Is Islam opposed to women's rights? Why is Islam stereotyped as inherently and irredeemably hostile to women? Have generations of scholars and rulers manipulated the Sacred texts to preserve male power, as the Moroccan sociologist Fatimah Mernissi argues? How do we square such feminist views with those of Muslim women who voluntarily wear the veil, live in purdah and insist that Islam, alone of the three monotheistic religions, preaches true equality between man and woman? Are they brainwashed? Or simply misinformed? How can so many Muslims hold such contradictory interpretations of the same Book?

(a) Women in pre-Islamic Arabia:

At the root of the problem is widespread ignorance about the historical and geographical contexts in which the Qur=an was revealed to Mohammad. This is not the Middle East of Before Christ, of Greek Gods and mythological figures, such as Abraham, but of a bustling region six hundred years after Jesus Christ, a hundred years after St. Augustine had pronounced women to be inferior beings, the source of temptation and evil, while Tertullian had blamed women for the Fall from Paradise, and declared them enemies of the Divine Law.

Conventional Muslim wisdom today designates everything and everywhere, before the Qur=an was revealed to Mohammad, as Jahiliyya - The Age of Ignorance. And then totally ignores it. But a refusal to examine pre-Islamic history prevents Muslims themselves from a proper evaluation and understanding of both the message of the Qur=an and the context into which it was revealed. Apparent contradictions unravel when one examines sixth-century Arabia and the entire eastern Mediterranean basin. The denial of a pre-Islamic Past also contributes to the incorrect idea that Islam is essentially different and distinct from Judaism and Christianity. In truth, all three religions spring from the same culture. All three are closely related as to be members of one family.

Conventional wisdom shared by almost all Muslims assumes that the Arabian peninsula in the late sixth century was backward in its attitudes towards, and treatment of, women; that Greek, Jewish, Christian and Iranian cultures to the North were far more evolved and, in a word, more modern. Muslims today are still convinced that Mohammad's endorsement of polygamy was a great step forward, that Islam was in every respect a vast improvement on what had happened before in the Arabian peninsula.

Modern scholarship suggests exactly the opposite may be the case. The older the culture the more egalitarian, or less patrilineal it was! Most early belief systems worshiped female gods. From around 1000 BC, however, male gods begin to supplant the worship of the Goddess. Ancient Greece is celebrated today for its emphasis on individual freedoms. But women in Ancient Greece were often treated as little better than slaves or sex objects. Indeed, the Mediterranean world was generally moving towards a more patriarchal culture at precisely the moment when God revealed his message to Mohammad outside Mecca.

Ironically, some vestiges of a more egalitarian culture remained in Arabia precisely because it was a backwater. Matrilineal marriage, for example, was still practiced. Women enjoyed some degree of sexual freedom (they could initiate divorce and remarry without male consent) and limited rights to participate in political life. Jahiliyya women were therefore not necessarily slaves of burden, little better than cattle or camels. But this is how they are depicted in Islamic mythology.

The life of Mohammad's first wife Khadija, for example, flatly contradicts Muslim descriptions of the Jahaliyya period as one of Darkness. Khadija was a widow. But she retained ownership of her business. She remarried, choosing her husband without an intermediary. Nor did she seek permission from any male member of her family. She also insisted that her marriage with Mohammad be monogamous. Khadija was the first convert to Islam, the one person to whom the Prophet always returned for advice and comfort. In short, Khadiha was very much a woman of the Jahiliyya.

Contrast this with A'isha, perhaps the most famous of all of Muhammad's later wives. A'isha was married off to Mohammad as a small child. She had no say in the matter. She was probably Mohammad's favorite, but only one among eight other wives. Although A'isha remained headstrong, outspoken, a sexually active wife, her wit and wisdom prized and enjoyed by her husband, an intellect respected throughout her long life, she was to all intents and purposes marginalized and muzzled after Muhammad's death. In other words, A'isha is the exception to the rule, just a couple of generations later.

For seventh century Arabia is on the cusp of a basic societal shift, from matrilineal to patrilineal culture, pointing backwards to a more egalitarian past, and forward to a more restrictive future. During the Prophet's own lifetime, men and women worship together in the mosque. Women take part as equals in all debates. And if purdah is introduced it is simply to protect the privacy of the Prophet's bedroom from the prurient gaze of male guests who stayed too long after dinner (Sura 33.54). Women imams also led the prayers for their households. Women fought on the battlefield and were entitled to own property in their name.

But all this deteriorated within the space of one or two generations of the Prophet's death in 632 C.E. As Islam spread and came into contact with well-established, patriarchal cultures to its North - Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism - it assumed many of their values and assumptions. A small example: the Qur=an says absolutely nothing about the Creation. There are no Adam and Eve, no rib, no apple and no serpent, no Original Sin and no Fall from Paradise. The Qur=an is simply silent about such matters. Yet, within a hundred years of Mohammad's death, Islamic literature had made its own the Christian theory that Eve was created from Adam's rib.

A better-known example is the Veil. The Qur=an clearly and unequivocally recommends veiling only for the wives of the Prophet, as a precaution against lewd attacks in the streets of Mecca and Medina. (Sura 33.54) The Qur=an also enjoins both men and women not to display their bodies shamelessly. Nothing more, nothing less. (Sura 24: 31-32) But the practice of veiling and purdah were already common means of segregating the sexes throughout the Mediterranean, Persian and South Asian worlds, although amongst upper-class women the veil is still adopted as a mark of status.

Women were relegated out of public life and back into the seclusion of the home. Marriages were arranged by men. Women lost most of their rights to divorce or to remarry. Their testimony and their worth were literally devalued.

How could this have come about so quickly? How can these practices be reconciled with the original message of the Qur=an?  

  b) The Ambiguities of the Qur=an and Gender Equality:

Recent scholarship suggests this segregation occurred because there is a basic ambiguity towards women's equality within the Qur=an itself. The Qur=an contains contradictory messages; two visions - the one egalitarian, the other more patriarchal, indicative of the temper of the times. In their textual exegesis, Muslim scholars often fail to acknowledge the existence of these two contradictory traditions. This makes it difficult to resolve the inherent tensions contained within the Qur=an.

On the one hand, the Qur=an does clearly and unequivocally state that men and women are equal. (NB: Sura 33.35) Both sexes also have identical virtues and obligations. Their labor also has equal value. (Sura 3:195). Interestingly, and unlike Aristotle, who regarded male sperm as inherently superior to the female egg, (because the sperm is held to contain the soul of the unborn fetus), the Qur=an treats sperm and ovum as equal partners in conception, advises the man to try and give sexual satisfaction to his wife, implicitly endorses birth control and uncouples sex from procreation. This unmistakable affirmation of equality explains why Muslim women insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam does not discriminate against women. For millions of Muslim women the Qur=an contains a message very different from that heard by male Muslims.

Against this is ranged the overwhelming evidence of fourteen hundred years of Islamic History. Within a century Muslim society is noticeably more patriarchal. By the eleventh century, the noted Sufi mystic and scholar Al-Ghazali could declare, without fear of contradiction, that women are indeed intellectually inferior to men. This idea is still widely-believed by many Muslims.

Maybe Arabian Islam could not have swum against the rising tide of patriarchy. But it is possible it might have been delayed or softened if the Qur=an had been clear and unequivocal in its statements about gender equality. But it is not.

In spite of its flowery language, the Qur=an is also a very practical document, an attempt to offer solutions to very immediate problems. For instance, Mohammad is faced with near-revolt from his troops because he orders them, at the urging of his wives, not to seize women as booty during the Hunayn conflict at Ta'if. This so angers his generals and their troops that there is talk of mutiny against the Prophet. Treating women as human beings, not as chattel, is fine in the abstract. But in the real world of warfare, booty is one of the few ways by which men become rich. What to do?

God helps Mohammad out of his immediate dilemma by siding with the men, who will continue to receive the major share of war booty, including women as slaves. Mohammad, in other words, has to beat a tactical retreat. The Qur=an, is simply not consistent in its message.

Another ayat (Sura 4: 34) states that men are in charge of women, that they are better than women, partly because it is they who earn to support women. This same verse also permits husbands to throw rebellious wives out of the marriage bed and beat them, if necessary. How can we reconcile this with the equality that God proclaims elsewhere in the Qur=an?

One possible answer is that we cannot! Mohammad himself admits that he wanted one thing, but God decided another. (Sura 4.34) Mohammad hated physical violence, but he went along, reluctantly. No attempt is made to spell out what constitutes rebellion, although some feminist interpreters suggest it may refer to a woman's refusal to have sex. In short, there are tensions and contradictions within the Qur=an that no amount of special pleading can reconcile. If Mohammad had lived longer, if he were to be reborn today, he might have summoned up the energy to defy his critics within the Medinan community, and seek a further revelation to end the contradiction. But he did not, hence the source of confusion.

The Qur=an also sanctions polygamy, albeit with conditions, again contradicting its other, egalitarian message. Polygamy was not widespread in Jahiliyya Arabia. When Muslims swear that Mohammad humanized and put limits on an already widespread practice, they are in fact talking about customs already common outside the Arabian peninsula, not the then-practice in Mecca or Medina. A partial explanation may also have been the need to demonize Jahiliyya Arabia as an Age of Darkness, the better to justify the practice.

 (c) The Hadith: Confusion and Distortion:

Muslims often confuse Hadith (what the Prophet did or said) with the Qur=an. But Hadith were not written down until well over a century after Mohammad's death. And, in spite of the precautions taken by Al-Bukhari or al-'Asqalani, many Hadith become part of Muslim folklore, and have been invested with meaning and consequence totally absent from the context in which they may or may not have occurred. Human memory is imperfect at best. And yet nobody dares question the plausibility of some of the Companions remembering verbatim the exact words spoken by Mohammad years after the event. Or that those same words, especially when concerning such a hot topic as sexual equality, can be passed down over a further four or five generations, without a single deviation of stress, punctuation or grammar, somehow exempt from all bias, conscious or unconscious, in the selection, omission and interpretation of such texts! This is surely to endow human beings with supra-human qualities?

In The Veil and the Male Elite, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi was nonplused and angered when a schoolteacher in Rabat puts her down, quoting a Hadith to the effect that Mohammad said AThose who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity@. Like so many Muslims, Mernissi realized she did not know the texts well enough to be able to refute the schoolteacher then and there. She decided to return to the original texts to find out why and in what context Mohammad could have said such a thing. And in the process discovered how Muslim historians had selectively written women out of early Islamic history.

Mernissi found the Hadith in Al-Bukhari's collection Al-Salih (The Authentic), collected three hundred years after Mohammad's death. She next consulted al-Asqalani's Fath al-bari, a complete analysis of each Hadith, how it was passed down, who corroborated the saying and their reliability. This particular Hadith was in fact attributed to Abu Bakra, an ex-slave and Companion, who claims to have heard Mohammad utter these words when Mohammad was informed that the rival Sassanids had chosen a woman to lead them in battle against the Muslims.

Abu-Bakra conveniently remembered this quotation twenty five years after the event, just after the Battle of the Camel, in which A'isha commanded an army in battle against the fourth caliph Ali, her own brother-in-law, whom she felt was betraying the Muslim cause. Abu Bakra was a trimmer. After A'isha's defeat he could have been executed, dismissed, banished by the victor, because he had not come out against A'isha and for Ali. Abu Bakra told Ali that he had reminded A'isha of this Hadith of her late husband, to warn her to surrender before the decisive battle.

Abu Bakra's opportunistic memory should have been further discounted because he had once been flogged for bearing false witness in an adultery case. This should have been sufficient reason twice-over for Al-Bukhari to have rejected Abu Bakra as a reliable source. So how and why did this Hadith, and other examples cited by Mernissi, become accepted as authentic, and therefore binding on women?

Mernissi and others argue that Islam came of age and was written down for future generations at a most unfortunate time, when matrilineal society was being replaced throughout the entire Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean worlds by patriarchal values and institutions. These scholars argue that the compilers of texts, whether consciously or unconsciously, selected texts that made sense for the times they lived in, that reflected prevailing cultural values. And in this way, much of the egalitarian ethos inherent in the Qur=an was downplayed or subordinated to partial and partisan Hadith. If history belongs to the victors, then much of Islamic history belongs to men, to the obvious detriment of women.

And the rapid geographic spread of Islam on the back of military conquest also turns out to be double-edged. Islam conquers, but it also absorbs, and is thereby transformed. The message of the Qur=an, often elliptical and allegorical, is heard and interpreted one way in Arabia, but in a much more restrictive way in Mesopotamia or Persia, more conservative societies. Islamic armies rely on local administrators to implement their rule and ideas. The genius of Islam - why it spreads so rapidly - is precisely because of its plasticity, its ability to adapt and take on the color and temperament of local cultures. Such a supple, accommodating faith literally sweeps North Africa and south Asia like proverbial wildfire.

But accommodation is a two-way process. Many of these new Islamic societies are a lot less egalitarian in their attitudes towards women. It is no accident that many of the restrictive institutions and attitudes we in the West now popularly associate with Islam - concubines and harems, purdah and Mut'ah (temporary marriage, permitted in Shi'a and Persian culture) - come from cultures outside Arabia. Arab attitudes, in turn, became more restrictive as Arab Muslims began to adopt customs from recently-conquered and converted Muslims.

Doubts and disagreements, which existed under Abu Bakr and Uthman, two of the first Four Caliphs, are glossed over and eventually forgotten. Similarly, important differences within the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence or Shari=ah - regarding the right of a woman to initiate divorce, remarry or force a husband to sign a marriage contract forbidding polygamy - are progressively downplayed to the point where few if any Muslims are probably still aware that they existed.

Egalitarianism, dissent, a general acceptance that the Qur=an only sets down principles - should not be taken literally. Indeed, they can and should be interpreted by each successive generation to fit circumstance and culture. But they often seem to have been progressively forgotten in favor of a traditional, androcentric Islam, based as much on self-interest as on myth, and on a partial and biased reading of what, nevertheless, remains potentially a radical document and tradition, precisely because of its egalitarian ethos.

The same process of restrictive interpretation, of intellectual sclerosis, is sadly evident in much of the current debate about modernity, based once again on both a partial and partisan understanding of Islam's intellectual history, and a denial of much of its own past.

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