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Asra Nomani interviewed about her ‘Qur’an problem’: “I’m a neo-Mu’tazilite”

December 21, 2010

In my previous post I explored Asra Nomani’s views on the Qur’an, arguing that her positions alienate potential Muslim allies because, despite claims to the contrary, she depicts the scripture as oppressive rather than emancipatory. Although I had more than one hundred articles, interviews and media appearances to draw from when writing, I wanted to get Asra’s take in a more direct way. Fortunately she was kind enough to speak with me in a brief but revealing interview. While I disagree with her on many points, I thank and salute Asra for taking the time to share her thoughts and for being so candid.

Q: You’ve often expressed that “literal readings” or “literal interpretations” of the Qur’an are used to justify aggressive violence (e.g. the actions of Maj. Nidal Hassan), isolationism (not being friends with Christians or Jews), and domestic abuse (4:34). Many Muslims, however, would argue that these problems stem not from “literal” readings, but rather selective ones which ignore large parts of the Qur’an and take single verses or even snippets of verses out of context. I think that Asma Barlas, for instance, would dispute your characterization. How would you respond to this criticism?

A: As a Muslim, it was so liberating to me when I learned about the choices we actually have between literalism and metaphorical interpretation. I found my intellectual liberation in the balcony of my mosque during the month of Ramadan 2003. The president of the mosque had declared, “A woman’s voice is not to be heard,” and we sat in the balcony, unseen and unheard. There, I read Asma Barlas’s book, “Believing Women in Islam,” and, I saw convincingly that we could challenge conventional doctrine with intellect. In the balcony, I became a feminist.

I stand with Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl and others as a “neo-Mu’tazilite,” despite the fact that most of Sunni Islam now considers heretical any other school of kalam, or theology, other than the Ash’arite literalist interpretation.  But if this is true, how could Islamic history have included hundreds of schools of kalam and jurisprudence in the early Ummah, as well as realities such as women leading men and women in prayer?  I find that most Muslims would prefer not to think about these things and instead, prefer the comfort and security of conventional wisdom. It’s always easier to simply submit to authority figures and communal pressure, especially religious ones, than it is to  question them.  I suppose some Muslims are afraid that doing so will weaken their faith.  On the contrary, it has only strengthened mine.

I’ve often heard that Islam or Muslims are misunderstood or misrepresented when critics of Islam and extremists cite certain ayats of the Qur’an, particularly those that deal with jihad or other “peoples of the book.” However,  I find this argument both apologetic and intellectually dishonest.  Polemicists will always take things out of context, especially holy scriptures, when its suits their purpose. The real problem, as I see it, is not what the verses say but how they are interpreted and used by our community and its religious authorities as mechanisms of power and control.  Let’s take 4:34 as an example.  Domestic abuse is a problem in every culture but, if we are honest, we must admit that this ayat is most often interpreted literally by many Muslim men as tacit approval, if not a divine injunction, to strike their wives. We have to reconsider how we interpret verses like this in society. In the 21st century, we should have nothing short of zero tolerance for domestic violence.

Through my own study and exploration of Islam and Islamic history, I discovered that a literalist interpretation has more or less dominated Islam since al-Ghazzali (d. 1111 CE) but started with the fall of the Mu’tazilites and the falasifa, or early Muslim philosophers who embraced Hellenistic learning and rationalism.  For the sake of brevity, I refer any Muslim who isn’t afraid of a little objectivity and critical analysis to read Robert Reilly’s new book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

In essence, Reilly argues that it was the rise of Ash’arite theology, or kalam, and the overthrow of the Mu’tazilites that led mainstream Islam towards a more literalist interpretation, and he credits al-Ghazzali as having driven the final “nail in the coffin” for any sort of rationalism interpretation.  Eventually, I made a very conscious decision to think for myself, as I believe we believe we were intended to do, rather than submit to the literal interpretations of Islam that are the legacy of men such as Hanbali (d. 855 CE) and other jurists who lived long before the modern era.  In their hubris, it was these same jurists who declared the “closing of the gates of ijtihad.” If other Muslims want to acccept and live under their authority, that’s their prerogative.  I prefer to follow my rational mind and my heart.

I would gently encourage everyone to surrender too to their common sense and “ruh,” or soul.

Q: When you publish your articles, your audience is mostly non-Muslim. Do you think that your description of “literal” Qur’anic readings as problematic could be reinforcing the widespread perception that the Qur’an is “literally” misogynistic or violent?

A: A literal interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’an can be misogynistic and violent, as can be literal interpretations of the Torah and Old Testament. I’ve heard from Jews, Christians and people of other faiths that they get it. They get that we are in the same struggle that has defined their faiths. There are certainly fundamentalists and scriptural literalists with both the Christian and Jewish communities, but, in our 21st century, only a very few of them translate their beliefs into action. When they do, they are usually quickly brought to account for their actions.

I’m not afraid of reinforcing any stereotypes. For too long, I sat on the fence, silent and dispassionate, while the government of Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic militancy unleashed into the world a brand of Islam that is violent, intolerant and sexist. For that reason, I can’t be an apologist for Islam today for fearing of giving the religion a bad name. It’s got a bad name, and the best thing we can do, I think, is clean up our act. As a journalist, I can tell you that this PR strategy to say, “Islam is a religion of peace,” or “Terrorists aren’t Muslim,” is intellectually disingenuous. It doesn’t serve the Muslim community, because it doesn’t address very real Islamic ideologies that sanctions the terrorism. We would be better served by being honest and real, tackling these ideologies.

Q: You’ve indicated that you endorse “cherry-picking” from the Qur’an. Do you believe there is a holistic way to interpret the Qur’an that allows Muslims to realize a progressive vision of Islam without ignoring certain verses?

A: Khaled Abou El Fald told me once that we should use common sense when we think of religion, and I believe that is very true. Let’s use common sense about how to interpret the Qur’an so that our interpretations uplift our communities through love, compassion and tolerance, not punishment, rigidity and dogmatism. We’re in a fight for the soul of Islam in our world today, and I would humbly suggest that there are principles no more complicated than kindness and goodness that should guide our interpretations, allowing us to rise to the best of ourselves.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anon. permalink
    December 24, 2010 7:38 pm

    Although…I hope you can suppress my above comment- please don’t publish it. There was little point in my writing it, unless you want to continue this discussion via email.

    I have much more respect for feminists like Kecia Ali who actually bother to master classical Arabic, engage with the sources etc, though so far I’ve noticed that her work raises far more questions than it provides answers (esp. Islam and Sexual Ethics, less so in her recent one on Marriage and Slavery- this is deliberate on her part, IMHO). But, ultimately, since anatomising juristic arguments involves judging how reasonable the assumptions we bring to the table are- and the idea of ‘gender equality’ has never been cogently argued- I would much rather stick with people like Imam ash-Shaf`i.

    I think this site is generally very good, for what it’s worth- and it makes me laugh (in a good way, of course)!

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