Women in Islam: reflections on historical and contemporary research
WOMEN IN ISLAM – Book Sample
Foreword – WOMEN IN ISLAM
The issue of women in Islam today is one characterized by struggle among competing voices. Broadly speaking, the competition is between, on the one hand, the claims of those for whom Islam generally represents a movement of social and religious reform, and that the role of women and gender equity was always central to the reform.
On the other hand are those for whom Islam is in fundamental opposition to notions of reform that would entail a role for women marked by equal status and opportunity.
The former claims would seem to be more firmly based in the scholar- ship of the ages, both Islamic and Western, and promise greater levels of social and religious discourse between Islam and non-Islam, while the latter could be said to be a reaction to cataclysmic historical events that have fractured Islam and spawned an exclusivist perspective that idealizes its separation from all things non-Islamic, an Islamic guise referred to variously as Islamism or radical Islam.
In the midst of this contemporary wider struggle between the forces claiming Islam as their inspiration, the role and place of women is a defining issue with views that cover the spectrum from claims around equality through to those around relegation and suppression.
The book will gather together a collection of updated research with a primary focus on the issue of Muslim women, either historically or contemporaneously. The impetus for the book came from an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded research program involving Professors Terry Lovat and Hilary Carey from the University of Newcastle, Australia, with collaboration from Professor Geoffrey Samuel and Dr. Santi Rozario of Cardiff University, UK, and supported by Dr. Belinda Green.
The research in the book encompasses far more than was the subject of the ARC project, research that comes from many parts of the world, representing Muslim and non-Muslim researchers, with national identities and focus issues related to Muslim intense countries including Bangladesh, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Tanzania, Tunisia and Turkey, as well as France, the UK, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
The research also covers an array of Muslim views, both Sunni and Shi’a but also minority perspectives such as Ismaili. In each case, the research is underpinned by the latest socio-theological insights and/or empirical findings, as appropriate, and the persistent method is one of reflection into understanding and, where suitable, recommended action.
The ‘Women’s Movement’ in Modern Islam: Reflections on the Revival of Islam’s Oldest Issue
While early Islam’s development was far from unequivocal in the way women were treated, evidence nonetheless of radical reform around the issue is indisputable. The original Constitution guaranteed the right to inheritance, including of property, as well as to initiate divorce and testify in court. Women and men were equally bound by the law and punishable for misdemeanors against it, and were equally liable for the ultimate reward of entering Paradise.
There is considerable evidence as well that women were active participants and leaders in the earliest communities, with two of Muhammad’s own wives being prominent in advocacy and juridical advisory roles, both within and shortly after the lifetime of the Prophet himself. The chapter will attempt to set the scene for the volume by exploring these themes. It will make use of prominent Muslim scholarship around the issue of women in Islam, including work by Mohamed Talbi, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, work that in various ways illustrates that the current struggle to recover the voice of women is crucial to no less than a recovery of Islam itself.
While early Islam’s development was far from unequivocal in the way women were treated, evidence nonetheless of radical reform around the issue is indisputable.
The original ‘Constitution’ has the appearance of guaranteeing the right to inheritance, including of property, as well as to initiate divorce and testify in court. Women and men were equally bound by the law and punishable for misdemeanours against it, and were equally liable for the ultimate reward of entering Paradise. There is considerable evidence as well of women being conceived of as active participants
and leaders in the earliest communities, with two of Muhammad’s own wives characterized as prominent in advocacy and juridical advisory roles, and other women taking on inspirational leadership roles beyond the norm in companion religions.
The chapter will attempt to set the scene for the volume by exploring these themes. It will begin with a brief appraisal of the historical evidence and the store that can properly be attributed to it in light of recent scholarship surrounding the source texts of Islam. It will then move to appraise a sample of the wealth of prominent Muslim scholarship directed at the issue of women in Islam, work that in various ways illustrates that the current struggle to recover the voice of women is crucial to no less than a recovery of essential features of Islam, at least partly lost in our own time.
The Earliest Evidence
Phyllis Trible and Letty Russell (2006) proffer that “… understanding problems and opportunities of the past and present among Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as envisioning a different future, resides more in studying the women Hagar and Sarah than in stressing the putative unity located in Abraham.” (p. 1) Indeed, the stories surrounding these two women, representing respectively the claims of Islam and those of Judaeo-Christianity, stand increasingly at the centre of the contemporary dispute, disenfranchisement and growing friction that characterizes the relationship between Islam and its sibling ‘Western religions’.
Hagar, Abraham’s Arabic wife and mother of his first-born child, Ishmael, is matriarch of the Arabic peoples and, in that sense, of Islam itself. She it is who obeys the will of Allah, even in difficulty and apparent rejection by her husband and his Israelite wife, in taking Ishmael back to his own people where he can learn the Arabic ways in order to fulfil his own destiny to be the father of the Arabic people and patron of Islam, represented in definitive fashion when, together with his father, he builds the Ka’aba to mark the Covenant with Allah.
Sarah, meanwhile, is Abraham’s Israelite wife who initially seems complicit in encouraging him to take a second wife in order to ensure an heir but then quickly turns against Hagar (and Ishmael) when she is herself with child, Isaac, who, according to the Israelite story, is ordained as the true heir because of his pure Israelite heritage.
The importance of these stories, centred on the two foundational women of the Abrahamic tradition, cannot be overstated when one considers that, for these people, the identity of an individual resided in the maternal line. St. Paul seemed to under- stand this when, in the Letter to the Galatians, he chose to contrast Hagar and Sarah as matriarchs of the Old and New Covenants, rather than making reference to the patriarchal heritage. Ironically, in conferring the status of matriarch of the original Covenant on Hagar, he can be interpreted as endorsing, albeit well before the event and no doubt unintentionally, the later Muslim claim that it was through Abraham’s Arabic wife that Allah’s promise was fulfilled. In one of countless points of intrigue in the matriced lines of interpretation and cross-interpretation that characterize the various source texts of the Abrahamic religions, Paul can actually be read as having endorsed the claims of the Ishmaelites (the early Muslims) that their patriarch was the heir to the Covenant, in precedence to Isaac.
Of course, Paul’s intention was far from this, his chief interest being in discrediting the claims of the so-called ‘Judaizers’, those who believed that Judaic adherence must necessarily precede being Christian. He was also striving to draw out the link between Isaac, the progenitor of the New Covenant, and Jesus (the new Isaac), as the definitive heir of the New Covenant. Nonetheless, in doing so, Paul makes the very point that later Muslims would make, namely that Hagar is the matriarch of the Old Covenant and that Ishmael, therefore, is the heir of the Old Covenant and, in that sense, heir to the promise made to Abraham.
In a day and age that sees a large proportion of Islam, both mainstream and radical, identifying itself as ‘children of Ishma’il’ (Adang 1996; Ibn Hazm 1997; Hoyland 2001), sometimes as an angry protest, and the name Ishma’il also associated with radical Islamism by protesting non-Muslims (cf. Prophetic Roundtable, www.propheticroundtable.org), the dispute is clearly of huge moment and requires a renewed and vigorous conversation around the issue.
In similar fashion, the association of the name of Hagar with early and more recent Muslim claims around both their own proper heritage and protestations that these claims have been persistently misheard and rejected by the (Judaeo-Christian) West, makes the issue of recovering the crucial matriarchal heritage of huge import to contemporary events. For not only did many early Muslims refer to themselves as ‘Hagarians’ but, moreover, Hagar’s importance to defining the nature of being Muslim, in terms of submission to Allah’s will and withstanding the onslaught of Judaeo-Christian hostility in fulfilling that will, are coming to hold increased importance in contemporary Islam:
Hagar (Hajar) does not see herself as a victim of Abraham and Sarah, or of a patriarchal, class and race conscious culture.
She is a victor who, with the help of God and her own initiative, is able to transform a wilderness into the cradle of a new world dedicated to the fulfilment of God’s purpose on earth … In doing so (i.e. Muhammad leaving his own city and establishing Islam), he followed in the footsteps of his foremother Hagar who, generations earlier, had chosen to dwell in the desert to which God had directed her, making a home and community out of an unknown land and people.
She demonstrated by her faith and actions that for a believer all of God’s earth is a sanctified place and that loyalty to God supersedes attachment to terrestrial bonds, be they of place or persons. (Hassan 2006, p. 155)
Asserting the relevance of Hagar to the issue of women in Islam today is not to proffer a naive or uncritical pertinence of source texts to a contemporary issue. Nor is it to deny the importance of ongoing scholarship around the nature, history and formation of the Islamic scriptures (Warraq 1998; Armstrong 2001; Ohlig and Puin 2009). It is merely to highlight the importance of the original inspirational material available to the earliest Muslim communities as well as to take note of the use to which this material is being put in contemporary Islamic reflection.
This reflection seems to suggest that the role of women in Islam is arguably its oldest issue, in that claims made about Hagar’s role in submission to Allah and the subsequent effecting of the Covenant that sits at the heart of Islam’s central claims about itself, captures nothing less than the core of Islamic self-identity. In a sense, Hagar is the first
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