”, Prophet, Quran, “rituals” and “rules”, Muslims focused more on their “relationship” with God, as Islam being a “security blanket”, and adopting “a Way of Life.” Clearly Muslims understand Islam personally and individually rather than as a standard definition and they acknowledge that their belief system can be further identified as a particular type of Islam.

Where am I leading with this? I argue that while we all know in our hearts that Islam is not monolithic and that there is no ‘true Islam’, non-Muslims and sometimes even Muslims like to pretend otherwise. This insistence that we have “our own traditions and everything else is wrong” (as if there are standard sets of Muslim traditions) satisfies the ego of Muslims who want to broadcast their version of Islam as the only legitimate version – the true Islam. Recently when Huffington Post Religion posted this article on their Facebook Page on how Shiite Muslims observe Ashura, Sunni Muslims were quick to point out to the world that “This is deceiving”, “This has nothing to do with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad”, “This is not the true Islam; This is very real diversion”, and even that “This is not an Islamic practice it is made up and weird” (sic). Yet, if you ask the small community of Shiite Muslims who observe Ashura through bloodletting, the physical ‘abuse’ is neither deceiving nor weird; it is all about the “universality of the experience”, a universality that is confined to the minority community that celebrates its spirituality in a unique manner. Reiterating what Aslan said, “that’s their interpretation of Islam” and we must take their word for it with tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

No one has perhaps said it better than Dr. Laury Silvers that “There is no core “Islam,” there is only diverse Muslim identities constructed in a multitude of ways.” So which one particular Muslim identity is the only legitimate one that non-Muslims and Muslims alike can refer to when discussing ‘Islam’, a religion of over a billion diverse people?

That is a billion American dollar question.

Posted in culture, guest post, identity, Islam, Muslims | 5 Comments

Guest Post: Qur’anic Revisionism Revised

I’m brimming with excitement in introducing our fourth guest writer, Jessica. A doctoral candidate in theology who is specializing in the history of Islam’s interactions with other religions, Jessica’s approach to research and history is nothing short of refreshing–and thorough. She routinely debunks commonly held misperceptions, including the idea that history becomes more progressive as it progresses. In this guest post, Jessica explores the working biases that have come into effect when non-Muslims attempt to research the Qur’an and its origin, including the privileging of non-Muslim sources and methods of analysis & criticism.

Hi all!  My name is Jessica, and I’m the author of askanislamicist.  Nahida very sweetly asked me to write a guest post for her.  I’m a researcher in Islamic studies, finishing up a PhD at Oxford.  My research focuses predominantly on the theological interactions between Christianity and Islam in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, although blogging has increased my interest in the modern history of the field of Islamic studies and how that impacts our work as researchers.

I’m currently in the (slightly soul-crushing) process of final revisions on my thesis, and have been rereading a lot of material about the Qur’an and modern scholarship on the Qur’an, so when Nahida approached me, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about how the modern history of the field of Islamic studies can affect the research itself, specifically looking at the example of modern theories on the dating and origins of the Qur’an.

The Muslim tradition holds that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of about twenty years, from circa 610 to his death in 632.  Passages of the Qur’an were transmitted orally for the first few decades; the first attempt at a written version was under the first caliph Abu Bakr (s’lm), but the complete version wasn’t assembled until the caliphate of Uthman (s’lm) around 650.  This version was transmitted during the Islamic expansion to what became the Muslim lands – North Africa, the Middle East, and Mesopotamia.

Western scholarship on the Qur’an took a long time to be anything more than polemical – many works accepted elements of the Muslim account of the work’s composition, but also routinely referred to Muhammad (s’lm) as the Antichrist and a demon, so it’s hard to claim they had much by way of a critical analysis.  It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Western scholars started to study the text critically.  The earliest Western Quranic scholars were largely Semeticists, people who studied Syriac and Hebrew, as well, such as Theodor Noldeke, who attempted to apply the methodology of Biblical criticism to the Quran, studying sentence structure, word choice, and repeated phrases in an attempt to put the suras in order, assuming that those written at the same time would have a similar topic, tone, and structure.

The theory was flawed both methodologically and philosophically – methodologically because the Qur’an was potentially written over a period of decades to the Hebrew Bible’s[1] centuries, leaving much less time for language evolution, and philosophically because Biblical criticism had been developed to cope with the lack of sources contemporary to the Hebrew Bible, so the internal focus of comparing books of the Bible to other books of the Bible was really the only option.  There are, however, a wide range of sources referencing Islam from the seventh century, and although in the nineteenth century there were few Arabic sources known, there were sources in Greek and Syriac that referenced the rise of Islam, as a Semeticist like Noldeke should have known.  However, Noldeke’s dating, which largely accepted the Muslim account (minus Muhammad’s (s’lm) prophetic office), remained the implicit assumption of Western Quranic scholars for another century.

In the last forty years, however, a number of scholars have offered new datings on the Qu’ran.  These new works, called collectively “the revisionists,” all center on the assumption that the Muslim account cannot be accepted as being biased, because, you know, religion and stuff.  The first, and probably most well-known, revisionist history is Hagarism by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, which theorized that Islam started out as a variant Jewish cult, and that the Qur’an, as it exists today, was not created until what was then the earliest extant manuscript evidence for it, a century later[2].  Crone and Cook argued that there was no reason to accept the Muslim account a priori, as lacking sufficient archeological evidence to support it, and reached instead for Jewish Messianism, of which, while there are certainly examples throughout the Near East, there were very few examples in Arabia in the seventh century.

Since the publication of Hagarism, there have been a number of alternate arguments that similarly start from the assumption that we cannot accept the Muslim account.  John Wansbrough, who is routinely cited for having coined the concept of a “milieu,” a culture context used for dating texts, also published a work arguing for the Qur’an as dating from after the Abbasid revolution in 750, claiming it was a form of state-building by the Abbasids.  Gunter Luling, also writing in the1970s, expanded Noldeke’s work to argue for four strands to the Qur’an, the earliest being the liturgy of non-Trinitarian Christians in Mecca.  And Yehuda Nevo, whose work was published posthumously by colleague Judith Koren, argued for dismissing all textual evidence, as being too easily corruptible, and relying exclusively on inscriptions and archaeological evidence, and again claiming a Jewish root for Islam, based on Islam’s use of Biblical prophets in its inscribed messages.

This range of theses have also infected public knowledge about the Qur’an to various degrees, fueling a belief that the Qur’an is essentially impossible to study.  Resistance to the revisionist movement by Muslims has also fueled a belief that Muslims are somehow against the study of their religion.  However, as some Western scholars, including Gabriel Said Reynolds and Fred Donner, have started to argue, this revisionism is itself as essentially flawed as the quasi-Biblical approach it sought to replace.

Firstly, Qur’anic revisionism is often itself a-historical.  It’s perfectly reasonable to want to compare Islam to its Abrahamic neighbors, as many of the revisionists do, but it should be done in a source-relevant way.  Luling, for example, reaches back to obscure 3rd century Jewish and Christian apocalypses for his narrative imagery, without any account of how these works would have been transmitted to Arabia (or in what language).  Crone and Cook and Nevo and Koren both reference Jewish cults in Arabia, and Luling theorizes Jewish-Christian and non-Trinitarian Christian Arabians, all without reference to the wide range of actual Jewish and Christian sources from the seventh century.  We have letters, sermons, books of heresy, teaching manuals, and books of canon law, all discussing each and every variety and sect of Christian and Jew, all without any reference to these Arabian cults who make these theories work.

Secondly, revision requires privileging non-Muslim sources, even those written thousands of miles away or centuries later.  Nevo and Koren are maybe the funniest example of this – in the introduction to their work The Origins of the Arab Religion, they lay out, in no uncertain terms, that they intend to use exclusively physical sources (inscriptions and archaeological evidence) because texts can be corrupted, and even uncorrupted, are often written centuries later. And then, on the very next page, they start to lay out the context for the rise of Islam in the seventh century using the accounts of Theophanes the Confessor (9th century), the Annales of Eutychius (10th century), and Nikephorus Gregoras (13th century), all without reference to any contemporary sixth or seventh archaeological or epigraphical evidence to support these later sources, or apparently, any sense of irony.

Thirdly, it’s internally inconsistent.  Luling says use narrative for internal dating.  Nevo and Koren say no texts, never, and then immediately break this rule because you can’t write a history using only inscriptions: no one inscribes a stone with everything that’s happened that year, let alone that decade or century.  This is particularly clear when we’re talking about the religion of pre-Islamic Arabians – were they Jewish?  Jewish Messianists?  Jewish Christians?  Or were there no variant cults at all, as suggested by Gerald Hawting?  Methodology, at its core, is supposed to aid in the study of a field or subject, by suggesting new ways of looking at things or new ways to interpret data in order to create a coherent narrative, but the revisionist theses are all wildly diverse, contradictory between each other, and based on so many assumptions that we can’t do much with them except either accept or reject them wholesale.

And finally, it suggests a universal conspiracy of silence for which we have no evidence.  No matter when you want to date the writing of the Qur’an, if it’s outside of the period of the early community, then at some point, not only did everyone writing about it agree to pretend it was written then, but they also implicitly agreed to never mention that it was changed.  In a caliphate that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan, and had several major sects vying for rule, that kind of conspiracy of silence would be impressive.  But that’s not even considering the non-Muslim sources.  By the early eighth century, we have John of Damascus writing a book of heresies and including a refutation of Islam, John of Ephesus writing canons explicitly telling Christians how to deal with Muslims, and anonymous apocalypses and apologies cropping up in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic, all explaining how evil and awful Islam is.  Surely if the Muslims had just started circulating a holy book a few years earlier AND were running around claiming it was a hundred years old, someone would have said something.  Someone would have written something in a language the Muslims couldn’t understand.  No conspiracy is that effective.  And yet there is no evidence for this at all.  Christian authors claim Muhammad (s’lm) is a demon, and that Muslims are really worshipping Aphrodite or a star when they say, “Allah al-Akhbar” (God is Great), but no contemporary is saying, “Hey, these guys want us to believe their holy book is a hundred years old!  Remember when they were just a bunch of Jewish-Christian-Messianists?”

So why do these works keep coming?  Well, part of it is definitely that our field has gotten a lot more attention recently, and controversy sells.  No one is going to get invited on CNN or written up in the New York Times for discussing manuscript transmission.  But Crone and Wansbrough predate much of the modern Islamophobia-driven media focus by several decades.

I think at its most basic, it’s the problem that it’s much easier to recognize other people’s biases than your own.  It’s certainly the case that Muslims’ religious devotion can and has led to some strange analyses about the Qur’an and other topics (and if I have to read one more tenth century Arabic debate about when God created the throne upon which he sits, it’ll be too soon).  All of these scholars started from their own resistance to those beliefs, and their rejection of them, but failed to apply the same rules of logical analyses to their own assumptions.

 

[1] Hebrew Bible = Old Testament, for those unfamiliar with the phrase.

[2] Since Hagarism‘s publication in the 1970s, manuscripts with Qur’anic passages have been found that date to the Uthmanic period, and, it’s probably worth noting, Crone has largely rescinded her support of her earlier thesis.

Posted in guest post, Islam, misconceptions, Muslims | 3 Comments

Guest Post: Polarized Realities: Living a Theo-secular Purgatory in the Workplace

Zeina Shaaban is a graphic designer with interests in English and creative writing. Her approach to Islam is graced with wisdom, serenity, knowledge, and understanding. Those of you who have read this website for quite some time might be familiar with her; you’ve met Zeina before, and, as she has been a friend very close to my heart for nearly four years, it pleases me to introduce her to this space again, this time as a guest writer. Deeply invested in women’s security and freedom, Zeina has actively campaigned for legal consequences for abusive and controlling men, so that women can continue to live full, fulfilling lives that rival the liberation enjoyed by their male counterparts. Her exegesis of Islamic texts is caring, compassionate, sensitive, and highly detailed. In the tradition of the Prophet and early scholars, Zeina incorporates the contextual realities of century and society into her interpretations, and, most notably, an awareness of the spectrum of linguistic possibilities, to bring to life an Islam that is both sensible and sensitive.

For all her resilience of character, please welcome Zeina Shaaban.

There is a certain drive to modernity in Lebanon that is heavily associated with secularism. Or should I say, anti-theism. This is manifest in a way where all things religious are looked down on or automatically associated with backwardness and closed-mindedness. Of course, this also means that the religious frown down upon this modernity for that very same association. And the rest of us who don’t belong to either polars, get sucked into the purgatory of their in-between.

Sexism in the workplace is pretty much commonplace everywhere. But, at the very least, you would think that in an Arab country like Lebanon, worrying about things like wearing the headscarf wouldn’t be an issue. And you wouldn’t be farther from the truth.

I mean, sure, I get it. Sectarianism has really done its job screwing this country up and leaving us where we are today. I get this wanting to completely dissociate from it, and all things related: religion. And in attempts to move forward, you want to move past all of this rubble. That’s great, really. The problem comes in with the ostentatious know-it-all attitude, and in the shoving this worldview down people’s throat. “We don’t believe in it, so you’re not allowed to believe in it either/not allowed to display any sign that you believe in it.”

A young woman who was traveling to Canada saw the stark difference in university classes. When in Canada, she was not only allowed, but respected for asking for a small time-window to pray, in Lebanon, you are not even allowed out of class for Friday prayers. Because prayer is stupid, and doesn’t belong here, so we won’t tolerate it nor will we allow you to cultivate it.

Taking this conversation into the workplace: A flabbergasting amount of companies in Lebanon have completely forbidden all religious symbols. This basically means necklaces with a cross, and the veil, among other examples. It is interesting to note how the symbols they are restricting are conveniently symbols donned by women usually. And this becomes just another way of controlling women and what they can and can not wear/do.

I have often daydreamed about interviews where the interviewer would ask about my veil and I would look at him, shocked, “Veiled? I’m not veiled!” and would tell him that I’m wearing this scarf for beauty/fashion purposes. Or an interviewer asking me whether I would take the veil off, and I would say yes. Then come into work with a hat on that serves the same purpose but does not fall under their category of “religious symbol.” I would wonder if they would create a new “no hats” rule just for me. There is something very horrible about the fact that I even have to consider scenarios like this in the first place. Something very flawed in that women are being forced to hide how they choose to represent themselves.

This is not reserved to the secular companies. As I said, Lebanon is very sectarian, and its political parties represent the sects of the country. Then, you have major corporations who will support a certain political party as a call-out to their sect. This means there are big companies in Lebanon that associate with the Sunni political leader(s) and the Shiite political leader(s) (this also means that they probably have shares/have invested in the corporation in exchange for this support.) I am only focusing on the Muslim sects because I am discussing the issue of the veil, but the above also applies to Christian political leaders as well. However, even in those companies where they are supposedly by the Muslims and for the Muslims, the veil is still not allowed. (Note: This is a generalization and is certainly not true in all cases, there are even companies that ONLY hire veiled women, and here the issue is the same, only reversed.) Banks, TV shows, you name it, all those bigshot places where men and women are the company representatives, the veil is not even up for discussion.

This, and we did not even go into the default disadvantage we’re at for simply having two X chromosomes. The major I studied has a ratio of 5:1 women to men in classes on average. You would think that this means women would only naturally be more dominant/present in the workforce. However, what I’ve noticed is that: Sure, almost all the designers, the employees, are women. But almost all the creative directors, the CEOs, are men. Men who probably don’t even realize their privilege of not having to push against an almost unbreakable glass ceiling to get to where they are, and presumptuously attribute it to their own mastery.

In other majors, where there is a more balanced ratio, or in a ratio where the men rank out higher, companies will almost always prefer the men. Their rationale supposedly has nothing to do with sexism, too. It’s simply the more convenient choice.

Hiring a woman means she might get married one day/get pregnant if she is married, and leave the job to take care of her children, so she is not worth a long-term investment.
Hiring a woman means she can’t go to Saudi Arabia alone because they forbid traveling without a mahram (a male relative or husband).
Hiring a woman means her husband/father will not let her stay late at work and so she won’t be able to carry the unthinkable load we want to put on our employees
Hiring a woman means her husband/father won’t allow her to travel, and so she won’t be able to carry out some projects through till the end
Hiring a woman means you have to worry about her getting raped when she goes to construction scenes/is a liability
Hiring a woman means you have to tolerate one regular day a month when she might not come into work because she is in too much pain
Hiring a woman means you will be subject to her regular mood swings, and cat fights with other women, because women are more emotional and not as professional as men

Most of these points are riddled with sexist thoughts and assumptions. And it’s because men themselves perpetuate those thoughts that they expect it of the men in the women’s lives also. As a man, he expects his wife and daughter to be stay-at-home moms, or do a job that doesn’t disrupt her “household duties”; he will not allow her to travel or stay late at work, and most certainly won’t allow her onto construction sites and the like. As a result, he will most certainly assume that not only is it the correct way to go about things, but that ALL men of the country will treat their wife/daughter the same way.

So they will hire women, but they will hire just enough to make them look like an equal-opportunity employer, then move on to giving all the spots to men, because it’s more convenient.

This is why in an interview, before I am asked to show my work or share my experience, I am asked (after the interviewer noted that I am a newly wed) whether I have a curfew or should be at home a certain time (read: what is the latest that your husband allows you to stay out?). I can hardly contain my disdained surprise in my response: “Who the hell do you think I married?” The reason this is so problematic is because it can be two-fold: The interviewer can either be of the religious/conservative party and asks this question because he actually perpetuates it and believes in it, and my response to him is “Your standards do not apply to me,” – or he can be of the anti-theist party, and the question carries an undertone of cynicism. He carries with him the assumption that all (backward) veiled ladies would only marry (backward) religious men who do not allow them to work after sundown. Considering the pretentious tone with which the question was asked, I would say it’s the latter.

So my being a veiled married woman ends up putting me at a triple disadvantage in the workforce, before the employer even opens up my portfolio. I am sure that this purgatory where the religious and the modern do not clash in arms has a whole community of people, who, like me, are fed up with not pleasing either side of the spectrum and not belonging anywhere. And this community should have its own companies and its own vision for how they perceive the future.

This is a community I would like to foster.

Posted in feminism, guest post, Muslims, privilege, religion, social justice | 7 Comments