Friday, May 29, 2015

The Pronoun Perspective

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.

Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.

Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.

Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Ahmaduhu Subbhanahu wa Ta’ala wa Ashkuru, wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana. I praise Him, the Exalted One and the High, and I thank him. It is He Who deserves the praise and gratitude.

Man Yahdillahu Fa Huwal Muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida. Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

The title of my khutbah today is “The Pronoun Perspective”

I recently completed a free online class called “How Writers Write Poetry” from the Iowa Writers Workshop. One of the lessons was on political poetry, and this lesson, out of all the other lessons, reminded me of the Quran. The Quran is, to me, a classic example of political poetry, it is an attempt to convey a political and philosophical message to the reader. Consider these questions that one of the instructors asked us about political poetry, and try to answer this from the perspective of a Quran reader.

If a poem creates a world, how will the reader view that world? – The Quran definitely creates a different kind of world for the reader, and  I think Muslims all over the world are debating this one!

What do you notice about how different perspectives create either immediacy or distance for the reader? – this is a topic I will get back to later in this khutbah.

What are the benefits or freedoms each perspective offers for revealing political or philosophical thought in poems? –Think about this in the Quran in terms of re-telling of Old Testament stories. What lessons can be drawn from the Quranic example in contrast to the Biblical examples? From Adam and Eve, to Joseph, Moses, and Mary and Jesus, the Quran offers a unique perspective to these narratives.

 What are examples of when it might be a good idea to approach a topic “sideways” and when direct address might be appropriate in your poems?
What are other techniques for coming at an issue from an angle, and not head on? – These last two questions relate to metaphor, analogy, and using imagery and narrative ; all techniques used in Quran.

I’d like to get back to question #2, how do different perspectives create either immediacy or distance for the reader. To illustrate one example, I’d like to read a poem by Claudine Rankine. She is a Jamaican born woman who now lives and writes in the United States. This poem is from her collection “Citizen: an American Lyric”.

“When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, 
you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. 
You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and 
want time to function as a power wash. 
Sitting there staring at the closed garage door 
you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term- John Henryism- 
for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. 
They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. 
Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, 
claimed the physiological costs were high. 
You hope by sitting in silence 
you are bucking the trend.”

This poem is written in the second person, using the pronoun, “you”. Now, most of us are not mixed race women from Jamaica, some of us have never dealt with racism, although many of us have taken on projects that consumed way too much of our time and everyone fears erasure. By using the pronoun “you”, Rankine is dissolving the border between the reader and the speaker. When the reader becomes the “you” of the poem, it allows the reader the freedom to represent the broader experiences of many.

The use of different perspectives creates immediacy or distance for the reader. In the Quran, there is an Arabic rhetorical trick, called iltifat or balagha, that allows a pronoun shift within a sentence. In the Qur’an the most common pronoun shifts are third person going into first person. For example in 42:38 “…and those who hearken to their Lord, and practice regular prayer, and conduct their business by mutual consultation, and give of what We have provided them...;”. The shift is from “their Lord” to “We have provided them”.  Also, in the Quran, God is never referred to in the second person (you), God is typically referred to as Allah, Your Lord, or Your Creator. God prefers to use the royal “we”  instead of “I”.The “we” is a plural and thus has the implication of more power than the singular ‘I’.

One of the problems I have with translations of the Quran is that there is often an ayah that will refer to the reader as “you”, but the translators will immediately add (Prophet Muhammad).This is done selectively. For instance in Surah 93 “Thy Sustainer has not forsaken thee, not does He scorn thee.” Or Surah 94 “Have We not opened up thy heart, and lifted thee from the burden that had weighed so heavily on thy back? And raised thee high in dignity.” The you or thee/thou does not have the (Prophet Muhammad) insertion, and the use of the second person is asking the reader to partake in the Prophet’s breadth of experience. However, the translators don’t want everyone to feel they have a share in every prophetic experience.  I can understand why they do this, they don’t want everyone thinking that they are a prophet, this would create chaos, schisms and increased admissions to psychiatric wards. But, I think it is very important to remember that  (Prophet Muhammad) was NOT how the ayah was revealed nor how it is recited. The Quran is using “you”, and I think the purpose of using the ”you” is to invite to reader to move closer into the text.

I decided to take a look at one of my least favorite ayah, “Today I have perfected your religion for you.”  5: 3. No (Prophet Muhammad) – this ‘you’ is supposed to be the reader. I have a hard time with this ayah because a) it is usually said by particularly obnoxious prostelytizers and b) the philosophical pursuit of perfection is, in my opinion, a thorny issue.

The first thing to note about this ayah is even though it was revealed towards the end of the Prophet’s time on earth (more about that in the second part), it is embedded in the context of food restriction laws. Now there are few things to keep in mind about food preparation in 7th century Arabia. First, there was no refrigeration at that time. Second, in polytheistic cultures which had routine animal sacrifices, butchers would often sell extra animals that didn’t make it to the altar. Butchers were associated with polytheistic temple practice and surroundings. We live in a culture that frowns on any form of animal sacrifice, voudon culture notwithstanding, and so our butchers are associated with commercial agribusiness.

This is the textual context of “Today I have perfected your religion for you.”, from 5:3
“Forbidden to you is carrion, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any name other than God’s has been invoked, and the animal that has been strangled, or beaten to death, or killed by a fall, or gored to death, or savaged by a beast of prey, save that which you (yourselves) may have slaughter while it was still alive, and all that has been slaughtered on idolatrous altars. And (forbidden) is to seek to learn through divination what the future may hold in store for you, this is sinful conduct. Today, those who are bent on denying the truth have lost all hope of (your ever forsaking) your religion; do not, then, hold them in awe, but stand in awe of Me! Today I have perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me shall be your religion. As for him, however, who is driven (to what is forbidden) by dire necessity and not by an inclination of sinning- behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” (Muhammad Asad translation.)

This translator uses “religious law”, but other translators use “religion”. He also uses “perfected” for the verb akmaltu, but other translators use “completion”. Akmaltu has the connotation of perfection, but also of being complete.  Also, this translator uses “self surrender unto Me shall be your religion” for – “wa radita takumul- Islamia Dina”, other translators just use “Islam”.  And notice, that even though this religion or religious law is ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, there is still a caveat at the end “if anyone is compelled by dire necessity and not be an inclination of sinning, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”


Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alameen was-salutu was-salamu ‘ala khairil mursaleen. Muhammadin al-nabiyil ummiyee, wa  ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the universe. May the greeting and the peace be upon the best messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered prophet, and upon his family and upon all of his companions.

When the ayah “I have perfected/completed your religion for you” was revealed is a matter of sectarian divide.

Most commentators agree it was certainly in the Median period, probably sometime during the Prophet’s hajj to Mecca. According to the Shia, the Prophet introduced Ali as his successor at the Eid celebration, and after everyone cheered and pledged their loyalty to Ali, this ayah came down to the Prophet, “Today I have perfected your religion for you’. In the Sunni tradition, there is no mention of loyalty pledges to Ali. Instead, Omer hears this ayah and starts to cry. When the prophet asks Omer why he is crying, he replies, “Because everything that is perfect in this world is destined, over time, to be destroyed. “

And Prophet Muhammad replied, “You speak the truth.”

Beyond the fatalistic  tone of Omer’s response- everything is going downhill, I think we need to look a little deeper at his response. It is true, that someone or something might attain perfection for a bit on this planet. But it is the nature of our world to change. People change, circumstances change, technology and civilizations and culture change. What was once perfect in one set of circumstances, may not be so perfect, or may be outright deleterious, in other circumstances. God also completed the favors, and yes I look at religion as a favor, to Abraham, Joseph (12:6), and Moses (6:154). But as we all know, circumstances for the ensuing generations changed.

In my personal analysis, I think it rather strange that such an ‘important’ ayah is embedded in a series of food injunctions, most of which do not involve how we currently slaughter animals for meat. There is another hadith tradition in which a Jewish man asked Omer when the ayah was revealed and when Omer says it was in the context of Eid and the animal sacrifice, the Jewish man replies, “Oh, if the Jews had known this, we would have converted.” To me, this sounds like the Jewish man felt the butchering laws were good enough for kosher laws- conversion by diet similarity?

Why is such a complete/perfect religious law implanted in a series of slaughtering practices that now seem outdated. We do not use hunting falcons, we do not drive animals off cliffs and feast on their remains, we do not stop by the Aphrodite temple to see what the goddess didn't want that day. Our circumstances have changed. Perfection and completion are states that are eroded by time, wrecked by the winds of change. We must be sensitive to the changes around us and learn to analyze, think critically, and perhaps even de-emphasize or put aside certain aspects of the Quranic text that are maladaptive to our current situation. Am I saying go out and eat a pork sausage? No. But, perhaps it is a good thing if meat is not so readily available to us. There are many health studies which suggest humans would do much better from a long term health benefit point of view to not eat a meat heavy diet. More green leafy vegetables are good for you! If you really want to get into it, you can take a look at the agribusiness of meat production, the quality of life for these animals, and the carbon footprint that stems from these practices. Are we being good caretakers of the earth, vice-regents,  in our farming and diet practices? I’m not going to tell you what to eat or why, that is something you need to research and decide for yourself. I realize that much of what we eat is culture dependent, and in some social circumstances it can be difficult to assert one’s personal preferences. The end of this ayah reminds us it is the intention which is what counts in God’s mercy, “.,,who is driven by dire necessity and not by an inclination of sinning- behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”

Closing dua is from 7:23, This is what Adam and Eve said to God after they had tasted the apple. “Our Lord! We have been done wrong to ourselves, and if You do not forgive us, and have mercy on us, we shall certainly be lost.”

Rabbana zalamna anfusana, wa in lam taghfir lana wa tarhamna la-nakunanna minal-khasirin. Ameen

1 comment:

  1. One question that I have found that cannot be answered by scripture is whether the halal killings are intended to give the animal less pain (in which case, current swift killing procedures might be considered least painful) or if the killing procedure is supposed to allow the animal time to be conscious of its impending demise and spiritual prepare for its death.