Islam: The Lasting Influence of Few Men

Author Fatima Mernissi was onto something I think is critically important to understanding Islam from a Western point of view when she wrote in her book “Is it possible that Islam’s message had only a limited and superficial effect on deeply superstitious seventh-century Arabs who failed to integrate its novel approaches to the world and to women?  Is it possible that the hijab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jahiliyya mentality that Islam was supposed to annihilate?”[1]

What Mernissi seems to be explicitly saying in this pivotal passage seems to be that after the death of Muhammed, Islam’s future leaders deviated from the inherent message Muhammed and his immediate followers so much that the Islam that exists today descended from an incorrect understanding of Muhammed’s message – so much so that the imposition of the veil which has become a symbol of Muslims around the world has grossly misunderstood its original message and purpose.  There was a lot of information in these few chapters, and reading these brief passages gave me the desire to read the entire book (and I’ve ordered it on Amazon as a result – as well as an English translation of the Quran).  As she rightfully points out in both the introduction and the first assigned chapter, understanding the message of Islam requires a lot of digging on the part of the believer – and the same would necessarily (if not more so) apply to an outsider.[2]  The main message, in my opinion, from the collection of readings from this week is that there is more to Islam than merely focusing prematurely on its seemingly misogynistic leanings in the modern world.  From Muhammed’s treatment of his wives – especially Aisha – to the original purpose of the veil (as Mernissi points out to separate two men), it’s clear that at least in theory Islam did not start out as purely patriarchal or misogynistic.[3]

In my personal life, I often debate with people for fun, and I always roll my eyes when I hear arguments about taking things out of context.  In this specific instance, however, when regarding the woman’s place in Islam – especially considering Islam’s message of questioning everything and everyone (a concept incredibly foreign in a lot of Christian culture) context is incredibly important.[4]

I think, given the concepts and the historical context from the readings this week, it is entirely possible that Islam only scratched the surface of change in an already placed Arab culture – a culture that was reinforced as Islam spread and was influenced by similar cultural ideals in Persia and across the Mediterranean.  These influences reinforced a disparity between the sexes, allowing for the focus on hadiths and traditions that would place women below men rather than their spiritual equals and fostering a sense of misogyny that would last into the centuries to come.

[1] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Cambridge; Perseus Books, 1991), 81.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Ibid, 76.

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Ethics vs. Pragmatism in Islam’s Age of Expansion

The readings this week highlighted an aspect of Islam that I was unware of but that links it with both Christianity and Judaism – the matter of interpretation.  Being raised in a strict Christian home, I grew up believing that there was a singular Christianity, a singular Judaism and a singular Islam – although, to be fair, I wasn’t exposed to much of the theology of the last two options.  Growing up, however, and developing my own understanding of the religious around the world, I was surprised to see that far from being one singular understanding of Christianity there were, in fact, thousands.  The last I checked, there were over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone – and that’s only one of the world’s major religions.  Islam, however, seemed vastly more cohesive until I began the readings for this week.

When focusing on the theologies of Islam, particularly in regards to women’s rights, their place and how they are viewed in Islamic society, Leila Ahmed rightly points out that, despite current conflicting views continuing through today, the majority of Islamic thought occurred in a time period that allowed cultural and societal norms to influence religious ideology.[1]  If Ahmed’s rendering and study of women is Islamic history is accurate, the regulations, seclusions, veiling and other “oppressive” measures did not originate when Islam did, but came after the death of Muhammed once the mantle of religious leadership passed to others.[2]  While that at first seems strange for someone living in the 21st century’s Westernized world, it makes sense when compared to other religious traditions.  According to Ahmed, one of the very things that sets Islam apart from other monotheistic beliefs was the fact that women are explicitly addressed in Islam’s sacred writing – the Quran.[3]  She points out that this indicates – at least at the beginning stages of Islam – that women and men were viewed equally, not only by Muhammed himself, but by the writings that were to become Islam’s most sacred and authoritative text.  It’s also interesting to note that women within Islam itself argue against the stereotype that Islam is sexist due to the way in which they read, interpret and understand the Quran for themselves, regardless of the more prevalent interpretations that were practiced in Islamic society throughout history and even today.[4]  The key to understanding this dilemma, however, seem to be in understanding that those in positions of leadership, authority and power within Islam are not the ones who focused on the ethical and spiritual aspects of the religion, but rather those who focused on the pragmatic ones – particularly, as Ahmed points out, within the Abbasid period.[5] This period fundamentally changed the way that women were predominately viewed in Islamic society, and was powerful enough to be carried throughout history through the present day in many predominately Muslim nations.[6]  Understanding why this key change took place seems to rest on understanding Islam’s massive growth, assimilation of other cultural and societal norms outside of Arabia and the ruling/political elite responsible for writing much of the texts, interpretations and understandings that are prevalent in Islam throughout the world today.[7]

[1] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 64.

[2] Ibid, 64.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 65.

[5] Ibid, 67.

[6] Ibid, 67.

[7] Ibid, 67.

Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

From the readings and the videos provided in this module, regardless of whether any prior knowledge and/or bias was present prior to the start of this term, it’s clear that the question of the “salvation” of Muslim women is a complex, nuanced and difficult subject that cannot be easily answered.  To be honest, I’ve wrestled with this question myself long before the term started, and although I’ve thought at times that I’ve had the answer, I’ve changed my mind a lot.  I’m still wrestling with it today throughout the readings and activities of this module.

In the readings this week, both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh argue that the veil, contrary to Western stereotypes is seen by many Muslim women in the Arab world as empowering, rather than oppressing Muslim women.[1][2]  Surprisingly, their argument is not difficult for me to understand.  For women constantly on edge regarding unwanted attention from the opposite sex when venturing out in public, covering oneself – especially in light of religious teachings – can demonstrate taking power over oneself in relation to society as a whole, even more so when considering that observers are more likely to stand up in your defense while covered.[3]  That being said, however, I also see the other side.  While it’s true that women are adopting the veil, as argued, of their own free will – is it really free will if the consequences of NOT covering can be death at the hands of a male family member for even the appearance of sexual impropriety and thereby impugning the family’s sexual honor?[4]  Or would that be seen more as coercion rather than a free-will choice?

I think what Abu-Lughod is trying to point out in her compelling article is that in the West, our cultures and societal norms are so different from those often portrayed from Muslim-majority cultures and countries that it’s easy to be dismissive of those cultural differences as barbaric or ancient, assert Western ideals and values as superior or “more evolved” and desire to pull Muslim women out of what is seen as “dark age ideologies” into the modern 21st century, without taking their desires, beliefs or wishes into account.  Doing so, I think, is not only arrogant to the extreme, but dangerous.  Both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh mention that distaste that many Muslim women in the Arab world have for Western culture and ideals.[5][6]  Removing them by force from the Islamic culture that they embrace and throwing them into a culture that they despise would do little more than submit them to a different kind of oppression than we are misguidedly attempting to “save” them from.

It’s all too easy to attempt to claim the moral, cultural high ground, asserting that anything you disagree with is objectively wrong, but to do so removes a lot of the nuance and history surrounding different cultures around the world.  As Abu-Lughod states implicitly in her article, it is impossible now to separate Muslim culture from its history of colonialism, interference and judgement of the western world at large, and to judge Muslim cultural practices as somehow outdated or wrong is to dismiss and fail to take responsibility for the West’s hand in their development and implementation.[7]

[1] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-790.

[2] Lama Abu Odeh, “Post-Colonial Feminism and the Veil: Thinking the Difference,” Feminist Review 43 (1993): 26-37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abu-Lughod.

[7] Ibid.