Scholarly life – like life in general – requires balancing one’s own priorities with involvement in others’ project and plans. Say yes too frequently and you’ll never get anything written; say no too often and you miss the excitement give and take generates. A recent conversation at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting reminded me how enriching encounters in service to someone else’s agenda can be. I sat down with a scholar in another field working on a book for non-Muslims about how North American Muslims read and understand the Qur’an. We spent an hour talking about passages from Surat Al Imran (the third chapter of the Qur’an) that discuss Mary’s mother, Mary, Zacharias, John (“the Baptist”), and Jesus.
We had set up this meeting well in advance, but I suspect our talk would have been far less interesting had I not been primed by a panel I’d attended that morning, where one presenter spoke about the fluidity of Qur’anic descriptions of God’s participation in the creation of humanity and another read the story of Cain and Abel against the grain. The night before, I had also read a colleague’s work in progress on methodologies of feminist Qur’an interpretation so that she and I could discuss it that evening.
In talking about the Qur’anic pericope, my starting point was a brief essay I wrote a decade ago in an obscure Canadian feminist spirituality journal – solicited as the Muslim perspective for an “interfaith” issue on “Mothers and Daughters in Scripture.” (Again, someone else’s agenda.) I argued there that though daughters were hardly ever mentioned, it was not because of a divine preference for sons, or “an affirmation that a woman’s worth lies only in motherhood” but rather that “human events are merely in service to the sacred history that the text recounts. And while mothers are crucial to this drama of prophecy and revelation, daughters are usually not” – nor, frequently, are fathers. Talking about Moses’s mother, Mary’s mother, and Mary, I said that rather than focusing on the birth of sons, we might think instead of how “impending motherhood becomes an occasion for them to turn to God and for God, in turn, to turn to them.”
In that essay, I had observed that when the Qur’an declares, at Mary’s birth, that “the male is not like the female,” it posits the female as the standard against which the male is compared, which disrupts an androcentric tendency. But I was still concerned with Mary’s femaleness in contrast to other figures’ maleness. In talking through the text this time, though, in the wake of listening to other people’s unsettled and unsettling ways of reading the Qur’an, I noticed that the text oscillates between highlighting Mary’s femaleness and setting her up as among/parallel to male figures, specifically prophetic and pious ones. Mary is “chosen above the women of all the worlds” but is also likened to, successively, Zacharias’s offspring (Mary is the inspiration for Zacharias to pray for “goodly progeny”), and Zacharias himself: both receive angelic visitors to announce prophet sons. Mary is situated among “those [masculine/inclusive plural] who bow down” (and, elsewhere in the Qur’an, among the [masculine/inclusive] “devoutly obedient”). What struck me this time was how insistently the text refuses to fix Mary’s identity. It may be the case that there’s just something about Mary. But I was also attuned to difference this time – and had the good sense to accept the invitation offered to talk and to think, even though the topic was not directly related to any of my current projects. As with all good conversations, it was a starting point, not an end.
What surprising conversations have you had recently, where you know less when you stop talking than you did when you started, and yet feel smarter for it?
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.