The gender dyad in the Qur’an

Repeatedly in the Qur’an, we read that God has created humanity male and female. This duality plays a directly theological role: in contrast to God, who is absolutely One and eternal, who has no partners or offspring, humanity is dual and reproductive. It seems that the gender dyad is so fundamental to the Qur’an’s teaching as to leave no room for either homosexuality or for more fluid definitions of gender (as in trans experience). Indeed, the latter possibility never seems to come up, while several tellings of the Sodom story not only make it much clearer than the Bible does that homosexuality is the big problem — but that such a practice was literally unthinkable before the Sodomites invented it.

I wonder, though, if there may still be room to maneuver within Qur’anic terms toward a more open attitude to non-binary gender experiences and expressions. I have a sense that the purely negative theological role of the gender dyad may be the opening — the point of such declarations is to clarify humanity’s radical difference from God, rather than to make normative claims about human character. Presumably if humanity was more polymorphous, its difference from God would be even more strongly highlighted.

Further, we can see evidence that God views variety (beyond duality) to be a positive benefit to humanity, as in 49:13, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” As with the gender dyad, the multiplicity of nations is not a curse or a failing (as in the Biblical narrative of Babel), but a positive opportunity for growth and communion. Could the same not be true of a more expansive view of gender experience and expression?

(Perhaps this is a stretch, and I am after all an outsider — but I am committed to the project of finding liberatory readings of scriptural traditions generally.)

Possibilities of teaching in Islam

My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.

The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.

But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.

My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).

Book recommendations: On the Qur’an

It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.

Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.

And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)

Reading the Qur’an: Surah 31, Luqman

Surah 31, entitled “Luqman” after the legendary wise man who appears in it, is about wisdom. The question is whether there is any content to wisdom beyond simple adherence to Islam, and initially the answer may seem to be no. Luqman’s first line of dialogue, delivered to his son, reads, “O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah. For false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). Yet as the surah unfolds, it seems to me, we begin to discern the shape of a form of human wisdom that — while ultimately compatible with Islam — is not determined by its historical revelation, nor indeed by the historical intervention of any particular prophet into his society (interventions that as a rule occur when the society is beyond hope in any case).

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The problem of persuasion in the Qur’an

As my class slowly works its way through the Meccan revelations, we have arrived in the large group of surahs that recount the missions of the prophets. It is striking how consistent the pattern is. God judges a city or nation’s behavior to be beyond the pale and sends a prophet from among that group to warn them to change their ways. They scoff at the message, being unable to take seriously the idea that God could send a mere human messenger from their tribe. Ultimately, they are destroyed. The exact nature of the sin varies, but the outcome (with the exception of Jonah) does not.

Western ideology inclines us to see these passages as evidence of the violence of Islam, but what stands out to me is the extended meditations on the problem of persuasion. God clearly wants the people to be sincerely convinced by the sheer moral plausibility of the prophets’ message. Being persuaded by miraculous signs or converting under duress (as Pharaoh attempts to do in one passage) does not “count” — hence the claim that Muhammad’s only miracle is the message itself, the very clarity, persuasiveness, and beauty of the Qur’an.

I think that it’s in this context that we should understand the Qur’an’s approach to the infamous “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” This happens whenever God’s miraculous signs prompt Pharaoh to go along with Moses’ demands. In these cases, he is on the verge of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — he is not intrinsically convinced of Moses’ message, but is only acting out of fear. Hence God isn’t constraining his will so much as returning it to its natural course.

To explain why people are usually not convinced, the Qur’an doesn’t need to resort to any extraordinary metaphysical explanations like the doctrine of original sin. It relies on characteristics of humanity that we are all familiar with: laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride… The role of Iblis/Satan is to prey on those weaknesses, but he is not consistently mentioned — in principle, we’re fully capable of screwing everything up all on our own. And if we weren’t, if there weren’t something in us that resists correction, then the persuasion wouldn’t be sincere when it does happen. It’s as though the only way to stack the decks in favor of sincere persuasion is to stack the decks against it.

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On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Reading the Qur’an: A follow-up

This summer, I wrote a post on my first impressions of reading the Qur’an. Many readers were disappointed by the negative tone, as the post focused mostly on what I found alienating in the text (such as its repetitive nature), even as I admitted that the Bible has many alienating features that I am simply more used to.

Nevertheless, within a couple months, I had signed myself up to spend much more time with the Qur’an, in the form of a semester-long course (PDF syllabus). I feel no trepidation at this point, and I even look forward to the opportunity to delve into the text more deeply. What was once alienating weirdness has come to seem like compelling uniqueness, and my fatigue with the text has been replaced by a genuine affection.

What changed? First, I spent a couple weeks talking through key surahs with Shimer students in my Intro to Islamic Thought course (PDF syllabus). Then I studied some other translations, including Michael Sells’ excellent Approaching the Qur’an (which seems to be the Qur’an’s answer to the Alter translations of the Hebrew Bible).

But I honestly think that the biggest factor is simply that time has passed and I’ve had more time to digest and reflect. And now I see that, as necessary as it may have been for practical purposes, my crash course through the Qur’an last summer was simply not the way you’re supposed to read the Qur’an. I was reading it like a regular Western book when it’s simply not that kind of text — indeed, when it’s fundamentally a unique, sui generis text that therefore needs to be lived with. I will never live with it in the way that Muslims do, and in fact I may never gain access to the original Arabic text. But I’m glad to have the chance to live with it in my limited way and to help my students sit with this bewildering and fascinating text for a while, too.

Posted in Islam. 5 Comments »
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