Islamic history, and particularly modern Islamic revivalist history, depends on shoehorning pre-Islamic Arabia as uncultured, uncouth and uniformly unjust to women so that whatever milder emancipation they imagine looks like an improvement.– A.M. Muffaz
One of my Christmas presents last year was Women in the Qur’an: an emancipatory reading by Asma Lamrabet (translated by Myriam Francois-Cerrah). Rather fondly, it was a gift from my husband, because he’s exactly the sort of person who would buy me a book titled, “Women in the Qur’an: an emancipatory reading”. He’s not threatened by my mind, and that’s exactly why I love him.
Now, I knew this was translated from French so the language would be effusive, but it is also from the perspective of a religious celebrant with a clear passion for the subject. If you’re used to the serious and staid speech of most English-language non-fiction, it’s going to take a little adjustment. A celebrant’s perspective isn’t my usual cup of tea. A celebrant who starts with excoriating those who say Islam gives women all their rights, honours them and protects them while Muslim women’s lived reality is the utter opposite, however, is truly worth listening to.
It’s a perspective that is refreshing because those justifications are used by everyone from the mildest apologist to the most earnest Salafist. There’s a great book that came out at the end of 2019 called Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Asadeh Moaveni which traces the trajectories of several European girls and young women who travel to Syria explicitly lured by the promise of an authentic religious life. One of the most memorable scenes in that book for me was of a German teenager stopping by an evangelical Muslim booth on the street. The man behind the counter asks her why she is not veiling and hands her a pamphlet comparing women to precious pearls protected by shells. He goes on to convince her that by wearing a veil, she is being a beacon for other women, letting them know it is all right to be veiled and soothing their fears. The shades of grooming in that situation discomfited me at the time. But it was the metaphor being used, a pure pearl in a shell, that I found insulting.
It is something any female person growing up in a Muslim culture would have heard at least once. My secondary school Islamic Studies teacher — a woman— once described the reasoning for modest dress as akin to owning a beautiful doll. It’s something precious, so you keep it safe and hidden from view. Her description was specifically about covering one’s aurat, which in Malaysian generally means the body parts we usually keep hidden from others. My less banal translation for aurat is essentially any part of your body that could sexually arouse another person. While the word aurat is not gender-specific, it should surprise no one that I most frequently hear it in the context of men describing what parts of a woman must be protected from other men.
In fact, my teacher gave a second example that comically proved the point. At the time, she was a student at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur where it is mandated that all female students wear the hijab and modest dress. Its student population does include fully veiled women. In Malaysia, it is polite to first take off your shoes before entering homes. Various other places may also ask that you take off your shoes to maintain cleanliness. One of her male lecturers lamented that his female students had to wear socks before entering his class shoe-less, for he found female feet attractive. His female students were amused and complied. When I was 16, I thought: If your lecturer asks you to wear socks so your feet do not titillate him, the problem clearly doesn’t lie with you. Two decades later, I would add, you shouldn’t be embarrassed that a body part everyone generally accepts can be bare in public titillates someone else. Nor should you be made embarrassed by it.
Basing standards of modesty on what someone else finds sexually arousing is a slippery slope precisely because it is so subjective. It’s also remarkably common among at least the Abrahamic faiths. I’ve read descriptions of fundamentalist Jewish sects where a woman’s singing voice is compared to precious jewels, with all that entails. At a certain point, the only way to protect women is to erase them from view — which is exactly what happens.
Asma Lamrabet states clearly in her book that while the West is stuck on veiling as the core issue with Muslim women, the women in question are more concerned with the power balance between genders and all the ways it stops them from participating fully as politically and socially aware beings. I take a slightly opposite tack — women know best how to dress and should be trusted to do so as individuals. It’s part of acknowledging that women are individual beings, adults capable of making choices for themselves. This applies equally whether the choice is made in the style of clothing to use or the next candidate to support, or even to run for office themselves.
More to the point, Asma Lamrabet makes the argument that nowhere in the Quran does it say women need to be protected. The Quran and hadiths depict women taking part in debating and proselytizing their faith in the earliest Muslim community. Islam’s largely egalitarian message, where the lowest and highest ranked person in society are equals in spirit, ruptured the stratified social structure of the time, which was based on rank and wealth. By her reading, any Muslim who accepted the faith also accepted they were participating in a social and political project. Rather than simply allow male representatives to speak for them, she believes the early exegesis and histories repeatedly show women participating alongside men in public life. She quite passionately reiterates how these earliest Muslim women were not afraid to directly approach Muhammad, who weighed their opinions on a par with men’s and demand credit for their contributions to their faith. From this, Asma Lamrabet extrapolates that women in modern Muslim societies have the right to fully participate in religious, political and social life just as their forbears had.
Unfortunately, it is within the veritable exhortations of the Quran’s essentially egalitarian message that some of her reasoning gets shaky. As a celebrant from within the religion, her view of how Islam and its earliest followers caused social upheaval was by propagating a message of egalitarianism in an essentially rigid and unequal system. Whether this was egalitarianism in terms of material wealth or gender, Islam changed the old order. Specifically, she compares how society was improved from the Jahiliyyah period (a period before the arrival of Islam that Muslims consider ignorant; that is, “the Age of Ignorance”). Again by her reading, women in ancient Arabia were treated as property and children. Islam showed a different path by underscoring women’s responsibility towards their faith and society as active participants. Muhammad respected women as equals, which according to her interpretation is proven by early histories where he does just that.
The problem here is that we know pre-Islamic Arabia was not an intellectual or cultural backwater. Secular history — the emphasis being on secular — shows a region thriving from global trade and cultural exchange. Makkah by Islam’s own historians was one such trading and religious hub (for pagan worship before Islam). Petra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site whose ingenious and beautiful rock-face architecture has awed visitors since the 1st century A.D., isn’t a spontaneous anomaly in the archaeological record. Throughout the Arabian Peninsula were sophisticated ancient societies in stone and written records that simply do not jibe with any sort of ignorant age. These were diverse societies living a mishmash of indigenous and global cultures.
Islamic history, and particularly modern Islamic revivalist history, depends on shoehorning pre-Islamic Arabia as uncultured, uncouth and uniformly unjust to women so that whatever milder emancipation they imagine looks like an improvement. We know that even at the granular level, there were cultural differences from tribe to tribe. Muhammad’s mother stayed with her tribe even after she married. (Consider that in many countries, it is assumed that women ought to move where their husbands are, even when this is far from her own family.) Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was a widowed but successful businesswoman who proposed marriage to Muhammad when she was his employer and 15 years his senior. At a minimum, it tells us that some women had the freedom to become entrepreneurs in pre-Islamic society, choose their husbands and older women could marry younger men. Yes, it could have been an exception to the norm. But the fact that there are exceptions means there’s a history we’re ignoring for convenience.
Revivalist Islam, evangelical Islam, Salafist Islam, whatever we choose to call it, depends on the ignorance of other historical narratives to thrive. It depends on people believing a particular Islam is the true standard, and nothing comes before or after it. Asma Lamrabet offers a motivational reading of religious history where God repeatedly upholds the equality of women who are made of the same stuff as men. That’s a great place to start a conversation on how power is balanced between men and women within Islam. But a celebrant’s emancipated reading of religious history that depends on the idea Islam uplifted a society wholesale from a barbaric state is just not true.
This is particularly difficult in the chapter where Asma Lamrabet deconstructs what are considered some of Islam’s most patriarchal practises, namely, unequal inheritance portions between genders, polygamy, the testimony of a man being worth the testimony of two women and the permissibility of beating one’s wife. Here, she argues that the Islamic social project was always meant to gradually change social standards in ancient Arabia over time rather than do it overnight. By her take, when the Quran appears to be promoting inequality, it is taken out of context. Asma Lamrabet is not the first Muslim feminist to espouse this vision.
Briefly, take polygamy as our example. Polygamy was common practice in the ancient world. Rather than disrupt established families by commanding everyone to be monogamous, God limited the number of consecutive wives to four and any female slaves a man owns. That last part is important to the ensuing debate. At least until the early 20th century, concubinage (i.e. female slaves) was not unheard of. King Abdulaziz Al Saud (1875–1953), the first king of Saudi Arabia, was said to have had up to 22 consorts.
Muslim feminists, I’ve read generally note two things. First, the Quran emphasises that if a man is unable to treat all his wives exactly equally or suspects he cannot, it is best for him to have just one wife. The historical context of the verse, according to Muslim feminist history, was during a war which resulted in many widows and orphans. Marrying several wives helped ensure these women and their children were cared for. Muhammad was given special dispensation by God to marry more women than other Muslims. They usually stress that only one of his wives was a young virgin, all the others being widows (some relatively older women with children). At its peak, he most likely had nine wives and one concubine simultaneously. And though he made every effort to treat each equally, staying with a different wife each night, opinions differ on whether he succeeded. This is usually the first feminist argument against polygamy. If Muhammad struggled to maintain fairness, then surely, no other person could.
Slavery having since been banned worldwide, it is also impossible for a man (in theory) to practise concubinage. If Muslim jurists can justify banning slavery, which the Quran also intended to end gradually (how gradual is left to the imagination, since the first centuries of Islam depended on perpetual conquest), then the gradual end to polygamy is clearly imminent.
The central idea is: God made rules with good intentions but men consistently abused them; therefore women (and men) who understand the true letter of the law ought to correct this injustice. The religious text was written for a specific historical context that no longer exists. As such, its rule is obsolete. The assumption is that religious guidance is similar to how secular legal statutes are written. Clauses may be rendered obsolete over time, but the rest of the law remains intact.
This is where the reading of a religious celebrant, a rediscoverer of their faith, finding joy in their renewed understanding, differs from the reading of the average person. A celebrant looks at this problem and sees it as a chance for reinterpretation in the full spirit of the larger book. To me, an ancient religious edict written for a specific historical context that no longer exists should have no bearing on how a modern society lives. It particularly should not be considered the whole cloth from which society should be governed — not least because society is diversifying to the extent many of us no longer live in single-faith, single-culture communities. At a certain point, you’re applying bits of a text to a context it was not meant for just to reassure yourself the text still has importance.
There’s no accounting for a God, only reinterpretations of what it might intend. But there is accounting for the people who make laws. The people who practise those laws participate in public life because they know their realities shape how they are ruled.
None of this is meant to undermine the importance of the celebrant’s perspective. Having the argument, knowing it exists, means that people are critically re-thinking the context of the rules that govern them, what works and what won’t. I really can’t reinforce enough how long since it’s been I’ve heard someone from within a Muslim culture say, “But women don’t need to be specially protected in a box. They can speak for themselves!” Ultimately, Asma Lamrabet did what she may have intended to do. It made me think again about perspectives from within Muslim cultures by women on how they should be treated, it made me exasperated and invested in learning more. It made me think in response.
A.M. Muffaz reads too much, writes too little and thinks dangerously.