Saturday, September 17, 2022

Q&A with Ayesha S. Chaudhry




Ayesha S. Chaudhry is the author of the book The Colour of God, now available in paperback. She also has written the book Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. A professor of gender and Islamic studies, she teaches at the University of British Columbia. She lives in Vancouver.


Q: What inspired you to write The Colour of God, and what impact did writing the book have on you?


A: I never intended to write this book. I began writing it, quite accidentally, in September of 2015, while I was on a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. The fellowship allowed me to spend a year focused on research and writing, away from all the other commitments of my regular life.


During the first month that I was there, I found myself on a sunny patio, in the fall sun, writing what would become the first chapter of the book. It came out of me rather unexpectedly, spontaneously and it felt like that — that it came out of me, rather than that I intended it or that it was pre-formed as some kind of cerebral activity.


Once I’d written the first essay, I realized I probably needed to continue writing. It was crucial that those with whom I shared the first writing encouraged me to keep going.


Q: The writer Saima Mir said of you and of the book: “The kind of authentic voice that is rarely heard nowadays. Her experiences of family and the patriarchal interpretations of Islam, pushed upon women of South Asian heritage, resonated with me on so many levels.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think that is a beautiful and generous description. There are many reasons that we do not get to hear such voices — there is pressure on us, from within our own communities, not to share our stories in the context of Islamophobia.


But there is also pressure from white supremacist societies that are Islamophobic for us to only tell stories that fit a particular narrative arc where Muslim women go from oppressed to liberated, with “Islam” representing “oppression” and “the West” representing “liberation.” There isn’t a lot of room for messy, complicated, non-linear human stories for Muslim women.

So, when we tell stories that break from this simplistic and reductive script, they are seen as not relevant, or not engaging, or not marketable. It is lucky to find a way to write and then be published in such a context, and I’m grateful that Oneworld took a chance on this book.


I will say also, that since the publication of the book, I’ve received incredibly positive feedback from Muslim women and men from around the world, who have said that the book has made them feel seen. In this way, their messages have echoed Saima Mir’s quote above. I am really grateful for that.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The book is named after my nephew, Sibghatullah. He himself was named after a verse in the Quran that reads, The colour of God. And what is better than the colour of God?” I have always loved that verse in the Qur’an, and I believe that my nephew’s passing set me on a journey that has had me grappling with the Qur’anic question ever since. The Colour of God is a slice of that journey.


In its essence, this book is a non-linear story about grief, love, and belonging in a diaspora created by colonialism. Through a series of stories, I explore the ways we try to belong, to find home, to feel whole, and the kinds of violences that accompany so many forms of belonging. I try to think compassionately and critically about family, religion, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, and race, among other things.


Q: I'm so sorry about the loss of your nephew...


How would you describe your relationship with religion today?


A: Complex. I think our relationship with religion is always complex, whether we are formally religious or not. Even if we are secular, our relationship with religion is still complex because insofar as secularism is a resistance to religious thinking, it is formed by religion. We are formed by the things we resist.


I see religion as always moving, evolving, undulating, never fixed and static; it is living and never captured in any text. Religion is lived, so it is as unfixed as humans are; it is as beautiful and ugly as humans are; our limits are its limits, and it is as boundless and expansive as we are.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on a book called The Little Red One. The book is a sort of lyric biography of A’isha (the Prophet’s wife), my mother, and myself rolled into one. The essays in the book explore issues of belonging and community through the lens of gender.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think that is it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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