Slavery and God/dess

Well the Golden Globe awards have been handed out.  I don’t have a television, so I didn’t actually watch, but a quick google search gives the results.  Highest honors go to a movie about blacks as slaves and whites as criminals.  That’s appropriate.

But this is feminism and religion, so let me get to the point.  It’s about a chance discussion on social media about the “merciful god” and historical institutions like slavery (holocaust, or oppressions like misogyny, homophobia, Islamaphobia and others…).

My view of the divine, the cosmos and of the world is shaped by my slave ancestry.  Recent area studies about Islam in America estimate that one third of the Africans forced to the Americas were Muslim.   My first African relative on US soil identified as Moor (another term used for “Muslim”).  But Islam did not survive slavery.

These days there are many Muslims who give themselves privilege because of unbroken ancestry as Muslim (they say things like “we are real Muslims”— as opposed to converts, whom they also presume all Black Americans to be, coincidentally).  Beyond this mere self-privileging, there are also Muslims who look down on anyone who does not maintain their Islam, as practice or identity. To abandon Islam is the same as apostasy with the extreme legal punishment of death (one day I should blog about the misuses of this logic!). Still, as I pointed out, Islam did not survive the cruel US institution of slavery.

Only this past week was I able to view the movie “12 Years a Slave”. (I was in India when it came out, and I don’t need to tell you that a population who covets white-ness the way it is done in India would NOT feature such a film about black people.  So I waited).  Like most people who share this historical trauma, (and any conscientious people) I was overcome by some of the scenes.  I held my breath through most of it but when the lead character pulled off in the wagon, back towards freedom, and the lead female character, Patsey, ran out and called his name, I just lost it.

So, the question begs to be asked, where is God/dess in all this?  Where is God/dess in all human suffering?  There are numerous theological responses to this question.  All of them bring some insight.  Likewise, all of them fall short of satisfaction.  Nobody wants a God that sits by while such gross suffering goes on.  And yet, suffering goes on EVERYDAY—including in systemic ways.  I agree with many liberation theologians, that God/dess is on the side of the oppressed.  I am also unsatisfied with that.  Quite frankly, I don’t just want God/dess on the side of the oppressed; I don’t want oppression.

I cannot resolve this ethical dilemma here, so my motivation is more modest here.  I’ve spent a lifetime reading about, writing about, and standing up against to even my most subtle tendency to participate in oppression in any way.  Here I revisit the Muslim logic that anyone born Muslim, must stay Muslim and be a devout practitioner or be condemned to death and then to depth of (the perceived) hell. This is even said when a people experience something as horrific as the US institution of slavery.

Some things really ARE greater than we can bear, at least to bear AND remain faithful to certain ideals, especially metaphysical ones.  At the crux of this is the human capacity to suffer.  History has shown us just how formidable some suffering has been.  And yet, the fact that a people will suffer and NOT retaliate with causing others to suffer is the highest form of humanity I have observed.

I resonate with holocaust and post-holocaust studies, but I don’t resonate with the way the state of Israel and many of its citizens establish and perpetuate horrendous conditions for the Palestinian people. The whole idea of “A land without people (sic) for a people without land” I consider one of the worst ethical responses to suffering, as it perpetuates the suffering of others.  Meanwhile, women continue to be summarily oppressed (made to suffer)–even by those who claim to love us: our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, in the name of patriarchal privilege and misogyny.  In LBGTQI struggles, I see spokespersons for “religions” pretend they represent God by excluding even the most devout person who does not identify as heterosexual.  Of course, I resonate with efforts at race liberations, and in the AmeriKKKan context suffering has continued since slavery. Still African-Americans have not lived a life of retaliation.

Fundamentally, we all want God/dess on our side.  Narrow-minded fundamentalists want a god as narrow minded as they are.  Post-whatever-religion-of-birth folks want God/ess to confirm transience as transcendence.  Every day and in every way, we the people assert our preferences over other people and fail to note how this is the root of all evil (istakbar, in the Qur’an).

In the end, it is “we the people” who oppress and cause all suffering.

In certain aspects of Islamic theology, God will hold us accountable for the suffering we cause to others (intended and unattended) because God is not just a passive observer.  However, God is not the cause of the suffering, we are. The Ultimate indication of a merciful God is being both on the side of the one who suffers and the one who causes suffering.  I say ultimate to call attention to the necessity of taking full responsibility for the status and well being of all human beings.  To both wish for and work at alleviating our tendencies to scapegoat and blame means standing up in our full moral agency.  We have to know the condition of the other: strangers and family alike.  Then we have to BE what we would want to see in the world.  To all beings belong peace, love and liberation. Working towards this is the corner stone of ethics. Accepting full responsibility allows us to relate to the intimate and merciful Presence of the divine without question, because we spend less time blaming Him/Her/It and more time accepting the graces to do something about making the world a beautiful place by alleviating suffering.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.


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1 thought on “Slavery and God/dess”

  1. Montserrat Cifreno

    Africans brought to the US were often Muslims, as African Sultanates were the main slave traders in Africa before the arrival of European sailors.
    Since the seventh century, Muslims enslaved Christians in Spain and in the south of Europe, often asking a ransom to free them.
    In India, Muslim invasions were not particularly peaceful and respectful of polytheist Hindus. They however respected the Indian caste system, the same way they respected the African tradition of Female Genital Mutilation.
    In other hands, Muslims only promoted the slave tradition and imperialism of ancient Sumer to a global scale, well before Europeans did.

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