This was the title of a two day conference recently held at Columbia University. At one point on the first day, one presenter asked if there was anyone who is not Christian. Two hands went up, sitting side by side: mine and a film maker friend who had been instrumental in getting me invited to present. She is Buddhist and was showing a trailer from her documentary on rape in the Black community.
One problem with my participation was how to introduce another conception of “God” while still engaging the intersection of race and sexuality with only 15 minutes. So I had to talk really fast.
While the easy answer is, “No,” the God in Islam is not afraid of Black sexuality, I still had a lot of ground to cover about the sex-affirming history and spirit of Islamic thought and practice. Because the preference is to marry, which is a contract and not a sacrament. Marriage is not for the purpose of procreation but for the pleasure of sex. Marriage is preferred over celibacy such that no spiritual virtue is applied to the latter. Marriage is the normative example (sunnah) of the Prophet.
I still wanted to address the bias for that sex-affirming history and practice towards male hetero-sexual pleasure. This bias lends further credence to homophobia and sexism among Muslims. What interests me are the ways Muslims use their interpretations of sacred texts to support their sexism and homophobia.
This is where thinking about the group called the Islamic State (IS) is useful. IS uses their interpretations of certain texts to support violence and gross violation of the rights of others. Because of the extremity of their claim to have textual support, ordinary Muslims (and others) are challenged to do more thinking about the ways in which anyone justifies what they do based on their interpretation of texts.
So many Muslims disagree with IS it is easier to raise the importance of diverse interpretations and to develop greater coherence in why certain opinions are reprehensible. Instead of thinking there is only one easy answer to anything, we have to engage moral ambiguity. Then we must look critically at the logic behind every argument instead of allowing others to claims to be giving THE Islamic response to an issue, or THE Islamic solution to a problem.
This is part of my concern over why interpretations matter. For while various texts have been used to justify sexism and homophobia–some of us have argued, for some time now–these justifications do not reflect Islamic principles or ethical values. Rather, these are the consequence of how people who are already homophobic or sexist interpret the sources.
In contrast to the slippery slope between the interpretations used by of IS, or to support sexism and homophobia, racism among Muslims never gets supported by interpretation of any textual sources. Although racism is alive and (un)-well, no one ever claims they are justified in being racist because of some texts.
This distinction is important, in fact, because in the end, texts or no texts there is still ethical responsibility. When Muslims are sexist or homophobic, and they clam it’s because of this verse, or that spoken tradition, it is just like IS, pretending there is some basis to justify their actions. But really, it’s not about the text at all. IS are just violent people, lacking moral regard for others. Sexists and homophobes cannot blame the texts either.
The other idea I take from this is about developing independent moral responsibility. After four decades across the globe in more than fifty countries, where racism exists among Muslims, I have never heard anyone justify it by any texts.
So what makes up for the absence of citations? Moral responsibility—or irresponsibility, as the case may be. Racism makes it clearer to me, that no Muslim is a good or a bad person because of any texts.
While it is reasonable to suppose that language inspires us to imagine possibilities, including ethical possibilities, in the end we are the agents of good or bad.
No matter how anyone interprets, there is no justification for treating any human being as less than fully human, deserving dignity. It is interesting to note how textual interpretation, gone amok becomes a shield to hide behind in this case, just like it does for IS.
The minimum requirement for anyone who claims inspiration through Islam should be respect and decency towards every Human being, no matter how divergent their actions, opinions and interpretations.
So while I could answer without doubt that God in Islam is not afraid of Black sexuality, I still could not account for racism among Muslims. Spending time to elaborate the distinction between the God and the Muslims introduced another aspect to my presentation in the context of this particular conference and that was the intersection of Islamophobia with any discussion of ethical issues in the US context.
It is astounding how many people still believe somehow that Islam is more racist, sexist, homophobic or violent than any other religion. Instead of accepting that some humans are more inclined to these, including some human beings who happen to believe in Islam.
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.