I usually travel for work so the sound of the wheels screeching against the tarmac at O’Hare is the strange, somehow sonorous, reassuring song of deliverance. “Travel is a kind of torment; it disrupts your routine with regard to nourishment and rest. Therefore, after one of you fulfills the intended purpose of his journey he should return home at once.” This Prophetic tradition has always retained a special place with me. In spite of all the amenities of modern travel, home remains an irreplaceable feeling. For me, located in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, the comfort of home always begins with the ride from the airport.
This particular Sunday I decided to listen to public radio. NPR was broadcasting Latino USA and the conversation was about language. I expected it to be interesting. About 5 minutes into my ride, the show’s host, Maria Hinojosa, began talking about sexism. She was introducing the neologism “Latinx,” a term, which she mentioned, was gaining currency in some literary circles as an alternative to “Latino” or “Latinos”. The problem with Latino and Latinos, Maria explained, was that as nouns designated for masculine singular or masculine plural usage, using them for generic reference to anyone of Latin heritage was sexist. Conversely, “Latinx” was intentionally neutral. This had me intrigued on many levels. The dynamism written language (as opposed to colloquial idiom) enjoys in our context is historically unique. I thought to myself: what are the factors at play that make some cultures/eras comfortable altering the established rules of a language’s grammar/spelling whereas others are more deferential to the past? I also thought, Maria’s endorsement of the term highlighted the connection of language to representation and thus to power. Clarity, precision, beauty, historical continuity, heritage, i.e. the various and sundry concerns entailed by the intentional use of language, didn’t seem to be considerations at all. Does such myopic focus on power represent progress or truncation—even for those struggling to access greater power? Mashallah, Maria had me thinking and as the show progressed, her commentary became more wide-ranging. She declared, “Gender in Spanish, the fact that all nouns are either masculine or feminine, is so limiting. It’s such an imposition. It reinforces a gender binary we now know is inadequate in describing reality.” “As a matter of fact,” she continued, “I don’t see any utility for gender in language. Unless, of course, I’m addressing one of my transgender friends, I love saying to them ‘chica’ or ‘bonita…’” My state switched from one of mild intrigue to intense bewilderment. Had I just heard what I thought I heard?
In spite of its acronym (which is an Arabic term for “scholar”), the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM) does not aspire to produce ‘ulema. Rather, in empowering non-specialists through religious literacy, we endeavor to drive conversation in our community. Maria Hinojosa, the unintended feature of my ride home, articulated one of our community’s greatest challenges. When discussing gender as a distinctive attribute of Spanish, the Latino USA host called it an “imposition” and pointed to its inadequacy. Yet, when discussing transgender friends, Maria expressed her enjoyment at their performance of gender and the otherwise imposition became a source of celebration. How peculiar? In my view, her sentiment reflects an attitude that restricts moral value to unencumbered choice. Extraneous interference with choice; be that of tradition, culture, religion, guilt, language, or even biology may be regarded as an impediment to true self-realization. How will a faith which maintains that peace is found through submission (to the will of God) articulate its vision for human flourishing in a context in which choice alone has been sacralized? To be sure, the Qur’an recognizes the importance of choice, declaring directly after Ayāt al-Kursī: “And there is no compulsion in religion…” [2:256]. Sincere religious commitment only grows from freely enacted choice; however, the moral value of choice is predicated not on its being freely enacted but its reflecting what God wants.
Abu Umamah reported: A young man came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, give me permission to commit adultery.” The people turned to rebuke him, saying, “Quiet! Quiet!” The Prophet said, “Come here.” The young man came close and he told him to sit down. The Prophet said, “Would you like that for your mother?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their mothers. Would you like that for your daughter?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their daughters. Would you like that for your sister?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their sisters. Would you like that for your aunts?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their aunts.” Then, the Prophet placed his hand on him and he said, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart, and guard his chastity.” After that, the young man never again inclined to anything sinful.
A colleague who works as an imam once told me a story. He said that a young man entered his office and asked earnestly: “Why can’t my girlfriend and I have sex? We’re adults and we’re in a committed relationship.” As soon as he heard the young man’s question, the imam thought, this is it—a direct parallel to a situation faced by the Messenger of God! For once, instead of groping in the darkness, trying to find some scriptural guidance for an unprecedented situation, the imam would simply convey the Prophetic wisdom. He began by saying across his desk, “would you mind sitting next to me?” After the young man had moved his chair so that he was next to the imam and ready for a real tete-a-tete, the imam began: “Is this a way you would like anyone to treat your mother?” When the young man responded, matter-of-factly, “yeah, definitely; as long as it’s what my mom wants,” the imam erupted in laughter until he was literally crying tears. When he was able to compose himself, he said to the perplexed looking twenty-something, “you weren’t supposed to say that!”
When the Prophet (upon him be peace) asked, “Would you like that for your mother?” the implication was that the young man’s sexual practice was morally irresponsible and harmful to women. In fact, upon reflection, it is the clear definition of mutual rights and responsibilities among partners combined with an incontestable foundation for the paternity of children that makes sex morally responsible. When those are absent, whether through neglect or single parenthood, women and children suffer: Hence, the young companion’s response, “No, by Allah…” On the other hand, for the young man sitting in the imam’s office, consent is the only necessary condition for morally responsible sex: Hence, his response “…as long as it’s what my mom wants.”
Some segments of our community are actively engaged in developing creative ways to introduce young Muslims to scripture (Qur’an and Sunnah). This is immensely commendable, Mashallah. Yet, my fear is that if we introduce them to the text without appraising the assumptions and sensibilities that form the basis of their context, we could be guilty of putting the proverbial “cart before the horse.”