My father always encouraged us to interpret scripture for ourselves. We read text, learned mainstream interpretations, and then he would ask for our authentic self-generated interpretations delivered in the form of book and chapter reports due to him. Growing up, all prayers and supplications were done in English; my parents wanted us to really understand and synthesize rather than simply memorize Arabic words with a generic sense of what we were reading or reciting.
Having grown up with the understanding that my own mind was powerful enough to make sense of religious matters, I took it for granted. Trying to fit into the mainstream Islamic mold was something I sought for a few years in my late 20s. I tried to be certain of the mainstream interpretations of heaven, hell, the creation story, the Night Journey, and even became obsessed with studying hundreds and hundreds of hadith (prophetic sayings) and memorizing Quranic verses in Arabic instead of English. I temporarily gave away my own power to have that direct relationship with God that Islam supports. Mainstream Islamic scholars became my middle men. At every step, I despised feeling powerless and mindless. However, I worked hard at suppressing my own doubts and questions…until the day I had enough and finally called “bullshit!” on this new shadow of my former self I was trying so hard to create.
I have become used to having my interpretations attacked by other Muslims, most harassingly by Muslim males. But late last year, I was taken aback by an Islamic feminist researcher who interviewed me as a Muslim woman born and raised in the USA. It was the most psychically violent exchange I have ever had regarding Islam. Once we arrived at the meat of the interview, the researcher began to behave as if we were involved in a religious debate à la Ahmed Deedat rather than in the middle of a participant interview (a designated safe space) for an academic study. I suppose the expectation was that I would declare feminist values but only within an Islamic-approved framework.
It is certainly cliche, but I am a firm believer in not asking question if I cannot be open to any answer I may receive. My opinions on Heaven and Hell not necessarily being physical spaces, Allah’s throne not really being out in space, and even the idea that I would be alright with Prophet Muhammad and all others actually being archetypes rather than actual flesh-and-blood individuals were ideas the researcher could not handle. My opinions of Adam and Eve not necessarily being two individuals, the Garden not being an actual place, other forms of life far beyond our knowledge existing, or even the fact that I am open to my opinions changing over time as they have already throughout my 36 years were other items that very clearly disturbed the researcher.
My answers to questions finally led the researcher to question my claim to Islam, which has happened many times throughout the years. This time was different because I simply was not expecting it. It was also different because the weight of the exchange sat with me for several days afterward. Although I am not a convert to Islam, it made me really feel more empathy for converts who leave Islam. What if I weren’t so sure of my ability to develop my own interpretations? What if I had not spent years studying hadith and Qur’an like textbooks? I’d likely feel bullied out of Islam, shamed out of it, or simply have felt that there was no place for me in it or among its followers.
As a person with a functioning brain and with the ability to think critically, I choose to use my mind to understand Islam and make sense of it for myself. This is a power that I almost completely gave away, but that no one will ever take from me. Fellow Muslims can try to revoke my Muslim identity card for refusing to be a “country club Muslim.” Thankfully, I know that it is not up to them…and my heart is with those who may think that it is.
Jameelah X. Medina, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and orator. Her latest book, ABCs of Living a Good Life: 26 Things I’ve Learned along the Way, is available for free on her website:www.jameelahmedina.com. She is also the owner and operator of Dr. J’s Apothecary where she makes all-natural products for health and wellness.