Religious Traditions and the Secular
Being asked to talk about women in Islam at an interfaith meeting may be seen as the perfect opportunity for many in the whole ‘dawah’ scene. It’s the one area Muslims are put under a microscope for in today’s time. This is a chance to remove misconceptions about the victim status of Muslim women perceived by non-Muslims. But I didn’t really take such an approach. In doing research my main intention was to move away from answers that are always given on such occasions. I had no intention of presenting a defensive dialogue which situates a Muslim woman not as the victim of religion, but the victim of modern day society, or alternatively one which describes her as ‘a pearl’ or a precious object or anything similarly patronising.
Although I didn’t get onto it fully in the script I wrote, I really found myself delving deeper into what I think of as an individual yet collective way of looking at gender, which is to say, I found myself focusing on the soul and the essence of the male and female and the way they’re connected. To my relief, before the actual meeting I got a message from the imam who invited me saying that he’d forgotten to mention; ‘…They [the organisers] prefer the style of delivery in an informed and explained manner rather than a debate style speech. They stress that in their ground rules that it’s not about one [religion] above the other or better than the other, but a mere explanation of religion.’ This was good news for me and in-line with the way I approached the task in the first place. I really had no intention of debating because I didn’t want my presentation to take some crude format as I’ve seen from the ‘dawah’ scene in which speakers’ responses are framed entirely around the criticism received, i.e. we approach our religion from the box we get placed in, responding to critique which views religion from a very simplistic foundation. And we’re to blame for this continued simplistic perception because we respond to it in its own language. The very fact that we now approach ‘women’ as a subject to tackle at a dawah event is a clear sign of a modernised, category-obsessed reduction of religious tradition. That is the reason I originally found this presentation difficult to put together.
Within the meeting itself what I found interesting was the initial openness to the essence of the feminine presented through the image of the mother. I suppose it was my own misconception that I’d prepared myself for criticism from secular voices, as is the case in the university environment. This was quite different. In fact, the speaker of the Jewish tradition began his speech by talking about the woman’s importance in the household – a difference from certain contemporary voices which would attack the notion of the woman even being connected to the household. Although there were definitely opinions about how men and women should be free to switch their traditional roles, along with the strong position of an Anglican speaker on how women should be able to take leadership roles within the church which is something of a hot topic, I found a common ground in the essence which meant not having to explain from scratch that the role of the mother is sanctified. Its sanctification as a wholesome truth and not just in the case of Mary (mother of Jesus) was something not everyone could agree upon however, because otherwise there would be no issue regarding how no matter how important a father’s role is he can’t take the position of the mother in bringing up the child. But what did get interest was the etymological connection I mentioned in my presentation between rahm and rahma, their link to the feminine and their perfection in the characteristics of God (Ar Rahman and Ar Raheem) as I quoted from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf;
‘The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word mercy (rahma) and is an expression of the creative power of God in man.’ (Hamza Yusuf, p.20)
I can’t do justice to the above sentence in an explanation, I only hope it makes you think about something beyond just biological, an interconnection of Creator and created – especially to the feminine, the nature and wisdom in life as a phenomenon and the profundity of the characteristic highlighted here in giving a soul to who we are, or making us aware of the soul (I will come back to this later).
The Soul and Religious Revival
In my research I came across a short documentary called ‘Women in Islam’, and one sentence in particular struck me; “At a time when Europe was still debating whether a woman had a soul or not, Muslim women throughout the Islamic empire were excelling in all fields” (Discover Islam 2010). It’s the first part, the fact that they were debating whether or not a woman had a soul that really got me. I feel like we’re living in a time when there’s more likely to be a debate about whether or not anyone has a soul. And when it comes to a woman, it’s as if her soul is increasingly being hidden.
This is not just because of the whole ‘women competing with men’ thing, but because we’ve left aside our tradition’s study of the soul itself. What I find when delving deeper into the work of scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad is that the religious sciences of the past wrote of a woman as all soul, as well as the bearer of the soul, and the bearer of spirituality; the personification of the aspect of the world that gets brushed aside now perhaps because of the enlightenment’s defining of religious tradition, and also because of our own fascination only with outward form, therefore our ignorance towards inward knowledge. Religion was never meant to be a response to scientific rationality. For all the Muslims trying to respond to the scientific-mathematic-rationalistic etc. criticism posed by modernity, I’d like to tell you now that you’re already out-of-date in the context of postmodernity. Time has already moved on. And now, apparently, many of the intellectual elite are finding themselves ‘disillusioned’ by the enlightenment, and instead ‘rediscovering’ spirituality which has become their individual escape, a refuge from their ‘disillusionment of grand truths’. In all of this confusion I’d like to possibly add some more.
At the Q&A session at the end of the interfaith meeting I was asked what connections there were between historical developments of a women’s status and what the Islamic tradition has to say about women in relation to today. In my answer I said that among the Muslims there has been ‘an enlightenment’ recently, however what I really meant was a revival (I really did mean a revival – enlightenment was a slip of the tongue and unfortunately we can’t turn back time). Anyway I continued to say that within this [revival] I’ve found Muslim women to be much more proactive than men (simply from my own experiences, so of course this is debatable). I’ve found that women, while learning more about Islam, have pulled up historical narrations about important women in our tradition, and now there’s a resurfacing of knowledge regarding the female scholarship within the intellectual lineage that leads all the way back to the Prophet (salallahu alaiyhi wasallam). Our knowledge of this is allowing us to understand our part in the sociological, historical and political narrative of our tradition. And this resurfacing can only have come about through the questioning of; where are the women? But not only has our revival brought about such practical details regarding names of prominent female scholars, but also the revival of traditional thought.
It’s like all those years and years ago, past scholars were writing about the soul and the spiritual heart knowing that there would be a time when people would be in need of it. I critiqued the way in which religious followers have tried to shape their beliefs as a response to modernity, to rationalise their beliefs so that they don’t fade away into secularism. The revival of the religious sciences, however, is far from a settlement with postmodernity, far from a response to it. Although postmodern thought may have triggered it in some aspects, the revival of inward knowledge is not postmodern. Ancient wisdoms regarding morality, life, regarding the essence of worship, the cleansing of the heart, the awareness of the soul – are all contradictory to the sentiments of postmodernity which is ungrounded. However, in a time when our culture makes us so obsessed with ourselves as individuals, I feel that the revival of inward knowledge is perfect. Al Ghazali talks to the individual, in doing so he makes one aware of themselves while at the same time destroying one’s self-obsession in order to serve a higher purpose, putting human flaws into perspective and providing the medicine for our ailments within wisdoms that address the core of the issue.
What does this have to do with the discussion on women I began with? Well to begin with, what I’ve increasingly found on this path is that when you really start to sincerely want that cleansing of the self you look to all such means, you look to scholars who have talked about these things, who teach you how to live a more dignified life, and one of the first things you realise is that they talk about the cleansing of the human heart – they don’t talk about the male and female heart, just the heart. The ailments are within both genders, we both need the cure. We find common ground here – a kind of equality of being and in the potential to ascend that is beyond any contemporary concept I’ve come across. But at the same time, these scholars don’t look to present equality in all aspects of the human picture. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said, within the Islamic tradition cosmology is wholesomely understood; you won’t find a better understanding of it, unpolluted by outside forces, than the way it’s looked at in Islam. Scholars have written about the essence of the male and female and how they tie together perfectly, and what I find repeatedly in such discussion is the dominance of female spirituality. I find this repeatedly, while not even looking for it. It makes me think about how Islam can be seen beyond reflecting a patriarchal system, unlike any other religious tradition I’ve ever come across, if only people could be more aware of this kind of knowledge. In order to undo our polluted perceptions I’m in no way calling for overcompensation by way of a feminist theological response, because I don’t find much soul in those either. Also I hope you understand that when I say soul here I’m using it metaphorically. So if I were to ask you if a woman has a soul and what that soul is…I guess what I mean is; what is the essence of the feminine? I’ll show you with extracts from three separate sources, each of which sent me spiralling when I came across it.
The first two are part of detailed articles and I would highly recommend reading them in their entirety (links provided below). Abdal Hakim Murad (1999): ‘Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate…’ ‘This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God as Layla – the celestial beloved – the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil – a metaphor for distraction and sin – to be annihilated in his Beloved…’
Hamza Yusuf (p.19-20): ‘Chastity and purity have always been the great virtues that come naturally to women but which men must learn. The Qur’an uses Mary, the mother of Christ, as the great paragon of chastity and purity of the heart and describes her as an ideal. “And God has made an example for those who believe of Mary who guarded her chastity, so We breathed some of Our spirit into her, and she confirmed the pronouncements and the scriptures of her Lord, and she was among the devout. (66/11-12).” It is from women then, that men learn chastity and purity, which in turn protect the sacred nature of women, alluded to in the Arabic word for woman, hurmah, which means “what is sacred.” Now, the failure of men in imitating women in their natural virtue has resulted in women rejecting the double standard and imitating men in their natural vice. The spiritual power of women is great, but so too is the power of their physical attraction to men. It is this power that causes vile men to want to dominate women, and virtuous men to honor and protect them. But that physical power of the female form over men is a sensory power that veils men from her metaphysical meaning. Her sensual form prevents the man lost in carnality from knowing her spiritual reality, that she is the source of mercy in the world. The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word for mercy (rahma) and an expression of the creative power of God in man. In degrading woman, we degrade the highest qualities of our human nature; in elevating her, we elevate our highest nature. When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity. When, however, those virtues are absent, men descend to the lowest of the low and are worse than beasts. In unveiling the outward beauty of a woman, we become veiled from her inward beauty.’
Jalaluddin Rumi (Mathnawi; Abdal Hakim Murad 1999, Hamza Yusuf p.18-19): ‘The prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals They have no kindness, gentleness, or love Since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes, anger and sensuality belong to animals She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is the creator – you could even say she is not created.’
Abdal Hakim Murad (1999), ‘Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender’ (http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm) Discover Islam (2010), ‘Women in Islam’, MuslimByChoice, Youtube, Part 1 of 2 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfDFLF2Ktz8) Hamza Yusuf, ‘Climbing Mount Purgatorio: Reflections from the Seventh Cornice’, Zaytuna College, p.1-20 (http://t.co/Lpe1hkhobp)