Slavery and God/dess by amina wadud

amina 2014 - croppedWell the Golden Globe awards have been handed out.  I don’t have a television, so I didn’t actually watch, but a quick google search gives the results.  Highest honors go to a movie about blacks as slaves and whites as criminals.  That’s appropriate. 

But this is feminism and religion, so let me get to the point.  It’s about a chance discussion on social media about the “merciful god” and historical institutions like slavery (holocaust, or oppressions like misogyny, homophobia, Islamaphobia and others…).

My view of the divine, the cosmos and of the world is shaped by my slave ancestry.  Recent area studies about Islam in America estimate that one third of the Africans forced to the Americas were Muslim.   My first African relative on US soil identified as Moor (another term used for “Muslim”).  But Islam did not survive slavery.

These days there are many Muslims who give themselves privilege because of unbroken ancestry as Muslim (they say things like “we are real Muslims”— as opposed to converts, whom they also presume all Black Americans to be, coincidentally).  Beyond this mere self-privileging, there are also Muslims who look down on anyone who does not maintain their Islam, as practice or identity. To abandon Islam is the same as apostasy with the extreme legal punishment of death (one day I should blog about the misuses of this logic!). Still, as I pointed out, Islam did not survive the cruel US institution of slavery.

Only this past week was I able to view the movie “12 Years a Slave”. (I was in India when it came out, and I don’t need to tell you that a population who covets white-ness the way it is done in India would NOT feature such a film about black people.  So I waited).  Like most people who share this historical trauma, (and any conscientious people) I was overcome by some of the scenes.  I held my breath through most of it but when the lead character pulled off in the wagon, back towards freedom, and the lead female character, Patsey, ran out and called his name, I just lost it.

So, the question begs to be asked, where is God/dess in all this?  Where is God/dess in all human suffering?  There are numerous theological responses to this question.  All of them bring some insight.  Likewise, all of them fall short of satisfaction.  Nobody wants a God that sits by while such gross suffering goes on.  And yet, suffering goes on EVERYDAY—including in systemic ways.  I agree with many liberation theologians, that God/dess is on the side of the oppressed.  I am also unsatisfied with that.  Quite frankly, I don’t just want God/dess on the side of the oppressed; I don’t want oppression.

I cannot resolve this ethical dilemma here, so my motivation is more modest here.  I’ve spent a lifetime reading about, writing about, and standing up against to even my most subtle tendency to participate in oppression in any way.  Here I revisit the Muslim logic that anyone born Muslim, must stay Muslim and be a devout practitioner or be condemned to death and then to depth of (the perceived) hell. This is even said when a people experience something as horrific as the US institution of slavery.

Some things really ARE greater than we can bear, at least to bear AND remain faithful to certain ideals, especially metaphysical ones.  At the crux of this is the human capacity to suffer.  History has shown us just how formidable some suffering has been.  And yet, the fact that a people will suffer and NOT retaliate with causing others to suffer is the highest form of humanity I have observed.

I resonate with holocaust and post-holocaust studies, but I don’t resonate with the way the state of Israel and many of its citizens establish and perpetuate horrendous conditions for the Palestinian people. The whole idea of “A land without people (sic) for a people without land” I consider one of the worst ethical responses to suffering, as it perpetuates the suffering of others.  Meanwhile, women continue to be summarily oppressed (made to suffer)–even by those who claim to love us: our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, in the name of patriarchal privilege and misogyny.  In LBGTQI struggles, I see spokespersons for “religions” pretend they represent God by excluding even the most devout person who does not identify as heterosexual.  Of course, I resonate with efforts at race liberations, and in the AmeriKKKan context suffering has continued since slavery. Still African-Americans have not lived a life of retaliation.

Fundamentally, we all want God/dess on our side.  Narrow-minded fundamentalists want a god as narrow minded as they are.  Post-whatever-religion-of-birth folks want God/ess to confirm transience as transcendence.  Every day and in every way, we the people assert our preferences over other people and fail to note how this is the root of all evil (istakbar, in the Qur’an).

In the end, it is “we the people” who oppress and cause all suffering.

In certain aspects of Islamic theology, God will hold us accountable for the suffering we cause to others (intended and unattended) because God is not just a passive observer.  However, God is not the cause of the suffering, we are. The Ultimate indication of a merciful God is being both on the side of the one who suffers and the one who causes suffering.  I say ultimate to call attention to the necessity of taking full responsibility for the status and well being of all human beings.  To both wish for and work at alleviating our tendencies to scapegoat and blame means standing up in our full moral agency.  We have to know the condition of the other: strangers and family alike.  Then we have to BE what we would want to see in the world.  To all beings belong peace, love and liberation. Working towards this is the corner stone of ethics. Accepting full responsibility allows us to relate to the intimate and merciful Presence of the divine without question, because we spend less time blaming Him/Her/It and more time accepting the graces to do something about making the world a beautiful place by alleviating suffering.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

Categories: Film, General, God, Goddess, Healing, Islam, LGBTQ, Qur'an

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22 replies

  1. Amina, I could not agree with you more here. Goddess or God is not the cause of human suffering, we are.

    For me this translates to rejecting notions of divine omnipotence which deny the human role in the events that shape the world by attributing everything that happens to the will of God–which would have to include slavery, the holocaust, the US war in Afghanistan, and as well as individual and collective rapes of women and girls.

    I also agree with you that though God/dess will be on the side of justice, this does not mean that God/dess cares only about those who are suffering. Sometimes the notion of God’s preferential option for the poor comes perilously close to limiting the love and compassion of God only to those who are poor. In my view, God loves us all and She is also trying to inspire us all to create more justice and more beauty in the world.


    • I got a little bit of a goosebump thrill from reading your response Carol. Have to especially say I LOVE the reminder.. She is also trying to INSPIRE us all to create more justice and more beauty in the world. That was the heart of my concern. It is “WE” the people… who must take up the inspiration and create that beauty. thanks a


  2. Beautiful and insightful piece sister Amina! And I also fully agree with Carol. :-)


  3. Amina, your point about the multiple theological responses to suffering really struck a chord with me this morning. Though you are talking about massive, collective, humanly-imposed injustices (slavery, the holocaust, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the list could go on), they apply to individual suffering too: lots of insights but ultimately not fully satisfying. Thank you for writing.


    • Absolutely! I only hoped that by pointing at collective suffering and systemic oppressions fewer folks would try to BLAME the victim. But all suffering challenges the idea of the God/dess of Mercy. From it I actually believe is born a more intimate relationship with what I would deem our khilafah, our agency. But only because we are neither this nor that, we are both this and that. We are vulnerable and powerful. That causes my responses to God to be ever humble but equally responsible. I LOVE a God of paradox…


  4. Amina, a very thought provoking post. I do not believe the God/dess decides what is equitable or even just for humans in these situations. That falls directly upon humans. It is we who create these travesties. We are sent with the qualities intact to dissolve them. I do not wait upon some cosmic karma. Nor do I subscribe to the idea of “give it no energy, and it will disappear”. I believe we each must fully participate and act in ways to eliminate the many problems that put humans into suffering. My actions are based upon my relationship with Her. Still it is actions that will alter this world.


    • I live in California and I daily meet the “give it no energy and it will go away” folks. And mostly I think, what a luxury to actually live free from major disabilities or systemic oppressions or war and THINK it is ONLY all about YOUR energy. Blessed be. I love the intimacy of recognizing your actions are based upon your relationship with Her. It is about the demanding demeaning circumstances that TRY people’s faith and yet the trial is NOT encoded into some theology. I just think there is greater mercy than my coming up short in a trying situation… thanks


  5. And I agree with you, too, that gods and goddesses are not the cause of misery, suffering, injustice, and just plain awful stuff that happens to us. But I don’t agree with mainstream metaphysicians that we personally plan every awful thing that happens to use while we’re between lives and to give us “lessons.” It’s people collectively–and mostly powerful men–who invent gods to justify their deeds and write holy books to show gods punishing people with slavery, sacrifices, and all the other awful things. Excellent blog. Brava!


  6. Yes.. even the between lives, before this life, after this life metaphysical theology also can put blame. I was trying to articulate the need to be present and the need for us as humans to be less judgmental about the suffering of others. Not to condescend either, but to embrace with the grace we supposedly have gained from our “faith”.. thanks Barbara


  7. I had no idea an estimated “one third of the Africans forced to the Americas were Muslim.” I didn’t expect your post to turn to suffering after you shared this fact, but I appreciate the insights nonetheless.


  8. Thank you for this article. I couldn’t agree more, and it was very inspiring and wonderful to read.

    I do not consider myself part of any religion, or maybe of all. I believe in God/dess and the only thing I know about him/her is that he/she is full of compassion, and that is the single rule I live by. All my life I’ve wanted the world to be a more beautiful place, and if enough of us get together and decide we want to alleviate suffering, maybe the world will be that beautiful place. It’s funny… I am a writer, but right now I’m struggling to find the right words.


  9. There is so much wisdom in the post, and then tons more in the commentary. Thank you for this needed essay.


  10. Wow! there is so much to contemplate upon in this post! Its like a tangled yarn and each thread grasped leading to interesting thoughts/possibilities……

    We put value judgments and some of these may be incorrect perceptions—the Quran gives the example of Iblis who puts an arbitrary value judgement upon the substance of his creation being superior to that of humans…leading to arrogance and falling away from God. Value judgments create divisions and while this may be useful, even necessary at times, it can also be misused/abused.

    Likewise, we put value judgments on experiences—blessings are “good” and suffering is “bad” because we prefer/desire blessings over suffering. What if we saw life without such judgments? What if both blessings and suffering are life-tests of equal value? …To see the misuse, abuse or waste of God-given blessings as being harmful to our souls just as causing harm/suffering/injustice to another…….?…..This would mean that those of us who are cocooned in our own safe world blissfully unaware or uncaring of others…are also displeasing God as much as those who are willfully harming others…..!!….

    Surah 105 (the elephant) is about the power of God to control circumstances so his will prevails….yet in Surah 2 (verse 190..etc) God, who is most powerful, asks humans to fight for justice!. An explanation for this is given in verse 216 —“fighting is prescribed upon you, and you dislike it. but it is possible you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But God knows and you know not.” Which brings us back to the story of Iblis and how incorrect perceptions/assumptions can create incorrect value judgments.

    When faced with an injustice–anger can propel us to act—but in the midst of blessings—it is often difficult to stir up the energy for justice—one might think/wish—“let God handle it” or “I don’t want to disrupt my comfortable existence—let someone else help”….and other such thoughts!…..(which is why systemic injustice is often ignored in prosperity—and it takes much suffering to push people out of their lethargy and attachment to the status-quo).

    Since the post referred to slavery…I want to include this tidbit…..
    Abraham Lincoln had some interesting thoughts on the subject of God’s will and justice during the civil war—

    “…In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party…I am almost ready to say this is probably true–that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun he could give final victory to either side any day, yet the contest proceeds…”

    and later in a speech he concludes…..

    “…Yet if God wills that it continue, until the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether…”


    • I think Lincoln, Goddess bless him, followed a mistaken theology that attributes everything that happens in the world to the will of God. This theology caused Lincoln great additional suffering, as in addition to mourning the death and destruction of war, he was also tortured by the thought that God wanted the war and bloodshed to continue for some mysterious reason of God’s own. Similarly in his personal life Lincoln must have been tortured by the thought that God wanted his son to die and his wife to slip into a deep depression afterwards.

      In other words, Lincoln’s inherited theology added to his suffering.


      • “Doubt is to find truth–those who do not have doubt cannot think and those who cannot think cannot find truth” Al Ghazzali

        If Lincoln suffered and this suffering led him closer to God/understanding God and understanding humanity—then was this suffering good or bad?

        We judge life/living as “good”, death as “bad”—why? ….Are our judgments of good/bad simply inherited assumptions?

        (I could be wrong, I am not familiar with American history—but Lincoln did not “inherit” any theology—his beliefs are a matter of debate?)


      • The theology expressed in Lincoln’s address is an inherited theology of divine omnipotence. I am assuming that this theology is wrong in attributing everything that happens in the world including wars the death of children to God. If this theology is wrong then it did not bring Lincoln closer to God, it just made him doubt God’s love and justice. The question of whether the theology is wrong is of course open to debate.


      • The more “theology” I study the more it seems that people collapse it with “belief” in God (with OUT any idea what the theology of that “God/dess” is). So the question of what Lincoln “inherited” was NOT a question about his belief, as I understood Carol to be saying. But we are none of us free from the “notions” of God behind our beliefs…

        These have been the source of study under the discipline of “Theology”. Studying theology, does not make one a believer, nor does it confine our transform the belief of us with or without their knowledge of the theology behind it.


      • correction:
        Studying theology, does not make one a believer, nor does it confine or transform the belief of others, with or without their knowledge of the theology behind it.


  11. well written! Thank you!


  12. I’ve tried to respond to this post maybe 10 times now….but that requires being clear about my own theology and that’s complicated. I tend toward the Sufi total presence thing which looks a lot like predestinarian transcendence when you get to the heart of it (literally). In absence we seek justice as our own rule. In presence we seek justice as divine rule. But what the hell does that mean when “divine rule” is as utterly defined by men (and all human beings, but I want to emphasize the patriarchal tradition here) as “our own rule”? I do not care for how this kind of theology tends towards quietism…quietism following from a theology of predestination is so tied up in efforts to end the civil wars in early Islam.

    There is a Sufi story I’ve heard that sums up the paradox of the theology I tend toward. Interestingly, it has been told to me a couple of times to support social elitism and not helping the poor because it is God’s will! I cannot help but think that Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili would have disagreed most strongly with that grave misinterpretation of the Sunna. Anyway, here it goes (as I remember it):

    The shaykh was walking through an impoverished village that had been hard hit by famine for some time. The famine had broken, and food had returned to the shops, but no one could afford to buy it so the famine continued on for them…with food right before them but out of reach. The shaykh was so disturbed he called out to God to immediately supply him with enough gold to feed the people of the village. Gold appeared in his pockets. The shaykh went to the shops and purchased as much food as there was gold and distributed it to everyone in the village. He was grateful and left the city satisfied that people had eaten. As he was walking along the road alone, God pulls him up short and said to him, “Did you think I was not aware of their situation!?”

    I guess you can see how people would tell this story to support an elitist quietism, but for me it sums up the paradox of divine will (both the famine, the selfishness of the shopkeepers, and our obligation to act justly). For me, the divine rebuke is meant to highlight the paradox and demand better from human beings, not discourage people from feeding the poor because their situation is willed by God. For me, the process of becoming human is the process of challenging every assumption to become unfathomably compassionate and just.

    I don’t know why this view works for me (well, psychologically, I have some sense), but it does.


  13. I like this story but I would have to give it another interpretation. Maybe God, who lined the pockets at the bequest of the shaykh is just double checking that the shaykh did NOT feel like he was ALONE in addressing the needs of the people and that God was unaware.

    and NOW that omniscience is re-established.. well done for NOT just standing around and doing nothing, even if all you can do is pray.

    I tend towards the partnership with God in such stories. It’s like God reminding him of divine presence, just in case, but NOT at all a reprimand for asking for assistance for the people of the village, rather as a pat on the back for ALSO taking notice…

    That’s just me


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