discussion of language with amina wadud

By popular demand, I’m writing a post about tea with amina wadud, who prefers (as I confirmed while I spun around in her bedroom) that her name be spelled with lowercase letters, like bell hooks. My auntie amina is currently visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, but before she left she gave me a copy of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, and, like the badass she is, showed me the three books she was reading at once. One of them included Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. I brought her a hard copy. She has lived in several countries, likes flowers, drinks tea without sugar, and is probably more qualified a religious leader than any sheikh you’ve ever met. (I’m sure she wouldn’t sit well with that last part, but I will maintain it.)

I’m not going to talk too much about the visit here–but I will share parts of our discussion that are pertinent to Islamic feminism and subjects that have been touched on in this space, because she very much ought to be credited for the insights about to be imparted.

One of the …concerns (?) I inquired her about, that have been introduced in the comments of this website, pertains to the preservation of the Qur’an. I believe that the Qur’an has been preserved in its original form, and so the question has never been a source of distress for me. However, in the comments of a post that engages with an Altmuslimah article regarding grammatical nuances, there was a lengthy discussion of the nature of this preservation. The verse featured in the article is 33:33; it is the verse in which we are commanded to “behave with dignity” in our homes. (Male) scholars have read this verse as commanding us “stay” in our homes. They create this reading on the grounds of an assumed vowel, an assumption that is incorrect; they read waqarna as waqirna, the first meaning “settle the ego” or “behave with dignity” and the latter meaning “settle (physically)” in your home.

As amina wadud explains (better than I could back then) this discrepancy isn’t the result of a failure to preserve the Qur’an. As the Qur’an is written originally (in the Qureyshi dialect) the waves, curves, and knots of the letters were noted and remain as they always have. The script is vowelless. The vowels are hypothesized, rather intuitively, based on context. The natural thing for me to go on and say now is that “the early Muslims would have known, etc. etc.” in order to ensure you that objectivity is still secured, but I’m not interested in saying that sort of thing anymore. Quite frankly, I am done grasping at the criteria of the self-appointed male ulema for confirmation of my religion. I am done giving the excuses you’ve all heard from male scholars about why they know it and you don’t. So here is what you should take away from this: Objectivity is not Divine. There is “objective” truth, and that objective truth is a thing so imbued with beauty that the mere shards of it we observe in the Qur’an are only baffling to us because we cannot see the full picture. What you’ve learned as “objective”–you’ve learned from the West. True objectivity must encompass flexibility to be functional. True objectivity introduces the liberation of adaptability. It knows itself to be unobtainable. It is universal not because it is you–it is universal because it is every form of you.

My own brother asked me this morning why the Qur’an isn’t clear. I think many Muslims operate on the assumption that reading the Qur’an is only an act of worship and a guide to how one lives, and therefore should harbor a straight-forward quality concerned with only that purpose. They don’t incorporate the more intimate function: to also reflect the state of one’s soul. I’m sure many of you have had the thought, “I wish I could see my list of sins compared to my list of virtues so I know where I am.” The Qur’an is a direct answer to your wistfulness. If you read it and it induces pain for (O)thers, if you read it and you have decided its command to women is “stay in your homes” rather than “behave with dignity in your homes” that is the Qur’an warning you that you are headed down the wrong path. I don’t mean just that it is an outward compass, or that its powers are limited to the superficiality of a mirror. I mean this is the Qur’an screaming at you to evaluate the state of your soul. It is the Qur’an saying, “Look at this. Look at what you’ve just read in me. Please–I am trying to show you that you are going in the wrong direction.” It is the Qur’an appealing to the qur’an in yourself.

When a man reads wqrn as waqirna instead of waqarna, he is seeing his destiny (in the hereafter) before him. He is seeing that he, like the tribes that threatened to kill the Prophet and oppress him and his family, is an oppressor, and will be made to answer for that transgression of his soul. Of course, he will not listen to the cries of the Qur’an, he will not heed its warnings, regardless of how overt his oppression reflecting back at him is on the page. The ambiguity of the Qur’an is the clarity of the human soul. You are a book as well. The qur’an that is you has a moral conscience. You were written by God. This is intertexuality of the spirit, between yourself and what you are holding.

So here are the words of caution you’ve always heard from me: men have monopolized interpretation, in all of its levels in more ways that you’re aware. Reading wqrn as waqirna instead of waqarna is a clear indication that what has been paraded as “objective” and “scholarly” is nothing short of a patriarchal bias applied to matters that do not concern them. The Qur’an commands us to take its best meaning. When women have decided, perhaps in another kind of universe, in the changes of circumstance that are inevitable and expected in the cultural currents of the world, that “staying home” is a better meaning than “behaving with dignity,” that possibility is there for our use, to enrich us, as a device of worshiping God. The flexibility and ambiguity of the Qur’an is an act of Love. It is to say I understand your situation, Love.

Before we parted, auntie amina and I also discussed the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to God. English, auntie amina pointed out, compels us to making a gender distinction when describing or referring to people. In languages in which this does not exist–including my mother’s–speakers are more inclined to understand instantly when God is referred to with She in English. But the insertion of gender creates a false unOrdinated religiosity; my mother, when speaking English, will sometimes mix up he and she because there is only one word for both those pronouns in her first language; if I were to deliberately refer to God with feminine pronouns, however, she is less likely to be receptive. In other words, she’d adopted enough of the (wrong) mentality to become uncomfortable. This is a result of the adoption of not only English as the one true American language (TM), but of Arabic as the one true form (TM) of “permissible” for Islamic jurisprudence. Language controls the way we think; the availability of two gender pronouns in the languages that are viewed as “superior” by our national and religious communities allow the speaker–and the Muslim community–to associate maleness with God (shirk); it is crucial that we evaluate our levels of discomfort with referring to God with She as compared to he and discern.

It wasn't consistently seriously like it sounds.
It wasn’t consistently serious like it sounds.

One of the (many) reasons amina wadud is a crucial leader and scholar is that her academic contributions to Islamic scholarship is manifested in the application of these interpretations. Islam makes no distinction between the sphere of belief and the sphere of practice. When an imam tells you that men and women are “spiritually equal” (a term that is now meaningless) but he is opposed to following a woman who is leading prayer, he is telling you he doesn’t practice his beliefs and is inconsistent and untrustworthy. He is telling you that God may believe men and women are “spiritually equal,” but he sure doesn’t.

9 thoughts on “discussion of language with amina wadud

  1. Shybiker

    Fascinating stuff. A surprising intersection of religion, literary theory, sociology and sexism. I have background in feminism but not religion, so most of what you explain is new to me. And I’m happy to learn it. The tools of sociological and feminist thought are handy for this. Good work!

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  2. I AM SO INFINITELY JEALOUS OF YOU RIGHT NOW!!!! Ahhh!! <3 <3

    I can't emphasize how important the point about the vowellessness of the Qur'an is to a just understanding of God, the Qur'an, Islam–and of those who've (mis)interpreted so much of it throughout history. I have absolutely no doubt that every gender-related verse in the Qur'an that's been interpreted in a sexist, misogynistic, oppressive way is a result of that. The interpreters got to go, "Oh, that can't make sense because, duh, men are better than woman, so it must be this. This it is then."

    Oh, and I've been reading "Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition" for some time now, and it makes my blood boil–not because of any fault of the author (God, I love her so, so much! Also we're going to see her at the AAR. So excited I'm going to cry) but because of what this mythical so-called "Islamic tradition" (i.e., men's scholarship) has to say about domestic violence, some even claiming, "Oh, but trust me, women LOVE being beaten up, even if they say otherwise, so don't feel bad when you do it" (!!!). I cannot trust anyone who thinks that way, and I don't care how qualified they may claim to be or how qualified the community may think them to be.

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  3. “Oh, and I’ve been reading “Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition” for some time now, and it makes my blood boil–not because of any fault of the author (God, I love her so, so much! Also we’re going to see her at the AAR. So excited I’m going to cry) but because of what this mythical so-called “Islamic tradition” (i.e., men’s scholarship) has to say about domestic violence, some even claiming, “Oh, but trust me, women LOVE being beaten up, even if they say otherwise, so don’t feel bad when you do it” (!!!). I cannot trust anyone who thinks that way, and I don’t care how qualified they may claim to be or how qualified the community may think them to be.”

    Reading that book also made me very angry. And gave me a feeling of…..well……betrayal. That there was not one classical scholar that interpreted 4:34 in such a way that a husband never could hit his way. That is mindboggling – and very telling. And yes, Chaudhrys book is amazing, and she is, too.

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  4. Dan Brown

    Coming quite late to this discussion–I’m going to a dinner with amina wadud in two days (I hope) so thought I should check in. I had a question about using differently-gendered/non-gendered pronouns to refer to God, the name of God, aspects of God, etc. (Really more of a linguistic question than a religious one, at least I hope.) Basically: if Arabic has differently-gendered pronouns, how did those who spoke other languages (like the one you mentioned your mother speaks) account for the Qu’ranic notion of God when they were first introduced to Islam? Because I imagine Islam was brought to folks outside the Arabic-speaking tradition through a combination of oral and written means–presumably depended on status and access and all that–so it seems that receiving a written (gendered) text and an oral (non-gendered) text simultaneously must have been a situation creating some discomfort or confusion–or, optimistically, a sense of wonder. I’ve always been confused by the distinctiveness (divinity?) of the Arabic language specifically in Islam, as the language in which the Qu’ran was given to the Prophet, and wondered if those early Muslims who only or predominantly spoke Arabic would have discounted all attempts at translation, whether oral or written, of religious ideas and doctrine. Very uncertain about this whole thing, hence the wandering nature of my question, and I’d appreciate any light you could shed. Thank you.

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