Study Guide

A Border Passage Religion

By Leila Ahmed

Religion

It was on one such occasion, waking up in the middle of the night and lying still, listening for Nanny's breathing, that I saw my guardian angel, the angel that, Nanny had told me, was always there to protect me. It looked something like a moonbeam, standing still, touching the mosquito net by the foot of the bed. I did not dare put my head outside the mosquito net to get a better view, lest I drive it away. (51)

Ahmed shares several mystical experiences with us in this work. Most of them are encounters with the spirit world that are well outside the bounds of accepted religious beliefs (check out her experiment with "automatic writing"). But this time, she's having an encounter with a bona fide angel—or at least, so it seems to her. Nanny isn't a Muslim and is very careful not to evangelize Ahmed, yet guardian angels are common ground for both of them and a lovely, gentle way to share spirituality between them.

She was scrupulous about not inculcating us with Christianity, and she would say, too, that this was always something of importance to her, never to influence us in the slightest degree toward Christianity. And she always spoke of Islam with the same respect that she spoke of her faith. Moreover, though her Bible included pictures of Jesus and Mary, when she spoke of her beliefs she spoke only of God, Le Bon Dieu, and God was the same, she said, whatever religion you were, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. (62-63)

Ahmed remembers how careful Nanny was to respect the religious differences between them. It's really remarkable how Nanny refrains from evangelizing her, especially in light of later experiences that Ahmed will have with other Christians in her life. This makes Nanny a stand-out character in a story full of colonial powers, oppressive religious beliefs, and intellectual secularists who are out to shame Ahmed for her beliefs. Nanny's understanding of a unified Bon Dieu is something that Ahmed comes to understand years later after meeting Veena and discussing Hinduism.

Nevertheless, this matter of different religions was not, for a child, entirely comprehensible and was capable of inducing considerable anxiety, particularly when I was confronted with the assertions the servants made on the subject of Christians. For if God was the same God for all of us, then why were we different, why weren't we all Christians or Muslims or Jews? (63)

Although Ahmed later comes to appreciate the multi-religious community of Cairo in her youth, she does suffer some serious confusion as a child. Her parents' responses to her questions are completely unsatisfactory, and the chatter of the servants (all non-Muslims are going to hell) terrifies her. It's a difficult situation for a young person trying to figure out the world around her.

My grandmother told me that it was a very special, a specially blessed night, when God permitted his angels to descend freely, and if he wished, one would see them. We went up to the roof together to watch for them, taking with us a bowl of water because someone had told me...that if one left a bowl of water out on this night and an angel passed it would turn to milk...I didn't see angels and the water didn't turn to milk, but I have vividly with me still that night's enormous sense of wonder—sitting quietly in the starlight in expectation of angels. (63)

Ahmed describes a night of mystical wonder spent with her grandmother on the rooftop of their summer home in Alexandria. She credits her grandmother for teaching her everything about religion and believes that it's from her that she learns the gentle and mystical aspects of Islam. Ahmed doesn't get to see an angel on this night, but it hardly matters. The feeling of closeness to her grandmother and the spiritual world more than makes up for it.

On this particular afternoon she was saying that she thought that the core of Islam, the core of all religions, was summed up in one particular verse of the Quran, a verse she then quoted..."He who kills one being kills all of humanity, and he who revives, or gives life to, one being revives all of humanity." That, she said, is all one needs of religion. (75)

Ahmed recalls a crucial convo with her mother in which she revealed her view on the purpose of human life. At the time, Ahmed doesn't fully understand the significance of her mother's deep belief in non-violence. It's only later that she realizes that her mother speaks out of remorse for the death of an infant daughter—and for not wanting Ahmed to be born, either. While she understands intellectually that her mother's early rejection of her probably had to do with depression, it's hard for Ahmed not to take it personally. However, there is a kind of admiration for her mother's pacifist outlook on life, which is then passed on to her children.

Islam, as I got it from them, was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical—just as they themselves were. Being Muslim was about believing in a world in which life was meaningful and in which all events and happenings were permeated (although not always transparently to us) with meaning. Religion was above all about inner things. (121)

Ahmed's early exposure to her female relatives' brand of Islam helps her to differentiate it from the "official" version of the religion. For her, Islam truly means peace and a direct connection to God and all that is spiritual. It's a religion of hospitality, requiring a generosity of spirit and encouraging a connection to all living things. It's not a religion of ceremony or show. She sees this version of Islam as directly opposed to "men's Islam," which she describes in detail later in the work.

Now, after a lifetime of meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find this Islam is one of the common varieties—perhaps even the common or garden variety—of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly pays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. (123)

Ahmed is speaking of "women's Islam," the version of the religion that she learned at her grandmother's knee. In addition to ignoring the pronouncements of traditional (male) religious figures, "folk" Islam is an oral tradition relying on the recitation of the Quran (rather than on a more literary tradition).

Ahmed goes as far as to say that clerical authority counts for nothing in this version of Islam and that most "ordinary" Muslims (especially women) wouldn't be caught in a mosque. It's an eye-opening revelation for non-Muslims, who often get a glimpse only of the textual, official side of the religion.

This variety of Islam [...] consists above all of Islam as essentially an aural and oral heritage and a way of living and being—not a textual, written heritage, not something studied in books or learned from men who studied books. This latter Islam, the Islam of texts, is a quite different, quite other Islam; it is the Islam of the arcane, mostly medieval written heritage in which sheikhs are trained, and it is "men's" Islam. (125)

Ahmed defines more clearly what she means when she "gender segregates" Islam. She traces two different traditions within the religion: a learned, male-centered, oppressive version and one that is more spiritual and gentle and practiced by "everyday" people.

Ahmed identifies this practical and highly spiritual interpretation of Islam with the women in her family, who passed along their beliefs to her. She also notes that this Islam shuns written tradition and the authority of male clerical figures—practitioners prefer a more direct relationship with God.

There was no doubt that people who were religious were not regarded as quite on par intellectually with those who were unambiguously and forthrightly secular. Even Christians were marked in some sense as intellectually lesser in this ethos. And anyone who belonged to and actually believed in any of those "other" religions like Islam or Hinduism was completely outside the realm of those who were to be taken seriously. (225-226)

Ahmed suffers culture shock on many levels when she attends graduate school at Cambridge, but she finds the level of secularism (and bias against people of faith) a bit surprising. Mostly this is because she was used to her Christian undergrad professors hoping to convert her during her time at Girton. But at the upper levels of study, belief in God = low IQ. It's yet another opportunity for non-Western, non-white students to suffer hostility at the hands of wealthy, well-educated Westerners.

So who, then, had decided which words exactly, which utterances of the Prophet, were to be regarded as part of the Quran, part of the eternal sacred word of God, and which not? Who had had the power to make these decisions, and how exactly had they made them? (289)

Ahmed finds herself interested in studying Muslim women, their history and how they fit into the story of the religion. In her early investigations, she considers that the Prophet was illiterate and that the divine revelations he received weren't completely written down until years after his death.

So, who made the decisions, she wonders, to include the more misogynistic bits of verse? Her line of thought is certainly echoed in feminist readings of both Christian and Hebrew scriptures.

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