Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why women shouldn't lead prayer Part I: On knowledge

Welcome to the first post (of 3) on why women shouldn't lead prayer. More information behind this post here.


This post is not giving arguments explaining why women should not lead prayer. But it's also not going to give arguments about why women should lead prayer. What this post does however, is break down some of the more abstract assumptions behind this article entitled 'Dr. Amina Wadud and the Progressive Muslims: Some Reflections on Woman-Led Prayer' written by Zaynab Ansari, an article which in fact gives arguments for why women should not lead prayer (you wouldn't have guessed that by the word 'reflections' in the title, right?).
  1. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia of Allah = Sharia law.
  2. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
  3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
  4. Most Sunni and Shia scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible under certain conditions. Majority opinion wins.
  5. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
  6. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the 'true' forms of gender identity.
Instead of addressing the list of 14 assumptions chronologically, I've categorised them broadly by topic. This post will address 6 assumptions related to the nature of knowledge (a.k.a 'epistemology') in the most straightforward terms as possible (33:70): what is considered knowledge, where does it come from, and who is allowed to receive knowledge.

1. Quran = Sacred law = Sharia of Allah = Sharia law.
Many of the Progressives' ideologues envision a wholesale reformulation of Sacred Law. This divine gift of guidance has withstood the test of time immemorial. It is sheer folly for any Muslim to claim the right to alter the Sharia of Allah.
Clearly, Dr. Wadud approaches the Qur'an from a vantage point that conflicts with the well-established methodology of Islamic scholarship and exegesis of the Qur'an. Mainstream Sunni and Shi'i scholars alike accept the principles of the universality, immutability, and applicability of the Qur'an's edicts. Saying yes to the Qur'an is very much at the core of Muslim faith.
"When I say "no" it is not the integrity of the literal text, it is to the implementation of some practices which is a 14 centuries long debate...with no ONE having the final word. That belongs only to Allah and Allahu A'lam." - A. Wadud
The author rightly quotes Wadud's argument, which states that she accepts the Quran fully as the word of God. For most people who consider themselves Muslim, this is usually the 'core' of their faith as well. The difference here is that the author conflates the Quran, a divine text from God, with sharia law as it is commonly understood today: a series of specific and general principles from the Qur'an, elaborations from hadith, then all the different interpretations as elaborated by (male) scholars of fiqh (jurisprudence) through qiyas (analogy) and ijma (consensus), and finally, colonial civil law (often, British or French). What passes for shari'a law in many postcolonial countries is simply colonial laws which did not contradict the principles of shari'a. What passes for shari'a law in Malaysia is not what passes for shari'a law in Egypt.

The word shari'a appears in the Quran only 5 times, in 4 different forms. The root, sh-r-'a connotes a clear or visible path or law. God ordained for us a way of living that was the same for all other prophets before us (42:13, 42:21, 45:18), but there were certain laws that are specific to each group (5:48). The principles of shari'a (e.g. social justice, the right to a family) are timeless, but the models are limited. Some rulings were created in the 7th century, some rulings are from the traditional laws of the land (e.g. stoning being an ancient practice) which are brought over to other countries under the guise of it being Islamic (e.g. stoning introduced to Aceh).

Shari'a may also be understood as a bottom-up approach: people to behave in ways that embody the Qur'an, how God wants us to be. Shari'a, as the law of God, does not exist when there is not enough physical and ideological space for everyone (17:70, 58:11), it does not exist when those who are marginalised do not receive the help they need (4:36), it does not exist when people who believe in God find themselves threatened and insulted (49:11-12); but it exists when everyone starts doing good. (More on shari'a here).

In short: God's law is sacred, as written in the Quran. Any interpretation, elaboration and codification of God's laws by people is necessarily contextual, subject to flaws, and may change for different societies in different times.

2. Hadith should be accepted at face value, especially those with certain names in its transmission.
Any hadith that comes to us through these two Imams cannot be disregarded. Centuries ago, hadith experts, like Bukhari and Muslim, established a rigorous methodology for hadith scholarship that contemporary scholars simply cannot replicate...Who are we to disqualify their immense achievements by arbitrarily rejecting and accepting hadith?
Hadith, by nature of being written by people, are bound to be subject to human biases based on their social and geographical context. The mainstream majority of Muslims would say that the speech of the Prophet was also divine, and cite 53:4 from the Quran. The reasoning then goes, the words of the Prophet help to explain the Quran i.e. hadith help to explain the Quran.

However, I have always had two issues with this reasoning. One is that much of the hadith literature is a compilation from a few scholars who referred to among themselves (kind of like academics today who only quote each other). Two, believing that all the Prophet's words are divinely inspired is different from believing that what the hadith scholars wrote down is correct, since there is a long chain of transmission across hundreds of years. Questioning this usually leads to the argument that the people in this chain of transmission were exquisitely upright in character, and the scribes had otherworldly memory powers and intelligence. But anything written by people has its shortcomings and requires critical study. (A balanced study of hadith here, with a summary of its possible forgeries here.)

Alternatively, you may choose to see the Quran as being complete and with enough details for you to live an upright life (6:114, 16:89). Nevertheless, any human interpretation has its shortcomings.

In short: Hadith is one such example of human interpretation, elaboration and codification of God's laws. As a human text, it has its strengths and limitations and should not be accepted without some critical thinking.

3. Feminist scholars have biases, but male scholars are unbiased.
Approaching the Qur'an from a feminist perspective, Dr. Wadud is not exempt from her own biases.
Since you've made it this far, you will probably see what's wrong with this sentence. All humans are subject to bias because we do not have infinite knowledge, this includes scholars of jurisprudence, no matter how smart they were. It's not about women scholars having different biases from male scholars, but also, richer scholars (e.g. funded by the ruling powers) having different biases from poorer (or independent) scholars, Persian scholars having different biases from Greek scholars. Every aspect of social identity matters, not just gender.

A feminist perspective of the Quran assumes that dominant interpretations today are pro-men and pro-male interests. Saying that men are allowed to (lightly) beat their wives with the aim of humiliation is one of the best examples of this. There are plenty of male scholars who also come up with feminist perspectives of verses in the Quran: Edip Yuksel, Farouk Peru, Shabbir Ahmed, to name a few.

This assumption that men are neutral and rational while women are emotional actually comes from the Renaissance, and there is no Quranic argument that supports such an intellectual division between male and female scholars.
They believe that Islam needs to be freed from centuries of male-dominated, conservative scholarship to adequately address issues of human rights and gender equality. While this idea might appeal to some, it certainly has its flaws.
I don't see anything wrong with injecting new interpretations into society. Today we are too concerned with following rules from certain names, without actually thinking for ourselves on what they mean to us. For every person with knowledge, there is another one with more knowledge, and we should always seek more knowledge (17:26, 20:114). How can we do this if we shut down certain arguments just because they don't fit with what we have always considered to be true?

In short: This assumption has no basis in the Quran. Judging scholars by their gender is an ad hominem fallacy. (And actually sort of childish, no?)

4. Most Sunni and Shia scholars agree that a woman cannot be imam. Two scholars said it was possible under certain conditions. Majority opinion wins.
Furthermore, the vast majority of Sunni and Shi'i scholars are agreed that women are not permitted to lead men in prayer. One can assume, as the Progressives have, that these men simply were not as enlightened as we are or were influenced by existing gender prejudice in their societies. On the other hand, one can also give these scholars the benefit of the doubt instead of impugning to them base motives of male prejudice
'Male prejudice' is not a judgmental phrase. It simply means that by virtue of being a man, there are certain aspects of knowledge that cannot be known. For example, when a Muslim man enters any mosque in the world, as long as he is wearing the minimum coverage, he can enter by the front entrance, sit anywhere in the prayer hall, and not have an inkling of worry that he might be rebuked. In contrast, not every mosque in the world is open to Muslim women, and even if so, she may not be able to enter by the front gate, may have to search for the separate space which is often smaller and dirtier, and at any time might be scolded for not being covered sufficiently or being in the wrong area. Most Muslim men, if they are not told about women's experiences, may never be aware of this.

Today's society is not more or less enlightened than previous societies. Scientific progress can tell you that girls are no worse than boys (and so don't kill them!), but scientific progress can also allow you to check the sex of the baby by ultrasound and abort it instead of killing it when it's born. 
I believe that if they had been aware of an established Prophetic precedent for female imamate, then they would have supported it unanimously. As it were, only a few scholars, such as Imam Abi Thaur and Imam Muzani, allowed female prayer leaders. This allowance was not blanket permission for women to lead men in prayer, but contingent on certain circumstances, the details of which were not transmitted with the same clarity as the majority consensus.
Fiqh, or jurisprudence, was never meant to close down debate. The role of these scholars were to elaborate on the general principles in the Quran, for their own time and society. In their time, their opinions co-existed with each other, and they never said to create a madhhab or school of thought based on their name. Much of why their opinions are dominant in certain parts of the world (e.g. Shafi'i in Southeast Asia, Maliki in Northern Africa) have a lot more to do with political power, trade and shifting alliances.

There is a Prophetic precedence for a woman leading prayer: Nafisa or Umm Waraqa bint Abdullah. And a minority opinion in the Hanbali school of thought permits women to lead women and mixed-congregations in prayer. Like all human interpretations, one can choose to follow a scholar or not. The problem here is that the author has placed her intellectual trust in the majority of scholars, and did not even give minority scholars the space for their arguments. How scholars gain followers also depends a lot on power.

In short: Fiqh aimed to provide different opinions on an issue, with the same objective. A dominant idea has a lot more to do with power, and not because it's necessarily right. Cases in point: sects, neo-liberalism, modernity.

5. Western scientists, Western gender theorists, Western feminists exist. They are inferior to Muslim scholars.
Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, in his writings on Islam and gender, contends that certain Western scientists, gender theorists, and even feminists, like Germaine Greer, are coming to realisations about gender that are highly reminiscent of Shari' conceptions of gender identity.
This assumption indicates a worldview that separates knowledge from the West from knowledge from the East/Islamic world. And yet, scholars like the author often refer to an Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to 13th century). During this time, everything that was awesome about Islam happened, like the invention of the water wheel, the astrolabes, the writing of the comprehensive medical Canon -- everything that religious teachers today hark to, to motivate us into doing something useful as Muslims.

But what was unique about that time was the exchange of knowledge from the East and the West (if we must use these terms, for simplicity). Much of Greek philosophy was influenced by Muslim scholars. Scholars traveled far and wide to seek knowledge, translate books and learn from each other. They moved across different regions; there were Muslim scholars from and in the West (as there are today!)

Today, what is often called 'the West' is anything that is considered threatening to the ideas in conservative mainstream Islam, and is often a label that is applied accordingly. Don't like scholars that argue that femininity and masculinity are constructed by society? "Western gender theorist" Scholars that think women have bodily autonomy? "Western feminist".

This is especially clear because the author decides to mention Germaine Greer, a "Western feminist" whom she agrees with, because she thinks men and women are fundamentally different. Despite this, Greer and other 'Western' scholars are only accepted when they "realise" what men and women are really like (as pushed by mainstream Islam).

In short: West and East/Islam is a false dichotomy. All knowledges are valuable, and should not be put on a hierarchy because this prevents you from using your brain.

6. Shari' conceptions of gender identity exist. These are the 'true' forms of gender identity.
Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, in his writings on Islam and gender, contends that certain Western scientists, gender theorists, and even feminists, like Germaine Greer, are coming to realisations about gender that are highly reminiscent of Shari' conceptions of gender identity.
Firstly, I think the author meant gender expression (how women and men should behave), not identity (what gender you conceive of yourself), because then she would to accept that women who have the sense of being a man and behaves like a man, are in fact men.

The author thinks that men and women are fundamentally different from each other, according to shari'a. Since we already saw that sharia is a broad collection of principles, there is in fact no way of knowing what the 'true' conceptions of 'gender identity' are. There is no such thing as a shari'a-compliant gender identity. The closest idea I can think of is that women can give birth and nurse (2:233, 65:6) and since men earn more and have more privilege in global patriarchy, they should financially support women (4:34).

Perhaps she means modesty? But this applies to both men and women (24:30-31). Or perhaps she means that women should know they have to pray in the back or in another room? Or that all men should be leaders? Or that all men have high sex drives and therefore harassment and polygamy is natural?

Greer thinks that men and women are fundamentally different, because of biological differences. Functions of the female body determine women's actions and the male body determine's men's actions. Needless to say, this is extremely reductive and diminishes the complex desires and actions of women all over the world, depending on their religion, ethnicity, class, and so on. Today, many Muslim women also contribute to the household. Muslim men are also playing roles as house-husbands or being the primary caregiver at home, and there is nothing to indicate that this goes against the laws of nature.

While women can give birth, not all women are able to, and so birth doesn't make one a woman. Likewise, while men can have a high sex drive, expressing this drive depends on how a man is brought up, and doesn't excuse harassment or rape.

In short: There is no such thing as a 'shari' conception of gender identity'. Being a woman or a man varies across and within societies.

Read next Part II: On Rules and Rituals!

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