sorry I had to make some corrections, so I am posting again, thanks
When I was studying for my PhD, I had a Muslim friend phone me one day to ask if she could borrow my “best” book. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said, you mean the Qur’an? Well, she had to clarify that best here was not an adjective describing said book but actually the catalogue for a store named Best (not Best Buy.. but maybe they are related). I still laugh when I think about how I had but one choice for the adjective best before the word book and that was the Qur’an.
I think I have shared at least three thousand times how I “became” Muslim not at the declaration of the shahadah on Thanksgiving Day 1972, but when I was gifted a copy of the Qur’an some 5 months later. I fell in love. Next year, I will celebrate 50 years not only as a Muslim but still in love with the Qur’an. How does this happen? First, it is a sacred gift. Of all the things I have been blessed with in my life, this relationship with the Qur’an ranks the highest. Even above my children, whom I adore more THAN life itself.
The other oft-repeated statement is that I first read the Qur’an in an English translation I can no longer abide (Yusuf Ali FYI..) but it sparked in me a desire to read the Qur’an in its original Arabic.. So I took a mosque class and learned the 28 letter alphabet in initial, medial and final positions, in 48 hours. After that I just READ and read and read a short booklet that uses the alphabet first with only one letter and one vowel then with two letters and vowels, then three, followed by words and du’a and then the last 30th (juz) of the Qur’an. I read that every morning after fajr prayer and before doing some exercise, taking a shower and going to UPenn campus where I was a Junior.
By Fall semester the double credited and therefore intensive Arabic course started. I had also memorized about 20 surahs from that Juz’ and was ready. Again, I was blessed, since everything I learned that first year related immediately back to the Qur’an. Ten years later as an MA student I spent a year long intensive study of Arabic in Cairo, (at the CASA program). This included one on one tuition on interpretation with a Qur’an scholar from Cairo University and a course at al-Azhar.
When dissertation topic came around I inevitably settled on examining gender in the Qur’an. I had found very early on, that the Qur’an differed from tafsir or interpretive works by men (exclusively). I edited and published that dissertation in the short book Qur’an and Woman. Qur’an and Woman will be 30 years old next year, as I celebrate those 50 years as a Muslim by choice in sha’ Allah.
Nothing could be as life altering as my best book, the Qur’an has been for me. From casual reading as a convert to a life time career. But HOW does it keep the light of love? It is not that I ignore sticky places that pull away from its sublime beauty, like 4:34. On the contrary, every such challenge has been a part of the journey. This week I led an unsucessful class discussion for my course on Hermenuetics with what I thought would be an easy way to shape the semester long discourse over gender as a critical category of analysis. The students did not get what I was trying to teach through my choice for their first reading. I chose a small book by the Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, the great ancestor, Toni Morrison, called Playing in the Dark. I LOVE this book too (what can I say, I’m a nerd, books do it for me) Students got side tracked in the trope she was using,–which is race–into discussing racism. Fair enough. But they missed the details she gave about tropes and metaphors, about linguistic methods and the rhetoric of hegemony.
I had to go through it again with them: the bottom line was the precision with which Morrison’s short book outlines the mechanism of linguistic other-ing. It reminded me how the Qur’an does not EVER do the rhetoric of hegemony. EVER. For while sticky passages like 4:34 do exist, and do outline an uneven relationship between women and men, these passages do so as description. These passages do not engage in creating women as a sub-category of men. They do tackle the social reality, at the time and place of revelation. They do mark difference, yes. Some difference even has preference. So the Qur’an does elevate the quality of taqwa (consciousness that leads to ethical actions). But it does not USE language to bring one class or persons above another class of persons, by accident of language construction.
This rhetoric of hegemony seems to be inevitable in human speech and I have learned to spot it from afar. So, for example after I give a lecture confirming equality between women and men in the Qur’an, and a member of the audience stands up to ask: but doesn’t the Qur’an say two female witnesses for every male witness..? the questioner is expressing his location that such a mis-reading of a complex legal transaction IS the Qur’an’s position on all aspects of gender relations. Actually this is used to confirm his (because such a questioner is ALWAYS male) location that somehow he is granted superiority by the Qur’an, by reducing equality to a matter of mathematics.
When the Qur’an describes such a transactional specific, it does not linguistically participate in making a female deviant. It interferes with the patriarchal logic at the time and place of revelation. That logic completed negated women’s agency in business transactions all together. The Qur’an not only includes women but also provides a means for two women to be together to corroborate each other. To form an alliance that could prevent men from doing what men had been doing: invalidate the solitary woman’s vote, or intimidate her so she would vote as they wished. But such a questioner after my presentation is giving his analysis that two equals one, and that means it takes two women to equal one man. In other words, men are twice as good as women.
So, the purpose of this post is to say more about metaphors of other-ing or the rhetoric of domination. I once called this double speak. we will recognize this in man-splaining. When someone says, women are equal TO men, for example. The sentence provides men with an independent status linguistically. Thus women have to be compared TO that status as standard in order to acquire the equality about which they speak. It is AS IF men’s equality IS the standard and what women want or should want is to be equal TO THAT. This also means that they already KNOW women are NOT equal and thus offer to grant women men’s status AS IF they are GIVING her something. Well, where did that something COME from? NOT them. It was granted to us by Allah, even before we take our first breath. In fact, women lost their God-given equality BECAUSE of men.
Whenever two things are compared equally, both should be able to stand independently by their terms of reference. In the old marriage statement, I now pronounce you man and wife. The two words are not even equal or parallel. A man will be a man whether married or not. A wife is only a wife in relationship TO the one to whom she is married. These days they say husband and wife, because others noticed this and eventually created TWO relative terms for the statement
These kinds of unequal feigning to BE equal grammatical statements NEVER occur in the Qur’an. There are never any accidental other-ing statements. Even when the Qur’an expresses clear opinions laden with values like good and evil and explicitly states that the evil is not equal to the good, it does not make a grammatical slip that privileges one person or group of people over another. Because goodness and evil-ness are not fixed. They must be earned by active participation of the person or persons.
I have found this to be such a profound reading that I wonder no one has ever written about it. For my work on the marginalized, could be women in a patriarchal reality, or sexual diversity in a homophobic reality, or race in a white supremacist reality, I find comfort in the ways the Qur’an never does any of these. That is why I wrote what I have written about the Qur’an in all the years that I have read, studied, used in worship and believed in the revelation as sacred and divine–albeit in human, limited, language and from within a human, limited context of history and geography.
Furthermore, I look for such statements in ALL speech. I have never written about this myself. So, I would be interested for those of you who got to this point IF you understand what I am talking about? I mean, is it clear? If not, please let me know what does not make sense in the comment section. If it is clear, do you agree? Do you have examples you want to share in the comment section? Finally, if you think this is a worthwhile project to pursue in more academic writing, I’d appreciate your recommendation. Thanks LOVE and light