Language Supremacy, Power and Authority in Islam

Because the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic there’s consensus in the Islamic community that Arabs who speak Arabic from birth and are fluent in the language know the Qur’an best. Consequently, Arab religious leaders are viewed as more authentic compared to religious leaders of other ethnic groups.

And it trickles down. (Or up.) Arabic is not my first language. I could read it since I was about five years old, as is usual for Muslim children, but I didn’t start understanding and communicating in the Arabic until I took classes. But for everyone, when it comes to reading the Qur’an, which is in classical Arabic, it’s almost a different language from the modern Arabic we learn. Even those who have been speaking Arabic their whole lives and understand enough classical Arabic to get through most of the Qur’an don’t understand everything. Most importantly, being able to read doesn’t mean being able to understand the different layers of meaning even in the most simple of sentences. Each line in Qur’an has multiple layers of meaning, some say up to 7, with the shallowest being the first, and the deepest meaning–one that only God can understand–being the seventh. And yet, I’ve been told, “How is Islam a feminist religion? Don’t tell me about mistranslations because I know enough classical Arabic to understand the Qur’an.”

No, you don’t. I don’t. Sorry to break it to you, but no one alive does. You probably don’t even understand all Moby Dick either, despite the fact that you’ve been speaking English since the day you were born. Don’t act like nothing’s up for debate. Everyone’s interpretation is worth consideration.

We don’t need translators. We need interpreters. The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic for a reason–not because Arabic is holy or pure *rolls eyes*, but because it’s such a rich and flexible language and was the language of its audience of the time. In the Qur’an there are reasons–as there are in works of human literature–that specific words are used, reasons that sentences have certain grammatical structures, reasons for every metaphor and every image, and this is why it is crucial to preserve the original and read it and refer back to it first and foremost. If we don’t even fully understand literary works, how can we say we fully understand entire religious texts from centuries ago, especially one that sometimes uses vocabulary that does not make sense in any of its acceptable modern usages? The scopes of meaning are unimaginable.

In May, almostclever posted quotes from a book called The Vision of Islam–which I have just purchased. It arrived yesterday! I am reading through it, and it’s really deep and really beautiful, and quite refreshing. (Thanks, Sarah!) I’ve gotten through a good chunk of it, but I haven’t gotten to this excerpt yet. (I totally skipped the preface though so it might be in there.) Nevertheless, it eloquently addresses the depth of the Qur’an and the complications in its perception:

If everyone had understood exactly the same thing from the text, the religion would never have spread as widely as it has. The book had to address both the simple and the sophisticated, the shepherd and the philosopher, the scientist and the artist.

[…]

For Westerners, the Quran is an extremely difficult text to appreciate, especially in translation. Even for those who have spent enough years studying the Arabic language to read the original, the Quran may appear as disorderly, inaccurate and illogical. However, there is enough evidence provided by Islamic civilization itself, and by the great philosophers, theologians, and poets who have commented on the text, to be sure that the problem lies on the side of the reader, not the book….

The nature of the Quranic worldview presents a fundamental barrier to understanding the book. It is true that the Quran’s view of things has a deep kinship with both the Jewish and Christian worldviews, but most people in the modern world have little understanding of those worldviews either. Simply attending synagogue, church or mosque does not mean that one sees things any differently from contemporary atheists. Our culture’s dominant ways of thinking are taught to us not in our places of worship, but in our media and educational institutions. We may like to think that our education is scientific and unbiased, but this is a highly biased judgement……….As a rule, it seems, when people with no grounding in the Islamic worldview pick up a translation of the Quran, they have their prejudices confirmed, whatever these may be.

I spend a lot of time on this blog examining the legalities of the religion, which come hand in hand with clearing up misconceptions, the biggest purpose of this blog being to demonstrate that Islam is, contrary to popular belief, a feminist religion. What’s often disregarded is that there is an unexplainable quality–several qualities; of depth, of compassion, of unity–to the Qur’an itself, successfully forgotten through the violence of a very loud patriarchy.

Muslims need to read the Qur’an. More importantly, Muslim women need to read the Qur’an. Because this is what global patriarchy fears: that we will recover the forgotten emphasis on verses of equality and compassion by recovering an interpretation closer to that which existed during the time of the Prophet.

This is urgent. And so when I hear an imam telling people that they shouldn’t think they know more than they do, I am highly suspicious. This particular imam was quoted without any context on a blog I like reading, so it was difficult to tell to what he was referring. Here is the exact quote:

If a man reads 20 books on medicine, can he become a doctor? Can he open a clinic? Can he make surgery for someone else? No.

If a woman reads 30 books and magazines on engineering, can she go and get the job of an engineer? Can she build a bridge for the state? No.

So why are so many Muslims reading 20 or 30 books/magazines/websites about Islam and think they can make fatawa like they are a Shaykh? There is more to being a Shaykh than just reading some hadiths and using them in a scholarly argument.

I think the imam is referring to the haraam police: you know, Muslims who go around telling other Muslims that they are committing sins and are going to hell. I haven’t been caught on this blog by the haraam police. Maybe I scare them off. Surprisingly enough, no one has commented that THIS IS HARAAM SISTER! It’s happened in real life (music, makeup, fun [Muslims aren’t allowed to have fun] etc.) but not on this blog, most likely because there are solid explanations and sound arguments that are laid out for anyone in the midst of a heart attack prompted by so much “haraam” to see, all on a convenient little tab, unlike in real life.

Unless I sense good faith (“Isn’t this haraam?”) as opposed to bad faith (“What kind of Muslim are you?!”) I tend not to bother with the haraam police. Not to sound arrogant (too late) I feel it’s not worth it. I’m more than inclined to laugh it off. If there’s one good thing about the haraam police, they’re always amusing when they’re under the impression that I have time for their judgmental pettiness and hysterical outrage or that they’ll stop me in my tracks with their awe-inspiring insight or something, as though I’ve never heard a traditional sermon.

As you’ve probably figured by now, I am not a fan of the haraam police. But I have a problem with this quote. A huge problem. And that is [There is more to being a Shaykh than just reading some hadiths and using them in a scholarly argument] you are not that fucking special.

Islam is against priesthood. Islam is SO against priesthood that for a couple to be married, they don’t even need an imam to perform the ceremony–they just need a pious person to marry them together. The second half of the quote is true in that you can’t just make fatwas without years and years of intense studying. It is not true in implying that sheiks are somehow above us, incapable of error because they’ve studied so much. Especially since they mess up a lot. They’ve historically messed up so much that today men think they’re entitled to 72 virgins if they suicide bomb. You’re so great–why is there a barrier in your mosque?

But what’s most astounding about that quote, is that it tells us not to argue. Unacceptable.

Lively debate was the center of the Islamic community when the Prophet was alive. Women, especially, argued frequently against the imam and the Prophet would say, often, “She’s right.”

I have told people (non-Muslims) to stfu because they don’t know what they’re talking about when they say things about Islam. This is because on these occasions it is true (I wouldn’t tell people to stfu unless they were clearly assuming bad faith) and I’m speaking as a member of an underprivileged group. It’s totally different when an imam does it, someone in a position of power, to his congregation. Telling his congregation, who are probably of good faith, not to argue with him. When the primary purpose of religious leaders is to teach their congregations, interact with their congregations, not belittle them or tell them to shut up and mindlessly listen. And again, telling them not to debate? That is unIslamic.

Again, I don’t know what the context was. Maybe he meant those who judge and control others using religion because it makes them feel empowered, not everyone who is seeking out meaning and making their own interpretations known and up for debate. But what I gather from this is that authority is not to be challenged, which is patriarchal bullshit.

17 thoughts on “Language Supremacy, Power and Authority in Islam

  1. Perfectly said. I get so annoyed with people. At the mosque I go to most of the time, the Imam has a saying he calls it ‘leaving your brain with your shoes’. People put this other hat on when it comes to religiosity. The non-thinking, I accept what any person tells me, I refuse to be empowered/am too scared to think for myself hat on. But why?  People are scared of ‘making the call’ when it comes to religion because the consequences could be so dire (salvation etc.). But to me, this is EXACTLY why we should be making our own calls- nobody is going to take the fall for leading a crap, disempowered, let me regurgitate what was said on the pulpit life.   I wish I could be like you and ignore the petty haraam police. But I get so worked up. I vent. I scream. I sometimes cry. This isn’t my Islam! Why are you doing this! What is wrong with you? I should just learn to ignore the voices. But I haven’t managed to grow up like you :)

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  2. ‘leaving your brain with your shoes’OMG That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in EVER! Questioning everything used to be such a big part of Islam, and it's something that needs to be brought back among practitioners.I used to get worked up too. After a while you just… yeah. It's easier to find it funny. =D

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  3. Don’t get me wrong. He was deploring that type of mentality (otherwise I wouldn’t love the mosque as much, wouldn’t go at all in fact). I adore this imam J   But this type of attitude seems  so all pervasive. People seem to forget. Like the story of Umar, where he is corrected by somebody in the jamah and he says “I, Umar, am wrong and the woman is right” Firstly- when do people correct an Imam in a sermon nowadays? Secondly- there couldn’t have been a barrier (but we know this) Thirdly- Umar was super hardcore and hence it seems this was common practice. How did we lose such an acceptance of debate? Why have mosques become places so austere? Why are Imams afraid of being challenged? Sigh. I have had so many arguments. Tried using logic, then ayats then hadith. Some people just won’t listen. Definitely need to learn to laugh :)

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  4. Deploring the mentality of the haraam police? In that case he could still use a better catchphrase. xD Or did you mean he was deploring those who leave their brains behind/demand their congregation leave their brains behind? I'm so glad you've found an imam you like! The good ones are a rarity.I suspect imams are afraid of being challenged because they fear a loss of power, but their power has risen to a degree it should have never been; it's an attribute of patriarchy to make sure no one argues with you or gets any ideas. I suspect this was one of the many symptoms (or even a driver) of Islam being taken over by global patriarchy and used as a political weapon.

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  5. almostclever

    Oh I am so glad you are reading it! I hope it makes you feel in new ways, as it did me :) Oh yea, don't skip anything! Front to back my friend, even the prologue is good (or maybe I am super geek?) Haha… We'll have to discuss it once you are done.. I have a few impressions to share… In regards to comments about power and Imams and patriarchy…. I think we (as an ummah) gloss over the effects that segregation has on our communities. In patriarchy men are the power holders, and the separation of women from men means we don't even have access to key power players to say "hey, I don't agree." Our husbands and fathers and brothers and friends are being told what and who women are, and how women should be and do – by other men. Our stories are being told in our place, when they are discussing issues important to us who is there to say whether we are being represented correctly? What messages are the men in our lives being given that we have no say in (and no knowledge of)? I definitely think Imams today hold more power than they were ever meant to hold. In my city there is a rotation of the same imams at the mosques and Islamic centers – how has it come to be a "profession" when it is supposed to be a learned person able to teach, nothing more? Why is there no ad in the papers for volunteers to come speak, or reaching out to the educators and professionals in our cities? Why can't we hear a variety of voices? Don't even get me going on the fact that it could only be men that are reached out to, subduing any kind of role modeling of strong female leaders who could represent us women in any way. Where are our women of the prophet's time who stand up and say "no, this is how I think it should be," Or "no, you are wrong" who don't then become the scapegoats of patriarchy by being called devilish women? I don't know one female scholar who dissents from the mainstream patriarchy that has not been called "misguided" or "not a real scholar." Could you imagine if Aisha were alive today, and acted and spoke as she did back then?! Would we be holding her up to this high standard and flocking to her or would we be pushing her to the outskirts and calling her misguided and "trying to be like a man?" That is what Muslim feminists today are accused of. Our history is rich with powerful, outspoken women, but God forbid we walk in their footsteps in real life. We are then called the apologists, the ones who are outside of the mainstream or "trying to change the religion." Only one thing I can say to my fellow Muslimahs: THINK.

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  6. In a perfect world, religious leaders are leaders because the community regards them as wise and fair-minded, and everyone respects them. Here in the real world, unfortunately, a lot of religious leaders are leaders because an authoritarian structure gets set up using the religion in question as a justification.The problem with imposing those kinds of authority onto religious belief is that people in positions of power are assumed to be more pious and closer to God, without requiring them to actually act more pious and closer to God.

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  7. Again, if you are ever this side of the world you must come to mosque also :p there is no barrier, well no opaque barrier. Kind of a line separating men anf women on the same floor. But the division is half and we have same access to see pulpit etc. Anyway, he deplores that people do that. That they don't challenge imams and empower themselves. Re your last paragraph, I agree. Completely.

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  8. @ almost clever. Here here. Alienation is a big part of that. I don't know what it is like where you live, but as a general rule here women seem to accept their "role" force upon them. When you are told that going to mosque is wrong, HOW can you just accept that? What type of person would tell you that? Sigh.

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  9. That sounds amazing! And it's so beautiful where you live, water and palm trees and breathtaking lights. Insha'Allah, maybe I really will be able to visit that part of the world someday. <3 Aaah I want to go everywhere. =P

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  10. almostclever

    I hear the US and UK has some of the most segregated mosques in the world. Interesting assertion. I think that could be a blog post in itself.

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  11. It's not surprising. It reminds me the Puritans, kind of, who came here for religious freedom and were very strict and traditional because they felt wildly out of place and insecure.

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  12. I searched your blog, but didn't find you writing on the topic about Islam, which interested me (I am not a Muslim, but an atheist Jew, which is nationality too, so I don't see a contradiction between the terms): Why is viewing pictures of people forbidden in Islam? F.e. one can't show students in Muslim school pictures of animals or people, only plants, right? If it's derived from the Old Testament, why Jews don't think it's forbidden? Is it in Quran? It's true people used to worship animals and human looking gods (on Mount Olympus f.e.), but didn't they worship trees too in some times & places? Like a picture of a Sturdy Oak? I thought may be you'll get an idea for a post on this topic. :)Another question is about poetry. How did you learn that much about it? At school or university? A natural gift or/and did you study somehow yourself? I have only recently started trying to read some poetry, took "Understanding poetry" kind of book from a library, but don't feel I got a big enlightenment and can now analyze poems better than before. :( It probably simply requires more study for mediocre in this area people.Have I already recommended The Wondering Minstrels to you? Great poems and analyses.I've recently found "The Heaven of Animals" by James Dickey on it and loved it. Also some great poems by Auden, like "O What Is That Sound" and "Law Like Love".

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  13. Hello el, and welcome! I write about topics other than Islam sometimes, so you might have arrived on a day the front page was filled with other things. =) It is commonly accepted that drawing pictures of people and animals is forbidden unless it is for study, but I've never heard of anyone suggesting that it is forbidden to view them. There is nothing about drawing or viewing pictures in the Qur'an, and I've heard very strange explanations for why people come to the conclusion that it's forbidden and they all contradict each other, from pictures being a form of idolization to pictures being a new creation and therefore an act to only which God is entitled, which is ridiculous, because God created us to do things like build buildings and make art. I've heard that photographs are okay, because it's not a new being you're "creating" but you're taking a "copy" of something that already exists, but if that is the case there is still the given reason of idolization which makes allowing photographs based on the second reason contradictory to the first. Also, photoshop.I don't believe God is against people having imaginations. I highly suspect (and this is just a theory) that when Islam was revealed to the Prophet there were reasons for the Muslims to refrain from creating statues and paintings because at the time there were people who worshiped them, and that over decades and centuries the generations that followed made this a requirement without knowing or understanding the reasons. This would also explain why pictures of plants are said to be allowed, because the people who lived in that area at that time were specifically worshipping statues of people/animals and not plants.It is true that idolization is against Islam, and that is why I believe specifically having statues/paintings of prophets or of God is forbidden–because we as humans sort of have an inclination to carry them around and pray with them near and essentially view them as objects of worship, especially when the idea of them is already highly significant to us. But other people, animals, and mythical creatures? Knock yourself out. Like I said, the implication that God is against imagination is absurd.I never took a class for writing poetry, I pretty much learned everything I know about writing (which isn't much) from reading lots and lots and lots of books and poems.Thank you for the recommendations! I always love recommendations. I will be reading them online today. =)

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  14. I'm actually more inclined to read that quote a bit mote negatively — as not addressing the haraam police, but Muslim feminists and bloggers. But perhaps that's just because I was recently "warned" not to write blog posts without clearly saying that they were only my opinion — in case someone reads it and falls into sin by following the WT fatwa. Literally told that I cannot read one or two ahadeeth and think I can reinterpret the Quran or reimaging popular religious practices. Who's to say I can't?

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  15. Yeah, I read that quote more negatively as well, but wanted to give the imam a sliver of the benefit of the doubt. I've never been warned not to write blog posts (not yet anyway) and if anyone told me it was only my opinion (unless I was suppressing someone else's) I think I'd lose it. I don't think my interpretations are "opinions" and I don't think yours are either. Definitely not if no one would dismissively tell a religious (male) leader that it's only his "opinion"! These are interpretations derived from sound reasoning and are entirely valid. They tell you "that's just your opinion" when they have no counterargument. It's just a method used by those in privileged positions to hold onto their power.

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