Saturday, February 12, 2011

Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 5

This continues what I started in Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 1. The previous installment was Part 4.

I am reading Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam. A Reader, edited by Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2002. All citations refer to that book, unless otherwise stated.

Now I continue reading the book's "Part One: Islamic Modernism", specifically that part's section "IV. Islamic Modernism and the Issue of Women".

This section begins with an article on "Polygamy" by Moulawi Chiragh Ali (1844-95). According to Ali, the "general tenor of the Quran is to establish a perfect equality between the male and female sex, in their legal, social, and spiritual positions, except in physical strenght, and possession of wealth" (p. 149). That exception aside, this interpretation of the Quran seems useful. Ali also usefully notes that if in "Western" countries women have more liberty and have been elevated to a higher social status, it is not due to religion:

It is only the influence of the codes of the Roman Law, and the innate respect felt by the Teutonic nations for the female sex, and centuries of civilization, that have raised women to their proper position [...]. (p. 149.)

As for the alleged acceptance of domestic abuse in Islam, Ali has this to say:

(1) That Muhammad had authorized the corporal punishment of refractory wives by their husbands in extreme cases (Sura iv. 38), is true, but it is also a fact worthy of note that this had been the case only during the early stage of the patriarchal form of government at Medina, when there were no established tribunals of justice or judges, and the head of the family was the only domestic judge. But as soon as the form was changed, when tribunals were created, and when a systematic administration of justice was carried on, the power given to the husband was abolished, and the contending parties, ie.e, husband and wife, were required to appeal to the judges, prohibiting the former from taking the law into his own hands. The very next verse, 39, abolishes the former system of husbands having power of beating their wives. [...]

This is then one of those things that show how the Quran is not an eternal book for all times, but a collection of texts intimately connected to the time of their writing. Beating one's wife was accepted at one time, but prohibited the next. A Muslim should obey the prohibition, as the Prophet did not change that part anymore, thus leaving it valid. Good enough.

Ali contains on another form of abuse of women common in Muslim societies:

(2) Muhammadi did not allow or enjoin seclusion of women. He made some improvements in their general dress and demeanor, giving them greater honor and respectability; and he made provisions to save them from the insults of the rude and uncultured common folk, while going out in the streets. [...]

The Muhammadan Common Law also takes particular care as to leave the face and hands of respectable females open and unmasked; for these parts of the body are not called "Aurah," or nakedness. The whole person of a female, except the face and hands, as well as the feet according to some, are "Aurah," and ought to be decently covered. (p 151 - 152.)

Here the issue is obviously the veil, and other forms of hiding women from sight. A later article will continue on this. Here it is enough to note that Ali's interpretation of the religion precludes the seclusion of women, and it does not require of women the wearing of a completely concealing garb (burqa). What he does not emphasize, though, is that this the Muhammadan Common Law he is talking about, so this it can be modified without having to contradict Islam.

The article on "The Rights of Women" by Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) is unfortunately just un outdated piece of apologetics of Islam based on dubious claims about the superiority of Islamic culture with regard to the status of females. I will comment on it no more.

"The Liberation of Women" by Qasim Amin (1865-1908) is much better. Amin discusses the issue of the veil in detail, and connects it to broader social issues:

Among the most important [causes of criticism] are the firmly established tradition of veiling among the majority of the population, and the inadequate socialization of women. Were women's socialization effected in accordance with religious and moral principles, and were the use of the veil terminated at limits familiar in most Islamic schools of belief, then these criticisms would be dropped and our country would benefit from the active participation of all its citizens, men and women. (p. 169.)

Amin states that the "revealed law of God indicates that women were endowed with minds in the same manner as men", implying that the status of each gender in society should be equal as well. Curiously, he still defends the use of the veil by females. But he adds:

I would recommend, however, that we adhere to its use according to Islamic Law, which differes from our present popular traditions. Our people are ostentatious in their caution and in their interpretations of what they velieve to be the application of the law, to the extent that they presently exceed the limits of the shari'ah and have harmed the nation's interests. (p. 173.)

Amin would like to see a compromise between how Western women dress, and how his contemporary Egyptian women were veiled. He is, unfortunately, dogmatic about obeying "heavenly orders", but gladly this does not prevent him from suggesting an improvement. This is because the contemporary custom of veiling he would reform is not based on religion:

Muslims were attracted to the use of the veil, approved it, exaggerated its use, and dressed it up in religious raiment, just other harmful customs have become firmly established in the name of religion, but of which religion is innocent. (p. 174 - 175.)

He points to verses XXIV, 30-31 to show that Islam "permits a woman to expose some parts of her body to strangers, even though the specific situations are not spelled out" (p. 175). At least the face and hands, possibly also arms and feet are parts of her body she is allowed to show, according the religious leaders Amin quotes. He argues that because Islamic law gives women the same rights as men (such as the right to take care of their own finances), and makes them equally responsible in civil and criminal cases, women must also be allowed to reveal themselves as necessary for these situations, such as in a court of law, or when doing business, or even during manual labor (p. 176 - 177). He continues further on the issue of segregation of the sexes:

God created this world and gave human beings mastery over it so that they could enjoy the benefits according to what they can achieve. God granted human beings privileges for administering this world, but He also placed limitations on them. Thus God established equality between men and women regarding their obligations and privileges. God did not divide the universe, making one part of it to be enjoyed by women alone and another to be enjoyed by men, working in it segregated from women. In fact, He created the burdens of life to be shared and controlled by both men and women. How can a woman enjoy all the pleasures, feelings, and power that God created for her, and how can she work in the universe if she is banned from the sight of any man except a blood relative or some other man to whom she cannot be married according to Islamic law? Undoubtedly, this is not what the shari'ah meant, and it should not be allowed by either law or reason. (p. 177.)

This is something Muslims living in "Western" countries must agree with. Back on the use of the veil, Amin writes:

Furthermore, I do not believe that the veil is a necessary part of desirable behaviour for women. There is no basis for such a claim. What is the relation between desirable behaviour and exposing or veiling the face of a woman? What is the basis for discriminating against women? Is not good behaviour in reality the same for both men and women? Is it not a product of an individual's intentions and work rather than of external appearances and clothes?

[...] The instructions that appear in the precious verses about averting one's gaze apply to both men and women. This proves clearly that it is no more appropriate for a woman to cover her face than for a man to cover his.

[...] If men feared that women would be tempted, why were not men ordered to wear the veil and conceal their faces from women? Is a man's will considered weaker than a woman's? Are men to be regarded as weaker than women in controlling their desires? Is a woman considered so much stronger than a man that men have been allowed to show their faces to the eyes of women, regardless of how handsome or attractive they are, while women are forbidden to show their faces to men, from the fea that men's desires may escape the control of their minds, and they may thus be tempted by any woman they see, however ugly or disfigured she be? Any man who claims this viewpoint must then admit that women have a more perfect disposition than men; why then should women always be placed under the protection of men? If, however, this viewpoint is incorrect, what justifies the this traditional control over women's lives? (p. 178.)

Clearly, as has been alluded to before, many Muslims make a big show of their faith, instead of keeping it a private matter, as would better suit a secular society -- or one where religious faith is genuine. This is most obvious in the daily prayers, but can of course be done with clothing.

It is reprehensible for the men of a family force the women of the family to be segregated from other men, or even from society in general. In my opinion Amin argues well against such behaviour here: the veiling of women seems at least to be in contradiction with the segregation and "protection" of women. If women needed such "protection" (rule) by men who allegedly had superior strenght of will, then it would be the men who should be veiled in order to protect the women from lust. But if women indeed need to be veiled in order to restrain men's lust, then perhaps it is men who need to be supervised by women, who then apparently have the stronger mental faculties?

Amin also explains how women may actually use veils to attract men (to flirt and in fact improve their appearance), rather than to conceal what men might find attactive in them. He makes another good argument to show that in fact the use of the veil enables her to behave in ways that I guess I can call immoral here, without getting caught, as no one can recognize her. Thus it follows that those who are afraid of the potential immoral behaviour of women should rather demand that they show their faces in public, so that they will be recognized. This will keep them under social control. (p. 178 - 179.)

From the point of religion the more important point, though, is that the use of the veil is actually just a non-religious tradition predating Islam. There are verses in the Quran that speak of the veiling of the Prophet's wives, but Amin emphasizes (and appeals to Islamic scholars) that they were considered very special, and that the rules relating to them do not apply to other women (p. 179 - 180).

* * *

Section "V. Style of Living" is useless for this project. The content of the short articles therein are obsolete. Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) writes about "The Way of Life" and "The Way to Eat a Meal". Rifa'ah Rifa al-Tahtawi (1801-73) writes about "Civil Rights" in France, and the Revolution of 1830 there. None of these articles seem to contain anything of relevance now.

This means that I have finished Part I, and will next get into what could be more relevant to the present. That is, Part II - Islamic Fundamentalism. Continue to Part 6.

No comments: