Azerbaijani-born chaplain, counselor, and researcher Dr. Nazila Isgandarova is head of the Azerbaijani Women’s Support Centre in Ontario, Canada, and author of numerous publications on war violence against women, rape as a weapon of war, and new models of Islamic spiritual care and counseling. Her recent novel, The Nectar of Passion, a narrative of interfaith love, is set in modern-day Ontario and informed by Azerbaijani and Georgian history, as well as Judaic and Islamic custom. In this sixth edition of “The New Xорошо,” Isgandarova discusses female empowerment in the Qur’an, the common ground between Islam and Judaism, and why Muslim women don’t need to be “emancipated” from their headscarves .~T.M. De Vos
You intersperse a great deal of poetry throughout The Nectar of Passion, with particularly frequent quotes by Rumi. Nearly all of the characters seem to be familiar with his verse and use it as a kind of lodestone to guide their actions. How do the logic and sentiment of his verse drive the action in the novel, and what is your own relationship to Rumi and his verse?
I think why I feel so attached to Rumi is because of his unique experience and expression of the divine love. The divine love, or as it is expressed in the Christian tradition, “love the Lord your God,” is openly expressed in many other religious teachings. Why love was so important in Rumi’s tradition, and in the work of other Muslim mystics, is because the life of faith in God is meant to bear fruit in works of love toward our fellow human beings. His teachings encouraged me to believe that I have an ability to understand this love and appreciate and experience it. The only thing is left to me is to make an effort to realize it.
Rumi is also attractive in terms of how he experienced this divine love. This expeirence teaches me that one cannot understand something, especially spiritual love or divine love, unless it is experienced. Rumi’s spiritual love was an actively affirmative response of the human will toward God and its manifestation in the world as “works of love toward our fellow human beings,” not because we are the most important creation of God, but because we all come from the same source and soul, therefore, divine love does not recognize race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
One thing that struck me about the novel was how conversant the characters were with passages from the Bible, from the Qu’ran, and with each other’s customs and cultures. This is a knowledge that is rare among the many who express opinions about religious and cultural differences; in real life, many of the most opinionated lack information and base their opinions upon superficial differences between themselves and others. What can we do to counteract these prejudices, which are founded upon ignorance?
I think, the root of the problem is our forgetfulness that we all are humans and come from the same source (whether it is Adam or monkey). We all have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. If we care for animals, how come we forget our fellow human beings? Ethnic, religious, gender, etc., diversity is the natural way of life. We cannot get rid of it. We only have one Earth; we have to learn how to share it. As Seyid Hussain Nasr writes, the contemporary world is different from the world of our ancestors. Simply put, our ancestors did not face our reality. He cites the use of atomic energy and flights into space as examples. Our present challenging journey in terms of travelling from one religious universe to another seems much more difficult than discovering new continents and planets. Nasr draws on the metaphor of the sun to describe how we can acknowledge the existence of other suns in an expanding universe, yet we live on the surface of the earth as if our sun were the sun revolving, as it appears to the eye, around the earth.
Sometimes, I feel depressed, and I ponder, how come millions of years passed, but we still do not know how to share our mother Earth. I think it is crucial to promote respect and tolerance if we really want to have a harmonious and peaceful life. We not only need to adopt legal standards to promote diversity and fight racism, but also raise ethical and moral consciousness. We have to make sure that our approach to others is sensitive, open, compassionate and respectful. We also need drink the nectar of your divine love and passion, as Rumi says. Otherwise, we have problem with our own personal integrity. Otherwise, as Nasr states, “we would lose our sanity and sense of peace and stability.”
Gunel expresses a private sadness that her religion “was seen as monolithic, static, and unresponsive to changes in the world.” The wording of this statement is particularly interesting, because it creates ambiguity about whether she sees Islam this way or is simply sad that others do. On a larger scale, I am interested in whether, and to what degree, Gunel’s feelings are representative of those of other young Muslims.
Yes, you indeed captured it so well. Muslim women feel very challenged in terms of how their religion is perceived by strangers (I mean non-Muslims), but also how they are viewed by patriarchal cultures. It really hurts… When I reflect on my life and work and observe what I did as a Muslim woman and I did not do, I found out that many stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women prevent them from enjoying a high quality of life. My personal and professional journey in a headscarf showed that such a perception of Muslim woman creates ground for anti-Muslims in our society to condemn Islam for the inferior status of Muslim women. However, these arguments miss the cultural implications.
I agree with Leila Ahmed, a famous Muslim feminist scholar, who says that many perceptions about Islam and Muslim women come from the stories by the European travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many still hold on these images of Muslim women. No one takes time to ask Muslim women how they perceive themselves. As a Muslim woman, I would never agree with the Orientalist view of the Middle Eastern women, which presents Muslim women as erotic/exotic harem girls or obedient wives, or simply woman in niqab, burka and chador. When I read the Qur’an, I see that a plenty of material in the Qur’an is egalitarian. Perhaps the most fundamental is that God in the Qur’an does not have a gender. In Arabic, Allah may be a male pronoun, but God is never described as “father” or “lord.” Indeed, God has characteristics that are feminine; one of his most important “names” of God in the Qur’an is al-Rahman (the All-Compassionate) that comes from the Arabic word “rahama,” which also refers to the womb. Because of that, Muslim women and men are able to think of the Highest Power as one without sex or race and thus completely unpatriarchal.
When you read the Qur’an you will find out how women were active in the creation and continuation story. The Qur’an does not accept the mythology of Eve seducing Adam, and thus triggering the Fall and the endless cycle of death and procreation. Maryam, or Mary, is the Quranic ideal. Bilqis, Queen of Sheeba, consulted advisors, ruled her kingdom, passed judgments, led her people to the right way. Asiyaa, a wife of Firawn, saves Musa and protests against oppression. A woman in Chapter Mujadilah causes Allah to send the new regulation in a family law, which improves women’s status in Arabia in the seventh century.
Historical and contemporary Muslim women were and are also active and work for the well-being of humanity. They were teachers of famous Islamic scholars; they established states; and they amended legislations. However, after the Prophet Muhammad and his four successors, we see the dominance of the patriarchal system, which was a mixture of Islamic and non-Islamic traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many other local customs. The mosques became an indisputable male-dominated realm, where women had a very limited space. It is unfortunate that, after the Prophet, the later generations did not follow the Qur’anic teachings but returned to local customs, which restricted women’s freedoms which they were enjoying during the Prophet’s time.
Therefore, I think that anyone wishing to understand beliefs and practices of Muslim women must first separate Islam from the cultural norms and style of Muslims. Female genital mutilation in Africa and Egypt, forced marriages in certain Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, are unacceptable by many Muslims from other backgrounds. On the other, we also must not to forget the uniqueness of each person. Sometimes, we may belong to one religion or spiritual group yet we may look like a “white crow,” or belaya vorona in Russian. I think, today many Muslim girls, like Gunel, feel like a “white crow.”
You bring up the point that earlier immigrants to the United States and Canada displaced and disenfranchised the natives, and you suggest that the anti-Muslim sentiments may be rooted in a fear that new Muslim immigrants may displace current Americans and Canadians. This is an interesting idea–the fear that any new group may arrive to replace the old. So, perhaps, Islamophobia is less a fear of otherness than of obsolescence?
I have found out that, when economic crisis threatens the welfare of people in any country, fear of minority and xenophobia becomes a real problem. We, for example, witnessed the worse situations of anti-Semitism in Europe—especially in Eastern Europe—when economic conditions were not good. The politicians tried to find a scapegoat to get rid of their responsibility before their nations. Today, many Muslims live, work and study in the United States and Canada, and no one tries to kill them or eliminate them, which once happened to Jews and Roma in Germany, Poland, Hungary, etc. However, when a social and political identity and economic insecurity becomes a real problem in society, Islamophobia also becomes one of the major problems. This suggests that Muslims’ lives may be in danger as well. Luckily, we do not have the worst scenarios that target Muslim women in headscarves, as in France, or Britain; however, if we do not deal with it, it will be a real problem. And it is also known that Islamophobia also brings other problems with itself, like anti-Semitism. We have to learn from the history of Spain in the 15th century, when Queen Isabella decided to kill Muslims, she did not stop there; she continued to persecute other religious and ethnic minorities, including Jews, until she made sure her country is monolithic.
I also think that Islamophobia is both a fear of otherness and also of obsolescence: the latter starts with the experience of the first. Muslims at this moment are seen as an unwanted population or religious group on earth. I would call this feeling as a Darwinian struggle. Historian Paul Kennedy has well expressed it when he said, “There is a resentment against other peoples who reproduce at a much faster pace—the assumption being that, as in a Darwinian struggle, the faster-growing species will encroach upon, and eventually overwhelm, a population with static or declining numbers.”
Gunel’s and Adir’s discussion of kosher and halal meat seems in some ways an echo of their first project together, in which they detail the similarities between their religions—Islam and Judaism, respectively. Their deepening of their own respective faiths and observance as a result of their relationship is an interesting development in the plot and highlights the points where their religious beliefs join hands as well. What, in your opinion, are some of the most significant commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim religions?
My first exposure to the Jewish tradition of the mountain Jews started in Azerbaijan, where I was born and grew up. Some believe that they are the ancestors of the old Khazar Turkic tribes who converted to Judaism in the 6th century. We had Jewish neighbours, whom we did not separate from ourselves. We had nearly the same birth and death rituals; even our names were common. However, due to the prohibition of religion in former Soviet Union, I was not interested in religion at all, so, I did not take enough time to study Judaism as a religion.
When I started to work with the Jewish seniors and rabbis and other Jewish leaders in the community, I developed a new understanding, probably, more practical, of the relationship between Islam and Judaism. As you know, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have more common beliefs and even practices. There is a reason why we call these three “sisters” as Abrahamic religions, because their history dates back to Abraham in the Hebrew Bible and his monotheistic faith to God with his covenant. Of course, Judaism is the oldest, and Islam is the youngest, of the Abrahamic religions. Judaism and Islam especially have a strict monotheistic approach to faith. For example, both Muslims and Jews consider the image of God as idolatry. Both have the same understanding of human nature and sin: that is, believe that humans have the capacity to do good and bad. Many religious laws, especially in Shari’ah and Halakhah also look similar, such as: not eating pork, circumcision, daily prayer, and fasting. Even the way they read their Scriptures looks alike. I have observed how traditional Jews read the Torah: they sway back and forth with a special musical rhythm. That reminds me of how Muslims recite the Qur’an.
I know that you have also taught and provided spiritually based counseling; I’m curious as to how often you draw upon the commonalities among religions in your work in those settings.
What strikes me most is the beauty of spirituality in the form of the sacred art and commonality in every religious and spiritual tradition. I feel the sacredness of religious art of architecture, music, poem, sports, etc., in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other Eastern and Western religious traditions. Honestly, this sacredness makes me so comfortable in playing “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Morning Has Broken,” and other Christian hymns on the accordion.
Some of the major commonalities that arise within the context of my spiritual care experience is the reality of death, dying, the meaning of life, loss of self-esteem, powerlessness, emptiness, and faith in God and love. Almost all of us, regardless of our spiritual and religious beliefs, struggle with questions in regards to the spirit as the dynamic force in every aspect of our lives, and how to care for our spirit. I have found that visiting the sick and offering spiritual care, for example, is a fundamental duty in every religious tradition. Almost all religious traditions encourage their followers to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and fight for social justice. They, including Islam, do not distinguish between the Muslim and non-Muslim. Therefore, I think, humans‘ common stuggle with existential questions is the foundation of my spiritual care and counselling. I would call it an “inclusive” care, since God’s love for humanity is also inclusive and there is no place for exclusion. Founded in this understanding, my ministry intentionally seeks to reconcile human beings to their tradition and to one another through the potential for divine love, which dwells within and among us. Even for those who do not believe in God, or do not have that word in their lexicon, there is still a way to experience spirituality, which is to help those who are thirsty to quench their thirst by finding meaning in life in order to have a hope in spiritual distress or during physical illness.
Asmar, Gunel’s mother, has a relationship with her husband that is based on shared experience—often of hardship—respect, and tolerance, but not on romantic love; Gunel is interested in the compatibility and attraction between two people, and finds the idea of an arranged marriage like her mother’s repugnant. In your opinion, is this difference a result of generational differences or cultural differences—considering that Gunel was raised in Canada rather than her family’s native Azerbaijan?
This is one explanation of the cultural differences. However, generational differences play a huge role. Today even in Azerbaijan, the young people challenge the old way of living. They have their own ideas how to live, dress, and even marry. Of course, I think that young Azerbaijanis, like Gunel, have more freedom in Canada, because they can freely express their political ideas and challenge the authority of family and state.
Asmar thinks about how she is covering for Gunel in hiding the fact that she is dating from her husband, Gunel’s father, musing that “secrets were a major part of rules.” The rules seem to be set down by the father, and both Asmar and Gunel seem to wish that more rationale and love could be expressed along with the sternness. Is this scenario—both the rules set by the “man of the house” and the secrets the women keep in negotiating them—idiosyncratic to the characters or representative of many Muslim families?
Asmar, who is one of the main heroes of my novel, is a picture of a mother, who takes charge of hiding one of the important secrets of the family. As a wife and mother, she has a tremendous burden on her shoulder: she is not only responsible for keeping family together, but also protecting each family member from internal and external threats. Gunel knows that, too. She knows that her mother has the invisible strength to bury a secret and she will not lose her tongue. However, I also want to tell more there: women in many traditions are known as more talkative than men. People have a tendency to believe that women backbite more or dig into the secrets of other people; therefore, they are unreliable people. However, women are more aware of the power dynamics in their personal and public lives. Mothers are especially very conscientious about it. In order to prevent stigma and shame, Asmar had to protect this secret of her daughter from her husband.
Adir and Gunel share a common sadness in that people of both of their faiths were persecuted in the former Soviet Union. The novel gives some interesting background on how Jews and Muslims were targeted; can you share some of this information with our readers?
I was born in Azerbaijan, which then was ruled by the Soviet Union. We did not believe in mystical things, not because we believed, “Man is the creation of accident,” but because it was illegal even in the domain of mentality. We were educated to be the best citizens to prove to the capitalist world that we were the best. Until the late 1980s, I did not feel that I was challenged because I strongly believed that I was a stronger Soviet citizen.
However, this illusion faded away in the 1980s when we struggled with economic hardships. I remember the days when my family did not have money to buy meat or butter. I remember the days we had only bread to satisfy our hunger. This sudden fall affected me emotionally. In the Soviet Union, emotions were signs of weakness. Without emotions, I would label myself as a computer; however, the material, moral, and emotional problems of life were too immense, and I had difficulty controlling my emotions. In order to avoid being labeled as “emotional,” I tended to stay “cool” and “rational” before any life event that involved emotions, such as dying and death in the family.
Ultimately, however, my emotions led me to question the system, its weaknesses and injustices, especially the Communist nomenklatura, a small elite group within the Soviet Union who held various key administrative positions in government, industry, agriculture, education, and so on. I tried to find meaning in our hardships because I wanted to have hope. My spirituality began to awaken as I started to question more. As I searched for answers to my questions, I developed new skills and discovered that seeking is an essential part of my spirituality. As a part of my research, I began collecting my childhood memories.
One of these memories took me back to our cottage. As a Soviet family, we were basically cut off from the rest of the world. By comparison, the world in which we lived was small and narrow, but we experienced happiness living within our limited resources. Our only “luxury” was our small cottage in Novkhani, which was not far from Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. My grandpa, who was an important person in my life, my sister, and I usually took a bus to go there, and it took almost an hour to get there. We walked another 15 minutes to and from the bus station in order to get to our cottage. We did not mind to walk at all because, on the way, we enjoyed seeing so many interesting things, such as trees, people, and even the destroyed mosque, which we were not told about until we were old enough.
This mosque was very mysterious. Nobody dared to approach it because they were afraid of being labeled as a panislamist, a political movement for the unity of Muslims under an Islamic state. I still remember the dome and the fine architecture of that mosque. There were also hundreds of destroyed churches and synagogues in the former Soviet Union. However, no state or empire can stop our innate belief in God. I remember I also used to pick cherries from the trees of others that fell beyond their garden walls, when I was a child. As a child I enjoyed this very much, but my grandpa used to say to stop it because people would mind. However, those cherries seemed more delicious than the ones in our garden. We also sang aloud when we walked to the bus station. This memory is full of the excitement of discovering something new, mysterious, and unknown. I had a confidence and a desire to taste, see, and touch all that was new and unknown. From this experience, I learned to be confident in taking new steps.
Even Adir, progressive in so many ways, expresses jealousy and a need to know that Gunel is “pure”; that he is her first. This largely speaks to his own insecurity and possessiveness. Gunel, on the other hand, is not bothered by Adir’s past relationships, which he speaks about openly. At home, Gunel’s brother is allowed to date with impunity, but Gunel herself is tasked with preserving her virginity and the family’s honor. How, in your opinion, should modern couples deal with this double standard?
Yes, I also call these practices misogynist and double standard. In both Muslim and Jewish cultures, the honour of the girl is a significant tradition. Like Muslim girls, Jewish women are also held responsible for niddah, which I described in my novel. Although Azerbaijan is more advanced in terms of gender relations and cannot be compared to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East countries, there, still, imbalances remain: people expect women to behave decently and protect their namus, or honour.
Unfortunately, men are not questioned for their behaviour, simply because they do not have a “hymen” to “lose.” There are some cultural practices which are very degrading, intrusive, and invasive. One of them is, as it is described in the novel, is the wedding night, where the girl must prove her “purity” to her husband and his relatives. No one cares about how to establish trust before the wedding; but simplify or identify it with only “purity” of the bride. Or no one asks, “If I do not trust this girl or woman, why do I marry her?”
The Qur’an does not have double standards; how come Muslims still hold these misogynist practices and ideas? The main problem is how we read and interpret the Qur’an. The early generations used early Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an, hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) literature, and so on, more than the Qur’an itself. Most of these sources were products of patriarchal culture. Women were not allowed to contribute to the religious scholarship or become religious teachers and preachers, except for a few women were able to excel. If we want to become more women-friendly, I think, we need to challenge the cultural and classical religious ideas and values: we need to change our mentality and behavior in how we read the Qur’an, how we practice it in an egalitarian way. Women, especially, need to know how they raise their male children by the way they tell and pass on stories.
There are numerous references in the novel to family and individual mental health, as well as discussions of public services available to new immigrants and to the needy. In your opinion, how can we best serve new members of our communities and improve their access to psychological and emotional health services?
We have very good physical and psychological health services in Canada. However, there are always ways to improve our services. In the novel, there is a scene in which one of the characters, Habil, needed to be on social assistance but hated to go to the Ontario Works building. He did not want to be on social assistance, because there were some social workers, who may simply ignore the fact that so many immigrants and refugees were professional doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers back home. But they need social assistance when they come to the new country until they find jobs. We need to be empathetic to these people instead of rushing to label them as people who want to scam the system or who are lazy and do not want to work.
What is important in improving our services is to adopt an anti-oppressive practice. What it means is that we need to address not only internal, like cultural or religious sources of mental health problems, but also external sources and forms that support it. For example, we can ask ourselves why a majority of Muslim women do not want to use Western psychological services? Is this because of their religious values or because of the deeply racialized support services and the biases against Muslim women’s faith? I think that anti-oppressive practice takes the whole picture of the problems and creates a “cultural safety model.” What this model means is an enhanced self-awareness of the practitioners, who recognize their “power” over the client, which sometimes can be humiliating and alienating. Since veiled women are seen as signs of the backward Islamic culture, we should know, as professionals, not to rush to “emancipate” the Muslim women from their “headscarf” or religion.
Last, and certainly not least, you have published a great deal of your own research. What are some of your research interests, and what projects do you have underway currently?
Currently, I am writing a chapter for a book, which is about unhealthy spiritual practice among Muslim women and its impact on their mental health. I am also working on a paper for the conference on Fetullah Gulen, a well-known Turkish scholar, and peacebuilding efforts in October in Washington. My paper is about the Sufi concept of “insani kamil” (a perfect human being) and its role to establish a peaceful and harmonized society.
T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard, Educational Programs Extern at Carve Magazine, and a worker on novels in progress. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit. If you want a souvenir from Macedonia, or are an Eastern European author with something to say to her, you can reach her at email@example.com.