By Donna Auston
If our vaunted rule of the people does not breed nobler men and women than monarchies have done, it must and will inevitably give place to something better. – Anna Julia Cooper
During the month of Ramadan, many Muslims understand that the heavens are open — that through increased worship and adherence to a set of moral dictates (restraint of the tongue or corralling of physical desires, for example) that we are given the opportunity to approach the Divine. In this blessed season, we take advantage of a unique opportunity to seek nearness to Allah through heightened attention to acts of piety, hoping that through our fasting and prayer that we might be granted clemency when we are faced with the inevitable reckoning with the One to whom we all must return. This season is often approached as a much-needed space for personal introspection, an increase in personal worship, all of which are essential spiritual practices. But what happens when we allow for the possibilities that come with the acknowledgement that morality is constituted in relationship with the social — that our understanding and subsequent interface with the Divine presence is only possible through the filter of our particular on-the-ground reality? That our conceptions and perceptions of God, our relationship with our Creator, and what we ultimately understand about what we are expected to do in response to the Divine summons are all shaped to some extent by our experiences in the world?
Since becoming Muslim over 25 years ago, I have heard Muslims repeatedly make the attempt to disavow the role of culture in the implementation of Islam, to proclaim that “Islam is relevant in all times and places”— these proclamations serving to assure believers that they are adhering to the Will that exists above all petty human entanglements and nafsi aspirations. While it is undoubtedly true that Allah is Timeless, not subject to the constraints of space and place and His message to humankind is relevant and necessary across the spans of history and geography, human beings are never free of such things. Therefore, every attempt to understand and approach the Divine is subject to our limitations. Our choices here are but two — we live in denial of this fact to detrimental effect; or we acknowledge it, attempt to manage it, and most important, make the necessary adjustments to it when we realize that it has begun to interfere with our attempts to connect with Allah.
The surahs contained in Juz’ 27 (51:31–57:29), with one exception (i.e., Surah Hadid), emerge out of the particular social context of the early Makkan portion of the prophetic mission. It is a social context that many of us living as a racial and religious minority can relate to: we are few in number, our spiritual expressions are not necessarily mainstream and interactions with representatives of the status quo can run the gamut from friendly to violently hostile. Given that reality, many of the themes contained in this section focus on the absolute essentials: the importance of tawhid, or the Oneness of God as the foundation for all spiritual works, reminders about the hereafter that render those often abstract realities into matters of tangible concern, reminders about the long history of prophetic engagement with their respective societies — the expansion of notions of morality from the realm of the private to being matters of public and social concern.
Here “worship” does not simply indicate a regimen of individual prayer or reflection, but it also encompasses the implementation of public justice: where people are able to live in safety and security, where people are not marginalized or treated as less than human on the basis of personal or social identity, where everyone has access to adequate food, shelter, and other necessary resources they need to survive and thrive, where there is clean drinking water and the earth is not subject to abuse. None of these realities are a given. Instead, they require deliberate intention, continued work and sustained vigilance to be effected — a spiritual orientation that recognizes these matters as moral imperatives, and therefore incorporates a holistic approach to worship that does not compromise with social injustice under the guise of preserving a limited and narrow conception of personal morality: “Verily, human beings will have nothing save that which they strive for” (53:39).
Here, we are reminded of the missions of the Prophets Ibrahim, Nuh, Salih and others, peace be upon them, and their interactions with their respective peoples. We are also instructed concerning some of the early dialogue between the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, with the leaders of the Quraysh. There are many lessons in these exchanges — one worth highlighting brings us back to the epigraph that began this reflection and the importance of recognizing the influence of the social on human understandings of the nature and will of the Divine. In Surah Najm, Allah challenges the polytheists of the Quraysh about their theology,:
Have you considered (the vernacular deities) Al-Lat, and Al-‘Uzza, and the third, Manat? Do you ascribe sons to yourselves, and for (Allah), daughters? This is indeed an unjust division. — 53:19–22
This is not, as it may seem superficially, a statement from the Divine sanctioning the inferior position of girls; for we believe as a matter of creed that Allah has no gender — period. Rather, we have here a direct challenge to a misogynistic status quo, whereby women and girls were not valued in the everyday realm of the social — by (male) human beings who prized male children for themselves as the ultimate status symbol and subsequently projected this disdain for and devaluation of women onto their theological and cosmological frameworks. This exchange is also not here simply so that Muslims can pat ourselves on the back and acquit ourselves of such shortcomings — for if we do not take social justice seriously as an essential moral concern — our interpretations of scripture will consequently be infected with these virulent, debilitating ideologies. “Islam,” then, is in danger of becoming a repository for all manner of social injustice. Our holy men (for they are, more often than not, men), our shaykhs, our religious leaders will become instruments of hegemony rather than healing, and we will all suffer the consequences. According to Dr. Cooper, our “vaunted rule of the people will not produce human beings any nobler than the monarchies” and dictatorships have done — words of insight and wisdom gleaned from someone whose social location as a Black woman born into U.S. enslavement shaped the stubborn perception that she was by virtue of her “natural” constitution incapable of delivering either. (Dr. Cooper proved everyone wrong in 1924 by becoming only the fourth African American woman to earn a Ph.D.)
If this seems far-fetched, if we stubbornly cling to the notion that “Islam” is immune to the nitty-gritty, street-level influences of everyday sociopolitics, we need look no further than much of the contemporary discourse in American Muslim communities that, because of its own sociopolitical investments, is slow to forbid the evil of racism, sluggish and lethargic in enjoining the good of gender justice, or that dismisses the efforts of Muslim social justice activists (many of whom, not coincidentally, are Black women) as inherently secular endeavors that have no grounding in an “Islamic” moral framework. Fourteen hundred years later, the anti-Blackness that Sayyiduna Bilal sometimes encountered is still alive and well, we still do not value women, and many in our communities are still behaving like the leaders of the Thamud people described in Surah al-Qamar: 24 (whose hallmark crime was cruelty and violence to non-human life), where the basis for not heeding the message had everything to do with the socially ingrained biases against the person of the messenger.
Verily we have sent our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that human beings may conduct themselves with equity. — 57:25
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Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. Her dissertation is an ethnography of Black Muslims and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era. She writes and speaks regularly on race, gender, Islam, and other topics; she has published at Anthropology News, Religion News Service, Al Jazeera.com, and the Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter @TinyMuslimah.