IntroductionIn a previous paper, I critiqued Amina Wadud’s Qur’an And Woman, a book I found to unjustifiably position Islam right in the middle of the male-female continuum. That is, the book made several arguments that suggested the Koran (and, subsequently, Islam) treated the sexes equally. I attempted to debunk her arguments using logic, the Koran and my first-hand knowledge of and life-long experience with the Middle Eastern culture (which Wadud, an American Muslim, does not have), and feel as though my paper was a fair first attempt to cover the subject by an individual who, at that time, had only been through half of a college course dealing with contemporary Muslim women.This time around, after having gotten through the second half of said class, I will be examining two books, each written by ethnic and cultural non-Arab Muslims Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin) and Irshad Manji (The Trouble With Islam), both of whom took issue with several things in and about the Koran. While they didn’t address the exact same issues (in their books, anyway), both ladies pushed for a loss of certain cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation (Ali, 23) that aren’t Koranically-based and, in fact, go against their notions of what a human rights-friendly Islam would be. Another point of agreement in Manji’s and Ali’s books is their respective declarations that Islam could do with a bit of reform (since there’s never been an exhaustive re-interpretation to reflect “modernity”). Before I discuss this reform of the religion, however, I will discuss several of the issues that Manji and Ali raise.
Sex and Gender (In)equalityIn Islam, men are “more” than women. The Koran even says so: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.” (Koran, 4:34)Men are set in a parental role, a responsible role. Their testimony weighs twice as much as that of a woman, and they inherit much more than the woman does. The law says it’s so he can take care of her, whether “she” is his wife, his sister, his mother, his aunt or his female cousin. The woman is oftentimes discouraged from working outside of the house, or, if she does work, her money isn’t supposed to go towards running the household unless she wants it to. While all this coddling is nice and may, in the best of cases, make the woman feel as though she is being pampered and protected from the world and its concerns, one must admit that there is, in fact, a disparity between the roles and the statuses that Islamic men and women are afforded.Interestingly enough, however, the woman is held responsible for nearly any sexual misconduct a man conducts towards her or because of her. If she wears a higab, this is not enough, she must cover her face and hands, too! If she wears a neqab or a burqa, she must wear dark glasses so that her eyes won’t flash and sparkle and attract a man who is off-limits to her. And if she is in another room (and out of sight) but her brother-in-law rushes in and has his way with her, she is again blamed because her voice gave him cause to desire her. It’s always the woman’s fault with Muslim men; sometimes she gets punished for it, other times she pays with her life, even if she was dressed in a tent and never wore a stroke of eyeliner or lipstick in her life. The repression of women is carried out, propagated, protected by other women. It is usually a woman who circumcises girls, mothers-in-law (or mothers) who advise the young newlywed to ask her husband for forgiveness or make peace with him or stay in the marriage, even if the fault was his. And a female imam from
Turkey even wrote that (regarding the “scourge verse” in the Koran) “the conflict cannot be about what will be on the table that night. It has to be about a serious issue, like a question of honor…Don’t misunderstand me: I’m against it. Beating is degrading, but if there’s really no alternative, then it has to happen.” (Ali, 3-4)
On Personality and Posturing, Interpretation and IjtihadAs with any belief system that requires its adherents to follow a prescribed sequence of actions, Islam (as Roman Catholicism and Coptic Orthodoxy, to name only two) is sometimes criticized as all ritual, no relationship (with God).Irshad Manji writes that the ritualism of wudu’ (ablutions) and the recitation of specific verses (which may not be understood by a non-Arabic-speaker or a less-sophisticated Arab) over and over could “degenerate into mindless submission—and habitual submissiveness.” (Manji, 18) She also wonders whether God “commands that everyone speak Arabic,” or if that’s just a “manmade rule to keep most Muslims dependent on higher-ups” (Manji, 19) and complains that while “every faith has adherents who ape…only in contemporary Islam is imitation mainstream.” (Manji, 31)This puzzles Manji, who vacillates between a somewhat positive view that that the actions of a Muslim “on the basis of the Koran aren’t dictated by God” (Manji, 36) and that the Koran “makes room for…free will” (Manji, 47) and the less-optimistic notion that Muslims “have no choice but to choose what to emphasis and what to downplay,” since “the Koran is so profoundly at war with itself…” (Manji, 36) She confesses that, even after so much study and investigation into the matter, and even though she has arrived at an interpretation of the Koran that she is happy with, she is still unsure as to which interpretation is closest to the plan that God originally set out for man. (Manji, 35) Manji is positive, however, that certain human-introduced errors do exist in the Koran, such as the newly-proposed theory that God promises martyrs 70 white raisins in the afterlife, rather than the oft-publicized 70 “dark-eyed virgins.” (Manji, 46) She doesn’t address the notion that God should be powerful enough to either use humans to accomplish his will (meaning he wanted that mistake there) or that, being the creator of the world, he could keep a mistake from happening, if he so chose to prevent it.Koranic typos aside, Manji discusses (extensively) the idea of ijtihad, which she defines as a long-lost Islamic tradition of “independent reasoning” that obliterated the need for other people’s interpretations of Islam to be forced upon oneself. (Manji, 50)
Double Standards, Gratuitous ViolenceMuslims steeped in the Koran have quite an attachment to making and living by double standards. (Manji, 49) Both Ali and Manji bring up the point that these Muslims are asking for more rights than the other religions, using a legal system that Islam doesn’t approve of, inspired by an ideal of freedom from a culture Islam shouldn’t and wouldn’t approve of (Ali, xvi and Manji, 2, 49, 50) But this is far from the only example of the double standards that Ali and Manji introduce us to.For example, criticism of “the Islamic world, of Palestinians, and of Islamic minorities is regarded as Islamophobia and xenophobia,” but what of critical or inflammatory remarks about or to Christians? (Ali, xvii) Ali also notes that “Muslims can criticize the West, but the West cannot criticize the practices of Islam.” (Ali, xvi) Also, after the Denmark Cartoons fiasco, it was suggested that discussing Islam would be made illegal, but why should a moratorium be put on discussing Islam and not other religions? (Ali, xv) And if all religions are thusly “protected,” then the notions of “freedom of speech” or “freedom of the press” are compromised, cancelled out by this “equality.” In Manji’s words, “What makes us righteous and everybody else racist?” (Manji, 3)Moving to Ali’s and Manji’s allegations of violence in Islam, Ali tells the of the 2002 Miss World beauty pageant held in Nigeria, and the 200 people killed and the 500 injured during protests to a Christian journalist’s mere statement that “the prophet may have chosen a new wife from the contestants had he been alive today.” (Ali, xiv) It should be noted that there has never once been a single death associated with the telling of the Biblical story of King Xerxes (in the book of Esther), who had every beautiful woman in his kingdom taken to the palace and immersed in beauty treatments for an entire year and paraded before him, so that he might choose one for a wife. Ali brings up another point: If Islam is such a religion of peace, then how come Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, Ali herself and others who have spoken (again, no acts of violence, just words) “against” their own religion (Islam) have had to be protected (by non-Muslims) from other Muslims? (Ali, xvi)
Culture VS ReligionThe threads dividing the territories of culture, religion and tradition are very thin. This does not mean that it is impossible to untangle the knots that inevitably must occur when territories overlap—which they do in this case, only that it is difficult to do so cleanly, with complete accuracy, and in a manner that everyone can agree on. For someone living in the Western world today, it is rare or even unthinkable that anyone would make it a point to check someone’s level of piety or devoutness. In the
Middle East and many Islamic countries, however, it is not only thinkable but common. The often oppressive governments certainly do have their spies and workers everywhere, but people police their neighbors and the people they come across because it’s the thing to do, and because it (in some small way) seems to keep the oppressors at bay. But not every person in such a situation does so because of his or her connection with human authorities. Rather, some Muslims see themselves as agents of a higher authority, and thus behave as guardian of their friends’ morality. An example of this would be the neighbors in Satin Rouge, who sent their son to walk closet belly dancer Lilia to the pharmacy when she claimed her daughter was sick.The notion of distinction between culture/traditions deriving from culture and religion is something that interests many Middle Easterners who feel that Islam is not only their religion, but their cultural legacy. Others, however, take Islam as their religion but recognize the importance of their own cultural heritage.For example, the Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al Bannah, talks of retaining one’s culture whilst maintaining one’s status as a Muslim, suggesting that “European Muslims must create a ‘European Islam’ just as there is a separate ‘Asian Islam’ and ‘African Islam’…by this he means that European Muslims must re-examine the fundamental texts of Islam (primarily the Koran) and interpret them in light of their own cultural background.” (Wikipedia, Tariq Ramadan) Inaccuracies, Reflections and My Take
As I devoured these books which I, surprisingly enough, largely agreed with, I did notice a few things that need mentioning:First of all, while Manji makes the claim that Muslims pray to the same God that Christians and Jews do, it should be noted that this isn’t true, because the Christian God is the Father of the Holy Trinity, while Muslims believe this concept to be blasphemy (because it seems too polytheistic, although Christians do not believe that their belief in the Trinity is polytheistic). (Manji, 21) Also, Manji’s belief that Islam is OK with homosexuality because 1- everything that Allah makes is excellent, and 2- because “that was religion, this was happiness” is incorrect because of this verse, among others: “If any one of your women is guilty of lewdness … confine them until death claims them. If two men among you commit indecency (sodomy) punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, let them be. Allah is forgiving and merciful.” (Koran, 4:15,16 and Manji, 24-25) If it wasn’t considered a sin then Allah would have no need to punish, forgive or be merciful. Manji’s friend Adnan had a better idea, admitting that he knew homosexuality was considered a sin by Islamic standards, but going for it anyway. (Manji, 29)The last inaccuracy I wish to address at this time is the misleading use of the word “Umma,” which Ali says means “community.” The word Umma on its own means “nation,” (as in a country, such as
Egypt, or a pan-Arab amalgamation of all the Arabic-speaking nations), but used in the context of Islam, it should be called “ummat al-mu’mineen” (nation of believers—denoting all Muslims in the world, or all Islamic nations in general) to avoid confusion. (Ali, 19) Moving on to my reflections on this class, while I have seen veiled women since my childhood and never thought they looked strange in the least, my consideration of mohagibat was mostly that I and my friends were looked on with disdain because we weren’t covered as the Muslim women were. We were in mild-to-middling danger of being harassed or attacked for being so daring and different, but there was nothing we could really do about it, not if we were intent on remaining Christian. So we made sure to stick together and always played it safe, knowing that things could happen, but not letting the “danger” frighten us.On the other hand, now that I have gone through this class, I take myself out of the shoes of the unveiled Christian in Muslim Egypt, reverse the situation, and put myself into the shoes of the veiled Muslim woman. I imagine walking through a public place where less than 1 per cent of public is veiled—the Tallahassee Mall. In this scenario, as in my real-life memory above, the feeling is that of “Well, I stick out, I could be a target, but what can I do? This is the path I chose, and I can’t—and won’t—change just because someone may harass me for the and the religious symbolism made clear by the way I choose to dress.”So, while this exercise in cross-religious mind-broadening isn’t something that I never could have thought up on my own, had it not been for this class, I may never have had the reason—or desire—to do so. For that, I am grateful. But there are so many other issues that Muslim women in particular face these days. Several of the challenges that exist in the path of the contemporary Muslim woman living in an Islamic country include class, the law (Shari’a isn’t partial to women), patriarchal oppression, a lack of education in many cases (because some women marry relatively young and must drop out of school), postcolonial aftermath/recovery from colonization, warfare, poverty, and an interpretation (or misinterpretation) of Islam that pits the woman as “less than” a man in one form or fashion (thus denying her the realization of her dreams). This is to say nothing of the particular issues that the Western Muslim woman comes across, whether she is a convert to Islam or has been a Muslim since the day she was born to a Muslim father. Some of these specific-to-Muslim-Women-in-the-West issues include prejudice against the veil (because Western countries aren’t all-Muslim, and people sometimes fear what they don’t know), the mistaken assumption that “all Muslims are terrorists,” (especially after September 11), social and economic exclusion, discrimination in the workplace (because of the veil but also because of Ramadan and Islamic holidays), minority status, and, in terms of those Muslims recruited to move to Europe, a lowering of status. (Muslims in the States, however, are usually better off, both occupationally and financially.)Finally, reading such books as Ali’s and Manji’s (both of which I consider autobiographical) and even Wadud’s, has opened my mind to the world of non-Arab Muslims (including European and Western Muslims), both their day-to-day lives as well as their thoughts on a religion that they may or may not have been born into. Basically, such books as these have opened my eyes to the practical and modern application of the issues that Ahmed and Mernessi bring up (such as the veil, space, and the history of Muhammad) and the debates that surround these issues today.
Reform? Manji tells of the way Soviet Jews won their battle against a totalitarian system, that their “persistent refusal to comply” is what saved them. (Manji, 3) She goes on to tell of her notion of reform, which, at this stage “isn’t about telling ordinary Muslims what not to think, but about giving Islam’s 1 billion devotees permission to think. (Manji, 36) Ali agrees. With the help of the “liberal West,” she shares that Muslims need “to break through this wall of emotional resistance or to climb over it, until eventually the number of critics grows large enough to counterbalance the entrenched opposition effectively.” (Ali, xvi)Here’s hoping that for everyone’s sake, her dream becomes a reality.
BibliographyAli, Ayaan Hirsi. The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.
New York, NY: Free Press, 2006.Koran 4:34. Accessed online from http://www.homa.org/Details.asp?ContentID=2137352779&TOCID=2083225414 on 2 December, 2006.Manji, Irshad. The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.
New York, NY:
St. Martin’s Press, 2003.Ramadan, Tariq. Wikipedia entry. Accessed online from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariq_Ramadan on 2 December, 2006.Satin Rouge. Dir. Raja Amari. Zeitgeist Films. 2002.