So, Madonna has the whole social media buzzing with her tantalizing comment about studying the Qur’an.
Harper’s had an interview with her, in which she stated:
I am building schools for girls in Islamic countries and studying the Qur’an. I think it is important to study all the holy books.
Madonna building schools?
Studying the Qur’an?
Madonna the Catholic-girl-gone-bad-gone-Kabbalists-going-Muslim?
Start the freak-out machine and crank it on high.
Isn’t it enough that she’s dating a hot Muslim dude, Brahim Zaibat? (28 years old, about half her age… more power to her)
Isn’t it enough that Janet Jackson married some hot Muslim dude, Wissam Al Mana? Maybe even becoming Muslim herself?
Ok, so he’s half her age, and a billionaire.
Dang it, the Islamophobes have it right. #shariahcreep.
(Hot) Muslim (billionaire) supermodel dudes marrying our women.
[While we are at it, George Clooney routinely dates women a few decades younger than himself, and no one freaks out. Madonna does the same thing, and the Cougar stories come out in troves. Yup, we are still living with a double-standard.]
Let us move on… How are we to process this news of Madonna’s interest in Islam?
First, take a deep breath. Here are three points to keep in mind about Madonna’s interest in Qur’an.
1) Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic aspects of Madonna’s spirituality
Madonna herself recognized that if had she started practicing Buddhism, people wouldn’t have been bothered the way they were when she started expressing interest in Kabbala.
I mean no disrespect to Buddhists, but Kabbalah really freaked people out.
Somehow the response to Madonna studying a Jewish variety of mysticism (Kabbalah) tapped into anti-Semitic tendencies.
When the world discovered I was studying Kabbalah, I was accused of joining a cult.
I was accused of being brainwashed. Of giving away all my money.
I was accused of all sorts of crazy things.
And the response to her studying the Qur’an (just see the comments in the Huffington Post story) is also tapping into an Islamophobic strand. The comments are often particularly nasty because Madonna is seen as voluntarily giving up her privileged status to study Islam, which brings up to item #2: white privilege.
2) White privilege.
It is hard to talk about privilege, and it is hard to talk about white privilege without (white) people getting defensive.
And … Muslim people getting defensive.
Muslims do tend to have a fascination with celebrities who may be thinking of converting to Islam. And when the celebrities are white, the excitement is just a bit much. You can go back and look at stories dealing with Prince Charles and Liam Neeson.
We tend to look at conversion as a personal search for truth, meaning, and beauty. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Conversion—and stories about conversion and alleged conversion—are also about communal identity. When we live in a society that is organized along the lines of privilege—and we do—the unearned privilege of that society becomes reflected in our religious narratives. This privilege is reflected in the enthusiasm with which many Muslims tend to treat potential white converts—especially when they are rich and famous—with an exaggerated degree of enthusiasm. Many of this uber-excitement goes back to a colonial mentality and a privileging of whiteness.
In other words, it is not only that many (white) Americans are mad at Madonna for endangering her privilege by associating with Islam. It is also that many Muslims, particularly Muslims of transnational backgrounds, are also mired in the same racial and racist privileging of whiteness.
3) Let’s not get too excited, we might be along for Madonna’s latest ride.
The task of a celebrity is to stay in the spotlight. In the sexist world of the entertainment industry, few women in their 50s manage to command attention for their music. Madonna inaugurated a whole generation of liberated female musicians who owned their sexuality and used it to market themselves, their bodies, and their music. Without Madonna, there would be no Lady Gaga, no Ke$ha, no Miley Cyrus. And many of these women have now surpassed her in terms of popular attention. And for provocateurs like Madonna who enjoy the public spotlight, being bypassed by your copycats is a hard to take.
It is Madonna’s job, her calling, and her training to say things to tantalize us, engage us, and keep us captivated. And what better way than to identify with one of the most maligned and marginalized groups today, Muslims? As Madonna herself states in the interview:
“Yes, I like to provoke; it’s in my DNA. But nine times out of 10, there’s a reason for it.”
And part of Madonna’s ride has involved provoking us with religion, from wearing crucifixes, to her provocative videos about her Catholicism, to her very public engagement with Kabbalah, to now her interest in Islam. For public figures like Madonna, spirituality is not a private matter, but is constantly performed.
4) Islamic Ethics: thinking beautifully of people
And now, for something completely different: The Islamic tradition has an ethical imperative called Husn al-zan, which means thinking beautifully of people.
The message actually comes from the Qur’an, which enjoins upon the faithful to avoid thinking suspiciously about people. Backbiting is actually compared to eating the dead flesh of one’s sibling.
O believers, eschew much suspicion; some suspicion is a sin. And do not spy, neither backbite one another; would any of you like to eat the flesh of his brother dead? You would abominate it. And fear you God; assuredly God turns, and He is All-compassionate.
We cannot and should not dismiss or overlook the aspects of privilege and Islamophobia above. They cannot be simply “put aside”, because no amount of words by themselves displaces institutionally entrenched hierarchies of power, wealth, etc. But there is thinking beautifully of people.
We can never know what is truly in people’s hearts, only God knows.
And only God knows what is in Madonna’s heart.
If she is led to study the religious traditions of humanity, alhamdulilah.
If she is led to build schools for girls, mazel tov.
And let’s let Madonna have the last word here:
As my friend Yaman always tells me, a good Muslim is a good Jew, and a good Jew is a good Christian, and so forth. I couldn’t agree more. To some people this is a very daring thought. As life goes on (and thank goodness it has), the idea of being daring has become the norm for me.
Without turning the Material Girl into the Ethereal Lady, let’s keep the possibility of thinking beautifully of her intention open. If she ends up arriving at the notion of an ethics of compassion and goodness through her study, how lovely would that be. If she helps one other person realize that religion is not the end in and by itself, but a path towards a higher goal, then what she’s striving for is at least compatible with what Gandhi had said: that he came not to make Muslims and Christians into Hindus, but to make the Muslims better Muslims, Christians into better Christians, and Hindus into better Hindus.
It’s been a fascinating three decades with Madonna Louise Ciccone.
Look forward to seeing where your path takes you.
We wish you peace, serenity, and a faith that is meaningful, wherever that leads you.