On and off over the past year or so, I have gotten into some pretty heated discussions here about Islam. In August of 2014, I wrote a two-part post called “Trying to Be an Ally: Thinking About Hejab, Muslim Invisibility, and the Casual Hatred that is Cultural Appropriation.” (Part 1 and Part 2)1 I wrote those posts in response to this one on Ms. Muslamic about “hijab tourism.” I put this one up about Sahar Amer’s book What Is Veiling? in response to some of the discussion on the other two posts; and I posted this one , about Reza Aslan’s response to what Bill Maher said in this clip because I was tired of listening to Maher trying to pass off his anti-intellectual Islam-bashing as some kind of crusade for justice.
For me, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the discussions on Alas that these posts engendered was what I perceived to be some people’s inability to distinguish between criticizing the oppressive behaviors of Muslims–whether as individuals or governments–and characterizing Islam itself as somehow inherently “barbaric,” which is not the word they used, but is consistent with the emotional tone of Maher’s (and some of Sam Harris’) rhetoric.
One of the points I kept trying to make in these discussion was that there are already Muslims addressing on Muslim terms many of the critiques that we in the West have of religion. There was some not insignificant pushback against this point. So, for example, when I linked to evidence that there is at least one Muslim scholar, Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, who argues that being gay might in fact be compatible with Islam, G&W responded with this:
In all seriousness: so what? Who cares that there are some people who are deliberately promoting a view that contradicts the plain language of the text? Why on earth are they relevant in a general conversation, since they are a tiny fraction of all Muslims?
To be fair, I have taken G&W’s comment a little bit out of context because I am not really interested in reopening the precise conversation that was going on at that point. Rather, I have quoted him here because it was this comment that brought home to me my own ignorance about the very discussion within Islam that I was insisting we had to acknowledge and respect. Obviously, unless we are reading the Quran in Arabic, and also have access to the necessary and appropriate etymological, historical and other commentaries, we have to be very careful about what we actually mean by the phrase “plain language.” Nonetheless, granting for the sake of argument the aptness of G&W’s question and phrasing, the fact is that I had no idea, and I still don’t know, if Dr. De Sondy’s argument is or is not based on the Quran’s “plain language.”
Realizing this, I decided that I would take down from my shelf a book that I have owned for more than twenty years but never read: The Veil and The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. My plan was to read her book and post a kind of reading journal as I went, but a host of circumstances intervened, making my reading a far more disjointed experience than such a project would have required. It’s only now, two or three months after I first picked the book up, that I have finally finished it. One of the things I learned as I read was that, even if I’d been able to devote the time to the book that I’d wanted, a single reading would not have been enough for me to post in the way I originally had in mind. Mernissi’s argument is subtle and complex and relies not only on a textual analysis of passages in the Quran, which I have never read, not even in English, but also on a body of religious and historical research and commentary with which I am completely unfamiliar. I simply don’t know enough to do what I originally wanted to do in the way that I wanted to do it.