Wednesday, March 27, 2013
  Doma, Prop 8 and Muslims
The Supreme Court yesterday and today is hearing arguments about marriage equality for glbt individuals. A lot of Muslims are squeamish about this issue. They follow traditional interpretations that rule homosexuality or at least homosexual acts to be sinful. How then, they ask, can we accept gay marriage? As a progressive Muslim, I reject those interpretations of the Qur'an (more on that later) and support gay marriage for various reasons:

1) The Qur'an is quite clear that love, long-term companionship, and sexual relations are a blessing from God, an integral part of what it means to be human. It is also clear that sex should only occur in the context of a committed, publicly acknowledged relationship. To deny marriage to gay people is to condemn them to choose between celibacy --  which is unnatural and perhaps even impossible for all but a few --  and living in sin. I cannot believe that a merciful, loving God would make an entire class of people with the capacity for love and attraction, only to present them with such a onerous, and tragic, choice.

2) The story of Lot, as I and many who share a progressive approach to the Qur'an read it, is not about the glbt community. It is not about loving, mutually desired relationships. It is about a community who, like all communities, was predominantly straight (thus the Qur'an tells us that they have wives who were made for them) and who went out robbing and raping travelers. The Qur'an is quite clear that Lot's visitors were not interested in sexual relations, and that Lot was despairing because he had no way to protect them from the mob that came out from the city to have their way regardless of what the visitors or Lot thought about the matter. This is not a description of a committed, loving relationship. It's a description of violation and violence. The story of Lot has nothing to say about gay marriage; it has everything to say about people's individual right to life, safety, personal property, and freedom to travel in the land, and about going against the innate drives God has given to us. 

This last is a theme that Prophet Muhammad often addressed, telling us not to go to extremes in our religion -- don't pray or fast excessively, don't become a hermit, don't take up celibacy, don't impoverish yourself through charity, but also don't be a miser, don't wear ostentatious clothes but also don't wear rags, etc, etc because our bodies have a right over us. That is, they have innate needs and desires and we should not deny them, but indulge them within reason and the limits set down by God. Which brings us back to point one. Lot's people broke the bounds by forcing sexual relations, gay or not, on people who did not want it. Gay people are fully within the bounds when they are engaged in mutually desired, loving relationships.

3) I believe in secular democracy, and I believe that secular democracy is the best expression of the political values the Qur'an promotes -- to conduct affairs through consultation, individual participation in political allegiance, and no compulsion in religion. Not only is there the famous, "lo ikraha fi deen" verse in the Qur'an that commands there to be no compulsion in faith, the Prophet gave us the example in the Compact of Madinah which stipulated that the Christians and Jews who lived under the Prophet's rule would continue to practice and live by their own religions teachings and laws, as would the Muslims who were emigrating to Madinah. Thus, the Prophet set up a secular state... when Jews came to him for rulings, he judged by their law, not the teachings of the Qur'an.

In the US, our secular democracy stipulates that the government cannot make laws establishing religion. Those who argue that gay marriage is against the Bible or the Qur'an have the right to believe this and to practice according to this belief. The government does not have the right to enshrine this religious belief into law. They are required to protect the rights of those of us who do not believe the Bible or Qur'an ban gay marriage, but rather support it. And the rights of those who don't give a hoot about what the Bible or Qur'an has to say. It is not the government's business to make moral decisions about who we choose to live our lives with (so long as it is a mutually agreed upon relationship by consenting adults) or to discriminate against certain types of relationships by giving tax and other benefits to some committed relationships and not others. We long ago realized that the government could not dictate to us that we were not free to marry people of our choice in terms of race; so too with gender.

As a minority religious group who wants to maintain our civil rights to follow our beliefs as we see fit; we must support the civil rights of other groups to follow their beliefs as they see fit, even if we disagree with their beliefs. Thus, even Muslims who disagree with progressive interpretations of the story of Lot, should support gay marriage.

4) For most of us who believe in a religion, marriage is not just about civil rights and tax benefits. It is a social compact -- in which society celebrates with a couple the joy of loving and being loved, of being a family. It is a social embrace of that couple that honors their commitment to one another. And it is a recognition that their love reflects God's love, is an embodiment of God's love for all Her Creation. How can we declare that any love -- whether it be between spouses, parent and child, friends, colleagues -- is anything other than God expressing Her love for us through us? Love is wondrous blessing, and the Qur'an asks over and over, "Which of the blessings of God will you deny?" How dare we deny the blessing of love between two individuals, how dare we deny them the joy of that love? Even worse, how dare we suggest that God withholds Her love from two people who wish to commit to one another in marriage? Rather we should celebrate love in all its forms!
Thursday, March 14, 2013
  International Women's Day Khutbah, part 11 -- Spiritual and Moral equality

So we have seen that men and women were created as equals, partners to one another.  Throughout history,  this partnership has been posited as one of unequals, complementary but not the same, however, we have seen that there is no basis for that understanding in the description of the creation of mankind.  Our natures are the same, as are our desires, our drives, our moral and spiritual capacity.

This fundamental equality is demonstrated in the Qur’an over and over again. First let’s look moral and spiritual potential, which is the fundamental concern of the Qur’an. That the moral and spiritual capacity or men and women are identical is borne out in dozens of verses in the Qur’an, where Allah encourages women and men in the same terms to piety and good deeds. For instance:

4:124 If any do deeds of righteousness,- be they male or female - and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them.

57:18  For those who give in Charity, men and women, and loan to Allah a Beautiful Loan, it shall be increased manifold (to their credit), and they shall have (besides) a liberal reward.

48:4-5 It is He Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the Believers, that they may add faith to their faith -- for to Allah belong the Forces of the heavens and the earth; and Allah is Full of Knowledge and Wisdom --

That He may admit the men and women who believe, to Gardens beneath which rivers flow, to dwell therein for aye, and remove their ills from them;- and that is, in the sight of Allah, the highest achievement (for man),

40:40 He that works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof: and he that works a righteous deed - whether man or woman - and is a Believer- such will enter the Garden (of Bliss): Therein will they have abundance without measure.

9:72 Allah hath promised to Believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss. But the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of Allah. that is the supreme felicity

16:97 Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.

And of course, the famous, 33:35:

For Muslim men and women,- for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise,- for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.

Statements of our fundamental spiritual and moral equality are sprinkled throughout the Qur’an, as a constant reminder. Repetition is the principal tool that Allah uses to accentuate the most important messages in the Qur’an, returning to important themes and mantras over and over for emphasis. Thus the continual reminder of male-female spiritual and moral equality denotes it as something essential.

Perhaps the most poignant statement of the theme is in chapter 9, verses 71-72:
The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise
Allah hath promised to Believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss. But the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of Allah. that is the supreme felicity.

In this verse, we see not only do men and women have the same spiritual capacities and duties, but they are placed together as friends and protectors of one another. Thus Allah tells us that men learn from women, and women learn from men; women prohibit men from evil and enjoy what is just upon men and vice versa. Thus this verse goes beyond telling us that we have the same spiritual capacities and duties, the same moral code, to putting us in a relationship of mutual benefit, men and women together, protecting one another from wrong doing. It is not men keeping women in line, or women keeping men in line, but all of humankind looking out for one another.
This notion is reinforced by the fact that we are given examples of pious women to follow – such as Sheba, Maryam, and Asiya the wife of Pharoah. In each of these cases, it is these women’s recognition of Divine Truth and commitment to God that makes them worthy examples. Sheba leads her people into faith; Asiya saves Moses against the tyranny of pharaoh; and Maryam who dedicates her life to the service of Allah.
Equally important, God responds to women in the Qur’an as he does to men. There are various verses that begin, “They ask you about…” followed by questions of the day –what should we spend on charity, (2:215); is it ok to fight during Hajj season (2:217); what about wine and games of chance (2:219); how do we deal with orphans (4:129).
In 58:1 God answers a question posted specifically by a woman:

GOD has indeed heard the words of her who pleads with thee concerning her husband, and complains Unto God. And God does hear what you both have to say: verily, God is all-hearing, all-seeing.

He also addresses the situation where Ayesha was being accused of infidelity in verses 24:4-24:24, vindicating her innocence and condemning those who spread slander. Thus, contrary to what some have said, that the Qur’an only addresses men, in fact it addresses all human concerns, demonstrating that God is equally accessible, equally responsive to women and their spiritual and mundane needs.
Monday, March 11, 2013
  IWD Khutbah, What the Qur'an says about women, Part 1

For International Women’s Day I gave a khutbah at the MPV-Columbus Unity Mosque, exploring what the Qur’an has to say about women. The next few blog posts will explore some of these ideas, looking first at verses that promote a vision of gender equality, and then at some of the verses that have been used to justify many of the deplorable and oppressive conditions Muslim women live under – rampant domestic violence, coerced and under-age marriages and sexual harassment on the street and in the home, exclusion from education, careers, and politics, restrictions concerning dress and travel, even legal jeopardy for reporting rape. Sadly, the Qur’an has been used to justify many of these oppressive conditions. Fortunately, the Qur’an can also be used to challenge them.
There are many verses in the Qur’an which directly and indirectly express the fundamental equality of all humankind, starting with the creation story. The first verse of the chapter entitled Women says:
O MANKIND! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity, and out of her created her mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women.  And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand [your rights] from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you!  4:1

This passage describes both the creation of mankind and our fundamental natures, that of being paired. The word for mate, “zauj” is an interesting word because it means both one half of the pair, and the pair as a unity. Even more interesting, the word “zauja” – denoting “wife” -- was in use across much of the Arab world, as it still is today, but the word zauja never appears in the Qur’an. Zauj is used for both halves of the pair, at times denoting the wife and a times denoting the husband. What emerges is a picture of two beings united without regard for gender; they are identical halves of the whole, bonded together and equals and interdependent in every way. (More on this later!) This is the mold on which humankind is created. 

Unfortunately, this passage is often read and translated with reference to and in the context of the Biblical creation story which talks about Eve being made from Adam’s rib as his helper. The order of creation, the description of Eve as a helpmate, and the fact that Adam is made whole cloth by Allah, while Eve is made from a part of him is used to justify a hierarchy between the two, with Adam firmly the leader and Eve the subservient. With this scenario and its assumptions in mind, commentators have often inherited the gender bias evident in the Bible and its interpretations. Translators have universally altered the pronouns, saying, “created you from one soul and made from him his mate,” or “made from it its mate.”  

In the Qur’an the language is quite the opposite… the first entity, this “nafsin wahidatin,”  is feminine, and her mate, her “zauj,” is masculine.  Thus the passage says that God created a female being and made her masculine mate from her, and from the two spread a multitude of men and women. This cannot possibly have been by accident. If God had wanted to use a masculine word, He could well have said, we created Adam, we created a man, we created a male. Thus we have to assume those word choices were deliberate.  Muslims, however, have been reluctant to explore the implications. 

Now, in Arabic a masculine or feminine word does not necessarily denote the gender of the object – all nouns are gendered – the sun is feminine, as is the moon, but we wouldn’t say they are women. So it may be that these things – the orginal nafs and its mate are like the sun and the moon, neither male nor female, and it only their offspring that took on the qualities of maleness and femaleness.
So what emerges is a picture is of two entities, paired, mated, from whom mankind -- men and women -- sprang. There is no hierarchy or supremacy of one over the other in the verse; they are a pair, mates of like nature; nor does the verse predicate any hierarchy between the men and women who sprang from these two, rather they are posited as having mutual rights that they demand of one another, and ties of kinship that bind them together. Most particularly, it does not say, from them we spread abroad a multitude of men and women so that one may be the breadwinner and the other the housewife, so that one can be the leader and the other the broodmother. Rather, they are kin and they have rights over one another… without distinction by gender. 

We see this equality affirmed in other verses which talk about the pairing of humankind.
30:21 And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect!

Why do we have mates? So one can cook and clean and bear the children of the other? So that one can lead the household and earn money? No, so we can dwell with them in tranquility, in love and tenderness and mercy toward one another. Again, the word zauj is used to indicate both halves of the pair as well as the pair itself – which has profound implications not only for heterosexual but especially for glbt relationships because what is important in the relationship is not the gender of the two participants, but rather it’s about how the two halves relate to each other – with love and mercy… with mutual respect. Not domination or obedience.

Similarly we read: “49:13 O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware..”

This is another verse, that people often quote, in this case referencing it for racial equality, but it also affirms gender equality. Men and women, of all ethnicities, all races – all human beings are equal in the site of God, differentiated only their piety. It does not say we should lord over one another, or seek to dominate one another, but to know one another, learn from one another. 

(Part II tomorrow)
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
  The Linguistic Literalism of Four-Year Olds

The Linguistic Literalism of Four-Year Olds
(Part Three of a Three-part series)
By Pamela Taylor

Have you ever given directions to a four-year old? 

“Go to the end of the hall and turn left,” you say. 

“Is this left?” he asks, holding up his left hand. 

“Right!” you say cheerily. 

He then lowers his left hand and puts up his right hand.

“Oh,” he says, “Then I have to turn this way.”

“No, no.  That’s your right hand,” you say.  “The other one was your left hand.”

The poor kid is now totally confused.  His mind, focused on left and right, didn’t grasp the changed context of your initial response; he missed that you had switched from right/left to correct/incorrect, or, in other words, right/wrong.

I experienced a similar e-mail exchange the other day on a news groups I belong to.  One poster forwarded several hadith (thank God their source were at least cited!):

1)      The Prophet (SAW) said: “The hanging of clothes below the ankles in pride is forbidden.” (Bukhari)

2)       Hazrat Abu Hurairah (RA) relates that Rasulullah (SAW) said: “On the Day of Judgement Allah will not look at the one who lets his trousers down out of pride.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

3)      Hazrat Abu Zarr (RA) said: “Such persons as are doomed, who are they Oh Messenger of Allah?”

Nabi (SAW) replied: “One who lets out his apparels out of arrogance, one who reminds or makes a show of favors done by him to another, and one who sells his (inferior) wares with false oaths.” Another version of Muslim adds: “One who lets down his pyjama or loin cloth.”

He concluded with the pronouncement that “The covering of ankles (for men) is Haraam and a major sin.  The Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) clearly stresses the importance of keeping the trousers above the ankles!  Let us Pray Allah gives us strength to enact His Commands!”

Like the four-year old, this poster neglected to notice that the context has changed since the time of the Prophet.  Wearing trousers that extend past one’s ankles is no longer a sign of arrogance.  Wearing Armani suits or platinum rings with four-karat diamonds is.  Indeed, a man wearing pants that didn’t reach the ankle would likely be considered slightly odd, or perhaps effeminate, since his pants would closely approximate the Capri pants that are so popular with women these days.  When I pointed this out, and that the purpose of the hadiths was to remind us not to be arrogant, even in our dress, a protracted storm of debate arose about how long the pants could be, whether grazing the tops of the ankle bones was ok, or if the hem needed to be several inches over the ankle, whether socks and snow boots violated this command, and so on.  

And, of course, several people lectured me about how even if you understand the metaphorical meaning you can’t throw out the literal one, which struck me as a really odd response since saying these hadiths are about arrogance, not inches of cloth, has nothing to do with metaphor.  It’s a rather direct interpretation of the hadiths, just not one that insists on maintaining the old context.  (Indeed, I’m not sure what metaphorical meaning one might make out of these hadith…hmm… Pants are a metaphor for legs, so we all have to shorten our legs… Yowza!  Tall people are doomed!)

This kind of wrong-context interpretation, this myopic focus on literalism as opposed to concern for the intent, for the wisdom behind a given hadith or Qur’anic statement, has become the norm for our ummah.  That old adage that we can’t see the forest for the trees is all too fitting.  As a result we have entrenched ourselves in an ossified version of Islam that is rigid, inflexible, unfit for the current context, and all in all rather unappealing.  Small wonder that we are perceived as backwards, and different, unable to fit into modern society.  In reality, we are choosing by the busload not to fit into modern society.

In doing so, we not only make Islam difficult for ourselves (It is not easy being a social outcast, nor to straightjacket one’s life with a thousand picayune and demanding rules!) but we are apt to miss the point of the religion altogether.  Islam according to the Qur’an is supposed to easy.  It is designed to help a person reach their full potential as a good creature, as a blessing to this world and to his or her own self.  Focusing the literal meaning as opposed to the general principle more often than not works opposite to those inclinations.  It focuses us upon details rather than the spirit of the law and, taken to the extreme that is has been in recent years, results in spiritual decay rather than spiritual development.  It focuses us in upon our own deeds, rather than outward upon making the world a better place.  It wastes unimaginable volumes of energy and time as we try to discern each and every rule to follow, debating back and forth with our co-religionists as to which interpretation is the most valid.

Furthermore, an Islam based upon literalism fails to meet some of the most basic spiritual needs of humanity. It leaves no room for a personal relationship with God, demanding that everyone be a cookie-cutter copy of The Model – a detailed and exacting model.  It leaves us confused and with inappropriate responses to our situation, just as the four-year old remains confused about whether this hand or that is the left one and unsure of which direction he should turn.  Small wonder, yet again, that we are not the moral and spiritual leaders of the world.  What is astonishing is that we think, with the ummah by and large practicing such a literal level of interpretation, that we should be such leaders!

One can’t help but wonder how it came to be that the ummah got stuck at the linguistic and interpretive level of a four-year old.   How and when we did we allow ourselves to slip into intellectual imprecision and moral immaturity?  And how and when we are going to grow up, how we will learn to think like adults and take the place in the world that we should.

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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