by Randa Hamwi Duwaji
Ever since I can remember, I have been
aware of Him: God, The Being at the core of my existence. He was The Constant I
hung to amid the periodic upheaval and instability of a nomadic childhood.
Without indoctrination, I had determined that He was always Present, and
thereupon I made Him Sole Confidant of my thoughts and Listener to my heartache.
I loved, trusted, and believed in Him wholeheartedly. Although I did not realize
it at the time, in willingly ‘granting’ Him this intimacy, I had in fact
‘appointed’ Him Guardian of my developing identity in a world where I needed to
reintroduce myself every few years. To other people I might be a girl, an Arab,
a Muslim, a diplomat’s daughter, etc. With Him, it was so uncomplicated: I was
simply a Believer. That was my awareness.
I hate this conversation, I said to myself that summer evening, but I just couldn’t tear my thirteen-year old mind away. The couples seated with my parents around the mosaic fountain in our spacious vine-sheltered courtyard were old friends, the conversation was lively and pleasant. My father and mother were great hosts; Dad kept the conversation flowing, while Mom reloaded the multitude of oval ‘mezze’ dishes placed around the fountain-edge. What a difference from Germany!
It was late summer in Damascus, and the grapes were ripening overhead, dangling chandeliers of plum-purple. The Jasmines climbed the walls in bridal bloom, their delicate scent competing with the luscious Queens of Night. The adults must have enjoyed the cool, dry air. My memory of that evening, however, does not register contentment.
I remember helping my mother in preparing and serving, and in clearing up after everyone had left. I remember doing the dishes, indignantly leaving the guests’ wine-stained glasses unwashed on the kitchen counter. Believers, as I understood, do NOT take intoxicants, and I remember making an effort not to show approval. Mostly, I remember being extremely troubled by that night’s conversation.
Up to that evening, I had always believed that girls and boys were equals. Not that being a girl wasn’t different; Syrian society, represented by my grandmother and aunts, had always tried to curb my ‘boyish’ freedoms. I told myself that these lovely old ladies didn’t know any different. But when this group of modern intellectuals raised the issue and practically echoed my grandma, I felt distraught. Having grown up in a diplomatic environment, spending my early childhood in England, and then India and Germany, Syrian social standards had never figured in anything I was exposed to- until that moment. What had figured prominently however, emphasized constantly by my parents (to whom I raise my cap today for this undertaking, among others), was my identity as ‘Arab’ and Muslim’. Rather than cause isolation, that knowledge made me more accepting of others, in the sense that Muslims not only believe in God’s final Message to mankind, the Arabic Qur’an, but we also believe in the Divine Messages at the core of what is known today as Judaism and Christianity. And being a diplomat’s daughter I was, by definition, the bearer of a culture that seeks to interact with the diversity that makes up this world.
My younger brother and I had never felt as outsiders during our travels, but rather, benefited from joining in the celebrations of the societies we lived in. We realized that all people are equal under God, that no one is inherently superior. In India we had close Indian friends, and sometimes our entire family dressed up, joining their celebrations in ‘salwar kameez’ and ‘sarees.’ In Germany, our parents brought us gifts for Christmas, and we carried lanterns and sang ‘O Tannenbaum’ with friends and neighbors through snow-covered streets. At the American school I took pride with my classmates in being an American Girl Scout, and felt honored when I was chosen to represent my class in the Spelling Bee Tournament. Throughout it all, we always knew who we were, felt comfortable being ourselves, and recognized a world in which we all were more alike, than different.
"....nowise is the male like the female..."
And then, suddenly, here I was, two years later, comfort and recognition threatened, as I listened to the ‘male-versus-female’ discussion in our courtyard. I did not realize, at that time, that this conversation was offering me a glimpse into the ‘Muslim psyche’ where -no matter how educated or modernized a person you are- the Male reigns supreme.
At that early time in my life, I was still under the impression that adults knew what they were talking about. I panicked: Does the Qur’an really say that females are inferior to males? One gentleman had recited the Qur’anic verses that spoke of the feelings and prayers of Prophet Jesus’ grandmother as she gave birth to Mary, ending with: ‘..and nowise is the male like the female.’
"When the wife of 'Imran said:
My Lord! I have dedicated unto Thee
that which is in my belly, freely.
Accept it from me. Thou art, only Thou, the Hearer, the Knower!
And when she delivered her she said:
My Lord! I have delivered a female -while God knows best what she delivered- and nowise is the male like the female-
and I have named her Mary, and I place her in Your refuge, together with her offspring, (safeguarded) from the Deviant outcast."
"See? He had added emphatically. "God Himself says, Nowise is the male like the female!!’
As this Qur’anic statement echoed endlessly in my mind I was bombarded by all the intimations I had been experiencing to the same effect, ever since my arrival in Damascus two years ago. So far, it had been easy to dismiss the narrow views of the conservative characters I knew, but I could not as easily dismiss the views of the non-conforming, modern, intellectual men and women I had heard tonight! There was nobody to turn to. From my limited understanding of classical Arabic at the time, the group seemed agreed that this verse indicated male superiority. One gentleman had even begun discussing the sensual delights that await men in paradise then, perhaps remembering my presence, had just laughed and said that God Himself must be a male.
God was male? This was no laughing matter.
I stayed up after everyone was fast asleep, thinking hard. I wept. I prayed.
Dear God.... being me was not my choice. YOU created me! If my gender was Your decision, how could I be anything less?
And then it came to me. If I had learnt anything in my life so far, I had learnt one thing: Discrimination is something ignorant, self-centered people do. It is a human flaw.
There was no way, absolutely no way, that The Divine Creator would discriminate against anything or anyone. What about the Qur’anic verses I’d heard? Well... I wonder if people truly understood the Qur’an.
Many decades later, with a good knowledge of Arabic, after much studying and much research, I no longer wondered:
Muslims in general are NOT aware of the Qur’an’s attributes, and do not understand the Qur’an all that well.
I was still unaware of that fact when I first began looking into Islamic subjects such as Traditional Qur’an Explanation (Tafseer), Life of the Prophet (Seerah), Traditions and Sayings (Hadeeth), Jurisprudence (Fiqh), and Doctrine (Aqeedah). It was not until I had put all these subjects behind me, and begun to translate the Qur’anic words into English, using my studies as a background, that I realized: Many traditional explanations simply ‘do not compute!’
Explanations of certain verses often contain flawed reflections of the explainer’s time, mind-set, and knowledge. I am not referring here to translations into other languages: I am referring, unbelievable as this may sound, to most Arab/Muslim scholars of the past millennium.
After studying one of the most ‘reputable,’ the early 14th Century Tafseer of Ibn Katheer (the unabridged 10 volume version), I was disheartened: Firstly, it subjected the universal Qur’anic Message to Tradition. Secondly, its explanations contained flagrant departure from what the Arabic language indicated, sometimes digressing into distorted and inappropriate depiction, even of God Himself.
Few commentators had attempted to produce something timeless and unbiased, most ending up with their own reflection in a sea of predecessors: ‘Islamic Heritage,’ repackaged, and forwarded on!
Until then, I had seen my endeavors at understanding the Qur’an as nothing but an exercise in seeking the best available interpretation.
I had not yet discovered the Tools which would enable me to ‘safely forsake’ the Traditional.
A Path Rarely Traveled
And then it happened. My painstaking departure from the trodden path, into illuminating Qur’anic depths, began when I stumbled upon my first discovery, or rather ‘Recovery:’
I was reading the Qur’an, and had reached a verse warning Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, not to pray in the new mosque built by the hypocrites, but to remain in the first mosque where his companions were.
"Do not stand therein, ever!
Truly a house of worship founded, from
its very first day, on Awareness is more worthy of your standing therein; in it
are ‘men/rijaal’ who love to be purified,
and God loves those who purify themselves"
I read and reread it. "....in it are ‘rijaa’l who love to be purified..." Everyone knows ‘rijaal’ means men.
‘But how is it possible,’ I asked myself, ‘that in the mosque would be ‘men’ when everyone knows that the Prophet’s mosque was half-full of women?’ Anyone who knows anything about the Prophet’s life, would know that women comprised a large part of the Prophet’s congregation, with many Hadeeths (Prophetic sayings) to that effect! And then I thought of another verse:
"Among the Believers are ‘men/rijaal’ who were true to their Covenant with God: of them are those who fulfilled their pledge till the very end, while others await:
and they never changed course ".
I had always aspired to be among this group, but now, with TWO verses screaming gender-restriction,’ something was not right. Could we be misinterpreting the word ‘rijaal’? I looked up the root-verb ‘rajala’ in several lexicons, and found the same definition.
"The root verb ‘ra-ja-la’ denotes a person dismounted, ie, on foot; a female is "rajulah" while a male is "rajul." Both words have the word "Rijaal" as plural."
We were misinterpreting the word ‘rijaal’! Yes indeed! What a RECOVERY: ‘Rijaal’ had always meant ‘women,’ just as much as it meant ‘men.’ ‘Active women; women on their feet, independent of their mount…’ and 1,000 years ago, everyone knew this fact!
Although I felt blessed that I had uncovered one Tool which would bring me closer to understanding God’s words and recognizing their original intent, I also felt sad. I knew that very few Muslims, myself included, would have ever thought of using lexicons to find out what Qur’anic words originally meant. We are used to relying on the information handed down to us, much of it added on as footnotes in traditional explanations. Just imagine: Even in our schools, we NEVER open a dictionary to find out the meanings of unfamiliar words, whether they are part of a poem or a Qur’anic verse. Why? Because the meanings of these words are conveniently supplied for us by our educators at the bottom of each page. Our educators decide for us what we should understand, and especially where the Qur’an is concerned, this understanding tends to reflect the mindset of many centuries past.
Over time, we Arabs have lost much of our original language, becoming totally unaware of the proper usage of some words, and oblivious to the connotations of others. To us today, ‘rijaal’ only means ‘men,’ as opposed to ‘nisaa,’ which only means ‘women’ (I suspect that women in some Muslim countries are discouraged from going to the mosques because of this lost connotation).
How could anyone have guessed another meaning without the use of lexicons? And then it struck me. The Qur’an had given it to us, but no one was paying attention.
This is when I realized the importance of another Tool, Cross-referencing, where one part of the Qur’an actually explains another (Traditional Tafseer does mention this technique as the FIRST that should be applied - but it has not been applied methodically).
By cross-referencing we find that the Qur’an says, with regard to prayer:
"But if you are in fear, then (pray) while on foot ‘rijaal’ or while riding ‘rukbaan’…"
‘Rukbaan’ means persons transported on a mount, from the singular: rakeb (m) rakibah (f). So the former (on foot) is opposed to the latter (mounted). But our preconditioned minds had not even registered the distinction! It seems that at some point in the distant past, probably by the time Persia entered the Islamic fold, the word ‘rijaal’ had lost half its value, and so had Muslim women. No longer enjoying the freedoms of the Arab Bedouin lifestyle, no longer active and independent, a female had, in fact, ceased to be a ‘rajula.’ And with the use of the term ‘rijaal’ becoming restricted to men, it only registered in people’s minds in opposition to ‘nissaa’- women. The Qur’an’s mentioning of ‘rijaal’ in opposition to ‘rukbaan,’ had always been there, and could have seen it, had we been aware. We would have seen it, had we not allowed ourselves to be ‘transported’ by Traditional explanations of the Qur’an. My Recovery of that single word turned out to be just one jewel atop an infinite treasure trove. I have recovered many important words and concepts since then, each offering a magnificent new perspective: one little part of a beautiful, coherent whole.
When viewed in its entirety, observers will discern an astounding Worldview which has the potential to bring us all together in Peace and Prosperity. Take it from someone who has always seen Humanity on a single plane: That is my Hope and my Promise.
Little did I know that, soon after I recovered my first word, I would meet a Linguist whose response to my most-pressing question would take me back full-circle, all the way to that evening when I was thirteen, upset by the explanation to the statement ‘- and nowise is the male like the female..’ This is what the (male) Linguist said:
"In Arabic grammar, when we say: Nowise is A like B, we are favoring the latter (B) over the former (A), akin to the statement ‘In no way is silver like gold.’ This sequence shows that gold, in this case ‘the female,’ is favored over silver, in this case ‘the male.’ This is straightforward Arabic, and no linguist, or grammarian would understand it the other way around!"
What! Please say that again… and again… and again!
How could that be? Have Arabs and Muslims, for the past millennium, been so well-conditioned that we could not even entertain the concept of a female being equal to, or (as in this one instance) being favored over a male, even though we knew that this specific infant was to be the Mother of Jesus, peace upon them both?
A bitter realization, when we look back. So let us look to the Future: This is what recovering the original meanings of Arabic words and Qur’anic statements and Context leads to: A magnificent perspective; one little part of a beautiful, coherent whole. Not only that, but we also restore the Message and its Recipients to our Creator’s ‘default,’ triggering the Interactive Mode that had been deactivated. It is late summer in Damascus now, and the grapes still ripen on the vines, as jasmines climb the walls in perpetual bridal bloom. I am visiting with my elderly parents, enjoying their sweet company, as we all fast Ramadan together. I think of that evening, so many decades ago, when I was thirteen, and my memory registers …. contentment:
IT WAS MY NIGHT OF DESTINY
Thanks to Latif Borghiba
for sharing the article with us.
According to him "The authour, Randa Hamwi Duwaji, has a blog called
IqratheChallenge. Simply search in Google and you'll find it."
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