“Topography of the Piety Movement” from Politics of Piety by  Saba Mahmood

I have, in the past few years, come across many people who claim to identify as “culturally Jewish,” meaning that they are not religious, they likely do not believe in the tenets and values of Judaism, and merely participate in common traditions practiced by Jewish people. While I certainly embody this to a degree, I find the concept of it problematic; while it certainly encourages pride in culture and history, the purpose of the religion itself is lost, along with the depth of its teachings and values. This concept is brought up in a quotation used by Saba Mahmood in her discussions of the “Piety Movement:” “The state and society want to reduce Islam to folklore, as if Islam is just a collection of ceremonies and customs, such as hanging lanterns from doorways or baking cookies during Ramadan…Mere ceremonies without any bearing on the rest of life”(49). Similar to what is happening in Judaism, Muslims seem to be straying from the true purpose of religion, and maintaining a “good conscience” and “feeling of connection” through customs that only gather their meanings from cultural history and their implications for community and pride. This is the result of globalization, technology, consumerism, and communication between diverse peoples. While communication and sharing of customs may seem like an objectively “good thing,” is there a line to be drawn? Or is this move away from piety simply a step on the path to fulfill John Lennon’s dream of peace through “no religion?” Certainly, Mahmood sees it as a dangerous and sad phenomenon, hence her discussions of the “Piety Movement.”

“Voices of Faith, Faces of Beauty: Connecting American Muslim Women through Azizah” by Jamillah Karim, from Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop by Miriam Cooke and Bruce Lawrence

I have always been somewhat visually inclined – I insisted on dressing myself from the age of two, I have always found myself in art, and in general, have always appreciated “attractive” people and things. As I’ve grown older, however, this visual inclination has become more and more focused aspects of our aesthetically-influenced consumerist society. In society today, big cities and social hubs are not the only potentially dangerous hot-spots for advertising, both implicitly and explicitly, as the internet and social media not only allows us to, but often forces us to, indulge in explorations of our own greedy natures. Of course, many religions, including Islam, teach that these are abominable traits and values, and encourage preoccupations with faith, morality, and caring, instead. One of the motivations behind developing “Azizah,” a “luxury” magazine for American Muslim women, was to provide these women with a self-reflective, positive, and spiritually-aligned resource for entertainment and aesthetic indulgence. Instead of being filled with content that feeds into the beauty, body, brand and product-obsessed society of America, it is filled with diverse advice and information, and representations of the diversity of the community of American Muslim women. This seems to be a beautiful, valuable and rewarding publication, in that it draws these women away from the detrimental and rather Godless eye-candy American society tries to force, and encourages them to grow and connect based on spirituality, community, shared and alien identities, and values, in a way that is not completely disconnected from American culture itself. Through its description as an aesthetically pleasing, colorful, “luxury” magazine, it allows them to participation in and identify with American culture, but simultaneously provides them with an oasis of grounding.

“He Named Me Malala”

Before watching this film, I knew little about Malala. I knew that she was a young women born in a “third-world” country, where the leadership did not believe in education for women and girls. I knew that she had been shot in the head for standing up for her right to an education. And, of course, I knew that she was a renowned so-called “feminist” icon. Going into the film, I did not expect her parents to be the way they were – the title of the film stood out to me before I saw it. It emphasizes the power of the act of naming, and, based on the concepts I assumed the film would address, I figured its wording was highlighting the power of the “man” who named her, and, thus, the implication of her rebelliousness to name herself. Quite the contrary, as I learned in watching the film, Malala is close with her father, and she identifies with the name he bestowed upon her. He ignited her passion for education through the way he raised her, and encouraged her – but did not push her, as she confirms – to speak out. Malala’s father named her after a woman in a story about war, who used her voice to encourage the soldiers to continue fighting. Following this, the most striking thing in this film was the quiet presence of Malala’s mother. She seems to embody the spirit of “the unimposing woman,” which seems to be the exact spirit Malala is fighting against. It must be noted that her mother is not being coerced into doing something unjust, and is simply doing what is best for her family, though borne out of this care is a slight personal resentment; she misses home, and encourages Malala to be more modest. I found this juxtaposition between an activist father, a daughter infatuated with knowledge and rights to education, and a more docile mother, quite surprising. Stereotypes surrounding activism in Islam point to more conservative and “extremist” Muslim men feeling threatened by the notion of “women’s rights,” and outspoken, educated Muslim women as the proponents of change. In this case, however, the marriage appears traditional in that the husband embodies a “stronger” figure, as the wife embodies a more gentle one, but in looking at the family, the father-daughter relationship sets this traditional aura off-course. This shows the beauty and importance of education – it has the ability to grant one courageous conviction.

“Muslim Women’s Collectives, Organizations, and Islamic Reform ” by Amina Wadud from Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam

Many may be familiar with Judeo-Christian biblical phrase, “And God said, ‘let there be light.’” Of course, this results in the creation of light; God’s invocations so on and so forth throughout the process of creation result in manifestation. This invocation-manifestation pattern also exists in the creation story of Islam, which prefaces Wadud’s discussion of nomenclature, a notion she defines as “the particular metaphorical and literal use of language, or abstract reasoning” (90-91), and describes as “an important distinguishing aspect of what it means to be human above the rest of creation” (90). Nomenclature precedes language and communication – it holds a unique power. Wadud explains that “according the Qur’an, a test was given between humankind and the angels [and] while the angels confessed their ignorance, human beings were able to ‘give the names of things’(3:33)”(90); this distinct ability to understand essence, and, in turn, define the essence through invocation, sets human beings apart from the rest of creation, and thus, holds us responsible for exercising moral judgement. If we are able to understand essence, we are able to name “right” and “wrong;” our ability to name is representative of the purpose of the human species. Following this, we must clarify that most human beings possess the gift of nomenclature – women and men alike. Just as both men and women must be held accountable for exercising moral judgement, both should be granted the ability to define “right” and “wrong” for the human species, and thus, shape a more inclusive and equitable global community.

“What’s in a Name?” by Amina Wadud from Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam

“God will not look at your bodies or forms, but at your hearts”(48).

I was drawn to this Prophetic quote that Wadud employs in her discussion of khalifah, or human moral agency, as I am interested in the role of the body in exercising spirituality. This quote implies that divinity does not judge based on the body, but on the goodness of the “heart,” or the moral intent of the human. A reasonable question to follow is whether there are differences between the expected levels of morality exercised by humans with different bodily makeup. While perhaps not the original intent, interpretation, history, and globalization has come to define morality in a manner that expects different behaviors from humans with different bodily makeup. For example, females are often expected to cover more of their bodies than men are, in religion and even in many modern legal codes. Does this necessarily imply that the morality expected of females is higher than that of males? Or does it simply require that women do more so as to attain the same level of morality men attain by doing less? Clearly, throughout history, biological makeup is a factor when it comes to determining morality – perhaps it would be worthwhile to return to this quote, and reevaluate our assessments of the body that translate into notions of morality.

“A New Hajar Paradigm: Motherhood and Family” by Amina Wadud from Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam

As I read, I absorbed and generally took what Wadud was saying to be true, with minor questions on the issues of her argument showing up here and there. I want to be open, and to try to understand and embrace the arguments. However, when I read Wadud’s argument about “sameness,” in which she explained that she believes women and men are different fundamentally, and that successful families are built upon a proactive celebration of their respective differences – upon gender rules – it was difficult for me to embrace. As a drastically “feminine” human, in that I ascribe to historical and societal norms and inclinations that constitute the accepted definition of “femininity,” and as simultaneously an idealist and human rights activist, I agree that that there are differences between men and women that should be recognized and celebrated, but that this definition of family based on gender roles ignores the gender spectrum – there are not only “men” and “women,” and, further, those who identify with one gender can embody the societally subscribed character of the other – and the ability for humanity to successfully and lovingly coexist in family units without traditional “ideal” maternal and paternal figures.

Aymann Ismail: “Why the #MeToo Movement is Especially Distressing for Muslim Women”

The video on the #mosquemetoo movement framed and pointed out the irony of sexual assault in religious contexts. Since Islamophobia is raging in the West, Muslims may be trepidatious about sharing negative experiences related to Islam, or even to point out negative aspects of how Islam is understood and practiced by many today, as these sharings may serve as fuel for Islamophobic feeling and propaganda. In addition, they may receive backlash from within the Muslim community because of this fear, as well as due to certain groups of individuals’ patriarchal standards. The #metoo movement in and of itself has received much criticism on its own, so framing sexual assault with religion is even more controversial. This leads to the question of modesty in relation to sexuality and sexual assault – should it even be brought up? Of course it is men (or female predators) who are solely responsible for the actions of sexual assault, but what does the value of modesty teach about sexuality, and does it perhaps have adverse consequences?

“Sisters in Islam and the Struggle for Women’s Rights” by Zainah Anwar, from On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era

It was interesting to me that the woman who helped to found sisters in Islam originally did not see domestic violence as necessarily “wrong” – rather, as a fact of life; as something deserved. Is there a human instinct for what is wrong or right, or do these women simply always feel shame – do they think they are doing something wrong? If they were not educated, would they have been able to claim her humanity? Or is there humanity and agency in being submissive and ashamed? I do not believe there is – the men abuse, physically sexually, and emotionally, the women in their lives – this is not a “fact of life.” It is simply not. And it is not what the religion teaches either. 

Wadud on Theory vs. Practice

In my own religious experience, although I believe that observing certain commandments, such as keeping Shabbat, is beneficial and worthwhile,  and would help me get in touch with my spirituality, I neglect to do so due to laziness and conveniency. This is an example of my belief and respect for a theory, but my lacking of action in relation to the theory rather negates my respect for the theory itself; I can say I believe in it as much as I want, but if I do not engage fully in practice of it, I am being outrightly disrespectful to myself and my religion. I do not condemn myself because of this, however I feel like a “fake.” I am trying to forgive myself and exist as I do, but my inclinations toward a better version of myself are halted when I dismiss the full practice of some kind of religious work. The very fact that I recognize its validity may either be defined as a “good first step,” but even this definition can be seen as disrespectful – who am I to determine the validity of a religious law or practice? Why should I be able to choose what I think is “good for me?”

Tales of the Waria

One of the biggest things that stood out to me in this film was the emphasis on appearance, especially when Mami Rio got botox as she wanted to appear more as a woman to her husband. Although much of [love and] sexuality comes from attraction and appearance, physically altering one’s face for the pleasure or desire of another, whether it be continuous with one’s identity or not, seems unfulfilling; she seems to be “caught in the middle” – while she identifies as a woman, or as a man with the soul of a woman, she is comfortable in her body, but her circumstances do not allow for this comfort in ambiguity. Perhaps, though, this ambiguity comes from cultural/societal understandings of binaries. Perhaps she is not ambiguous to herself, she simply seems ambiguous in a male-female centered context.