The text is a living text

Jessica Yu in conversation with Amena
Fizal's Photography/
Fizal's Photography/Flickr
In her monthly column, Jessica Yu speaks to everyday people from a variety of faith backgrounds about how their religion plays out in their daily lives.

I meet Amena in an inner-city cafe. She arrives, sweaty and short of breath in the muggy weather. She apologizes for her lateness and sits down, declining my offer of a drink, politely telling me she doesn’t want to hold me up any longer. As we talk, I find her to be someone who — unlike myself — is completely unapologetic and articulate when asked her opinion. Like most people who feel certain about things, she doesn’t mind being questioned, which leads me to ask her probing questions when I would usually bite my tongue.

Right Now: Which religion do you belong to?

Amena: Islam.

Do you subscribe to a particular way of practicing Islam?

You practice the Islam that suits you. Religion in general is a personal thing.

What is the Islam which suits you?

I have a different faith from the rest of my immediate family who are Muslims. I’m not much of a ritual person. I’m more driven by the principles behind the text than literal interpretations of texts. I don’t pray regularly. I would define prayer as a connection to God more so than a verbal ritual. So I feel connected to God when I engage with social justice and I feel that my views on social justice are informed by the Koran.

So prayer is more about the relationship than the ritual.

Yes. It’s about how I feel close to God.

I also feel close to God when I am admiring Islamic architecture or art. In the Koran it says that God is beautiful and that God loves beauty. And the patterns in Islamic art remind me of Allah’s mercy.

How does a visual pattern remind you of Allah’s mercy?

Patterns remind me of Allah’s mercy because they never end, they are eternal, they are repeated and carefully calculated. They are also expansive and a reminder to me that things are predestined.

Is this kind of plurality and personal interpretation possible when practising what is essentially a monolithic religion?

I always say to people that the text is a living text. It is not dead. It is not just a statement. Its language is rich; rich enough for intellectual debate. It has principles but in practise, how these principles are implemented might change over time. Once upon a time the punishment for rape was death. This is no longer the case. We cannot simply look at religion as if it exists in a vacuum.

Going back to Allah as a merciful God. Why do you think that people outside of Islam tend to perceive Allah as punishing and Islam as a punitive religion?

There is a line in the Koran where God says: I am how you imagine me to be. God can be punishing but God is also forgiving. Godis the most loving, the most merciful and the most just. However, you don’t get a free pass just because you believe in God. You must ask for mercy and change your actions.

How do you know if your actions are good enough for Allah?

I think there is uncertainty. No one knows if they’ve done enough. But I think that’s the reason that God is merciful. It’s all relative to your ability and what you can do. There are the practices that God loves: e.g. feeding the needy, taking care of orphans, fostering children, educating children, not committing female infanticide etc.

Is it possible to be unforgivable?

I don’t know. There is shirk, the sin of idolatry. If you commit shirk it can be harder for you to be forgiven. It’s a big sin.

But idolatry — if that’s the worshipping of other gods — can’t that manifest itself as a lot of everyday things, such as pursuing your own ends or nursing a particular obsession…? Isn’t it kind of easy to idolize yourself? To live for yourself?

Yes. So whenever someone compliments me, I think God is greater. If I am great it is because of Allah. And even when I go to the gym, I repeat that phrase: There is no power that is above God. I can feel myself getting stronger but I know my God will always be stronger.

Have you ever had doubts about your faith?

In 2012, I left my faith. I came back in 2014. I went away from my faith because I was frustrated by people. There are a lot of people who are apostate not because of faith but because of the community. As a community, we are not sticking to principles but are more interested in rituals. Plurality of opinion needs to be rekindled.

So far we’ve spoken mostly about how your faith affects you personally and about how it affects other people within your faith. I have some questions about Islam and the public sphere now. What do you think about Western representations of Muslims in the media and in general?

So many things are wrong with Western media representations of Muslims. I was recently speaking with an editor at The Age and he said that the people that worked there lacked basic knowledge of Islamic faith. For example, during the Sydney siege, there was live coverage saying that the gunman was associated with ISIS. But I knew the banner being held up was not an ISIS one, I could tell the difference because I could read the calligraphy.

It’s frustrating because these people have a lot of influence and not very much knowledge. If you want to write about Islam, you have to be accurate. That’s where we have a problem with representation.

How about perceptions of Muslim women?

The representation of Muslim women is something that I abhor. Recently, I saw CNN reporter, Becky Anderson’s teaser for her show on the Middle East. She kept talking about how these Emirati women were “breaking stereotypes” by going to university but they were just being themselves. It’s not ground-breaking; it’s just your imagination that is limited.

There are obviously different ways that Muslim women face challenges around the world and Muslim women do face sexism. But it’s not just them, its women as a whole.