This is the eighteenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The contributors The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Saba Fatima, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the Philosophy Department. I am also the current Religious Studies Advisor. Among other courses, I teach contemporary Islamic social & political thought, and philosophy of race. My research interests include non-ideal theory, philosophy of race, and feminist philosophy. I employ the tools these sub-fields provide me to better understand the current political context surrounding Muslims. My teaching and research interests were influenced quite a bit by own experiences.
I am a Muslim. I belong to the Shia sect (Fiqh-e-Jafria) of Islam. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Early in my life, I didn’t realize we were Shia. I have a faint memory from when I was a kid, realizing one day that we were Shia and being very scared in school. I thought that ‘they’ would come take me away. It was of course unfounded fear of a child, but even as a child, I knew that Saudi Arabia was far from a friendly place for Shia Pakistani expats to work. Our family would host and attend religious gatherings in secret because of fear of persecution. The government still sees Shias as polluters of Islam, and has a contentious political relationship with Shias (within its own borders and elsewhere).
When I moved to Karachi, Pakistan, I never discussed my religious identity. Because my school friends did not know, anti-Shia sentiment would occasionally rear its head. However, it was certainly not anywhere as terrible as Saudi Arabia. Since our extended family had lived there for many years, our neighbors knew we were Shia, but they were friendly and it was a non-issue. When I came to the United States for my undergraduate studies, I again encountered anti-Shia sentiment in the immigrant Muslim communities. This is all, of course, one (very important) aspect of who I am and what my upbringing has been like. For example, one cannot escape anti-Muslim sentiment in the West, or sexist attitudes, both within religious community and the wider society. Even as an adolescent, I always had strong feminist tendencies, but I remain wary of feminist threads which drown out women of color voices or justify imperialism. These experiences were fundamental in my decision to pursue graduate studies in Philosophy and they continue to guide my research.
How does your work in philosophy relate to your experiences as a Muslim?
I had started the final year of my undergraduate studies when 9/11 happened. I was an international student and had majored in Computer Science (Philosophy, Math, and Psychology minor). Employers were not jumping at the opportunity to sponsor a work visa for a Pakistani, and my first boss ended up being overtly racist. I also did not find coding very fulfilling. I thought to myself that life cannot be this devoid of meaning. I often wonder if my boss had been different, or if I had felt more valued in the male-dominated field, would I have still applied to graduate school in Philosophy. When I was accepted to SUNY Binghamton, I started to think about issues that were rooted in my lived reality. I worked on some of the challenges that Muslim-American political disenfranchisement poses to social and political theory.
During those graduate school years, it was tough to think about what makes one a Muslim, because theological criteria is at the crux of any religious identity, but the criteria generally morphs under the dominant constructions of that identity. So minorities of various shades within a religion often end up becoming marginalized, and are not seen as worthy of staking moral ownership (Fatima 2011).
The other part of the dissertation project that was personal was how to make sense of living in a country that ‘shocked and awed’ Iraq to rubble, the second largest Shia populated nation in the world. During this time, I became a naturalized citizen. The relationship between the United States and the Muslim world has been antagonistic (to put it mildly) and Muslim-Americans have to figure out our place in this nation in the midst of all of this (Fatima 2012, 2013, 2014).
As someone who identified as a feminist, it was disheartening to see one of the dominant narratives that surrounded the Afghanistan war was that of liberating oppressed Muslim women. We (Americans) forsook any responsibility from our involvement during the cold war and ignored the lessons we could have learned.
Often, American liberal feminism has pacified its moral conscience by thinking of Muslim cultures as barbaric and backward, and (perhaps, inadvertently?) acquiesced to disproportionate wars with righteous indignation. My current project also stems from the social location of Muslims. This paper develops on, what I term as, American ignorance – based off Charles Mills’ White ignorance. I examine how we, as Americans, actively produce and maintain an incomplete or false sense of what it means to be an American. For many, being American entails the supposed stand for liberal values of democracy, freedom, due process, and such. American ignorance conceals within it any version of history of the other that contradicts this caricature.
Could you explain the religious practices, e.g., mosque attendance, dietary practices, that you engage in, in a way that someone who is outside of your tradition can get a sense of what it involves?
I am decently practicing. I use a qualifier, because I know I can be so much better both in faith and practice.
Islamic code has aspects that are individual in nature and aspects that put emphasis on the communal. Of the individual sort, my family and I eat only halal food. Certain foods are not allowed (alcohol, pork, etc.), others have to be sacrificed in a particular way (chicken, cow, goat, etc.), and others are fine as they are in the larger western market (fruits, vegetables, certain sea life). I adhered to a halal-only food even during my undergraduate days, two years of which there was absolutely no halal meat on or near campus. My diet comprised of a lot of junk food and tuna. One would be correct to assume that I hate tuna now. In the United States, unlike Britain, very few processed items have a vegetarian marking on them. So the Muslim American community has to rely on crowd sourced websites to find out if a product is halal (some things that would seem halal actually aren’t, for example certain candies contain meat-based gelatin or animal enzymes).
I try to be regular in all five of my daily prayers and I fast during Ramadhan. Fasting entails having no food or water from dawn till dusk, refraining from lying, backbiting, etc. Currently Ramadhan is falling in summer, making the fasting period quite long. I have done many umrahs growing up in Saudi Arabia (these are short non-mandatory pilgrimages to Makkah), and did a hajj at age 9. I intend to do my mandatory hajj during my sabbatical year. And of course, we give to charity, a very important tenet of the faith. (Side note: It was very strange that the fact that the San Bernardino shooters had been to Saudi Arabia was seen in American media as a terrible indictment of their radicalization. It showed a complete lack of knowledge of Islam. Many Muslims save a lifetime to go to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage.)
In Illinois, I am currently part of a Muslim community where my family is active. We attend religious lectures all through Ramadhan, Moharrum, Safar, and Rabilulawal. I also teach Fiqh (Jurisprudence), Akhlaq (moral codes), and History at the Sunday School to young kids. Being part of the community also probably helps my children to see themselves as everyday Americans.
One practice that sets the Shias apart from Sunnis happens during the month of Moharrum and Safar. Ithna Asheri Shias believe in 12 Imams, the 12th of which is in occultation and will reappear with Jesus near the end of time. The 12 Imams are considered best Muslims of their time (best in character, spirituality, knowledge), and divinely appointed to guide Muslims on the message of the Prophet. At the start of the Islamic Lunar year, Shias around the world mourn the death of their third Imam, Imam Hussain. He was the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet Mohammad. He, his family, and companions were brutally killed by the Caliph of the time. Every year since 680 AD, Shias mourn for them for 50 days, starting from the 1st of the month of Moharrum. Some of the lessons from that battle of Karbala, that I take for myself, are:
Emotions have an important place in religion and that affective response is indicative of our moral stand. The whole period of mourning is an emotionally charged period, where we cry for the torment suffered by the family of the Prophet and renew the seeds of resistance against all forms of oppression.
Women have wonderful examples of leadership in Islamic. The granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad is credited in Shia faith for largely saving the message of Islam after the Battle of Karbala. She gave inspirational speeches all through her imprisonment, raising consciousness about injustice and tyranny.
The fight against oppression has to retain one’s virtuous character. Imam Hussain and his companions did not compromise on matters of justice and compassion, and sacrificed dearly for it. Justice and maintaining integrity of Islamic principles is more important than winning politically.
The act of remembering serves both spiritual and political purposes.
There are other aspects of life that are also guided by faith, such as finances, personal relationships, etc. Some of these aspects are common to human decency, for example, being kind, charitable in your dealings with others, keeping honest in your trade, or letting go of vanity. I try to better myself on a continual basis.
Given how you see the religious practices playing a role in who you are as a person, do they also in some way specifically influence your work in philosophy, either in how you approach philosophy, or in the subjects you research, or some other aspects?
Being Shia has certainly shaped my approach to social & political philosophy. I think one of the reasons that philosophy of race spoke to me so strongly was precisely because I grew up part of a religious culture that valued dissidence to authority. I found works & speeches by Audre Lorde, Stokely Carmichael, bell hooks, Malcom X, etc., very telling of how you move in a system that puts on the façade of being civilized while it oppresses its minorities. But I also found points of tension because there is such an emphasis on normative ideals in religion. Here, I find non-ideal theory to be most helpful. My social location has also helped me understand intersectional studies on a deeper level.
In terms of the subjects that I research: being a minority, you have to constantly be cognizant of how your work affects populations that are minorities in certain circles. Internal-examination can come at a political cost, because works by a scholars of color that are critical of the said community of color, can serve to legitimize the marginalization of that community by the dominant order.
Having said that, internal-examination is critical, otherwise our communities cannot adapt or progress, always operating with crippling double consciousness. I do have a forthcoming paper (Hypatia) that deals with feminist Islam. It is about the lack of space in Makkah & Madinah for women pilgrims, and how space allocation is both connected to Shia/Sunni politics and to social construction of Islamic ideals of piety specifically for women.