Monday, January 31, 2011

Islam, Family and Modernity

Post 24:--

In the last post I promised you an article written by Asghar Ali Engineer of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, India. Engineer is a prolific writer about Islam, history and society. I am grateful for his permission to reproduce his article as an example of the more liberal Muslim approach to women's issues. Tomorrow, inshallah, I will reproduce writing(s) from a more conservative wing on the same subject. Between the two of them, these articles exemplify what I have written in Post 23.

Asghar Ali Engineer:

Sometime go I happened to go to Turkey for an international conference on Family. I wrote an account of my journey to Turkey but here I want to talk about my presentation in the conference. It was an impressive international conference from around 50 countries and 300 scholars, social scientists and activists. Several papers were read and discussed on various aspects of family. The common concern was that the institution of family is getting weakened and family being the very foundation of our civilization, it must be saved from disintegration.

I was asked to talk about Islam and institution of family. In fact the Prophet of Islam did not approve of life of celibacy except in some situation. He also disapproved of renunciation of world (ruhbaniyyah) and preferred living in the world and facing all the situations. Various pronouncements of the Qur’an relate to family life, marriage, divorce and children. Qur’an also says if you have no means to marry and sustain your family lead pious life until Allah gives you necessary means. Also, Qur’an prescribes punishment for illegitimate sex fornication, rape and adultery.

According to Islamic teachings, sex is permissible only within the institution of marriage as sex only for pleasure, is not permissible; sex is basically meant for raising family. Today in western countries, people do not want to take responsibility for raising family but want to have sex for pleasure and hence ‘live in’ arrangement has come into vogue and this concept of live-in has dealt great blow to the institution of family. In this arrangement both man and woman can walk away any time they like.

Thus the basic idea is not to have any responsibility towards each other, much less towards children. In fact every attempt is made to avoid begetting children and, if at all, children are born, the whole responsibility will come on a single parent, especially on mother. The result is man tries to have multiple partners to enjoy sex and woman is burdened with children and faces psychological stresses and strain.

Sex cannot be an end in itself as it happens in live-in arrangement. There are, according to Qur’an two important purposes of marriage – to raise family and provide companionship to each other. The very philosophy of marriage is based on love and companionship. Qur’an says, “And of His Signs is this, that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find quiet of mind in them, and He put between you love and compassion. Surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (30:21

Thus the institution of family, according to the Qur’an, should be based on higher and noble values of life .Simply to gratify sexual desire can never lead to higher civilization and stability in one’s life. Stability, compassion and love are the very basis of human civilization and family is an important institution in building civilization. Family, as far as possible, should not break and that is why according to the Prophet’s hadith divorce is most disapproved among permissible things and also according to another hadith heavens shake when man pronounces divorce to his wife because divorce delivers blow to very institution of family.

Today in the contemporary world institution of family is increasingly getting weakened due to certain contradictions arising in our life due to modernity. In modern period women too work and become quite independent and hence refuse to bow down to wishes of her spouse. In the past women were quite economically dependent on husbands and felt more secure in bowing down to his wishes. Husband was thought to be master and crown of her head (sartaj). Today women are from middle class families highly educated and work with high salaries and so they refuse to bow down before their husbands.

So many orthodox Muslims feel this is the result of women getting educated and earning for themselves. It is destabilizing families. This is wrong conclusion because we are embedded in patriarchal values. In fact if women have to have dignity and self-respect they should not be asked to submit to husband’s authority. Any institution based on authority rather than higher values cannot be stable and cannot lead to higher civilization. Qur’an while giving women right to earn and property, also gives her equal dignity and self respect and makes it clear that family should be based not on authority of husband but on love and compassion for each other.

If these values are meticulously practiced both husband and wife have mutual respect and consult each other before taking any crucial decision, woman’s education and earning would make family much more stable and prosperous. If our culture remains patriarchal and husband’s authority supreme, family in which woman is highly educated and cares for self respect and dignity, would tend to come under strain and break. Even in highly modern societies women has no role in decision making on crucial matters and hence family life comes under severe strain and percentage of divorce goes up because woman refuses to submit.

Thus solution does not lie in abandoning the institution of family and go in for live-in relationship. There will be no genuine love and compassion. Solution lies in according equal dignity to women and equal role in decision making. This alone will strengthen institution of family. Thus if philosophy of family as propounded by the Qur’an is followed institution of family will not fall apart. It will be strengthened instead.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Women in Islam: Standard and Practice

Post 23--:

I continue the series that originally started in Post 19. Please check out the context of this material there.

The questions I was to answer were:
(a) How does the Qur’an say women should be treated?
(b) How does the above conform to or contradict what is practiced in many
Muslim countries or cultures?

Here is my response to those questions:

I interpret the questions as intended to evoke a discussion about Muslim suppression of women, since that is such a major Christian concern.

If you ask the same question about the Bible, you will get a wide variety of (contradictory) answers. There are OT texts about women from which pretty well all Christians distantiate themselves. For one thing, they are written from a male point of view—what the male should do for, with or to women. They were subject to men and valued mainly as wives and mothers. A father could sell his daughter into slavery. A father could annul his daughter’s vows or pledge, as could a husband his wife’s. Adultery could lead to stoning, but for both partners. The husband had various unilateral rights over his wife. A woman was worth half a man. Women could be taken as booty after victorious battles. They could become ceremonially unclean. Etc., etc. In the NT, women were restricted in their leadership roles. Christians have long rejected all or most of these ideas for sound Biblical and theological reasons, somewhat parallel to the Islamic doctrine of abrogation.

You find similar situations in the Qur’an and in the Muslim community. There is a wide range of interpretations from the literal to contextual-historical. Just as Christians have largely rejected the OT perspectives on women, especially those they see as oppressive, so do many educated Muslims argue their way out of similar Qur’anic texts. Most Muslim men tend to agree that women are honourable but fragile creatures that need to be protected from other men. Hence, the elaborate precautions to which some are subjected in terms of movement and dress code, while others dress and move about as they please. Most men regard women as too emotional and therefore insist that they, the men, should do the thinking and make decisions for them. They are seen as powerful when they play their legitimate role as mothers and wives who bring up and teach the next generation. They are allowed to conduct business and own property, but not at the expense of their primary role in the family. There is currently a dynamic at work in many Muslim communities that tends to restrict women more than was the case in the past, especially with respect to dress. One American female Muslim medical doctor practicing in Saudi was absolutely amazed at the restrictions placed on women in Saudi and condemned it outrightly as a retrograde form of Islam.

At the levels of militant fundamentalism and folk Islam, the literal interpretation tends to hold sway. Folk Islam is intimately mixed up with local pre-Islamic cultures. Its adherents often identify these foreign accretions as part of core Islam, with the result that anyone critiquing some cultural tradition may be accused of attacking Islam itself. In Saudi, public amputations constitute public entertainment after Friday prayers, but many educated Muslims are horrified.

The reality is that there is hardly any consistent pattern around the Muslim world. In many Muslim communities, women play a much larger role than the above would lead us to expect, while in most countries stoning and amputation form only a distant memory. And yet there have been several female Muslim heads of state in the largest Muslim countries! If Islam or the Qur’an were really as reprehensible and violent in its core as we witness today in some quarters, then the high civilization and culture they once reached would hardly have been possible.

A major difference between Christianity and Islam is that the former has experienced the philosophical developments from the Renaissance on—initially spurred on by Cordovan Islam—up to the current climate in the West. Before those developments, Christian individuals, religious leaders and nations were cruel and intolerant in ways hard to believe today, even though we already had the Bible. The change towards more civilized relationships is due as much to those philosophical developments as to our reading of the Bible. Most Muslims have not gone through this development.

How should women be treated according to the Qur’an? Your answer will be determined by the approach you prefer, literal or contextual-historical. Does the practice of some countries reflect the Qur’an correctly? To the extent that it is the result of a literal interpretation and mixed up with traditional cultural accretions, in agreement with more liberal Muslims, I would say “No.” But those who practice various forms of suppression of women, will, of course, answer “Yes!” They are the literalists. So, how and on what basis do I, a non-Muslim, answer these questions? Which is the true Islam or the right interpretation of the Qur’an?

I will interrupt my series and continue the subject of the treatment of women in the next post by reproducing an article on the subject by Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, an Indian moderate Muslim scholar.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Frequent Misconceptions re. Islam and How to Counter Them

Post 22--:

This post is number 3 in my series published in Christian Courier. Please go back to the introduction to this series in post 19 in order to understand its intention and its content. Without reading that introduction, you may wonder why I write this post.

Probably the most common misconception about Muslims is that they are all the same. They are indeed united with respect to certain core doctrines and the practice of the five pillars, but that’s as far as it goes. If you’re a Christian, you will realize that there are all kinds of Christians in this world ranging from raving fundamentalists to rank liberals. The same is true for Islam. There is folk Islam that is usually syncretistically entwined with local religions and cultures and then there is the Islam of the serious cleric or academic. There are fundamentalists, militants, pious, secular, tolerant and intolerant, moderates, mystical and political Muslims. And since Muslims are reared in many different cultures, Pakistani and Nigerian Muslims are again different from each other. There are many “denominations” even, with the main split being between Sunni and Shi’ite. There are five main legal traditions, all of them considered equally orthodox. Some wear clothes we explicitly associate with Islam, while others follow Western fashions. So, when you talk of Muslims (the people) or of Islam (the religion), which people or which Islam are you referring to?

In view of this confusion, how can you know your Muslim neighbour or colleague? You can do so only to a certain extent by socializing with her, him or them. You can to some extent know a specific Muslim or a specific community of Muslims by personal interaction. That still does not mean you know Muslims in general.

An added difficulty in the West is that militant Muslims tend to hide themselves among the moderates. Even the moderate Muslims may not always realize that a specific person is a militant, perhaps a member of a sleeper group that can be called into militant action at any time and is prepared to do so at any cost to himself.

Some Westerners have a good Muslim neighbour, colleague or friend and conclude from this relationship that all Muslims are peaceful, to be completely accepted at all levels of society and to be fully trusted. Others are more influenced by the negative images they pick up from the media or from hysterical writings published by certain anti-Muslim groups. They may consider all Muslims dangerous and think of Islam as a threat to Western society.

Like stereotypes, all these misconceptions are based on distorted truths. There are reasons for them to develop; they are not altogether wrong. What is wrong is their generalization. There are peaceful Muslims and militant Muslims; friendly Muslims and hostile Muslims, but no generalization covers them all. The cure for our various misconceptions is to get realistic. We must be aware of all these differences and react appropriately to the various Muslim individuals and groups we encounter.

That said—and, because of its political incorrectness, I hesitate to state what’s coming!—, we must beware of ever thinking we understand Muslims fully, especially if they have been brought up in a Muslim country or ghetto. Though I keep trying, I find it very difficult to establish genuine friendship with Muslims and Muslims often tend to resist it. Deep down there always seems to be a degree of mutual suspicion. It is impossible to predict what their reaction will be to a critical event between the West and Islam. Many moderates the world over unexpectedly rejoiced over 9/11. What is needed here is unending patience and then some more.

Many people fear Muslim challenges to secular society and consider them illegitimate. In the history of Dutch immigration to Canada in the 1950, of which I was a part, the generation that brought Dutch Calvinism to Canada in the 1950s also challenged Canadian secularism. They did not mean to threaten Canada but to bless it. Many Canadians were offended by this challenge, but these Calvinists persisted and scored some amazing victories that still bless Canadians today, often without them knowing it. Many Muslims similarly challenge Canadian secularism. Some people feel threatened by this Muslim challenge. Those Dutch Christians should remember that Muslims have the same right to challenge Canadian culture in our pluralistic society as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. “Father” Abraham (Kuyper) himself, the ancestor of this tradition, would have defended their right to challenge the established secular order.

We should counter them not by repressing their efforts, for we are not here to defend secularism, but by reviving and updating our own Christian principles and once again challenge secularism with the weapons of “our” Spirit. Muslims badly need to see a wholistic Christianity in action in our secular context. And who knows, in the course of our simultaneous challenges we could rub shoulders with each other as allies in some common causes, without ignoring or erasing the core differences that will keep us separated.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Islam a Threat to Christianity and West?

Post 21--:

Before reading this post, please reread the introductory paragraphs to Post 19. That introduction holds for this one as well. Though in most of these posts, my main reading target consists of Muslims and others interested in Islam, in this series I am addressing Canadian Christians and their concerns about Islam. But you, my Muslim friends, feel free to read and consider. Reading this series of posts originally published in Christian Courier (CC) may help you understand your Christian neighbour a bit better.

In a 2002 “Identity Statement,” my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) identified secularism, not Islam, as “the primary enemy.” This is supported by a statement of the Reformed Ecumenical Council of 1991 as well as by Reformational or Kuyperian philosopher, Bennie van der Walt. The reason for this view is that, if you will permit me a Dutchism, Islam comes in wooden shoes, while secularism sneaks up on you in socks. Wooden shoes clatter; you can hear them clearly. Anyone coming up from behind you cannot possibly hide himself. But you can’t hear someone sneaking up behind you in socks. Islam is the wooden shoes that makes its presence known everywhere. Secularism is a sock; it sneaks up on you. It is so interwoven in Western culture that we have largely become immune to its effects in our minds and hearts.

Islam is a threat in some way, but not the most dangerous one. Various forms of Islam are indeed threatening the West for a number of reasons. I have in mind here mainly Fundamentalist, militant and terrorist versions.

Secularism has created a spiritual vacuum in this culture and has blinded Westerners to the essence of religion. If it were not for secularism, Islam would not have made the inroads it has in the West. And to the extent that secularism has made its inroads, to that extent we are handicapped in our response to Islam. Secularism has led its adherents to assume that Muslims coming to the West would become ”reasonable” like the rest of us! That is, become secular like us. Forgive my bluntness, but I consider this a “stupid” approach by which a certain ignorant “philosopher-king” shaped our multicultural philosophy on which subsequent emigration policies were based. Designing a national policy on basis of ignorance is dangerous and thus a threat, a threat even to the very secularism that welcomed those Muslims. Too bad dead philosopher kings are beyond the reach of earthly judges!--except of course of self-appointed ones, like myself.

Terrorism of any stripe among us, whether intellectual or violent, is an undeniable threat to all of us. The creeping influence of Wahabism and the presence of other forms of intolerant militant fundamentalism, sometimes in the form of violent hidden cell groups, are dangerous. They inculcate intolerance and hate in their schools in the West, especially Europe and the USA. They plan violent attacks on innocent crowds. Antonides has done well to warn us in his CC articles.

More moderate forms of Islam reject violence and have said so repeatedly. Their approach includes a philosophy of mission that will use all the tools of Western democracy to infiltrate our entire culture, especially Canada’s human rights instruments. They are supported in this effort with oil money from Muslim governments and by the efforts of the Organisation of Islamic Conference via the UN. They target especially Western concepts of freedom of speech under the guise of protecting their religion. There is an undeniable threat component to our Canadian secularism as well as to legitimate Christian activity in their legally legitimate approach.

I have been a missionary for 30 years in a country with over 60 million Muslims. Those Muslims consider Christian missions a dangerous threat, especially because they associate it with colonialism and its aftermath—and they are partially right. Most missionaries do not understand the legitimacy of this charge and do not consider themselves a threat to anyone. If it is legitimate for Christians to send missionaries to Muslim countries, then it is also legitimate for Muslims to do their mission work among us, even if we also tend to identify theirs with a kind of Muslim imperialism. So, is their legitimate mission a threat?

I would rather think of the da'wah mission of moderate mainstream Islam as a challenge, a serious challenge. Our challenge is not to prevent them from carrying out their mission. Rather, it is for us to cleanse ourselves from our secularism and once again read the Bible afresh, with an open spirit not restricted by the dictates of our Western worldview. That way we may begin to acknowledge our own imperialistic history and what our countries have done and continue to do among Muslims. This cleansing above should lead us to demand that our governments and corporations reshape our relationships with the Muslim world on basis of justice and equality for all people and to quit supporting oppressive regimes for the sake of oil.

Yes, some Muslims present us with threats; others, with challenges. Imperialistic and missionary urges have always driven Islam. However, the West has been equally imperialistic and missionary with respect to the Muslim world. We should recognize that their current hostility towards us is at least partially a response to our imperialism. We have evoked it. We are seen as a threat to them as well!

I do believe that Islam is a threat to the West as it is. It is generally acknowledged that the West is drifting away from its religious, historical and cultural foundation and is left with a spiritual and cultural vacuum that Islam is rushing in to fill. Its leaders are adept at using the democratic institutions of the West for their own ends.

The West is built on a bubble that could burst anytime. Insufficient births coupled with abortion, collapse of the family structure, loss of sexual restraint and modesty, rape of the environment, outrageous materialism, a culture of entitlement and human rights devoid of any degree of responsibility, extremely high pay for less work, political correctness—all these and more will lead to collapse if allowed to continue. Muslim leaders are watching it happen from the sidelines and in the meantime preparing their community for what seems to some as the inevitable. It has happened before. Why can it not happen again?

Islam is definitely a threat to Western Christianity in so far as the latter is defined in terms of the current church institutions without a vibrant faith and personal commitment that come from being born again. People are dropping church membership by the droves. The original ancient Christian world has been overtaken by Muslims long ago with few traces left of the Christian church that once thrived there. With hardly any exception, wherever the Christian faith has had no roots in the hearts of the common people, Islam has been able to supplant it. It is poised to do it again, this time in the heartland of the former Christendom, not with the sword, according to Ghadafi, but with the womb.

It is impossible to predict the future or God’s plans. He has created unexpected revival of His people before and He can do it again. No reason to reject that possibility. In fact, we should pray for such a revival. Expect it even. But such a revival, to be effective, needs to move beyond the so-called spiritual to wholistic reformation across the entire culture, including but reaching beyond the family by reducing abortion and divorce, restoring our sexual mores and modesty, accepting more realistic incomes and “lower” our standard of living, healthy politics. Islam challenges Christians to do that. Islam is a challenge to Christians, more than a threat.