Recently, Dr. Amina Wadud was in a social media controversy when people started commenting on her 2013 blog post accusing her of blasphemy against the Prophet Abraham. Such are often opportunities for zealous masses to prove their Muslim credentials. While some hurled abuses at her, others went so far as to excommunicate her from Islam.
Fortunately, Dr. Wadud was not in Pakistan, for such media frenzies can get people killed -- as in the case of young Mashal Khan who was mercilessly lynched by fellow university students.
This was a golden opportunity for popular Muslim academics, who themselves experience Islamophobia, to teach their followers how to react to statements they personally find distasteful.
However, rather than ask their followers to curb their overreaction, they expected Dr. Wadud to not stir controversies over social media. Blaming Dr. Wadud is problematic, as it assumes that Muslims are somehow angry masses without tolerance for dissenting viewpoints.
She had commented on the patriarchal treatment of the story of Abraham and Hagar:
"Hajar was (literally) thrown out in the desert to fend for herself and her child without even a second's thought to the impossibility of her location as confirmation of patriarchy. ... How then do we reconcile with Abraham, the deadbeat dad, Sarah the selfish bitch, and even God, the benevolent?!"
The part that caused the frenzy was the depiction of Abraham as a "deadbeat dad." Naturally, as some noted, not much was made out of the depiction of Sarah as a "selfish bitch," which only confirms the point on patriarchy that Dr. Wadud had made.
Muslim writer Michael Muhammad Knight, who has been noted for his controversies in popular work came to Dr. Wadud's defence. Commenting on the privilege of straight white male academics, he wrote:
"Amina Wadud's remarks about Ibrahim would not crack a top-25 list of offensive things that I've written. ... Just some unfinished thoughts while another white man convert gets love for dismissing Dr. Wadud."
In a similar spirit, Muslim academic Michael Mumisa remarked that why do we have to pretend that the readers of the Qur'an never struggled with difficult texts. He claimed that different readers address these texts differently.
He also quoted a Hadith text that shows how the Prophet did not give a sermon on "how to speak to messengers of God" to a mother who yelled at him. He did not want to make it about his own disrespect, but about the woman losing her child.
The case of Hamza Kashgari of Saudi Arabia who was imprisoned for nearly two years for irreverent tweets about the Prophet is also noteworthy. Kashgari's tweets included the lines:
"On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more."
People who attack Dr. Wadud asserting their freedom of expression are often conspicuously absent when others are heavily persecuted for expressing their opinions. This is how dissent is destroyed in Muslim societies.
It is also interesting to note the timing of such controversies. The reaction to Dr. Wadud's blog post is four years late. Earlier in April, she was the subject of another frenzy on leading prayers twelve years ago.
She is not alone in receiving such delayed reactions. Dr. Kugle, who had written the seminal essay on homosexuality in Islam, was bitterly criticized last year, thirteen years after it was published in 2003.
Are such delayed reactions arising because Muslims feel threatened in Trump's America and so are becoming increasingly conservative in the face of external threats? Or are they arising because conservative Muslims feel threatened as other Muslims are increasingly challenging the classical positions on issues including apostasy, homosexuality, slavery and Islamic punishments.
Regardless, this is the opportune time to unfetter Islam from the shackles of ossified medieval manuals instead of engaging in apologetics.
Blasphemy is very much part of the Islamic heritage. Sufi dissenters openly depicted Prophets with irreverence. Iranian author Amir Taheri wrote in his article "Bonfire of the Pieties":
"Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of "laughing at religion," at times to the point of irreverence. ... Islamic satire reaches its heights in Rumi, where a shepherd conspires with God to pull a stunt on Moses; all three end up having a good laugh."
He references Moses and the Shepherd where Rumi has God admonish Moses on the shepherd's blasphemous speech.
"You have separated Me
from one of my own.
Did you come as a prophet to unite,
or to sever?
I have given each being a separate and unique way
of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.
What seems wrong to you is right for him. ...
The "wrong" way he talks is better than a hundred
"right" ways of others."
The Urdu proverb "likhay Musa, parhay khuda" (Writes Moses, Reads God) was used to refer to the unintelligible handwriting of medical doctors. In the current politically charged up climate, people would be careful of using such proverbs.
There is also a tradition in Sufi folkore in which God rebukes Abraham for refusing hospitality to a Zoroastrian unless he converted.
"God revealed to him [Abraham]: you would not give him food except with his religion changed, and I have fed him for seventy years notwithstanding his unbelief. If you had given him hospitality for a night, what responsibility would have fallen on you?"
One's relationship with Allah is often a product of dialogue, debate, quarrel and wrestling with the texts. In essence, how can one commit blasphemy when it is very much part of faith?
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