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The Celebrant and the Scholar

Over the past month, I've been slowly digesting Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam and Fatima Mernissi's The Veil and the Male Elite (the latter a birthday present from the husband). Of the two, I vastly prefer Women and Gender in Islam, which I think may well be one of the most important books I have ever read. The historical roots of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs have fascinated me since I was a pre-teen, particularly with regards to Muslim women's history and the evolution of Muslim thought towards women. I am glad I read this book first, before Fatima Mernissi's book, as it helped put a wider context on the subjects the latter author covers. It is important for me to have read both books though, as they address the same grounds (Muslim women's history), and mostly the same goals (putting Muslim women's history in context), but in spheres that are different enough to provide the broadest possible idea of how women's rights evolved under Islam.

Fatima Mernissi approaches Muslim women's rights as a celebrant, a proud Muslim woman who has reached back into the roots of her religion and discovers a glorious past women today have largely forgotten. Her sources are entirely early Islamic historians, as her scope is to look at Muslim's women's rights from within the religion, following its evolution with a focus on the first Muslim community and the characters whose decisions helped form some of the most oppressive treatises against Muslim women today. She has a fiery, passionate tone, one that is equally engaging as it is sometimes off-putting. Her scholarship is one of intense scrutiny and great study of the traditions that make up the majority of Muslim history. It is a fascinating look at what Islam has to say about women from Islamic sources, and strong criticism of at least the way some hadiths were compiled, as well as the organisation of the Quran.

Leila Ahmed looks at Muslim women's historical rights as a scholar. Her manner is detached but approachable, making for an easy read. She turns to both Arab Islamic sources as well as a vast plethora of non-Muslim historical texts on Islam and the cultures that informed it. Ahmed begins with the premise that history is a wider patchwork of interconnected threads between cultures, and that these cultures evolve together, borrowing and neglecting aspects of themselves as new challenges appear. Islam is viewed as part of a larger thread of patriachal religions from which it has borrowed to justify itself and in the process, flesh out its ethical message -- though not always successfully. She focuses less on the influence of early Companions of the Prophet, as Mernissi does, and more on Islamic scholars as persons influencing a fledgling religion during the Abbasid period, as this was the time in which many Islamic laws were solidified. She also brings into question the veracity of the Quranic compilation process, hadith scholarship and indeed, Syariah law as we know it by carefully detailing the pedantic traditions and historical politics that fed these subjects.

Both books are critical of the unquestioning and uncompromising face of Islamic scholarship today. Both books acknowledge that one of the larger problems faced by Muslim laypeople in fighting for their rights, women or otherwise, is that:

a) Muslim scholarship, ie. laws and philosophical discourses, are mired in incredibly lengthy and tedious traditional histories, of whose knowledge is almost entirely monopolised by a closed religious male elite
b) The very deep divide between Islamic intellectuals and the man on the street mean that the former often have the entire ability to decide Islamic laws (and what is Islamic) without input from normal practising Muslims, and the latter often willingly foregoes a right to debate the laws running his/her life on the grounds that because a law is Islamic, it has been decreed by God.
c) The above happens, with the assumption that Islamic laws are God's laws, even though historical context tends to show that they are not. Furthermore, according to Islamic tradition, these laws should be up for public debate. Instead, many Islamic administrations are more than happy to ignore public opinion as the way things are done.
d) Islamic laws have, for their entire history since Muhammad's time, been for the good of political need rather than ethical concerns, even if the underlying philosophies were based on an ethical spirit.

In this review, I'll be dividing my thoughts by general subjects covered in both books, both as a means of making this review organised for myself and for readers (what few I expect won't have eyes glazed over at this point).

The Jahiliyah (State of Ignorance)

Many Muslims begin their exploration of Muslim women's rights with the assumption that Islam uplifted women's status. Muslim history stresses that before the coming of Islam, during the period referred to as the Jahiliyah (State of Ignorance), women were little more than chattels and property, to be traded by men, used for breeding and that the position of women was largely insecure, as men freely married, divorced and kept large harems at male will. Women of the Jahiliyah were regarded as the mental equivalents of children, unable to care for themselves in any legal, financial or spiritual context. Islam brought the reverence of women as wives and mothers. It gave women the right to inherit, the right to divorce and spiritual equality on par with men.

Ahmed begins her entire book by questioning the truth of the Jahiliyah. Were women's rights during this period really as Islamic history says? She builds a convincing argument that the Jahiliyah is an oversimplification largely for religious convenience. Piecing together a virtually lost history of early Arab women and what their culture might have been from the scant direct research available, and by exploring the relatively better-documented cultures around Mecca and Arabia, we are given a colourful and familiar pattern of the Mesopotamian, Greek and Egyptian cultures in relation to misogyny. She points to early Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews for many of the symbols of women's secondary role in society today -- veiling, seclusion, polygamy and denial of access to divorce. Fascinatingly, the Egyptians were unusually emancipated for their era, definitely more emancipated than Islam ever was in its first society or today. Early Arab culture was neither misogynistic nor otherwise, but a complex network of different traditions. Influenced by its rich tapestry of neighbouring cultures, there were matriachal tribes as there were patriachal tribes. Polygyny existed, as did polyandry. Women traded, though often through men, and debated laws and tribal matters openly. Certain tribes, including Muhammad's mother's, may have retained their women after marriage, with the mother raising any children from a union in her tribe as the father visited only periodically. There was no one true "state" of being, and thus, to her the Jahiliyah and Islam's patriachal social model are more about the religion's needs to validate itself in the eyes of its believers and neighbours. As Islam claimed to be a continuation of the Judeo-Christian line, it was important for it to adopt Judeo-Christian customs to maintain its acceptibility with those societies, even if those customs were misogynistic (and went against local Arab customs of that period). By co-opting more of the cultures the first Islamic society came to conquer, it gained credibility with the local population, and in order to give credence to its adaptation of local custom, Islamic lawmakers and historians carefully built the idea that it was the liberator, that anything that came before it was conversely, the oppressor.

Mernissi, as a celebrant of her religion, approaches the Jahiliyah and the subsequent uplifting of women's status as a wholesale truth. She does mention that historical context suggests early Arabs were varied in their opinions on women, that the status of marriage, for example, was an open affair, with some going for marriage as we know it today, and others various states of polyandry and polygyny, but she judges the women on the former point, going with the opinion that the women who likely kept manifold husbands were probably prostitutes. She sees, in fact carefully dissects, how the varied views on women among different tribes around Muhammad and the cultures of his foreign believers came to influence Islamic jurisprudence on women, as the misogynists gained ground during Islam's warring periods, but assumes that this speaks of their ignorance (from the time of ignorance), that the Islamic message is inherrently fair and just because it is God's word. She phrases some of Muhammad's more misogynistic revelations in historical contexts that highlight Muhammad as a sympathetic figure, essentially emancipated in his view of women, but surrounded by men he needed to court for influence who were far less open on the subject than he. For example, when seclusion is first revealed, she buys into the idea that it was for women's own good, as the period the revelation appeared was one of great insecurity. She paints a Muhammad who agrees to seclusion only after much haranguing from the men around him, men who seek to push down women and keep them quiet, men who were threatened that Islam gave women a voice and inheritance rights. Muhammad instituted seclusion to protect women from being harassed by these same men, ironically, by putting them under even more of their strict control.

The way Mernissi bypasses the same cultural hints Ahmed does not to pursue further the roots of Islamic religious traditions is frustrating, more so because she does an excellent job bringing Muhammad's Companions (the men keen to push down women) to life through lucid studies on their cultural roots, and how it influenced the way they shaped public opinion about Islamic laws. She contradicts herself by showing us Companions (living at the same time as Muhammad) with inferiority complexes about women, because they were raised in cultures where women had power and men did not, and then reinforcing that before Islam, all women were oppressed. She talks about Khadija, the first of Muhammad's wives and the one he married before he became a prophet, who was wealthy, learned and an influential aristocrat, but in the way that contemporary mainstream Islamic scholars do, she cites her almost as an anomaly -- a unique situation due to her social class, not as a possible gateway into a history of early Arab women who may not have been as homogenous as the pro-Jahiliyah scholars suggest.

Incidentally, this last point is one that both books freely acknowledges, that women's rights in early societies were directly related to their individual positions within that society. Aristocratic and wealthy women had better access to pre-marital contracts, education and investment opportunities, while the poor did not. Mernissi uses this as a platform to establish that Islam brought equality for all women, rich and poor, where only the rich might have prospered before. Ahmed again sees this as part of the larger social view, that throughout history, wealthier women will always have better access to their rights over the poor, but the key to helping all classes of women is to make knowledge of these rights available to all. To be fair, Mernissi actually does come to the same conclusion, for she starts her book with the premise that modern Muslim women simply do not question their rights under Islam enough, and the majority of her work is part of a journey of self-discovery on how best to deflect arguments that women are inferior to men in Islam. But she sees one instance in history and does not really make an effort to link it to a larger, evolving thread. This, ultimately, stymied my ability to connect to her message, as I kept feeling, over and over again, her strongly feminist read on Muslim history was less about trying to pick out patterns for understanding that would lead to future change, and more about a kick to the balls.

Muhammad, the Personality

Even the most comprehensive study of the cultural influences behind Islam's attitudes towards women cannot avoid turning the lens towards the man on whom many of these attitudes are based. Women and Gender in Islam quietly observes Muhammad as a man, that is, a religious and administrative leader whose following was first cobbled together from a ragtag band of aristocrats, slaves and relatives, and grew to an army many thousands strong. It pays particular attention to Muhammad's relation to women and his growing harem, unusually large for his time and culture. Although large harems were not unusual to the cultures surrounding Arabia, the bloated harems we are most likely to associate with Islam today were only really beginning to take shape by the reign of the fourth and fifth Caliphs. In this book, Muhammad's priority was establishing patriachal structure to increase the credibility of his fledgling religion as the natural successor to Judaism and Christianity, and to appeal to believers from foreign, relatively oppressive cultures beyond Medina and Mecca's borders. At first, he instituted change cautiously, with respect to the free women who formed a significant part of his followers, who were used to pre-Islamic norms of being seen and heard, and depending on their individual tribal cultures, likely to be social leaders themselves. This included his wives, who, for better or worse, were leaders in his new religion, and openly preached and responded to queries from strangers on all manner of faith-related matters.

By the end of his life, at the pinnacle of Islam's conquest of Mecca, he had instituted seclusion and veiling for his wives and polygamy as an option for all Muslim men, if they so wished. His harem was at least 9 women strong, including concubines. Concubinage itself was brought over from prevailing customs into Islam as a means of ensuring female victims of war were accounted for (slavery in general enabled the distribution of people from both sexes as loot from war). Islamic history would go on to enforce the idea that marrying widows (particularly in this context, war widows from the Islamic conquests of Mecca and its surrounds) was a means of ensuring the safety of women and their children in the longterm. Nonetheless, concubinage instead maintained its status as a means of acquiring loot and as a measure of wealth through the same laws allowing polygamy and slavery. Ahmed makes fascinating points on how, by the Abbasid era, concubines may well have been preferred over wives, as wives were subject to negotiations between families and contracts that may prevent men from practising polygamy entirely, but concubines, being essentially slave women, were a cheap source of female companionship without most of the attachments due a proper marriage.

Muhammad's own marriages are portrayed as a mix of personal choice and the furthering of political ties. He did not, at least personally, appear to mistreat women, and did not condone the mistreatment of women in general. However, as a mortal man, he was subject to revelations of passion that seemed overly convenient where they matched his personal interests and those of patriachal religion. Ahmed notes that seclusion and veiling seem like such major changes for Muhammad's wives, but the historical record is eerily silent on any views they may have had on this matter, even though they were usually quite vocal about other religious subjects. Did historians sympathetic to patriarchy simply delete any mention of such? Through Ahmed, we glimpse historical anecdotes that let slip Muhammad's wives may have in fact been on the verge of rebellion over a combination of veiling and seclusion, and the domestic stress polygamous harems throughout history have nearly always demonstrated. The situation reached such a head, Muhammad kept his distance from all his wives for a month, causing a panic amongst his in-laws, each keen to see the influence of their daughters (and thus their political faction) maintained. His wives eventually relented, but only after being virtually threatened via a perfectly timed revelation that they would be divorced should they not accept their roles as Mothers of the Believers.

Ahmed writes Muhammad as a historical figure and politician, complete with the flaws and propensity to be influenced by others as he influences them. I appreciated the view. Just as the rest of her book takes care to view the formation of religious laws as part of an evolving body of culture, this idea of a man, as an evolving leader with an evolving belief system, reads naturally.

Mernissi, on the other hand, takes the view that Muhammad, as a prophet of her religion, is basically infallible. He and his revelations cannot be flawed. However, the historical contexts of his revelations and the questioning that led to God's personal answers to specific events are subject to scrutiny. This enables her to freely eviscerate figures representing patriarchal ideals around Muhammad, like Umar ibn al-Khattab (Caliph No. 2 and father-in-law of Muhammad), who helped pressure the prophet into accepting secluding and veiling his women over time. She suggests that the contradictory revelations of increasing severity regarding how women (specifically Muhammad's wives) should be kept hidden were God's responses to specific periods of instability in a Medina under siege. Readings of the same revelations at a later date should see them in historical context, and not as a blanket ruling over all women for all eternity.

Muhammad the person, by her view, was always kind to everyone, but particularly women. He was the ideal man of his generation, physically, mentally and spiritually. It was mostly political need, rather than personal passion, that compelled him to have such a large harem. As I mentioned earlier, his likely view for seclusion and veiling, in her eyes, was partly as a means to keep his wives safe from harassment in wartime, particularly from the slander of his political enemies, but also partly as a means for the kindly, shy and affable prophet to establish personal boundaries in his religion, where believers were constantly in his home, among his wives' apartments and not always so willing to leave him alone, even on a wedding night.

To Mernissi, Muhammad was an essentially egalitarian man caught between negotiating wide-ranging political factions and delivering the always pertinent advice of his God, whether or not the advice of his God was also his worldview. In this angle and based on her example, the verses that establish the husband's conjugal rights, for which disobedience is worthy of punishment by hitting, was a direct response to believers who came to the prophet with concerns their wives were rebelling from their marital duties. It was part of a growing revolt by women asking for increased participation throughout Medinese Muslim society upon realising that they had the same spiritual access to God under Islam as their men. Muhammad sought the answer to the question from his God through meditation, as he typically did for all questions from his flock. Although he himself could never hit his wife and would advocate against anyone else hitting their wives, his God spoke otherwise. She goes on to offer reasons for this apparent backtracking on women's rights by God through historical context, where the revelation should be seen as part of Muhammad's constant negotiations with his divided flock for cooperation, particularly in the face of the warring periods where he needed militarial cohesion. It wasn't that God wished for physical violence against disobedient women, but that at the time, living together in an already fragile community was more important.

The general apologetic stance of Mernissi, weighed against Ahmed's more honest explorations of historical context, are striking. I may have mentioned throughout this comparison of both works that Mernissi's apologist stance on many things, while at the same time being quite blatantly feminist, disturbed me on many levels. As a reader, I am not foaming-at-the-mouth anything. Overly-passionate or sensationalist stances do not appeal to me. The two different points of view, that of the celebrant and the scholar, would therefore pitch me on the side of the scholar.

But I also said reading both works was extremely important to my formation of Islamic women's history, and that too is true. Without a Mernissi-like view, there would not be an Ahmed-type one. What I mean is, reading the reclamation of Muslim's women's history from the inside, through the eyes of a proudly Muslim but also proudly feminist historian, was important to balance out the same subject as seen from a drier, more academic vein. Emotionally, I needed to see how exploring this subject affected Muslim feminists of all stripes. Both Mernissi's book, published two years before Ahmed's, and the latter's are considered cornerstones in Muslim feminist thought for very good reasons. Again, Mernissi researches her work from exclusively Arabic and Islamic historical discourses on the hadiths, Quran and Companions, while Ahmed's research is more wide-ranging, on the outside looking in, using Islamic history from non-Muslim sources with Arab Islamic references. Both kinds of research are important, as is their unified consideration.

I am truly glad I was able to read these books. My next read, which I have just begun, was based on a reference I found in Ahmed's book -- Aisha the Beloved of Mohammed by Nabia Abbott. This is another thoroughly engaging read that I am very much enjoying. Abbott, whose specialty was deciphering ancient Arabic papyrii, is a much earlier feminist historian on Muslim women's history. Aisha was published in 1942, and what few Amazon reviews on this title seem to largely revile it for its less than glorious assumptions of Muhammad and his Companions. I have found no context, a third of the book in, to even support such ideas. Her tone is that of a biography without being romantic -- actually reminds me a fair bit of Karen Armstrong, but with more dated styling. Onward, we read.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
I love reading your analyses. You're so passionate about the topic that it makes reading your entries fun but educational.
Oct. 27th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC)
Yay! I was frankly worried this sort of thing would just make people fall asleep. :)

Glad you liked it.
Oct. 28th, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)

Really fascinating. I wonder, though: do you ever get frustrated reading about Islam and its treatment of women? Do you ever just want to put down the book in despair? I would be riveted yet exasperated at intervals.
Oct. 28th, 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
I do get frustrated, and that happens to me too -- that combination of fascination and exasperation. Very often though, I find myself putting my books down more because I need that pause to think on what I've read. There's a lot to take in, and many of the revelations on how much of Islamic rulings about women are based on tradition are particularly hard to read. Having seen some of that prejudice in person, it is not hard for me to imagine that the things I'm reading exist, but it is hard to really accept just how deeply entrenched the attachment to tradition is.

A great deal of the fights I'm reading, the essays by Muslim feminists on how they've managed to argue for their rights, are deeply stimulating, but I wouldn't necessarily call them uplifting. This is because the walls these women have to scale are very high, and almost all the Islamic countries in which progress has been made can only cautiously say that things are getting better.

There are other revelations that still bother me to read as well, like actually parsing that freedom for many Muslim women is not, as one from outside the religion would assume, at all about veiling or what Muslim women wear, but the right and choice to be as they will. I get this intellectually, but it's very hard to accept emotionally. That's gotten easier over time. It's still hard, especially since headscarves have been used on me and women I know as a control mechanism, and I've seen what peer pressure for that can do.

So yes, there is despair, but I think my overall need to know and understand why these things happen to women eventually overcomes that. It is a really, really good feeling to learn and understand.
Oct. 28th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
These reviews are fascinating! I'm not really very knowledgeable on Islam, but you've made me really want to check these books out, as part of my interest in feminism and history.
Oct. 28th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it, and thanks very much for reading! Both are very good books, if you are interested. Out of the two, Women and Gender in Islam is easier to get into, as it doesn't require any specialist knowledge.

The references in that book also make great further reading on a broad range of women's issues, and not just from within Islam. A particular title referenced in the early chapters, when it goes into women in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt, is Sarah Pomeroy's Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, which is a good primer for women from Greek historical perspectives, for example.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )