Feminism & Recalibrating Faith According to an Islamic Epistemic
26 October 2016
“Have you not noticed those who claim to believe in what was revealed to you and to those before you seeking to adopt the verdict of the false deity (taghut) even though they have been commanded to not believe it? And Satan seeks to lead them far astray.”
While the catastrophic events of 9/11/2001 have increased the general interest in Islam, in many ways they have been exceedingly traumatic for Muslims. Not only have countless numbers of lives been negatively affected by policies which collectively punish Muslims for the violent acts of individuals, many find it challenging to remain committed to Islam’s religious dictates in light of an incessant secular-liberal ideological onslaught.
This onslaught—or siege—is most challenging for many of the uneducated, especially since we live in a time when popularity yields authority. For this reason, many among the masses mistakenly believe that the truth and goodness of a person’s perspective can be easily determined by the number of their Facebook/Twitter followers or television appearances, an op-ed or NY Times best-seller, or whether or not they are given a platform at a media network or a major Muslim conference.
The ideological challenges of the time for Muslims originate from sectors that are atheistic, secular, liberal, Marxist, queer, nihilistic, and feministic in origin. Though the contentions of each group are disparate in ways—like different religious denominations, each entertains the presumption of possessing superior epistemological foundations for adjudicating sociopolitical and religio-cultural disputes. Despite the multiplicity of these perspectives, it is my aim in this post to focus merely on some of the difficulties posed by the feminist elements in the Muslim community.
Epistemology is the critical sub-branch of metaphysics whose concern is with studying the relation of thought to being. Put another way, epistemology or philosophical “criticism” concerns itself with scrutinizing the sources of truth claims.1 Sources are both objective and subjective. Objective criteria are like the five senses, for judgments made about the sensible world, while a subjective source of truth is like a passage from scripture that underscores a moral teaching.
Being a Muslim presumes that one accepts both the objective and subjective sources of the “true” and the “good” but that when faced with a clash between the two, the subjective form (i.e. scripture) settles the score. This is because faith demands a belief not only in what is material, but in the Creator of the material. In other words, while rationality is the foundation upon which all people are “expected” to operate, reason has its limits and cannot be trusted to provide “all” the answers to the mysteries of the universe. This, at least, is the perspective adopted by faithful adherents to traditions believed to be divinely revealed, like Islam.
What this means for Muslims is that the primary source of morality must be scripture (the Qur’an and the Sunnah), not rationality, secularism, liberalism or feminism. Whatever potential enlightenment may be gleaned from the latter must necessarily be steered by the directives of scripture, not popular morality or sentiment.
That scripture/divine criteria for judgment are to be placed over those which are secular is a principle well-established in the Qur’an. In numerous verses we observe the Qur’an’s emphasis on God’s sole right to make the rules and set boundaries; verses such as “Judgment is God’s alone” (Q 6:57), “And He does not give anyone a share in His judgment” (Q 18:26), or “Those who judge by other than what God has revealed are those rejecting faith” (Q 5:44). The Qur’an further addresses Prophet Muhammad ﷺ saying, “But, No! By God! They will not (truly) believe until they make you judge in whatever happens between them, and then find not in themselves any uneasiness about what you have judged and comply fully” (Q 4:65).
If God says He does not share judgment with anyone, it follows necessarily that seeking judgment from another or attempting to give a share of that right to other than God is to violate the obligation to uphold God’s unicity (tawhid). It entails the privileging of a false god or ‘Taghut’ i.e. an act of gross ingratitude. This is fundamentally what some liberal secular Muslims are guilty of when they call for casting aside Qur’anic injunctions and prescriptions for ideas and assumptions they have adopted from outside the Islamic tradition. The Qur’an says, “So, let those who act in opposition to his affair be on guard against being afflicted with a tribulation or a painful chastisement” (Q 24:63).
Challenges of Muslim Feminism
Feminism has many iterations. All forms, however, can be described as sharing the stated goal of liberating women from the “oppressive” and “controlling” pressures imposed by “patriarchy.” According to Muslim feminist Asma Barlas,
Patriarchy, broadly conceived, is based in an ideology that ascribes social/sexual inequalities to biology; that is, it confuses sexual/biological differences with gender dualisms/inequality (differences based on sex or biology with inequality based on gender dualisms).2
Feminists endeavor to erase the invisibility of women from the public sphere where patriarchy predominates, and to achieve equality of opportunity and “agency” to enjoy the benefits of living in a “free” society. In this sense, “agency” is different from “freedom” in that the latter can only be enjoyed absolutely when one possesses the former. Being free, that is, merely implies that one is a non-slave. But to be an “agent” suggests that all the avenues for human flourishing are open and available for one to pursue if s/he “chooses.” If a man has the opportunity or “agency” to become a land owner, CEO, statesman, or military commander, a woman should also have the same agency to do so. Unfortunately, women have not always had those opportunities in light of “patriarchal” stereotypes which have led them to be barred from such spheres of social interaction/influence.
Muslims who employ a feminist epistemic and hermeneutic have now set their sights on Muslim religious institutions which have historically been occupied by men, demanding to be given equal opportunity to “occupy” specific “offices” of “social influence” as well. They have particularly directed their gaze upon the ritual prayer, both the daily canonical prayers and others like the Friday sermon.3
Some Muslim feminists demand that women be allowed to lead the canonical prayers for mixed congregations (i.e. male & female attendees). Sometimes men and women are encouraged to stand alongside one another intermixed in the same ranks, while at other times the men and women are separated by a barrier in the room with each group praying parallel to one another in contravention of religious custom and the prescriptions of Islamic jurisprudence. On certain college campuses in the US even, feminists are placated by allowing for a woman to speak prior to the Friday sermon, which is according to Islamic jurisprudence to be led by a “qualified” male. This, as well as the allowance for openly homosexual males to perform the same functions, has led to outrage by many Muslims who declare their commitment to Islam’s historical teachings regarding the immutableness of the Islamic rituals and the obligation of preserving their outward forms. This, however, has not deterred the liberalizing forces in the community from pushing against the boundaries of acceptable practice as they insist that Islam pursues an egalitarian policy in all facets of social-religious interaction.
Perhaps, if they realized that they are suggesting that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the one who established the Islamic rituals in their current forms, was a misogynist by instructing men to lead women in communal prayers, they would be less inclined to demand such alterations which they errantly perceive to be “offices” of “power” and “status.” Could there not be wisdoms and goals other than “power”, “status”, or the desire to make women feel “inferior” involved with the Islamic “worship” service, like the aim of keeping one’s thoughts focused on God?
Male Fodder for Muslim Feminists
Muslim feminists, like their non-Muslim counterparts, see patriarchy as an “inherent” evil which has led to the historical marginalization of women worldwide. Muslim feminists, however, borrow their anti-patriarchal epistemic from non-Muslim feminists whose original grievances were directed against Christian patriarchy, especially that of the Catholic Church. The idea of ‘original sin’ and the ‘rib account’ which teaches that Eve was created from Adam’s rib—taken by many men as a sign of women’s relative insignificance and unequalness—is what has fueled much of the debate. In the view of Mary Daly,
In a real sense the projection of guilt upon woman is patriarchy’s Fall, the primordial lie. Together with its offspring—the theology of “original sin”—the myth reveals the “Fall” of religion into patriarchy’s prostitute.4
The universal and irrational belief that there is a “base element” in femaleness reflects “man’s underlying fear and dread of women” to which Karen Horney referred, pointing out that it is remarkable that so little attention is paid to this phenomenon. More and more evidence of this fear, dread, and loathing is being unearthed by feminist scholars every day, revealing a universal misogynism which, in all major cultures in recorded patriarchal history, has permeated the thought of seemingly “rational” and civilized “great men”—“saints,” philosophers, poets, doctors, scientists, statesmen, sociologists, revolutionaries, novelists.5
In other words, as Daly saw it, even Islam—or rather Muslim scholars—have not escaped the due guilt of patriarchy and teachings which reinforce female natural inferiority. Muslim feminists agree with Daly, but insist that the Qur’an is free of misogynistic teachings. Misogyny, rather, originates in the extra-Qur’anic sources, like hadith and exegeses. According to them, the hadith and exegetical material have been directly affected by Judeo-Christian teachings due to their appropriation by male Muslim scholars. Accordingly, Asma Barlas says,
…as numerous scholars have pointed out, inequality and discrimination derive not from the teachings of the Qur’an but from the secondary religious texts, the Tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) and the Ahadith (s. hadith) (narratives purportedly detailing the life and praxis of the Prophet Muhammad).6
Leila Ahmed says,
According to Islam, Muhammad was a prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Qur’an incorporated, in some form or other, many stories to be found in the Bible, those of the creation and fall among others. As a consequence, once Islam had conquered the adjacent territories, the assimilation of the scriptural and social traditions of thought occurred easily and seamlessly.7
For some, especially some Muslim men, allegations that normative Islam reinforced notions of female natural inferiority may appear outrageous at first. One, however, must contend with blatantly male chauvinistic declarations like that of the 12th century Andalusian scholar Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi (d. 1147) who said, “And the superiority of men over women is no secret to any intelligent person even were it only for the fact that the woman was created from the man. So he is her origin.”8 Even more damaging is the statement of the 20th century Mauritanian exegete, Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d. 1973) that “…masculinity is nobility and perfection, while femininity is a natural physiological imperfection.”9
Statements like these are rife in the exegetical literature, questioning the relative worth, social utility, and intelligence of women. That those views were ubiquitous prior to the rise of modern feminism and in many places still today corroborates this particular claim of feminists that men have reinforced female inferiority. In other words, the feminist reaction is not without provocation. Men today are challenged to assure women that these ideas are a thing of earlier times. It must be understood, however, that those ideas are mostly rooted in cultural assumptions resulting from female lack of agency, not necessarily from a mass conspiracy by men to encourage the inhumane treatment of women.
Can Feminism Be Reconciled with Islam?
While it does seem that the “rib account” plays a major role in the formation of the misogynist psycho-social complex, there still does not exist sufficient evidence to presume that such accounts were merely borrowed from the Christian tradition. What seems to drive the efforts to establish a necessary connection between Islamic patriarchy and historical Christianity is the idea that there is something inherent in patriarchy that requires of us to thwart its aims at every turn. As for the claim that patriarchy is foreign to the Qur’an, this is an even harder point to prove if this claim includes a rejection of familial patriarchy. This is because the Qur’an is clear when it declares that “Men are the caretakers of women” (Q 4:34). As for this declaration and the other that “Men have a degree over them” (Q 2:228),both should be read in the context of the family; not as a reference to every public and private office in society, nor to individual moral superiority. In other words, men are expected to oversee the family, secure it, and to maintain it. They are to protect women from the sinister intents of other men. As far as utilizing these verses as evidence that women have no place in the public sector regardless of the occupation, this is a view that requires one to make a broader stretch of the imagination.
Islam has been accused of many things. The most significant of them is that it oppresses women. In this age it is proving to be difficult, if not insufficient, to highlight the fact that Islam gave women inheritance rights (Q 4:11-13), self-ownership (Q 4:19), and many other social protections that they did not enjoy prior to the advent of Prophet Muhammad.10Many feminists decry what they perceive to be an unfair distribution of inheritance between men and women, an imbalance in the power relations between husband and wife, and a “dangerous” reinforcement of hierarchy in “normative” Islam. Men, however, do not generally object to the financial burdens placed upon them by the Qur’an, like the obligatory dower payment (Q 4:4), regular maintenance during the marriage (Q 2:233) and during the waiting period of a divorce (Q 65:6-7), severance pay (Q 2:236, 2:241), providing for children during and after separation with the mother (Q 2:233), payment of half the determined dower if the husband divorces prior to consummation (Q 2:237), or the obligation to pay the end of Ramadan alms payment on the behalf of one’s wife and children (zakat al-fitr). Islamic jurisprudence in all the schools have given divorced mothers and other women priority in the custody of children, not men, to the point that women other than the mother generally get the right to custody before the children’s biological fathers.11
The two primary assumptions of feminists appropriated by Muslim feminists, male and female, are that: 1) patriarchy is “inherently” evil; and 2) that Islam aims to establish an egalitarian society. These two assumptions are belied by the very fact that the Qur’an reinforces hierarchy in marriage, primarily, and the family, more generally. How can patriarchy be evil in every form if God establishes it as a rule in marriage? How can social hierarchy be the catalyst for injustice if God endorses both spiritual hierarchies (prophets over non-prophets) and social hierarchies (governors over the governed, parents over children)?
Perhaps, the advice of the late Mufti of Fez, Muhammad al-Ta’wil (d. 2015) is of use, who says after explaining why God made men caretakers of women rather than the opposite,
So, why does the woman complain about it and accuse Islam of an inherent bias towards the man against her? If such displeases her and she does not want anyone to control her or impose obedience to him on her, then she should never get married. For that is her right. And, no one can compel her to do so.12
The main assumptions of feminism, that patriarchy is inherently evil and that an egalitarian order will resolve inequality, are irreconcilable with the teachings of the Qur’an. Islam, as a pre-modern tradition and revealed religion, in accordance with the old order reinforces hierarchy and finds nothing problematic about it. Regardless of how one interprets or reinterprets the Qur’anic portrayal of the relationship between husband and wife, feminists and others still have to contend with the fact that the Qur’an is a deeply gendered text that bifurcates society and the world into a male-female binary. If belief in the Qur’an makes it hard or impossible to transcend or erase that difference, one is stuck trying to find the proper relationship between the genders. Either men and women are totally equal (which creates inequalities because it ignores physical differences) or they are treated differently, in which case we retain patriarchy of some degree or another. Notwithstanding that a few societies have been matrilineal, practically all human societies are patriarchies.13
Feminism, on the other hand, calls for women to rebel against social hierarchy in general and patriarchy in particular. This problematizes the relationship between husband and wife according to the Qur’anic teachings. Should a Muslim wife believe that the Qur’anic duty of obedience is an injunction revealed by the All-Wise Creator? Or should she simply say ‘no’ to the text because it encourages something that runs contrary to feminist principles? According to Jonathan A.C. Brown,
The move to assuming that scripture contains the truth but need only be understood properly to saying ‘no’ to scripture because it says something unacceptable or impossible is a blow that shatters the vessel of scriptural reverence. It means that some extra-scriptural source of truth has been openly acknowledged as more powerful and compelling than the words of God in scripture.14
In other words, the very impulse to question the authenticity of the divine origin of the Qur’anic injunction is a direct affront to the divine wisdom that Muslim feminists claim to believe in. Brown continues,
Certainly, a scriptural tradition still has its uses even for those who have moved on to believe that truth comes from secular sources. It can be drawn on and quoted to move an audience or bolster ideas rooted elsewhere. But sooner or later, it will clash with secular truths and become a burden. In such cases the scriptural tradition can be reread and picked from selectively to reconcile it with the recognized sources of truth. But it must be substantially reconfigured, as the Qur’an Only movement has done with Islam’s scriptures, or else at some point one must say ‘no’ to the text.15
These points are highlighted merely to argue that both the commitment to feminist principles and the commitment to scripture are fundamentally an unachievable attempt to remain rooted in infidelity and faith. Faith to one epistemic will inevitably lead to infidelity to the other. And only one of those aims is achievable. One will need to be chosen at the expense of the other.
This is while acknowledging that the feminist onslaught and over/reaction is not without provocation when reflecting upon ideas promoted by a number of mainstream exegetes. One must, however, realize that when s/he chooses to say ‘no’ to scripture, one is undermining God’s sole right to determine what is moral and just, and is transferring that right to a false god (taghut), be it called feminism, liberalism, atheism, secularism, or another ‘ism.’ While one may object to a troubling interpretation, faith demands trust that revealed scripture possesses some wisdom even if we fail to grasp it. This, of course, is not meant to deny the legitimate grievances of women, be they feminists or not. Women’s rights should definitively remain a major concern of Muslims as it is with others. But, to challenge the feminist epistemic should not be seen as a direct challenge to the legitimate pursuit of women’s rights and social empowerment. It must, however, be acknowledged that when feminist epistemology is granted authority over all that is “Islamic”, Islam is reduced to a place of secondary importance thereby undermining any claims to the “Islamic-ness” of our pursuits.
“The one who rejects faith in the false god and puts faith in God has taken hold of the firmest grip which does not break. And God is hearing, knowing.”
1. Jacques Maritain. An Introduction to Philosophy (E.I. Watkin Translation), Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pp. 126-127.
2. Asma Barlas. Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002, p. 12.
3. Interestingly, Islam does not obligate a woman to attend the Friday prayer. It is considered only compulsory for men who are able to make it. In Islamic jurisprudence if the Friday prayer (jumah) is attended by women, it exempts them from having to pray the normal canonical prayer prescribed at that time (zuhr), just as it is the case for men. On the other hand, jurists differ over whether or not prayer performed behind one upon whom it is not compulsory, like a woman, a severely ill person, or traveler, is considered valid. For those who consider it valid, the Friday prayer fulfills the requirements for making the four-unit canonical prayer usually scheduled at that time no longer compulsory to pray. The significance of this is that the assumption that the Friday sermon and prayer are signs of patriarchy and status is invalid, since “maleness” is not the single factor involved in determining the obligation and/or validity of the Friday service.
4. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985 edition, p. 47.
5. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985 edition, p. 92.
6. Asma Barlas. Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002, p. 3.
7. Leila Ahmed. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992, p. 4.
8. Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi. Ahkam al-Qur’an. 1/256. Mecca: Maktaba Dar al-Baz, 1996.
9. Muhammad al-Amin Al-Shinqiti. Adwa al-Bayan fi Idah al-Qur’an bi al-Qur’an. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi.
10. Other examples of this are the restriction of the number of divorces to three (Q 2:228), setting the maximum number of wives to four (Q 4:3), equal sharing of time and wealth with cowives (Q 4:3), and the obligation of restoring the wife’s intimacy rights if four months have elapsed since the husband made an oath of non-intimacy (Q 2:227). None of these were rights for women under the pre-Islamic order.
11. This does not mean, of course, that the courts do not have the right to grant custody to the father immediately after divorce.
12. Muhammad al-Ta’wil. La Dhukuriya fi al-Fiqh, Fez: Imp. Info Print, 2010, p. 85.
13. Men are the caretakers of women, according to the Qur’an, and have been given a distinct advantage in the matter of dissolving the family. A wife is expected to obey her husband, while the Qur’an places no demand on the husband to obey his wife beyond fulfilling his side of the marriage agreement of physically protecting and financially maintaining his wife and children.
14. Jonathan A.C. Brown. Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, London: Oneworld Publications, 2014, p. 288.
15. Jonathan A.C. Brown. Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, London: Oneworld Publications, 2014, p. 289.
(Originally posted at almadina.org)