Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Karen Armstrong on Women and Islam.

Karen Armstrong, in Islam: A Short History, summaries the condition of women within early Islam and the quranic prescriptions on gender relations:  
“The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded such status. The Quran prescribes some degree of segregation and veiling for the Prophet’s wives, but there is nothing in the Quran that requires the veiling of all women or their seclusion in separate part of the house. These customs were adopted some three or four generations after the Prophet’s death.  Muslims at that time were copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long veiled and segregated their women in this manner; they also appropriated some of their Christian misogyny.  The Quran makes men and women partners before god, with identical duties and responsibilities. The Quran also came to permit polygamy; at a time when Muslims were being killed in wars against Mecca, and women were left without protectors, men were permitted to have up to four wives provided that they treated them all with absolute equality and show no signs of favouring one rather than the others. The women of the first ummah in Medina took full part in its public life, and some, according to Arab custom, fought alongside the men in battle.  They did not seem to have experienced Islam as an oppressive religion, though later, as happened in Christianity, men would hijack the faith and bring it into line with the prevailing patriarchy.” (p, 14.)
This is a deeply controversial subject, and I have by no means enough knowledge of Islam to provide a finial summation, but this passage has always struck me as troubling and too apologetic. Armstrong makes an appropriate distinction between cultural traditions and religious proscriptions based on the interpretation of scared texts. However, the passage above seems to paint Muḥammad as a proto-feminist while neglecting passages of the Quran that outline women's subordinate role and advocate physical violence against women who are insubordinate.  As the Quran states: 
"Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is High, supreme."  (4:34. - here is another translation.)
 I don't see how Armstrong can square this passage from the Quran and her description of Islamic gender relations.  


Anonymous said...

That verse from the Quran actually proves Armstrong's point about Prophet Muhammed and men/patriarchy re-interpreting verses to suit their cultural perceptions.

1) The word that is translated as "beat" can also be translated as "separate"---though it has been chosen to be translated as "beat". However, the Prophet did not understand it this way---he never mistreated women. In the context of the verse---which is advocating reconciliation or divorce---the use of "separate" makes more sense---(see Dr. Amina Wadud and Laila Baktiar's works on the issue.)

Also---there are other interpretations of this verse---such as Men are responsible for the physical and financial protection of women---and women are to guard the property and bussiness interests in the absence of their husband......etc

In fact gender equality is stated in the first verse of this Surah when the Quran declares that men and women were made from a single soul.(4:1).

Mathew Toll said...

A friend of mine directed me towards this page - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An-Nisa,_34

From reading that the whole thing seems very murky and open to a wide range of interpretation.

Anonymous said...

There is not really a contradiction between the Prophet's proto-feminism and what is considered the rampant sexism in today's Islam. The world has moved on and enlightenment has flourished in the last 1500 years. What seemed advanced 1500 years ago is therefore seen as backward today. It was progressive to give women SOME inheritance rights then, and it is backward to give them LESS rights now. A major problem with Islam is its "egotistical" refusal to adopt the progress that has been made in other cultures.


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