Egalitarian Islam and Misogynist Islamic Tradition : A Critique of the Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic History and Heritage

by Reza Afshari

Since the advent of modernity, successive generations of Muslim intellectuals, driven by a sense of political urgency and an identity crisis, have felt compelled to write a new version of Islam’s history. No longer just the vocation of a few Muslim scholars, today the task is engaging ever expanding circles of ideologues, political activists, government officials, and academics across the intellectual spectrum. Throughout this century many progressive writers have hoped to modernize Islam, and in recent years Muslim conservatives have rediscovered an Islamic essentialism that purports to "Islamize modernity." Grafting contemporary concepts (rationalism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism and feminism) onto the pre-modern Islamic paradigm, these efforts have often reflected the global ideological trends of the day.

It is to be expected that the rise of Islamist movements should revitalize historical debate and controversy among Muslims. But a new obsession with Islam seems to dominate intellectuals’ discussions of the Middle East : a kind of Islamistmania that seems to be the observe of the Westoxication (the Iranian-coined gharbzadegi) of the 1960s. The Islamists equate modernist discourse and its secular critique of the male-dominated Islamic culture with a Western imperialist attack on Islamic authenticity, cultural norms and way of life. Retreating in the face of such charges of cultural treason, today’s Middle Eastern intellectuals seem to be more ideologically and politically defensive than their modernist forerunners early in this century.

The main underlying ideological premise of this articles is that through these efforts, modernity and its intellectually secular preconceptions is subsumed under an emotionally-charged and metaphysically-attuned discourse that remains focused on Islam. Instead of making an epistemological and emotional break, intellectuals have tried to redefine Islam. This is not to say that a grand paradigmatic discourse could have had a substantive impact on sociopolitical realities. Middle Eastern realities, in their messiness and fluidity, do not lend themselves to any intellectual attempt at a systemic societal reordering. Nevertheless, a persistent orientation toward the past, a normative reference to the sacred text of a pre-modern paradigm, and a compulsion to engage in dialogue with ancestors long dead have contributed to the preservation of an intellectual climate in which a genuinely secular and modern ideology could survive only under the obscurantic clouds of a sacred discourse. Thus, the epistemological attachment to the Islamic conception of social order is largely preserved.

I also believe that historicism is still useful, for normative and analytical purposes, in understanding societies that continue to produce Imams an pseudo-Imams on a mass scale and, in the case of Iran, make them supreme rulers in the late twentieth century. To speak of "post-modernity" in regard to such a climate would add to the prevailing intellectual obscurantism. To use the post-modern discourse of the Western intellectual elite an order to deconstruct a modernity that is obstructed by an obdurate pre-modern patriarchy, and then to recommend Islam as an alternative, is an exercise in intellectual alchemy that creates not an elixir but an ideological snake oil. The result is theoretical confusion. Problems of modernity will not dissipate by a recourse to the ancient mind-set.

Mai Ghoussoub observed in 1987 : "Some of the most outstanding contemporary feminists, daunted by the scale of the tasks before them and the isolation in which they stand, have changed their tone recently" (1987 : 17). Critical feminism seeks refuge in the holy text. This trend can be called neo-feminism. The explicit feminist terminology is still apparent, but the sharp edge of iconoclasm is blunted. This neo-feminism, like earlier Islamic reformism, contends that traditions are layers of societal experiences accumulated under specific circumstances obscuring the true meaning and spirit of Islam. The argument is based on an ideological assumption that there are two different Islams : the good Islam, as reflected in the lay Muslim’s understanding of ethical and egalitarian messages of the Quran, and the bad Islam of shari‘a as interpreted by the ulema. That ideological assumption is itself a result of refurbishing a pre-modern paradigm with the trappings of modernity. Thus, the noe-feminist discourse converges with the Islamic reformists’ attempt to construct a new Islam outside its historical framework and free from its traditional confines of shari‘a. This insertion of feminist consciousness into the mind-set of a revealed religion has further embellished and mystified the past. The most potentially iconoclastic discourse, secular feminism, is harnessed to the worn-down wheels of Islamic reformism.

In her influential book, Beyond the Veil, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has added clarity to the paradigm of patriarchy already advanced by Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi : discriminating gender relations have been sanctified by Islamic laws and norms. Mernissi’s goal was not to recast Islam in a modernist mold and rediscover a new meaning for it, but to expose the ideological links between the Islamic normative system and the practices of patriarchy. Moreover, the book is effective in showing that historical Islam has deeply ingrained the fear of female sexuality in the male consciousness. As Hisham Sharabi observes, Saadawi and Mernissi in their earlier writings radically departed from the Islamic reformist discourse and dealt with the constraints imposed by the logic of a shari‘a-bound reformism that still seeks a "renewal" of Islam. Islamic reformism is not capable of exposing the ancient roots of the patriarchal values and practices enshrined in the sacred text. It even carries the risk of adding a veneer of modern respectability to the discourse of the holy text and religious thought.

A genuinely secular and feminist discourse would assert that valuable cultural attributes of the past can be preserved and made to nurture the development of a progressive national character only if the cultural icons are subjected to a kind of iconoclasm that purges the culture of its inherent patriarchy. Commenting on the liberating impact of feminist ideas (something totally licking in reformism), Sharabi testifies to its significant potential for "the Arab Muslim male" (1988a : 32-33). The effect would be the same for any Muslim male seeking liberation from traditional shackles.

The close causal links that Saadawi and Mernissi, among others, have established between patriarchy and Islamic ideological influences has been criticized by Nikki Kiddie and Judith E. Tucker as idealistic and insufficiently attentive to the political economy of women’s oppression in different eras and in diverse Muslim societies. This is a valid criticism of Beyond the Veil only if one considers the book to be merely a sociological study. Its value is in its iconoclasm ; it had to remain focused on the suffocating weight of the religion and its pre-modern misogynistic norms. Kiddie and Tucker themselves recognize the importance of ideological factors in regulating patriarchy (Kiddie 1979 : 332). Tucker writes that equal attention should be given to three non-religious determinants : property relations, family "as an institution which both reflects and structures material production and social life," and women’s participation in the public domain (Tucker 1983 : 325).

Such critiques have not deterred Professor Mernissi. To the contrary, she seems to have adopted an Islamic reformist paradigm. This shift is apparent in her 1991 book The Veil and the Male Elite ; A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, in which her primary intellectual aim is to locate, through a rigorous search of historical documents, roots in pre-modern Islamic traditions that could support feminist beliefs and women’s rights. It is true that her previous writings contained references to egalitarianism and democracy as "the kernel of the Muslim message," or the assertion that Islam "affirms the potential equality between sexes" (Mernissi 1987 : 19). The focus of her earlier feminist discourse was not, however, to substantiate such remarks ; nor was it to draw a distinction between an egalitarian Islam and a misogynist Islamic tradition. In fact, Beyond the Veil (its first publication in the U.S. was in 1975) is a searing attack on Muslim patriarchy an Islam as a "system." Mernissi wanted to show :

Sexual equality violates Islam’s premise, actualized in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order : that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of males. (Mernissi 1987 : 19)

Although Mernissi still states her case for women rights with characteristic passion and conviction, and in particular advances arguments against the veil, her recent writings attempt to show that gender discrimination began despite Allah’s words and Muhammad’s intentions. In order to rescue monotheism, compromise was necessary with the patriarchal tradition to the Meccan elite, especially after Muhammad’s death, when this same male elite, i.e., Muhammad’s compassions, began to "fabricate" misogynistic hadith (sayings and practices attributed to Muhammad) to their own befit (Mernissi 1991 : 45-46). Mernissi maintains that the Prophet’s efforts were aimed at renouncing the "phobic attitude" then prevailing toward women and that the Islamic message introduced hopes of sexual equality in the treatment of women (Mernissi 1991 : 81). Muhammad emerges as the first Muslim feminist. Despite Muhammad’s efforts, "very quickly the mysognistic trend reasserted itself" (Mernissi 1991 : 75).

There are highly restrictive verses in the Quran, and Mernissi tries to explain them away by attributing them to socio-military conditions specific to the time. One example is her interpretation of the Verse 53 of Surah 33, which is the first verse in the Quran to burden women with the hijab. The Verse enjoins Muhammad’s male companions to approach the Prophet’s wives "from behind a curtain [hijab] : that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs." The occasion that induced the revelation was the night Muhammad’s wedding to a new wife, which Mernissi explains took place during "an epoch of doubts and military defeats that undermined the morale of the inhabitants of Medina" (Mernissi 1991 : 92).

A careful rereading of this verse reveals to us that Allah’s concerns in this verse are about tact. He wanted to intimate to the Companions certain niceties that they seemed to lack, like not entering a dwelling without asking permission. (Mernissi 1991 : 92)

Mernissi goes on to assure the reader that the hijab was actually meant "to separate the space between two men." In this rather tedious rendition of "the descent of the hijab," Mernissi does not fully explain what bearing the "time of severe military crisis" had on Muhammad’s desire to get rid of the wedding guests so that he could start enjoying his new bride.

Mernissi interprets the Verse of Curtain as a mere explanation for etiquette. A secular reading of the text, one note inhibited by a lingering reverence toward the sacred, will compare it with other Quranic verses that are protective of women’s virtues as defined by men. All of them recognize and reinforce the norms that held women as men’s possessions, the objects of men’s desires. Why shouldn’t we treat the Verse of Curtain as Mernissi herself used to treat other verses relating to women ? In Women in Muslim Unconscious, published by Mernissi under a pseudonym in 1982, she subjected other verses to her then truly iconoclastic critique, showing how all verses that speak of women could be deconsecrated (Sabbah 44). Without any reference to egalitarian Islam that supposedly treated man and woman as spiritually equal, she asserted in 1982 that in Islam "[T]he connection between the divine being and the human being varies according to sex." She concluded :

The relationship of the Muslim God to man is not only different from the one he maintains with women, but her relationship to man is only understandable through an analysis of the triangular relationship between God, the male believer, and the female believer. Sabbah 1984 : 66)

It is from this type of analysis that Mernissi’s discourse departs in The Veil and the Male Elite, signifying a shift from iconoclastic feminism to Islamic reformism and losing much of its liberating impact. Her criticism no longer stresses that the image of an ideal woman in the Quran and the hadith was one of submission and passivity. Mernissi’s language becomes almost reverential toward Allah and his Prophet ; iconoclasm stops at the doorsteps of Muhammad’s household.

Many of the Islamic traditions which are being reevaluated today arose after Muhammad’s death. The neo-feminists distinguish between the historical formation of Islam under then prevailing conditions, which led to discriminatory practices, and its ethical teachings, abstract vision and concepts. The latter are deemed capable of infinite expansion to meet the socio-political and spiritual needs of every age. From the Right, cultural conservative Islamists like Sayyid Qutb have also tried, in Yousef Chourei’s words, to purify Islam’s "history in the purgatory of abstractness" (1990 : 98). All these attempts at reinterpretation have one other thing in common ; In order to legitimize their own particular narrative, they have tried to invalidate, as Iran’s Shari‘ati did, "the traditionally maintained view of this faith in all its diversities" (Dabashi 112. Leila Ahmed repeats the favorite question of all Islamic reformists : "Was the import of the Islamic moment a specific set of ordinances or that it initiated an impulse toward a juster and more charitable society ?" (1992 :95). Only within a frustrated modernity does such a question become possible. The two visions of Islam clashed :

From the beginning there were those who emphasized the ethical and spiritual messages as the fundamental message of Islam and argued that the regulations Muhammad put into effect, even his own practices, were merely the ephemeral aspect of the religion, relating only to that particular society at that historical moment. Thus, they were never intended to be normative or permanently binding for the Muslim community. Among the groups that to some degree or other took this position were the Sufis, the Kharijis, and the Qarmations (Qaramita)... implicit to all of them was the idea that the laws applicable to the first Muslim society were not necessarily applicable to or binding upon later ones... (Ahmed 1992 : 66-67)

Despite different readings of the texts, all reformist and neo-feminist discourse articulate these two visions of Islam. They may, however, disagree as to which groups other than the Sufis, on whom they mostly agree, can be considered as the true transmitters of the spiritual and humanist Islam. What the neo-feminists read in the Quran are mainly ethical precepts which they think are general, "rather than specific legalistic formulations" (Ahmed 1992 : 88).

The neo-feminist discourse is highly critical of these traditions, and in this respect it departs from the older approach of Islamic reformists. For Mernissi, as for Leila Ahmed, the gate-keepers of the hadith and the chroniclers of Islamic history enshrined androcentrism in the Islamic traditions and presented them as religious-historical truth. Thus the neo-feminists have tried to give the "true spirit of Islam" a much broader socio-historical scope, taking the discourse into marginal texts traditionally considered heretical by Muslim jurists. They offer more than a mere reinterpretation of shari’a rules in accordance with the expediencies of the time ; they try to remold a highly selective historical knowledge into a new perspective.

According to Mernissi, the great flourishing of Arab-Islamic civilization took place in the middle of the eighth century (Umayyid dynasty ruled until 750), mainly as the result of the integration of the Greek humanistic literature and the influence of Persian and Indian thought translated into Arabic. Like many liberal Islamic reformists, Mernissi believes that the Mutazilite school presented the true rationalist spirit of Islam. Soon after, however, the Islam of the jurists recovered. As a result, "the Mu‘tazila became pariahs and... the Muslim world rolled toward the precipice of mediocrity" (Mernissi 1992 : 33-34). "It is that Islam of the palaces, bereft of its rationalist dimension, that has been forced on our consciousness as the Muslim heritage today" (Mernissi 1992 : 37). She also believes that the Sufis presented the true egalitarian spirit of Islam. Thus for Mernissi, Hallaj, preeminent among the Sufis who rejected "the idea of blind submission," stands as a light illuminating the path of the good Islamic heritage. Hallaj was executed in Baghdad by the custodians of shari’a in 922.

Two different sets of concepts articulate the mental constructs of the two Islams, and Mernissi’s book is rich in explaining them, not so much in their original historical contexts but in what she wishes them to mean today in the struggle between modernity and religious anachronism. The official Islam was articulated by "key words" like religion, belief and obedience. The egalitarian Islam was conceived in terms of personal opinion, innovation, and creation. "The conflict lies in the fact that this second pole has for centuries been condemned as negative, subversive..." (Mernissi 1992 : 40).

It is not clear where and when Mernissi locates the origin of the corruption : in Arabia at the time of Muhammad’s companions or in Baghdad of the Abbasids after the defeat of the rationalist school ? Azizah Al-Hibri Leila Ahmed, among other Muslim neo-feminists, share in the ideological assumption that there are two kinds of Islamic traditions. They are, however, agreed in pushing the genesis of the corrupting influences far back to the time of the emergence of the Islamic order in Medina, even to the time when the prophet was still alive. They assert that in Medina, under specific historical conditions not intrinsic to Islam, pragmatism prevailed and the idealistic spirit of the new religion was compromised.

By 1982, Azizah Al-Hibri had already adopted the reformist paradigm, hoping to construct "feminism" within the ideological bounds of Islam. She asserted : "Patriarchy co-opted Islam after the death of the prophet." In the "hostile milieu" then prevailing in Arabia, the message " could not have survived without an infinite amount of flexibility and adaptability. Thus the prophet had to resort to a variety of compromises and tactics to achieve his end" (1982 :213). She contended that under the influence of feminism, Muslim women are "reexamining these old patriarchal interpretations and shaking them at the root." She added that "if patriarchy itself was able to justify within its ideological bounds the existence five different schools of thought, the feminists can surely justify the addition of at least one more" (1982 : viii and iv). This is said without a discernible sense of irony. In whose company would Mernissi place her own discourse ?

Leila Ahmed expresses a similar, but more nuanced, view in Women and Gender in Islam : Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (1992). Ahmed presents another interesting case of those feminists who "changed their own tone recently." The factor that helped to bring about a shift of emphasis (from critical feminism to Islamic reformism) in Ahmed’s writing was, she explained, her realization of the depth of anti-Arab racism in the United States. She thus felt compelled to defend her own culture and its practices, especially against the Orientalist misrepresentation of Islam. In a 1982 article, she offered a positive explanation for the harem (1982 : 521-34). In this article Ahmed showed that Western men had portrayed the harems as synonyms for "degradation, licentiousness, and corruption," allowing their wildest imaginations to carry them away. This provoked a defensive and equally extreme positive depiction of the harem by the Muslim analyst who asserted :

The very word "harem" is a variant of the word "haram" which means "forbidden" (and also "holy"), which suggests to me that it was women who were doing the forbidding, excluding men from their society, and that it was therefore women who developed the model of strict segregation in the first place [ !]. (1982 : 529)

This defensive posture continues in her book (1992), where Leila Ahmed devotes considerable space to a debunking of Orientalism. A perspective of extraneity informs this kind of approach. What an Orientalist says about a Muslim society becomes, in the logic of Counter-Orientalism, an integral part of that society, as if the internal dynamics of the society under study were shaped by external racist prejudices directed against it. Ahmed observes that the Victorian men opposed the feminist views of their own society. She goes on to assert that the same Western men, as colonizers, attempted to empty Middle Eastern culture of its most resilient content, Islam. Thus, they called for the unveiling of women. The Islamist rulers of Iran argue the same point in justifying their violent reimposition of the veil on women.

In my view, what Orientalism has said about Islam does not change the reality of historical Islam ; Muslims still have to come to terms with the reality of their modern existence without being reactive and defensive. In today’s political climate long-dead colonialists like Lord Cromer are relevant only as a psychological burden. One outcome of this preoccupation with the West’s view or Islam is that it directs criticism towards "westernized" intellectuals who, in their "alienated" socio-cultural existence, demanded (and still demand) socio-cultural policies that seem to be in line with what the Orientalists advocated. A corollary is that Ahmed’s argument seem to grant a degree of authenticity, if not justification, to the Islamic cultural conservatives (from early in this century to now) in their political use of "cultural symbols" (e.g., the veil) as emblems of struggle against cultural imperialism. It does so by shifting the focus away from internal and repressive cultural patterns to the extraneous Orientalist’s depiction of the veil as a sign of backwardness. Thus, such remarkable women as the Egyptian Huda Sha‘rawi are depicted as bourgeois creatures alien to their own culture.

In rereading Islam’s history, Leila Ahmed reconstructs a gender-equal Islam which is largely based on the assumption that its "spiritually egalitarian voice" is heard through "the Quranic verses addressing women and unambiguously declaring the spiritual equality of men and women." This neo-feminist use of the Quran as a heuristic device enables her to construct ("feminist") abstract principles of the faith. This reductionist interpretation gives prominence to the "egalitarian voice" of Islam and dismisses its legal "voice" as derived from un-Islamic (foreign) patriarchal influences. Ahmed, like Mernissi of today, argues that this other "voice" sanctified the subordinate position of women in the social-legal edifice of Islam.

Ahmed argues that in the years immediately after the death of Muhammad, women played a key role in transmitting hadith and were among the "authors" of the verbal texts of Islam.

This fact is remarkable. After all, how many of the world’s major living religions incorporate women’s accounts into their central texts or allow a woman’s testimony as to the correct reading of a single word of a sacred text to influence decisions (1992 : 64,73)

If I understand this passage correctly, Ahmed seems to attribute, with a discreet sense of pride, this "fact" to Islam. In such instances, the neo-feminist discourse becomes almost identical with Islamic reformism. It is interesting to note that in 1986 the same author attributed the same fact not to Islam but to a pre-Islamic (Jahilia) tradition not yet totally suppressed by Islam. Then Ahmed wrote :

This in itself is an indication that the first generation of Muslims (the generation that stood closest to the Jahilia days and Jahilia attitudes toward women), and their immediate heirs, had no difficulty in accepting women as authorities. (1996 :671)

The ethical voice was largely silenced, Ahmed now emphasizes, under the suffocating influences of "the various patriarchal cultures" of the conquered lands where the Muslim Arabs were assimilated and adopted the mores and attitudes of the dominant classes. Here, too, I see a shift in emphasis with regard to those negative influences that supposedly undermined Islam’s egalitarianism. The burden is now placed on the patriarchal culture of Byzantines and Persians. Again, the neo-feminist writers have difficulty in determining the specific eras and the sources of corrupting influences which subverted the original message of Islam. In a 1986 article on the same subject, Leila Ahmed did not elaborate on these foreign influences. Commenting on the view of some scholars who maintain that "Islamic polygyny – virilocal polygyny – was an innovation of Mohamad’s," Ahmed wrote :

Whether or not, it was deeply consonant in its attendant consequences and implications... with the type of marriage that Islam was instituting as normative... The granting of males, further, unconditional rights to offspring... and the retaining for males only the right enjoyed by jahilia women and men of divorcing apparently at will, seem distinctly to connote that in addition of absolute privileging of male right, father right, was also one of Mohamad’s distinct objectives. When one adds to these the licensing of polygyny and of unrestricted male sexual access to women..., it becomes difficult not to conclude that the absolute empowerment of men in relation to women in all matters relating to sexuality and offspring and the disempowerment of women (and thus the complete transformation of his society’s mores in the erea of the relation between the sexes) was also itself one of Mohamad’s prime objectives... (1986 : 678)

In light of this critical narrative, the adoption of the hijab becomes little more than a technical matter. In the same article Ahmed wrote that :

It is well known that the area in which Islam introduced the greatest reform was that of marriage and sexual relations, a large proportion – perhaps 80 percent – of Koranic rulings being devoted to regulating marital relations and the conduct of women. That is, the establishment of Islam was marked by the institution of new sociosexual norms to at least the same extent as by the institution of a new religion and polity. (1986 : 667)

If women’s position was to such an extent fixed in permanent subservience to men by "the institution of new sociosexual norms" during Muhammad’s time, then what was left of the original message to be subverted by the conquered peoples ? What does it say about the reality (or rather the myth) of a spiritually egalitarian message of a pre-modern paradigm ?

In fact, in the passage quoted above, Ahmed, quoting Mernissi with approval, seemed to suggest that "Islam’s own vision of the ideal society – namely, a society based on equity and justice for all members without distinction" was subverted by the Prophet of Islam !

Nevertheless, the type of marriage Islam was setting up as the norm for that early society evidently was one in which women were disempowered. Fatima Mernissi has implied... that the rulings giving the right to divorce exclusively to men, like all Islamic rulings on women, [emphases added] stemmed from and reflected, not some larger concern [like the wishes of Allah ?], but only Mohamad’s purely subjective response to his personal experiences, in this case being irked because a number of women... divorced him (before their marriages’ consummation). (Ahmed 1986 : 678)

It seems to me that in her previous writing, Professor Ahmed was trying to rescue Islam not from "Islamic clerics," as she now states her goal, but from the messenger of Allah. However, in her latest writings, the burden of corrupting influences is lifted from Muhammad’s "personal experiences."

Whereas Mernissi recognizes the positive contribution of older civilizations then prevailing in the region, Ahmed puts responsibility for stifling the practices of the Iranian nobility (Ahmed 1992 : 67). Through an investigation of the hadith narratives, she wishes to show that women’s participation in warfare, their freedom to engage publicly in the religious affairs of the community, and their rights in marriage were gradually curtailed. The "forthrightness" of Arab women of Medina was replaced by the "new ethos" of the empire, and "women were reduced to resorting to manipulation, poison, and falsehood – the means of the powerless" (Ahmed 1992 : 84). Ultimately, in the interest of men in power, the "spiritually egalitarian voice" of Islam was transposed into "the textual edifice of Islam." This is how Ahmed refers to shari‘a, without using the emotionally charges term. It is puzzling to me why she consistently chooses not to use the term shari‘a in places in her book where she critically discusses it.

Ahmed’s entire argument is based on the views of those historians of Islamic law, e.g., Noel J. Coulson and Joseph Schacht, who have argued that the hadith corpus developed as the result of the interpretation of the legists and as such reflected the heterogeneous conditions of the empire more than the Quranic teachings and Muhammad’s conduct, or his elaborations of these teachings. Thus, "the Quranic elements within it [legal corpus] were largely submerged" (Ahmed 1992 : 89). Ahmed presents shari‘a as a legal system overlaid by spurious traditions "which took shape over several centuries" under the influence of foreign customs the prevailing in conquered territories. No reference is made to scholars who are equally convinced of a contrary view : that shari‘a is, in its entirety, a body of laws, in the words of one Muslim scholar, "organically related" to the Quran and to Muhammad’s " attitude and orientation" (Ansari 1992 : 166). One possible implication of Ahmed’s argument is that contemporary neo-feminists are in a better position to understand the true spirit of Islam than either Muhammad himself or the early generations of the faithful who were closest to the source.

Overall, it seems to me that the iconclasm that at first so liberatingly characterized the feminist discourse has been blunted by the new search for Islamic spirituality and egalitarianism. Moreover, neo-feminism, in its approach and sensitivity, has come to resemble the Islamic reformism which has never gone beyond relegitimizing Islam in modernity. The neo-feminist discourse is highly critical of Arab-Islamic heritage but remains reverential toward Islamic spirituality, Allah, the Quran and the Prophet. The "ethical" and "spiritual" dimensions of Islam are being reinterpreted to serve the progressive interests of the present. It seems as if the otherwise secular feminists are also in pursuit of a godly vision of society. Have they become the renewers (mujaddidun) of Islam in this late twentieth century ? it also appears as though they have turned away from secularism as an explicit tenet in the intellectual discourse, and are no longer spearheading the kind of cultural iconoclasm capable of a total epistemological and emotional rupture with the pre-modern past.

Mernissi’s new approach is constrained by Islamicness, offering yet another, and admittedly more radical, modernist interpretation of Islam. Is such a retreat a sign of political expediency restraining a rigorous iconoclastic discourse or is it a manifestation of the powerful grip which metaphysical Islam still exercises over the imagination of intellectuals ?

One indication of the decline of iconclasm in recent arguments is the kind of response and debate that have been generated. In a review of Mernissi’s book, Marlene Kanawati has observed that her new discourse faces a "dilemma." This dilemma, one might add, is familiar to Islamic reformism : the attempt to create modernist consensus on the proper nature of "true" Islam leads to asking Muslims not to obey Quranic verses that impose patriarchal limitations on women. "Though she [Mernissi] attacks many habits as being misreported, which is acceptable in Islam, Qur’anic verses are God’s own words and cannot be doubted.." (Kanawati 1993 : 502).

In another review, Sherifa Zuhur writes :

Mernissi begins her book by noting a hadith that people who vest power in a woman will never know prosperity. Readers may realize that it might be heretical but more appropriate to question Muhammad’s motives for making the comment concerning the daughter of the king of Iran who claimed her father’s throne when he dies. Instead she spends much time questioning the paternity, social status, and motives of Abu Bakra, a companion of Muhammad. Certain omitted details are troubling – Mernissi claims Abu Bakra is unsuitable as a source of hadith for he was punished for false witness, although in the case in question another witness said he was uncertain "of having seen everything." That was Ziyad whose view of the fornication in question was obstructed by a curtain. The punishment for slander may have been impose, but one cannot say a "misogynistic" saying of the Prophet himself. (1993 : 351)

This is similar to arguments that are often generated in response to Islamic reformists. I find it ironic that the more mainstream academics are criticizing Mernissi for advancing arguments in defense of Muhammad.

It is a measure of Middle Eastern civilizational crises that no one is happy with Islam as it actually was in history, with its complex historical characteristics and its sacred self-understanding. Both Mernissi and Ahmed are saying that pernicious historical forces succeeded, in the former’s words, "in gutting one of the most promising religions in human history of its substance" (Mernissi 1992 : 34). I wonder if "history" would hesitate to do the same thing if today’s Sufis, Mu‘tazilis, and Qarmatians succeed in reestablishing the lost spirituality of the religion in sociopolitical domains.

Middle Eastern intellectuals should be happy if the neo-feminists succeed in lifting the dead weight of shari‘a-bound tradition from their consciousness. However, they should hesitate to embrace new interpretations supportive of their "needs" at any cost to truth. Leila Ahmed writes : "Had the ethical voice of Islam been heard, I here suggest, it would have significantly tempered the extreme androcentric bias of the law, and we might today have a far more humane and egalitarian law regarding women" (1992 : 88). But the "extreme androcentric bias of the law" can hardly be considered as an exogeneous addition to Islam. The neo-feminist argument does not adequately explain the pre-modern context of the power-struggles within which the alternative discourses used doctrinal disputes to create religio-political legitimacy. Given the socio-political milieu of the time, if partisans of the "ethical-spiritual" dimension had overthrown the established order, it is inconceivable that an empire with radically different mores, in harmony with modern feminism, would have ensued. It is not clear to me that a fundamentally different Islam would have been created for women if, say, the kharijis had prevailed over the orthodoxy. Were they not Islam’s first fundamentalists ? The authoritative canonical version that they might have created would have equally served the interests of the male dominant classes, notwithstanding the spiritual pretensions so characteristic of a political and religious dissent when it is confined to the political wilderness. Given the pre-modern mind-set and the socioeconomic conditions of the time, the alternative to the Umayyid or Abbasid caliphate was not the "egalitarianism" of the Kharijites, the "rationalism" of the Mu‘tazilis, or the "humanism" of the Sufis. It was anarchy.

Even some Marxist feminists have been influenced by the rise of Islamization. They also engaged in the discovery of a "revolutionary" and "egalitarian" Islam and have tried to identify progressive Islamic movements in the past and the present. For example, Reza Hammami and Martina Rieker have strongly criticized the "bourgeois" feminism of Mai Ghoussoub, a feminist author with an uncompromising secular perspective. They have correctly observed that the feminist discourse is mired in textually-based debates between those who maintain that "Islam is good for women" and those who reject such a notion (Hammami and Rieker 1988 : 93). However, they have criticized Ghoussoub for her unwillingness to recognize "a variety of counter-hegemonic ideologies that have taken on state-authorized Islamic discourse" and for her willingness to grant to Islam too much influence in determining the normative orientations of Muslim countries (1988 : 95). The Sufi movements are examples of such "counter-hegemonic" historical movements that one must rediscover in order to construct o truly radical, anti-imperialist feminism in the Middle East.

Hammami and Rieker inaccurately assert that Ghoussoub believes in the existence of a historically monolithic Islam with "an unchanging doctrine." The following paragraph states both their objection and their case :

Even classical Orientalist scholarship... grudgingly concedes that there have always been varying movements within a changing Islamic tradition, as well as in Islamic counter-traditions such as Sufism. Radical critiques of hierarchy, exploitation and gender oppression have often been at the center of Sufi movements such as Baktashi in Turkey, the Sanusi in Libya and the Bayyumiya in Egypt.. Even within the textual tradition itself, there have been, throughout history, a variety of theological stands which have sought the basis of a socially just world within Islamic philosophy. (1988 : 94-95)

How can one, for example, substantiate the assertion that Baktashis, to choose the best known of these Sufi groups, were "radical critiques of gender oppression ?" The authors refers us to "a sympathetic treatment" of the Batashi Sufi movement in Marshal Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. This is a good example of the historiography of contemporary authors who insert modern sensitivities and concepts into pre-modern history. Hodgson limits his discussion to the intellectual possibilities and mental framework of the sixteenth century Islamic world and does not read modern values into the consciousness of pre-modern men. The most relevant statement in The Venture of Islam is Hodgson’s reference to "the popular latitudinarianism of the Baktashis among the country people – and among the Janissaries" (1974 : 122). Can anyone extrapolate from this remark the notion that opposition to "exploitation and gender oppression have been at the center of" the Baktashi movement ? There is a difference between what Hodgson writes and what the feminist authors infer.

Hodgson’s carefully worded analysis remains faithful to the social, political, and religious ambiance lived by men of the sixteenth century : the ghazi spirit, the janissary’s zeal, Islamic communalism as posed against the infidel, opposition the shari‘a-mindedness, and Sufi lititudinarianism as understood in the context of that age (Hodgson 1974 : 107, 122-123). Latitudinarianism cannot be equated with pluralism (a late twentieth-century concept), as some Islamists have tired to do. It is ahistorical to implant into sixteenth century discourse concepts such as oppression (with our post-feminist understanding of gender).

Another troublesome aspect of such historiography, one that is also apparent in Ahmed’s, is the following underlying assumption ; ideas and movements that opposed the established order were (and today are) "progressive." By extension, they should receive our moral and political support without reference to their mentality or their political content. This essentially populist view (mixed with 1950s vintage Marxism) was also held by many Iranian nationalist authors until the deluge of Islamic revolution awakened them from intellectual stupor. This view maintains that any bourgeois-dominated state is in its totality regressive ; any force that opposes such a state is, by the logic of its counter-hegemonic nature, progressive. Within this totalizing view of the contemporary bourgeois state, one is asked to distinguish "between state deployment of Islamic signs and jural forms and the variety of counter-hegemonic movements working within radical Islamic frameworks" (Hammami and Rieker 1988 : 95). Thus, one is forced to choose between the menace of those in power and the potentially more menacing aspirants to power seeking counterlegitimacy in their version o f Islam. Hammani and Rieker implore the reader to side with those "theological stands which have sought the basis of a socially just world within Islamic philosophy." They also name some of the Islamist proponents of "a socially just world" in this century, including Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad al-Ghazzali in Egypt. (Why not Khomeini and Rafsanjani of Iran, Mawdudi of India and Hasan Turabi of Sudan ?) These men are praised as anti-imperialists who "have criticized capitalism on its own terms" (Hammami and Rieker 1988 : 95). What if one refuses to support the Islamist "counter-hegemonic movements," as the secular feminist Ghoussoub has done ? Hammami and Rieker write :

Ghoussoub’s analysis actually takes the opposing stand and claims that these movements... actually reverse some of the gains for women made by state legislation. Only in the study of the Middle East, with this elaboration of a profoundly backward spector of Islamic sentiment waiting to rear its head, is the claim made that state are more progressive than the popular movements which oppose them. (1988 : 95-96)

Again, the logic of this view leads to disparagement of "bourgeois" women. The experience of Iran has made this type of Orientalist-bashing anachronistic and unattractive. Reactive traditionalism is at least as poisonous to development as neo-imperialism. In rejecting imperialism, why should one necessarily tolerate underdevelopment and backwardness ? Nikki Keddie has made a pertinent observation :

So we get a complex picture whereby upper and upper middle class groups closely tied to the West materially and ideologically have taken important steps to improve the status of women..., whereas less well off anti-imperialist groups, whose material and cultural interests are often hurt by Western incursions, may become defensive about traditional ways, and seek security in a return to tradition and preservation of male domination. (1979 : 234)

If one has to choose between the two, the Pahlavi state policies, for example, were more progressive towards women than have been those of the "counter-hegemonic" Islamists presently ruling Iran. Under Islamist pressure, the reversal of gains made under the secular state of 1950s and 1960s Egypt points to the same conclusion.

Above all, the neo-feminist approach runs the risk of anachronism by attributing contemporary political meanings to antecedents far removed in time. Egalitarianism, gender equally, freedom of the individual and similar concepts are today'’ terms, derived from secular ideologies in response to capitalist market economy and the emergence of the modern state. In any imaginative reading of historical texts, one may find earlier "equivalents" for these concepts. It is hard to imagine, however, that these modern terms are similar in meaning or emotive-political charge to the "equivalents" from in the far-off events in Islamic history. This search for equivalents fails to recognize the epistemological break between the (revealed) religious paradigm and that of post- enlightenment modernity. It commits itself to an historical continuity that is more imagined than historical. It places the ninth-century jurists and the late twentieth-century feminists on the same epistemological continuum. It sanctifies the present with tradition and masks the power it induces. It also privileges the present vantage point of Muslim reformists from which the pre-modern past can be "correctly" understood. The history of Islam is thus driven by the assumptions and sensitivities of our age, serving the political-intellectual needs (power) of the day. History is ransacked to support contemporary needs. This "updating" of Islam is a political task that is best left to the Islamist ideologues. This "updating" of Islam is a political task that is best left to the Islamist ideologues. They are in abundance these days. Academic scholars and secularist thinkers should hesitate before lending credibility to those whose primary goal is to reach to the most undeveloped common denominator in the public for immediate political gain through manipulations of religious symbols.

Any secularist attempt at a validation of the past in Islamic term, I am afraid, may paradoxically result in a reinvigoration of the emotive charge of a shari‘a-based discourse. A similar task was performed by Dr. Shari‘ati and the radical Islamist Mojahidin organization in Iran, from which the traditionalist clerics politically benefited. My fear is that the discourse of an Islamic reinterpretation, like the state’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, may result in the reinforcement of the traditional patterns of authority that is profoundly anti-democratic and unrepresentative.

I am always puzzled by those intellectuals on the Left who feel compelled to reconcile their modern convictions and progressive ideas of liberty and human rights with pre-modern faith and "heritage." These modern ideas did not exist in any pre-modern culture, including the West’s. Is not iconoclasm supposed to free us from the weighty burdens of the past ? The quest for collective self-esteem and cultural identity can, I assume, be satisfied on a psychological level by reengaging the past, but the sociopolitical outcome may not be what the practitioners of historical rewriting expect, especially when done through purposeful selectivity and wilful reading of the present concerns into the past – at the expense of historical clarity. I doubt if we can escape the weight of tradition by validating a traditionalist mandate, invoking a purified imagery of Islam, in order to purge the tradition of its undesirable practices and norms.

The neo-feminist reading of the "message of Islam" is achieve by projecting a late twentieth century consciousness back to pre-modern Arabia. This "feminist interpretation of the Quran" continues to ascribe to the "revealed Islam" a suprahistorical existence, a text "above any wordily ideology" and free of any normative orientation from the era of its birth. This is above all a testimony to the extraordinary grasp that the "holy text" still has on the imagination of Muslim intellectuals, even the neo-feminists. The most enduring quality of Middle Eastern intellectual discourse since the coming of European modernism is its persistent adherence to the divinity of the Islamic metaphysical text, correctly perceived. True iconoclasm, without which no modern ideology could develop, is the most valuable intellectual commodity in Muslim countries. In Beyond the Veil, the young and brilliant Moroccan sociologist observed a painful fact : "The absence of a genuine modern ideology strengthened the hold of Islam as the only coherent ideology that masses and rulers could refer to" (Mernissi 1987 : 23-24). That book was a positive step toward creating such a modern ideology ; Mernissi’s new "feminist interpretation of women’s rights in Islam" is, I am afraid, a step backward from that intended goal. I also doubt that the road to a modern ideology passes through the stage of reinvigoration of a pre-modern Islamic message.

Early this century, the generations of the Iranian Mujtahib Muhammad Hussein Na’ini and the Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, who attempted to revitalize Islam by divesting it from fatalism and traditional practices, may not have been aware of the fact that they were conflating indigenous Islamic elements with Western notions. Having become self-conscious about their actions, today’s intellectuals can no longer pretend to be engaged in a self-engendered Islamic discourse based on its own philosophical substratum. One cannot assert cultural authenticity by engaging in intellectual self-deception. One thereby runs the risk of self-delusion now or the deception of the future generations of intellectuals ; neither promises healthy historical development in the long run.

Hamid Dabashi’s apt observation on Ali Shari‘ati, an architect of a revolutionary Islamic ideology in Iran, should be considered an invitation to all scholars to move beyond the current clichés on Muslims’ religiosity and authenticity, secular Westernization, and anti-colonialism :

He did manage to give his revolutionary ideology a "progressive" aura. This "progressive" feature, however, had to be balanced carefully with a demonstrated anti-"Western" attitude. He was quite successful in presenting his deepest forms of radical secularism in an anticolonial and anti-"Western" language... Shari‘ati, in his diligent attempt to transform the historical complexity and doctrinal diversity of Islam into a unified political ideology best suited for the modernity of this revolutionary agenda, was, in effect, an avant-garde figure in cultural recolonization. Deeply alienated from, and in a disguised way resentful of, the received and operative core of the Islamic character and culture, while at the same time fascinated by the efficiency of "Western" political ideologies..., he sought to revolutionize Islam to make it best suitable for competition in an age of conflicting ideologies. (Dabashi 1993 : 115)

Feminist writers should continue to provide historical explanations by using secular, straight-forward sociopolitical analyses, without any desire to validate the sacred text or to place the burden of blame for Islamic androcentrism on other pre-modern (the Byzantine and Persian) traditions. Above all, they should not sacrifice intellectual clarity for the short-sighted political expediency of linking up with a populism that feeds on the prevailing ignorance.

In conclusion, these neo-feminist attempts have tried to empty Islam of its real historical content. The "new" Islam is then endowed with new interpretative frontiers in search of an innate truth beyond the confines of shari‘a-bound traditions. Islamic reformist opinions abound on any single issue and any item of historical reinterpretation. It seems to me that the search for a modernist reinterpretation of a pre-modern, paradigm is more a symptom of an intellectual crisis than a positive contribution to resolution of the crisis. It may, deceptively, seem easier and more expedient to achieve modernity and secularism by trying to locate Islamic cultural foundations for them rather than to build further on present practical norms and habits which have been permeated by a secular praxis and to bring them into a closer harmony with the universal ethos of the contemporary world.

Hisham Sharabi has defined the current struggle as "primarily a cultural struggle, with decisive social and political consequences, between the forces of religious conservatism and the forces of secular critical modernity." He continues : "The movement of enlightenment and secularism spearheaded by a significant segment of the rising generation seems irreversible and will in the years ahead have a profound, transformative effect on the structure of neopatriarchal society" (1988b : 6-7). With its secular moral vision, feminism is a forward-looking social project, demanding radical transformation of the entire texture of gender relations.

Feminism is incomprehensible without secularism, which distinguishes it from other religious-ethical systems. Conceived by autonomous human beings as a response to modern conditions, feminism drives its strength from the modern notion of human rights based on inalienable rights to equality and dignity of individuals. Religiously-based moral systems, with their pre-modern notions of duties and rights, do generally preoccupy themselves with higher entities such as a godly society or a righteous community. As a subset of human rights, feminism must remain focused on the rights of the individual woman. It cannot be grounded in any consequentialist doctrine such as nationalism, Marxism, or Islamism.

In the 1960s, threat to feminism came from the Marxism movement that tried to subjugate it to a higher cause of the proletarian revolution. Today, feminist women must remain uncompromisingly secularist, advocate the modern ideal of an equal and autonomous woman, and oppose all religiously-oriented and communally-based notions of social justice. These notions often call for a new resubmergence of the individual (woman) to the community. In the Middle East, male domination has put on a new face of communal solidarity against all the real and imagined enemies. A new enshrining of a sense of community as an overriding social objective in societies in the grips of neo-patriarchy is inimical to women and their rights. Communitarian agenda runs counter to personal autonomy by enforcing a substantive model of belief and behaviour and by demanding role-fulfilment and performance of predefined roles. The feminists are going against a very strong torrent of Islamic communitarianism ; they must resist the temptation of grafting onto their secular discourse notions and concepts developed by the Islamists (reformist or fundamentalist) who are pursuing an agenda "higher" than human rights of the (female) individual. Women’s exercise of personal autonomy and civil and political rights would undermine that agenda.

As exemplified by Mernissi’s earlier writings, the secular discourse is iconoclastic, reflecting a profoundly disillusioned detachment from the past, a piercing self-criticism that demystifies the culture, breaks barriers, and violates taboos. This stands in sharp contrast to the still divine-bound discourse of Islamic reformism. It is unfortunate that Mernissi’s discourse reverts from its pioneering iconoclasm to Islamic reformism.

Pace University
Pleasantville, New York


Afshari, Reza, 1994, "An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights", Human Rights Quarterly (may). Forthcoming.

Ahmed, Leila, 1982, "Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem", Feminist Studies 8.

1986, "Women and the Advent of Islam", Signs : Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 11 (4).

1992, Women and Gender in Islam : Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven. Yale University Press.

Al-Hibri, Azizah, 1982, "Study in Islamic Herstory, Or How Did We Ever Get into This Mess", in Women and Islam ed. Azizah Al-Hibri. Oxford. Pergamon Press.

Ansari, Zafar Ishaq, 1992, "The Contribution of the Qur’ân and the Prophet to the Development of Islamic Fiqh", Journal of Islamic Studies, 3 (2).

Boullata, Issa J., 1990, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought, Albany. State University of new York Press.

Choueiri, Youssef M., 1990, Islamic Fundamentalism, Boston. Twayne publishers.

Dabashi, Hamid, 1993, Theology of Discontent : the Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York. New York University Press.

Ghoussoub, Mai, 1987, "Feminism – Or the Eternal Masculine – in the Arab World", New Left Review, 161.

Haddad, Yvonne, 1992, "Islamists and the ‘Problem of Israel’ : The 1967 Awakening", The Middle East Journal, 46 (1).

Hammami, Reza and Rieker, Martina, 1988, "Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism", New Left Review 10 (July/August).

Hodgson, Marshall G.S., 1974, The Venture of Islam, Chicago . The University of Chicago Press, vol. 3.

Kanawati, Marlene, 1993, Review of Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite, in International Journal of Middle East Studies.

Keddie, Nikki R., 1979, "Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women", International Journal of Middle East Studies, 10.

Mernissi, Fatima, 1987, Beyond the Veil : Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.

1991, The Veil and the Male Elite : A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. New York. Addison-Wesley.

1992, Islam and Democracy : Fear of the Modern World, New York. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Sabbah Fatna, A., 1984, Women in the Muslim Unconscious, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland, New York. Pergamon. This book was originally published in French in 1982.

Sharabi, Hisham, 1988a, Neopatriarchy : A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society, New York and Oxford. Oxford University Press.

1988b, "Introduction" in Hisham Sharabi, ed. The Next Arab Decade : Alternative Futures. Boulder. Westview Press.

1990, Theory, Politics and the Arab World : Critical Responses, London and New York. Routledge.

Tucker, Judith E., 1983, "Problems in the Historiography of Women in the Middle East, The Case of Nineteenth-Century Egypt", International Journal of Middle East Studies, 15 : 3.

Zuhur, Sherifa, 1993, Review of Leila Ahmed’s and Fatima Mernissi’s books in The Middle East Journal, 47 (2).