Muslim with a brain

By Sophia Rose Shafi

(December 8, 2009) – I recently had the privilege of seeing Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi speak on the compatibility of human rights and Islam. As I awaited her appearance, two lovely Persian women sat next to me. After uttering the five or six lines I know in Farsi, we began to speak in English, and soon they self-identified as Iranian atheists, after which I revealed that I was in fact a Muslimah. After their jaws dropped to the floor, one of them said, “Why is a woman as intelligent and educated as you a Muslim?”

I wish I had a clever reply, such as, “It is precisely because I am intelligent and educated that I am a Muslim,” but instead I blurted out, “Why is this incompatible?” I was met with several anecdotes of how horrible Islam is, because females inherit half as much as men, and Muslim men have the right to beat their wives, and so on. I was kind of speechless, and while thinking about how to respond (such as with an egalitarian Qur’anic passage or some lines from Hafiz), the program began. Alhamdulillah!

By the end of the speech my neighbors were shaking their heads in agreement with Ebadi’s points, chiefly that Islam is open to various interpretations and that there is indeed a reform movement taking place among ayatollahs, intellectuals, and others in Iran. I didn’t have a chance to speak with the Persian atheists after Ebadi’s speech, but if I had, I would have said, “See? A woman can be both a Muslim AND a rational, sensible intellectual.”

While Islamic intellectuals, such as Shirin Ebadi, Tariq Ramadan, Abdolkarim Soroush and others are working on reform, many continue to resist the idea that Muslims are capable of rational, not to mention revolutionary, thinking. Even those un-antagonistic towards Islam refuse to report on the current state of affairs. Do we have one prominent article on Ebadi’s work in Iran on behalf of reformists, women, and Bahais in the past year? Why is Dr. Ramadan still denied a travel visa to the United States? Do many outside of the field of Religious Studies know about Soroush’s theory of Islamic democracy?

Sadly, I would wager a ‘No, but some may know Ebadi as the Nobel Laurate whose medal was just confiscated by the Iranian government,’ ‘Because sadly, many view him as a jihadi fundamentalist,’ and ‘No, is that like Baba Ganoush?’

*Ms. Shafi is a doctoral candidate in Religion. Her dissertation is a genealogical study of images of Muslim male monsters in Western discourse.