The Goatmilk Debates: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism” – Mohamad Tabbaa For the Motion

“THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, intellectually stimulating manner.

Each debater makes their opening argument, followed by an optional rebuttal.

The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of the respective arguments.

The motion: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism”

For the motion: Mohamad Tabbaa

Against the motion: Katrina Daly Thompson

“God is not dead; and neither is He a feminist”  by Mohamad Tabbaa 

God has not died, just yet. But there is a real push to kill Him. And it’s gaining popular support. I’m sure we’ve all noticed the modern tendency to ‘reconcile’ Islam with almost everything; democracy; liberalism; homosexuality; heck, even Christianity. And now feminism. So what’s the problem, exactly? Surely any right-minded individual would openly embrace the move to bring Islam into modernity, while only a backward Wahhabist regressive fundamentalist caveman would resist, right?

Well, not exactly.

You see, there are a number of fundamental flaws inherent in many of the arguments put forward to ‘modernise’ Islam. I will highlight some of these flaws — especially as they relate to feminism — and argue that not only are Islam and feminism not compatible, but that our actual attempts at reconciling Islam with modern ideologies is futile and misguided.

Rather than launch into definitions of what Islam and feminism mean, I believe it’s important that we first take a step back. This debate, after all, is not really about Islam and feminism per se; this debate is more to do with epistemology. Epistemology, otherwise known as “the theory of knowledge”, is the study of the creation and basis of knowledge itself.[i] Epistemology concerns itself with questions such as: What are the structures and conditions of knowledge? How is knowledge constructed and justified? Does knowledge lead to truth? What are the limits of knowledge? And does God play a role in this process?[ii]

The question being debated here, namely is Islam compatible with feminism, is one which can only be answered by first exploring the epistemological and methodological assumptions underpinning the call for Islamic reformation, and what these mean in the greater scheme of things.

Feminism, in all its variations, depends very heavily on postmodern theories of knowledge; namely that there is no ‘objective’ or transcendental truth; that all realities are merely constructed, contextual and relative, and therefore subject to change; and that all knowledge is intrinsically biased.[iii] Utilising poststructural methods of deconstruction, postmodernists argue that all knowledge is influenced by power, personal interest and especially language, and that therefore no knowledge can claim to be impartial.[iv] It is upon this basis that feminists (rightfully) critique the dominant liberal discourse as being male-oriented and oppressive towards women.

So, while the core concern of feminism might be women’s equality, rights or humanity, postmodernism (and hence, feminism) itself teaches us that one cannot judge an idea based solely on its ‘abstract’ theory, but must instead deconstruct its underlying assumptions in order to ascertain what that idea is really advocating or producing. For example, renowned feminist scholar Margaret Thornton argues that, despite its proclaimed concern of ensuring equality between males and females, liberalism is inherently biased against women; not because of its ‘abstract’ theory, which is neutral, but purely because of its underlying assumptions – its epistemology – which are male-oriented.[v] Likewise, in order to properly assess both the nature and impact of feminism, one must necessarily look past its purported aims and concerns, and instead investigate its philosophical basis. Continue reading

The Goatmilk Debates: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism” – Katrina Daly Thompson Against the Motion

“THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, intellectually stimulating manner.

Each debater makes their opening argument, followed by an optional rebuttal.

The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of the respective arguments.

The motion: “Islam is Incompatible with Feminism”

For the motion: Mohamad Tabbaa

Against the motion: Katrina Daly Thompson

Feminism and Islam are compatible

Katrina Daly Thompson

There are two groups who might argue that feminism and Islam are incompatible: Muslims who don’t understand what feminism is, and feminists who don’t understand that Islam is open to interpretation, including feminist interpretations.  I’ll address each of these groups in turn.

Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, don’t understand what feminism is.  They might think it’s a Western idea focused on man-hating, female superiority, or bra burning, but none of that is accurate.  There are three definitions of feminism that inspire me; the first defines feminism as an idea, the second as a movement, and the third as an intellectual approach.

What does feminism mean as an idea? “Feminism,” Cheris Kramerae wrote, “is the radical notion that women are human beings.”[i]  It’s that simple. Feminists argue that human beings should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex or gender. For Muslims, this should be an easy argument to get behind.  After all, the Qur’an tells us,

“Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before God], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for [all of] them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.”[ii]

In other words, the Qur’an teaches that God treats all human beings equally, whether we are men or women, not differentiating among us by sex or gender but rather by the extent to which we’ve surrendered, believe in God, are devout, truthful, patient, humble, generous, modest, and worshipful.  We are all subject to the same rewards from God.  God, we might say, is a feminist.  The Feminist.  Continue reading

“Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Islam and Women by Shagufta Ahmad

GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.

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Syeda Shagufta Ahmad, Qadri

Islam and Women

Perhaps the greatest modern day stereotype against Islam is its alleged treatment of women. The media portrays images of black burqa clad figures whose voices are not to be heard let alone seen by the public eye; considered second class citizens with no rights to education, health or safety; oppressed with no opportunities; born simply to serve her husband and bear children with no consideration for her feelings, thoughts and opinions. However, is this the reality of the matter as seen through the eyes of the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world who are an integral component of our global village? Continue reading

An Islamic Legacy of Liberation or Oppression of Women?

Honor Killings. Female Circumcisions. Forced Veiling. Stoning. Oppression.

These words and phrases commonly arise when commentators, news media, and critics describe Islam’s attitude and practices towards its women. Unfortunately, ideologies espoused by the Taliban, right wing conservative parties in Pakistan, Wahhabi elements in Saudi Arabia, and others make it nearly impossible to combat and refute claims of Islam’s “inherent animosity” and suppression of women. In the spirit of Ramadan, the essay will merely juxtapose the conduct and rhetoric of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a template to the countless oppressive “Muslim” ideological regimes of the present. The reader can draw his own conclusions.

“Recite in the name of thy Lord that created! He created man from that which clings. Recite; and thy Lord is most Bountiful, He who has taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not.” (96:1-5)

The first five verses of Chapter 96 were revealed unto Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 610 in Mecca signifying an era of monotheism and worship of one creator, Allah, and an adherence to the Quran, the Divinely revealed text of Islam, and the Prophetic model of conduct and actions, the Sunnah. The honor of being the first convert to Islam, as well as the Prophet’s (pbuh) significant ally and confidante, did not belong to a man, instead the status is forever reserved for the Prophet’s (pbuh) first wife, Khadijah. In an era where women were buried as children and men took women forcefully and with impunity, Khadijah was a 40 year old, twice widowed wealthy, noble woman with a private caravan. She proposed to the 25 year old, modest orphan Muhammad (pbuh) impressed by his honesty and righteous conduct when escorting her merchandise to Syria on her behalf. Until her death 25 years later, Khadijah, the noble wealthy widow, supported her husband through every persecution, hardship, and calamity as he preached Islam in a hostile, threatening environment. Specifically, her wealth aided Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) spread the message of Islam, free slaves who had embraced Islam and were persecuted by their masters, as well as feed and shelter the community of Muslims that slowly but surely began to grow. During their marriage, the Prophet (pbuh) did not take other wives, after her death he remarried but forever exalted her name and character: “She believed in me when no one else did; she accepted Islam when people rejected me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand.” Granted, this essay is not a love story about the Prophet (pbuh) and his first wife, but if indeed Islam, as characterized by the persecution of women in “Muslin” countries, is inherently misogynistic and oppressive, how can there be such unconditional support, love, and honor between the Prophet (pbuh) and his wife?

The introduction of Islam into Mecca and Arabia as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions radically altered the status of women by affording them newfound rights of property, inheritance, divorce, marriage, and judicial compensations and remedies. Before the advent of Islam, Muslim scholars state Arabia was immersed in a period of Jahiliyya (An Age of Ignorance) characterized primarily by its brutal treatment of women as second, almost third class citizens. Quranic legislation, implemented under the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), ended the pre-Islamic custom of girl infanticide (Chapter 15:58-59), restricted the number of wives a man can have to four provided there was no injustice and unfairness (4:3), allowed women the right to inherent and bequeath property (4:7), guaranteed women the right to have full possession and control of their wealth, including the dower during marriage and after divorce (4:4), as well as grant women the equal right to initiate both divorce (2:299; “Divorce must be pronounced twice and then a woman must be retained in honor released in kindness”) and marriage (as evidenced by Khadijah rdh initiating marriage with Prophet Muhammad pbuh).

However, various verses of the Quran, pointing to the inherent spiritual and moral equality of men and women and also those suggesting male superiority, allow leeway for possible misogynistic interpretation. As with any religious or legal ruling, the interpretation of the reader can greatly manipulate the intent of the words for selfish, ideological benefit or detriment. The Quran and Hadith literature (the comprehensive collection of the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad pbuh) are no exception to this unfortunate reality. From a Quranic standpoint spiritual excellence and success belongs to both men and women, “Allah promises to the believers, men and women, Gardens underneath which rivers flow…” (9:72), “Lo! Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe…Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (33:35). Furthermore, men and women are commanded to assist each other towards comfort and spiritual excellence as evidenced by the verse “…they (women) are a raiment for you and you are raiment for them…” (2:187), and “And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of the other; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.” (9:71).

However, The Quran also establishes that “Men are a degree above women,” (2: 228). Specifically, the Quran states that “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). (4:34). Indeed women under Islamic law are barred from certain religious and political functions such as the call to daily prayer (adhan), leading the Friday sermon (jumaa), and religious leadership (‘imama). However, legal interpretation by scholars such as Tabari (died 10th century) suggest “men are in charge of their women” specifically due to the Islamic obligation on men to provide dowers on women, spending their wealth on them, and providing for their security and comfort in full, including bestowing guidance with regards to spiritual duties towards Allah and themselves (“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of the other” 9:71). Thus, Tabari literally interprets the Quran as endowing men with obligation to provide material and financial support for women, as well as authority over women in a family setting.

Other scholars such as Baydawi (died 13th century) stress male superiority in mental faculties and wise counsel thus ensuring their “charge over women”. However, modern scholars such as Jamal Badawi state that “the degree” men have over women is entitled Quiwama (maintenance and protection), “refers to that natural difference between the sexes which entitles the weaker sex to protection.” However, he quickly adds, “It implies no superiority or advantage before the law. Yet, man’s role of leadership in relation to his family does not mean the husband’s dictatorship over his wife. Islam emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement in family decisions.” Even though interpretations of certain Quranic verses and Hadiths have been used to aid misogynistic cultural beliefs of women’s physical, spiritual, and intellectual inferiority, the Prophet Muhammad pbuh specifically espoused kindness and fairness numerous times: “The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best among you to my family.” “The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives.” “Wives are not slaves and should not be treated as such.” “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.”(From the last sermon of Prophet Mohammed ).

The traditional Islamic scholars sought esoteric and practical religious knowledge from the wife of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Hadrat A’isha bint Abu Bakr, proving women’s intellectual faculties were respected and exalted. A’isha’s wisdom and superior intellect was so well known that a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) famously remarked, “if the knowledge of ‘A’isha were placed on one side of the scales that of all other women on the other, ‘A’isha’s side would outweigh the other.” Due to her intimate interactions with the Prophet (pbuh) and her wisdom, she gave counsel to generations of Islamic scholars following the death of the Prophet (pbuh), as evidenced by Abu Musa who is recorded as saying, “Whenever a report appeared doubtful to us, the Companions of the Prophet, and we asked ‘A’isha about it, we always learned something from her about it.” Furthermore the Prophet (pbuh) recommended: “Learn some of your deen (religion) from this red haired lady” (referring to his wife, A’isha). It bears utmost importance to examine traditional Islamic law and behavior towards women as practiced by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions to compare and contrast the treatment of women under the Taliban, Pakistan’s Hudood Ordinances, and the current Wahhabi Saudi regime.

Furthermore, Aisha plays an integral role in “the Affair of the Necklace,” a profound episode in Islamic history that established Quranic verses protecting women’s honor from slanderous gossip regarding sexual impropriety. The beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Aisha, was inadvertently left behind by her caravan when she set out to retrieve her lost necklace. A young Samaritan found her and offered a ride back to her community in Medina. Upon returning, however, slanderers and gossip mongers spread rumors of possible infidelity between Aisha and the young man, thus causing great distress to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Due to the improper and baseless allegations against Aisha’s honor and character, several Quranic verses were revealed admonishing and punishing those who “launch a charge against chaste women.” Specifically, the Quran demands: “And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations), – flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors.” The evidentiary requirement of four witnesses and the severe punishment of flogging stem from an Islamic desire to protect the reputation, chastity, and “honor” of women from baseless accusations of sexual indecency.

Men and women who engage in the activity of slander and gossip involving women’s chastity receive stern admonishment and reprobation under traditional Islamic law. For example, in the same chapter describing the punishment for slander, the Quran says, “Those who slander chaste women, indiscreet but believing, are cursed in this life and in the Hereafter: for them is a grievous penalty, – On the Day when their tongues, their hands, and their feet will bear witness against them to their actions.” Furthermore, Islamic etiquette as ordained by Allah and performed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) commands the community members to construct the most favorable opinion of the accused perpetrators, and not indulge in condemnatory assumptions. The Quran says, “Why did not the believers – men and women – when ye heard of the affair, – put the best construction on it in their own minds and say, ‘This (charge) is an obvious lie”? Why did they not bring four witnesses to prove it?’ When they have not brought the witnesses, such men, in the sight of Allah, (stand forth) themselves as liars!” From the historical episode, “The Affair of the Necklace,” and the Quanic verses establishing the evidentiary requirement of four witnesses and the admonishment of slanderers, the emphasis on protecting and guarding a woman’s honor is paramount in traditional Islamic law.
A brief analysis of both Quranic verses and the character and conduct of the early Muslims, especially the criterion of Islamic etiquette, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), clearly indicate Islam’s motivation to respect the dignity and honor of both men and women. Specifically, the behavior of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) towards his wives, as evidenced by his devotion and respect for his first wife Khadijah’s loyalty and dignity, as well as his admiration for Aisha’s intelligence and wise counsel, introduce a progressive, compassionate model of conduct between husband and wife. Moreover, the specific Quranic injunctions condemning sexual indecency, as well as defamatory rhetoric and gossip, strongly suggest Islam seeks to cover and hide sexual indiscretions, whether real or imagined, as to protect a person’s reputation, and chastity. If indeed that is true, then the question remains: How did a 7th century egalitarian Islamic system seemingly commanding respect and tolerance for women arguably transform into a 20th century system of misogyny, abuse, and indignity in many “Muslim countries?” The answers to that question demand examination and introspection by Muslims of good conscience, however the model of the Islam’s Prophet might cause those who espouse such misogynist views to take pause and reflect.