Shakuntala: But what if our conscience conflicts with our faith?
~ dialogue from Deepa Mehta's Water
Recently, the Toronto Sunreported on a book sold in a Toronto store that contained advice on disciplining one's wife. The book caused an outrage within the Canadian Muslim community. Despite the Qur'anic text on disciplining disobedient wives, it seemed that an overwhelming majority of Muslim leaders had rendered the command obsolete.
Many faithful Muslims struggle with the Qur'anic verses on women including those that prescribe twice the inheritance share to men and equate the testimony of two women to one man. Likewise, Muslim gays and lesbians and their straight allies continue to wrestle with the verses on Lot's people.
Several of my religiously observant friends have privately expressed that they would have rejected such prescriptions had they come from a human Imam rather than the Divine Qur'anic text. However, my friends are neither the first nor the only ones to have a "crisis of conscience" on the revealed Qur'anic text.
Both classical and contemporary Muslim scholars have addressed the difficulty posed by such verses. Some classical scholars radically limited the scope of the text through specification, and even went so far as to overrule even the clear Qur'anic text by recourse to higher principles of public interest and welfare.
Likewise, several contemporary Muslim scholars have relied on contextualization or alternative translations. Some indicate that the verse on beating disobedient wives, by setting a hierarchy of steps, actually aimed to limit physical spousal abuse. Others indicate that permissibility does not imply obligation and that the law sets minimal bounds which need to be superseded by superior ethical conduct.
Some scholars have opined that the Qur'anic text on equating the testimony of two women to one man is suggestive instead of legislative. Likewise, they have indicated that the law of giving twice the share in inheritance to males is based on a family system with men as breadwinners and that this law is open to exceptions.
However, segments of masses influenced by rhetoricians and televangelists view such approaches of contemporary Muslim scholars with skepticism and contempt. At times, Muslim academics even end up facing punitive measures.
The late Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd had to face apostasy charges in Egypt for his project on humanistic Qur'anic hermeneutics. Likewise, Dr. Amina Wadud received intense pressure for leading a mixed gender congregation for Friday prayers in the U.S.
If prominent scholars have experienced such stiff resistance, several Muslims would be uncomfortable openly voicing their concerns. Furthermore, given the pressing concerns of raising children and earning a living, they may ignore an issue that does not concern them immediately.
Many, however, continue to reference Muslim literature hoping to address the conflict of conscience they experience from some scriptural texts. Time after time, they raise questions on the marriage of a nine-year-old Aisha to the Prophet or of the massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza by the early Muslims.
On the other hand, they also feel that even contemporary renewed approaches have their limits. They indicate that jurisprudential juggling on ethically challenging issues like same-sex rights sounds like an exercise in mercilessly contorting the scriptural text to suit politically correct viewpoints.
Nonetheless, gay Muslims and their allies would wish to see a resolution to the ethically pressing issue of same-sex rights. Perhaps such challenging issues require radically alternative approaches such as those applied in the context of verse 4:34 on beating disobedient wives.
In this context, U.S.-based Dr. Juliane Hammer has commented on Dr. Khalid Abou Fadel's phrase "conscientious pause," according to which in the conflict between conscientious conviction and the scriptural text, precedence goes to the former. Dr. Hammer also states that Dr. Amina Wadud extended this notion further by "saying No to the Qur'an."
Likewise, Toronto-based Dr. Laury Silvers has stated that not all possible interpretations of the Qur'anic commands and prohibitions are ethically equal. Her opinion on struggling with the Qur'anic text to reach the most ethical expression of the divine will reminds me of Orthodox Rabbi Steven Greenberg's book Wrestling with God and Men.
It is important to note that these Muslim scholars have not acted out of passion or base desire but, to use Dr. Laury Silvers' words, out of a "sincere struggle of conscience rooted in humanity" and out of sheer faith in a good, just and compassionate God.
It is this faith that has strongly motivated them to support the position that at times while the text cannot be wished away, one is obliged to "say No to the Qur'an." In some sense, simple Muslim women who have been abused by their husbands have said no to verse 4:34 just as many scripturally abused gay Muslims have said no to 7:81 and allied verses.