Tuesday, June 28, 2016

That Difficult Verse

I’ve been defending my faith within Internet philosophical arguments for a while now. In the wake of the 9-11 tragedy, and the resulting wars in the Middle East, standing my ground while patiently explaining to the crowds of Islamophobists how being a Muslim was not synonymous with being a “terrorist” has been near constant work.

In addition, I’ve also defended Islam from the older critics, whose opinions of the topic go a bit deeper than the shallower, propaganda ‘war bait’ talk. But just a bit. It’s not a big challenge pushing back on their claims that Islam and its prophet founder are inherently immoral in both literature and deed, since the facts that easily prove otherwise are at my disposal, and they of course prefer their passionate bigotry over facts. Child’s play.

Truthfully, I’ve found that preparing defensive arguments in the heat of spirited debate hasn’t been hard to do against the great majority of these political and philosophical foes. Using only poorly thought out arguments uncritically shared among each other, composed primarily of cherry-picked Qur’anic verses woefully divorced from context, along with their favorite of the most obviously fraudulent hadith, my opponents have been as comically unoriginal as their arguments proved impotent. Within my arsenal, my most effective weapons are:
  1. Placing the cherry-picked verses back into proper context so the distorted picture returns to crystal clear focus.
  2. Careful and patient explanations as to why the body of hadith is not infallible, and why it shouldn’t be considered so anyway, whether by the faithful, or the disbeliever as he tries to force me to accept it on terms it was never meant to fill.
  3. Shining the spotlight on the line in between the tenets of the faith versus the culture/political tradition of an ethnic group that also holds onto Al-Islam as a part of its identity.
  4. Interpretation of scripture.
Usage of the first of the two is practically ‘paint-by-numbers’ simple, and just involves measuring the strawman argument of the opponent against the greater context of the narrative revealed by returning the cherry-picked verse back to its proper place in scripture, as well as (in the case of hadith) measuring up against the spirit of the religious doctrine itself. If the debate is with a Christian, then I prefer to also help send the point home by drawing a parallel to a similar item within their book, which often shames with the sting of the hypocrisy reveal. Despite the simplicity of the no-brainer technique, the opponent is usually too prideful and blind faith committed to the anti-Islam stance to acknowledge the defeat.

The third is the one I probably use most often, whipping it around like a spiked iron ball with chain to hold back the fanatical anti-Islam crowd that falsely insist to a man that all honor killings, suicide bombings, and other patently unIslamic world news items, make up the very heart of the religion of Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Use of the fourth tool is far more challenging, as it demands a deeper thinking into the meaty and multilayered meanings of sacred scripture. This requires big picture knowledge of the greater message revealed by the One God of Abraham, local messages of individual prophets as they applied to a specific people and why, and the simpler/narrower focused message for the individual soul. This is where the REAL work is done, and it is not to be taken lightly. This overflowing well is where heads of sovereign nation-states, high-ranking clerics, and influential judges are supposed to pull Divine Guidance for composing the laws, edicts, and policies to manage the rule of the billions of people around the globe. One could easily make the convincing case that performing that all-important work poorly is directly responsible for much of the strife humans have dealt one another throughout our post-Deluge history, as opposed to the fault of the religions themselves, like my unenlightened atheist foes typically enjoy uncritically propagating.

I am a Muslim, a practitioner of the religion of Al-Islam, and as such I believe the Qur’an is exactly what it claims to be. It is the final part of the One God’s divine revelation on earth, and it closes the canon on the body of sacred scripture. There will be no more messages to add to it. This is it. Islam is the religious system built around that message… perfected for us by the One God Himself… and if performed as intended, will enable the believer to prosper in this life and in the hereafter per the Lord’s decree. The Qur’an IS divine, it IS real, and it IS True. It is God Himself talking directly to His prophet, and to all of mankind, making His requirements known. Like all sacred scripture, the Qur’an is multilayered, composed of a most basic message right on top capable of being picked up by the simplest dullard, as well as deeper and deeper lessons that expand ever outward from the core of the Book, requiring varying amounts of meditation, time, intellect, and maturity to chew upon. No human can fully know the Qur’an; its divine nature makes this impossible. At best we can study it to show ourselves approved to pass the Ultimate Judgment to come, and receive our reward, but only God is divine and knows all mysteries great and small. For each of us who earnestly study the Book to learn that which our Lord wants of us, we can only master a part, and as we gather and fellowship to share knowledge and insight, add to the pool of understanding, strengthening the community.
Of course in order for this ideal state strengthening to take place, the earnestness of the study must be sincere; the body of believers must be steadfast in upholding the Word of God to place it on its proper pedestal, impossibly high above all other beloved and respected religious texts. The Qur’an is DIVINE. It came down as Sure Guidance from the Supreme, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Creator of all reality, and as believers, we MUST treat it accordingly. If within its pages we come across a verse that confuses us, the deficit is within ourselves. The response is to accept it, meditate on it, ask God for understanding, and ask other believers their opinions of the matter for possible insight. The bottom line is that the proper response to such a situation is to give the One God the benefit of the doubt that He knows what He is talking about – He knows while we know not. God’s knowledge is TOTAL. Ours is significantly less so. This is the nature of things; the nature of the rank order between us and our Lord, and why we submit our whole will to Him and Him alone.

The opposite is true regarding the body of hadith, and the growing scholarly works of learned Muslims who wrote from the time of the prophet’s passing to now. These works are NOT divine, composed of the opinions of men, and originating from the finite understanding of the human mind. Should one read through the hadith and discover an item that confuses as it conflicts undeniably with the verse and/or spirit of the Qur’an, the last thing the believer should do is simply accept it. Or worse, accept what the disbeliever says about it while attempting to justify why you should accept their Godless version of your faith as truth. No. Instead the prudent thing to do is to ‘red flag’ that hadith for intense scrutiny. As it is indeed the work of men’s efforts, and did not come from God, the believer is 100% in the right to criticize it, and if it is clear that it contradicts with the Qur’an, it should no longer be considered “hadith,” with a new term prepared to re-label it. This should be common sense, yet the phenomenon so accurately identified by Bruce Lee reigns true: Man-made traditions become figuratively chiseled in granite as they grow hoary with age, and the people come to treat them as infallible and untouchable. This happens naturally even over mundane, non-spiritual teachings, so how much worse for a body of tradition said to come from the mouth of the prophet of God? Quite worse to an obscene, idolatrous degree it turns out. Today many modern day Muslims will support questionable hadith over a misplaced sense of religious loyalty, even when the content is so obviously out of synch with the spirit of the Qur’an and the known character of the prophet, as to threaten the credibility of Al-Islam itself. This is unacceptable, and demands a serious reform of the hadith, with every single item combed through, line-by-line and meticulously cross-referenced to the corresponding Qur’anic verse that it supports. If the chosen reformer appointees cannot match it to anything in the Qur’an – again via verse NOR spirit – then it must be re-labeled as something less than "hadith" and set aside, now downgraded to historical curio rather than religious tenet that can potentially do harm to the community.

Naturally I have specific items in mind for such rough treatment, notably any and everything that suggests my prophet was a “pedophile” from referencing the “six year old Aisha” marriage myth. Of the numerous contradictory ages given for when Aisha married the prophet, the enemies of Islam conspicuously zero in only on the youngest, less likely ages. They reject everything of actual substance and value in the religious texts, but manage to uncritically believe with all their fanatical might the false gossip that the prophet of God was a child molesting fiend. At least they are true to type, and prefer to feed upon the evils they so gleefully spew. Meanwhile, the details around Aisha’s sister Asma abound in the historical record, allowing those who actually love truth to calculate Aisha’s true marriage age lying somewhere in her late teens. Whoever the first person was who first spread the falsehood that she was six when she got married, I personally look forward to witnessing the angel seize him by his lying, sinful forelock and flinging him head first into hell. A fit dwelling place indeed for such a creature!

I say that, but since it was probably a believer that spread the rumor, who knows if this person performed enough good in his life to override the sin of slander to win paradise instead? Well, only God knows. Be that as it may, what angers me the most about this mess is that the believers took it seriously at all, and shoved it into the religious literature, where future knuckleheads would only use it as guidance for horrible behaviors. But why would the Muslim leaders ignore what God said about such mess? Note the following Qur’an verses:

Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding.

Why did not the believers – men and women – when ye heard of the affair— put the best construction on it in their own minds and say, "This charge is an obvious lie"?

And no question do they bring to thee but We reveal to thee the truth and the best explanation thereof.

Embarrassingly, that second verse references an incident in which a rumor was spread about Aisha and Ali having an affair, with the heat from this false… shit… growing so thick, that the prophet himself began to doubt! This caused the Lord of the worlds Himself to have to step in with revelation to clear the names of the two “indiscreet but believing” innocents before the whole community was surely ruined. The verse 24:12 is itself the penetrating question from God that should – among a community of sincere believers! – eliminate any and all slander and falsehood, with all gossip halting immediately upon entering the very first believer’s ear. 

The believer puts The Best construction on things, and when studying the Word of God in scripture, follows The Best meaning in it, and in order to be vested with true understanding, interprets with The Best explanation thereof.  The One God stated quite plainly that this is the behavior He expects from those who profess belief in Him; behavior that is often described in secular parlance as optimistic. God said that His people do not gossip and slander, they give one another the benefit of the doubt that they are indeed best in behavior and free of scandal, and above all interpret scripture according to The Best meaning/explanation, putting The Best construction on it in their minds.  This in order to rightly align with the will of their Lord God.

Is there any doubt that those who behave this way, see their fellow believers this way, and interpret the Word of God this way, are indeed "rightly guided?"  The One God said this was so, and surely Allah speaketh the truth!  It is in this way and mindset that I try to interpret the Qur'an as I read it, praying for my Lord to bestow upon me the insight, understanding, and wisdom needed to do so accurately from The Best possible explanation as Allah hath so decreed.  And who am I to want ought but what Allah hath decreed? Glory be to He!

The "six year old marriage" clap-trap kindles my ire but it has not proven difficult to defend against as it is so clearly a falsehood.  But there is one item that has come up here and there that genuinely intimidates me, and I have shamefully turned away from it over the years, fearful that deep study might even weaken my faith and cause me doubt.  Over the years I've waited with baited breath for the arrival of that long-time coming, canny foe able to fling it in my face with skill & panache, and laugh obnoxiously as I frantically slap about unable to satisfactorily defend against it.  To my distress, the disturbing item comes not from an obviously fraudulent hadith, like the "six year old marriage" one, but from the Qur'an itself! Today I have grown weary of continuously peeking over my shoulder for it to eventually catch me unaware, but have decided to finally confront it on my terms... terms that are composed of trust in my Lord, that He knows everything about the creation He has so skillfully wrought, and that He indeed knows best all things.   This is the verse:

To put it mildly, the highlighted five words within the verse are difficult to dismissively explain away, and quite intensely problematic in our modern, progressive times.  At the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, where we will hopefully get to celebrate the achievements of the first woman President of the United States, I fully expect womanism and feminism to make their mark as the newly dominant political philosophies, with #BlackGirlMagic a potent symbol for the changes to come.  Consequently, my sacred scripture advising me to "beat them" frankly looks bad, and it CAN'T be ducked based on everything I believe about the Qur'an, even if my opponents never bring it up to weaponize against me themselves.  The few times it was brought up in battle, it was a throw away comment similar to this quoted sample:

"It is a horrible teaching to say one person should beat another because their made up man in the sky said so."  

Crude, and wrapped in that nonsensical and impotent atheist speak, my foe didn't realize what he had... wielding it clumsily as a hammer, when it potentially could've been a scalpel, as Thanos the Mad Titan ruminated over his first encounter with the so-called Infinity Gems, told in Jim Starlins' flawed but classic Thanos Quest.  So to confront this intimidating and difficult verse head on we ask: What is 4:34 saying exactly?  Well, we can start by eliminating what it's NOT saying.  My foes are fond of implying, if not outright accusing, that one of Islam's goals is the subjugation of women, and that verse 4:34 is basically commissioning Muslim men to go around beating women willy-nilly as they so desire, to show them all who's boss.  "Uncritical" is how I usually label their arguments, as they rarely ever even scratch the surface of what Islam is about.  They prefer instead to, in an amazing demonstration that they have zero interest in what the texts actually say, to build and/or prop up the strawman effigy to argue against.

God said that the only thing He will judge us on is how righteous we are.  He doesn't care about the rest of it. In fact, He said He made us all different just so that we could learn from each other. Combine that fact with the Qur'an's many mentions of slavery... freeing the slave is listed as one of the greatest Good Deeds, with the obvious message of the religion to discourage slavery. Just these two points alone -- we are all equal under God except for our levels of righteousness as we individual believers strive to stay on the Path of Allah, and the listing of freeing the slave as a major Good Deed in a belief system built upon collecting Good Deeds to get into heaven -- should be enough to prove that Islam isn't about subjugating our women at all.  She is a believer just like me, to be judged for her righteousness just like me, so for what reason would I have for trying to break her spirit, and making her a slave for no other reason than because she is a woman?  The reasonable, logical answer is that I would have no reason to do so based on the general message of the Qur'an and on the message of this particular verse.

It's clear that the first two lines in the verse are talking to a very specific type of man, a very specific type of woman, within their very specific type of relationship.That would be the male as sole provider who maintains the lifestyle for a kept wife, in her role as manager of the home.  God is acknowledging that this is usually the relationship dynamic between married couples (although at no point does the Qur'an command couples to conform to this traditional model, which is not insignificant, since other coupled models would render the disciplinary steps presented in 4:34 inapt). We understand that with the male as the provider he is the maintainer of her quality of life, and because of his generally higher physical strength he's also her protector. Again the Muslim males's duty under this particular agreed upon arrangement is to maintain his wife's quality of life by supporting her from what he provides monetarily, and to use his strength to ensure her safety and security.  The Muslim woman's duty in this relationship is to guard her righteous status as a believer.  She does so as a kept wife by being responsible for the home her husband provided, and guarding her own morality/chastity (because the Qur'an is ALL about that).  The next few lines in the verse explain that if the woman breaks her side of the agreement and wilds out, abusing those items she is responsible for as home manager, then there are a progressive series of disciplinary measures that the man is allowed to take, with the third one in the series being the beating.  It should be clear that if God's instructions are actually being followed, her behavior at this point would be quite disgraceful.  Note that there is another option described extensively elsewhere in the Qur'an that is not pointed out in this verse: divorce.  Divorce is absolutely an option for relationships that aren't working out in the Muslim household... with numerous verses dedicated to the rules God set for them.  In fact, in addition to both parties able to use it to sever the marriage if they both agree to split, it is also the woman's disciplinary option for when HE doesn't live up to HIS side of the covenant.  Yet here we find it is conspicuously NOT listed as one of the options when the wife is (for whatever reason) wilding out on the husband, abandoning and/or abusing her marital duties.


I think the clue lies in the addition of the word "lightly." On the surface you can easily interpret that as "Don't hit her TOO hard."  Sure, why not? Of course that's the low-hanging fruit interpretation.  But going deeper I think it also means that God is talking to someone who doesn't want to do this... to a husband who's genuinely fond of this woman and doesn't want to hurt her (perhaps revealing a glimpse into why a young bride is acting up in the first place...?), who simply wants his wife to uphold her end of the arrangement.  He loves her, does not want to divorce, but she must be held accountable for her disgraceful actions.  The second and third of the progressive disciplinary steps are used when all the talking, pleading, and appeals to reason, duty and her status as a believer have failed.

But the word "lightly" means that you still need to know your wife to me.  It means intimacy. Candid communication. Because honestly, how would you know whether you were spanking her "lightly" unless she told you what "light" was to her?  What would be a "light" blow for one person, would be too hard, or too soft for another.  You know what "light" means for your wife, because this was already discussed up front in the ground rules for the arrangement.  She was well aware of what each step in the progressive disciplinary series meant, and when it was time for the third step to be implemented -- because she never stopped wilding out up to this point -- she was set down and patiently explained to that because of her unacceptable behavior, the light pop across the ass had now arrived.  Everyone involved had already discussed this, and are well aware that disciplinary actions are designed... not to treat her like a slave/subhuman... but to correct the behavior, which in this case she has broken the marriage covenant by not holding up her end of the agreement. The consequences of disorderly conduct should have been spelled out in detail in the contract so that no one is surprised when it gets to that point.

So just like the verse itself is describing a very specific type of marriage arrangement model, that controversial third disciplinary step is also only to be applied under very special circumstances, in a relationship where the two parties would not end up going down a road of horror from it.  He would have to know her, and she would have to know him well enough that they would be able to recover from the event and grow from it.  Without really knowing each other, that third disciplinary action would not be advised.  What if she is acting that way because she quite simply doesn't like him and regrets the arrangement altogether?  Beating her, "lightly" or otherwise, is not likely to fix it, but will surely make it worse.  Any Muslim man/woman relationship in which the 4:34 'kept wife' stipulations do not describe, should probably seriously consider going the divorce route instead of applying that verse's third disciplinary step.

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