October 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on Islam, Feminism and Tradition

Some Further thoughts on islam and Feminism after reading Daniel Haqiqatjou's post: https://muslimskeptic.com/2016/10/15/a-parade-of-contradictions-when-feminists-are-inconsistent/

 A lot of Muslim traditionalists rightly point to tensions between Islam and feminism. There is plenty of real tension between the two, otherwise there wouldn't be such a vociferous debate about their compatibility. One recent blogger on this issue even called Muslim feminism an oxymoron. It is his position that Islam has a secure methodology for finding the truth, and is in no need of reform from feminists. (https://medium.com/she-zaadi/islamic-feminist-oxymoron-level-over-9000-3c15f773d975#.z0py6a74t)

 One of the ways that Muslims who argue against feminism have been able to argue is through the powerful idea that they are the stewards of something sacred and unchanging. Yet many traditionalists I've dialogued with seem unaware that the tradition has in times past absorbed many many foreign ideas and made these ideas its own. This absorption did not proceed through a strict methodological logic. Rather most of the absorptions were the product of historical contingency. And yet the tradition survived.

The abolition of slavery was one such foreign idea. A good analogy for the debates currently roiling the ummah around feminism are the debates around the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century. Then, as now, the issue was the relationship to a powerful bundle of discourses about human rights emanating from the West. The question was: is abolishing slavery legally justifiable?

Scholars were divided into two camps at the time. One camp, the traditionalists, rightly pointed out that there was no legal basis for abolition in the fiqh tradition, that the meanings of Quranic verses around slavery were unchanging and not to be abrogated, and that to follow the European countries in abolishing slavery would be a reprehensible innovation. One of the 20th century's most illustrious Sufi Sunni scholars, Yusuf al-Nabhani, held these views. al-Nabhani doubted the sufficiency of human reasoning to abrogate that which God in his book did not prohibit. He and others believed that the abolition of slavery was a doctrine aimed at weakening Islam. The textual criterion was self sufficient, and one could only err in assuming an independent standard for moral progress. In short, the traditionalists then were making the same arguments against abolition that many Muslims now make against feminism.

 The second group were the Muslim modernists/reformers. They argued that the new circumstances of the time called for new rulings and new interpretations on issues previously thought settled, such as the role of women, and the legality of slavery. They argued that abolishing slavery was the right thing to do, Islamically. They used Quran and Hadith, but more abstractly, since there was no clear statement about the evil of slavery therein. But to them, freedom was the essence of the teachings of Islam. Their arguments were premised on the idea that Islam, as a vehicle of human progress, has the capacity to accept change, if it leads to beneficial moral progress, thus assuming that the standard for progress exists independently of the textual criterion. (Amal Ghazal "Debating Slavery and Abolition in the Arab Middle East")

 Something strange seems to have happened in this divide on the way to our present moment. The modernists are still the modernists, still arguing from moral essence, often using an implicit societal standard. But the traditionalists by and large accepted the modernist view about abolition, and made it their own. And they did this without much sound traditional Islamic legal reasoning to support it. Although this was the right thing to do, it also, In my view, fatally undermined any authority the current conservative argument from Islamic tradition has in the contemporary world.

 Muslims the world over, of all ideologies, rightly regard all kinds of slavery with a moral repugnance. Their attitude shows to what degree Muslims are inheritors (and even champions) of Western abolitionist assumptions about modern human rights. A true empirically sound traditionalist position on Islam is extremely rare in our modern world, because a true empirically sound traditionalism would have to acknowledge that abolition of slavery has no unequivocal textual and legal basis in Islam. In other words, a truly consistent traditionalist could still potentially regard slavery as something to be practiced within the limits set out for it in the Quran and Hadith, not as a morally outrageous anachronism. Most if not all Muslims are modernists, even many Salafis, because they accept the assumption that slavery is inherently immoral. Once you start extracting the idea of 'moral essence' separate and above the clear meaning of the text, you can no longer call yourself a traditionalist.

 I wrote all this because, if you're Muslim and feminist, there is little need to spend a lot of time worrying overly much about contradictions that alleged traditionalists point out between feminism and Islam, from an empirical standpoint. Most, if not all traditionalists themselves have their own empirical contradictions to deal with in the way they formulate tradition. Next time a traditionalist asks 'why, if feminism is so important, there is no mention of it in the Quran?', ask them 'why, if abolishing slavery is so important, is there no mention of it in the Quran?' The abolitionist hermeneutic IS the feminist hermeneutic. The Islamic tradition has survived inconsistencies greater than this, and it will survive traditionalist hostility to feminism, and feminism's alleged contradictions to Islam. It will survive, not because of human vigilance, but because of our nearly boundless ability to keep changing, all the while imagining we inherit our moral code from an unbroken chain of tradition.

 Finally, and perhaps most importantly, abolition also became accepted because the formerly enslaved struggled for knowledge, rights, and attained positions of religious authority. Similarly, a true and profound synthesis between Islam and feminism is already occurring because women are struggling for knowledge, rights and for attaining positions of religious authority. Each and every tradition is an arena of social struggle. The tradition itself will change as a result of these struggles. Accepting those changes will be difficult, especially for men. But I am confident the changes themselves will strengthen Islam and make its conceptions of equality more and more robust. (Bernard Freamon "Conceptions of equality and slavery in Islamic law")


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