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women and religion: islam November 16, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in religion, sexism.

Lynda Clarke (Women in Islam, “Women and Religious Traditions“) points out that there is no cognizant group within Islam that is able to re-establish or re-investigate aspects of the religion in the perspective of women. She does not claim that Islamic women do not question or blindly follow, but instead they are restricted within the call of “correct practice”. This practice is strictly laid out in the Sunnah, which is authoritative in Islamic tradition. Thus, women are at a seeming impasse because of the stress on orthopraxy. Anything that is added or perceived as contrary to the authoritative text can automatically be viewed as illegimate and opposed to Islam. This is often seen with Islamic women’s issues because of the contrast struck between Islam and the West’s occupation with Christian values. Islamic traditionalists view feminism as a Christian or Western ideology and is consequently perceived as opposition to the Sunnah. However, Clarke is optimistic that Islamic women have the capacity to work within the Islamic faith in order to retain their own tradition without being isolated. Clarke is arguing here that by using the Koran they can legitimize their perspective an overcome the overwhelming patriarchal worldview that Islam has currently found itself.

Whether Clarke’s positive outlook is realistic could be argued. Islam’s contemporary problem is that anything associated with “progress” is often construed as an influence of the Christian West and must be admonished – quite a reversal from a medeival Islam that had saved the ancient intellectual works that Christians had destroyed. This leads to a larger philosophical problem. Any sort of paradigm shift within Islam will require deconstruction of the faith. This would not only be viewed upon as Western, but perhaps even as heresy. The challenge, then, is to somehow express women’s issues within the Islamic faith without use of any major paradigm shifts. I am skeptical whether this could actually be accomplished.

However, Islam does not necessarily need a paradigm shift to re-interpret some of Islamic doctrine as women-positive. Many contemporary women point out that early followers of Mohammad were female and were important to the new community. The first person to believe the message of Mohammad was a woman as was the first martyr in his name. Seemingly detrimental passages that purport polygamous marriages can easily be explained as a protection of women who were unfortunate – a common practice of that time. Many contemporary liberal Islamic women (and men) emphasize this notion of protection and respect of women in all aspects of Islam and note that this has not been given fair due in the course of Islamic history. In order to fully critique or analyze the truth of this claim requires a fair bit of understanding of Islamic history and doctrine.

As I personally lack knowledge in Islamic studies the only response to the argument of a women-positive Islam can be in light of an existential analysis. How Islamic men treat Islamic women in the here and the now is the truth of whether Islam is women-positive or not. According to such a claim, Islam is not women-positive because that is not how it is currently practiced or even attempted to be practiced. If some women say Islam is women-positive they must actually view it as women-positive instead of whether it could be women-positive.



1. khalidmir - November 16, 2006

Brad, first of all, many , many congratulations on the birth of your daughter (and belated happy birthday) !

I’m not sure if muslims still think in terms of “christian” west to be honest. I think it’s a lot more varied than that. Is there one “muslim” view?

I didn’t get the point about “paradigm shift” and deconstruction to be honest. It is hard to comment on that unless these terms are clarified. From my point of view the ‘deconstruction’ or demythologization of christianity has led to its demise (I include fundamentalism and literalism as aspects of this demise).

Personally, I don’t see on what grounds one can talk about an ‘existential’ interpretation (especially if one is applying it to a tradition that is not your own!). why can’t the repsonse be: I’ll suspend judgement until I do look into it? If one were to look at practice then there would hardly be a muslim or Christian living now according to that ‘analysis’!

could I recommend Iqbal’s chapter: ‘structure of movement ‘ in his book, Reconstruction of religious thought in islam (online) or the work of Abdullahi Naim (parts also online).

It is not really being “contrary tp the authoritative text” but contrary to the authoratative understanding of the text and the finer question of whether and to what degree ‘authority’ allows for flexibility in interpretation. Levinas’ superb essay, on jewish revelation, is tops on this.

i’m not writing on the wordpress account any more and have reverted to blogspot.

Best wishes,


2. brad richert - November 16, 2006

I was expecting a reply on this one from you, and I am glad you did. Unfortunately I am still in “break mode”, but I would love to be able to answer the specific questions you brought up as best as I can – however, as that reply would take quite a bit of time I will have to prolong it.

In the meantime, I would like to know what you think about the position of women in relation to the Muslim faith. Do you believe that Islam is “women-positive” to use the earlier phrase? Why? Why not?

As a quick response, I must say, that the above article was written as a response assignment in a Women and Religion course – this assignment, like all arts university assignment requires you to take a certain position, even if it is not one you entirely agree on. I simply wanted to point out the dilemma facing Islamic women, but I was forced to take a stance. This stance, as you rightly stated, is a western bias in itself. This may be the reason I “cop out” of studying Islam because then I would be continually forced to make judgment calls in my papers when normally I do take a very cautious or even apathetic approach to my understanding of the Islamic faith.

3. khalidmir - November 17, 2006

Brad, ‘ morning.
I think there are many things that are deeply ‘problematic’ to our modern ears (eyes). Of course, the orthodox position is to say that one doesn’t ‘understand’ such interpretations -not that one doesn’t agree with them: there can be no qustion of disagreeing.

But I think one has to face the fact that that when it comes to some aspects things do seem a bit odd and gender is a prime example of this.

Perhaps this is partly down to teh fact that religion will always take on the shape of the human society in which it is revealed..i.e its outward form has to conform to the times, toa space, to ‘the human margin’. To think that Revelation is ‘pure spirit’ and that only is , I think, to misunderstand what it is. Secondly, given that it must have universal appeal there will always be mentaliites and times in which some things seem odd (e.g attitides to homosexuality sound odd to “our” ears).

Having said that, I do think that in terms of education , property rights, and spiritual equality it is profoundly radical and egalitarian(i.e posiitve-women). But in other aspects the dominant interpretation has been one of subservience and this , no doubt, has contributed (along with local culture) to the deplorable practices and attitudes toward women. (what you would call the existential side of it).On the whole, it “seems” that there are positive AND negative aspects.

i think you are spot on to poitn out the dilemma. It is somthing Martha Nussbaum talks about in her book, women and Human development .

4. brad richert - November 19, 2006

“Perhaps this is partly down to teh fact that religion will always take on the shape of the human society in which it is revealed..i.e its outward form has to conform to the times…”

I am not too sure whether I completely agree. I recognize that this is often the result (or always with the “successful” religions), but I cannot help but to look at various Scriptures in Christianity or Buddhism that this does not seem to be the case (I cannot speak for which I do not know, ie. Hinduism, Islam). Jesus, according to the Gospels, was extremely counter-cultural, mingling with the ‘dirty’ Samaritans (even a women Samaritan at that) and was not afraid to have women among his foremost disciples. What is most problematic is the lenth of time between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels – much of the canonical Scriptures show evidence of a developing or developed church hierarchy (and thus a progressing institutionalization). I don’t think Jesus was some crusader for women, but I don’t think there was much conformity.

I am not too sure if I understand the second half of your response; it seemed like you wanted to pack a lot in there, but it came out pretty complicated 🙂

5. khalidmir - November 19, 2006

Brad, see the work of vermes hwere Christ (pbuh) is depicted within a particular tradition (emphasis is on the Synoptics). Eisenman makes the same point about the ‘Jamesian’ nature of the message. Of course, every prophet is counetr-cu;tural in the sense that stand opposed against the rigidity of the former regime,the letter that killeth. but in their expression they are of their times. (which is not to say that the content of the message does not have , as it were, a vertical dimension..it is just to say that there is a historical (horizontal) one as well..this is what Fazul-ur -Rahman would call the ‘cross’ that muslims have to carry: the inetrsection of Revelation with history.

complicated? apologies. Guess that’s just my confused thinking! 🙂
the secoonfd part just confrms what you said earlier: the existential side: the existence of subservience and domination. Whether one can trace this back to the religion or the authentic understanding of the religion is where I’d be sceptical. But one can hardly deny the terrible practices and attitudes to women!

6. brad richert - November 19, 2006

Ah, makes sense now. I suppose I am just skeptical regarding what was actually done by these initiators of religion and what was written about them – and I agree with you, tracing this would probably be impossible, and so it becomes a matter of faith?

7. khalidmir - November 20, 2006

Brad, for us it is a matter of doctrine that the prophets-all prophets-are without sin and so there can be no ‘scepticism’. This is to give ground to the ‘moderns’. Of course, from this people will jump to the opposite conclusion -as if to say that faith is blind. Perhaps we should remember anselm: “i believe in order to understand, I do not understand in order to believe”.

but yes, looking too closely at the historical (or relying exclusively on it for one’s arguments) will get us nowhere (in my opinion). It is why I have always thought that attempts to convert other people to one’s faith are quite silly.

i have no problem with scepticism in general (allama Iqbal once said: even if God revelas His Face I’ll still take ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’). I wonder , though, if it will lead to nihilism as I think Nietzsche maintained?

8. brad richert - November 20, 2006

Yes, but Muslims are ‘skeptical’ of the claim made in Christian Scriptures about the divinity of Christ, correct? Personally I am not Muslim nor am I an orthodox Christian (small-o orthodox) and so I find myself allowed to be ‘critical’ or ‘skeptical’. I honestly believe that healthy skepticism or critical thought allows for a greater sort of faith, something much more powerful than ‘blind faith’ – faith, for many people in many traditions, is little more than denial. I believe that type of faith is a false one.

9. khalidmir - November 20, 2006

Of course, brad! But scepticism can be corrosive of faith as well. I think we’re mixing things up here. Questioning and trying to understand faith from ‘within’ the tradition is certainly legitimate. the type of radical doubt pursued by the moderns (Descartes onwards)can only-if pushed to its logical conclusion (and it never is)-lead to nihilism. Nietzsche saw that.

if your partner says : do you love me then you know you’re in trouble. 🙂 Must we be sceptical of everything? Then let’s be sceptical of that thought itself…

wittgenstein: there is a point at which explanations come to a limit. And shall we forget the meaning of the ontological argument?

So, yes, they certainly are crtical of claims about divinity (or, to be more accurate, about a particular understanding of divinity) but acceptance or the lack of scepticism is certainly not the same as credulity to everything!

‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believed’.


I’m with you when you say ‘healthy’ ..it certainly *can* lead to a greater sort of faith..who could deny this. Humans would not be superior to angels if that were not the case. But -I’m sorry Brad, I have to take the side of my Catholic friends here- the result of everyone questioning tradition and authority for themselves has meant many falling by the wayside….: auden: protestantism: the search for the truth, Catholicism: the possession of it.

don’t you think you’re being too harsh on other people? denial? False?you may be right, but I don’t think so. Why do you want to destroy so many bridges ..just to say that a few are strong swimmers?
Gently, Brad.

Here’s a joke (please don’t mind it.. i feel we are friends now, no?)

A catholic tells a Protestant that they’ve found the remains of Christ and that miraculous discovery will silence the atheists once and for all.
Protestant: oh, so he *did* exist then….



10. brad richert - November 20, 2006

I have no doubt whether radical skepticism leads to nihilism, but I will leave that for the radicals.

I feel that at time philosophical ‘harshness’ is justified in light of the damage done to and by faith traditions towards themselves and others – the traditional Catholic claim to its ‘absolute truth’ as proven to be disastrous for both humanity and its own system – the Church had its chance on absolutism for a millenia and it was not exactly a time that Western civilization envies (for the right reasons). Destroying bridges – maybe – but only because they are deterioated and dangerously unsafe. Think of it as a controlled demolition of a condemned building 🙂

I stand by my claim of denial and faith, as irreverent or harsh as it may be – I have seen too much destruction by the self-proclaimed ‘moral majority’ born from justified absolutism and lack of critical thought.

11. khalidmir - November 21, 2006

Brad, i appreciate your comments. no-one is more against fundamentalism than myself.. i come from a family that is deeply anti-clerical (anti-mullah) and have lived in a country where fantacism is on the rise…so I am acutely aware of the type of ignorance and backwardness that comes about because of the lack of critical thought, because of the lack of thought itself. I won’t bore you with the details.
But balance. Balance is everything.

Isn’t the moral majority Protestant?
Is n’t the current crop of evangelical fundamentalists Protestant (I’m not trying to turn this into a slanging match, but just saying that fanatacism continues in many guises)

As for the Catholic contribution to humanity you have to be joking, right? Let us put to one side the Cathedrals, music, and art -all of which would hardly have been possible without the Church (see George Steiner: Real Presences). Just in terms of thought it is hard to imagine the West developing without Scholasticism. Would Dante, Bach, Chartres have been possible?

and what is one to say of Augustine, Aquinas, anselm, Duns Scotus and so many others?

Okay, which western civilisation are you talking about? the one that produced the trenches, the bomb, the gulags, Auschwitz? the one that to this very day supports tyrants and dictators all over the world, whose unfettered capitalism and materialism is a form of barbarism. Western civilisation that is bringing freedom to Iraq, Palestine?

“condemned building”??

“he who would play the angel ends up playing the Beast.”

Who has the right to “condemn” ?

In the end, this desire to be without bridges is a version of the desire to be God..to see sub specie aeternitatis. (you must have a look at Fergus Kerr’s book, theology after wittgenstein, if you get the time).

Keep well,


12. brad richert - November 21, 2006

Oh, I in no way meant to square fanaticsm on one group – when I target extremists and fanatics I am usually speaking of fundamentalist Protestants (and their Islamic counterparts). Catholic fanaticism, in my opinion, has waned due to the Vatican’s loss of power in the last three hundred years.

We cannot say what could have happened without the Catholic church because that would be a universe I am unfamiliar with. What I can say is what happened – the annihilation of any religious tradition in its path and the gross suppression of people under its rule. Every empire has its greatest, as you are to keen to point out, but I am afraid that I cannot negate the atrocities of Roman Catholic rule because of some positive aspects.

“Condemned Building” – a term used to describe an unsafe building due for demolition to protect those who might be harmed by entering it.
No one has the right to condemn – yet who doesn’t?

You seem quick to dismiss the brutality of the European middle ages and point out its remnants – facism, totalitariasm. I speak of Western Civilization through the eyes of a liberal, the flawed, but positive, works of J.S. Mill and thousands of others. Utopian? Maybe – maybe the result of liberalism is fascism – maybe this is our human nature. This is all political theory I do not know nor really care much for.

In the end, I seem to be trapped arguing for something I am not a part of. I occasionally write papers (such as this series) because I need to – that is academic life. I think that we have now crossed over from my academic to my personal, which are two quite different things. My beliefs about history remain the same – but how I live is based on my idea of faith, without justification and without condemnation. Such is the reason I do not attempt to convert others, for I know not the truth, only how to live in peace with my own lack of knowledge.

One thing I need to clarify – I did not mean to destroy bridges and leave them there. I was only pointing out that if the bridge is falling apart, it is no longer safe.

13. khalidmir - November 21, 2006

Brad, you make some good points and I appreciate it is hard to convety one’s views in this medium (i hope you afford me some latitude here).

Sure, annihilation has to be condemned-just as the fanatcism of muslims past and present does. I don’t think that is the question. All I’m suggesting is the idea that the claim to absolute truth by the Church has been disastrous is far too one-sided (in my opinion) and neglects the undoubted contribution it has made to humanity in terms of piety , faith, and art, culture and thought. No-one is saying negate the negative aspects. If I implied that then I apologise for not making myself clearer.

Fascism and totalitarianism as a “remnant” of the midle ages. What? come on Brad, this is pushing it. No-one can deny , of course, the historical continuity of anti-semitic feelings (N.Cohn, for example) but I think we have to honestly square up to the idea that these were *modern * phenomenon, however uncomfortable that may be.

could I suggest: Trevarso’s Nazi violence; Z.Bauman; Bettelheim’s informed heart; R. Burleigh’s third reich where he talks about how Nazism would n’t have been possible without the ‘sacralization’ of blood and soil’ in the 19th century (nationalism) and Agamben’s Homo Sacer where he talks about the camps being the modern expression of biopolitics.

the point about condemned building is : who deems it ‘condemned’, who says it is unsafe and is it better having an “unsafe” building, a flawed shelter , than none at all?

If the bridge is falling apart then maybe repair would have been better. Anyway, it’s too late for that. No point looking back.

Yes, I feel I am caught arguing something when in fact I’m a strong supporter of secular , leftists parties and am against the type of right-wing attitudes and support for the landed gentry/capitalists that the Church, mullahs have often espoused! Irony of ironies!

14. brad richert - November 21, 2006

I appreciate the many referals, which I am sure are great books/articles, but unfortunately I will not be able to get to any of them soon (it is much appreciate though).

I think we are in agreeance that progression is more or less a myth, but I found myself in a spiral trying not to romanticize the past – which I think I sometimes feel like you are arguing.

The reason I stated fascism and totalitarianism as a “remnant of the middle ages” is that in all my study of Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s, there is not much to differentiate their actions than those of the Roman Catholic authorities, the many feudal kingdoms, nor even the British empire. Yes, motivations (ie. religious vigor vs. nationalism) differ, but the outcome and actions rarely change.

This, however, is getting a little more political than my first intent. What I had initially meant by the whole “western civilization” thing was not so much to do with “western civilization” but with how we behave then compared to now. We may not behave much different, but I do not live in fear of having my wife accused of witchcraft, tortured, convicted, and hanged if I was to die tomorrow after having an argument.

ANYWAY – I think rhetoric and confused argumentation has gotten both of us arguing something that we probably have similar beliefs.

15. khalidmir - November 22, 2006

Brad, fair point. I don’t think we should romanticise the past just as we shouldn’t idolise the future or present.

I’ve got to say, though, that i think you’re caricaturing the medieval period in terms of witchcraft and bad things. Just as someone might caricature western civilisation by looking at the wars of the 20th century, missing out on the blues, soul, literature, films, science and so many other things.

I don’t want to prolong this debate as I’m sure you’re busy with other stuff. But i really think that looking at fascism in terms of the middle ages is just anachronistic. I think we have to look at power more carefully. the type of power -biopolitics-that we saw in the 20th century only really becomes a possibility when technology and the economy has reached a certain stage. Before, as foucault says, power was more ‘extractive’ (or what he calls subtraction).

the key thiongs is this: irt was “state racism” (Foucault’s ’76 lectures).
i.e we have to look at the role of state power , its institutions, its rhetoric, ideologies, stratgeies and son. Saying that it is a remannt of the “irrational” middle ages is , of course, comforting but , ultimately, a defence mechanism for those who do not want to see how deeply intertwined faascism is with modernity. Those who want to put all blame on religion don’t like such difficulties (I’m no saying you Brad, just making a general point)

16. brad richert - November 22, 2006

You definitely caught me on that one notion. Would it not be fair to say, however, that a society, as corrupt and inhumane and imperfect as it is, can look back unfavourably upon its past? This would not negate its own horrors – but at least it (or some people within the present) can recognize past wrongs.

All in all, I am guilty of over-generalizations as it seemed to be an underlying assumption throughout this discussion. Civilization, be it West or East (or somewhere in between), past or current, cannot be perfect, nor, do I believe, does much really change in the moral sense. Those with power and authority will continue to use and abuse it, and each society will have its avante-garde and cultural heroes.

My view of fasicsm, as an over-generalization, is that it is a repackaging of totalitarianism – and this was pretty much admitted by its leaders (thus the Nazi and Italian Fasicst obsession with the past). As you pointed out, its specific methods were made possible by the surrounding culture. As I am sure that you know, I, in no way, deny the reality or imminence of fascism in our own society. The problem, however, is that we have given a scary label to it, demonized it in such a way that even if it stared us in the face, we would not accept its reality: the reason that I cringe when people call Bush and Co. “Nazis”.

17. khalidmir - November 22, 2006

I think you’re right-we can look back and comment on past wrongs (unless one believes in an absolute relativism). and those wrongs were,as you have said, quite horrendous. My only scepticism is that we might go too far in this direction. In some sense nothing in the world is easier to set oneslef up as ‘civilised’, ‘enlightened’ and view all those before you as ‘backwards’ , ‘barbaric’ etc.

The thing is , the modern world is based on this conscious rejection of the past, this rupture from the ancient world and tradition. the growth of historical consciousness posits that truth is ‘in the making’.
Process is the key word here. Eventually, this culminates in a view that there isn’t even a telelogical truth..the process itself is everything…some might say that the will itself is everything (whether it is demonic or saintly). That this resonates deeply with late capitalism is no surprise. Capitaism itself is premised on the idea of the destruction of limits..what Marx would call the ‘limited perfection’ of the ancient world. (Roberto Calasso’s Ruin of Kasch is excellent on this)

I agree with much of what you say. Nazism , fascism are words that are used loosely: islamofascists,etc. But again, when we talk of Bush and the ‘state of exception’ there are very sinister parallels (J.Raban wrote a very interesting piece on this in the Independent on sep 11 this year). Gitmo and the idea that the exectuive decides or interprets the law has been as some as a very dangerous move .

18. brad richert - November 22, 2006

Nothing to argue on that 🙂

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