Dangerous, Biblical, Quranical Words
I’m an Orthodox Jew who is interested in your “living biblical womanhood” project…. My husband is a rabbi and he actually debated a complementarian evangelical once. The guy totally expected him to have him on his side, but he was wrong!
— Ahava, quoted by Rachel Held Evans in A Year of Biblical Womanhood
The germ of the idea [for my year of living biblically] came from my own family: my uncle Gil…, quite possibly the most religious man in the world…. He started his life as a Jew,… turned into a born-again Christian, and, in his latest incarnation, is an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem…. At some point along his spiritual path, Gil decided to take the Bible literally. Completely literally.
— A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically
That’s not a Marxist talking, it’s a mystic. And a good Muslim, at heart. I believe in the man who spoke those words. He moves me. I’ve never had a personal meeting with him, but I feel a lot in common. Sukarno and I are the same astrological sign, you know. Sometimes I almost feel we share the same identity. I could have been him.
— Billy Kwan, in Christopher J. Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously
[“A Year of Living Dangerously” is the title of the public address by Sukarno] the President of the Republic of Indonesia, August 17, 1964, English translation by Antara News Agency, Djakarta, p. 10. The speech was distributed in pamphlet form as a supplement to Harian Rakjat of August 19, 1964. Its Indonesian title is [TAVIP] “Tahun … Vivere Pericoloso,” a slightly ungrammatical reminiscence of Mussolini’s slogan, Vivere Pericolosamente, inspired, in turn, by Nietzsche.
— Guy J. Pauker, footnote 74, “Indonesia: The PKI‘s ‘Road to Power’”
I’m reading a diary of sorts by a blogger named Gul Makai. But let me back up and say that I’ve read this week the post “Will the real complementarian please stand up?” by the blogger Rachel Held Evans. Their writings have to do with the power of words.
The latter in her post, for example, insists “1) complementarianism is not a word.” In writing her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master, in fact, she decided never [to] use the word “complementarian.” She does use the word biblical.
So does A. J. Jacobs. And when I blog about her book, I also like to mention his, as I’ve done previously here (where the word was a taboo one, the V-word) and here (where a couple of December biblical holiday names were mentioned). At any rate, it’s high time we also acknowledge Christopher Koch’s novel that the title of Jacobs’s book plays off of. I was a high school student living in Jakarta, Indonesia when The Year of Living Dangerously came out. It was, as you may remember, banned by the Indonesian government as it won Australia’s Age Book of the Year Award the same year and the National Book Council Award for Australian Literature the next. Its words were “dangerous” those years in that place especially. I had to find it and read it in Singapore. Some of the back-story of the title Koch chose is some of the dangerous wordplay of the previous Indonesia administration. If you read that forth epigraph above for this blogpost of mine here, and if you follow some of the hyperlinks, then you get just a bit more context. Guy Pauker notes how President Sukarno champions Indonesian communism, Italian fascism, and German philosophy with his Bahasa Indonesia – Italiano / English words. It’s a move made pericolosamente indeed.
So there’s the choice not to use a word. Then there’s the choice to use a word. Words may be dangerous. Who is to say?
There’s a way to read the Bible. There is much to pick out of it and much to choose from it to consider one’s reading biblical. Who is to say?
And, so, now I want to move on to what’s Quranical. Who is to say? And what power! The parallels between the fights over the Bible and the fights over the words of the Quran are striking.
So, what if a woman reads the Quran and effects change, good change, political change, peaceable change? Would that be a Quranical reading?
The blogger I’ve been reading is named Gul Makai. She suggests that some readings of the Quran are better than others.
You may have read her blog too. It’s also in English, on the BBC website, here. The blogger, this reader of the Quran, tells what inspired her, who inspired her, and some how she was inspired, by which words. We notice that it was another diarist, and a folk-story heroine, and indirectly Shakespeare, and more directly a fictional reading of the Quran. The blogger explains how she started using her own words, telling her own story, as another with the name, the chosen pseudonym Gul Makai:
I had never written a diary before and didn’t know how to begin. Although we had a computer, there were frequent power cuts and few places had Internet access. So [news reporter] Hai Kakar would call me in the evening on my mother’s mobile. He used his wife’s phone to protect us, as he said his own phone was bugged by the intelligence services. He would guide me, asking me questions about my day, and asking me to tell him small anecdotes or talk about my dreams. We would speak for half an hour or forty-five minutes in Urdu, even though we are both Pashtun, as the blog was to appear in Urdu and he wanted the voice to be as authentic as possible. Then he wrote up my words and once a week they would appear on the BBC Urdu website. He told me about Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with her family in Amsterdam during the war. He told me she kept a diary about their lives all cramped together, about how they spent their days and about her own feelings. It was very sad, as in the end the family was betrayed and arrested and Anne died in a concentration camp when she was only fifteen. Later her diary was published and is a very powerful record.
Hai Kakar told me it could be dangerous to use my real name and gave me the pseudonym Gul Makai, which means “cornflower” and is the name of the heroine in a Pashtun folk story. It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story in which Gul Makai and Musa Khan meet at school and fall in love. But they are from different tribes, so their love causes a war. However, unlike Shakespeare’s play their story doesn’t end in tragedy. Gul Makai uses the Quran to teach her elders that war is bad and they eventually stop fighting and allow the lovers to unite.
You may now have recognized that this is from a book recently released. In the book, an autobiography, the author, in parts, tells of the struggles over words, over what’s Quranic, over who can say. She says:
I am proud that our country was created as the world’s first Muslim homeland, but we still don’t agree on what this means. The Quran teaches us sabar— patience— but often it feels that we have forgotten the word and think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad. We have many strands of Islam in Pakistan. Our founder Jinnah wanted the rights of Muslims in India to be recognized, but the majority of people in India were Hindu. It was as if there were a feud between two brothers and they agreed to live in different houses. So British India was divided in August 1947, and an independent Muslim state was born. It could hardly have been a bloodier beginning. Millions of Muslims crossed from India, and Hindus traveled in the other direction. Almost two million of them were killed trying to cross the new border. Many were slaughtered on trains which arrived at Lahore and Delhi full of bloodied corpses. My own grandfather narrowly escaped death in the riots when his train was attacked by Hindus on his way home from Delhi, where he had been studying. Now we are a country of 180 million and more than 96 percent are Muslim. We also have around two million Christians and more than two million Ahmadis, who say they are Muslims though our government says they are not. Sadly those minority communities are often attacked.
Continuing writing about her own nation, community, and family, she recounts interactions between a Quran “expert” and her own family members. Her father questions his reading.
“I am representing the Ulema and Tablighian and Taliban,” Mullah Ghulamullah said, referring to not just one but two organizations of Muslim scholars to give himself gravitas. “I am representing good Muslims and we all think your girls’ school is haram and a blasphemy. You should close it. Girls should not be going to school,” he continued. “A girl is so sacred she should be in purdah, and so private that there is no lady’s name in the Quran, as God doesn’t want her to be named.” My father could listen no more. “Maryam is mentioned everywhere in the Quran. Was she not a woman and a good woman at that?” “No,” said the mullah. “She is only there to prove that Isa [Jesus] was the son of Maryam, not the son of God!” “That may be,” replied my father. “But I am pointing out that the Quran names Maryam.”
The mufti started to object, but my father had had enough.
Her mother and maternal grandmother show her what living quranically looks like:
I was confused by Fazlullah’s words. In the Holy Quran it is not written that men should go outside and women should work all day in the home. In our Islamic studies class at school we used to write essays entitled “How the Prophet Lived.” We learned that the first wife of the Prophet was a businesswoman called Khadijah. She was forty, fifteen years older than him, and she had been married before, yet he still married her. I also knew from watching my own mother that Pashtun women are very powerful and strong. Her mother, my grandmother, [was her example].
The writer’s story, her blog, her book are powerful. The book in particular is written with a Western audience in mind. Its message is compelling as we readers in the West consider how the Bible and how the Quran and how other literature is read.
If you haven’t already read it, I would heartily recommend I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. Let me warn, however, that for an author who was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize her words may seem to some certain readers very dangerous.