Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reflections on a Conference on the Qur'an: Reading, Thinking, Discussing

Yesterday, I went to a conference on the Qur'an, and it may have been the best conference I've ever attended so far.

Imagine an entire two days dedication to questions on, reflections on, appreciation for the Qur'an. It's just not the kind of thing you come across just any day. So it's something special, something that inspires you in every way, something that challenges you in many ways, something that, at the very least, humbles you and reminds you of how much more there is to know out there about anything and everything but especially about a Sacred Book that defines your life for you.

The best part about it was its inclusion of non-academic community members and imams, in addition to the academics, which was a necessary reminder to me of the importance of keeping our focus and point in mind when dealing with the Qur'an. Sometimes, we (I) forget that the Qur'an is actually a living and alive Text that holds deep purpose in the lives of most, if not virtually all, Muslims around the world in very personal, spiritual ways. And so, our academic readings of it are just as narrow as theological/legal/practical readings alone of it are; so, in order to understand it in a more holistic way, it is best to read (interpret) it with as open a mind as humanly possible and with as wide a circle of readers (interpreters) as possible--such that, for example, you interpret a certain guideline from a certain viewpoint, and then try to understand what the implications of that interpretation are for those involved so as to be able to determine whether or not there might be a better interpretation. Plus, you get to ask a question or pose a certain view and get responses and feedback from multiple perspectives in a way that humbles you and makes you realize how small you actually are when imprisoned in your own mind alone. 

This last point was reminded to us by a speaker not in her presentation but just in a comment at the end--that our experiences are essential in shaping our understanding of the Qur'an. One of my favorite scholars of Islam, named Sa'diyya Shaikh, discusses this so darn well in her article "A Tafsir of Praxis" (for anyone who might not know, since I myself first saw this word hardy a few years ago, praxis basically means practice and is usually seen as the alternative to theory). So, Shaikh basically points out the importance of using women's--or anyone's--actual experiences as a mode of interpretation/exegesis of the Qur'an/Islam. Think of it this way: the guidelines of Islamic law (which were established by groups of men over a few hundred years and never actually took into consideration the views or experiences or understanding of women especially when giving guidelines about women in the first place) issues all these guidelines about how to live, behave, etc., right? Let's admit that certain groups are more affected by law, no matter how divine it may be claimed to be, than other groups. For example, women suffer more from certain unfair interpretations of some Qur'anic verses, such as 4:34 (the "beating" verse, as it has been called, despite the fact that there are multiple ways, some non-violent, of interpreting that verse), and it's actually because of that interpretation that they suffer, right? So, since women themselves are the ones living that interpretation, and they're affected negatively in many cases, why not allow their experiences to teach us that: "No! This can't be! *I* am affected by *your* understanding of something! Why not let *me* and others like me determine what this should or might actually mean?" It's one thing to simply offer an interpretation or a guideline, but it's completely different when that guideline is lived and experiences. And those experiences matter, whether we like it or not.

Hm... I'm going off track here, but that was one of the most important reminders I got, so not totally off track, yeah?

Another thing. Someone spoke about the word ta'weel (which basically means interpretation but literally "going back to the original meaning of" something ... coming from the word awwal or first) and the whole concept of interpretation. Does the Qur'an "need" to be interpreted, and if so, what exactly does that mean and what might that say about God and God's all-Powerfullness? And who should do the interpretation? Of course, this isn't a new question, and Muslim scholars debated this issue for centuries. But the speaker offered some new ways of looking at the concept of interpretation, and I don't know if I should discuss them here since her paper is not published yet. I'll cite it here as soon as it's published, though, inshaAllah. This particular presentation was impressive. Very inspiring. 

Someone else talked about women's political authority and the Qur'anic figure Bilqees (well, she's not named in the Qur'an, but the Islamic tradition calls her Bilqees, and she's the Queen of Sheba and wife of Solomon). She was a powerful figure, she was a queen, she ran an entire kingdom, and the Qur'an doesn't in any way imply that her authority was unacceptable, that she was intellectually lacking, or that she did any bad or wrong at all. In fact, from what the Qur'an tells us, she did everything right! The Book speaks of her in pleasant terms. But there's a hadith [to non-Muslims: hadith = a statement by or about the Prophet Muhammad], which unfortunately is far too popular in many Muslim societies, that any nation or community led by a woman is doomed to failure, a hadith narrated by someone named Abu Bakra. The speaker discussed what Ashraf Ali Thanvi, a South Asian Muslim scholar who died in 1943, had to say about women's political authority. Well, Thanvi basically said that the hadith doesn't refer to women's political authority as we understand it today--that, yes, indeed women are intellectual inferior to men and must not be trusted with important decision-making and must always have men making the decisions for them, BUT today's governments function in such a way that no one person makes a decision. So even if a woman is in power, she doesn't make the ultimate decision. Yeah, Thanvi is the same guy who wrote that marriage advice for women that I talked about on my blog recently that is really disturbing because he, well, simply put, he hates women and thinks very lowly of them. 

There were so many other remarkable presentations.

All in all, it was a spiritually and intellectually empowering experience, and I am excited to attend all of its future ones as well, inshaAllah.

Thaaaaaaank you for listening.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Call for Papers - International Conference on Pashtuns, to be held in Pakistan

Dear readers, if you or anyone you know does research on anything even remotely related to Pashtuns or Pashtun regions (Afghanistan, FATA, Pashtunkhwa), please see the posting below and share the word with all you can.

Conference Name: "The Dynamics of Change in Conflict Societies: Pakhtun Region in Perspective."

Proposals Deadline: March 31st, 2013

Conference Date: June 25-26, 2013  (in Peshawar, Pashtunkhwa (Pakistan))

Thank you!


Straddled across the Pak-Afghan border, the Pakhtun region has witnessed a long history of perpetual war, violence, insecurity and displacements, which profoundly affect the socio-psychological, political and economic conditions of its people. For decades, life within Pakhtun society in the Pakistani provinces of Baluchistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been viewed through the spectrum of social and political upheavals and conflict in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the US and NATO engagement in Afghanistan has added to growing unrest in Pakhtun society. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Beauty Ideals in Pashto Music

For the past several years, I have been a keen observer of how women, men, and other genders are portrayed in the entertainment media, such as the music and film industries. I’m particularly fascinated by gender and sexuality performances in South Asian entertainment media—or what it means to be a woman and man according to these media. An excerpt of a paper I’ve written for a Music, Gender, and Sexuality course can be read here, titled “Gender and Sexuality Performances in Pashto Music.” There, I surveyed some Pashto music videos and the responses to them from Youtube users as well as Pashtuns in online communities to gather ideas about how these videos portray women and men, what exactly the role of the dama (female entertainer, such as actress, dancer, or singer in the Pashtun society) is and what it suggests about the Pashtun society, and who the intended audience of Pashto music and visual performances actually is (not surprisingly, it is men, as can be seen in this performance taking place in all-male setting called hujra, and occasionally upper class women, as seen here, with women sitting usually in the front and the men in the back rows). Centering the discussion on the role(s) of the dama, I analyzed the tension between the ideal of what the Pashtun society considers a “decent” Pashtun woman and the reality of the dama portrayed in these music videos.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why International Women's Day Matters

Today, International Women’s Day (IWD), is a national holiday in China, Russia, Vietnam, and Bulgaria. This should be the case in every country, considering how much every society owes its women with all the violence against women, all the discrimination, all the hatred of women that are so prevalent in so much of the world. In fact, I cannot think of one society that is free of any form of discrimination against women, that sees its women as equal and full members of society as its men. When I say “equal” here, I am not implying that men or men’s rights are the standard against which women and women’s rights should be measured—but I am pointing out something that should be obvious to all: women and men are equal in worth, value, and merit; there is no reason either gender should be treated as a lesser member of society or as inferior to the other for any reason. But we know that most, if not all, societies still discriminate against women its own ways. Just because one society does not practice forced marriages, for example, does not mean it treats its women any better than another society might. It is a shame that in 2013, we are still fighting for women’s rights and their freedom to choose what they understand is best for themselves.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Law & Order SVU and the Chris-Rihanna (Abusive) Relationship

Law and Order - SVU [Special Victims Unit], my favorite show of all time (at least until recently), of which I've watched every single episode of every single season so far, just aired an apparently controversial episode. Titled "Funny Valentine," the horribly-performed episode is undoubtedly the story of the  pop stars couple, Rihanna and Chris Brown. Because of the twist in the end, I've been wondering if SVU could get in trouble for doing what they did--since they basically "stole" the real-life story of Rihanna and Chris--but then again, precisely because of the twist in the end, they can't be charged with anything. Still, the similarities are too strong:

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