Religion is Good Counsel by Kecia Ali


dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

Last week I received an email out of the blue about a book I published seven years ago.

The greeting was polite. The body of the email managed to be simultaneously critical and vague. The writer began by noting that human beings are accountable “for what we say and do” and that the prophet Muhammad taught that those who start something good are rewarded for the good they do themselves and for those who follow in their footsteps; those who do something sinful are liable for their own sin and the sins of those who follow their guidance. The implication was that my book could lead people astray and I would be responsible for their bad deeds.

She had several concerns. In her view “some points in the book” were offensive to religion; she singled out the chapter on homosexuality. Further, “some questions … were inappropriately directed toward Allah.” The tone of my writing makes it seem as though “I am “attacking [my] religion or [am] not proud of it” – which, she believes, does not reflect my actual feelings.  Even if my inner sentiments are correct, she believes I am mistaken in my judgment about certain basic religious doctrines: though I “look to these issues as [an] American Muslim and [consider] how Islam could apply in U.S.A … in all religions there are basics that cannot be changed.” In her view, my book crossed the line. Finally, she felt that I was not clear “about how Islam respects women.” She signed her email “sincerely.” I believed her.

I seldom get hate mail. I sporadically get notes from readers with compliments, questions, or requests for guidance on legal matters or sticky ethical dilemmas. I ignore vitriol-filled emails, or try to, and generally reply to the rest at more or less length, though I never provide personal advice. This email – not fan mail by any stretch of the imagination, nor a harangue – fell somewhere in the middle. It was a mild rebuke concerned with potential effects of my incorrect opinions on society and, more importantly, on my own soul.

Which left me with the question of how to respond, or whether to respond at all. My auto-reply says I am on sabbatical, so I was off the hook. But I kept thinking about it.

The writer didn’t engage my book’s arguments about how Muslims today use and abuse authoritative texts to advance their views about gender and sexuality, often in sloppy and incoherent ways. My initial reaction was the frustration I feel when readers seem to miss the point of my book, which itself grew out of frustration with commonplace ways of treating the tradition. Regular assertions that there are “basics that cannot be changed” and that “Islam respects women” are precisely the sort of categorical claims that I tried to unpack, asking instead: who determines what is basic and cannot be changed and on what basis? Are their arguments logical and consistent? What assumptions undergird them? What structures of power, of hierarchy, do they in turn support? What does “respect” or “equality” or “justice” look like? Who decides?

Yet just as she missed the point of my book, I was missing the point of her email. It was not about the coherence of my arguments or my particular readings of classical sources but rather my spiritual welfare. She was, I assumed, following another prophetic tradition, “Religion is good counsel.” (Al-dīn naṣīḥa.)  This means that a Muslim ought to tactfully point out when another Muslim seems to be erring. Good counsel is not about threats or insults, but about clear-sightedness and truly wanting others to flourish, in this life and especially the next. I did not have to agree with her approach to be grateful for her sincere attempt to promote my well-being. Rather than being offended – as I can admit I probably would have been had the author of the email been male – I recognized that she was engaged in a task similar to mine: trying to help someone see things from a different perspective, to question her own standard ways of seeing her tradition, her community, and her own actions. If I ask others to abandon comfortable certainties and entertain hard questions, it is only fair that I be willing to do the same.

It became clear to me that I needed to respond, with equal honesty yet without an unproductive attempt to explain what I had tried to accomplish with the book.  If it wasn’t clear in two hundred pages, it wouldn’t be clear in two paragraphs. Instead, I kept my reply under twenty words: I thanked her for her thoughtful and heartfelt note, and closed “with appreciation.” I meant 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.



Categories: General, Islam, Muslim Spirituality

Tags: ,

19 replies

  1. As usual, Kecia sweet (in the “hood” sort of way..) and tough at the same time.

    My question is when do we come to the limits of “good counsel” and just border on bossy and controlling? I feel my measurements are random (as well as different for unsolicited male counsel and female counsel).

    Perhaps then we are left to “istafta qalbak” (take counsel from your heart.. )and there is no one answer until we first check within our selves…

    thanks. sharing widely

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    • Thanks, Amina. You’re right that it’s always a subjective judgment. We can’t really judge other people’s motivations. I try my best to give the benefit of the doubt, but often miss the mark.

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  2. It is a skill to look for the best intentions, especially if we are triggered by the words of another. I try to teach the women in my mentoring program to first begin with seeing the person whose words triggered us in a positive light – that their intent with us would not be negative and with that frame of mind, we can then get to a place of understanding. I enjoyed reading of your process.

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  3. Lots of compassion in your decisions and understanding, that’s what’s most important. Well done Kecia!!

    I have a women’s art history and spirituality website with no contact info (no Facebook or Twitter either) because when I did have it, the responses were sometimes more unkind than I could handle, mostly from men. In the end I thought it would be more compassionate not to be available to the public, so that whatever the upsetment, it would go nowhere, hit no mark, etc, and the complainer could more easily move on.

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  4. I’m not sure I am yet capable of responding in such a non-defensive way, but I like this idea of responding to the person rather than the critique. After all, when discussing matters of faith with someone who is a “true believer” and who does not see that this belief is part of a structure of power, what is there to discuss? It’s their subjective experience of belief vs. your attempts to see religion in context, using your reason and consciousness. There’s no mutual ground for argument so why not—as you seem to suggest—try to understand them within their faith context and speak to them in that language, with compassion?

    I liked this article very much. I grew up within a fundamentalist Christian sect and was never able to engage fruitfully with Christians after I finally left Christianity. It felt like speaking to slaves who were trying to convince me to come back with them into slavery. Perhaps now that I am older and less threatened by my past, I can engage again with them, and this time with love rather than fear.

    Perhaps.

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    • Thanks for sharing your story. I think the more significant compassion and love in this case were hers – at least that’s what I imagine on her part, and what I responded to. ________________________________________

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  5. I really love the sentiment here Kecia, it offers me a constructive model for dealing with the various responses I get to my scholarship. This sentence especially spoke to me, “If I ask others to abandon comfortable certainties and entertain hard questions, it is only fair that I be willing to do the same.” You’re right.

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    • Thanks, Ayesha. I’d like to hear more about the sorts of responses you get and your strategies for dealing with them. It can sometimes be as difficult to deal with certain sorts of positive reactions as negative ones!

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  6. Reblogged this on TOAL.

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  7. You inspire me. I often get similar responses from Muslim seeking to save my soul from myself. Like you, I find it frustrating, but also condescending and like missionary work (of which I am no fan). You took the higher road, and I thank you for showing me how to do better in these situations.

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    • Jameelah, thanks for your comment. You’re right, being the target of a missionary appeal can be exhausting. I try to remember that my scholarship and activism can be perceived in much the same way: an unwelcome and uncomfortable attempt to unsettle someone. I do not always succeed in holding my tongue but I am somewhat more likely these days to wait to be invited to weigh in on a topic.

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  8. Hi Kecia —

    Thanks for this post. Compassion and gentle kindness pervade it.

    However, I have some difficulty with your final response to Jameelah. I believe that feminist scholarship and activism will almost always be perceived as “an unwelcome and uncomfortable attempt to unsettle someone.” And I don’t think any of us should necessarily hold our tongues because of that. We can think about how a particular person or group might be better able to hear what we have to say, i.e. be compassionate about how we frame our feminism. But we need to open our mouths and say our feminist truths. Otherwise the world will never change.

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    • Nancy, thanks for your comment. You’re right, of course, that we need to speak “our feminist truths.” When I responded to Jameelah I was thinking of times when my instinct in social and personal interactions is to leap in and make a critique or an observation that might be true, and important, but not necessarily germane to the issue at hand, or not likely in that moment to be well-received. I try to check my motivation: is what I want to say going to be part of a project of transformation, or is it just going to make me feel better in the moment, even if it is ultimately counter-productive? Of course so much of this balancing of principles with strategy and tactics happens unconsciously … ________________________________________

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  9. I have been thinking about this for a few days. It just struck me that while you are probably speaking for Islam as you see it, Islam as it can be, Islam interpreted by human beings, in other words from a position that acknowledges the relativity of all standpoints in relation to “truth,” she is most likely speaking from a position that sees revelation as final and absolute and not conditioned by standpoints of those who are doing the interpreting. If this is the case, there probably is no room for dialogue, because while you will acknowledge a standpoint, she will probably not. Ahhhhh, well.

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    • YES! This is part of why I avoid face-off debate style encounters with ideologues: I want to understand where people are coming from, why they think the way they do, and ideally get them to consider what the alternatives might be. I want to argue, with logic and reason and passion for my own feminist objectives, but I can also acknowledge where my views derive from certain fundamental assumptions and commitments, some of which have to do with my own position and history. This puts me at a disadvantage compared to those who are absolutely certain of the truth of their views. There cannot be productive engagement in logical give and take about facts or interpretations. What I found I could do in this instance, though I can’t always, is find another ground to connect. (And, hey, she read my book. That’s already a gift.)

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