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.
11 thoughts on “The Power to Interpret for Myself by Jameelah X. Medina”
Bravo! One of my recent peeves is when witches and pagans say “our tradition teaches” and feel no need for a feminist multi-pronged critical perspective. I mean the Celts were patriarchal warrior tribes as were the classical Greeks, and so on. Patriarchal warrior groups kill, rape, seize property, slash and burn, take women and children as slaves, and so on. Does anyone really want to “go back” to that? There really is no alternative. We must become our own authorities in relation to traditions.
Women of great insight have always claimed the power to interpret — even the Greeks Carol mentions were challenged by Greek women in their own time also — Sappho says:
“Some say a host of cavalry,
others of infantry, and others of ships,
is the most beautiful thing on the black earth,
but I say it is whatsoever a person loves.”
Wonderful post! It’s like what Malala Yousafzai also recalls in “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” –
By the time the Taliban came I had finished my recitation of the complete Quran, what we call Khatam ul-Quran, much to the delight of Baba, my grandfather the cleric. We recite in Arabic, and most people don’t actually know what the verses mean, but I had also started learning. them in translation. To my horror one qari sahib tried to justify Benazir’s assassination.
“It was a very good job she was killed,” he said. “When she was alive she was useless. She was not following Islam properly . If she had lived there would have been anarchy.”
I was shocked and told my father.
“We don’t have any option. We are dependent on these mullahs to learn the Quran,” he said. “But you just use him to learn the literal meaning of the words; don’t follow his explanations and interpretation. Only learn what God says. His words are divine messages, which you are free and independent to interpret.”
What a fabulous and powerful post, Jameelah. I applaud your courage and intelligence.
May God bless your courage,insights and allow you to continually grow in wisdom. The world is so starving for people such as yourself Jameelah.
I want to stand up and cheer! Not only for you Jameelah, but for your father who encouraged you and I suspect your family that supports – at least I hope so. I think today will be a very happy day – I am unable to stop smiling. Thank you for sharing your story.
Good for you for having a functioning brain and the ability to read and think for yourself! Brava! I’m glad you survived that interview. I wish people of all religions were as thoughtful as you are. It’s hard to be strong when we’re attacked, but you’ve done it. Good for you!
From a ‘wrong side of the tracks’ Muslim- Powerfully brilliant post. Well done you.
Amen sister. Brilliant. This is exactly the challenge many of us have to tackle on a daily basis. Blessings
I gave mine away as well. I got it when a woman, a colleague, basically said to me that she didn’t need to run things by the scholars to know something was right or wrong. I do not remember her exact words, but it was an outright dismissal of the scholars. It took a long time for me to cut that cord myself, but her statement, which was so shocking to me at the time, was among the most significant of my first steps toward interpretive autonomy.
I am very sorry that you were attacked by a feminist researcher. I know they don’t realize that they are just reiterating male-centered language of power in a female-centered dialect. I’ve had these conversations before. In the beginning with myself and sometimes with others. I can think of one person whom I hurt the way you were hurt. I hope not too badly, but maybe badly. I hope she’s long forgotten it. But I haven’t. I’m still ashamed and should write her and apologize to her directly. As far as I could understand myself at the time, my response was meant as sincere theological debate but looking back it was sincere panic. I felt threatened by what she had written. I was trying to keep my adopted neo-traditional boundaries up as they were falling down around me. I apologize to her here and to you in her stead.
Excellent! It is sad that critical thinking is viewed as a threat to so many religious traditions, especially for women. People have been convinced that religion is the one institution that you cannot criticize, and that has allowed for the abuse of power throughout human history.