Thursday, 15 November 2012

Malala Yousafzai and the Other Half of Muslim History

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Posted: 10/24/2012 11:43 am
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Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a senior editor of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2013). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana -- As someone who writes and lectures about women and gender in Islam, I am often asked if women had any role in the making of the Islamic tradition. Happily, the answer is always yes. There were in fact many prominent women in the early history of Islam.

At the top of the list would have to be Aisha, the widow of the Prophet Muhammad, who was renowned for her learning and wit. The Prophet in fact is said to have counselled his followers to "take half of your religion" from Aisha -- in recognition of her learning. After his death, she spent the rest of her life transmitting the sayings of her husband and commenting on the Quran. Her authoritative pronouncements have decisively shaped the later Islamic legal tradition.

The early period of Islam in particular is peopled with such intelligent, assertive and pious women. Another name that comes to mind is Umm Umara. Although she was a prominent companion of the Prophet Muhammad, whom he regarded highly in her own time, she has become an obscure figure over the centuries. One possible reason for this is that Umm Umara was a "difficult" woman -- that is to say, she was someone who asked a lot of questions and who protested loudly when she was faced with inequality, especially in regard to women's rights. Her passion for justice and outspokenness, however, were hardly out of place in the first century of Islam.

As historical records inform us, women in particular excelled in religious scholarship through the late Mamluk period, the 14th and 15th centuries of the common era. This should not be surprising since women's right to education is firmly guaranteed by Islam. A well-known saying of the Prophet Muhammad asserts that knowledge is equally obligatory for males and females -- which has allowed for considerable Muslim receptivity toward providing education for girls and women alongside their male counterparts through the centuries. As a result, women scholars dot the Islamic intellectual landscape.

The famous ninth century Muslim jurist al-Shafii, widely regarded as the father of Islamic jurisprudence, studied with female teachers. Ibn Hajar, another prominent jurist from the 15th century, gratefully acknowledges his debt to a number of his female professors whose study circles he frequented.

Ibn Hajar's student, al-Sakhawi, dedicated one whole volume of his encyclopaedic biographical work on famous scholars from the Mamluk period to women alone. Among the 1,075 women listed in this volume, over 400 were active in scholarship. One such scholar is on record as having complained that she was not getting adequate compensation for her teaching (a complaint that may sound dismayingly familiar to contemporary professional women the world over today).

Regrettably, the memory of these accomplished women has grown dim over time. As Muslim societies became more patriarchal after the first century of Islam, many of these women have been air-brushed out of the master narrative of Islamic history, leaving us with the impression that the Islamic tradition was shaped mainly by men.

This erasure of women can lead to a dangerously mistaken belief that Islam itself mandates this marginalization of women. The danger is real -- as became recently evident in the Taliban's brutal and misogynist vendetta against the indomitable 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. A fearless warrior to promote education for females in her native Pakistan, Yousafzai has paid a huge price for her courageous stance, as she now struggles to recover after being shot by the Taliban.

Yousafzai's fate is a reminder that women's historical roles in Islamic learning and scholarship need to become much better known among Muslims themselves. This is imperative so that in the future the Taliban's grotesque interpretation of women's rights can immediately be recognised for what it is: a violation of fundamental Islamic principles and one that should not be granted even the veneer of religious legitimacy.

In her fearless insistence on the right to be educated and to be heard in public, Yousafzai is following in the footsteps of her illustrious female forebears from the first century of Islam. Learned, feisty and principled women have contributed much to the Islamic heritage.

Her predicament reminds us why this history must be featured prominently in our own times and why women must be reinstated into the very mainstream of the Islamic intellectual tradition. It is the most effective way to keep religious obscurantism at bay in Muslim-majority societies, especially the kind that threatens the well-being of Muslim girls and women.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 October 2012,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Queering the Qur’an Popping the Marks By Michael Muhammad Knight

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Not a week of my life goes by without me receiving a message from either a gay Muslim seeking reconciliation between faith, heart, and body, or a gay non-Muslim who is considering converting to Islam, but wonders whether Islam can ever allow a place for him or her. There are a few approaches that one could take to answer these questions, and I’m not really qualified to employ any of them, but here we go.

First, a basic historical argument: Islam is what Muslims do. If we look at Islam as a human tradition with its history and contexts anchored to this planet, rather than something that floats above humanity as an untouched, unchanging essence, then the answer is yes: Islam can have a place for queer Muslims, because queer Muslims have always existed. We have significant traditions of poetry and mysticism in which homoerotic desire is fused with Islamic spirituality. These traditions might not satisfy anyone who cares about Islamic legal tradition, but a historical approach also undermines assumptions about the absoluteness of Islamic law, showing the law to be an ongoing process of human interpretation. Anyway, founding fathers of Islamic law as we have it today acknowledged that same-sex desire was natural, while maintaining that the associated actions were illegal. Abu Hanifa, eponym of the Hanafi school, would deliberately have a handsome male student sit in such a way that he could not look at the student directly, lest his eyes betray him.

We could name-drop Sufi saints and poets from various times and places who violated norms of gender and sexuality on one level or another, and this might do some good towards a useable queer-positive Islamic history, but proving a diversity of beliefs and practices isn’t going to answer the Muslims who need God’s words to settle all disputes with clear verdicts. If you want the Qur’an to really say something, I don’t know what to tell you; I can’t pick apart verses of the Qur’an to reveal the hidden intentions of a transcendent Author. People on both sides of the issue try to do that, but they often see what they want to see.

As with anti-queer readers of the Bible, anti-queer readers of the Qur’an mention the fate of Lot’s people as proof that God hates same-sex desire. However, there are also readers of the Qur’an who attempt to produce new meanings from the episode. Among progressive Muslims, an argument exists that the story of Lot does not discuss men who want consensual sex with other men, but rather men who intend to commit rape. I have to confess that this argument strikes me as a bit of a reach, but I do appreciate the effort, if only so that I can say that alternative readings do exist.

Unfortunately, when I read the Qur’an, I find it mocking men who want to have sex with men. This is not what I want to see, and I hope to someday find an interpretation that will change this for me. I appreciate the need for queer Muslims to find new meanings in the words, and I’m on their side, but the project remains a matter of making the Qur’an say something other than what it appears to be obviously saying.

Before deciding what the Qur’an means, I look to the people who love the Qur’an; between history and scripture, I find the figure of Ali ibn Hamzah al-Asadi, more widely known as al-Kisa’i al-Kufi (d.804). As the transmitter of one of the Qur’an’s seven harfs (“readings”) in Sunni tradition, he’s an immeasurably important figure in the history of the Qur’an as a text. As such, his knowledge and character were both under close examination. In one assessment, al-Marzubani, speaking on the authority Ibn al-Arabi (the jurist, not the mystic), described al-Kisa’i as “one of the most learned persons” while adding that al-Kisa’i openly confessed to engaging in illegal acts that included same-sex relations. “Yet,” he adds, al-Kisa’i remained “an accurate reader, knowledgeable in the Arabic language, and honest.”

This does not answer all questions, but it offers something. In Sunni Islam, there are seven canonical ways of reading the Qur’an. Al-Kisa’i al-Kufi is the man who gave us one of them. He devoted his life to knowing and teaching the Qur’an. It should go without saying that al-Kisa’i al-Kufi memorized the entire scripture by heart and recited it every day of his life. Along the way, he apparently fucked dudes. The lips that he used to recite divine scripture touched men.

I can’t read his mind or take him out of his own world to speak on the debates of ours, and I can’t say that he ever reinterpreted the story of Lot or searched the Qur’an for a queer-positive liberation theology. If he lived today, would he even self-identify as a gay Muslim? I cannot assume that he viewed sexuality in anything outside of its construction in his time, as what you do, rather than our modern concept of sexual orientation as what you are. I do not know of him having critically examined the authenticity of anti-queer sayings attributed to the Prophet, and his example does not create an opening in Islamic law. But if the question is whether Islamic tradition has room for gay Muslims, he makes more room.

Al-Kisa’i al-Kufi was a Muslim who died less than two full centuries after the Prophet. He seems to have done things that his society regarded as violations of God’s laws, and publicly admitted to doing these things, apparently without facing punishment or persecution. As a teacher of the Qur’an, his work was respected. Commentators who disapproved of his actions still acknowledged his mastery of what could be seen as Islam’s most crucial religious science, the preservation and transmission of the sacred text. Whenever Sunni Muslims mention the seven readings of the Qur’an, they are making reference to this man’s work, even if they do not know his name.

Again, there are meaningful problems that al-Kisa’i al-Kufi’s life cannot solve, and still more work to be done.  But when I consider Muslims as comprising a human family, al-Kisa’i al-Kufi gives me two comforts: first, that he could be himself openly with the Muslim family; second, that members of the Muslim family could find good in his contribution and accept it.

Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of nine books, including Journey to the End of Islam, an account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, and Why I Am a Five Percenter.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Pakistan, Islam and Poetry

Written by Allama Sir Muhammad Iqbal - philosopher, poet and politician in British India who is widely regarded as having inspired the Pakistan Movement. 
(b. November 9, 1877 – d. April 21, 1938)

Sung by Shabnam Majeed, Pakistani celebrated singer

Set out once more that cup, that wine, oh Saki—
Let my true place at last be mine, oh

My lyrical vein was all dried up, with little remains.
The Shaikh decrees that, "Even this is prohibited", O Saaqi!

Who Snatched Away the Piercing Sword of Love (Strong Faith)?
Knowledge is Left With an Empty Sheath Alone, O Saaqi!

With a luminous soul the power of song is life;
With a darkened soul that power is eternal death.

A full moon glistens in Your brimful cup;
Deprive me not of its silver beams at night.

Truth’s forest hides no lion‐hearts now:
Men grovel before the priest, or the saint’s shrine, oh Saki.

Who has borne off Love’s valiant sword?
About an empty scabbard Wisdom’s hands twine, oh Saki.

Verse lights up life, while heart burns bright,
But fades for ever when those rays decline, oh Saki;

Bereave not of its moon my night;
I see a full moon in your goblet shine, oh Saki!

#Saki/Saqi: The cupbearer, wine pourer, a lover, a friend, homoerotic