Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Troublin' the Waters of Discourse in Gender and Religious Diversity

Only when we are lost can we abide in the One

The above quote was our closing gift from Professor Ibrahim,instructor for the Islam and India course, as we concluded our first conference call on the morning of April 3, 2007. The marvel of technology allowed us for the first time to hear one anothers voices, the different dialects, syncopated nuances and emotions that wafted across the distance of time and space. Even with the visual deprivations my sense is that we advanced our individual and collective discourses and reflections through this brief but rich interrogation. The focus was primarily on gender diversity and religious diversity that we have encountered in the course of this class. Today, perhaps, due in part to the dialogic nature of our format I heard and felt the range of knowledge and insights more profoundly, or perhaps I am simply an auditory learner. But I heard and sensed something more profound than a regurgitation of the readings. Professor Ibrahim referred to aspects of it as the "destabilizing nature of mystical growth." Today, represented, at least for me, a rare opportunity to share and exchange ideas,to listen to what others were saying and thinking and feeling. And this is a different experience from regurgitating the readings. I realize that my previous "discussions" have really been monologues making no pretense to dialogue but to put forth my ideas as generated from the readings. Sometimes I had the benefit of truly engaging the information and so I could synthesize the information and actually produce some unique attempts at analysis based on my engagement of the information. Without making that kind of learning experience the standard, it is certainly highly valued in the institutions of higher learning that we all currently are enrolled. So while my "discussions" have had their benefits I discovered that it is not as rich as the opportunities for dialogue which the online format does not allow opportunities for. Again, perhaps it may have more to do with my learning style. Perhaps, I have not been utilizing the "talk back" format sufficiently. Nevertheless, today was a powerful affirmation and reminder of several concepts that I think I knew but needed to be reminded about to maximize my learning experience. While I wish to share my insights I also want to regurgitate some of my humble insights gleaned from the readings. So if some of you do not appreciate where I am coming from you will also know that I am not trying to fluff or bluff my way through. Furthermore, that I have not only read the materials but that I have sat with them in deep moments of silence and have pondered them in the darkest nights, wrestling with the implications for my soul and for my life. So, I am going to take the risk to try to integrate the readings and the experience I had as a result of our conference call today. First off, I realize that I have invited this experience into my life. I am embarking upon a teaching ministry as well as community ministry. And so I could not have asked for a better laboratory. So if I stumble in my efforts and my first tentative steps to evoke the Sufi tradition of writing, then I know there is a community of individuals that will catch me and deliver me to the shores that I am seeking to reach on my journey.

Recently I scribbled down the following, "Love of life is the replenishment in healing the wounds of grief, and personal sorrow."

In our journey's to return to God we are healing and replenishing as we strive to be seekers on the Path. Sometimes, there is a moment in history that if we do not pay attention, it will pass us by like the twinkling of an eye. And for all our regrets we will not be able to reclaim that instance in which we could advance our conscienceness and draw closer to God. The movement of the hijras, khusra, mukhannath/muhanas bissu, waria, and enuchs represents such a movement and moment. The gender apartheid that Professor Ibrahim spoke about is both the confluence of faiths and the intersection of gender that shatters all of our preconceived notions. If we can bear the dissidence and fall out then we can attempt what others before us have done, some successfully and many more others unsuccessfully, and that is to grow our souls and return to God. Some of this task requires challenging and unlearning the oppressions that we have internalized and sullied the mirrors of our souls. Each layer of those assumptions of normative experiences is a spot on the mirror of our souls. In Islam there is the notion that unlike the concept of original sin that we come here unburdened but are pure and without "spot nor wrinkle." Unlike the Christian notion that we are born into sin and iniquity passed down from our parents and those of Adam and Eve, Muslim theology does not include this burden. That is one of the appreciations I have for Islam. There is no "creation story" that locks us into a life long struggle to purge ourselves. So neither is there the need to invent a Jesus that dies for our sins nor to grant God a Son who would have to be Holy it and Divine in order todie and live again and to be able to wipe clean the slate of humanity. Jesus existed as a Prophet and a man of God, but not as the son of God. So what does all this have to do with our conference call, our readings and this class? Professor Ibrahim has given us the benefit of his learning experiences in academia. His story about his treatment and the oppressive silence was a powerful "formative story" that transformed who he was in the world once he was able to heal from it. There is a minister, Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, Senior Minister of Vision, Worship and the Arts at Middle Collegiate Church in NYC. She talks about formative stories that shape our lives, good, bad or indifferent. They are positive when they teach us lessons of courage, compassion and strength, etc. They are negative when they cause us to internalize the oppressive images and experiences of others. And if we don't recognize the experience and take measures to heal, we might easily be stuck for the rest of our lives. We are receiving benefit of some of Professor Ibrahim's formative stories. The formative story, of which I have many, that is relevant to this course and my personal ongoing healing is the story of a little black girl growing up in a world where I was told I was not good enough. I was not good enough because of my gender. I was not good enough because of my color and race. I was not good enough because of my class background. I was damaged because of the physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual damage from the violence.I became what I experienced. Others no longer had to reinforce the oppressive myth that I was not good enough. I unconsciously sought out what had become familiar, those that violated me and affirmed my message that I was not good enough. I nurtured those wounds not realizing what I was doing. So why am I telling you this story? Because the places where we do not even recall the woundedness show up in our lives unless we are working to heal them. While there are many ways to approach the personal and collective (societal) healing that we are in need of the Sufi's, the mystics of all faith traditions knew better than anyone and approached it with the kind of transformative and powerful love that truly is the greatest love stories that have ever been told.

Above my mirror I have these words, "Chanting or singing fo 20-30 minutes as a a love song to God has the power to uplift, transform ad heal. Chanting opens the inner eyes and ears to see and hear God."

I believe there are many forms of chanting. I believe this class is a chant. It is a love song to God. It is a love song for my soul. This essay is a love song that is healing my soul as each letter appears on this monitor. I am so glad that I do not have to understand for it to be true and for it to work its power. This class is a participation in the life rituals of unlearning oppressions, oppressions that draw us away from God. In our present state of unawareness we can do great damage to ourselves and others. I write because it is my healing testimonial to those places of oppression that I am saying to myself and others - pay attention. This is a soul killer. It is all mixed up as Professor Ibrahim stated today. How did we deteriorate from times with Sufi women like Karaikkal Ameiyar who was one of the few women amongst the 63 Nayanmars and the most famous Indian female poet and revered despite her gender, to these times when it is life threatening for Muslim women to lead prayer in downtown New York City. This real life scenario resulted in a fatwa (Muslim contract) being placed on at least one of the women. One Islamic scholar's University was required to hire security because of the threats on her life. In still another situation Hina Jilani, a Muslim Pakistani lawyer who formed the first all female law firm in Pakistan had the unfortunate experience on April 6, 1999 of watching as her client, Samia Sarwar, was shot down in her office in a hale of bullets, one barely missing her own head as it whizzed by. Samia's mother, a medical doctor, had arranged for an "honor killing" and personally accompanied the killer to Jilani's office and watced the killer "unload a pistol into Samia's head." The mother calmly walked away leaving her dying daughter. Samia's offense, she had fled an abusive marriage and she trusted her parents final words which tricked her into seeing them one last time before she intended to leave to start a new life. Somebody decided, according to Professor Ibrahim that there was a norm, unspoken assumptions. That it is alright to impose the honor of the entire family on the woman and that she has no right to agency or to want a non-violent life for herself. Or that women can dare to reclaim their status in Islam and challenge the assumptions about where we sit, who leads prayer, what space is available to women and men. So in this class we are interrogating some of those assumptions, and unlearning oppressions, and shifting to the margins where women, children, the disabled, the elderly, the different and other live their lives everyday in silence. We are taking our privilege of voice and pen and using them o challenge these assumptions. We are looking at ways of worshipping the sacred that the ancient mystics used.We are turning it all on its head/upside down so that we can fill our hearts in loving expansion and growth to look out through new eyes so that love unfolds as astounding new possibilities in our lives and the lives of those we might not have come to know.

*I am learning not to approach our learning in this extraordinary class as a linear process. Thus, I have stopped trying to discern how each unit is related. Each lesson can just as easily be a course unto itself. Perhaps there is no one central thread directing the creation of this experience other than we are all here together with a commitment to form a community of learners within the loosely defined boundaries of India and Islam. Or perhaps it is only until I complete the learning cycle will any connecting truths become evident;

*We are learners on the borders. Were we at the center of life and society's notion of what it means to be successful , that alone would place us in the status of the upwardly mobile with all the perks available. That comes with a world view and a lens that reinforces the "normative experiences" that Professor Ibrahim spoke about. If we were pursuing the dominant discourse in India we might be having a different conversation, a different syllabus and probably a different instructor. Today, I got it. I get that we are challenging the unspoken assumptions and we are leaving the center, the normative experiences to examine "what is the real deal?" Hence, a door opened, I walked through and these reflections are my gift to myself and each of you;

As boundary persons, and some of us get to choose that status, others it is assigned. We have to leave our assumptions about normative experiences behind because borders are relegated to those who have been marginalized due to numerous -isms like racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism and heterosexism (just to name a few). I am slowly remembering this because I have been a border person all my life as an African-American female single parent born in racist America with all the baggage. And while I have achieved a degree of education along the way I am still reminded of my marginal status in various ways which I am still interrogating and resisting.

Thank you all for this powerful lesson and this rich journey.

The Mind we use is the Mind of God. Mind is the God in us knocking at the door of our souls. I am ready to invite the Presence of God into my life and all that I do. And so it is! Blessed Be! Qiyamah A. Rahman