Thursday, April 16, 2009

leila ahmed's islam

Leila Ahmed is one of my favourite feminists and authors. I initially discovered her when I became interested in women and Islam, and decided that I wanted to do my MA on that topic. She's written one of the most definitive books on the subject called "Women and Gender in Islam". I borrowed her autobiography from a friend recently ("A Border Passage") and absolutely loved what she wrote on Islam (excerpts are in italics):

Now, after a lifetime of meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find that this Islam is one of the common varieties of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly pays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. Islam as a broad ethos and ethical code and as a way of understanding and reflecting on the meaning of one's life and of human life more generally.

I completely agree with seeing Islam as not only about the ritual and formal practice (praying, fasting etc) but also about the spirit and broad message, which most Muslims these days seem to be ignoring. If you're a judgmental, malicious person, will praying 5 times a day completely make up for that?

Ahmed goes on to distinguish between aural and oral Islam, and textual Islam, saying that textual Islam has been developed by a minority of men who over the centuries have come to wield enormous power. This type of Islam is men's Islam, according to her.

The Islam that developed in this textual heritage is very like the medieval Latinate textual heritage of Christianity. It is as abstruse and obscure and as dominated by medieval and exclusively male views of the world as are those Latin texts. Imagine believing that those medieval Christian texts represent today the only true and acceptable interpretation of Christianity. But that is exactly what the sheikhs and ayatollahs propound and this is where things stand now in much of the Muslim world: most of the classic Islamic texts that still determine Muslim law in out day date from medieval times.

Aurally what remains when you listen to the Qur'an over a life-time are its most recurring themes, ideas, words, and permeating spirit: mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, charity. And yet it is exactly those recurring themes and this permeating spirit that are for the most part left out of the medieval texts or smothered and buried under a welter of obscure "learning". One would scarcely believe, reading and hearing the laws these texts have yielded, particularly when it comes to women, that the words "justice", "fairness", "compassion", "truth" ever even occur in the Qur'an.

Again, this goes back to the point of the spirit of Islam, which tends to get ignored. The Qur'an is a very positive text, and yet centuries of male misinterpretation has left Islam with a very negative image. Personally, this negative image of Islam is what made me think twice about becoming an active Muslim. It was only when I read the Qur'an and some other texts that I realized how badly Islam has been projected by Muslims themselves.

Leila Ahmed goes on,

I am sure then, that my foremother's lack of respect for the authority of sheikhs was not coincidental. Generations of astute, thoughtful women, listening to the Qur'an, understood perfectly well its essential themes and its faith. And looking around them, they understood perfectly well, too, what a travesty man had made of it.

Women in Islam have, it can be said, even more rights than men. Why then do most sheikhs and Muslims in general treat (or at least see) women as second-class citizens? Why marriage laws that put the minimum age at 9? Why are outdated practices that need to be changed still widespread? Why are honour killings and female circumcision still attributed to Islam? We cannot deny that women in Muslim countries tend to have less rights than non-Muslim countries. However, this is not due to ISLAM. It is due to centuries of misinterpretation and centuries of misrule across the Arab and Islamic world.

To finish off, a quote from the lovely Rumi:

If a day won't come
when the monuments of institutionalized religion are in ruin
...then, my beloved,
then we are really in trouble.

9 comments:

Candice said...

I read this book, or at least part, some time ago. I was just starting to learn about Islam... I knew the basics and had some contact with Muslims to know a bit about them culturally, but it was before I lived in Egypt and in my beginnings reading about Islam... So I probably didn't understand then like I would if I read it now. I need to read it...

The feminist book I remember reading and enjoyng a lot was The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation Of Women's Rights In Islam by Fatima Mernissi. It made me realize there was more to Islam than what we normally see in the media, and what we see from scholars, too.

I'm starting to buy a few books here and there. Makes me want to buy these two books to add them to my tiny but growing library. My husband, a computer geek and major downloader, just wants me to read everything online, which I REFUSE to do. His attitude has influenced me though since I do most of my reading online. Not books, but articles. I am getting back to books though, it's a much better way. Articles here and there are fine, but to read only that does not give a complete view oftentimes.

Too much typing here now! Sorry for that!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

The longer the post the better :)

Fatima Mernissi is absolutely amazing! I haven't read that book yet but I've read "Beyond the Veil" and I loved it. It's funny you bring her up cause I just bought another of her books today "The Forgotten Queens of Islam".

I refuse to read books online too, it just feels weird. You should definitely read Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam if you're interested in the subject...it is really broad and informative.

Exquisitely Black said...

I also enjoy the study of religions, though I don't consider myself religious at all. And I LOVE a good book, so have more to add to my reading list.

When you said: If you're a judgmental, malicious person, will praying 5 times a day completely make up for that?

I also run into many that really believe going to church once a week or worse yet, once a year on Easter or so, will give them a magic pass into the afterlife and erase all the bad they do.

Dena said...

I'm not really sure where the idea that Islam was interpreted mainly by a minority of men and that their textual heritage is a misinterpretation of Islam came from....The problem in my opinion is that for the past 300 years the majority of Muslims have not been learning their religion (including extremists) and that's the main reason why people tend to mix certain cultural practices and attribute them to religion.

What people need to understand both Muslims and non-Muslims is that the interpretations or rather the work of the previous scholars is Ijtihad and it can either be right or wrong. At the end of the day it is only an opinion that people and other scholars have every right to either refute it, dispute it, argue against it, or accept it. That was how Muslims both scholars and lay-people considered Ijtihad and the works of those who are now being considered a minority of men who misinterpreted Islam.

Also to say that Ijtihad was only done by men is not true either...a lot of the most renowned Muslim scholars were students of women scholars...perhaps we should say that we have not been exposed properly to the contribution of women in Islam...and perhaps we should also say that cultural codes over the years have greatly limited the role of women and deprived women from many of their rights that Islam has granted them.

One last comment I have about laws in Muslim countries....there is not a single Muslim country now who's laws reflect the teachings of Islam not even Saudi, nor Iran, nor Afghanistan. Many Muslim countries have laws that were developed following old versions of the laws of a number of colonial countries...for example the majority of Egyptian laws were developed based on older versions of French laws!!!! Also, the majority of Muslim countries have secular laws even those that make a reference to Islamic shariah in the constitutions.

In the case of the few Muslim countries which claim that their laws comply completely with the shariah, I'm not really sure what shariah they're following especially when they give themselves the right to punish someone based on suspicion such as in the outrageous cases we hear about regarding rape and the so-called honor killings...if they are truly following shariah then they should have known that in order to punish any crime then you have to have absolutely compelling evidence and that all of the conditions for the punishment to take place must be fulfilled...for example...you cannot cut off the hand of someone who stole if the person is poor and had absolutely no other way to survive!!! But how many Muslims know that??? Not many...in fact Fahmi Howeidi who is an Islamic writer wrote once that he had met with a few Mullah's from Taliban in the early 90s and he was shocked when he discovered that they knew nothing about the rules and exceptions of hudood or punishments, the rights of women, and Islamic teachings overall!!

I know I digressed, but to sum up my thoughts....the problem is not as many Muslims now would like to think "the misinterpretation of Islam by a minority of men" as if these people didn't spend their whole lives learning and teaching and as if these people forced their opinions and work on the masses....rather the problem is ignorance. Muslims have become very ignorant about their own religion...and they are willing to take only one of two extremes either totally dismiss all the work that has been compiled in over 1400 years or blindly accepting everything on faith as if it is some sort of holy scripture.

Sorry for the long comment.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Hey thanks for the comment :) I completely agree with you: the main problem in Islam today is the ignorance of Muslims themselves. Shari'a is definitely not being applied correctly, especially in countries that claim to base their legal system on shari'a.

I think what Leila Ahmed is trying to say is not that these medieval interpretations by men are the only texts available, but rather that most Muslims do not put enough effort into diversifying their knowledge of Islam, and so these texts have become THE authoritative texts, even though, as you said, they are interpretations and could be right or wrong.
Over-relying on certain texts/scholars can easily lead to manipulation by political/religious leaders.

When you said: "perhaps we should say that we have not been exposed properly to the contribution of women in Islam...and perhaps we should also say that cultural codes over the years have greatly limited the role of women and deprived women from many of their rights that Islam has granted them."
This is exactly the problem I have re. women and Islam. Yes, the opinions of female scholars are out there, but are not as accessible as those of (certain) male scholars. And yes, the rights that Islam gave women have slowly been taken away due to the mixing of Arab culture with Islam and the blurring of the line between culture and religion.

Obviously the issue of why Islam has become such a patriarchal religion is complex, and I think Leila Ahmed's opinion is but one of the factors that contributes to the lack of rights many Muslim women suffer from due to "Islam".

Thanks for stopping by, your comment was very insightful and really made me think!

Aynur said...

You know, female circumcision is considered sunnah, obligatory, or forbidden amongst Muslims ...
Here is what I got from Wikipedia:
There are differences of opinion among Sunni scholars in regards to female genital cutting. These differences of opinion range from forbidden to obligatory. The debate focuses around a hadith from the Sunni collections. One narration states that "a woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. Muhammad said to her, 'Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.'"[58]Abu Dawood, who relates the narration in his collection, states the hadith is poor in authenticity. [59] Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani describes this hadith as poor in authenticity, and quotes Imam Ahmad Bayhaqi’s point of view that it is "poor, with a broken chain of transmission" [60] Zein al-Din al-Iraqi points out in his commentary on Al-Ghazali’s Ihya ulum al-din (I:148) that the mentioned hadith has a weak chain of transmission."[61] Yusuf ibn Abd-al-Barr comments: "Those who consider (female) circumcision a sunna, use as evidence this hadith of Abu al-Malih, which is based solely on the evidence of Hajjaj ibn Artaa, who cannot be admitted as an authority when he is the sole transmitter. The consensus of Muslim scholars shows that circumcision is for men".[62]

Imam Shams-ul-haq Azeemabadi asserts that, "[t]he Hadith of female circumcision has been reported through so many ways all of which are weak, blemished and defective, and thus it is unacceptable to prove a legal ruling through such ways."[61] While some scholars reject ahadith that refer to FGC on grounds of inauthenticity, other scholars argue that authenticity alone does not confer legitimacy. One of the sayings used to support FGC practices is the hadith (349) in Sahih Muslim: Aishah narrated an authentic Hadith that the Prophet said: "When a man sits between the four parts (arms and legs of his wife) and the two circumcised parts meet, then ghusl is obligatory." Dr. Muhammad Salim al-Awwa, Secretary General of the World Union of the Muslim Ulemas states that while the hadith is authentic, it is not evidence of legitimacy. He states that the Arabic for "the two circumcision organs" is a single word used to connote two forms; however the plural term for one of the forms is used to denote not two of the same form, but two different forms characterized as a singular of the more prominent form. For example, in Arabic, the word with the female gender can be chosen to make the dual form, such as in the expression "the two Marwas", referring to the two hills of As-Safa and Al-Marwa (not "two of the same hills, each called Al-Marwa") in Mecca.[63] He goes on to state that, while the female form is used to denote both male and female genitalia, it is identified with the prominent aspect of the two forms, which, in this case, is only the male circumcised organ. He further states that the connotation of circumcision is not transitive. Dr. al-Awwa concludes that the hadith is specious because "such an argument can be refuted by the fact that in Arabic language, two things or persons may be given one quality or name that belongs only to one of them for an effective cause." [61] [e.g. the usage in "Qur'an in Surah Al-Furqan(25):53", "bahrayn" is the dual form of "bahr" (sea) meaning "sea (salty and bitter) and river (sweet and thirst-allaying)", and not "two seas".]

So I think it depends which hadiths you believe.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Thanks a lot for that Aynur, very interesting post!
I had heard that the hadith linked to fgm was weak and so hadn't paid much attention to it, but I didn't know that a weak hadith could still be legitimate.

Re. fgm I'm so against it that I just can't believe something like that is sunna let alone obligatory. It has absolutely NO health benefits, unlike male circumcision, and many times it ends up hurting the woman.

Since 92% or more women are circumcised in Egypt it is a big issue and should be addressed from both a religious and social perspective. I think it's more of a cultural practice though, since round 80& of Christian Egyptian women are also circumcised, and also it is not practiced in most Arab countries, including Saudi.

Thanks again for posting.

Sarah Elizabeth said...

I am happy to have stumbled upon a fellow Muslim feminist.. :)

It is the Muslim feminist texts by Leila Ahmed, Fatema Mernissi, Asra Nomani, etc.. that made me feel there is a place for me in Islam.

I am thankful for strong women in Islam, they give me hope and also confidence in my opinions and life experiences..
I look forward to reading more from you.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah Elizabeth: I completely agree: it is these women that made me feel like I could be part of Islam.
Thanks for the comments, it's always great to find another Muslim feminist!