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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