Monday, 22 March 2010

A progressive interpretation of women’s issues in Islam


Article Author :Dima al-Azem

Islam has evolved over the course of historic and cultural events spanning more than a millennia. It has proven to be a dynamic and progressive faith capable of adapting without conflicting with modernity. The concept of ‘Ijtihad,’ or reinterpretation, is central to this flexibility in Islam. It allows for the redefinition of religious laws and practices in contemporary terms. Now more than ever, the Muslim world needs a modern Islamic reinterpretation of women’s rights that is responsive to their contemporary challenges and aspirations.

Poorly devised and institutionalized laws directing the lives of women throughout the Muslim world are furthering their disadvantaged and dependent status. Dominant interpretations of Shari’ah are largely outdated and unreceptive to the needs and aspirations of modern women. The impact is not only emotional. Studies show economic, social, and cultural implications stemming from legal discrimination against women, some of them dire. That is to say nothing of the severe repercussions on family life, the most basic- and fundamental- unit in Islam.

Whether we are talking about divorce, child custody, or inheritance, women suffer a clear disadvantage from a legal stand-point. Destitute women, of whom there is no shortage across the Muslim world, are particularly vulnerable. Dependent on the men around them for a wide array of ba-sic necessities, impoverished and uneducated, they have little legal recourse but to plead for help.
In light of the untenable and unsustainable model espoused by a majority of Muslim countries, it is important for us to un-veil some deep-seated assumptions about the rights of women in Islam that contribute to the durability of their subjugation. While some Muslim countries are leading the emancipation of women through legal and institutional reforms, a contemporary perspective on women’s rights in Islam at large needs to be drawn up. Central to this is a revised legal system for civic, family, divorce, and inheritance laws.

Before looking at one specific issue which plagues Muslim women in some depth, I would like to share a few observations. Culture and tradition play an important role in shaping religion and ideology . Historically, political, religious, and legal authorities defined Islam based on their own interpretations, which were often highly charged with prejudice. We have inherited their legacies and are dealing with them today, thousands of years after they were written. Yet very often we give these interpretations a sacred mask that is off-limits, despite the fact that they are the product of human interpretation, not divine revelation.

I have always held that Islam could not be unfair towards women in the form it is practiced or portrayed. I wonder how many of us have actually thought about remedies for some of the unjust practices targeting women, such as the compulsory veil, segregation, inheritance, divorce and custody of children, domestic abuse, or polygamy.

Most of us rarely debate or even question the authenticity of inherited Islamic practices. We seldom challenge the lens through which we perceive Islamic Law (Shari’a). We fear the slightest deviation from traditional beliefs that make up our social fabric. For many of us, Ijtihad is not even on the horizon. This needs to change if we expect to reclaim our legitimate place among our male peers.
Allow me to shed some light on one issue- polygamy- which continues to penetrate the lives and honor of Muslim women. In pre-Islamic Arabia, polygamy was limitless. The Quran is believed to have restricted this practice to four wives, while allowing a woman not more than one husband at a time. (The reason behind the restriction for women was to keep the patriarchal family intact and avoid confusion over lineage). It is assumed that following a military bat-tle between Muslims and the ruling tribe of Mecca, where sixty five women became widows- six years after Khadijah’s death- the verse recommending taking up to four wives was revealed.

Surah: 4 verse: 3 states: «And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if you fear that you cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that you will not do injustice» Another verse addressing men’s treatment of their wives and the challenge of dealing with them as equals is verse 129

in Surah 4: “You will not be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much you wish (to do so). But turn not altogether away from (one), leaving her as in suspense. If you do good and keep from evil, lo! Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.» Muslim theorists and early scholars that have studied polygamy attributed to it several justifications. None of these, how-ever, are implicitly or explicitly mentioned in the Quran.

The Prophet’s monogamous marriage to Khadijah bint Khwailed lasted for twenty-four years. It was only after her death that Prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him) became polygamous, when he married up to eight or nine times, all of whom, with the exception of Aisha bint Abi-Taleb, were widows.

Traditional justifications for polygamy vary. One sets polygamy as a solution to economic and social needs, where a financially-capable man sponsors and cares for more than one needy woman. The problem here is the assumption that women can not be independent or self-reliant. Another justification is when a man’s first wife becomes barren or sick. Yet another certifies that since a man’s biological factors bring about unconstrained sexual de-sire, he should be given license to marry several wives.

All these arguments have no authentic basis in Islam and should therefore not be ratified. In fact, the only verse allowing men to take up to four wives is the one cited above, which clearly indicates that polygamy was permitted to ensure the welfare of orphans. Looking at what some progressive thinkers have to offer in this respect, Amina Wadud of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) interprets the polygamy verse as being mainly concerned with justice. Wadud sees the origins of polygamy linked to the treatment of orphans and believes that men were given the responsibility of managing the welfare of orphaned children- if they were incapable of doing so in a just manner they could take them as wives to avoid any «unjust mismanagement.»

She argues that monogamy is preferred in light of both verses (4:3)and (4:129), and adds that polygamy could be self-defeating if the husband-father is split between families. Similarly, Geraldine Brooks, the Australian author and journalist, argues that verse (4:3)restricts the number of wives a man can take at one time, and that in any case polygamy is not favored in the Quran. She equates polygamy to slavery in that respect:: «As with polygamy, the wording of Koran permits, but discourages, slavery.» John L. Esposito of Georgetown University believes that polygamy may be restricted or even banned since men are incapable of being fair and equal polygamists.

Esposito sheds light on the historical and social contexts in which the verse on polygamy was revealed, with reference to the troubled circumstances that characterized the times, such as the widespread practice of limitless polygamy and the high number of widows resulting from the Battle of Uhud.

Moreover, Esposito highlights a tendency in the Quran that favors a gradual approach to eliminate social ills over absolute prohibition (except in some cases such as female infanticide). The limitation to four wives at one time could be perceived as the first step in a gradual process that would eventually lead to a ban on polygamy, similar to that on slavery. Religious scholars must move beyond the literal substance of the Quran to reach out to its deeper- and greater- intent.

According to Mohammad Shahrour, an Islamic researcher from Syria, the two preconditions for polygamy are that the second wife must be a widow with orphaned children and that the man is marrying her to prevent unfair treatment of her orphans. Shahrour defines “orphan” as a juvenile who has not reached puberty, has lost his or her father, and lives with his or her mother.

The verse says: «And if you fear that you will not deal fairly by the Orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four….» Shahrour refutes the interpretation of this verse suggesting the man should marry the orphans: he holds that “women» can not be orphans as they have reached puberty. While we should not expect unanimity among scholars of Islam on the issue of polygamy, or any other issue for that matter, exploring the flexibility of our heritage exposes the differences- sometimes irrec-oncilable- between a man and a woman’s vision of the rights and role of women in Islam. The inclusion of women in reinterpreting Islamic texts can go a long way in bringing about much needed social and legal reform. Eliminating gender discrimination rooted in outdated interpretations of Islam will not only help lift us from our dependence on males in our personal affairs. It can help reduce the rampant poverty across the Muslim world. Education, training, and job opportunities for women, for example, not only enhance her financial situation but also her health and that of her family. Studies by international development organizations suggest that a small investment in poor areas produces better results when entrusted to a woman. Islam has been used in many cases to introduce a fundamentalist ideology that is highly restrictive of women’s rights. The fact is that Islamic- particularly family- laws formulated by men centuries after the death of Prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him) are still effective and strongly reflected in legislation today, placing women at a distinct disadvantage. Quranic interpretations are susceptible to social, historical, or gender biases. Shari’a was formulated by men between the l0th and the l2th centuries, long after the Prophet’s death, and presented to Muslims as authentic teachings. Since then, some of the original values of Islam have been altogether abandoned or manipulated. Ijtihad can help us retrieve those values and enhance our lot as women. We have been given a mechanism to lift our-selves out of the degraded, dependent and intolerable status we find ourselves in. Let’s use it.

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