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.