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.


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