Why Do Muslims Take Things at Face Value, or What If the Prophet Really Thought Women Were Deficient in Intelligence?
Recently, a friend of mine posed the question on Facebook: Why do Muslims take everything at face value? I must say, I had never thought that this trait was unique to Muslims. However, upon reflection, I realized that there are important ways in which our religious discourse explicitly encourages us to take things literally in a way that has the potential to sacrifice truth, objectivity and rational thinking to dogma. Why is this? Is it inherent in “Islam” itself, a brake on rationality? Is it a historical phenomenon? From where did it develop, this tendency towards scriptural literalism? I argue that Islam is neither inherently irrational nor inherently rational. But everyday Muslim discourse, in a variety of contexts, but especially among Muslims who are forced into defending aspects of their faith against the equally hegemonic assumptions of Western liberalism, is suffering from a serious absence of self-reflection and critical thinking.
I submit this is so not ONLY because of the usual suspects: deficiency in deen, or deficiency in iman, or Western interference. Rather it is a result of what Nietzche once called the “search for origins," the desire to establish a person or a book or a teaching as completely infallible and beyond doubt. Nietzche wrote, “The origin makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it, but always in a false recognition due to the excesses of its own speech.”
To Nietzche, the lofty origin is no more than “a metaphysical extension which arises from the belief that things are the most precious and essential at the moment of their birth." We tend to think that this is the moment of their greatest perfection, when they emerged dazzling from the hands of a creator. This origin creates a canon of writing and rhetoric that is bent on preserving these ideas. It makes it virtually impossible to contest the interpretation of pious ancestors who were “closer than we will ever be”, and thus know better. This assumption underlies much of orthodox thinking.
My overarching treatment will assume that many beliefs about the Quran and the Islamic tradition are part of beliefs and assumptions that prevailed at the time of the Prophet, and thus do not possess anywhere near the kind of metaphysical weight which was later attributed to them. I do not regard the opinions of scholars as sacrosanct just because those who held them were authoritative figures. Truth is judged by criteria that often is unrelated to the piety or devotion of those who propose such truth. Nor do I regard the discussion of such issues as symptoms of a “colonized mentality” or “liberal egalitarian nonsense poured into Muslim minds by white leftists.”
What does this mean for the everyday discursive realm of apologetics among Muslims? Asad Abu Khalil provides us with a clue, “The logical fallacies and contradictions that characterize contemporary Islamic thought do not affect the political discourse among Muslims only, but they shape the individual Muslim's understanding of his/her religion. The need for a fresh review of the place of sharia-as well as the very meaning of sharia… requires a break from the transmitted version of Islamic history. The nostalgia of the Islamic past, which makes the future unappealing, can only be eliminated once the myths and taboos of Islamic history are discarded.”
My intention in what follows is to speak as directly as I can, using as plain of language as I can, to the intelligent Muslim layperson about his or her religion, encouraging him or her to reflect self-consciously on its meaning and the structure of certain common discourses within the community. This is by no means a scholarly article, since I am by no means a scholar of fiqh, or of Arabic. It is, however, an attempt to address at least some of the common sense “truisms” of the faith that we as Muslims use to construct our worldview.
The issue we will discuss most directly is a controversial hadith where the Prophet Muhammed said that women were “naqisaatul aql.” Scholars typically translate this as “deficient in intelligence.” We could just as easily take, say, the verse about (lightly) hitting one’s wife, but this will do to illustrate some of the dangers of the search for origins.
I have deliberately, indeed provocatively this hadith to illustrate a point about the kind of moral blindness that is one pitfall of orthodoxy. This should not necessarily be read as an argument for unlimited individualism, but rather a warning about the dangers of the kind of thinking all too prevalent in the circles I have travelled in over the years, both abroad and in America.
As Muslims, our religious integrity and identity is heavily in invested in the idea that our religion never needs to change, while at the same time implicitly living with the reality of living religion in a society that is ever changing, as norms and morals evolve. The point I wish to put forward is that people emphasize ideals from moral teachers based on what they already believe and value. This is how we get anachronistic statements from putative and well-meaning defenders of Islam, that “Islam has always promoted women’s rights.” A statement like this objectifies Islam while working it into contemporary moral priorities.
Another way we often see this working is in the phrase, “Islam is perfect, but I am not.” Or titles of talks like “Islam and Culture, Understanding the Difference.” Or as one commentator put it, in a sentiment often expressed in dawah and apologist literature: “Don't judge Islam based on the actions of its followers. Especially don't judge Islam based on the actions of Muslim countries. Those countries are corrupt and wrong in many ways. They don't follow the Qur'an or Hadith properly half the time.” Perhaps those familiar with the Christian religion will recognize the parallels to the trite phrase, “Christianity is great, but its followers are horrible.” Most Muslims assume that there a correspondence between “following the Quran and Hadith properly” and justice. This is an ideal they share (to varying degrees) with other religious traditions.
By way of example, let us examine the hadith about the Prophet and his comments on women’s intelligence:
The Prophet, addressed a group of women in the mosque, saying: "I have not seen any one more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious, sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked: "O Allah's Apostle, what is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said: "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said: "This is the deficiency of your intelligence"... "Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said:"This is the deficiency in your religion."
The problem with apologizing or explaining this hadith is that in defending it, one is drawn into the same set of assumptions of interpretation that traditional scholars decry in the progressive tent. That is, the unquestioned assumptions and values that pervade the thinking of orthodox interpreters are nearly the same: misogyny is bad, slavery is wrong universally, Islam is not inconsistent with contemporary moral priorities. Yet these assumptions themselves are uniquely modern, and almost totally unknown unknown in classical Islamic thinking. There was no such thing as misogyny, slavery had limits but was morally permitted, and the idea of modernity was not a going concern. The position of those who advocate for a progressive renewal by return to classical sources and classical knowledge suffers from the same incoherence as the progressives, but they are more strategic in their phrasing: they can still appeal to the authority of the text as their ultimate guide, concealing the very moral assumptions which shape their approach to the text. They too assume the text is self evident, since the text itself claims it is!
Now, first of all before we begin, let us establish that the story in question was actually transmitted and is accurate to impute to the Prophet. Muslim scholars developed a very sophisticated science to attempt to deal with this problem. The following hadith is found in the collection of al-Bukhari, generally considered to be one of two of the most authoritative hadith collections. It is a single chain hadith (ahad), which is what the vast majority of hadith relating to law are classified as. This doesn’t guarantee the hadith is accurate, but it is a probable assumption, time-tested by the scholars. We should try to determine if its true before we even begin to consider whether it is morally sensible.
If if this in fact a statement of the Prophet Muhammad, we are left with several alternatives:
1. It has some non-literal alternative meaning
2. It means what it says it means, it is not up to us to question the Prophet
3. it has to be understood in a moral context.”
I will come to 1 and 2 later. Regarding 3: Of course, few would dispute that things have to be understood in context. But the meaning of context here is so vague as to encompass nearly anything. It tells us little about what we should actually do when points of the tradition conflict with our own moral understanding. Will “understanding” how to hit your wife (light taps and only after all else has failed) somehow make the practice embody mercy and good moral values?
Let us examine how some scholars have looked at the hadith, “in context”:
G.F. Haddad, one of the most eminent Sunni scholars in today’s world, argues that the meaning of the hadith is not literal: “The hadith here uses two figures of speech: the first is hyperbole (mubalagha) meaning exaggeration in the words "even a prudent, sensible man might be led astray by some of you" i.e. a fortiori an ordinary man. The second figure is synechdoche (majaz mursal) consisting in using the whole for the part: intelligence to mean the specific legal testimony of a woman, and religion to mean the prayer and fast at the time of menses.” He says that the hadith was meant “to trigger among wealthy and sensible citizens acts of generosity for the greater good while reminding them that life is fleeting and thankfulness a surer way to Paradise than despair.”
This is a sensible interpretation, but it does beg the question as to why the Prophet saw fit to make women into a negative example in order to trigger an act of generosity. Haddad’s interpretation does not explore the issue of whether the Prophet believed women were deficient in intelligence. After all, exaggerations often contain a grain of truth.
And if it was not meant literally, why didn’t the prophet clarify precisely that, knowing the impact his words would have thousands of years from now? It seems a curious thing to have a literal and obvious meaning, and to somehow rhetorically blunt the force of the meaning while claiming to be faithful to the essence of the Prophetic example.
By far the more common interpretation of this hadith (and by common I mean advanced by scholars and laymen alike) is one that refuses to apologize for the Prophet’s statement and indeed takes it literally. I do not want to belabor this point, but suffice to say that scholars have interpreted this to mean that women’s physiological nature makes them weaker than men, that women are more ‘emotional’ than ‘intellectual’, that woman is prone to forgetting and too stressed out by motherhood and childbirth to be ‘objective.’ There are many many serious Muslim intellectuals who believe these gender stereotypes.
For example Ibn Kathir said the following about women when commenting on the verse in Surat al-Nisa: 34 “Men are the overseers of women because of what favor God has given to some over others and because of what they spend of their wealth.”
“...That is because men are superior to women, and man is better than woman. Because of this, prophethood was specific for men. Likewise, the most supreme [political] position of authority is specific for men, because of his (the Prophet’s) statement: “A people will never prosper who have given charge of their affair to a woman.”
Given these many statements from scholars about the general authority men have over women, why shouldn’t believers who sincerely study the deen take things at “face value”, when the presumptive meaning is clear and they are working from the understanding of orthodoxy which makes the Prophet Muhammad infallible and a perfect moral exemplar. To rely on one’s own “innate moral nature” or fitra is not absent from the Islamic tradition (indeed the idea of fitra seems to be enjoying a revival amongst my fellow American Muslims) but the idea of fitra always had to submit itself to the text and to the transmitter of the text. These are not new ideas.
When we as Muslims profess deep and abiding love for the Prophet, that is something noble worth preserving. But there is a darker side to this kind of adulation—an absolute refusal to discriminate moral events in the Prophet’s own life, using our own moral compass. We twist ourselves in knots over the controversial hadiths, trying to find ways to justify them to ourselves or to explain them as not literal. We do this, because we have been “disciplined” by orthodoxy to think that there are certain core assumptions that every Muslim must hold, of which one of the most important is the ultimate guidance and infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad.
These complex moral gyrations faced by progressives/liberals/feminists can be eliminated if clear and careful thinking is employed in the spirit of sincerity. Coming back to an earlier summation: Either we are naturally led by the restrictions of orthodoxy to the “face value” conclusion agreed upon by the scholars, or we have to reject their conclusions as being inconsistent with human rights, while at the same time acknowledging their fidelity to the witness of the Prophet as interpreted through the texts. This may mean that the Prophet himself envisioned a society where men always had authority over women. And that may well mean that the Prophet himself regarded women as deficient in intelligence.
The way premoderns, pre-literate folks dealt with these problems, or why they didn’t arise with such force, is that they were typically confined to an all-male scholarly class, and most of the population was illiterate in anything more than a basic knowledge of the Quran. Such issues simply didn’t arise, because most people didn’t know about them, and scholars generally did not see them as particularly important or morally sensitive.
Literacy has transformed people’s ideas of themselves in Muslims countries over the past 50-100 years. Instead unmediated access to the text has more forcibly implanted the idea of orthodoxy, previously more of a discursive abstraction, in people’s minds. And it is not as if these ideas are somehow new in the tradition.
When orthodox Muslims refuse to accept such the possibility that the Prophet could have been wrong on the subject of gender relations, they have all of tradition on their side. Those who argue for some notion of “liberatory hermeneutics” based on reinterpretation and “ijtihad” of established narrations or clear verses explicitly place themselves on weaker ground ontologically than those who argue from within the core assumptions of the system. Progressives, liberals, whatever you want to call them, who nevertheless claim to work within the assumptions of the system, cannot but be stymied by a variety of conclusions which their arguments force them reluctantly into but which they refuse to acknowledge:
1. They somehow know better than the Prophet Muhammad
2. The Quran and the rules laid down in it and by the Prophet are insufficient guides to modern life
These two notions directly contradict the teachings of orthodoxy, as understood by generations of scholars. This dooms the reformers/progressives/liberals/feminists to double talk: on the one hand they want to preserve the fidelity of the message, but they want to do that by reinterpreting a narration or verse away from its clear meaning. They lay themselves open to the charge that in fact what they wish for is to harmonize the message to their own desires and moral compass. Since the thrust of orthodoxy is to convince people that their desires are illegitimate if they conflict with the divine message, it follows that those who base their interpretation off what the Quran, or the majority of scholars have clearly stated regarding an interpretation will always be on firmer ground.
The portrayal of the Islamic discursive tradition as a deeply flexible and tolerant tradition is neither true nor false, but just vague. Its flexibility was not unlimited, the philosophical contours of its moral compass were fairly clear, and there were well-defined limits beyond which philosophers dare not trespass. One of these “holy grails” was criticism of the lawgiver the Prophet Mohammed. Why is it so threatening to admit that Mohammed was an inspired prophet, while admitting he made some mistakes and propagated ideas that are out of date because erroneous?
The question of why orthodoxy absolutely prevents reformists from making this seemingly small statement, and the question of what would happen if they did is a provocative one, which I will pose at a later date, inshallah.