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.

1 comment:

  1. I read, from your blog, the Somalian lady's anger on Muslim women but would not blame her for over exposure to the so-called western civilisation where children also have liberty to insult their parents. Reading religious and theological materials in this age of technology one must be strong hearted with open mind to welcome what he/she see or read. Minds could easily be reawakened or corrupted/polluted.