Gendor Issues

Please click on the tabs below to read the article.

Turning Sex into Sadaqa

Turning Sex into Sadaqa

 by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

An excerpt from 'The Muslim Marriage Guide'

"Women shall have rights similar to the rights upon them; according to what is equitable and just; and men have a degree of advantage over them." (Quran, 2:216) 

They do indeed! This passage of the Holy Quran was revealed in connection with the rights of women following a divorce, but it also has a general sense. One basic right of every person taking on a contract never to have sex other than with their own legitimate partner is that each spouse should therefore provide sexual fulfillment (imta') to the other, as part of the bargain. 

Now, every man knows what sexual things please him--but some men, particularly those who have not been married before and are therefore lacking experience, don't seem to know much about how to give the same pleasure to the woman; even worse, some men do know but they can't be bothered to make the effort. Yet this is vital if a marriage is to succeed and not just be a disappointing burden for the woman, and it is a vital part of one's Islamic duty. 

It is not acceptable for a Muslim man just to satisfy himself while ignoring his wife's needs. Experts agree that the basic psychological need of a man is respect, while that of a woman is love. Neither respect nor love are things that can be forced--they have to be worked for, and earned. The Prophet (s) stated that in one's sexual intimacy with one's life partner there is sadaqa (worship through giving): 

God's Messenger(s) said: "In the sexual act of each of you there is a sadaqa." The Companions replied: "0 Messenger of God! When one of us fulfils his sexual desire, will he be given a reward for that?" And he said, "Do you not think that were he to act upon it unlawfully, he would be sinning? Likewise, if he acts upon it lawfully he will be rewarded." (Muslim) 

This hadith only makes sense if the sexual act is raised above the mere animal level. 

What is the magic ingredient that turns sex into sadaqa, that makes it a matter of reward or punishment from Allah? It is by making one's sex life more than simple physical gratification; it is by thought for pleasing Allah by unselfish care for one's partner. A husband that cannot understand this will never be fully respected by his wife. 

Neither spouse should ever act in a manner that would be injurious or harmful to their conjugal life. Nikah is the sacred tie between husband and wife, that sincere and devoted love without which they cannot attain happiness and peace of mind. 
"Of His signs is this: that He created for you spouses that you might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy." (Quran, 30:21) 

Now, every Muslim knows that a man has a right on his wife. However, because nikah is a contract never to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage bond, Islam commands not only the women but the men in this respect, and makes it clear that if a husband is not aware of the urges and needs of his wife, he will be committing a sin by depriving her of her rights. 

According to all four orthodox jurists, it is incumbent upon the husband to keep his wife happy and pleased in this respect. Likewise, it is essential for the wife to satisfy the desire of the husband. Neither should reject the other, unless there is some lawful excuse. 

Now, it is fairly easy for a woman to satisfy a man and make herself available to him, even if she is not really in the mood. It is far harder for a man to satisfy a woman if he is not in the mood, and this is where an important aspect of male responsibility needs to be brought to every Muslim man's attention, and stressed strongly. 

The jurists believed that a woman's private parts needed "protecting" (tahsin). What they meant was that it was important for a Muslim husband to satisfy his wife's sexual needs so that she would not be tempted to commit zina out of despair or frustration. 

A Muslim wife is not merely a lump of flesh without emotions or feelings, just there to satisfy a man's natural urges. On the contrary, her body contains a soul no less important in God's sight than her husband's. Her heart is very tender and delicate, and crude or rough manners would hurt her feelings and drive away love. The husband would be both foolish and immoral to act in any way unpalatable to her natural temperament, and a man selfishly seeking his own satisfaction without considering that of his wife is a selfish boor. In fact, according to a hadith: 

"Three things are counted inadequacies in a man. Firstly, meeting someone he would like to get to know, and taking leave of him before learning his name and his family. Secondly, rebuffing the generosity that another shows to him. And thirdly, going to his wife and having intercourse with her before talking to her and gaining her intimacy, satisfying his need from her before she has satisfied her need from him." (Daylami) 

This is another of the things implied by the saying that one's wife is "a tilth unto you." (Quran, 2:223) The imagery is that of a farmer taking care of his fields. 

According to Mawlana Abul-Ala Mawdudi: 
"The farmer sows the seed in order to reap the harvest, but he does not sow it out of season or cultivate it in a manner which will injure or exhaust the soil. He is wise and considerate, and does not run riot." (Afzalur Rahman, Quranic Sciences, London 1981, p.285) 

Likewise, in the case of husband and wife, the husband should not just: 
“Take hold of his wife and rub the seed and finish the business of procreation. The damage in this case could sometimes be irreparable, because a woman, unlike a farm, is very sensitive and has emotions, feelings, and strong passions which need full satisfaction and attention in a proper and appropriate manner.” (Afzalur Rahman, Quranic Sciences, London 1981, p. 286) 

If this is not taken into consideration, and the wife is not properly prepared to start lovemaking, or is unsatisfied when it is finished, there could be many psychological and physiological complications leading to frigidity and other abnormalities. Indeed, many husbands eventually become disappointed with their wives, believing them to be frigid or unable to respond to their activities (unlike the sirens on the film or TV screen), and they wonder what is wrong with them. A possible explanation will follow in a moment. 

Allah created male and female from a single soul in order that man might live with her in serenity (Quran, 7:189), and not in unhappiness, frustration and strife. If your marriage is frankly awful, then you must ask yourself how such a desperate and tragic scenario could be regarded by anyone as "half the Faith." According to a hadith: 

"Not one of you should fall upon his wife like an animal; but let there first be a messenger between you." "And what is that messenger?" they asked, and he replied: "Kisses and words." (Daylami)

These "kisses and words" do not just include foreplay once intimacy has commenced. To set the right mood, little signals should begin well in advance, so that the wife has a clue as to what is coming, and is pleasantly expectant, and also has adequate time to make herself clean, attractive and ready. As regards intimacy itself, all men know that they cannot achieve sexual fulfillment if they are not aroused. They should also realise that it is actually harmful and painful for the female organs to be used for sex without proper preparation. In simple biological terms, the woman's private parts need a kind of natural lubrication before the sexual act takes place. For this, Allah has created special glands, known to modern doctors as the Bartholin glands, which provide the necessary "oils." 

It is still possible to read old-fashioned advice to husbands that a desirable wife should be "dry"--which is remarkable ignorance and makes one really grieve for the poor wives of such inconsiderate men. Just as no one would dream of trying to run an engine without the correct lubricating fluids, it is the same, through the creative will of Allah, with the parts of the female body designed for sexual intimacy. A husband should know how to stimulate the production of these "oils" in his wife, or at the very least allow her to use some artificial "oils." This lack of knowledge or consideration is where so many marital problems frequently arise. 
As Imam al-Ghazali says: "Sex should begin with gentle words and kissing," and Imam al-Zabidi adds: "This should include not only the cheeks and lips; and then he should caress the breasts and nipples, and every part of her body." (Zabidi, Ithaf al-Sada al Muttaqin, V 372) Most men will not need telling this; but it should be remembered that failure to observe this Islamic practice is to neglect or deny the way Allah has created women. 

Insulting a wife with bad marital manners. 

Firstly, a husband must overcome his shyness enough to actually look at his wife, and pay attention to her. If he cannot bring himself to follow this sunna, it is an insult to her, and extremely hurtful. Personal intimacy is a minefield of opportunities to hurt each other--glancing at the watch, a yawn at the wrong moment, appearing bored, and so on. A husband's duty is to convince his wife that he does love her--and this can only be done by word (constantly repeated word, I might add--such is the irritating nature of women!), and by looking and touching. 

Many people believe that the expression in the eyes reveals much of the human soul. Certainly the lover's gaze is a most endearing and treasured thing. Many wives yearn for that gaze of love, even after they have been married for years. If you cannot bring yourself to look at her while paying attention to her, she can only interpret this as a sign that you do not really love her. And even though it may be irritating to you, and seem quite superfluous, most women are deeply moved when a man actually tells her that he loves her. 

Sex is clean! 

A modest upbringing is part of good character. The Prophet (s) himself said: "Modesty brings nothing but good." (Bukhari and Muslim) But another, also important, part of Islamic teaching says that all of Allah's creation is beautiful and pure, particularly when it is part of the body of human beings, who are designed as His deputies upon the earth. In some religions, people traditionally believed that the woman's private parts are in some way unclean, or dirty, or even evil

 

Marriage and "men's cruelty"

Marriage and "men's cruelty"
by Sh. G. F. Haddad

Question?

A friend of mine is very depressed as she feels she cannot fulfill the rights of a wife if she is to get married. This is because she has unfortunetly witnessed a cruelty from men towards her friends/family and therefore its very hard for her to trust any brother in general. I have talked to her and tried to explain that not everyone is the same and not every person is as cruel. She has found this hadith, which men exploit in order to opress their wives. I was wondering if you could just give me some advise in what i should say/do for her to understand and maybe an explanation to the hadith given below inshallah?

The Messenger of Allah said,

It is not right that any human being should prostrate to another human being, and if it were right for a human being to prostrate to another human being I would have ordered the women to prostrate to her husband due to the greatness of this right upon her. By Him in whose Hand is my soul, if from his foot to the crown of his head there was a wound pouring forth pus, and she (the wife) came and licked that, then she would (still) not have fulfilled his right.

Footnote: Reported by Ahmad (3/159) and others. Its chain of narration is declared to be good by al-Mundhiree in at-Targheeb wat-Tarheeb (3/75), and it occurs in S[a]heehul Jaami' (no.7250)

There are many sisters, unfortunately, especially in the West, that feel unable to forgive the entire male population due to the sins of some of them and therefore court celibacy and shun marriage, committing a sin in the process if they are among those upon whom marriage is obligatory, which includes most people. It is a cliche that men are cruel; but in Islam we excuse neither misanthropy nor misogyny; nor do we say as Hamlet said to Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery." Rather, trust in your and their Creator and cherisher and look for someone whose Religion is strong and who treats a wife as Allah Most High and the Prophet upon him blessings and peace, ordered husbands to do: with kindness, gentleness, mercy, generosity, tenderness, forgiveness, good humor. May Allah grant this to every husband after Iman.

Our liege-lord `Umar narrated - Allah be well-pleased with him:

"The Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, went out one day with `Umar ibn al-Khattab. A woman came up to them and said to the Prophet : 'Messenger of Allah, I am a respectable Muslima but I have a husband in my house who is like a woman.' He said: 'Call your husband.' She called him - he was a cobbler - and the Prophet said to him: 'What do you say about your wife, `Abd Allah?' He replied: 'By the One Who honored you! I try my best with her. [lit.: My head has not remained dry away from her.]' His wife said: 'Hardly once a month!' The Prophet said to her: 'Do you hate him?' She said Yes. The Prophet said upon him blessings and peace: 'Bring your heads close together.' He placed the woman's forehead against her husband's and said: 'O Allah! Make harmony between them and make them love one another.' Later, the Prophet was passing by the bedding market together with `Umar ibn al-Khattab, whereupon the same woman came out carrying skins on top of her head. When she saw the Prophet she threw them down, came over to him, and kissed his feet. The Prophet said: 'How are you with your husband?' She replied: 'By the One Who honored you! There is no new possession, nor old inheritance, nor child of mine dearer to me than him!' The Prophet said: 'I bear witness that I am the Messenger of Allah!' Whereupon 'Umar said: 'And I, too, bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allah!'"

Al-Bayhaqi narrated it with his prestigious chain through Imam al- Tirmidhi and his teacher Imam al-Bukhari - also from Jabir without mention of `Umar - in Dala'il al-Nubuwwa (6:228-229). Ibn Kathir mentions it in al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya. Imam al-Dhahabi said of al- Bayhaqi's Dala'il al-Nubuwwa: "You must take everything in that book for it consists entirely of guidance and light." Siyar A`lam al-Nubala' (Fikr ed. 15:39=Risala ed. 20:216, chapter on Qadi `Iyad).

As for the hadith cited in the question, it is narrated by Imam Ahmad, al-Bazzar, and al-Nasa'i thus:

One of the families of the Ansar had a camel which began to act difficult with them and not let them ride him. They came to the Prophet - upon him blessings and peace - and said: "We have a camel that is being recalcitrant and prevents us from riding him, and we need to water the date-trees and the plantations." The Prophet said to the Companions: Let us go. They went and entered the enclosure where the camel was. The Prophet - upon him blessings and peace - walked towards it and the Ansar exclaimed: "Ya Rasul Allah! He acts like a [wild] dog and we are afraid for you lest he act violent!" The Prophet replied: "He has no grudge against me." When the camel saw the Prophet it came towards him and fell prostrate in front of him. The Prophet - upon him blessings and peace - took its forelock and there was nothing more docile than that camel. Then he took it to work. The Companions said: "Ya Rasul Allah! This is a brute beast and it prostrates to you! We, who are rational, ought all the more to prostrate to you." He said: "It is not fitting that any human being should prostrate to another human being and if it were, I would order woman to prostrate to her husband due to the greatness of his right over her."

The hadith is sahih to this point by the criteria of al-Bukhari and Muslim but NOT its continuation:

"By the One in Whose Hand is my soul! If the husband were from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head one big wound oozing with pus and matter, and she were to receive him and lick him, she still would not be repaying him his right in full."

So the segment, "if from his foot to the crown of his head there was a wound pouring forth pus etc." is weak or very weak as shown by Shaykh Shu`ayb al-Arna'ut in his marginalia on the Musnad of Imam Ahmad (20:64-66 §12614). This is not to say that it is forged but Allah knows best.

As for the explanation of the meanings of the weak segment:

(1) it is figurative; marriage is not about festering wounds and oozing pus but about patience in adversity together with many other aspects, some light and some grave;
(2) it is a hyperbole destined to explain why Paradise is so easily gained by women provided they only keep Salat, fast Ramadan and obey their husbands whereas men have many more responsibilities.

Finally, (3) it should be read within the context of other hadiths counterbalancing it with an emphasis on wives' rights over their husbands and the overriding paradigm of the Prophetic model in the conjugal context. Otherwise all one gets is a caricature of marital duties as do those backwood tyrants who know nothing of marriage, nothing of the Qur'an, and nothing of Islam except the delusion that Allah loves for husbands to beat their wives!

 

 

Marriage And Sexual Intercourse

Marriage And Sexual Intercourse

from The Medicine of the Prophet , by al-suyuti pp. 18-20

Jabir has transmitted a hadith of the Prophet , which says,

"Go and take a virgin as your wife whom you will caress and who will caress you."

Jabir said, the Prophet , forbade the act of love before caressing."

Marriage is one of the practices of the messengers of Allah may Allah bless them and grant them peace.

It is best to have sexual intercourse only after digestion is completed and when the body is in balance and in a normal condition, midway between hot and cold, and between being full and being empty - but if a man has to make a mistake, then intercourse on a full stomach is less harmful than repressing it. It is said that Ibn 'Umar never had intercourse except after a meal.

Intercourse should be avoided when one is tired, or sad, or disappointed, and also after taking medicine. It should only be indulged in when there is a strong desire, and only when this desire is aroused neither by effort nor by erotic ideas or sights. It should be the result of there being an excess of semen.

If intercourse does not exceed the bounds of moderation, then it revives inward energy, makes a man [and a woman] joyful, awakes his appetite for food, and dissipates sad thoughts, melancholy preoccupations and depression. Sexual abstinence has resulted in disease more than once. Intercourse safeguards health, but excessive intercourse results in tremors [shaking movement of body]and palsies [immobilisation], and weakens the faculties, and dims the eyesight.

The Prophet , said,

"Whoever among you is troubled by his sexual urge, let him marry - for marriage causes the eyes to be lowered and safeguards the private parts."

This is a sound hadith and has been transmitted by al-Bukhari.

Do not have intercourse with an old woman, with a very young girl, or with a woman who is menstruating:

And if they ask you about menstruation, say: 'It is an illness, so let women alone during menstruation, and do not go near them until they are cleansed; and when they have purified themselves, then go into them as Allah has commanded you. Surely Allah loves those who turn to Him, and He loves those who purify themselves.

(Quran: 2.222)

For that blood is decaying blood, and can harm the sexual organ of a man, causing ulceration [and cause great harm in a child born]. Indeed, I have seen this myself.

The Prophet , said,

"Do anything rather than commit adultery. And whoever has intercourse with a menstruating woman should make compensation of one dinar or half a dinar."

- Although some say that he only needs to ask for Allah's forgiveness for his error.

The reasoning underlying this hadith is that a Jew, when his wife is menstruating, abstains from all intercourse with her, sets her apart in the house, and makes her eat and drink alone. When the Prophet learned of this , he said,

"Except as regards intercourse, do everything differently to the Jews, for the curse of Allah and His anger is on them."

Never have intercourse with a woman who has had no sexual relations for a long time, nor with a woman who is sick, nor with one whose appearance is not pleasing to you. To lie with one who is beloved makes the heart rejoice.

A man once went and complained to the Prophet , that he had very few children. The Prophet told him to eat eggs. According to Abu Huraira, the Prophet once complained to the angel Jibril that he could not have sexual intercourse often enough. "What?" replied the angel, "Why do you not eat harisa? There is the strength of forty men in this dish!" [harisa is a tasty meatdish]

From Abu Rafi` comes this hadith: I was seated once in the house of the Prophet . He passed his hand over his head and said, 'Make use of henna, the best of all dyes, for henna strengthens the skin and increases sexual energy. Anas, too, said, "Dye yourself with henna, for surely henna is rejuvenating, and makes a man handsome, and compels him to sexual intercourse."

Among the ahadith is the one that shaving the pubic hair stimulates intercourse. Abu Nu'aim has transmitted this hadith.

Among the foods that are excellent for this purpose are peas, onions, meat, eggs, cocks and sparrows. After these a man should drink fresh milk and then rest and say his prayers. Similarly, he should eat pine kernels, haricot beans, turnips, carrots, grapes, asparagus, and pistachio nuts, hazel nuts and their like. He should avoid acidic and salty foods. I will return to this subject in the section on Simple Remedies, insh'Allah.

Muslim has transmitted the hadith from Abu Sa`id that the Prophet , said,

"If one of you has gone into his wife, and desires to approach her again, then he should first do wudhu, and then have intercourse again."

The Prophet also said,

"If one of you has gone into his wife and has said, 'In the Name of Allah, keep shaytan away from us, and keep shaytan away from what You grant us,' then the child that is destined to come from them will never be troubled by shaytan."

Al-Bukhari has transmitted the hadith that a man should not go to sleep until he has done wudhu, as was commanded by the Prophet , according to the hadith of `Ayesha and others.

The Prophet was meticulous in his sexual relations, and he ordered his example to be followed. He once said,

"What I love in your world are women, and scent, and the coolness of my eye is in the prayer."

An-Nasa'i has related the hadith that he said, "Scent is the food of the soul, and the soul is the riding beast of the faculties of man." Nothing is more helpful than scent after sexual intercourse.

When he spoke of the prayer after the enjoyment of these two pleasures, he indicated that having sexual intercourse dispels the distraction of erotic urges and sexual desires - which destroy clarity of perception and concentration by interfering with the flow of reflection and thought, and by diminishing awareness of the deen. It is for this reason that physicians have described the sex drive as being a madness. And by Allah, it is the most common of manias, for it is the most irrepressible of all the things that can dominate man.

The Prophet , said,

"I have never seen anything more capable of weakening a man's senses and his deen and of destroying his judgement than one of you women."

Truly, a man's judgement is wiped out by the intensity of his lust and things like it. Accordingly it is necessary for the slave of Allah to strive for pure intentions - without which no prayer has any merit. The discussions of the 'ulama', along with the many ahadith concerning the self and evil whisperings, are well known: the Prophet , clearly expressed the requirement concerning the obligation of doing the prayer - and he emphasised it by referring to the sayings of other messengers of Allah and others - that the slave of Allah must at the time of the prayer have a heart that is free from vain thoughts and evil inclinations.

And after sexual intercourse a ghusl is obligatory.

And Allah knows best.

Physicians have said that causing seminal emission by hand (masturbation) causes distress and weakens the sexual appetite and erections of the penis. As well as this it is forbidden by the shari'ah.

 

Gender identity issues - boys will be boys

 

Abdal-Hakim Murad

I have been asked to offer some comments on gender identity issues as these impact on Muslims living in post-traditional contexts in the West, and particularly as they affect people who have traded up to the Great Covenant of Islam after an upbringing in Judaism or Christianity. The usual way of doing this is by examining issues in the classical fiqh, and explaining how Islam’s discourse of equality functions globally, not on the micro-level of each fiqh ruling. That method is legitimate enough (although as we shall see the concept of ‘equality’ may raise considerable problems), but in general my experience of Muslim talk on gender is that there is too much apologetic abroad, apologetic, that is, in the sense not only of polemical defence, but also of pleas entered in mitigation. What I want to do today is to bypass this recurrent and often tiresome approach, which reveals so much about the low serotonin levels of its advocates, and suggest how as Western Muslims we can construct a language of gender which offers not a defence or mitigation of current Muslim attitudes and establishments, but a credible strategy for resolving dilemmas which the Western thinkers and commentators around us are now meticulously examining.

 

Let me begin, then, by trying to capture in a few words the current crisis in Western gender discourse. As good a place as any to do this is Germaine Greer’s book The Whole Woman, released in 1999 to an interesting mix of befuddled anger and encomia from the press.

 

This is an important book, not least because it casts itself as a dialogue with the author’s earlier, more notorious volume The Female Eunuch, published thirty years previously. Throughout, Greer, who is one of the most conscientious and compassionate of feminist writers, reflects on the ways in which the social and also scientific context of Western gender discourse has shifted over this period. In 1969, liberation seemed imminent, or at least cogently achievable. In 1999, with states and national institutions largely converted to the cause which once seemed so radical, it seems to have receded somewhere over the horizon. Hence Greer’s anger descends upon not one, but two lightning-rods: the old enemy of male gynophobia is still excoriated, but there is also a more diffuse frustration with what Greer now acknowledges is the hard-wiring of the human species itself. Most feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was ‘equality feminism’, committed to the breakdown of gender disparities as social constructs amenable to changes in education and media generalisation; feminism in the 1990s, however, was increasingly a ‘difference feminism’, rooted in the growing conviction that nature is at least as important as nurture in shaping the behavioural traits of men and women. Most politicians, educators and media barons and baronesses are still committed to the old feminist idea; however, as Greer’s book shows, the new feminism is growing and promises to take the world through another social shakedown, whose consequences for Muslim communities will be considerable.

 

Several factors have been at work in securing this sea-change. Perhaps the most obvious has been the sheer stubbornness of traditional patterns, which most men and women continue to find strangely satisfying. Radical feminist revolution of the old Greer school has not found a demographically significant constituency. Most women have not properly signed up to the sisterhood.

 

Moreover, the world which has been increasingly shaped by secular egalitarian gender discourse has not proved to be the promised land than the younger Greer had prophesied. As she now writes:

 

‘When the Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.’ (p.3)

 

She goes on to suggest that the sexual liberation that accompanied the gender revolution has in most cases harmed women more than men. ‘The sexuality that has been freed’, she writes, ‘is male sexuality.’ Promiscuity harms women more than men: women continue to experience the momentous consequences of pregnancy, while the male body is unaffected. When the USS Acadia returned from the Gulf War, a tenth of her female crewmembers had already been returned to America because of pregnancy aboard what became known as the Love Boat. The number of men returned was zero.

 

Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been an increase in infidelity, and a consequent rise in divorce and single parenthood. Again, it is women who have shouldered most of the burden. ‘In 1971, one in twelve British families was headed by a single parent, in 1986 one in seven, and by 1992 one in five’ (p.202). Another consequence has been the pain of solitude. ‘By the year 2020 a third of all British households will be occupied by a single individual, and the majority of those individuals will be female’ (p.250). One of the most persistent legends of the sexual revolution, that ‘testing the waters’ before marriage helps to determine compatibility, seems to have been definitively refuted. ‘Some of the briefest marriages are those that follow a long period of cohabitation’ (p.255).

 

A further area in which women seem to have found themselves degraded rather than liberated by the new cultural climate is that of pornography. This institution, opposed by most feminists as a dehumanisation and objectification of women (Otto Preminger once called Marilyn Monroe a ‘vacuum with nipples’), has not been chastened into decline by the feminist revolution; it has swollen into a thirty billion pound a year industry, populated by armies of faceless Internet whores and robo-bimbos. As Greer remarks, ‘after thirty years of feminism there is vastly more pornography, disseminated more widely than ever before.’ Pornography blends into the fashion industry, which claims to exist for the gratification of women, but is in fact, as she records, largely controlled by men who seek to persuade women to denude or adorn themselves to add to a public spectacle created largely for men. (Many fashion designers, moreover, are homosexual, Versace only the most conspicuous example, and these men create a boylike fashion norm which forces women into patterns of diet and exercise which constitute a new form of oppression.) Cellulite, once admired in the West and in almost all traditional societies, has now become a sin. To be saved, one ‘works out’. Demi Moore pumps iron for four hours a day; but even this ordeal was not enough to save her marriage.

 

Greer and other feminists identify the fashion industry as a major contributor to the contemporary enslavement of women. Its leading co-conspirator is the pharmaceuticals business, which, as she says, deliberately creates a culture of obsession with physical flaws: the so called Body Dysmorphic Disorder which is currently plumping out the business accounts of doctors, psychiatrists, and, of course, the cosmetic surgeons. As Dolly Parton says, ‘It costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’ The world’s resources are gobbled up to service this artificially-induced obsession with looks, fed by the culture of denudation. And perhaps the most repellent dimension is the new phenomenon of hormone replacement therapy, billed as an anti-aging panacea. The hormone involved, estrogen, is obtained from mares: in America alone 80,000 pregnant female horses are held in battery farms, confined in crates, and tied to hoses to enable their urine to be collected. The foals that are delivered are routinely slaughtered.

 

The consequences of the new pressures on women are already generally known, although no solutions are seriously proposed. Women, we are told by the old school of feminists, today lead richer lives. However, it is also acknowledged that these lives often seem to be sadder. ‘Since 1955 there has been a five-fold increase in depressive illness in the US. For reasons that are anything but clear women are more likely to suffer than men,’ (p.171) while ‘17 percent of British women will try to kill themselves before their twenty-fifth birthday.’ This wave of sadness that afflicts modern women, which is entirely out of keeping with the expectations of the early feminists, again has brought joy to the pharmaceuticals barons. Prozac is overwhelmingly prescribed to women. (This is the same anti-depressant drug that is routinely given to zoo animals to help them overcome their sense of futility and entrapment.)

 

Greer concludes her angry book with few notes of hopefulness. The strategies she demanded in the 1960s have been extensively tried and applied; but the results have been ambiguous, and sometimes catastrophic. What is clear is that there has not been a liberation of women, so much as a throwing-off of one pattern of dependence in exchange for another. The husband has become dispensable; the pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-growing army of psychiatrists and counsellors, have taken his place. Happiness seems as remote as ever.

 

Later in this talk I will attempt an Islamic critique of all this. But before doing so I think it would be useful to take a brief look at the science which is now providing Western social analysts with a context in which to frame an interpretation of what has gone wrong.

 

The most obvious area in which science has reverberations among feminists is in the differentials of physical strength which divide the sexes. In areas of life demanding physical power and agility, men continue to possess an advantage. Attempts have, of course, been made to overcome this proof of Mother Nature’s sexism through legislation. The most notorious attempt in the United Kingdom was the 1997 Ministry of Defence directive that female recruits would not be subject to the same physical tests as men. This excursion into political correctness foundered when it was discovered that the women being admitted to the army were not strong enough to perform some of the tasks required of them on completion of their training. As a result, the 1998 rules applied what were called ‘gender-free’ selection procedures to ensure that women and men faced identical tasks. The result was a massive rise in female injuries when compared with the men. Medical discharges due to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, were calculated at 1.5% for male recruits, and at anything between 4.6% and 11.1% for females. Lt Col Ian Gemmell, an army occupational physician who compiled a report on the situation, noted that differences in women’s bone size and muscle mass lead to 33%-39% more stress on the female skeleton when compared to that of the male. The result is that although social changes have eroded the traditional moral reasons for barring women from active combat roles, the medical evidence alone compels the British army to bar women from the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps.

 

The army is an unusual case, and the great majority of professions to which women seek access require no great physical ability. But the differences between the sexes are at their most profound where they are least visible. The gender revolutionaries of the 1960s, popularising and also radicalising the earlier, gentler calls for equality led by the likes of Virginia Woolf, were working with a science which was still largely unequipped to assess the subtler aspects of gender difference. Modern techniques of genetic examination, the reconstruction of genome maps, and the larger implications of the DNA discoveries made by Crick and Watson, were unimaginable when Greer first wrote. Since Marx and Weber, and also Freud, it had been assumed that gender roles were principally, perhaps even entirely, the product of social conditioning. Re-engineer that conditioning, it was thought, and in due season fifty percent of those doing all jobs, composing symphonies, and winning Nobel Prizes, would turn out to be women.

 

In retrospect this seems an odd assurance. The intellectual climate was, after all, thoroughly secular. There was no metaphysical or moral imperative that obliged the Western mind to conclude that the sexes were different only trivially, or, as one trendy bishop put it, simply ‘the same thing but with different fittings’. And yet so overwhelming were the egalitarian assumptions that had shaped Europe and America since at least Thomas Paine and David Hume, that everyone assumed that the sexes must be equal, in the way that the classes must be equal, or the races, or the nations.

 

One of the first large-scale social experiments based on the new theory of gender equality was the kibbutz scheme in Jewish-settled Palestine. This was founded in 1910 on the assumption, still eccentric in that time, that the emancipation of women can only be achieved when socialised gender roles are eliminated from the earliest stage of childhood.

 

The kibbutzim were collective farms in which maternal care was entirely eliminated. Instead of living with parents, children lived in special dormitories. To spare women the usual rounds of domestic drudgery, communal laundries and kitchens were provided. Both men and women were hence freed up to choose any activity or work they wished, and it was expected that both would participate equally in positions of power. To ensure the neutral socialisation of children, toys were kept in large baskets, so that boys and girls could choose their own toys, rather than have gender-stereotyped toys and games pressed upon them.

 

The results, after ninety years of consistent and conscientious social engineering, have been disconcerting. The children, to the anger of their supervisors, unerringly choose gender-specific toys. Three year-old boys pull guns and cars out of the baskets; the girls prefer dolls and tea-sets. Games organised by the children are competitive - among boys - and cooperative – among the girls.

 

In the kibbutz administration, quotas imposed to enforce female participation in leadership positions are rarely met. Dress codes which attempt to create uniformity are consistently flouted. In Israel today, the kibbutzim harbour sex-distinctions which are famous for being sharper than those observable in Israeli society at large. The experiment has not only failed, it seems to have backfired.

 

Most scientists and anthropologists who have documented the failure of such projects of social engineering today locate the gravitation of males and females to differing patterns of behaviour in the context of evolutionary biology. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are of course under attack now, particularly by philosophers and physicists, rather more seriously than at any other time over the past hundred years. And as Shaykh Nuh Keller has shown, a thoroughgoing commitment to the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Qur'anic account of the origins of humanity. We believe in a common ancestry for our kind; the neo-Darwinists insist in multiple and interactive development of hominids from simian ancestors.

 

This does not mean, however, that all the insights of modern biology are unacceptable. Keller notes that micro-evolution, that is to say, the perpetuation and reinforcement over time of genetically successful strategies for survival, is undeniable, and is affirmed also in the hadith. The breeding of horses, for instance, presupposes principles of natural selection in which human beings can intervene. Heredity is true, as a hadith affirms. Categories such as the ‘Israelites’, or the ahl al-bayt, have real significance.

 

What do the biologists say? The view is that biological success amounts to one factor alone: the maximal propagation of an organism’s genetic material. A powerful predator which dominates its habitat is, however outwardly imposing, a biological failure if it fails to reproduce itself at least in sufficient numbers to ensure its own perpetuation.

 

Biologists point out that males and females have different reproductive strategies. The burden of what biologist Robert Trivers calls ‘parental investment’ is massively higher in the case of females than of males. This has nothing to do with social conditioning: it is a genetic and biological given. The human female, for instance, makes a vast investment in a child: beginning with nine months of metabolic commitment, followed by a further period before weaning. The male’s ‘parental investment’ is enormously less.

 

Trivers shows that ‘the sex providing the greater parental investment will become the limiting resource.’ The sex which contributes less will then necessarily be in a social position involving competition, ‘because they can improve their reproductive success through having numerous partners in a way that members of the other sex cannot.’ Hence, for modern biologists, the genetic and hormonal basis of male competition and aggression. Competition and aggression are traits which may be found in females, but typically to a greatly reduced degree, simply because they are not traits vital to those females’ reproductive success. The aggression which is vital to male biological survival is directed primarily against other males (the vast, physiologically-demanding racks of antlers on stags, for instance); but aggression also serves to make the male more equipped for hunting. Male parental investment is hence physiological only indirectly, insofar as it is directed to providing food or defence for the young.

 

Biology also helps us understand why the female hormonal pattern, dominated by estrogen and oxytocin, generates strong nurturing instincts which are far less evident in the male androgens and in adrenaline, which is useful for huntsmen and warriors, but of considerably less value in the rearing of children. Simply put, mothers have a far greater investment to lose if they neglect their children. A child that dies, through lack of care resulting from insufficient hormonal guidance, represents a greater potential failure for the mother than for the father. During gestation and lactation, the mother is infertile or nearly so; whereas during the same period the father may become a father again many times over. Hence, again, the genetic programming which generates nurturing and convivial instincts in women far more than it does in men. Men have less of the ‘nurturing’ neurotransmitter oxytocin than do women. Androgens ensure that men choose mates for their youth and their apparent childbearing abilities, estrogens impel women to choose mates who are assertive and powerful, as more likely to provide the food and protection that their offspring will need.

 

Hence also the prevalence of polygyny in traditional societies, and the extreme rarity of polyandry. To have many wives is a genetically sensible strategy, to have many husbands is not.

 

The aggressive instincts fostered by the male physiology, flushed even before birth with androgens, served our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, and a few generations of very different lifestyles have not been sufficient to bring about any substantial alteration to the male hormonal balance. This is why ninety percent of prison inmates are men, in almost every society. Psychologists have shown that around the world, murderers and the murdered are usually young, unmarried men. A further factor is that males are far more attracted to competitive forms of behaviour. As Kingsley Browne notes, ‘While competition significantly increases the motivation of men, it does not do so for women. The more competitive an academic programme is perceived by women, for example, the poorer their performance, while the correlation is reversed for men.’ Studies also show that men are more likely than women to opt for difficult tasks.

 

The origin of this gender differential is again to be sought in primordial patterns of survival. Aggressive, competitive males became ‘alpha males’, and maximised their chances of reproductive success. (Males have ten times more testosterone than women; and it produces aggression as well as the sex drive.) Weaker, more co-operative males were pushed to one side, and rarely if ever found a mate. Successful hunting brought status, and status brought greater opportunities for genetic transmission.

 

Biologists like Camilla Benbow have recently assessed the implications for modern social differentiation of our genetic inheritance. Her study shows that ‘boys are much more likely to choose careers in maths and science even though girls are fully aware of their own abilities in these areas.’ Again, the conclusion is not that women are less intelligent than men - the new biology clearly rules that out - but that they prefer to exercise it in specific fields. At Harvard, for instance, there is a seven to one male preponderance in the science faculties, and a female preponderance, or equivalence, in arts subjects. Subjects like languages and art history are consistently oversubscribed by female students. And while there is no evidence that women are less intelligent than men - and in general they show themselves much more articulate - more than seventy percent of first-class degrees at Oxford are obtained by male students.

 

A variety of university committees have been set up to investigate this, initially with a view to eliminating it. However the differential is very stubborn. The reason may be partly to do with socialisation, but an awareness is growing that heredity is also a factor that refuses to be ignored. The male endocrine system carries the memory of thousands of years of hunting, an activity which requires a kind of focussed attention on a single quarry to the exclusion of all else, coupled with an adrenaline rush at the finish. Such a metabolism, it is now being argued, is better equipped to cope with university-style examinations (as distinct from secondary-school styles of assessment), than the female metabolism, which has historically flourished, that is, been reproductively successful, in nurturing and co-operative tasks.

 

The response at universities like Harvard and Oxford has been to question the primacy of the examination system. If the competitiveness and focus of males are unfairly served by examination assessment, then alternative modes of assessment must be sought. And so we see alternative assessment procedures: continual assessment of termwork, and other schemes which enable women to work consultatively on projects and hence develop their full potential. Already the results are encouraging, and it may be that the male bias which seems to be inherent in the examination system will one day be eliminated.

 

This, however, raises a larger and more troubling question. The new science has established that men and women have comparable intelligence quotients, but that the nature of male and female intelligence, and the context in which it flourishes, can be quite different. Hence Capucine La Motte, another researcher, has documented how from the age of about three most children prefer to play with children of their own gender. They can accomplish their goals in their play activities more reliably in this way. Boy’s games are competitive and often aggressive; girl’s games are collaborative and involve more sophisticated forms of discourse and conceptualisation. Another child psychologist, Janet Lever, notes that 65% of boy’s games are formal games, while only 35% of games played by girls have rules. Boys, it seems, are more ‘rule-oriented’ than girls. (This is why the contemporary Muslim interpretation of shari‘a in ways which diminish haqiqa is so often accompanied by a diminished respect for women. The sexes are only regarded with equivalent esteem when batin and zahir are spoken of with equal frequency by believers.)

 

A further aspect of inherited gender difference is presented in the issue of risk-taking. Primordial humanity allocated willingness to take risks differently among the sexes, not for constructed ‘social’ reasons, but for reasons of biological survival. To achieve the power and status requisite for transmitting his genetic material, the male had to take risks. In the historically very few years that have elapsed since such times, this norm does not appear to have changed. Consistently the figures show that risky activities and sports attract more men than women. Gambling, motor racing and bungee-jumping continue to be overwhelmingly male activities. Men are statistically more likely to ignore seat-belt laws. Despite the popular stereotypes of women as dangerous drivers, the great majority of lethal road accidents are the fault of men, because they indulge in hazardous and aggressive styles of driving. More than twice as many boys as girls die through playing dangerous games, and this statistic is remarkably consistent throughout the world.

 

The precise mechanisms in the brain which generate this behaviour are only now being understood. The mechanisms are called neurotransmitters, hundreds of different varieties of which activate emotions and bodily movements. One of the most important is serotonin, which has as one of its functions the task of informing the body to stop certain activities. When the body is tired, it generates the desire to sleep; when we have eaten enough it tells the body to stop eating; and so on. It does this by linking the limbic system (which is the kingdom of the nafs, and which generates primal impulses to attack, be sad, or make sexual advances), with the frontal cortex at the front of the brain, where our ability to assess and plan our actions is thought to be located. Studies indicate that men typically have lower serotonin levels than women, and conclude that the higher risk-taking behaviour characterising successful Formula One drivers, for instance, is likely to make that choice of career an almost entirely male preserve, whatever the amount of social engineering that feminist societies may attempt.

 

Universities can reduce gender disparities by adopting alternative modes of assessment, but after graduation, the real world is often less amenable. Risk-taking is a necessary ingredient of success in many, perhaps most, high-flying professions. Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has recently shown that the ‘glass ceiling’ in many professions, which supposedly excludes women from further promotion because of prejudice, may in fact have a biological foundation. Conspicuous success in business, for instance, demands the taking of risks that do not always come instinctively to women. As she says, ‘from an early age, females are more averse to social, as well as physical, risk, and tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion;’ and this is largely innate, rather than socially constructed.

 

One expert who has devoted his research to the implications of neurotransmitters for gender behaviour is Marvin Zuckerman. He divides the serotonin-related human quest for sensation into four types. Firstly, there is the quest for adventure and the love of danger, which is associated with the typically low serotonin levels of the male. Secondly, the quest for experiences, whether these be musical, aesthetic or religious. Zuckerman detected no significant difference between male and female enthusiasm for this quest. Thirdly, disinhibition. The neurotransmitters of the typical male allow the comparatively swift loss of moral control over the sex drive, when compared with women. Fourthly, boredom. The male brain is more susceptible to boredom when carrying out routine and repetitive tasks.

 

What are the religious implications of this? There are feminists who point to these factors as evidence for the categoric moral inferiority of men. Islamically, however, they can all be understood, and addressed, in ways that again demonstrate the conformability of the fitra, as understood by Islam as a quasi-metaphysical quality, with the purely physical processes and geography of the human brain. The first of Zuckerman’s distinctions is not necessarily to the discredit of men. Courage is, after all, a Prophetic virtue; and without emotional surges the Muslim would make a poor horseman, or warrior, or risk-taking builder of an Istanbul mosque. Secondly, with regard to the category to which the lubb, the inner core of humanity, most fully relates, it is clear that scientific evidence exists for the spiritual ‘equal opportunities’ of the sexes. The Qur’an locates the source of religious faith in the lubb’s ability to experience the divine origin of God’s signs in nature. Men and women are clearly equally good at this. Likewise, faith-sustaining aesthetic achievements such as music, literature, crafts, and architecture, are likely to be no less effective for women than for men. The Qur’an itself is perceived as beautiful and true by both sexes without distinction. It is on this level, then, (and only here) that we can meaningfully speak of the equality of the sexes.

 

The third of Zuckerman’s categories appears to place men at a disadvantage; but in reality this applies only to the secular. In the believer, the virtue described in the Qur’an as taqwa, which is produced from the faith generated in the second category, overcomes this shortfall. The spiritual technologies of Islam allow a compensation for the serotonin lack and a proper disciplining of the darker passions which dwell in the limbic system. The actualised shari‘a is, in a sense, the victory of the frontal cortex, and allows the male to retrieve the balance which is already implicit in the female metabolism. No doubt this is why ‘women are deficient in intellect and religion’. It is not that the Creator has given them innate disadvantages in the quest for understanding and salvation, but rather that He requires men to make more effort to reach their degree of fitra.

 

The fourth (the quest for novelty, and the dislike of repetitive tasks) privileges women over men in the duties of the home. Insofar as modern office jobs are repetitive and tedious, women are clearly also gifted with more stamina in the workplace as well. Whether the biologists can demonstrate that men should, or are likely to, occupy fifty percent of jobs requiring attention to repetitive tasks, seems unlikely.

 

A further explanation of the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, ‘women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.’ Girls are ‘more person-oriented’, while boys tend to be more ‘object-oriented.’

 

A further explanation of the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, ‘women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.’ Girls are ‘more person-oriented’, while boys tend to be more ‘object-oriented.’

 

These androgens, however, do more than shape the reproductive organs of the unborn child. Between the sixteenth and the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, they also trigger fundamental divergences in the male and female brains. At this point, congenital deficiencies can produce not only forms of hermaphroditism of the kind recognised by classical fiqh, but can also affect the behaviour of the subsequent person. A well-studied example is the problem known as CAH: ‘congenital adrenal hyperplasia’. This results from an abnormal secretion of androgens in an XX foetus, that is, a child that is genetically female. The child suffering from this condition, which in its classical form may affect one in every 20,000 births, is typically born with both male and female reproductive organs; and the male ones are routinely removed by surgery. Although the females appear normal and are fertile they display very distinct behavioural patterns, because of being bathed in male hormones while still unborn. The numerous papers published on this phenomenon conclude that the CAH females may be characterised as ‘tomboys’. They are more aggressive, they like games with rules, and they are ready to take more risks than girls who have been born without this defect.

 

Mirroring the CAH girls are the boys who suffer from the genetic abnormality of an additional X hormone. These XXY boys are superficially normal males, but their behaviour is typically feminine, lacking competitive and risk-taking impulses, and showing a preference for play with girls in cooperative and non-aggressive games.

 

CAH and XXY studies are increasingly cited as evidence of the immense influence which hormones exert on gender behaviour. Further proof is now emerging from studies on women who were given hormones to overcome difficulties during pregnancy, an increasingly common practice and one which is thought to be responsible for producing an increasing number of children whose behavioural traits do not tally with their bodily gender features. Female criminals, for instance, frequently suffer from abnormally high testosterone levels, and these are often the consequence of earlier medical interventions.

 

I want now to move on, and deal with some of the consequences of these discoveries for our understanding, as Muslims, of the society to which we aspire, and whose guidelines are set out in revelation. Clearly, older feminist polemic against Islam on the grounds of its ‘essentialism’, its belief in the inborn nature of male and female traits, will no longer hold water. In the Muslim world itself, the new science, and the new feminism, are not yet known, and secularists, from the Turkish government to Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh, continue to insist that gender differences, and inequalities in the workplace, can be wished away through social engineering and the inculcation of new attitudes. This was the mentality invoked by the Turkish government in preparing its 2001 gender equality legislation.

 

Living in the West, and being more in touch with contemporary trends in science and social theory, we can easily see how thin such polemic has become. Intelligent thinkers such as Greer are no longer demanding ‘equality’. It is not that they are demanding inequality or injustice instead: far from it. Instead, they are recognising that our awareness of the categoric difference between the sexes makes the whole concept of ‘equality’ rather too simpleminded. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal. We can no more say that men are better than women than we can say that ‘the rain is better than the earth’. To use the old language of ‘equality’ is in fact to be guilty of what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘category mistake’.

 

Modern Muslim theologians who have assimilated the new insights insist that the demand for ‘equality’ is less helpful than the demand for opportunity and respect. Here there is clearly a congruence between Islamic discourse and the new difference feminism of Greer, Gilligan and a growing number of others.

 

It remains for us now briefly to sketch some of the ways in which the Shari‘a and science now vindicate each other. Equality is no more envisaged by nature than it is by the law of God; indeed, the law of God, for us, is commensurate with natural law. Since we reject ideas of the radically fallen nature of our kind, we acknowledge nature, that is the fitra, as inherently good. Christianity, wherever it followed Augustine, believed until the eighteenth century that unbaptised infants, and miscarried foetuses, would be tormented forever in hell since their unregenerate nature, stained by original sin, could only lead to damnation. Jansenists and some evangelicals still hold to this disturbing belief.

 

Islam is non-sacramental; or rather, we acknowledge that the remembrance of our Lord is the only sacrament necessary. And the natural order, as the Qur'an richly documents, is a world of signs which point to its source, and to ours. Hence the fitra of our kind, discernable we may say through consistent patterns maintained in homo sapiens across the globe and the generations, cannot be displeasing to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala.

 

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions which modernity poses to traditional religion has to do with divine providence amid a world which is now unimaginably more ancient than our ancestors suspected. There is no dating by numbers in the Qur'an or the Hadith, but medieval Muslims typically thought that the world was about five thousand years old. Now, whatever view we may take of Darwin, we must accept that our species is tens of thousands of years old. Recognisably human remains have been recovered, and reliably dated by radiocarbon methods, which show the antiquity of humanity - unless we are, by misunderstanding the logic of piety, to deny scientific evidence entirely. In 1997 the world’s oldest cricket bat was dug up in the county of Essex (of course). It is recognisably a bat, designed for some form of game, and is apparently 40,000 years old. Our theological question would therefore be: if Essex Man, in time out of mind, had the self-awareness and the humanity and the sophistication needed to play cricket, surely he was also a creature accountable to his Maker. In other words, the story of salvation is much, much older than we ever suspected. To claim that humanity had to wait for most of its history before learning about its source and destiny requires an intolerable interrogation of the divine justice.

 

Now, this antiquity of our species fits in with Islamic salvation history very elegantly. The hadith indicates that there have been 124,000 prophets. The Qur’an says, Wa-li-kulli qawmin had - ‘for every nation there has been a guide’. The existence of cricket matches in Chelmsford thirty-eight thousand years before the hijra is not a problem for us: homo religiosus existed then, just as did homo ludens, and presumably had access to a chapter of revelation which has since disappeared.

 

For Christianity, of course, the problem is more acute. Medieval theologians struggled with the fact that millions lived before the coming of Christ, and hence died without receiving the sacraments or accepting him as saviour. Complicated theories of post-mortem evangelisation, or of the harrowing of hell, were developed to make this challenge to the divine moral coherence less scandalous. Today, with our awareness of humanity’s antiquity, the theology is harder still: why should a loving God have waited for a million years before sending his Son to redeem humanity?

 

For us, as I have said, this is a non-problem. For every nation there has been a guide. And, as Surat al-Insan says, ‘Has there ever come upon man a time when he was not something remembered?’ And a necessary concomitant of this acceptance of the dramatic, splendid length of prophetic history, so commensurate with the grandeur of God and the universe, has to be that recurrent and biologically-grounded patterns of human society must be considered as in some sense normal, and hence as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, our conviction, as Muslims, that the human being has been created ‘in the best of forms’, that ‘we have ennobled the children of Adam’, makes any attempt to decry the natural endocrinology of our bodies blasphemous. We are as we have been created, and Allah, blessed is He, is the best of creators.

 

This is why we say, respectfully ignoring the protests of old-fashioned feminists, that men and women, in a Godfearing society, will tend towards different concerns and spheres of activity. Our aim, after all, is human happiness, not political correctness. Any attempt to impose a crudely egalitarian template on the data of the Qur’an and Sunna, and of the Sira, and the recurrent patterns of Islamic social history, will underestimate them drastically. Walaysa al-dhakaru ka’l-untha, says the Qur’an: the male is not like the female. Egalitarianism is reductionism, and diminishes the bivalence of our kind, whose fertility is apparent in many more ways than the merely reproductive.

 

We insist, therefore, that our revealed law, confirmed so magnificently in its assumptions by the new science, upholds the dignity and the worth of women more reliably than secularity ever can. A materialistic worldview, which measures human worth in terms of earning power and status and access to sexual plenitude, will inexorably glorify the male. For the male, conditioned by the androgens from the time he was almost invisibly small in the womb, is assertive: his metaphors are projection, conquest, single-mindedness. As the facts of science trickle down into popular culture, and as old-style equality feminism breaks down, the male is going to be magnified as never before in history. Materialistic civilisations will, in the longer term, favour and revere male traits. In the shorter term women may appear to be overtaking the men, because of the energy generated by the congratulations of modernity, and because of the reciprocal atrophy of male identity and self-regard. But in the longer term, unless the logic of Adam Smith’s capitalism is mysteriously terminated, the future belongs to the androgen.

 

As Muslims, we refuse such a favouritism. Inevitably, given the nature of the fitra, there must be aspects of shari‘a which favour the male in functional, material terms. Ours is a religion of absolute justice. But because we reject any identification of human worth with conspicuous functionality, or power, or status, or consumption, we are able to insist on the worth of women in a way that is not possible outside a religious context. For we have not been created for the idols worshipped in the pages of GQ or Loaded Magazine. The biological advantages of the male, which, unless one day a massive reconstructive surgery and hormonal reprogramming is carried out on every one of us, do not for us denote superiority, as they must for the secular mind when it follows its own arguments through.

 

The key to understanding this is supplied by our rich theology of the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. And these reveal what the biologists describe as gender dimorphism. That is to say, just as procreation bears fruit through the shaping received from androgens and estrogens, so too creation itself is bathed in androgens and estrogens. The entire cosmos is gendered; in fact, it comes into being, and attains the complexity of manifestation after the experience of undifferentiated unity, through the interaction of the divine Names, where the supreme and governing category is the polarity of Jalal and Jamal. I have attempted some further reflections on this principle of a hormonally-coded cosmos in another place. (www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm))

 

The gender issue ramifies massively into every other area of religion, and far more could be written. What I have tried to do in this essay is show that an opposition to the Shari‘a is an opposition to science, inasmuch as science is currently affirming an innate distinction between the sexes, a distinction that Allah ta‘ala clearly calls us to celebrate rather than to suppress. The social architecture of Islam is very different to that of the modern secular West: that should be a source of pride to us. We are permitted to speculate, however, that the disastrous social problems now overcoming the West, and westernising classes elsewhere, will combine with the new science to provide a revised definition of gender and social roles which will, in the longer term, convince our critics of the superior wisdom and compassion of the Prophetic social model.

 

Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender

Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender

Abdal Hakim Murad  

 

The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by an animal ferocity. They have no kindness, gentleness or love, since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and sensuality belong to the animals. She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is a creator - you could say that she is not created. - Jalal al-Din Rumi

 The 1969 female eunuch was nothing but womb. The 1997 female eunuch has no womb. - Germaine Greer

 

Can men any longer write about women? Will our discourse always fallaciously subjectivise the male, as the Lacanian digit to the feminine zero? Andrea Dworkin and many others are insistent here. And yet the theologian must oppose such a closure no less stridently. No-one should claim a monological right to instruct the other sex concerning moral thought and conduct. Moreover, and no less seriously, we must object to that anti-dialogical aspect of the prevailing academic feminism which, supported by biometric footnotes, proposes that men have nothing to say here because truly ‘female thought’ is on every level categorically different from the thought of males. On this view, sexual difference not only creates a predisposition to be interested in certain kinds of issues, but fundamentally affects every way in which we handle concepts. Knowledges are sexualised, we are told; ‘the very way in which we decide what is true and false is a function of sexual difference.'

 

One reaction against this view is voiced in detail by Jean Curthoys in her new book Feminist Amnesia. She applies a kind of Friedanite fundamentalism, lamenting the recent decline of 60s and 70s radical feminist theory which was grounded in assurances of identity between the sexes rather than mere equality. Conventional academic feminism today, she avers, draws on recent biology to posit a total epistemic discontinuity between male and female, so that all scholarship, and all conclusions about reality, are bifurcated accordingly, excluding all possibility of dialogue across the gender abyss. This aporetic cessation, she insists, is intolerable.

 

Clearly there is force to her complaint. But equally clearly, both she and her antagonists go too far. Biologists and philosophers now converge on a median position which suggests that men and women do indeed think differently, but not so differently that they can form no judgement on each other’s conclusions. It is not just the practical implications which make this inference inescapable (could we tolerate, for instance, separate encyclopedias for each sex?). More seriously, the claim to aporia is to be rejected as forming part of a recent feminist turn away from rationality itself as an oppressive product and tool of ‘male linearity’. On this view, women’s discourse, sceptical about attempts to deduce any intrinsically true facts about reality, is hence pre-eminently responsive to the project of postmodernism, while men languish amid the rationalising games of late modernity. This thesis of male backwardness is intriguing and has appealed to many; yet remains without persuasive proof. As the Maturidis insist, rationality and morality are observed by the mind, not merely constructed by it. Is this scruple a ‘linear male objectification’? Surely it is just objectification: to claim that women have a categorically more indirect, empathetic, spontaneous approach to reality may be tantamount to affirming that they are less capable of sustained argument based on fact. Such a conclusion is far from universal among feminists, converging as it does with a certain masculine stereotype. Of course, it is almost certainly true, as Professor Carol Gilligan has argued, that ethical responses differ markedly between the sexes. For her, women ‘make moral decisions in a framework of relationships more than in a framework of rights’. Women’s ‘moral processing is contextually oriented’. This is uncontroversial. But value judgements amid the hurly-burly of lived reality are one thing; large generalisations about the nature of the world are quite another. And in the latter field, neither revelation nor reason persuade us that the two styles of argument, the male and female, cannot overlap.

 

What follows, therefore, is not an androcentric apologia, although a deliberate or even unwilled male discourse is inescapable and is not inherently improper. It claims to be factual, not a self-authenticating view from within a particular ‘gendered’ language-game.

 

A second preliminary point raises the entire problem of gendered approaches to spirituality. The British religious philosopher John Hick, in a recent moment of feministic reflection, proposed that ‘because of the effects upon them of patriarchal cultures, many women have ‘weak’ egos, suffer from an ingrained inferiority complex, and are tempted to diffusion and triviality.’ He thus suggests that women experience greater difficulties in becoming saints because the spiritual struggle can only be undertaken by a coherent, confident personality. On this view, women must pass through two stages in achieving sainthood, while men require only one.

 

A little reflection will reveal that this position suffers from two sharp problems. For a start, it deploys an unexamined stereotype of traditional women as shallow and easily distracted; whereas any observation of women’s attendence at, say, salat, or a Turkish mevlud, suggests that women’s devotional behaviour tends to be not palpably less sober, or focussed or directed than that of men. Often it is women rather then men who retain a more serious faith under secularising conditions; although this may flower in the privacy of the home, rather than under public scrutiny in the mosque. Secondly, it implies that spiritual growth is a primarily mechanical, discursive procedure whereby the will overcomes passion, leading to the detachment from the world which is the precondition for sainthood. This begs some fundamental questions about the spiritual life; Hick’s image may hold good for some forms of Christianity and Hinduism, but cannot be applied to many other varieties of religious development, where the conscious, calculating will is deliberately pushed into the background. Specifically, what is characteristically male about love-based mysticism? The insistence that the mind is a prison, and that emotion and spontaneous love of God, triggered by relatively informal practices of the dhikr type, is a commonplace even of ‘male’ spirituality. Here, for instance, is a poem by Rumi:

‘In the screaming gale of Love, the intellect is a gnat.      How can intellects find space to wander there?’

 

And again:

‘Do not remain a man of intellect among the lovers, especially if you love that sweet-faced Beloved. May the men of intellect stay far from the lovers, may the smell of dung stay far from the east wind!  If a man of intellect should enter, tell him the way is blocked, but if a lover should come,  extend him a hundred welcomes!  By the time intellect has deliberated and reflected, love has flown to the seventh heaven.  By the time intellect has found a camel for the hajj, love has circled the Ka‘ba.  Love has come and covered my mouth. It says: ‘Throw away your poetry, and come to the  stars!''

 

Perhaps a modern Protestant theologian will have problems with this; but most traditional religions assume that the way to God is through the heart, not the mind. So Hick’s idea that ‘patriarchy’ slams the door to God in the face of traditional women simply because they are (supposedly) less cerebral than men, seems distinctly unpersuasive. He is simply a victim of his own cultural and denominational limitations.

 

With these preliminary points in mind, let us now move on to the core issue. Modern women writers on religion, such as Rosemary Ruether, insist that all talk of gender in religions has to start in the beginning, with the archetypes. What do images of God tell us about the place of men and women in the world?

 

In her book Sexism and God-Talk, Ruther objects to ways in which Christian metaphors about God’s maleness are taken literally. For her, the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry ‘must be extended to verbal pictures. When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous.’ She acknowledges that Christian doctrine affirms that all language about God is analogous. Nonetheless the use of male terms for the Ultimate Reality, and the characteristically Christian emphasis on the personhood of God, has regularly resulted in this kind of idolatry. Her solution is to urge the use of inclusive language, so that God is referred to from time to time as the ‘Goddess’, or as ‘She’. Ruether even objects to the idea of God as parent, suggesting, no doubt absurdly, that this encourages what she calls a virtue of spiritual infantilism which makes ‘autonomy and assertion of free will a sin.’

 

Despite her promethean confidence in her ability to revise tradition, Ruther has been famously outstripped by Mary Daly, a former Catholic theologian who now, like several influential feminists, describes herself as a ‘witch’. Her book Beyond God the Father rejects even the metaphorical possibilities of traditional language. To call God Father, she insists, is to call fathers God. The Trinity is thus revealed as ‘an eternal male homosexual orgy’. As the engendering matrix of the world, God is, in fact, paradigmatically female. And the world itself, as mirror of heaven, ‘bears fruit’, and is hence female also. The male principle is the alien force, the nexus of disruption, aggression, and sin. Daly seems to approach the almost dualistic notion that God is female, while the ‘horned’ devil is male. This gendered Manicheanism may seem a bizarre inversion of Augustine’s and rocentrism, but her books are hugely influential, selling in hundreds of thousands of copies.

 

Not every figuring of the divine is and rocentric, of course. Luce Irigaray observes that it is in the West that ‘the gender of God, the guardian of every subject and discourse, is always paternal and masculine’. Even Orthodoxy is more aporetic in its metaphorical gendering of the sacred. The paintings of El Greco, as they reflect his trajectory from the timeless icon-painting of his native Crete, through his studies in Venice under Tintoretto, to the Toledo of the muscular Counter-Reformation, reveal a process of increasing concretisation, with growing attention to perspective, expression, and sharpness of form. His Christ, in his late, ‘Catholic’ paintings, is more human than divine; and hence more humanly and authentically male.

 

In this respect, perhaps more than in any other way, ours is not a Western tradition.

Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgement on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgement about gender; since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth.

 

The source of this teaching is unproblematic for believers. Secular historians might see it differently, as confirmation that early Islam was not covenantally-defined. Endomorphic views of the divine were necessary to Judaism, which was communally constituted in opposition to neighbouring goddess-worship, whence the imagery of Israel as ‘God’s bride’. This continued in the Christian church, the ‘New Israel’, the ‘bride of Christ’, as the Church Fathers waged war on the goddess cults of late antiquity, and also, increasingly, on ‘woman’ herself as the paradigm of responsibility for the Fall. But Islam’s community of believers never saw itself as a feminine entity, despite the interesting matronal resonances of the term umma. The Islamic understanding of salvation history did not require that Allah should be constructed as male.

 

From a theologian’s standpoint it might be said that Islam averts the difficulty identified by Ruether through its emphasis on the divine transcendence (tanzih). The same ‘desert like’ abstract difference of the Muslim God which draws reproach from Christian commentators also allows a gender-neutral image of the divine. Allah is not neuter or androgynous, but is simply above gender. Even Judaism, which generally has fewer problems in this area than has Christianity, does not go this far. In the Eighteen Benedictions said by pious Jews every morning and evening, we find the words: ‘Cause us to return, O our Father, to thy Law,’ while in Deuteronomy 8.6, we read: ‘As a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.’ 

 

Such references to God as Father are less common in the Old Testament than the New, but they are still abundant, and are thorns in the path of gender-sensitive liberal theologians.

 

When we turn to the Qur’an, we find an image of Godhead apophatically stripped of metaphor. God is simply Allah, the God; never Father. The divine is referred to by the masculine pronoun: Allah is He (huwa); but the grammarians and exegetes concur that this is not even allegoric: Arabic has no neuter, and the use of the masculine is normal in Arabic for genderless nouns. No male preponderance is implied, any more than feminity is implied by the grammatically female gender of neuter plurals.

 

The modern Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf emphasises the point that Muslim theology has consistently made down the ages: God is not gendered, really or metaphorically. The Quran continues Biblical assumptions on many levels, but here there is a striking discontinuity. The imaging of God has been shifted into a new and bipolar register, that of the Ninety-Nine Names.

 

Muslim women who have reflected on the gender issue have seized, I think with good reason, on this striking point. For instance, one Muslim woman writer, Sartaz Aziz, writes:

 

I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam because I was able to think of the Highest Power as one completely without sex or race, and thus completely unpatriarchal . . .

 

We begin with the idea of a deity who is completely above sexual identity, and thus completely outside the value system created by patriarchy. 

 

This passage is cited by the modern Catholic writer Maura O’Neill, who writes on women’s issues in dialogue, and who rightly concludes: ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’

 

This does not mean that gender is absent from Muslim metaphysics. The kalam scholars, as good transcendentalists, banished it from the non-physical world. But the mystics, as immanentists, read it into almost everything. We might say that while in Christianity, relationality is in the triune Godhead, and is explicitly male, in Islam, relationality is absent from the Godhead but exuberantly exists in the Names. To use Kant’s terms, the noumenal God is neutral, whereas the phenomenal God is manifested in not one but two genders. The two leading modern scholars of this tradition in Islamic thought are Izutsu and Murata, who have both noted the parallels between Sufism’s dynamic cosmology and the Taoist world view: each sees existence as a dynamic interplay of opposites, which ultimately resolve to the One.

 

The Sufi metaphysicians were drawing on a longstanding distinction between the Divine Names that were called Names of Majesty (jalal), and the Names of Beauty (jamal). The Names of Majesty included Allah as Powerful (al-Qawi), Overwhelming (al-Jabbar), Judge (al-Hakam); and these were seen as pre-eminently masculine. Names of Beauty included the All-Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Mild (al-Halim), the Loving-kind (al-Wadud), and so on: seen as archetypally feminine. The crux is that neither set could be seen as pre-eminent, for all were equally Names of God. In fact, by far the most conspicuous of the Divine Names in the Qur'an is al-Rahman, the All-Compassionate. And the explictly feminine resonances of this name were remarked upon by the Prophet (s.w.s.) himself, who taught that rahma, loving compassion, is an attribute derived from the word rahim, meaning a womb. (Bukhari, Adab, 13) The cosmic matrix from which differentiated being is fashioned is thus, as in all primordial systems, explicitly feminine; although Allah ‘an sich’ remains outside qualification by gender or by any other property.

 

Further confirmation for this is supplied in a famous hadith, preserved for us by al-Bukhari, which describes how during the Muslim conquest of Mecca a woman was running about in the hot sun, searching for her child. She found him, and clutched him to her breast, saying, ‘My son, my son!’ The Prophet’s Companions saw this, and wept. The Prophet was delighted to see their rahma, and said, ‘Do you wonder at this woman’s rahma for her child? By Him in Whose hand is my soul, on the Day of Judgement, God shall show more rahma towards His believing servant than this woman has shown to her son.’ (Bukhari, Adab, 18) And again: ‘On the day that He created the heavens and the earth, God created a hundred rahmas, each of which is as great as the space which lies between heaven and earth. And He sent one rahma down to earth, by which a mother has rahma for her child.’ (Muslim, Tawba, 21) Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate. Here the Ash‘arite occasionalism which insists on preserving the divine omnipotence by denying secondary causation is shifted into a mystical, matronal register, where the world of emanation is gendered by the sheer fact of its engendering. ‘We have created everything in pairs,’ says the Qur’an.

 

This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God as Layla - the celestial beloved - the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil - a metaphor for distraction and sin - to be annihilated in his Beloved. 

 

One thinks here of Christian bridal mysticism, but in reverse. St Teresa of Avila appears to use sensual images to convey her union with Christ. But again, Christ, as God the Son, is male. In Islamic mysticism, the divine beloved is ‘female’.

The kalam hence abolishes gender; spirituality deploys it exuberantly as metaphor, thereby displaying an aspect of the distinction between ‘iman’ and ‘ihsan’. The third component of the ternary laid down by the Hadith of Gabriel, ‘islam’, comprising the outward forms of religion, also recognises and affirms gender as a fundamental quality of existence, and this finds expression in many provisions of Islamic law and the norms of Muslim life.

 

The pattern of life decreed by Islam, which is the retrieval of the Great Covenant (mithaq), is primordial, and hence biophiliac and affirmative of the hormonal and genetic dimensions of humanity. Body, mind and spirit are aspects of the same created phenomenon, and are all gendered through their interrelation. To the extent that the human creature lives in wholeness, that creature’s spiritual essence is possessed of gender, whence the magnificent celebration of the genius of each sex which is so characteristic of Islam. The Prophet (s.w.s.) himself can only be fully understood in this light: his virility indicates his wholeness and hence his holiness. His archetypal celebration of womanhood, his multiple wives, recalls the virility of Solomon or other Hebrew patriarchs, or even of Krishna. Living life to the full, he embraced and utterly sacralised the divinely-appointed rite of procreation. His khasa’is, the rules which the Lawgiver fashioned for him alone, and which are listed by Suyuti in his al-Khasa’is al-Kubra, generally imposed upon him rigours from which his followers were exempt. The tahajjud prayer was obligatory for him, but only optional for other Muslims. He was entitled to fast for twenty-four hours, or for much longer periods (the so-called Continuous Fast - sawm al-wisal); although ordinary believers were required to fast from dawn to dusk only. His khasa’is are for the most part austerities; and yet among them we find the inclusion of an expansive polygamy. Several of his wives were elderly, it is true (Sawda, Umm Habiba, Maymuna), and their marriages may have been straightforward matters of compassion and political wisdom; but other wives were young. By his triumphant polygamy, the Blessed Prophet was indicating the end of the Christian war against the body, and rhetorically re-affirmed the sacramental value of sexuality that the Hebrew prophets had proclaimed.

 

Inseparable from this was his valour on the field of battle. His style of spiritual self-naughting linked to heroism has no European equivalent: it was not that of the celibate Templars, or the Knights of Calatrava, but resonates instead with the warrior holiness of Krishna, or the bushido of medieval Japan. The samurai ethic combines meditative stillness, military excellence, and love for women in equal measure; it is a spectacular expression of maleness which is illuminative of this, to many Europeans, most remote and ungraspable dimension of the Sunna.

 

And this leads us towards a further question. Feminists point out that early Christian celibacy was driven by a horror of the flesh, so that women were, in Tertullian’s words, ‘the devil’s gateway’. This could have no deep purchase in Islamic culture, with the hadith insisting that ‘Marriage is my sunna, and whoever departs from my sunna is not of me;’ a valorization of marriage which implicitly valorized functional womanhood in a way that the Church Fathers, with their preference for virginal perfection, had found problematic. It is true that a celibate advocacy developed among some second and third generation Muslim ascetics also, with Abu Sulayman al-Darani declaring, ‘Whoever marries has inclined towards the world’. However, this kind of sentiment tended to be expressed in the very early ascetical milieu, where the drive for celibacy, as Tor Andrae has shown, was the result of Christian monastic influence, and was later swept away by the tide of normative Sufism. In high medieval Islam the conjunction of holiness and celibacy was unimaginable, and few who aspired to God were unmarried: Ibn Taymiya was the rarest of exceptions.

 

This evolution of values again parallels the situation in early Christianity. A bitterly-fought scholarly argument debates whether the appearance of the first Christians improved or degraded the status of women, with Peter Brown and many feminists arguing the latter view. Ben Witherington observes that it is the later New Testament material (Luke, Acts) that advocates an improved role for women and a departure from the rabbinical (and hence post-prophetic) norms which shaped the attitudes of the first Christians. However, as Jesus was a Jewish prophet, loyal to revelation, and in particular to its interpretation within a compassionate template, it is reasonable to assume that there existed genuinely pro-female possibilities in the early Jesus community that capsized under the weight of pre-existent Hellenic misogyny which some authors of the Pauline epistles imported from the mystery religions, in the way that Foucault has shown in the second volume of his History of Sexuality

 

It may be said that an analogous corrosion befell Islamic social history. Critically, however, this happened to a much lesser extent, for a set of reasons which demand careful attention.

 

Firstly, the above-noted refusal of the scriptures to attribute male gender to the Godhead deprived the tradition of an unarguable gynophobic foundation. The doctrine of the Names as archetypes for all bipolarities in creation ruled out any possibly consequent idea that humanity’s retrieval of theomorphism must entail a shedding of gender in favour of androgyny. On the contrary, the retrieval of theomorphism is the retrieval of gender, fully understood.

 

Secondly, the very word ‘woman’ had been for many Church Fathers a metonym for concupiscence; and patristic Christianity’s consistent preference for celibacy as a calling higher than marriage had entailed a particular attitude towards women. The model was, of course, Christ himself, as later figured and interpreted by the Church’s imagination. Islam, by stark contrast, maintained a version of the primordial, and also Solomonic, polygamous, heroic model of Semitic prophethood. As Geoffrey Parrinder has shown, sex-positive religions tend also to accord a higher status to the female principle; and Islam from its inception stressed that the presence of women’s bodies and spirits was in no way injurious to the spiritual life. The Prophet (s.w.s.) worshipped in his tiny room for much of the night, and when he was descending into prostration he would nudge aside the legs of his young wife Aisha, to make room. A far cry from the devotions of the Syrian monk, alone in his desert cell.

 

Also built into the archetypal patterns of Islam is a characteristic amendation to existing purity laws. Feminists have often identified these as a major sign and strengthener of misogyny. They exist in branches of Christianity, as is shown by Russian Orthodox hesitations about the reception of the Eucharist by menstruating women. In Judaism they are very elaborate, so that the menstruating woman is only sexually available for half of every month. Special bathhouses are required for her purification.

 

This reflects and responds to a very ancient, and very widely-observed taboo. In some primitive societies, women are banished from their husband’s house during this time; the Galla tribes of Ethiopia allocate special huts for menstruating women. Even today, the significant disruption to women’s behavioural patterns is acknowledged in some legislation: modern French law, for instance, even classifies extreme premenstrual tension as a form of temporary insanity.

Islam has preserved the memory of this ancient, and also Semitic hesitation, but in an interestingly attenuated and non-

judgemental form. So in sura 2 verse 220 we read: 

 

They will question you concerning the monthly course: Say, it is a hurt. So go apart from women during the monthly course and do not approach them until they are clean.’ 

 

What this means is clarified in the sunna. A hadith reports that: 

‘A’isha was sleeping under one coverlet with God’s Messenger, when suddenly she jumped up and left his side. The Messenger said to her, ‘What is the matter? Are you losing blood?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Wrap your waist-wrapper tightly about you, and come back to your sleeping-place.’’ 

 

There are echoes here of this primordial human unease, but they are very reduced. The naturalism of Islam constantly insists that holiness does not emerge from the suppression of human instincts, but from their affirmation through regulation, so that the natural rhythms of the body and the awe with which we regard them are not to be ignored, but need commemoration in religious ritual. Hence a woman is granted a suspension of formal prayer and fasting for several days in every month. Some feminists see this as a diminution of female spirituality; Muslim female theologians regard it as a reverent acknowledgement; others, such as Ruqaiyyah Maqsood interpret it as a relief from religious duties at a difficult time. The dispensation is easily deconstructed by either suspicious or benign hermeneutics, and resists total interpretation.

 

What Muslims do stress is that Islam valorises women by making the basic duties of the faith equally incumbent upon both sexes: the suspension for a few days each month is seen as a pragmatic and generous dispensation which does not vitiate this basic principle. The Five Pillars are hence gender-neutral. Similarly, Islam does not establish sacred spaces inaccessible to women. Women can and do enter the Holy Ka‘ba. The Inner Court of the Temple in Jerusalem before its demolition by the Romans was out of bounds to women, who faced the death penalty if they penetrated it. Under Muslim auspices, it was thrown open to both sexes. Hence the Dome of the Rock, the golden structure which still symbolises the Celestial City, and which marks the terrestrial point of the Mi‘raj, is allocated on Fridays exclusively to women, so that men pray in the nearby al-Aqsa mosque hall. Here, as elsewhere, the sexes are segregated during congregational prayers, and the reason given for this is again the pragmatic and unanswerable one that a conmingling of men and women during a form of worship which entails a good deal of physical contact would readily lead to distraction.

Women may penetrate the sacratum; but what of the ambivalent privilege of leadership? Who is the broker of God’s saving word? If in Judaism, women could not approach the Torah, while in Christianity they found themselves excluded from administering the Eucharist, does the new dispensation of Islam restrain them analogously?

 

Here Islam extends its feminizing of sacred spaces to its own epiphany of the Word which resonates within them. For the Shari‘a, the word made Book is open to female touch and cantillation. Symbolically, the custodianship of the first Qur’anic text was entrusted to the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, not to a man.

 

Regarding collective celebration of the divine word, it is clear that there can be no Islamic equivalent to the debate over women’s ordination, for the straightforward reason that Islam does not ordain anyone, whether male or female. Our recollection of the primordial Alast and our affirmation of the Great Covenant have already conferred holy orders upon us all. They are valid to the extent of our recollection.

 

The imam does not mediate; but the spiritual director may do so, by praying for the disciple and offering techniques of dhikr. It is a manifestation of the inescapably anti-feminine harshness of modern pseudosalafite activism that the Sufi shaykh is for such activists a figure not to be revered, but to be abolished. Sufism, and several other forms of Islamic initiatic spirituality, have frequently accommodated women in ways which purely exoteric forms of the religion have not: the Sufi shaykh, who exercises such influence on the formation and guidance of the disciple, and is often a more significant presence for the individual and for society than the person of the mosque imam, may be of either gender. The modern Lebanese saint Fatima al-Yashrutiyya is a conspicuous and deeply moving example; but there are many others. Frequently in those Muslim societies where the mosque has become a primarily male space, the tomb of a prophet or a saint supplies a sacred place for women, responding to their affective spirituality which flourishes, as Irigaray would have it, in the embrace of closed circles rather than in straight lines. The importance of some of the tombs of the Prophets for Palestinian women has often been noted in this regard. Pseudosalafism, with its nervousness about any public visibility for women, seeks to suppress such contexts, with the exception only of the tomb at Madina, which it construes not as paradigm but as exception.

 

Nonetheless, the issue of a possible female imamate has been raised in several communities in recent years, although the evidence suggests that very few women aspire to this ambivalent position. The imam of a mosque can claim none of the mediating authority of a priest: he does not stand in loco divinis; but is mainly present to mark time, to ensure that the worshippers’ movements are co-ordinated, and to represent the unity of the community. While in some cultures he may have the added function of a pastoral counsellor, this is not a canonical requirement. All four madhhabs of Sunni Islam affirm that the imam must be male if there are males in the congregation. If there are only females, then many classical scholars permit the imamship of females, and this is generally accepted nowadays. But women cannot lead men in prayer. There are in fact no Qur’anic or Hadith texts that explicitly lay this down: it is a product of the medieval consensus. Although those who reject the Four Schools, and attempt to derive the shari‘a directly from the revelation, sometimes repudiate this consensus, only a few, such as Farid Esack, have proposed it seriously. In practice, women activists in the Muslim world appear to have little concern for this, again, because of the absence of inherent prestige and authority in the imamate. One can be a religious leader without being imam of a mosque, the example of prominent theologians such as Bint al-Shati’ in modern Egypt, and a host of medieval predecessors such as Umm Hani, A’isha al-Ba‘uniyya, and Karima al-Marwaziyya, affording sufficient proof of this. 

 

The discussion so far has moved downwards through districts of metaphysics to touch on issues of shari‘a. Theologically, as we have seen, Islam tends to assert the equality of the male and female principles, while in its practical social structures it establishes a distinction. To understand this paradox is to understand the essence of the Islamic philosophy of gender, which constructs roles from below, not from above.

 

Women’s functions vary widely in the Muslim world and in Muslim history. In peasant communities, women work out of doors; in the desert, and among urban elites, womanhood is more frequently celebrated in the home. Recurrently, however, the public space is rigorously desexualised, and this is represented by the quasi-monastic garb of men and women, where frequently the colour white is the colour of the male, while black, significantly the sign of interiority, of the Ka‘ba and hence the celestial Layla, denotes femininity. In the private space of the home these signs are cast aside, and the home becomes as colourful as the public space is austere and polarised. Modernity, refusing to recognise gender as sacred sign, and delighting in random erotic signalling, renders the public space ‘domestic’ by colouring it, and makes war on all remnants of gender separation, crudely construed as judgemental.

 

For Muslims, a significant development in the new feminism is the renewed desire for apartness. Contemplating the crisis of egalitarian social contracts, where the burden of divorce invariably bears most heavily upon women, Daly and many others advocate an almost insurrectionist refusal of contact with the male, and the creation of ‘women’s spaces’ as citadels for the cultivation of a true sisterhood. This cannot be immediately useful to Muslims. Hermeneutics of suspicion directed against either sex are irreligious from the Qur’anic perspective. God, as a sign, ‘has created spouses for you, from your own kind, that you may find peace in them; and He has set between you love and mercy.’ (30:21) Nonetheless, the feminist demand for apartness should not be cast aside; it may even converge significantly with Islam’s provision of it.

 

In her Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray denounces the technological workplace created by men, which ‘brings about a sexuate levelling at a certain level, [and] neutralizes sexual differences’. To compete, women must assume the ‘tunnel vision’ of the achievement-oriented male, and hence relinquish aspects of their hormonally-coded essence for the sake of a public mercantile space which is biocidal, profiteering, anti-feminine, and now anti-gender. She also observes that ‘the sexual liberations of recent times have not established a new ethics of sexuality’, and that women have been the prime sufferers. But an insurrectionist feminist response ‘often destroys the possibility of constituting a shelter or a territory of one’s own. How are we to construct this female shelter, this territory in difference?’ The question is shared with Islam; but her response is disappointing, and surely futile. Like Levinas, she demands a revolution in love, a ‘fertility in social and cultural difference’ rooted in reconciliation, a new language of gesture, and valorization of the separate nature of femaleness by males.

 

Given her pessimism about the mutability of the male temper, apparently reinforced by new molecular genetic studies on gender difference, this looks like wishful thinking, and cannot provide more than part of the agenda for an authentic and affirming mutuality. However in her diagnosis we may locate the clue to the more moral and more spiritual solution for which she clearly yearns. ‘Our societies,’ she notes, ‘are built upon men-among-themselves (l’entre-hommes). According to this order, women remain dispersed and exiled atoms.’ But there is a rival cultural economy which cries out to be considered.

 

Traditionally, the Islamic public space is constructed and subjectivised primarily by ‘l’entre-hommes’, the men in white. The women in black signal a kind of absence even when they are present, by assuming a respected guest status. But Islamic society, rooted in primordial and specifically Shari‘atic kinship patterns, emphatically refuses to reduce them to the status of ‘dispersed and exiled atoms’. There is a parallel space of the entre-femmes, a realm of alternative meaning and fulfilment, where men are the guests, which intersects in formal ways with the entre-hommes but which creates a sociality between women, a space for the appreciation of nos semblables which is largely lacking amid the conditions of modernity or postmodernity, and which is more profoundly human and feminine than the academicised utopia of which Irigaray dreams.

 

Irigaray commends the new institution of affidamento, current among some Italian feminists, which seeks a withdrawal from the irreducibly male and abrasive public space into nuclei of relaxed female sorority. For her, this is ‘the token of another culture which preserves for us a possible and inhabitable future, a culture whose historical face is as yet unknown to us’. She acknowledges that the power-struggles and generally negative experience of women’s groups suggests that affidamento cells may not be able to merge to create a larger and stable women’s solidarity apart from men. But the random intrusion of women into the public space, and the consequent patterns of conflict, marginalisation, the neglect of children, and spiralling divorce, suggest that some form of localised, informal sorority may provide women with the matrix of identity which a fragmenting modernity denies them.

 

The Islamic entre-femmes has been explored by several anthropologists. Chantal Lobato, in her studies of Afghan refugee women, angrily rejects Western stereotypes, praising the warmth and sisterly richness of these women’s lives. As she records, such women’s spaces, with systems of meaning, tradition, and narrative constructed largely by women themselves, intersect with the male narrative through institutions such as marriage. We would add that intersection, critically, is not determined by either sex. Irigaray holds that all discourses are gendered; but Islam would say that this is not true: there are in fact three discourses: male, female, and divine. Tawhid, as we have seen, refuses to gender God or God’s word; and the Qur’anic text is hence a neutral document. It is read by men and by women, and hence imported and internalised in gender-specific ways. As such it supplies a barzakh between the two worlds of meaning, equally possessed by each. It is the missing link in Irigaray’s theoretical model which enables an authentic and stable inter-sexual sociality.

 

What this theology, and the anthropology which is emerging to support it, propose, is that normative Islamic society is concurrently patriarchal and matriarchal. The public space is primarily that of men, who may valorise it over the private; but the latter space is valorised by women, who may regard the public space as morally and spiritually questionable. Hence a feature of Muslim folkways is a kind of reflexive amusement. Men frequently construct a trivialising discourse on women; but women, as any eavesdropper on a Muslim female conversation will know, dismiss men and their concerns with an even more amused disregard. They are right to say, ‘Men, what do they know?’ And the male patriarchal dismissal is, from the male viewpoint, no less correct. Aspects of the hadith discourse which appear to diminish women can be affirmed, and also relativised, by adopting this perspective.

 

A final aspect of the concurrent patriarchy and matriarchy of Muslim cultures concerns the status of the mother. A weakness of Irigaray’s work is her worrying indifference to the aged; like many feminists, she appears to be concerned only with her semblables. While she accepts the reproductive and nurturing telos of the female body, she signally fails to consider its other natural trajectory, which is towards senescence.

 

The veneration of aged mothers is a recurrent feature of the Prophetic vision, in which kindness and loyalty to the mother, a rahma to reciprocate the rahma they themselves dispensed, is seen as an almost sacramental act. Ibn Umar narrates that ‘a man came to God’s Messenger (s.w.s.) and said: "I have committed a great sin. Is there anything I can do to repent?" He asked, "Do you have a mother?" The man said that he did not, and he asked again, "Then do you have a maternal aunt?" The man replied that he did, and the Prophet (s.w.s.) told him: "Then be kind and devoted to her".’ (Tirmidhi) Other hadiths are legion: ‘Whoever kisses his mother between the eyes receives a protection from the fire’ (Bayhaqi); ‘Verily God has forbidden disobedience to your mother’ (Bukhari and Muslim).

 

Anthropologists working in Islamic cultures hence consistently report a dual hierarchy which requires wives to be dutiful to husbands, while husbands must be dutiful to mothers. Modernity loosens both these ties, the former vehemently, and the latter absentmindedly; and the consequence has been a lopsided, frankly ageist new hierarchy which prioritises youth over age, and imposes ruthless forms of discrimination against those who were once considered the community’s pride and the repository of its memory. As medical advances prolong average longevity without substantially eroding the differential which separates male and female mortality, modern societies relegate increasing numbers of women to involuntary eremeticism in regimented but prayerless convents. In 1998 the Chicago Tribune recorded that sixty percent of inhabitants of American old people’s homes never receive a visitor. Given the gender ratio normal in such establishments, the percentage among women must be higher still. Hence the irony that young and middle-aged women in the West have broader horizons than hitherto (excluding, for the moment, the religious horizon), but must all fear a decade of solitary confinement at the end, staring into television screens, recycling memories, and fingering months-old greetings cards from relatives who rarely if ever appear. Even in the most Westernised of Muslim societies, the confinement of the old to what are in effect comfortable concentration camps, is regarded with the disgust that it merits.

Other aspects of Shari‘a discourse also call for elucidation. It cannot be our task here to review the detailed provisions of Islamic law, and to explain, in each individual instance, the Islamic case that gender equality, even where the concept is meaningful, can be undermined rather than established by enforced parity of role and rights. Such a project would require a separate volume of the type attempted recently by Haifa Jawad; and we must content ourselves with surveying a few representative issues.

 

Perhaps the most immediately conspicuous feature of Muslim communities is the dress code traditional for women. It is often forgotten that the Shari‘a and the Muslim sense of human dignity require a dress code for men as well: in fully traditional Muslim societies, men always cover their hair in public, and wear long flowing garments exposing only the hands and feet. In Muslim law, however, their awra is more loosely defined: men have to cover themselves from the navel to the knees as a minimum. But women, on the basis of a hadith, must cover everything except the face, hands and feet. 

 

Again, the feminine dress code, known as hijab, forms a largely passive text available for a range of readings. For some Western feminist missionaries to Muslim lands, it is a symbol of patriarchy and of woman’s demure submission. For Muslim women, it proclaims their identity: many very secular women who demonstrated against the Shah in the 1970s wore it for this reason, as an almost aggressive flag of defiance. Franz Fanon reflected on a similar phenomenon among Algerian women protesting against French rule in the 1950s. For still other women, however, such as the Egyptian thinker Safinaz Kazim, the hijab is to be reconstrued as a quasi-feminist statement. A woman who exposes her charms in public is vulnerable to what might be described as ‘visual theft’, so that men unknown to her can enjoy her visually without her consent. By covering herself, she regains her ability to present herself as a physical being only to her family and sorority. This view of hijab, as a kind of moral raincoat particularly useful under the inclement climate of modernity, allows a vision of Islamic woman as liberated, not from tradition and meaning, but from ostentation and from subjection to random visual rape by men. The feminist objection to the patriarchal adornment or denuding of women, namely that it reduces them to the status of vulnerable, passive objects of the male regard, makes no headway against the hijab, responsibly understood.

 

A further controversy in the Shari‘a’s nurturing of gender roles centres around the institution of plural marriage. This clearly is a primordial institution whose biological rationale is unanswerable: as Dawkins and others have observed, it is in the genetic interest of males to have a maximal number of females; while the reverse is never the case. Stephen Pinker notes somewhat obviously in his book How the Mind Works: ‘The reproductive success of males depends on how many females they mate with, but the reproductive success of females does not depend on how many males they mate with.’

Islam’s naturalism, its insistence on the fitra and our authentic belongingness to the natural order, has ensured the conservation of this creational norm within the moral context of the Shari‘a. Polygamy, in the Islamic case, appears as a recognisably Semitic institution, traceable back to an Old Testament tribal society frequently at war and unequipped with a social security system that might protect and assimilate widows into society. However it is more universal: classical Hinduism permits a man four wives, and there are many Christian voices, not only Mormons, who are today calling for the restoration of polygamy as part of an authentically Biblical lifestyle. (See, for example, http://www.familyman.u-net.com/polygamy.html)

 

Faced with the failure of normative Western marriage and relationship codes, a growing number of contemporary thinkers are turning to this primordial institution for possible guidance. Phillip Kilbride, professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr, aroused much interest with his recent book Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option. Audrey Chapman has written a more popular study entitled Man-Sharing: Dilemma or Choice, while in 1996, the women’s rights activist Adriana Blake published her Women Can Win the Marriage Lottery: Share Your Man with Another Wife

 

These studies, from their different perspectives, present three major ethical arguments for polygamy. Firstly, the institution can, as its origins suggest, allow the reintegration into a post-war society of bereaved women, of whom a tragically large number now exist around the globe. Secondly, it can work to the advantage of women: an extended family is created which allows one woman to go to work, while the other cares for the children. The juggling of work and children which is a besetting hazard of modern relationships is thus neatly averted: showing polygamy as a frankly liberative option for women. Its advantages for children, also, have been amply documented by the recent research of Carmon Hardy, who shows the strong degree of family bonding and much lower incidence of crime among offspring of Mormon polygamists at the turn of the present century. Thirdly, polygamy is realistic; and from the Muslim perspective, we would identify this as a principal argument given the Shari‘a’s general realism. Muslims point out that modern Western societies are in practice far more polygamous than Muslim ones, the difference being that in the West the second relationship exists outside any legal framework. The present heir to the British throne, for instance, has been polygamous, and to traditional Muslims nothing seemed more absurd than that Diana needed to be divorced, and a constitutional crisis provoked.

 

True monotheism, as always, entails realism. Men are biologically designed to desire a plurality of women, and, unless we can carry out some radical genetic engineering work, they will always do so. And when a man has two simultaneously, the law may either deprive one of the two women of legal rights and social status, as in the modern West. Or it can recognise both as legitimate spouses, as in the Shari‘a. Muslims regard as an absurdity the present arrangement in the West where consensual relationships of all kinds are allowed and even militantly defended: homosexual, lesbian, and so on; whereas a consensual ménage a trois is still regarded as immoral. The last hangover of Victorian morality? In fact, a menage a trois is perfectly acceptable in modern Western law, as long as the parties to it live ‘in sin’ and do not attempt to marry. The absurdity of this position requires no comment.

 

There are other aspects of the Shari’a which deserve mention as illustrations of our theme, not least those which have been largely forgotten by Muslim societies. The intersections between the two gender universes are sometimes designed by the Lawgiver as rights of women, and sometimes as rights of men; and the former category is more frequently omitted from actualised Muslim communities. Frequently the jurists’ exegesis of the texts is plurivocal. Domestic chores, for instance, appear as an aspect of interior sociality, but this is not identified with purely female space, since they are regarded by some madhhabs, including the Shafi‘i, as the responsibility of the man rather than the wife. A’isha was asked, after the Blessed Prophet’s death, what he used to do at home when he was not at prayer; and she replied: ‘He served his family: he used to sweep the floor, and sew clothes.’ (Bukhari, Adhan, 44.) On this basis, Shafi‘i jurists defend the woman’s right not to perform housework. For instance, the fourteenth century Syrian jurist Ibn al-Naqib insists: ‘A woman is not obliged to serve her husband by baking, grinding flour, cooking, washing, or any other kind of service, because the marriage contract entails, for her part, only that she let him enjoy her sexually, and she is not obliged to do other than that.’

 

In the Hanafi madhhab, by contrast, these acts are regarded as the wife’s obligations. Another sufficient reminder of the difficulty of generalising about Islamic law, which remains a diverse body of rules and approaches. (Another important area, which cannot be detailed here, is the law for custody of children: the Hanafis prefer boys to leave the divorced mother at the age of 7, to live with the father; girls remain with her until the menarch. For the Malikis, the boy stays with the mother until sexual maturity (ihtilam), and the girl until her marriage is consummated.)

 

Islam’s theology of gender thus contends with a maze, a web of connections which demand familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering facile generalisations about Islam’s attitude to women. Journalists, feminists and cultivated people generally in the West have harboured deeply negative verdicts here. Often these verdicts are arrived at through the observation of actual Muslim societies; and it would be both futile and immoral to suggest that the modern Islamic world is always to be admired for its treatment of women. Women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where they are not even permitted to drive cars, are objectively the victims of an oppression which is not the product of a divinely-willed sheltering of a sex, but of ego, of the nafs of the male. In this way, types of ‘Islamization’ being launched in several countries today by individuals driven by resentment and committed to an anthropomorphised and hence andromorphic God, appear to bear no relation either to traditional fiqh discourse or to the revelatory insistence on justice. This imbalance will continue unless actualised religion learns to reincorporate the dimension of ihsan, which valorises the feminine principle, and also obstructs and ultimately annihilates the ego which underpins gender chauvinism. We need to distinguish, as many Muslim women thinkers are doing, between the expectations of the religion’s ethos (as legible in scripture, classical exegesis, and spirituality), and the actual asymmetric structures of post-classical Muslim societies, which, like Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Chinese cultures, contain much that is in real need of reform.

 

By now it should have become clear that we are not vaunting the revelation as either a ‘macho’ chauvinism or as a miraculous prefigurement of late twentieth-century feminism. Feminism, in any case, has no orthodoxy, as Fiorenza reminds us; and certain of its forms are repellent to us, and are clearly damaging to women and society, while others may demonstrate striking convergences with the Shari‘a and our gendered cosmologies. We advocate a nuanced understanding which tries to bypass the sexism-versus-feminism dialectic by proposing a theology in which the Divine is truly gender-neutral, but gifts humanity with a legal code and family norms which are rooted in the understanding that, as Irigaray insists, the sexes ‘are not equal but different’, and will naturally gravitate towards divergent roles which affirm rather than suppress their respective genius. 

 

Biology should be destiny, but a destiny that allows for multiple possibilities. Women’s discourse valorizes the home; but Muslim women have for long periods of Islam’s history left their homes to become scholars. A hundred years ago the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher showed that perhaps fifteen percent of medieval hadith scholars were women, teaching in the mosques and universally admired for their integrity. Colleges such as the Saqlatuniya Madrasa in Cairo were funded and staffed entirely by women. The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher:

 

‘IfU.S.and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’

 

Stereotypes come under almost intolerable strain when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities. A’isha, Mother of Believers, who taught hadith in the ur-mosque of Islam, is as always the indispensable paradigm: lively, intelligent, devout, and humbling to all subsequent memory.

 

But until past ideals are reclaimed, a polarisation in Muslim societies is likely. The Westernised classes will reject traditional idioms simply because those styles are not Western and fail to satisfy the élite’s self-image. The pseudosalafi literalists will continue to reject Sufism’s high regard for women, and its demand for the destruction of the ego. The same constituency will defy legitimate calls for a due ijtihad-based transformation of aspects of Islamic law, not because of any profound moral understanding of that law, but because of a hamfisted exegesis of usul and because those calls are associated with Western influence and demands. Whether the conscientious middle ground, inspired by the genius of tradition, can seize the initiative, and allow an ego-free and generous Muslim definition of the Sunna to shape the agenda in our rapidly polarising societies, remains to be seen. No doubt, the Sufi insight that there is no justice or compassion on earth without an emptying of the self will be the final yardstick among the wise. But it is clear that the Islamic tradition offers the possibility of a truly radical solution, offering not only to itself but to the West the transcendence of a debate which continues to perplex many responsible minds, contemplating an emergent society where the absence of roles presides over an increasingly damaging absence of rules.

Being a Real Man in Islam

Being a Real Man in Islam

Drugs, Criminality and The Problem of Masculinity by Yahya Birt  June 2000, revised June 2001

We praise Allah and we seek His aid, we seek forgiveness from Him and we affirm faith in Him, and upon Him we are utterly reliant. We shower blessings upon the noble Prophet, the Head of the Prophets and Messengers, and upon his family and his companions and those that followed them in righteousness until the Day of Rising. There is no power or might except Allah, the Exalted and Mighty. I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil. In the name of Allah, the All Merciful and Compassionate.

The Crisis of Criminality in the Muslim Community

The latest Home office statistics make grim reading for the Muslim community: Muslim prisoners have doubled in the last decade to reach a total of between 4000-4500—amounting to 9% of the total prison population—which is treble our proportion of the total population. One in eleven prisoners is Muslim. This surge in Muslim crime is not being discussed openly within the community, most probably out of a sense of shame. But in reality, we should be feel ashamed precisely because we are not discussing these problems openly and confronting them. Shame should impel not prohibit a constructive response.

So what sort of crime is being committed and who is doing it? Sadly, but not surprisingly, over 65% of these prisoners are young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty. This huge figure does not include youngsters under the age of 18 who are in custodial care. We should not forget to add that 10% are women. The sorts of crime committed not only include petty theft but also violent and obscene muggings. [1] Maqsood Ahmed, the Muslim Advisor to the Prison Service appointed by the government in 1999, says that currently (as of June 2000) 1005 out of the 4003 Muslim inmates have committed crimes related to drug pushing or drug use. So one in four of British Muslim prisoners have been convicted for drug-related offences. [2]

Muslims and the Global Drug Trade

We need to face facts: Muslim involvement in hard drugs is not confined to Muslims in the West. Of the traditional ‘natural’ drugs, Muslims are heavily involved with the planting, harvesting, refinement, smuggling, and distribution to Europe of heroin and cannabis. While cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Europe, heroin, the most deadly drug, is little used in comparison; but it is most associated with social marginalisation and addiction.

Cannabis

Today, Morocco is the world’s largest cannabis exporter, with a crop of 2000 metric tonnes, having had a tenfold increase in production from 1983-1993. While the Moroccan government has made agreements with the European Union (EU) to grow substitute crops and domestic seizures of hash have risen, total production has increased at the same time. There is deep government involvement, going right up to the Royal family; an assertion that can be given some credence because the Ministry of Agriculture produces highly accurate and confidential statistics about the total acreage of hash under cultivation every year. One estimate puts the value of hash exports at two thirds of Morocco’s total exports, or 10% of the country’s income. Most hash enters Europe through Spain, where it distributed by Moroccan and Dutch criminal elements among others.

Heroin

Of the world’s two major heroin suppliers, Afghanistan overtook Burma as world leader in the late 1990s. In 1999, it supplied 77% of the world’s heroin, a figure which has been publicly acknowledged by the Taliban. [3] We can also note the increased production and refinement of poppy seed in Tajikistan, Kirgyzstan and Kazakhstan. [4] Hitherto, the drug, in a semi-refined state, has been shipped from Afghanistan through Pakistan to the West.

It was CIA intervention—in support of the Mujahedin who were fighting Soviet oppression in the early 1980s—which was crucial in turning Afghanistan and Pakistan from local suppliers into international ones by providing the necessary political protection and logistical networks. The CIA in co-operation with Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence supplied arms to the Mujahedin in return for payment in raw opium. It was only after Soviet withdrawal that the US gave serious monies to combat poppy seed production. Pakistan had started the 1980s as a major producer of poppy seed, but government anti-drugs measures have virtually wiped out production (2 metric tonnes) by 1999. [5]

When the Taliban first captured Kandahar in 1994, they announced a total ban on drugs, but this stance was quickly dropped when they realised that narcotics provided an invaluable source of income and, furthermore, that an outright ban would greatly alienate farmers dependent on the crop. So as Taliban control spread, production rose by a massive 25% up to 1997. ‘Abd al-Rasheed, the head of the Taliban’s anti-drugs control force in Kandahar said in May 1997 that while there was a strict ban on hashish, “opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs (unbelievers) in the West and not by Muslims or Afghans.” [6] In the process of institutionalising and guaranteeing income from the drug trade, the Taliban started to levy zakat on poppy cultivation and charge tolls on the transportation of the poppy residue under armed Taliban guard out of the country. [7] An increasing number of drug laboratories were set up in Afghanistan. Even if not much drug profit stays in Afghanistan and Pakistan—only about 9% of the total Western street value—this still added up to about $1.35 billion US dollars in 1999.

Poppy seed, either as a raw crop or in its initially refined form as morphine, has until recently been the major source of income in a war-shattered economy both for farmers and the government. Yet despite this economic dependency, it must still be said: the remark of the Taliban official quoted above was hypocritical and cynical. There is not one standard of upright conduct for Muslims and another for non-Muslims: our religion requires us to behave impeccably with both. And far from Muslims being unaffected by Afghani heroin, Pakistan now has the highest heroin addiction rate in the world. In 1979, Pakistan had no addicts, in 1986, it had 650,000 addicts, three million in 1992, while in 1999, government figures estimate a staggering figure of five million.

Nor is the problem confined to Pakistan. Despite one of the toughest anti-drugs policies in the world, where the death-penalty is given for the possession of a few ounces of heroin, Iran officially had 1.2 million addicts in 1998 (off the record, officials admit to the figure being more like 3 million). By 1998, only 42 % of total heroin production was exported out of South Asia; 58% of opiates were being consumed within the region itself. So heroin addiction is not only a Western problem, but also a deeply Muslim one.

Between 1997-1999, Kabul offered to end poppy seed production—to both the US and the UN—in return for international recognition, which suggests that the Taliban leadership was not serious in the past about ending production but used the whole issue of drug control as a diplomatic lever. [8] Thankfully, the Afghan government seems to have recently changed its public position. In 1999, Amir Mullah Omar Modhammed announced that poppy seed production should be cut by one third. On 28 July 2000, Mullah Omar ordered a complete ban of poppy seed cultivation, and appealed for the assistance of the international community in funding crop replacement schemes. [9] The official figures for 2000 showed a reduction of 28% on 1999, but this was mostly attributable to the terrible drought the country suffered during that period. [10] It has now been confirmed by outside agencies that the Taliban have wiped out the 2001 harvest, as a UNDCP team reported in February that the major growing areas were virtually free of poppies, which was corroborated by the US Drug Enforcement Agency in May. Despite the DEA’s prognosis that the ban will hit farmers hard, the US has pushed for continued UN sanctions because of its campaign to bring Osama bin Laden to trial. [10a]

After being put into its morphine base, either in Pakistan or Central Asia (and previously in Afghanistan), the drug is transported to Turkish laboratories, where it is further refined into heroin. About 80% of Europe’s supply is refined into heroin proper in Turkey, although the Turks are facing increased competition from the Russian Mafia in second-stage refinement and smuggling into Europe (via Eastern Europe and the Baltic). As with Morocco, the Turkish civil and military secret services are heavily involved with the drug trade. This complicity was highlighted by a car-crash in November 1996 involving four people: an extreme right-wing criminal on the run, a high-ranking policeman, a beauty queen, and the only survivor, a parliamentarian of ex-Prime Minister Ciller’s party. About 75% of Europe’s heroin is transported from Turkey in small quantities overland via the Balkan route, which is impossible to police effectively because of the high volume of traffic. [11] Once in Europe, a lot of the heroin is then distributed by significant numbers of European Turks among others, and it is then sold on to the dealers, who sell smaller quantities to users on the street.

 

Islamic Ruling on Drugs (non-alcoholic Intoxicants)

Ibn ‘Umar (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) reported that the Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Every intoxicant (muskir) is wine (khamr) and every intoxicant is forbidden. He who drinks wine in this world and dies while he is addicted to it, not having repented, will not be given a drink in the Hereafter.” [12] This hadith is one of the primary texts that prove the prohibition of anything that intoxicates like wine. Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh), considered to be among the foremost legal authorities of the entire late Shafi‘i legal school, has classified the consumption of hashish (hashisha) and opium (afyun) as an enormity or a major sin. [13] Imam al-Dhahabi (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) defined an enormity as “any sin entailing either a threat of punishment in the hereafter explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith, a prescribed legal penalty or being accursed by Allah and His Messenger (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).” [14] Among those classical authorities who wrote of the prohibition of hashish were Imam Zarakhshi, Ibn Taymiyya, al-Qirafi, Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi and Imam Nawawi (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayhim). In short, the four legal schools agree that all intoxicants are unlawful, and they include plants that intoxicate under this category of prohibited substances. [15] There is a misconception among Muslim users that although drugs are unlawful, smoking hashish is not so serious. Or they say that at least we don’t drink! They seem to divide drugs into hard and soft drugs: a division that is quite baseless according to Divine law. All drugs are Class A according to our religion.

 

British Muslims and the Drug Trade

The drug trade in Britain is breaking and shattering young Muslim lives. But to our great shame, we are not only talking about the many Muslim victims of drug use, but the fact that British Muslims are also heavily involved in street level drugs pushing. From the late 1980s onwards, according to Maqsood Ahmed, it appears that Asians replaced Afro-Caribbeans as the main drug pushers on the streets. [16]

However, Maqsood Ahmed says that it is only the small-time Asian street pushers, not the major suppliers, who are being caught and incarcerated. A retired lawyer, Gavin McFarlane, who once worked in the office of the Solicitor for Customs and Excise, confirms the view that the ‘Mr Bigs’ of drug crime are usually never caught. [17]

I am not suggesting that drugs are the only issue relating to crime, but because of the nature of addiction, drugs can do more to destroy the moral will and the social fabric of the Muslim community than any other type of crime. It appears that drug use among Muslim youth matches national levels: we have no more ‘moral immunity’ from drugs than anyone else.

It is instructive to look at the example of NAFAS, a Muslim-run outreach, educational and rehabilitation programme, based in Tower Hamlets in East London, which aims to target drug use among Bangladeshi youth. One NAFAS activist, Abdur Rahman, has worked among Muslims in the area of drugs, crime and mental health issues for the last ten years. I interviewed him in order to get a real sense of what is happening on the street. [18]

In his experience, it is mainly Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth that become involved with drugs, but it effects all the various ethnic Muslim groups. Commonly, the parents of these young men neglected their religious training, and instead left matters in the hands of the madrasas. Their experience in the madrasa has been of rote learning without any understanding, an experience that has left them bored and alienated not only from the madrasa but also from religion itself. Frustrated imams throw the more disruptive kids out of the madrasas onto the streets. Clubbing together in gangs of around 20-30, these young men are listless and bored. The result has very often been the emergence of gang violence and turf wars.

By far the most commonly used drugs are hashish and then alcohol. Heroin is used much less. Most that smoke ‘weed’ (as hashish is known in street slang) will not touch heroin, which is seen as a dirty drug. But the picture is complex, because 90% of those who do use heroin say that their first drug was hashish. Those Muslim youth that do use heroin do not use needles because they see it as a dirty practice. Habitually, those who take heroin also use crack cocaine. According to local police figures for the Borough of Tower Hamlets, 50% of drug offenders referred to drugs agencies are young Bangladeshi men. Of these, 90% are under twenty-five and more than 60% have never received any help to get off drugs. It was in part this last statistic that brought about the founding of NAFAS. There are no figures for young women, but the word on the street is that hashish use is increasing among them as well. Normally such women smoke hashish in the home. Abdur Rahman says that taboos are breaking down. It is becoming more common to see hashish being smoked and alcohol being drunk in the street.

What are the attitudes of these young men to religion? There are some that mock religion openly. “Islam is drab and boring,” they say, “it is only about things you are not allowed to do. There is no fun and laughter. We are young and now is the time for enjoyment.” Others, who have a stronger sense of being Muslim, say they want to practice but argue that the bad environment discourages them. Abdur Rahman says it is easier to reach those who have some religious feeling in them, and that these boys can point to examples where someone they know has come off drugs and has started practising Islam.

There is a real internal problem facing this community and it will not go away if we are merely content to highlight problems within the British criminal justice system, schooling and welfare. However necessary, this critique of the system is only part of the answer. To make myself absolutely clear, I am stressing the fact that the crucial element in any response is moral and religious guidance, which, of course, only the community can provide. This is not just a problem of young Muslim men who have lost their way, but a failure of the whole community to bring them up with Islamic values. We have neglected their spiritual training (tarbiya) and failed to teach them how to live in this world in accordance with the pleasure of Allah (akhlaqiyyat) in a way that makes sense to them. We have even ignored their secular education; so that on the streets of despair turning to drugs seems the best way to make a quick buck or to escape from the pressures of racism, Islamophobia and unemployment.

What we all need in front of us, young and old, is a clear picture of what being a real man in Islam means as opposed to being a fake one. Guidance comes with our comprehension of what religion expects us to do for ourselves, and for others, for the pleasure of Allah Most High. The rest of this essay is devoted to outlining the nature of negative and positive masculinity.

Negative Masculinity

Negative masculinity occurs when a youth misuses his natural qualities of enthusiasm, strength and bravery to satisfy his own desires. He becomes selfish, ignores the rights of others and ends up disobedient to his Lord. He thinks it is cool to follow the lifestyles of the street, and at the rough end this means getting involved in crime. What is even worse, as one young brother said to me recently, is that as corrupt lifestyles become widespread among Muslim youth, it is becomes harder for younger teenagers to see the straight path. There has been a real break down in moral values: besides drugs and crime, drinking and pre-marital sex are no longer taboo among the wildest elements. The negative role models closest to hand now come from within our own community.

Negative masculinity is about showing off, about trying to be ‘hard’, and about using physical strength to humiliate others. The fake man thinks strength should be used to dominate others so that he gets ‘nuff respect’ from his peers and enemies out of a sense of fear. But this is not how true respect is earned: it is really about acting like a loud-mouthed and proud fool. The youthful bully fights to remain leader of his ‘posse’ and, likewise, strives to dominate other street gangs: both perversions are achieved by instilling fear. Yet Islam teaches us that the strong should defend the weak not oppress them.

Negative masculinity is about the obsession to have the right ‘look’: the designer clothes, the most up-to-date mobile phone, the latest trainers, and the flashiest car. But how we appear to others is absolutely immaterial: Allah, who is perfectly Just and All Aware, will judge us by our hearts not our appearance on the Day of Reckoning. Pretending to be someone we are not is only a sign of spiritual emptiness. All this street gear costs a great deal of money: cash that is wasted when it could be used to help the weak and unfortunate. The Muslim community is the poorest in the country, and it can ill afford to waste money on such vain extravagance. Such materialistic excess is showing off for the sake of worldly honour, when the world, in the eyes of our beloved Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was worth less than the rotting flesh of a dead goat. [19] But a real man doesn’t need to show off. He knows himself and remains humble and thankful to Allah Most Generous for whatever qualities He has given him.

Negative masculinity is about wasting time and playing around like a child when the corrupted youth already has the strength and intelligence of an adult. He looks out for himself first, neither respecting the wishes of his parents nor serving them, and ignoring the needs of others around him. Many of the criminalised gangs rob and prey on the weakest members of their own community. Instead of being the pride of the community, these lost young men have become its badge of shame.

Negative masculinity is about being a slave to desire. The signs of this slavery are the impulse for instant gratification and the immediate feeling of frustration and anger when desire is not quickly satiated. Servitude to caprice entraps the slave in a cage of restless discontent. Why? Because if we want the latest fashion, one thing can be sure, it will go out of date. Negative masculinity is about being a slave to the capitalist system. The real winners are the moneymen who sell an illusion: the falsehood that people should judge themselves, and judge others, by appearance. But the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught us to be simple, not to pile up worldly things, but to do good deeds and help others. The only style that truly counts, that rises far above the fickle dictates of fashion, is the way of the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).

In short, the problem of negative masculinity is a spiritual one. Abu Talib al-Makki [20] (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh), in his classic work, Qut al-qulub (The Sustenance of Hearts), explains the nature of the soul that commands a person to do evil. “All the [blameworthy] character traits and attributes of the soul derive from two roots: inconstancy (taysh) and covetousness (sharah). Its inconstancy derives from its ignorance, and its covetousness from its eager desire (hirs). In its inconstancy the soul is like a ball on a smooth slope, because of its nature and its situation, it never stops moving. In its eager desire the soul is like a moth that throws itself on the flame of a lamp. It is not satisfied with a small amount of light without throwing itself on the source of the light that holds its destruction. Because of its inconstancy the soul is hurried and lacks self-restraint (sabr). Self-restraint is an attribute of our thinking selves, while inconstancy is the quality…of the [blameworthy] soul. Nothing can overcome inconstancy except self-restraint, for intellect uproots vain and destructive desire. Because of its covetousness, the soul is greedy and eagerly desirous. […] When someone knows the roots of the [blameworthy] soul and its innate dispositions, he will know that he has no power over it without the seeking the help of its Creator and Originator. The servant will not realise his humanity until he governs the animal motivations within himself through knowledge and justice.” [21]

Who is a real man?

Imam al-Qushayri [22] (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) summaries what the nature of positive masculinity is. In Arabic this is called muru’a or manliness. Conceptually, manliness is closely related to futuwwa or chivalry. Imam al-Qushayri says in his famous Risala, “The root of chivalry is that the servant strive constantly for the sake of others.

Chivalry is that you do not see yourself as superior to others. The one who has chivalry is the one who has no enemies. Chivalry is that you be an enemy of your own soul for the sake of your Lord. Chivalry is that you act justly without demanding justice for yourself. Chivalry is [having]… beautiful character.” [23]

The Noble Islamic Youth

In Arabic, fata literally means a handsome and brave youth. In the Chapter of the Prophets (60:21), the term fata is used to describe Abraham (‘alayhi s-salam), who had, with characteristic fearlessness, destroyed the idols of his people, and who was about to be thrown into the fire by them. In his commentary on this verse, Imam al-Qushayri (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) says that the noble youth is one who breaks the idol and moreover that the idol of each man is his blameworthy soul that commands to evil (nafs al-amara bi al-su’). [24] Truly Allah Most High only bestows the title fata to those whom He loves. Youth, in this sense, is not a mere social category but a rank of piety.

Following the use of the word in the Holy Book, fata came to mean the ideal, noble and perfect man whose generosity did not end until he had nothing left for himself. A man who would give all that he had, including his life, for the sake of his friends. Futuwwa has a distinct sense for it means the way of fata or noble manliness, and the remainder of the essay concentrates on outlining these noble precepts.

The way to attain these qualities, to become a true man, is to kill the blameworthy soul, which can also be called our selfish impulses, or ego. The first thing is to learn is not to love the blameworthy soul, but instead to love others more than oneself and to love our Exalted Creator most of all. It is only after struggling to kill the ego that the trials of spiritual struggle, like those of our father Abraham (‘alayhi s-salam) in the fire, become ‘refreshment and peace’ (bardan wa salam). (21:69)

The Chivalry of the Companions

We find many examples of noble manliness among the Companions: the loyalty of Abu Bakr, the justice of ‘Umar, the reserve and modesty of ‘Uthman, and the bravery of ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhum). Yet for all their greatness, those men still only partially reflected that supreme example of true manliness, the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). It was their life’s work to emulate him, like it is ours today. As the first young man to embrace Islam, it was ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu), the last of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, the cousin and son-in-law of our noble Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and the Lion of Allah, who came to represent the supreme example of youthful manly perfection. Known for his selflessness, courage, generosity, loyalty, wisdom and honour, he was the invincible warrior of his day. His nobility on the battlefield shines forth like a bright lamp of guidance for us today.

In one battle, ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) had overpowered an enemy warrior and had his dagger at the man’s throat when the man spat in his face. Immediately Imam ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) got up, sheathed his dagger, and told the man, “Taking your life is unlawful to me. Go away.” The man was amazed, “O ‘Ali,” he asked, “I was helpless, you were about to kill me, I insulted you and you released me. Why?” “When you spat in my face,” our master ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) answered, “it aroused the anger of my ego. Had I killed you then it would not have been for the sake of Allah, but for the sake of my ego. I would have been a murderer. You are free to go.” The enemy warrior was profoundly moved by this show of great nobility and so he embraced Islam on the spot.

In another of his battles against the unfaithful, our master ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) encountered a handsome young warrior who moved to attack him. His heart was full of pity and compassion for the misguided youth. He cried out, “O young man, do you not know who I am? I am ‘Ali the invincible. No one can escape from my sword. Go, and save yourself!” The young man continued toward him, sword in hand. “Why do you wish to attack me? Why do you wish to die?” ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) asked. The man answered, “I love a girl who vowed she would be mine if I killed you.” “But what if you die?” ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) asked again. “What is better than dying for the one I love?” he countered. “At worst, would I not be relieved of the agonies of love?” Hearing this response, ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) dropped his sword, took off his helmet, and stretched out his neck like a sacrificial lamb. Confronted by such nobility, the love in the young man’s heart was transformed into love for the great ‘Ali (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) and for the One Most Exalted Whom ‘Ali loved.

 

The Code of Chivalry

In later centuries, a code was drawn up embodying the principles of futuwwa—brotherhood, loyalty, love and honour—that produced a class of spiritual Muslim warriors who protected the boundaries of the Islamic empire. The first caliph to create an order of noble Muslim knights was al-Nasir al-Din (reigned 576-622/1180-1225). They wore a distinctive uniform and were formally linked to the Sufi orders. In Asia Minor for instance, these Muslim knights lived in borderland lodges under the supervision and guidance of a spiritual guide (shaykh al-tasawwuf). It is reported they were hospitable to travellers and ruthless towards any unjust ruler who oppressed the people. The essence of this noble code is timelessly pertinent to us today: it calls us to subdue our egos and fight against injustice.

The code of noble manliness elaborated by the great Imam Sulami (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) in his Kitab al-Futuwwa is offered in a truncated form here. Readers are strongly advised to consult the original work for themselves. [25] Futuwwa is that a young man adheres to the following code:

·        That he brings joy to the lives of friends and meets their needs. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “When one brings joy with his words into the life of a believer or satisfies his worldly needs, whether small or large, it becomes an obligation upon Allah to offer him a servant on the Day of Judgement.”

·        That he responds to cruelty with kindness, and does not punish an error. When a Companion (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) asked if he should refuse to help a friend who had refused to help him before, the Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said no.

    That he does not find fault with his friends. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “if you start seeking faults in Muslims, you will cause dissent among them or you will at least start dissension.” Dhu al-Nun al-Misri [26] (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) said, “Whoever looks at the faults of others is blind to his own faults. Whoever looks for his own faults cannot see the faults of others.”

·        That he is relaxed and openhearted with his brothers. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The believer is the one with whom one can be close. The one who is not close and to whom one cannot be close is of no use. The good among men are those from whom others profit.”

·        That he is generous. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Paradise is the home of the generous.”

·        That he keeps up old friendships. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Allah approves the keeping of old friendships.”

·        That he looks after his friends and neighbours. Ibn Zubayr [27] (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) said, “Someone who eats while his next-door neighbour is hungry is not a believer.”

 

·        That he is lenient with his friends except in matters of religion. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The first sign of intelligence is to believe in Allah. The next is to be lenient with people in affairs other than the abandoning of Truth.”

·        That he permits his friends to use his possessions as if they were their own. We know that the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) used to use the property of Abu Bakr (radiya’Llahu ‘anhu) as if it were his own.

·        That he invites guests, offers food and is hospitable. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “How awful is a society that does not accept guests.”

·        That he respects his friends and shows his respect for them. A man entered the mosque and the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) stood up for him out of respect. He protested and the Prophet replied that to be paid respect is the right of the believer.

·        That he is truthful. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Say that you believe in Allah, then always be truthful.”

·        That he is satisfied with little for himself and wishes much for others. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The best of my people will enter Paradise not because of their achievements, but because of the Mercy of Allah and their quality of being satisfied with little for themselves and their extreme generosity toward others.”

 

·        That such young brothers love each other and spend time with one another. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said that Allah Most High said, “The ones who love each other for My sake deserve My love; the ones who give what comes to them in abundance deserve My love. The ones who frequent and visit each other for My sake deserve My love.”

·        That he keeps his word and what is entrusted to him. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “If you have these four things, it does not matter even if you lose everything else in this world: protect what is entrusted to you, tell the truth, have a noble character, and earn your income lawfully.”

·        That he understands that what he truly keeps is what he gives away. ‘A’isha [28] (radiya’Llahu ‘anha) recounted that someone had presented the gift of a lamb to the Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). He distributed the meat. ‘A’isha (radiya’Llahu ‘anha) said, “Only the neck is left for us.” The Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) replied, “No, all of it is left for us except the neck.”

·        That he shares in the joy of his brothers. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “If a person who is fasting joins his brothers and they ask him to break his fast, he should break it.” This refers to a non-obligatory fast, not the fasts of Ramadan.

·        That he is joyful and kind with his brothers. One of the many signs of the kindness and love the Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had for his people was that he joked with them so they would not stay away from him out of awe. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said “Allah hates those who make disagreeable and sad faces at their friends.”

·        That he thinks little of himself or his good deeds. The Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was once asked, “What thing most attracts the anger of Allah?” He replied, “When one considers himself and his actions highly, and worse still, expects a return for his good deeds.”

·        That he treats people as he would wish to be treated. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “As you wish people to come to you, go to them.”

·        That he concerns himself with his own affairs. The Messenger of Allah (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “One of the signs of a good Muslim is that he leaves alone everything that does not concern him.”

·        That he seeks the company of the good and avoids the company of the bad. Yahya ibn Mu‘adh al-Razi [29] (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) said, “On the day when the trumpet is sounded, you will see how evil friends will run from each other and how good friends will turn toward each other. Allah Most High says, ‘On that day, except for the true believers, friends will be enemies.’”

Allah Most High says, “Surely they were noble youths (fityan) who believed in their Lord, and We advanced them in guidance.” (18:13) Imam al-Sulami (rahmatu’Llahi ‘alayh) comments, “they were given abundant guidance and climbed to His proximity because they believed in their Lord only for their Lord’s sake, and said, ‘Our Lord is the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Never shall we call upon other than Him.’” (18:14) The Imam continues, “Allah dressed them in His own clothes, and He took them in His high protection and turned them in the direction of His beauties and said, ‘And We turned them about to the right and to the left’.” (18:18). The Imam concludes, “Those who enter the path of futuwwa are under Allah’s direction and protection.” [30]

Khwaja ‘Abd Allah al-Ansari [31] (rahmatu Llahi ‘alayh) outlines the three degrees of perfection in futuwwa in his classic work, Manazil al-sa’irin (The Stations of the Wayfarers). “Allah Most High says, ‘They are chivalrous youths who have faith in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance.’ (18:13) The subtle point in chivalry is that you witness nothing extra for yourself and you see yourself as not having any rights. The first degree is to abandon quarrelling, to overlook slips, and to forget wrongs. The second degree is that you seek nearness to the one that goes far from you, honour the one who wrongs you, and find excuses for the one who offends you. You do this by being generous, not by holding yourself back, by letting go, not by enduring patiently. The third degree is that in travelling the path you do not depend upon any proofs, you do not stain your response [to Allah] with [any thought of] recompense, and you do not stop at any designation in your witnessing.” [32] May Allah, Glorified and Exalted is He, bless us, and make us true men, men of nobility and generosity.

The Way Forward

There are no easy solutions, and it is important to remember that Islam condemns those who feel it is enough to recriminate, but not to call towards the truth or to work to change a bad situation. The point is that we all have to pull together, and face up our individual and collective responsibility. It is not just a question of the youth seeing if they measure up to the ideals of positive masculinity, but for all of us to strive to embody the example of the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). It is a duty upon all parents and community leaders to deal wisely with our young men when they fall from the Straight Path, and not to cut them off out of self-righteous disdain or, even worse, indifference.

Imam Ghazali [33] (rahmatu Llahi ‘alayh) reminds us that it was the way of Companions like Abu Darda’ [34] (radiya Llahu ‘anhu) to forgive the mistakes and flaws of his brother. How much more does this apply to our sons? All should feel that your son is my son. The bond of religious brotherhood is like the bond of family. If someone has made a mistake in his religion by committing an act of disobedience, one must be gentle in counselling him towards repentance and starting again. If someone persists in disobedience, Abu Darda’ (radiya Llahu ‘anhu) advised us not to cut him or her off. “For sometimes”, he said, “your brother will be crooked and sometimes straight.” The great saint Ibrahim al-Nakha’i [35] (rahmatu Llahi ‘alayh) said, “Beware of the mistake of the learned. Do not cut him off, but await his return [that is, to the straight path].”

Imam al-Ghazali (rahmatu Llahi ‘alayh) argues that this advice holds even the major sins: we need not cut someone off. It was revealed to the Prophet (salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) concerning his kinsfolk that “if they disobey you, say, ‘I am quit of what you do’.” (26.216) Abu Darda (radiya Llahu ‘anhu) referred to this verse when he was asked, “Do you not hate your brother when he has done such and such?” to which he replied, “I only hate what he has done, otherwise he is my brother.” [36] It is not proper to break with the disobedient, but to try and remind them of their duty to Allah Most High and to His creatures.

So any pragmatic measures should be undertaken in this spirit of understanding and patience, because at the heart of any solution is building trust between alienated youths and the community. It is easy enough to make these seven suggestions, but it will take a lot of sincere effort make them a reality by the permission of the All Merciful.

To lobby the Moroccan and Turkish governments directly and indirectly to crack down on drug production and refinement in their respective countries. The fact that the European Union has systematically ignored the complicit involvement of both the Moroccan and Turkish governments in the export of drugs to Europe because of their NATO membership should be made an issue. With regard to Afghanistan, the European Union has recently admitted that it has no political influence there at all, which—in and of itself—is not likely to be a matter of great concern for Muslims. [37] Yet it does mean that European Muslims have to pressurise the EU to work to drop UN sanctions against Afghanistan, and to push for economic assistance to the country, so that viable and sustainable alternatives can be found for farmers in the wake of the enforced ban of 2001.

2.   To discuss openly the problems of criminality and drug dealing and use within the community with a view to understanding the nature of the problem, and coming up with ways to solve it. For instance, research is already being carried out by the community welfare organisation, Khidmat, in Luton, which is undertaking research to understand the nature and scale of drug use in the Asian community. [38]

3.   work together for the common good. To appoint English-speaking imams as a matter of priority, and to conduct as many programmes as possible in English and which deal directly with issues facing young Muslims today. Imams should be properly paid, and they should also be expected to take up pastoral youth work outside of the mosque. It is a crime that many of young scholars who have graduated from seminaries based in Britain have not been able to find employment as imams. Their knowledge and training is being wasted. Most ‘imported’ imams are frankly not able to understand or reach out to young Muslims.

4.   To create vibrant and relevant madrasas in our mosques with a full and relevant curriculum up to at least the age of 16 by forging a strong partnership between the ‘ulama’, the mosque committee and the community. There are already many examples of good practice in this area, especially in the Midlands and the North.

5.   To build Muslim-run youth and sports facilities as a badly needed alternative to the street. Where appropriate, such facilities should be incorporated into the mosque-complex. It is important that second generation parents, those who are now in their mid-thirties, get involved with making the mosques more accessible to the youth. If the mosque committees refuse to be co-operative, then it is necessary to work outside of them as the situation has already reached crisis proportions.

6.   To set up drug rehabilitation schemes run by Muslim workers in the major urban areas along the lines of NAFAS in Tower Hamlets in East London and others.

7.   In general terms, to lobby local and central government to put extra funds into helping our community that has the highest unemployment (over 40% for our youth), the poorest educational record, the highest poverty and the highest crime rates. It would be preferable if funds, which are readily available, are channelled through Muslim voluntary organisations. As a community as a whole, we have to be prepared to drop theological and legal differences inherited from the Sub-Continent to.

I end with supplicating our Creator, the All-Merciful that He save our misguided youth from further calamity and turn their hearts and ours towards repentance, that He give us forbearance and wisdom in tackling this problem, and that He may, in His infinite compassion, unite our hearts so that we may work together to solve these many problems. Glory be to our Lord, the Lord of Honour, Exalted above what they ascribe, and peace be upon those who were sent. And all praise is due to the Lord of the worlds. Amin.

 

Footnotes

[1] Faisal Bodi, ‘Muslim Advisor only one piece in a bigger jigsaw’, Q-News, 311, September 1999, pp. 14-15.

[2] Maqsood Ahmed, interview, 20/06/00.

[3] UN Economic and Social Research Council, World Situation with regard to illicit drug trafficking, p. 6. The Taliban’s Roaving Ambassador, Sayyid Rahmatullah Hashmi, accepted this figure during a lecture given at the University of South Carolina in 2001. This information was taken from a transcript of his talk.

[4] Strategic Studies 1997/8, p. 250; Strategic Studies 1998/9, p. 276.

[5] The authoritative study of CIA involvement in the heroin drugs trade in both Burma and Afghanistan is Alfred McCoy’s, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991), cited in Boekhout van Solinge, p. 103. It appears that the CIA even worked against United States officials from the Drugs Enforcement Agency during the 1980s, who wanted to stop the creation of a new international drug player.

[6] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, p. 118.

[7] Ahmed Rashid, ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, p. 28.

[8] An agreement struck in October 1997 between the United Nations Drugs Control Programme (UNDCP) and the Taliban offering potentially $25 million US dollars for a ten-year crop-replacement scheme was allowed to lapse after UN agencies were asked to withdraw in 1998. For further details, see Rashid, Taliban, pp. 123-124.

 

 

 

 

[9] See Omar Modhammed, ‘Message of the Amir-ul-Mumineen on the occasion of the International Anti-Narcotics Day’, The Islamic Emirate (Kandahar), July 2000, no. 1, p. 1, and ‘Taleban calls for total poppy ban in Afghanistan’, The News International (Jang), 30/7/00, p. 9.

[10] UNDCP Press Release, ‘Afghan Opium Cultivation in 2000 Substantially Unchanged’, UNIS/NAR/696, 15 September 2000. A recent UNDCP-sponsored crop-replacement scheme in Kandahar province has reduced production by 50% in three districts.

[10a] Kathy Ganon, ‘Taliban virtually wipes out Afghanistan’s opium crop’, The Nando Times, 15 February, [www.nandotimes.com]; Barbara Crossette, ‘Taliban’s Ban on Growing Opium Poppies Is Called a Success’, New York Times [Internet edition], 20 May 2001. Given US support of these crippling sanctions, Colin Powell’s release of $43 millions (as of May 2001) in emergency funds for the drought in Afghanistan looks like a token gesture.

[11] Every year, 1.5 million lorries, 250,000 coaches and four million cars use the Balkans route between Asia and Europe. It takes hours, even a whole day, to search an articulated lorry effectively for drugs. The impossibility of stopping the smuggling of heroin into Europe might be noted by the fact that while the amount of heroin seized has gone up, street prices have gone down.

[12] This hadith is reported in all the Sahih Sitta (the Sound Six), Ahmad, Malik and Darimi.

[13] Al-Misri, Reliance, p. 976. Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567) was the foremost Shafi‘i Imam of his age, who authored major works in jurisprudence, Hadith, tenets of faith, education, Hadith commentary and formal legal opinion. He is recognised by Hanafi scholars, like Imam Ibn ‘Abidin, as a source of authoritative legal texts valid in their own school. (R) I have relied on The Reliance and on T. J. Winter’s biographical appendices in his translations of al-Ghazali. Each note will end with a short reference to these works: (R) or (W) respectively. Other references will name the author’s name in brackets.

[14] Al-Misri, Reliance, p. 652. Imam al-Dhahabi (d. 748/1348) was a great Hadith master (Hafiz) and historian of Islam. He authored over 100 works, some of which were of great length, for instance, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ (The Lives of Noble Figures), ran to 23 volumes. (R)

[15] For further detail on classical scholarly authorities see Anon. [Student of Darul-Uloom Bury], Islam and Drugs (Bury, UK: Subulas Salam, n.d.).

[16] Although Abdur Rahman disputes as stereotypical the assertion that young Asians became the main street-dealers in recent times, see below for brief profile of this experienced drug worker.

[17] Gavin McFarlane, ‘Regulating European drug problems’, pp. 1075-1076. He also notes that the drug trade is organised like a mainstream business with three main categories. First, there is the planner or organiser who is like the entrepreneur who puts up the capital. Second, there is the trusted assistant or middle manager that runs the operation. Third, there is the operative at the bottom end that knows little about the whole organisation: these are the dealers who carry the goods, bear the most risk of being caught, and who earn only a fraction of the profit. Also known as ‘camels’, it is they who are most likely to be caught by the police. There is even a level above the capital investor: that of the political overlord, who is either autonomous from the state, or acting on behalf of a complicit state.

[18] Abdur Rahman, interview, 22/6/00

[19] Jabir related to us that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) once passed by a dead and ear-cropped young goat whose carcass was lying in the road, He enquired from those who were with him at the time, “Will any of you like to buy this dead kid for a dirham?” “We will not buy it at any price,” they replied. The Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam) then said, “I swear in the name of Allah that in His sight this world is as hateful and worthless as the dead kid is in your sight.” Related by Muslim, and cited in Nomani, Meaning and Message of the Traditions, I: pp. 234-235.

[20] Abu Talib al-Makki (d. after 520/1126) was the author of the Qut al-qulub, the first comprehensive manual of how to tread the Sufi path, which was the direct inspiration for Imam Ghazali’s classic work, the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din. He was a preacher, ascetic and scholar of the Sacred Law. (R)

[21] Cited in Murata, The Tao of Islam, pp. 271-272.

[22] Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072) was the author of one of the most widely read and respected works on the teachings of tasawwuf and the biography of the saints, the Risalat al-Qushayriyya. He also wrote a commentary on the Qur’an as well as some works pertaining to theology (kalam). (R, also Murata)

[23] Cited in Murata, The Tao of Islam, p. 267.

[24] Imam al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, p. 215.

[25] All chains of narration for the Prophetic reports in the Kitab al-Futuwwa go from Imam al-Sulami (d. 412/1021) back to the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam) himself, and are recorded in the index at the back of the English translation. Imam al-Sulami was a Shafi‘i scholar and one of the foremost historians and shaykhs of the Sufis. He authored several important works on Sufism, including a commentary on the Qur’an, and the Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, one of the most famous works on the lives of the Sufis. (R, also Murata)

[26] Dhu al-Nun al-Misri (d. 245/859) was one of the greatest of the early Sufis. He was Nubian in origin and had a great gift for expressive aphorisms, a large number of which have fortunately been preserved. He was the first in Egypt to speak about the states and spiritual stations of the way. (R)

[27] ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr ibn al-‘Awwam (d. 73/692) was the son of a famous Companion of the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam), who led a major revolt against the Umayyad caliph Yazid I following the death of the Prophet’s grandson, al-Husayn. He was widely recognised as caliph before his revolt was crushed. (W)

[28] ‘A’isha (d. 58/678) was the third wife of the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and Mother of the Faithful. She was the most knowledgeable of Muslim women in Sacred Law, religion, and Islamic behaviour, having married the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam) in the second year after the Migration, becoming the dearest of his wives in Medina. She related 2, 210 hadiths from the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and was asked for formal legal opinions by the Companions. (R)

[29] Yahya ibn Mu‘adh al-Razi (d. 258/871-2) was a great Sufi of Central Asia. As one of the first to teach Sufism in the mosques, he left a number of books and sayings. He was renowned for his steadfastness in worship and his great scrupulousness in matters of religion. (W)

[30] The Way of Sufi Chivalry, p.36.

[31] Khwaja ‘Abd Allah al-Ansari (d. 481/1088) was a great Persian Sufi and scholar. His most famous work is his Munajat (Intimate Entreaties), written in rhymed Persian prose. His description of the spiritual stations, Manazil al-sa’irin (The Stations of the Wayfarers), in Arabic, was one of the most influential ever written on this subject. (Murata)

[32] Cited in Murata, The Tao of Islam, pp. 267-268, with minor modifications to the translation.

[33] Regarded by the consensus of the scholars as the reviver (mujaddid) of the fifth century of the hijra, Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s (d. 505/1111) most famous work was the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences), which brought out the inner meaning of Islam practices and ethical ideals.

[34] Abu Darda’ (d. 32/652), one of the Medinan Helpers and a Companion of the Prophet (salla’Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam), was noted for his piety, his wisdom in giving legal judgements, his horsemanship, and his bravery on the battlefield. Before embracing Islam, he gave up commerce to occupy himself with worship. He is particularly esteemed by the Sufis. (W, R)

[35] Ibrahim al-Nakha’i ibn Yazid (d. 96/ 714-5) was one of the great scholarly Successors of Kufa, who was taught by Hasan al-Basri and Anas ibn Malik, and who in turn taught Imam Abu Hanifa.

[36] The various quotes on the subject of brotherly duties are from al-Ghazali, On the Duties of Brotherhood, pp. 60-65, which is one of the forty books that comprise the content of the Ihya’ (see footnote 33).

[37] ‘Drugs problems caused by Afghanistan and Pakistan’, Official Journal of the European Communities, 41 (1998), C178-C209 (98/C 196/112): 81-82.

[38] Faisal Bodi, ‘Crime: an everyday reality in Luton’, Q-News, 311, September 1999, p. 12.

 

Bibliography

Anon. [Student of Darul-Uloom Bury], Islam and Drugs (Bury: Subulas Salam, n.d.).

Bodi, Faisal, ‘Crime: an everyday reality in Luton’, Q-News, 311, September 1999, p. 12.

Bodi, Faisal, ‘Muslim Advisor only one piece in a bigger jigsaw’, Q-News, 311, September 1999, pp. 14-15.

 

Boekhout van Solinge, Tim, ‘Drug Use and Drug Trafficking in Europe’, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 89(1), (1998): 100-105.

Crossette, Barbara, ‘Taliban’s Ban on Growing Opium Poppies Is Called a Success’, New York Times [Internet edition], 20 May 2001.

‘Drug Trafficking Routes in Central Asia’, Strategic Survey 1998/99, p. 276.

‘Drugs problems caused by Afghanistan and Pakistan’, Official Journal of the European Communities, 41 (1998), C178-C209 (98/C 196/112): 81-82.

Ganon, Kathy, ‘Taliban virtually wipes out Afghanistan’s opium crop’, The Nando Times, 15 February 2001, [www.nandotimes.com].

Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-, On Disciplining the Soul & On Breaking the Two Desires, trans. and annotated with an introduction by T. J. Winter (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1995).

Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-, On the Duties of Brotherhood, trans. by Muhtar Holland (New York: Overlook, 1976).

Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, trans. and annotated with an introduction by T. J. Winter (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1989).

 

Misri, Ahmad ibn Naqib al-, The Reliance of the Traveller, rev. edn, trans., ed. and annotated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Evanston: Amana, 1994).

Modhammed, Omar, ‘Message of the Amir-ul-Mumineen on the occasion of the International Anti-Narcotics Day’, The Islamic Emirate (Kandahar), July 2000, no. 1, p. 1.

Murata, Sachiko, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York, 1992).

Nomani, Mohammed Manzoor, Meaning and Message of the Traditions, trans. by Mohammed Asif Kidwai and Shah Ebadur Rahman Nishat, 5 vols (Lucknow: Islamic Research and Publications, 1975-1989), I (1975).

Qushayri, Abu ’l-Qasim al-, Principles of Sufism, trans. by B. R. Von Schlegell (Berkeley, Ca.: Mizan, 1990).

Rashid, Ahmed, ‘Dangerous Liaisons: Drugs are driving politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, Far Eastern Economic Review, 161(16), April 16 (1998): 28.

Rashid, Ahmed, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000), Ch. 9.

Source Countries and trafficking routes: Central Asia and South East Asia’, Strategic Survey 1997/98, p. 250.

Sulami, Ibn al-Husayn al-, The Way of Sufi Chivalry, trans. by Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1991).

‘Taleban calls for total poppy ban in Afghanistan’, The News International (Jang), 30/7/00, p. 9.

UNDCP, ‘Afghan Opium Cultivation in 2000 Substantially Unchanged’, UNIS/NAR/696, 15 September 2000. [press release].

UN Economic and Social Research Council, World Situation with regard to illicit drug trafficking and action taken by the subsidiary bodies of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (Vienna: UNESRC, 1999), E/CN.7/2000/5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fall of the Family (Part I)

 Abdal-Hakim Murad


Abdal Wadod Shalabi has remarked that a society only becomes truly decadent when "decadence" as a principle is never referred to in public debate. Prior generations of Muslims and Christians were forever fretting about their own unworthiness when measured against past golden ages of goodness and sanctity. But in our self-satisfied era, to invoke the idea of decadence is to invite accusations of a retrograde romanticism: it is itself perceived, perversely enough, as decadence. 

Muslims looking at the West with a critical but compassionate eye are often disturbed by this absence of old-fashioned self-scrutiny. We note that no longer does the dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus. In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the future that is to serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly outrageous ("blasphemous") discourse remains possible in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberalism supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which is often in reality manufactured by the small, often personally immoral but nonetheless ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes. 

The debate over the status of the family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between the bloated but "decadent" North and the progressively impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity being massaged by an endless, earnest-humane diet of documentaries about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World, and the wicked reluctance of its peoples to conform to the social doctrines of the liberal democracies. To the average Westerner this one-way polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions of superiority which allay his nervousness about problems in his own society. It shapes the public opinion that goes on to acquiesce in the liquidation of Palestinians, Bosnians or Chechens with only the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt. In fact, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social doctrines of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies of the closing years of the century, as polemicists use orthodox feminism and homosexualism as the perfect sticks with which to beat the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce; now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the underlying attitude of contempt has remained essentially unchanged. 

Muslims living in the West are perched in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic theologians have written on the "westernisation process" in the Muslim world and its nefarious effects on family life, the reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being championed by obsolete secular elites whose cultural formation was the achievement of the old imperial powers. The family lifestyle of the average secular Syrian or Turk is not that of a modern European, despite his outraged claims to the contrary. His clothes, furnishings, marriage rituals, and most details of life are more redolent of the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence. And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands of the "liberated" West. 

As we attempt to theorise about our own condition, we are at once confronted by the irony that the country to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-nurturing Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the "guest-workers" and their "hosts" were in most respects reassuringly and productively similar. 

That overlap has now almost gone. Even the Churches no longer claim to be the coherent and convincing voices of absolute moral truths, as an increasingly spongelike rock of ages finds itself scoured and reshaped by the libertarian sandstorm. Cardinal Hume, the usually clear-headed spokesman of Britain's Catholics, has recently made conciliatory remarks about homophilia; while an Anglican bishop, resplendent in tight jeans and leather jacket, has openly announced his relationship with another man. So far from representing family values to their flock, 200 out of 900 London priests are said to subscribe to homosexual tendencies. The number of Christian and Jewish organisations and individuals eloquently singing the virtues of Sodom seems set to rise and rise, cheered on by the secularists, until the remaining voices of tradition are finally shouted down. 

All this means that the Muslim community, already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, is now having to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form of alienation. As newcomers who are the sole defenders of values which would be recognised as legitimate by earlier generations of Britons, we are in a disorienting position. The temptation to panic, to retreat into factions and cults which excoriate the wider world as impure and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making headway on the campuses. But such a sterile and facile temptation should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship with the "host community". 

But a strategy for the articulation of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist "metanarrative" whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status as a definer of cultural identity. Such has been the emergent error of the twentieth-century's rival essentialisms, particularly nationalism and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to, or even replaced by, the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity. The narrative of Muslim civilisation, inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists until the 1970s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative of "the Salaf", on the problematic claim that the Salaf followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion and concern rather than a chronic obsession with purity. 

What this means is that unless Muslims in Britain can counteract the impoverishing and exclusivist "ideologising" of Islam that has taken place in some Muslim countries, and return to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug, "But who cares what the unbelievers think". For Muslims are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed, if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of real assistance. 

The time for such an advocacy is now. In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock; a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce; within twenty years fewer than half of the nation's children will be brought up by their own two parents; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age. Sheppard and Sacks lament together that in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked by that most basic of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we all shout for our rights and chafe under our duties. The lesson is irritating but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis of Adam Smith's advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties as to endanger the whole undertaking. Greed creates rich men and happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price. Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra policing, prisons, social workers and a growing blizzard of DHSS cheques. The socialist revolution has already failed; it seems that capitalism too may ultimately choke on its own contradictions. 

So far, so good. It is unarguable, and not just to religious people, that greed has been a culprit. And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution. If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that simple appeals to "be good" rarely have much impact, and must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform. Neither the bishop nor the rabbi seem to have much to offer that is practical and concrete; which is perhaps why they have been tolerated and even platformed by politicians and the liberal media. But as Muslims, possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary whose status as "a mercy to the nations" was manifested in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the present plight of society will never be reformed through homiletics. Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they can be painful. 

Hardly less obvious than the causes of family decline are the reasons why establishment ideologues refuse to recognise them. The politicians are the most flagrant instance: last week's sorry resignation by Social Charter minister Robert Hughes in order to "repair his marriage" after an illicit fling is simply the latest in a string of by now frankly boring incidents which show the political establishment (and not even the moralising Mr Ashdown, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been immune) as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need. There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting moment, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned up indeed may prove his undoing. The number of MPs who have secretaries as second wives is second only to the number with surreptitious concubines. Only aberrant idiocy - or complaisance - can ignore the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation for both. 

But politics is merely the most notorious example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, "fire dwelleth with cotton". As the current anguished debate over sexual harrassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician or social strategist must see it. 

In Tom Wolfe's popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city "drowning in concupiscence" and he is its child. It is not simply the routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of duty-free sex. Wolfe's adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings cannot behave responsibly. 

New York is not yet London - but the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of the public space has become part of our culture. Middle-aged men with middle-aged wives once had little to tempt them, short of an unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either stupid, or belong to that category of powerfully moral human beings which always has been and always will be a minority. 

A radical diagnosis, although obvious enough: but is there a cure? Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour a crime unimaginable in the West: khalwa, or "illegitimate seclusion". Moral disasters always have preludes; Islam seeks to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. Thus our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation of the Clackmannan headmaster who last month introduced the rule that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from each other, because 'spring is in the air." But schools are the merest starting-point. The workplace, too, while not obstructing female advancement, should ensure that the rights of spouses are protected by denying all possibility of illegitimate seclusion in the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons. Pornography and sub-pornographic advertising should be carefully censored as intolerably demeaning and as an incitement to marital infidelity, the task of censorship being entrusted to those feminists who so rightly object to such portrayals of their sex. 

The tragedy for Britain is, of course, that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work, the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern relationships will continue to encourage and live in the public environment which is at the root of the problem. But Islam by its very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened. The process of family collapse is proving so radical in its economic and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own. 

 

The Fall of the Family (Part II)

© Abdal-Hakim Murad


The secular mind may be too witless to notice, but to religious people the New Social Doctrines are fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The twentieth century's great liberationisms often feel like powerful sublimations of the religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly ties and the straitjacket of the self becomes strangely transmuted into a great convulsion against restrictions on personal freedom. 

In this sense, the politically-correct West is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and theologians, its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression of blasphemy. 

Some have mused that all this is necessary, and that human beings need certainties and causes, and that without an orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that the new doctrines, which are now enshrined in legislation, school curricula and broadcasting guidelines, do not make up either an authentic new religion, or even a sustainable substitute for one. For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Eskimo, holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West's new religion, in absolute contrast, teaches that it comes about through the enjoyment of rights. 

Given the extremism of this inversion, it is not surprising that the societies which it affects should be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O"Brien, the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is certainly a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies have worsened our social ills rather than bringing us into a shining and liberated utopia - but this is what has happened. And yet the pseudo-religion is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided over such destruction may not be subject to criticism in polite society. Muslims are perhaps the only people left who do not care for such politeness. 

One of the most characteristic liberationisms of this century has been feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies, some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into unimaginable territories of witchcraft and lesbianism, this is a movement about which few generalisations can be made. But perhaps a good place to start is the observation that women were the major though unintended victims of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional Christian cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering was caused to those for whom the social supports were cut away, and who found themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice. It moved Western society away from Christian tradition, and towards the Islamic norm in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage, retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right to initiate legal proceedings. 

What Muslims are less happy about is the new feminism of the past three decades, the militantly ideologised world-view of Friedan, Greer and Daly. These thinkers initiated a new phase by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society, but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity. "Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women will continue to be subjugated", wrote Simone de Beauvoir; and similar noises could be heard from the new feminists everywhere. In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with feminity and maleness with manhood was biologically and morally meaningless, and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional edifice of "patriarchy". 

At this point, people of Muslim faith have to jump ship. The Quran and our entire theological tradition are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are part of the inherent polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in pairs, we believe; and it is this magnetic relationship between alternate principles which brings movement and value into the world. Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the 1,001 Things into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle, not simple biology - but metaphysics. 

Allah has ninety-nine names. Some are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Loving-Kind. The former category are broadly associated with male virtues, and the latter with female ones. But as all are God's perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither set is superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian notion that God is male (the "Father"), an assumption that has been invoked to justify traditional Western notions of the objective superiority of the male principle. 

Islam's position is thus a nuanced one. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles in society "here-below". The divine names have distinct vocations; and human gender differentiation was created for more than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God's khalifas on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine perfection their "ministries" differ in key respects. 

Islam's awareness that when human nature (fitra) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women will incline to different spheres of activity is of course one which provokes howls of protest from liberals: for them it is a classic case of blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian terms which are the liberals" reference, the case for absolute identity of vocation is highly problematic. However heavily society may brainwash women into seeking absolute parity, it cannot ignore the reality that they have babies, and have a tendency to enjoy looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers while their children are small increasingly have to put up with accusations of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring up children better than childminders, that breastmilk is better than formula milk, and even - this as the ultimate heresy - that bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or driving buses. 

There are already signs that women are rebelling against the feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute parity of function with men, and that "dropping out" to look after a child is less outrageous in the minds of many educated women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands shows little sign of success; and many houses have become more like dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, tin-opening affairs; both parents are too exhausted to spend "quality time" with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home, they feel they are not leaving very much. 

In such a dismal context, dissolution is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater than many normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some) pleasure at work are poor compensations for the increased scope for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman's gift for warming a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing lone parent, she finds that society has little interest in her. She has joined the new class of "wives of the state". 

The state, luckily, can afford to be a polygamist. The social unravelment of modern Britain has coincided with a massive augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there is little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally millions of single families is a harsh one. The case for traditional single-income families, in which women are permitted to celebrate rather than suppress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking more moral than the liberals have guessed. 

But the feminists are not the only moths to have been gnawing the social fabric. There are others, some of them even more radical. The most strident are the homosexualists, the curious but always repulsive ideologues who are forcing on the population a dogma whose consequences for the family are already proving lethal. 

As with feminism, the theological case against homosexuality is related to our understanding of the "dyadic" nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same sex is therefore the most extreme of all possible violations of the natural order. Its biological sterility is the sign of its metaphysical failure to honour the basic duality which God has used as the warp and woof of the world. 

It is true, nonetheless, that the homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It appears as the definitive argument against Darwinism's hypothesis of the systematic elimination over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings with the Arabian bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication of the practice. In other societies, particularly modern urban cultures, it is very widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be so: some researchers speculate that in overpopulated communities the tendency represents Nature's own technique of population control. Laboratory rats, we are told, will remain resolutely heterosexual until disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, and extreme overcrowding. Other scientists have speculated about the effects of "hormone pollution" from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this remains without proof. 

But what is increasingly suggested by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always acquired, and that some individuals are born with them as an identifiable irregularity in the chromosomes. The implications of this for moral theology are clear: given the Quran's insistence that human beings are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired, homosexuality as an innate disposition cannot be a sin. 

It does not follow from this, of course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable. Similar research has indicated that many human tendencies, including forms of criminal behaviour, are also on occasion traceable to genetic disorders; and yet nobody would conclude that the behaviour was therefore legitimate. Instead, we are learning that just as God has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests some of us by implanting moral tendencies which we must struggle to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. A mental patient with an obsessive desire to set fire to houses has been given a particular hurdle to overcome. A man or woman with strong homosexual urges faces the same challenge. 

To the religious believer, it is unarguable that homosexual acts are a metaphysical as well as a moral crime. Heterosexuality, with its association with conception, is the astonishing union which leads to new life, to children, grandchildren, and an endless progeny: it is a door to infinity. Sodomy, by absolute contrast, leads nowhere. As always, the most extreme vice comes about when a virtue is inverted. 

None of this is of interest to the secular mind, of course, which detects no meaning in existence and hence cannot imagine why maximum pleasure and gratification should not be the goal of human life. The notion that we are here on earth in order to purify our souls and experience the incomparable bliss of the divine presence is utterly alien to most of our compatriots. And yet there is a purely secular argument against homophilia which we can attempt to deploy. 

Homosexualism represents a radical challenge to the institution of marriage. Its propagandists will not concede the fact, but it attacks the most vital norm of our species, which is the union of male and female for which we are manifestly designed and which is the natural context for the raising of children. In times such as ours, when nature is no longer regarded as authoritative, and lifestyles are in all other respects an abnormal departure from the way in which human beings have lived for countless millennia, society cannot afford to believe that male-female unions are of only relative worth. The more the alternatives proliferate, the less the norm will be seen as sacred. Every victory for the homosexualist lobby is thus a blow struck against that normality without which society cannot survive. 

It is in the context of the struggle to protect the family that the campaign against homosexualism becomes most universally accessible. The screaming fanatics who "out" bishops and demand a lowering of the "gay" age of consent are among the most bitter enemies of the fitra, that primordial norm which, for all the diversity of the human race, has consistently expressed itself in marriage as the natural context for the nurturing of the new generation. That which is against the fitra is by definition destructive: it is against humanity and against God. This awareness needs to be reflected in legislation, which for too long has sought to relativise the family as merely one of a range of lifestyle options. Muslims sometimes hold that the collapse of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity. Decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for morally-strong Islam to regain its place as the world's dominant civilisation. The trouble with this theory is that the implosion shows no sign of leading to total collapse. Technology and wealth allow the creation of surveillance and social-security systems which can deal with the growing number of casualties. There is certainly an irony in a New World Order policed by a state which cannot keep order in Central Park after nightfall. But unless we are foolishly optimistic, or hope for absolute totalitarianism, we cannot but be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the Western family is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and we must offer our views until the time comes when our friends and neighbours, their doctrines Boys will be Boys

Gender identity issues - boys will be boys

Abdal-Hakim Murad

I have been asked to offer some comments on gender identity issues as these impact on Muslims living in post-traditional contexts in the West, and particularly as they affect people who have traded up to the Great Covenant of Islam after an upbringing in Judaism or Christianity. The usual way of doing this is by examining issues in the classical fiqh, and explaining how Islam’s discourse of equality functions globally, not on the micro-level of each fiqh ruling. That method is legitimate enough (although as we shall see the concept of ‘equality’ may raise considerable problems), but in general my experience of Muslim talk on gender is that there is too much apologetic abroad, apologetic, that is, in the sense not only of polemical defence, but also of pleas entered in mitigation. What I want to do today is to bypass this recurrent and often tiresome approach, which reveals so much about the low serotonin levels of its advocates, and suggest how as Western Muslims we can construct a language of gender which offers not a defence or mitigation of current Muslim attitudes and establishments, but a credible strategy for resolving dilemmas which the Western thinkers and commentators around us are now meticulously examining.

Let me begin, then, by trying to capture in a few words the current crisis in Western gender discourse. As good a place as any to do this is Germaine Greer’s book The Whole Woman, released in 1999 to an interesting mix of befuddled anger and encomia from the press.

This is an important book, not least because it casts itself as a dialogue with the author’s earlier, more notorious volume The Female Eunuch, published thirty years previously. Throughout, Greer, who is one of the most conscientious and compassionate of feminist writers, reflects on the ways in which the social and also scientific context of Western gender discourse has shifted over this period. In 1969, liberation seemed imminent, or at least cogently achievable. In 1999, with states and national institutions largely converted to the cause which once seemed so radical, it seems to have receded somewhere over the horizon. Hence Greer’s anger descends upon not one, but two lightning-rods: the old enemy of male gynophobia is still excoriated, but there is also a more diffuse frustration with what Greer now acknowledges is the hard-wiring of the human species itself. Most feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was ‘equality feminism’, committed to the breakdown of gender disparities as social constructs amenable to changes in education and media generalisation; feminism in the 1990s, however, was increasingly a ‘difference feminism’, rooted in the growing conviction that nature is at least as important as nurture in shaping the behavioural traits of men and women. Most politicians, educators and media barons and baronesses are still committed to the old feminist idea; however, as Greer’s book shows, the new feminism is growing and promises to take the world through another social shakedown, whose consequences for Muslim communities will be considerable.

Several factors have been at work in securing this sea-change. Perhaps the most obvious has been the sheer stubbornness of traditional patterns, which most men and women continue to find strangely satisfying. Radical feminist revolution of the old Greer school has not found a demographically significant constituency. Most women have not properly signed up to the sisterhood.

Moreover, the world which has been increasingly shaped by secular egalitarian gender discourse has not proved to be the promised land than the younger Greer had prophesied. As she now writes:

‘When the Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.’ (p.3)

She goes on to suggest that the sexual liberation that accompanied the gender revolution has in most cases harmed women more than men. ‘The sexuality that has been freed’, she writes, ‘is male sexuality.’ Promiscuity harms women more than men: women continue to experience the momentous consequences of pregnancy, while the male body is unaffected. When the USS Acadia returned from the Gulf War, a tenth of her female crewmembers had already been returned to America because of pregnancy aboard what became known as the Love Boat. The number of men returned was zero.

Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been an increase in infidelity, and a consequent rise in divorce and single parenthood. Again, it is women who have shouldered most of the burden. ‘In 1971, one in twelve British families was headed by a single parent, in 1986 one in seven, and by 1992 one in five’ (p.202). Another consequence has been the pain of solitude. ‘By the year 2020 a third of all British households will be occupied by a single individual, and the majority of those individuals will be female’ (p.250). One of the most persistent legends of the sexual revolution, that ‘testing the waters’ before marriage helps to determine compatibility, seems to have been definitively refuted. ‘Some of the briefest marriages are those that follow a long period of cohabitation’ (p.255).

A further area in which women seem to have found themselves degraded rather than liberated by the new cultural climate is that of pornography. This institution, opposed by most feminists as a dehumanisation and objectification of women (Otto Preminger once called Marilyn Monroe a ‘vacuum with nipples’), has not been chastened into decline by the feminist revolution; it has swollen into a thirty billion pound a year industry, populated by armies of faceless Internet whores and robo-bimbos. As Greer remarks, ‘after thirty years of feminism there is vastly more pornography, disseminated more widely than ever before.’ Pornography blends into the fashion industry, which claims to exist for the gratification of women, but is in fact, as she records, largely controlled by men who seek to persuade women to denude or adorn themselves to add to a public spectacle created largely for men. (Many fashion designers, moreover, are homosexual, Versace only the most conspicuous example, and these men create a boylike fashion norm which forces women into patterns of diet and exercise which constitute a new form of oppression.) Cellulite, once admired in the West and in almost all traditional societies, has now become a sin. To be saved, one ‘works out’. Demi Moore pumps iron for four hours a day; but even this ordeal was not enough to save her marriage.

Greer and other feminists identify the fashion industry as a major contributor to the contemporary enslavement of women. Its leading co-conspirator is the pharmaceuticals business, which, as she says, deliberately creates a culture of obsession with physical flaws: the so called Body Dysmorphic Disorder which is currently plumping out the business accounts of doctors, psychiatrists, and, of course, the cosmetic surgeons. As Dolly Parton says, ‘It costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’ The world’s resources are gobbled up to service this artificially-induced obsession with looks, fed by the culture of denudation. And perhaps the most repellent dimension is the new phenomenon of hormone replacement therapy, billed as an anti-aging panacea. The hormone involved, estrogen, is obtained from mares: in America alone 80,000 pregnant female horses are held in battery farms, confined in crates, and tied to hoses to enable their urine to be collected. The foals that are delivered are routinely slaughtered.

The consequences of the new pressures on women are already generally known, although no solutions are seriously proposed. Women, we are told by the old school of feminists, today lead richer lives. However, it is also acknowledged that these lives often seem to be sadder. ‘Since 1955 there has been a five-fold increase in depressive illness in the US. For reasons that are anything but clear women are more likely to suffer than men,’ (p.171) while ‘17 percent of British women will try to kill themselves before their twenty-fifth birthday.’ This wave of sadness that afflicts modern women, which is entirely out of keeping with the expectations of the early feminists, again has brought joy to the pharmaceuticals barons. Prozac is overwhelmingly prescribed to women. (This is the same anti-depressant drug that is routinely given to zoo animals to help them overcome their sense of futility and entrapment.)

Greer concludes her angry book with few notes of hopefulness. The strategies she demanded in the 1960s have been extensively tried and applied; but the results have been ambiguous, and sometimes catastrophic. What is clear is that there has not been a liberation of women, so much as a throwing-off of one pattern of dependence in exchange for another. The husband has become dispensable; the pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-growing army of psychiatrists and counsellors, have taken his place. Happiness seems as remote as ever.

Later in this talk I will attempt an Islamic critique of all this. But before doing so I think it would be useful to take a brief look at the science which is now providing Western social analysts with a context in which to frame an interpretation of what has gone wrong.

The most obvious area in which science has reverberations among feminists is in the differentials of physical strength which divide the sexes. In areas of life demanding physical power and agility, men continue to possess an advantage. Attempts have, of course, been made to overcome this proof of Mother Nature’s sexism through legislation. The most notorious attempt in the United Kingdom was the 1997 Ministry of Defence directive that female recruits would not be subject to the same physical tests as men. This excursion into political correctness foundered when it was discovered that the women being admitted to the army were not strong enough to perform some of the tasks required of them on completion of their training. As a result, the 1998 rules applied what were called ‘gender-free’ selection procedures to ensure that women and men faced identical tasks. The result was a massive rise in female injuries when compared with the men. Medical discharges due to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, were calculated at 1.5% for male recruits, and at anything between 4.6% and 11.1% for females. Lt Col Ian Gemmell, an army occupational physician who compiled a report on the situation, noted that differences in women’s bone size and muscle mass lead to 33%-39% more stress on the female skeleton when compared to that of the male. The result is that although social changes have eroded the traditional moral reasons for barring women from active combat roles, the medical evidence alone compels the British army to bar women from the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps.

The army is an unusual case, and the great majority of professions to which women seek access require no great physical ability. But the differences between the sexes are at their most profound where they are least visible. The gender revolutionaries of the 1960s, popularising and also radicalising the earlier, gentler calls for equality led by the likes of Virginia Woolf, were working with a science which was still largely unequipped to assess the subtler aspects of gender difference. Modern techniques of genetic examination, the reconstruction of genome maps, and the larger implications of the DNA discoveries made by Crick and Watson, were unimaginable when Greer first wrote. Since Marx and Weber, and also Freud, it had been assumed that gender roles were principally, perhaps even entirely, the product of social conditioning. Re-engineer that conditioning, it was thought, and in due season fifty percent of those doing all jobs, composing symphonies, and winning Nobel Prizes, would turn out to be women.

In retrospect this seems an odd assurance. The intellectual climate was, after all, thoroughly secular. There was no metaphysical or moral imperative that obliged the Western mind to conclude that the sexes were different only trivially, or, as one trendy bishop put it, simply ‘the same thing but with different fittings’. And yet so overwhelming were the egalitarian assumptions that had shaped Europe and America since at least Thomas Paine and David Hume, that everyone assumed that the sexes must be equal, in the way that the classes must be equal, or the races, or the nations.

One of the first large-scale social experiments based on the new theory of gender equality was the kibbutz scheme in Jewish-settled Palestine. This was founded in 1910 on the assumption, still eccentric in that time, that the emancipation of women can only be achieved when socialised gender roles are eliminated from the earliest stage of childhood.

The kibbutzim were collective farms in which maternal care was entirely eliminated. Instead of living with parents, children lived in special dormitories. To spare women the usual rounds of domestic drudgery, communal laundries and kitchens were provided. Both men and women were hence freed up to choose any activity or work they wished, and it was expected that both would participate equally in positions of power. To ensure the neutral socialisation of children, toys were kept in large baskets, so that boys and girls could choose their own toys, rather than have gender-stereotyped toys and games pressed upon them.

The results, after ninety years of consistent and conscientious social engineering, have been disconcerting. The children, to the anger of their supervisors, unerringly choose gender-specific toys. Three year-old boys pull guns and cars out of the baskets; the girls prefer dolls and tea-sets. Games organised by the children are competitive - among boys - and cooperative – among the girls.

In the kibbutz administration, quotas imposed to enforce female participation in leadership positions are rarely met. Dress codes which attempt to create uniformity are consistently flouted. In Israel today, the kibbutzim harbour sex-distinctions which are famous for being sharper than those observable in Israeli society at large. The experiment has not only failed, it seems to have backfired.

Most scientists and anthropologists who have documented the failure of such projects of social engineering today locate the gravitation of males and females to differing patterns of behaviour in the context of evolutionary biology. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are of course under attack now, particularly by philosophers and physicists, rather more seriously than at any other time over the past hundred years. And as Shaykh Nuh Keller has shown, a thoroughgoing commitment to the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Qur'anic account of the origins of humanity. We believe in a common ancestry for our kind; the neo-Darwinists insist in multiple and interactive development of hominids from simian ancestors.

This does not mean, however, that all the insights of modern biology are unacceptable. Keller notes that micro-evolution, that is to say, the perpetuation and reinforcement over time of genetically successful strategies for survival, is undeniable, and is affirmed also in the hadith. The breeding of horses, for instance, presupposes principles of natural selection in which human beings can intervene. Heredity is true, as a hadith affirms. Categories such as the ‘Israelites’, or the ahl al-bayt, have real significance.

What do the biologists say? The view is that biological success amounts to one factor alone: the maximal propagation of an organism’s genetic material. A powerful predator which dominates its habitat is, however outwardly imposing, a biological failure if it fails to reproduce itself at least in sufficient numbers to ensure its own perpetuation.

Biologists point out that males and females have different reproductive strategies. The burden of what biologist Robert Trivers calls ‘parental investment’ is massively higher in the case of females than of males. This has nothing to do with social conditioning: it is a genetic and biological given. The human female, for instance, makes a vast investment in a child: beginning with nine months of metabolic commitment, followed by a further period before weaning. The male’s ‘parental investment’ is enormously less.

Trivers shows that ‘the sex providing the greater parental investment will become the limiting resource.’ The sex which contributes less will then necessarily be in a social position involving competition, ‘because they can improve their reproductive success through having numerous partners in a way that members of the other sex cannot.’ Hence, for modern biologists, the genetic and hormonal basis of male competition and aggression. Competition and aggression are traits which may be found in females, but typically to a greatly reduced degree, simply because they are not traits vital to those females’ reproductive success. The aggression which is vital to male biological survival is directed primarily against other males (the vast, physiologically-demanding racks of antlers on stags, for instance); but aggression also serves to make the male more equipped for hunting. Male parental investment is hence physiological only indirectly, insofar as it is directed to providing food or defence for the young.

Biology also helps us understand why the female hormonal pattern, dominated by estrogen and oxytocin, generates strong nurturing instincts which are far less evident in the male androgens and in adrenaline, which is useful for huntsmen and warriors, but of considerably less value in the rearing of children. Simply put, mothers have a far greater investment to lose if they neglect their children. A child that dies, through lack of care resulting from insufficient hormonal guidance, represents a greater potential failure for the mother than for the father. During gestation and lactation, the mother is infertile or nearly so; whereas during the same period the father may become a father again many times over. Hence, again, the genetic programming which generates nurturing and convivial instincts in women far more than it does in men. Men have less of the ‘nurturing’ neurotransmitter oxytocin than do women. Androgens ensure that men choose mates for their youth and their apparent childbearing abilities, estrogens impel women to choose mates who are assertive and powerful, as more likely to provide the food and protection that their offspring will need.

Hence also the prevalence of polygyny in traditional societies, and the extreme rarity of polyandry. To have many wives is a genetically sensible strategy, to have many husbands is not.

The aggressive instincts fostered by the male physiology, flushed even before birth with androgens, served our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, and a few generations of very different lifestyles have not been sufficient to bring about any substantial alteration to the male hormonal balance. This is why ninety percent of prison inmates are men, in almost every society. Psychologists have shown that around the world, murderers and the murdered are usually young, unmarried men. A further factor is that males are far more attracted to competitive forms of behaviour. As Kingsley Browne notes, ‘While competition significantly increases the motivation of men, it does not do so for women. The more competitive an academic programme is perceived by women, for example, the poorer their performance, while the correlation is reversed for men.’ Studies also show that men are more likely than women to opt for difficult tasks.

The origin of this gender differential is again to be sought in primordial patterns of survival. Aggressive, competitive males became ‘alpha males’, and maximised their chances of reproductive success. (Males have ten times more testosterone than women; and it produces aggression as well as the sex drive.) Weaker, more co-operative males were pushed to one side, and rarely if ever found a mate. Successful hunting brought status, and status brought greater opportunities for genetic transmission.

Biologists like Camilla Benbow have recently assessed the implications for modern social differentiation of our genetic inheritance. Her study shows that ‘boys are much more likely to choose careers in maths and science even though girls are fully aware of their own abilities in these areas.’ Again, the conclusion is not that women are less intelligent than men - the new biology clearly rules that out - but that they prefer to exercise it in specific fields. At Harvard, for instance, there is a seven to one male preponderance in the science faculties, and a female preponderance, or equivalence, in arts subjects. Subjects like languages and art history are consistently oversubscribed by female students. And while there is no evidence that women are less intelligent than men - and in general they show themselves much more articulate - more than seventy percent of first-class degrees at Oxford are obtained by male students.

A variety of university committees have been set up to investigate this, initially with a view to eliminating it. However the differential is very stubborn. The reason may be partly to do with socialisation, but an awareness is growing that heredity is also a factor that refuses to be ignored. The male endocrine system carries the memory of thousands of years of hunting, an activity which requires a kind of focussed attention on a single quarry to the exclusion of all else, coupled with an adrenaline rush at the finish. Such a metabolism, it is now being argued, is better equipped to cope with university-style examinations (as distinct from secondary-school styles of assessment), than the female metabolism, which has historically flourished, that is, been reproductively successful, in nurturing and co-operative tasks.

The response at universities like Harvard and Oxford has been to question the primacy of the examination system. If the competitiveness and focus of males are unfairly served by examination assessment, then alternative modes of assessment must be sought. And so we see alternative assessment procedures: continual assessment of termwork, and other schemes which enable women to work consultatively on projects and hence develop their full potential. Already the results are encouraging, and it may be that the male bias which seems to be inherent in the examination system will one day be eliminated.

This, however, raises a larger and more troubling question. The new science has established that men and women have comparable intelligence quotients, but that the nature of male and female intelligence, and the context in which it flourishes, can be quite different. Hence Capucine La Motte, another researcher, has documented how from the age of about three most children prefer to play with children of their own gender. They can accomplish their goals in their play activities more reliably in this way. Boy’s games are competitive and often aggressive; girl’s games are collaborative and involve more sophisticated forms of discourse and conceptualisation. Another child psychologist, Janet Lever, notes that 65% of boy’s games are formal games, while only 35% of games played by girls have rules. Boys, it seems, are more ‘rule-oriented’ than girls. (This is why the contemporary Muslim interpretation of shari‘a in ways which diminish haqiqa is so often accompanied by a diminished respect for women. The sexes are only regarded with equivalent esteem when batin and zahir are spoken of with equal frequency by believers.)

A further aspect of inherited gender difference is presented in the issue of risk-taking. Primordial humanity allocated willingness to take risks differently among the sexes, not for constructed ‘social’ reasons, but for reasons of biological survival. To achieve the power and status requisite for transmitting his genetic material, the male had to take risks. In the historically very few years that have elapsed since such times, this norm does not appear to have changed. Consistently the figures show that risky activities and sports attract more men than women. Gambling, motor racing and bungee-jumping continue to be overwhelmingly male activities. Men are statistically more likely to ignore seat-belt laws. Despite the popular stereotypes of women as dangerous drivers, the great majority of lethal road accidents are the fault of men, because they indulge in hazardous and aggressive styles of driving. More than twice as many boys as girls die through playing dangerous games, and this statistic is remarkably consistent throughout the world.

The precise mechanisms in the brain which generate this behaviour are only now being understood. The mechanisms are called neurotransmitters, hundreds of different varieties of which activate emotions and bodily movements. One of the most important is serotonin, which has as one of its functions the task of informing the body to stop certain activities. When the body is tired, it generates the desire to sleep; when we have eaten enough it tells the body to stop eating; and so on. It does this by linking the limbic system (which is the kingdom of the nafs, and which generates primal impulses to attack, be sad, or make sexual advances), with the frontal cortex at the front of the brain, where our ability to assess and plan our actions is thought to be located. Studies indicate that men typically have lower serotonin levels than women, and conclude that the higher risk-taking behaviour characterising successful Formula One drivers, for instance, is likely to make that choice of career an almost entirely male preserve, whatever the amount of social engineering that feminist societies may attempt.

Universities can reduce gender disparities by adopting alternative modes of assessment, but after graduation, the real world is often less amenable. Risk-taking is a necessary ingredient of success in many, perhaps most, high-flying professions. Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has recently shown that the ‘glass ceiling’ in many professions, which supposedly excludes women from further promotion because of prejudice, may in fact have a biological foundation. Conspicuous success in business, for instance, demands the taking of risks that do not always come instinctively to women. As she says, ‘from an early age, females are more averse to social, as well as physical, risk, and tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion;’ and this is largely innate, rather than socially constructed.

One expert who has devoted his research to the implications of neurotransmitters for gender behaviour is Marvin Zuckerman. He divides the serotonin-related human quest for sensation into four types. Firstly, there is the quest for adventure and the love of danger, which is associated with the typically low serotonin levels of the male. Secondly, the quest for experiences, whether these be musical, aesthetic or religious. Zuckerman detected no significant difference between male and female enthusiasm for this quest. Thirdly, disinhibition. The neurotransmitters of the typical male allow the comparatively swift loss of moral control over the sex drive, when compared with women. Fourthly, boredom. The male brain is more susceptible to boredom when carrying out routine and repetitive tasks.

What are the religious implications of this? There are feminists who point to these factors as evidence for the categoric moral inferiority of men. Islamically, however, they can all be understood, and addressed, in ways that again demonstrate the conformability of the fitra, as understood by Islam as a quasi-metaphysical quality, with the purely physical processes and geography of the human brain. The first of Zuckerman’s distinctions is not necessarily to the discredit of men. Courage is, after all, a Prophetic virtue; and without emotional surges the Muslim would make a poor horseman, or warrior, or risk-taking builder of an Istanbul mosque. Secondly, with regard to the category to which the lubb, the inner core of humanity, most fully relates, it is clear that scientific evidence exists for the spiritual ‘equal opportunities’ of the sexes. The Qur’an locates the source of religious faith in the lubb’s ability to experience the divine origin of God’s signs in nature. Men and women are clearly equally good at this. Likewise, faith-sustaining aesthetic achievements such as music, literature, crafts, and architecture, are likely to be no less effective for women than for men. The Qur’an itself is perceived as beautiful and true by both sexes without distinction. It is on this level, then, (and only here) that we can meaningfully speak of the equality of the sexes.

The third of Zuckerman’s categories appears to place men at a disadvantage; but in reality this applies only to the secular. In the believer, the virtue described in the Qur’an as taqwa, which is produced from the faith generated in the second category, overcomes this shortfall. The spiritual technologies of Islam allow a compensation for the serotonin lack and a proper disciplining of the darker passions which dwell in the limbic system. The actualised shari‘a is, in a sense, the victory of the frontal cortex, and allows the male to retrieve the balance which is already implicit in the female metabolism. No doubt this is why ‘women are deficient in intellect and religion’. It is not that the Creator has given them innate disadvantages in the quest for understanding and salvation, but rather that He requires men to make more effort to reach their degree of fitra.

The fourth (the quest for novelty, and the dislike of repetitive tasks) privileges women over men in the duties of the home. Insofar as modern office jobs are repetitive and tedious, women are clearly also gifted with more stamina in the workplace as well. Whether the biologists can demonstrate that men should, or are likely to, occupy fifty percent of jobs requiring attention to repetitive tasks, seems unlikely.

A further explanation of the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, ‘women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.’ Girls are ‘more person-oriented’, while boys tend to be more ‘object-oriented.’

A further explanation of the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, ‘women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.’ Girls are ‘more person-oriented’, while boys tend to be more ‘object-oriented.’

These androgens, however, do more than shape the reproductive organs of the unborn child. Between the sixteenth and the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, they also trigger fundamental divergences in the male and female brains. At this point, congenital deficiencies can produce not only forms of hermaphroditism of the kind recognised by classical fiqh, but can also affect the behaviour of the subsequent person. A well-studied example is the problem known as CAH: ‘congenital adrenal hyperplasia’. This results from an abnormal secretion of androgens in an XX foetus, that is, a child that is genetically female. The child suffering from this condition, which in its classical form may affect one in every 20,000 births, is typically born with both male and female reproductive organs; and the male ones are routinely removed by surgery. Although the females appear normal and are fertile they display very distinct behavioural patterns, because of being bathed in male hormones while still unborn. The numerous papers published on this phenomenon conclude that the CAH females may be characterised as ‘tomboys’. They are more aggressive, they like games with rules, and they are ready to take more risks than girls who have been born without this defect.

Mirroring the CAH girls are the boys who suffer from the genetic abnormality of an additional X hormone. These XXY boys are superficially normal males, but their behaviour is typically feminine, lacking competitive and risk-taking impulses, and showing a preference for play with girls in cooperative and non-aggressive games.

CAH and XXY studies are increasingly cited as evidence of the immense influence which hormones exert on gender behaviour. Further proof is now emerging from studies on women who were given hormones to overcome difficulties during pregnancy, an increasingly common practice and one which is thought to be responsible for producing an increasing number of children whose behavioural traits do not tally with their bodily gender features. Female criminals, for instance, frequently suffer from abnormally high testosterone levels, and these are often the consequence of earlier medical interventions.

I want now to move on, and deal with some of the consequences of these discoveries for our understanding, as Muslims, of the society to which we aspire, and whose guidelines are set out in revelation. Clearly, older feminist polemic against Islam on the grounds of its ‘essentialism’, its belief in the inborn nature of male and female traits, will no longer hold water. In the Muslim world itself, the new science, and the new feminism, are not yet known, and secularists, from the Turkish government to Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh, continue to insist that gender differences, and inequalities in the workplace, can be wished away through social engineering and the inculcation of new attitudes. This was the mentality invoked by the Turkish government in preparing its 2001 gender equality legislation.

Living in the West, and being more in touch with contemporary trends in science and social theory, we can easily see how thin such polemic has become. Intelligent thinkers such as Greer are no longer demanding ‘equality’. It is not that they are demanding inequality or injustice instead: far from it. Instead, they are recognising that our awareness of the categoric difference between the sexes makes the whole concept of ‘equality’ rather too simpleminded. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal. We can no more say that men are better than women than we can say that ‘the rain is better than the earth’. To use the old language of ‘equality’ is in fact to be guilty of what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘category mistake’.

Modern Muslim theologians who have assimilated the new insights insist that the demand for ‘equality’ is less helpful than the demand for opportunity and respect. Here there is clearly a congruence between Islamic discourse and the new difference feminism of Greer, Gilligan and a growing number of others.

It remains for us now briefly to sketch some of the ways in which the Shari‘a and science now vindicate each other. Equality is no more envisaged by nature than it is by the law of God; indeed, the law of God, for us, is commensurate with natural law. Since we reject ideas of the radically fallen nature of our kind, we acknowledge nature, that is the fitra, as inherently good. Christianity, wherever it followed Augustine, believed until the eighteenth century that unbaptised infants, and miscarried foetuses, would be tormented forever in hell since their unregenerate nature, stained by original sin, could only lead to damnation. Jansenists and some evangelicals still hold to this disturbing belief.

Islam is non-sacramental; or rather, we acknowledge that the remembrance of our Lord is the only sacrament necessary. And the natural order, as the Qur'an richly documents, is a world of signs which point to its source, and to ours. Hence the fitra of our kind, discernable we may say through consistent patterns maintained in homo sapiens across the globe and the generations, cannot be displeasing to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala.

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions which modernity poses to traditional religion has to do with divine providence amid a world which is now unimaginably more ancient than our ancestors suspected. There is no dating by numbers in the Qur'an or the Hadith, but medieval Muslims typically thought that the world was about five thousand years old. Now, whatever view we may take of Darwin, we must accept that our species is tens of thousands of years old. Recognisably human remains have been recovered, and reliably dated by radiocarbon methods, which show the antiquity of humanity - unless we are, by misunderstanding the logic of piety, to deny scientific evidence entirely. In 1997 the world’s oldest cricket bat was dug up in the county of Essex (of course). It is recognisably a bat, designed for some form of game, and is apparently 40,000 years old. Our theological question would therefore be: if Essex Man, in time out of mind, had the self-awareness and the humanity and the sophistication needed to play cricket, surely he was also a creature accountable to his Maker. In other words, the story of salvation is much, much older than we ever suspected. To claim that humanity had to wait for most of its history before learning about its source and destiny requires an intolerable interrogation of the divine justice.

Now, this antiquity of our species fits in with Islamic salvation history very elegantly. The hadith indicates that there have been 124,000 prophets. The Qur’an says, Wa-li-kulli qawmin had - ‘for every nation there has been a guide’. The existence of cricket matches in Chelmsford thirty-eight thousand years before the hijra is not a problem for us: homo religiosus existed then, just as did homo ludens, and presumably had access to a chapter of revelation which has since disappeared.

For Christianity, of course, the problem is more acute. Medieval theologians struggled with the fact that millions lived before the coming of Christ, and hence died without receiving the sacraments or accepting him as saviour. Complicated theories of post-mortem evangelisation, or of the harrowing of hell, were developed to make this challenge to the divine moral coherence less scandalous. Today, with our awareness of humanity’s antiquity, the theology is harder still: why should a loving God have waited for a million years before sending his Son to redeem humanity?

For us, as I have said, this is a non-problem. For every nation there has been a guide. And, as Surat al-Insan says, ‘Has there ever come upon man a time when he was not something remembered?’ And a necessary concomitant of this acceptance of the dramatic, splendid length of prophetic history, so commensurate with the grandeur of God and the universe, has to be that recurrent and biologically-grounded patterns of human society must be considered as in some sense normal, and hence as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, our conviction, as Muslims, that the human being has been created ‘in the best of forms’, that ‘we have ennobled the children of Adam’, makes any attempt to decry the natural endocrinology of our bodies blasphemous. We are as we have been created, and Allah, blessed is He, is the best of creators.

This is why we say, respectfully ignoring the protests of old-fashioned feminists, that men and women, in a Godfearing society, will tend towards different concerns and spheres of activity. Our aim, after all, is human happiness, not political correctness. Any attempt to impose a crudely egalitarian template on the data of the Qur’an and Sunna, and of the Sira, and the recurrent patterns of Islamic social history, will underestimate them drastically. Walaysa al-dhakaru ka’l-untha, says the Qur’an: the male is not like the female. Egalitarianism is reductionism, and diminishes the bivalence of our kind, whose fertility is apparent in many more ways than the merely reproductive.

We insist, therefore, that our revealed law, confirmed so magnificently in its assumptions by the new science, upholds the dignity and the worth of women more reliably than secularity ever can. A materialistic worldview, which measures human worth in terms of earning power and status and access to sexual plenitude, will inexorably glorify the male. For the male, conditioned by the androgens from the time he was almost invisibly small in the womb, is assertive: his metaphors are projection, conquest, single-mindedness. As the facts of science trickle down into popular culture, and as old-style equality feminism breaks down, the male is going to be magnified as never before in history. Materialistic civilisations will, in the longer term, favour and revere male traits. In the shorter term women may appear to be overtaking the men, because of the energy generated by the congratulations of modernity, and because of the reciprocal atrophy of male identity and self-regard. But in the longer term, unless the logic of Adam Smith’s capitalism is mysteriously terminated, the future belongs to the androgen.

As Muslims, we refuse such a favouritism. Inevitably, given the nature of the fitra, there must be aspects of shari‘a which favour the male in functional, material terms. Ours is a religion of absolute justice. But because we reject any identification of human worth with conspicuous functionality, or power, or status, or consumption, we are able to insist on the worth of women in a way that is not possible outside a religious context. For we have not been created for the idols worshipped in the pages of GQ or Loaded Magazine. The biological advantages of the male, which, unless one day a massive reconstructive surgery and hormonal reprogramming is carried out on every one of us, do not for us denote superiority, as they must for the secular mind when it follows its own arguments through.

The key to understanding this is supplied by our rich theology of the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. And these reveal what the biologists describe as gender dimorphism. That is to say, just as procreation bears fruit through the shaping received from androgens and estrogens, so too creation itself is bathed in androgens and estrogens. The entire cosmos is gendered; in fact, it comes into being, and attains the complexity of manifestation after the experience of undifferentiated unity, through the interaction of the divine Names, where the supreme and governing category is the polarity of Jalal and Jamal. I have attempted some further reflections on this principle of a hormonally-coded cosmos in another place. (www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm))

The gender issue ramifies massively into every other area of religion, and far more could be written. What I have tried to do in this essay is show that an opposition to the Shari‘a is an opposition to science, inasmuch as science is currently affirming an innate distinction between the sexes, a distinction that Allah ta‘ala clearly calls us to celebrate rather than to suppress. The social architecture of Islam is very different to that of the modern secular West: that should be a source of pride to us. We are permitted to speculate, however, that the disastrous social problems now overcoming the West, and westernising classes elsewhere, will combine with the new science to provide a revised definition of gender and social roles which will, in the longer term, convince our critics of the superior wisdom and compassion of the Prophetic social model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender

Abdal Hakim Murad (April 1999)


The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by an animal ferocity. They have no kindness, gentleness or love, since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and sensuality belong to the animals. She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is a creator - you could say that she is not created. - Jalal al-Din Rumi

 The 1969 female eunuch was nothing but womb. The 1997 female eunuch has no womb. - Germaine Greer


Can men any longer write about women? Will our discourse always fallaciously subjectivise the male, as the Lacanian digit to the feminine zero? Andrea Dworkin and many others are insistent here. And yet the theologian must oppose such a closure no less stridently. No-one should claim a monological right to instruct the other sex concerning moral thought and conduct. Moreover, and no less seriously, we must object to that anti-dialogical aspect of the prevailing academic feminism which, supported by biometric footnotes, proposes that men have nothing to say here because truly ‘female thought’ is on every level categorically different from the thought of males. On this view, sexual difference not only creates a predisposition to be interested in certain kinds of issues, but fundamentally affects every way in which we handle concepts. Knowledges are sexualised, we are told; ‘the very way in which we decide what is true and false is a function of sexual difference.'

One reaction against this view is voiced in detail by Jean Curthoys in her new book Feminist Amnesia. She applies a kind of Friedanite fundamentalism, lamenting the recent decline of 60s and 70s radical feminist theory which was grounded in assurances of identity between the sexes rather than mere equality. Conventional academic feminism today, she avers, draws on recent biology to posit a total epistemic discontinuity between male and female, so that all scholarship, and all conclusions about reality, are bifurcated accordingly, excluding all possibility of dialogue across the gender abyss. This aporetic cessation, she insists, is intolerable.

Clearly there is force to her complaint. But equally clearly, both she and her antagonists go too far. Biologists and philosophers now converge on a median position which suggests that men and women do indeed think differently, but not so differently that they can form no judgement on each other’s conclusions. It is not just the practical implications which make this inference inescapable (could we tolerate, for instance, separate encyclopedias for each sex?). More seriously, the claim to aporia is to be rejected as forming part of a recent feminist turn away from rationality itself as an oppressive product and tool of ‘male linearity’. On this view, women’s discourse, sceptical about attempts to deduce any intrinsically true facts about reality, is hence pre-eminently responsive to the project of postmodernism, while men languish amid the rationalising games of late modernity. This thesis of male backwardness is intriguing and has appealed to many; yet remains without persuasive proof. As the Maturidis insist, rationality and morality are observed by the mind, not merely constructed by it. Is this scruple a ‘linear male objectification’? Surely it is just objectification: to claim that women have a categorically more indirect, empathetic, spontaneous approach to reality may be tantamount to affirming that they are less capable of sustained argument based on fact. Such a conclusion is far from universal among feminists, converging as it does with a certain masculine stereotype. Of course, it is almost certainly true, as Professor Carol Gilligan has argued, that ethical responses differ markedly between the sexes. For her, women ‘make moral decisions in a framework of relationships more than in a framework of rights’. Women’s ‘moral processing is contextually oriented’. This is uncontroversial. But value judgements amid the hurly-burly of lived reality are one thing; large generalisations about the nature of the world are quite another. And in the latter field, neither revelation nor reason persuade us that the two styles of argument, the male and female, cannot overlap.

What follows, therefore, is not an androcentric apologia, although a deliberate or even unwilled male discourse is inescapable and is not inherently improper. It claims to be factual, not a self-authenticating view from within a particular ‘gendered’ language-game.

A second preliminary point raises the entire problem of gendered approaches to spirituality. The British religious philosopher John Hick, in a recent moment of feministic reflection, proposed that ‘because of the effects upon them of patriarchal cultures, many women have ‘weak’ egos, suffer from an ingrained inferiority complex, and are tempted to diffusion and triviality.’ He thus suggests that women experience greater difficulties in becoming saints because the spiritual struggle can only be undertaken by a coherent, confident personality. On this view, women must pass through two stages in achieving sainthood, while men require only one.

A little reflection will reveal that this position suffers from two sharp problems. For a start, it deploys an unexamined stereotype of traditional women as shallow and easily distracted; whereas any observation of women’s attendence at, say, salat, or a Turkish mevlud, suggests that women’s devotional behaviour tends to be not palpably less sober, or focussed or directed than that of men. Often it is women rather then men who retain a more serious faith under secularising conditions; although this may flower in the privacy of the home, rather than under public scrutiny in the mosque. Secondly, it implies that spiritual growth is a primarily mechanical, discursive procedure whereby the will overcomes passion, leading to the detachment from the world which is the precondition for sainthood. This begs some fundamental questions about the spiritual life; Hick’s image may hold good for some forms of Christianity and Hinduism, but cannot be applied to many other varieties of religious development, where the conscious, calculating will is deliberately pushed into the background. Specifically, what is characteristically male about love-based mysticism? The insistence that the mind is a prison, and that emotion and spontaneous love of God, triggered by relatively informal practices of the dhikr type, is a commonplace even of ‘male’ spirituality. Here, for instance, is a poem by Rumi:

‘In the screaming gale of Love, the intellect is a gnat.      How can intellects find space to wander there?’

And again:

‘Do not remain a man of intellect among the lovers, especially if you love that sweet-faced Beloved. May the men of intellect stay far from the lovers, may the smell of dung stay far from the east wind!  If a man of intellect should enter, tell him the way is blocked, but if a lover should come,  extend him a hundred welcomes!  By the time intellect has deliberated and reflected, love has flown to the seventh heaven.  By the time intellect has found a camel for the hajj, love has circled the Ka‘ba.  Love has come and covered my mouth. It says: ‘Throw away your poetry, and come to the  stars!''

Perhaps a modern Protestant theologian will have problems with this; but most traditional religions assume that the way to God is through the heart, not the mind. So Hick’s idea that ‘patriarchy’ slams the door to God in the face of traditional women simply because they are (supposedly) less cerebral than men, seems distinctly unpersuasive. He is simply a victim of his own cultural and denominational limitations.

With these preliminary points in mind, let us now move on to the core issue. Modern women writers on religion, such as Rosemary Ruether, insist that all talk of gender in religions has to start in the beginning, with the archetypes. What do images of God tell us about the place of men and women in the world?

In her book Sexism and God-Talk, Ruether objects to ways in which Christian metaphors about God’s maleness are taken literally. For her, the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry ‘must be extended to verbal pictures. When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous.’ She acknowledges that Christian doctrine affirms that all language about God is analogous. Nonetheless the use of male terms for the Ultimate Reality, and the characteristically Christian emphasis on the personhood of God, has regularly resulted in this kind of idolatry. Her solution is to urge the use of inclusive language, so that God is referred to from time to time as the ‘Goddess’, or as ‘She’. Ruether even objects to the idea of God as parent, suggesting, no doubt absurdly, that this encourages what she calls a virtue of spiritual infantilism which makes ‘autonomy and assertion of free will a sin.’

Despite her promethean confidence in her ability to revise tradition, Ruether has been famously outstripped by Mary Daly, a former Catholic theologian who now, like several influential feminists, describes herself as a ‘witch’. Her book Beyond God the Father rejects even the metaphorical possibilities of traditional language. To call God Father, she insists, is to call fathers God. The Trinity is thus revealed as ‘an eternal male homosexual orgy’. As the engendering matrix of the world, God is, in fact, paradigmatically female. And the world itself, as mirror of heaven, ‘bears fruit’, and is hence female also. The male principle is the alien force, the nexus of disruption, aggression, and sin. Daly seems to approach the almost dualistic notion that God is female, while the ‘horned’ devil is male. This gendered Manicheanism may seem a bizarre inversion of Augustine’s androcentrism, but her books are hugely influential, selling in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Not every figuring of the divine is androcentric, of course. Luce Irigaray observes that it is in the West that ‘the gender of God, the guardian of every subject and discourse, is always paternal and masculine’. Even Orthodoxy is more aporetic in its metaphorical gendering of the sacred. The paintings of El Greco, as they reflect his trajectory from the timeless icon-painting of his native Crete, through his studies in Venice under Tintoretto, to the Toledo of the muscular Counter-Reformation, reveal a process of increasing concretisation, with growing attention to perspective, expression, and sharpness of form. His Christ, in his late, ‘Catholic’ paintings, is more human than divine; and hence more humanly and authentically male.

In this respect, perhaps more than in any other way, ours is not a Western tradition.

Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgement on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgement about gender; since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth.

The source of this teaching is unproblematic for believers. Secular historians might see it differently, as confirmation that early Islam was not covenantally-defined. Andromorphic views of the divine were necessary to Judaism, which was communally constituted in opposition to neighbouring goddess-worship, whence the imagery of Israel as ‘God’s bride’. This continued in the Christian church, the ‘New Israel’, the ‘bride of Christ’, as the Church Fathers waged war on the goddess cults of late antiquity, and also, increasingly, on ‘woman’ herself as the paradigm of responsibility for the Fall. But Islam’s community of believers never saw itself as a feminine entity, despite the interesting matronal resonances of the term umma. The Islamic understanding of salvation history did not require that Allah should be constructed as male.

From a theologian’s standpoint it might be said that Islam averts the difficulty identified by Ruether through its emphasis on the divine transcendence (tanzih). The same ‘desertlike’ abstract difference of the Muslim God which draws reproach from Christian commentators also allows a gender-neutral image of the divine. Allah is not neuter or androgynous, but is simply above gender. Even Judaism, which generally has fewer problems in this area than has Christianity, does not go this far. In the Eighteen Benedictions said by pious Jews every morning and evening, we find the words: ‘Cause us to return, O our Father, to thy Law,’ while in Deuteronomy 8.6, we read: ‘As a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.’ 

Such references to God as Father are less common in the Old Testament than the New, but they are still abundant, and are thorns in the path of gender-sensitive liberal theologians.

When we turn to the Qur’an, we find an image of Godhead apophatically stripped of metaphor. God is simply Allah, the God; never Father. The divine is referred to by the masculine pronoun: Allah is He (huwa); but the grammarians and exegetes concur that this is not even allegoric: Arabic has no neuter, and the use of the masculine is normal in Arabic for genderless nouns. No male preponderance is implied, any more than feminity is implied by the grammatically female gender of neuter plurals.

The modern Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf emphasises the point that Muslim theology has consistently made down the ages: God is not gendered, really or metaphorically. The Quran continues Biblical assumptions on many levels, but here there is a striking discontinuity. The imaging of God has been shifted into a new and bipolar register, that of the Ninety-Nine Names.

Muslim women who have reflected on the gender issue have seized, I think with good reason, on this striking point. For instance, one Muslim woman writer, Sartaz Aziz, writes:

I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam because I was able to think of the Highest Power as one completely without sex or race, and thus completely unpatriarchal . . .

We begin with the idea of a deity who is completely above sexual identity, and thus completely outside the value system created by patriarchy. 

This passage is cited by the modern Catholic writer Maura O’Neill, who writes on women’s issues in dialogue, and who rightly concludes: ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’

This does not mean that gender is absent from Muslim metaphysics. The kalam scholars, as good transcendentalists, banished it from the non-physical world. But the mystics, as immanentists, read it into almost everything. We might say that while in Christianity, relationality is in the triune Godhead, and is explicitly male, in Islam, relationality is absent from the Godhead but exuberantly exists in the Names. To use Kant’s terms, the noumenal God is neutral, whereas the phenomenal God is manifested in not one but two genders. The two leading modern scholars of this tradition in Islamic thought are Izutsu and Murata, who have both noted the parallels between Sufism’s dynamic cosmology and the Taoist world view: each sees existence as a dynamic interplay of opposites, which ultimately resolve to the One.

The Sufi metaphysicians were drawing on a longstanding distinction between the Divine Names that were called Names of Majesty (jalal), and the Names of Beauty (jamal). The Names of Majesty included Allah as Powerful (al-Qawi), Overwhelming (al-Jabbar), Judge (al-Hakam); and these were seen as pre-eminently masculine. Names of Beauty included the All-Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Mild (al-Halim), the Loving-kind (al-Wadud), and so on: seen as archetypally feminine. The crux is that neither set could be seen as pre-eminent, for all were equally Names of God. In fact, by far the most conspicuous of the Divine Names in the Qur'an is al-Rahman, the All-Compassionate. And the explictly feminine resonances of this name were remarked upon by the Prophet (s.w.s.) himself, who taught that rahma, loving compassion, is an attribute derived from the word rahim, meaning a womb. (Bukhari, Adab, 13) The cosmic matrix from which differentiated being is fashioned is thus, as in all primordial systems, explicitly feminine; although Allah ‘an sich’ remains outside qualification by gender or by any other property.

Further confirmation for this is supplied in a famous hadith, preserved for us by al-Bukhari, which describes how during the Muslim conquest of Mecca a woman was running about in the hot sun, searching for her child. She found him, and clutched him to her breast, saying, ‘My son, my son!’ The Prophet’s Companions saw this, and wept. The Prophet was delighted to see their rahma, and said, ‘Do you wonder at this woman’s rahma for her child? By Him in Whose hand is my soul, on the Day of Judgement, God shall show more rahma towards His believing servant than this woman has shown to her son.’ (Bukhari, Adab, 18)

And again: ‘On the day that He created the heavens and the earth, God created a hundred rahmas, each of which is as great as the space which lies between heaven and earth. And He sent one rahma down to earth, by which a mother has rahma for her child.’ (Muslim, Tawba, 21)

Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate. Here the Ash‘arite occasionalism which insists on preserving the divine omnipotence by denying secondary causation is shifted into a mystical, matronal register, where the world of emanation is gendered by the sheer fact of its engendering. ‘We have created everything in pairs,’ says the Qur’an.

This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God as Layla - the celestial beloved - the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil - a metaphor for distraction and sin - to be annihilated in his Beloved. 

One thinks here of Christian bridal mysticism, but in reverse. St Teresa of Avila appears to use sensual images to convey her union with Christ. But again, Christ, as God the Son, is male. In Islamic mysticism, the divine beloved is ‘female’.

The kalam hence abolishes gender; spirituality deploys it exuberantly as metaphor, thereby displaying an aspect of the distinction between ‘iman’ and ‘ihsan’. The third component of the ternary laid down by the Hadith of Gabriel, ‘islam’, comprising the outward forms of religion, also recognises and affirms gender as a fundamental quality of existence, and this finds expression in many provisions of Islamic law and the norms of Muslim life.

The pattern of life decreed by Islam, which is the retrieval of the Great Covenant (mithaq), is primordial, and hence biophiliac and affirmative of the hormonal and genetic dimensions of humanity. Body, mind and spirit are aspects of the same created phenomenon, and are all gendered through their interrelation. To the extent that the human creature lives in wholeness, that creature’s spiritual essence is possessed of gender, whence the magnificent celebration of the genius of each sex which is so characteristic of Islam. The Prophet (s.w.s.) himself can only be fully understood in this light: his virility indicates his wholeness and hence his holiness. His archetypal celebration of womanhood, his multiple wives, recalls the virility of Solomon or other Hebrew patriarchs, or even of Krishna. Living life to the full, he embraced and utterly sacralised the divinely-appointed rite of procreation. His khasa’is, the rules which the Lawgiver fashioned for him alone, and which are listed by Suyuti in his al-Khasa’is al-Kubra, generally imposed upon him rigours from which his followers were exempt. The tahajjud prayer was obligatory for him, but only optional for other Muslims. He was entitled to fast for twenty-four hours, or for much longer periods (the so-called Continuous Fast - sawm al-wisal); although ordinary believers were required to fast from dawn to dusk only. His khasa’is are for the most part austerities; and yet among them we find the inclusion of an expansive polygamy. Several of his wives were elderly, it is true (Sawda, Umm Habiba, Maymuna), and their marriages may have been straightforward matters of compassion and political wisdom; but other wives were young. By his triumphant polygamy, the Blessed Prophet was indicating the end of the Christian war against the body, and rhetorically re-affirmed the sacramental value of sexuality that the Hebrew prophets had proclaimed.

Inseparable from this was his valour on the field of battle. His style of spiritual self-naughting linked to heroism has no European equivalent: it was not that of the celibate Templars, or the Knights of Calatrava, but resonates instead with the warrior holiness of Krishna, or the bushido of medieval Japan. The samurai ethic combines meditative stillness, military excellence, and love for women in equal measure; it is a spectacular expression of maleness which is illuminative of this, to many Europeans, most remote and ungraspable dimension of the Sunna.

And this leads us towards a further question. Feminists point out that early Christian celibacy was driven by a horror of the flesh, so that women were, in Tertullian’s words, ‘the devil’s gateway’. This could have no deep purchase in Islamic culture, with the hadith insisting that ‘Marriage is my sunna, and whoever departs from my sunna is not of me;’ a valorization of marriage which implicitly valorized functional womanhood in a way that the Church Fathers, with their preference for virginal perfection, had found problematic. It is true that a celibate advocacy developed among some second and third generation Muslim ascetics also, with Abu Sulayman al-Darani declaring, ‘Whoever marries has inclined towards the world’. However, this kind of sentiment tended to be expressed in the very early ascetical milieu, where the drive for celibacy, as Tor Andrae has shown, was the result of Christian monastic influence, and was later swept away by the tide of normative Sufism. In high medieval Islam the conjunction of holiness and celibacy was unimaginable, and few who aspired to God were unmarried: Ibn Taymiya was the rarest of exceptions.

This evolution of values again parallels the situation in early Christianity. A bitterly-fought scholarly argument debates whether the appearance of the first Christians improved or degraded the status of women, with Peter Brown and many feminists arguing the latter view. Ben Witherington observes that it is the later New Testament material (Luke, Acts) that advocates an improved role for women and a departure from the rabbinical (and hence post-prophetic) norms which shaped the attitudes of the first Christians. However, as Jesus was a Jewish prophet, loyal to revelation, and in particular to its interpretation within a compassionate template, it is reasonable to assume that there existed genuinely pro-female possibilities in the early Jesus community that capsized under the weight of pre-existent Hellenic misogyny which some authors of the Pauline epistles imported from the mystery religions, in the way that Foucault has shown in the second volume of his History of Sexuality

It may be said that an analogous corrosion befell Islamic social history. Critically, however, this happened to a much lesser extent, for a set of reasons which demand careful attention.

Firstly, the above-noted refusal of the scriptures to attribute male gender to the Godhead deprived the tradition of an unarguable gynophobic foundation. The doctrine of the Names as archetypes for all bipolarities in creation ruled out any possibly consequent idea that humanity’s retrieval of theomorphism must entail a shedding of gender in favour of androgyny. On the contrary, the retrieval of theomorphism is the retrieval of gender, fully understood.

Secondly, the very word ‘woman’ had been for many Church Fathers a metonym for concupiscence; and patristic Christianity’s consistent preference for celibacy as a calling higher than marriage had entailed a particular attitude towards women. The model was, of course, Christ himself, as later figured and interpreted by the Church’s imagination. Islam, by stark contrast, maintained a version of the primordial, and also Solomonic, polygamous, heroic model of Semitic prophethood. As Geoffrey Parrinder has shown, sex-positive religions tend also to accord a higher status to the female principle; and Islam from its inception stressed that the presence of women’s bodies and spirits was in no way injurious to the spiritual life. The Prophet (s.w.s.) worshipped in his tiny room for much of the night, and when he was descending into prostration he would nudge aside the legs of his young wife Aisha, to make room. A far cry from the devotions of the Syrian monk, alone in his desert cell.

Also built into the archetypal patterns of Islam is a characteristic amendation to existing purity laws. Feminists have often identified these as a major sign and strengthener of misogyny. They exist in branches of Christianity, as is shown by Russian Orthodox hesitations about the reception of the Eucharist by menstruating women. In Judaism they are very elaborate, so that the menstruating woman is only sexually available for half of every month. Special bathhouses are required for her purification.

This reflects and responds to a very ancient, and very widely-observed taboo. In some primitive societies, women are banished from their husband’s house during this time; the Galla tribes of Ethiopia allocate special huts for menstruating women. Even today, the significant disruption to women’s behavioural patterns is acknowledged in some legislation: modern French law, for instance, even classifies extreme premenstrual tension as a form of temporary insanity.

Islam has preserved the memory of this ancient, and also Semitic hesitation, but in an interestingly attenuated and non-judgemental form. So in sura 2 verse 220 we read: 

They will question you concerning the monthly course: Say, it is a hurt. So go apart from women during the monthly course and do not approach them until they are clean.’ 

What this means is clarified in the sunna. A hadith reports that: 

‘A’isha was sleeping under one coverlet with God’s Messenger, when suddenly she jumped up and left his side. The Messenger said to her, ‘What is the matter? Are you losing blood?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Wrap your waist-wrapper tightly about you, and come back to your sleeping-place.’’ 

There are echoes here of this primordial human unease, but they are very reduced. The naturalism of Islam constantly insists that holiness does not emerge from the suppression of human instincts, but from their affirmation through regulation, so that the natural rhythms of the body and the awe with which we regard them are not to be ignored, but need commemoration in religious ritual. Hence a woman is granted a suspension of formal prayer and fasting for several days in every month. Some feminists see this as a diminution of female spirituality; Muslim female theologians regard it as a reverent acknowledgement; others, such as Ruqaiyyah Maqsood interpret it as a relief from religious duties at a difficult time. The dispensation is easily deconstructed by either suspicious or benign hermeneutics, and resists total interpretation.

What Muslims do stress is that Islam valorises women by making the basic duties of the faith equally incumbent upon both sexes: the suspension for a few days each month is seen as a pragmatic and generous dispensation which does not vitiate this basic principle. The Five Pillars are hence gender-neutral. Similarly, Islam does not establish sacred spaces inaccessible to women. Women can and do enter the Holy Ka‘ba. The Inner Court of the Temple in Jerusalem before its demolition by the Romans was out of bounds to women, who faced the death penalty if they penetrated it. Under Muslim auspices, it was thrown open to both sexes. Hence the Dome of the Rock, the golden structure which still symbolises the Celestial City, and which marks the terrestrial point of the Mi‘raj, is allocated on Fridays exclusively to women, so that men pray in the nearby al-Aqsa mosque hall. Here, as elsewhere, the sexes are segregated during congregational prayers, and the reason given for this is again the pragmatic and unanswerable one that a conmingling of men and women during a form of worship which entails a good deal of physical contact would readily lead to distraction.

Women may penetrate the sacratum; but what of the ambivalent privilege of leadership? Who is the broker of God’s saving word? If in Judaism, women could not approach the Torah, while in Christianity they found themselves excluded from administering the Eucharist, does the new dispensation of Islam restrain them analogously?

Here Islam extends its feminizing of sacred spaces to its own epiphany of the Word which resonates within them. For the Shari‘a, the word made Book is open to female touch and cantillation. Symbolically, the custodianship of the first Qur’anic text was entrusted to the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, not to a man.

Regarding collective celebration of the divine word, it is clear that there can be no Islamic equivalent to the debate over women’s ordination, for the straightforward reason that Islam does not ordain anyone, whether male or female. Our recollection of the primordial Alast and our affirmation of the Great Covenant have already conferred holy orders upon us all. They are valid to the extent of our recollection.

The imam does not mediate; but the spiritual director may do so, by praying for the disciple and offering techniques of dhikr. It is a manifestation of the inescapably anti-feminine harshness of modern pseudosalafite activism that the Sufi shaykh is for such activists a figure not to be revered, but to be abolished. Sufism, and several other forms of Islamic initiatic spirituality, have frequently accommodated women in ways which purely exoteric forms of the religion have not: the Sufi shaykh, who exercises such influence on the formation and guidance of the disciple, and is often a more significant presence for the individual and for society than the person of the mosque imam, may be of either gender. The modern Lebanese saint Fatima al-Yashrutiyya is a conspicuous and deeply moving example; but there are many others. Frequently in those Muslim societies where the mosque has become a primarily male space, the tomb of a prophet or a saint supplies a sacred place for women, responding to their affective spirituality which flourishes, as Irigaray would have it, in the embrace of closed circles rather than in straight lines. The importance of some of the tombs of the Prophets for Palestinian women has often been noted in this regard. Pseudosalafism, with its nervousness about any public visibility for women, seeks to suppress such contexts, with the exception only of the tomb at Madina, which it construes not as paradigm but as exception.

Nonetheless, the issue of a possible female imamate has been raised in several communities in recent years, although the evidence suggests that very few women aspire to this ambivalent position. The imam of a mosque can claim none of the mediating authority of a priest: he does not stand in loco divinis; but is mainly present to mark time, to ensure that the worshippers’ movements are co-ordinated, and to represent the unity of the community. While in some cultures he may have the added function of a pastoral counsellor, this is not a canonical requirement. All four madhhabs of Sunni Islam affirm that the imam must be male if there are males in the congregation. If there are only females, then many classical scholars permit the imamship of females, and this is generally accepted nowadays. But women cannot lead men in prayer. There are in fact no Qur’anic or Hadith texts that explicitly lay this down: it is a product of the medieval consensus. Although those who reject the Four Schools, and attempt to derive the shari‘a directly from the revelation, sometimes repudiate this consensus, only a few, such as Farid Esack, have proposed it seriously. In practice, women activists in the Muslim world appear to have little concern for this, again, because of the absence of inherent prestige and authority in the imamate. One can be a religious leader without being imam of a mosque, the example of prominent theologians such as Bint al-Shati’ in modern Egypt, and a host of medieval predecessors such as Umm Hani, A’isha al-Ba‘uniyya, and Karima al-Marwaziyya, affording sufficient proof of this. 

The discussion so far has moved downwards through districts of metaphysics to touch on issues of shari‘a. Theologically, as we have seen, Islam tends to assert the equality of the male and female principles, while in its practical social structures it establishes a distinction. To understand this paradox is to understand the essence of the Islamic philosophy of gender, which constructs roles from below, not from above.

Women’s functions vary widely in the Muslim world and in Muslim history. In peasant communities, women work out of doors; in the desert, and among urban elites, womanhood is more frequently celebrated in the home. Recurrently, however, the public space is rigorously desexualised, and this is represented by the quasi-monastic garb of men and women, where frequently the colour white is the colour of the male, while black, significantly the sign of interiority, of the Ka‘ba and hence the celestial Layla, denotes femininity. In the private space of the home these signs are cast aside, and the home becomes as colourful as the public space is austere and polarised. Modernity, refusing to recognise gender as sacred sign, and delighting in random erotic signalling, renders the public space ‘domestic’ by colouring it, and makes war on all remnants of gender separation, crudely construed as judgemental.

For Muslims, a significant development in the new feminism is the renewed desire for apartness. Contemplating the crisis of egalitarian social contracts, where the burden of divorce invariably bears most heavily upon women, Daly and many others advocate an almost insurrectionist refusal of contact with the male, and the creation of ‘women’s spaces’ as citadels for the cultivation of a true sisterhood. This cannot be immediately useful to Muslims. Hermeneutics of suspicion directed against either sex are irreligious from the Qur’anic perspective. God, as a sign, ‘has created spouses for you, from your own kind, that you may find peace in them; and He has set between you love and mercy.’ (30:21) Nonetheless, the feminist demand for apartness should not be cast aside; it may even converge significantly with Islam’s provision of it.

In her Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray denounces the technological workplace created by men, which ‘brings about a sexuate levelling at a certain level, [and] neutralizes sexual differences’. To compete, women must assume the ‘tunnel vision’ of the achievement-oriented male, and hence relinquish aspects of their hormonally-coded essence for the sake of a public mercantile space which is biocidal, profiteering, anti-feminine, and now anti-gender. She also observes that ‘the sexual liberations of recent times have not established a new ethics of sexuality’, and that women have been the prime sufferers. But an insurrectionist feminist response ‘often destroys the possibility of constituting a shelter or a territory of one’s own. How are we to construct this female shelter, this territory in difference?’ The question is shared with Islam; but her response is disappointing, and surely futile. Like Levinas, she demands a revolution in love, a ‘fertility in social and cultural difference’ rooted in reconciliation, a new language of gesture, and valorization of the separate nature of femaleness by males.

Given her pessimism about the mutability of the male temper, apparently reinforced by new molecular genetic studies on gender difference, this looks like wishful thinking, and cannot provide more than part of the agenda for an authentic and affirming mutuality. However in her diagnosis we may locate the clue to the more moral and more spiritual solution for which she clearly yearns. ‘Our societies,’ she notes, ‘are built upon men-among-themselves (l’entre-hommes). According to this order, women remain dispersed and exiled atoms.’ But there is a rival cultural economy which cries out to be considered.

Traditionally, the Islamic public space is constructed and subjectivised primarily by ‘l’entre-hommes’, the men in white. The women in black signal a kind of absence even when they are present, by assuming a respected guest status. But Islamic society, rooted in primordial and specifically Shari‘atic kinship patterns, emphatically refuses to reduce them to the status of ‘dispersed and exiled atoms’. There is a parallel space of the entre-femmes, a realm of alternative meaning and fulfilment, where men are the guests, which intersects in formal ways with the entre-hommes but which creates a sociality between women, a space for the appreciation of nos semblables which is largely lacking amid the conditions of modernity or postmodernity, and which is more profoundly human and feminine than the academicised utopia of which Irigaray dreams.

Irigaray commends the new institution of affidamento, current among some Italian feminists, which seeks a withdrawal from the irreducibly male and abrasive public space into nuclei of relaxed female sorority. For her, this is ‘the token of another culture which preserves for us a possible and inhabitable future, a culture whose historical face is as yet unknown to us’. She acknowledges that the power-struggles and generally negative experience of women’s groups suggests that affidamento cells may not be able to merge to create a larger and stable women’s solidarity apart from men. But the random intrusion of women into the public space, and the consequent patterns of conflict, marginalisation, the neglect of children, and spiralling divorce, suggest that some form of localised, informal sorority may provide women with the matrix of identity which a fragmenting modernity denies them.

The Islamic entre-femmes has been explored by several anthropologists. Chantal Lobato, in her studies of Afghan refugee women, angrily rejects Western stereotypes, praising the warmth and sisterly richness of these women’s lives. As she records, such women’s spaces, with systems of meaning, tradition, and narrative constructed largely by women themselves, intersect with the male narrative through institutions such as marriage. We would add that intersection, critically, is not determined by either sex. Irigaray holds that all discourses are gendered; but Islam would say that this is not true: there are in fact three discourses: male, female, and divine. Tawhid, as we have seen, refuses to gender God or God’s word; and the Qur’anic text is hence a neutral document. It is read by men and by women, and hence imported and internalised in gender-specific ways. As such it supplies a barzakh between the two worlds of meaning, equally possessed by each. It is the missing link in Irigaray’s theoretical model which enables an authentic and stable inter-sexual sociality.

What this theology, and the anthropology which is emerging to support it, propose, is that normative Islamic society is concurrently patriarchal and matriarchal. The public space is primarily that of men, who may valorise it over the private; but the latter space is valorised by women, who may regard the public space as morally and spiritually questionable. Hence a feature of Muslim folkways is a kind of reflexive amusement. Men frequently construct a trivialising discourse on women; but women, as any eavesdropper on a Muslim female conversation will know, dismiss men and their concerns with an even more amused disregard. They are right to say, ‘Men, what do they know?’ And the male patriarchal dismissal is, from the male viewpoint, no less correct. Aspects of the hadith discourse which appear to diminish women can be affirmed, and also relativised, by adopting this perspective.

A final aspect of the concurrent patriarchy and matriarchy of Muslim cultures concerns the status of the mother. A weakness of Irigaray’s work is her worrying indifference to the aged; like many feminists, she appears to be concerned only with her semblables. While she accepts the reproductive and nurturing telos of the female body, she signally fails to consider its other natural trajectory, which is towards senescence.

The veneration of aged mothers is a recurrent feature of the Prophetic vision, in which kindness and loyalty to the mother, a rahma to reciprocate the rahma they themselves dispensed, is seen as an almost sacramental act. Ibn Umar narrates that ‘a man came to God’s Messenger (s.w.s.) and said: "I have committed a great sin. Is there anything I can do to repent?" He asked, "Do you have a mother?" The man said that he did not, and he asked again, "Then do you have a maternal aunt?" The man replied that he did, and the Prophet (s.w.s.) told him: "Then be kind and devoted to her".’ (Tirmidhi) Other hadiths are legion: ‘Whoever kisses his mother between the eyes receives a protection from the fire’ (Bayhaqi); ‘Verily God has forbidden disobedience to your mother’ (Bukhari and Muslim).

Anthropologists working in Islamic cultures hence consistently report a dual hierarchy which requires wives to be dutiful to husbands, while husbands must be dutiful to mothers. Modernity loosens both these ties, the former vehemently, and the latter absentmindedly; and the consequence has been a lopsided, frankly ageist new hierarchy which prioritises youth over age, and imposes ruthless forms of discrimination against those who were once considered the community’s pride and the repository of its memory. As medical advances prolong average longevity without substantially eroding the differential which separates male and female mortality, modern societies relegate increasing numbers of women to involuntary eremeticism in regimented but prayerless convents. In 1998 the Chicago Tribune recorded that sixty percent of inhabitants of American old people’s homes never receive a visitor. Given the gender ratio normal in such establishments, the percentage among women must be higher still. Hence the irony that young and middle-aged women in the West have broader horizons than hitherto (excluding, for the moment, the religious horizon), but must all fear a decade of solitary confinement at the end, staring into television screens, recycling memories, and fingering months-old greetings cards from relatives who rarely if ever appear. Even in the most Westernised of Muslim societies, the confinement of the old to what are in effect comfortable concentration camps, is regarded with the disgust that it merits.

Other aspects of Shari‘a discourse also call for elucidation. It cannot be our task here to review the detailed provisions of Islamic law, and to explain, in each individual instance, the Islamic case that gender equality, even where the concept is meaningful, can be undermined rather than established by enforced parity of role and rights. Such a project would require a separate volume of the type attempted recently by Haifa Jawad; and we must content ourselves with surveying a few representative issues.

Perhaps the most immediately conspicuous feature of Muslim communities is the dress code traditional for women. It is often forgotten that the Shari‘a and the Muslim sense of human dignity require a dress code for men as well: in fully traditional Muslim societies, men always cover their hair in public, and wear long flowing garments exposing only the hands and feet. In Muslim law, however, their awra is more loosely defined: men have to cover themselves from the navel to the knees as a minimum. But women, on the basis of a hadith, must cover everything except the face, hands and feet. 

Again, the feminine dress code, known as hijab, forms a largely passive text available for a range of readings. For some Western feminist missionaries to Muslim lands, it is a symbol of patriarchy and of woman’s demure submission. For Muslim women, it proclaims their identity: many very secular women who demonstrated against the Shah in the 1970s wore it for this reason, as an almost aggressive flag of defiance. Franz Fanon reflected on a similar phenomenon among Algerian women protesting against French rule in the 1950s. For still other women, however, such as the Egyptian thinker Safinaz Kazim, the hijab is to be reconstrued as a quasi-feminist statement. A woman who exposes her charms in public is vulnerable to what might be described as ‘visual theft’, so that men unknown to her can enjoy her visually without her consent. By covering herself, she regains her ability to present herself as a physical being only to her family and sorority. This view of hijab, as a kind of moral raincoat particularly useful under the inclement climate of modernity, allows a vision of Islamic woman as liberated, not from tradition and meaning, but from ostentation and from subjection to random visual rape by men. The feminist objection to the patriarchal adornment or denuding of women, namely that it reduces them to the status of vulnerable, passive objects of the male regard, makes no headway against the hijab, responsibly understood.

A further controversy in the Shari‘a’s nurturing of gender roles centres around the institution of plural marriage. This clearly is a primordial institution whose biological rationale is unanswerable: as Dawkins and others have observed, it is in the genetic interest of males to have a maximal number of females; while the reverse is never the case. Stephen Pinker notes somewhat obviously in his book How the Mind Works: ‘The reproductive success of males depends on how many females they mate with, but the reproductive success of females does not depend on how many males they mate with.’

Islam’s naturalism, its insistence on the fitra and our authentic belongingness to the natural order, has ensured the conservation of this creational norm within the moral context of the Shari‘a. Polygamy, in the Islamic case, appears as a recognisably Semitic institution, traceable back to an Old Testament tribal society frequently at war and unequipped with a social security system that might protect and assimilate widows into society. However it is more universal: classical Hinduism permits a man four wives, and there are many Christian voices, not only Mormons, who are today calling for the restoration of polygamy as part of an authentically Biblical lifestyle. (See, for example, http://www.familyman.u-net.com/polygamy.html)

Faced with the failure of normative Western marriage and relationship codes, a growing number of contemporary thinkers are turning to this primordial institution for possible guidance. Phillip Kilbride, professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr, aroused much interest with his recent book Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option. Audrey Chapman has written a more popular study entitled Man-Sharing: Dilemma or Choice, while in 1996, the women’s rights activist Adriana Blake published her Women Can Win the Marriage Lottery: Share Your Man with Another Wife

These studies, from their different perspectives, present three major ethical arguments for polygamy. Firstly, the institution can, as its origins suggest, allow the reintegration into a post-war society of bereaved women, of whom a tragically large number now exist around the globe. Secondly, it can work to the advantage of women: an extended family is created which allows one woman to go to work, while the other cares for the children. The juggling of work and children which is a besetting hazard of modern relationships is thus neatly averted: showing polygamy as a frankly liberative option for women. Its advantages for children, also, have been amply documented by the recent research of Carmon Hardy, who shows the strong degree of family bonding and much lower incidence of crime among offspring of Mormon polygamists at the turn of the present century. Thirdly, polygamy is realistic; and from the Muslim perspective, we would identify this as a principal argument given the Shari‘a’s general realism. Muslims point out that modern Western societies are in practice far more polygamous than Muslim ones, the difference being that in the West the second relationship exists outside any legal framework. The present heir to the British throne, for instance, has been polygamous, and to traditional Muslims nothing seemed more absurd than that Diana needed to be divorced, and a constitutional crisis provoked.

True monotheism, as always, entails realism. Men are biologically designed to desire a plurality of women, and, unless we can carry out some radical genetic engineering work, they will always do so. And when a man has two simultaneously, the law may either deprive one of the two women of legal rights and social status, as in the modern West. Or it can recognise both as legitimate spouses, as in the Shari‘a. Muslims regard as an absurdity the present arrangement in the West where consensual relationships of all kinds are allowed and even militantly defended: homosexual, lesbian, and so on; whereas a consensual ménage a trois is still regarded as immoral. The last hangover of Victorian morality? In fact, a menage a trois is perfectly acceptable in modern Western law, as long as the parties to it live ‘in sin’ and do not attempt to marry. The absurdity of this position requires no comment.

There are other aspects of the Shari’a which deserve mention as illustrations of our theme, not least those which have been largely forgotten by Muslim societies. The intersections between the two gender universes are sometimes designed by the Lawgiver as rights of women, and sometimes as rights of men; and the former category is more frequently omitted from actualised Muslim communities. Frequently the jurists’ exegesis of the texts is plurivocal. Domestic chores, for instance, appear as an aspect of interior sociality, but this is not identified with purely female space, since they are regarded by some madhhabs, including the Shafi‘i, as the responsibility of the man rather than the wife. A’isha was asked, after the Blessed Prophet’s death, what he used to do at home when he was not at prayer; and she replied: ‘He served his family: he used to sweep the floor, and sew clothes.’ (Bukhari, Adhan, 44.) On this basis, Shafi‘i jurists defend the woman’s right not to perform housework. For instance, the fourteenth century Syrian jurist Ibn al-Naqib insists: ‘A woman is not obliged to serve her husband by baking, grinding flour, cooking, washing, or any other kind of service, because the marriage contract entails, for her part, only that she let him enjoy her sexually, and she is not obliged to do other than that.’

In the Hanafi madhhab, by contrast, these acts are regarded as the wife’s obligations. Another sufficient reminder of the difficulty of generalising about Islamic law, which remains a diverse body of rules and approaches. (Another important area, which cannot be detailed here, is the law for custody of children: the Hanafis prefer boys to leave the divorced mother at the age of 7, to live with the father; girls remain with her until the menarch. For the Malikis, the boy stays with the mother until sexual maturity (ihtilam), and the girl until her marriage is consummated.)

Islam’s theology of gender thus contends with a maze, a web of connections which demand familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering facile generalisations about Islam’s attitude to women. Journalists, feminists and cultivated people generally in the West have harboured deeply negative verdicts here. Often these verdicts are arrived at through the observation of actual Muslim societies; and it would be both futile and immoral to suggest that the modern Islamic world is always to be admired for its treatment of women. Women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where they are not even permitted to drive cars, are objectively the victims of an oppression which is not the product of a divinely-willed sheltering of a sex, but of ego, of the nafs of the male. In this way, types of ‘Islamization’ being launched in several countries today by individuals driven by resentment and committed to an anthropomorphised and hence andromorphic God, appear to bear no relation either to traditional fiqh discourse or to the revelatory insistence on justice. This imbalance will continue unless actualised religion learns to reincorporate the dimension of ihsan, which valorises the feminine principle, and also obstructs and ultimately annihilates the ego which underpins gender chauvinism. We need to distinguish, as many Muslim women thinkers are doing, between the expectations of the religion’s ethos (as legible in scripture, classical exegesis, and spirituality), and the actual asymmetric structures of post-classical Muslim societies, which, like Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Chinese cultures, contain much that is in real need of reform.

By now it should have become clear that we are not vaunting the revelation as either a ‘macho’ chauvinism or as a miraculous prefigurement of late twentieth-century feminism. Feminism, in any case, has no orthodoxy, as Fiorenza reminds us; and certain of its forms are repellent to us, and are clearly damaging to women and society, while others may demonstrate striking convergences with the Shari‘a and our gendered cosmologies. We advocate a nuanced understanding which tries to bypass the sexism-versus-feminism dialectic by proposing a theology in which the Divine is truly gender-neutral, but gifts humanity with a legal code and family norms which are rooted in the understanding that, as Irigaray insists, the sexes ‘are not equal but different’, and will naturally gravitate towards divergent roles which affirm rather than suppress their respective genius. 

Biology should be destiny, but a destiny that allows for multiple possibilities. Women’s discourse valorizes the home; but Muslim women have for long periods of Islam’s history left their homes to become scholars. A hundred years ago the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher showed that perhaps fifteen percent of medieval hadith scholars were women, teaching in the mosques and universally admired for their integrity. Colleges such as the Saqlatuniya Madrasa in Cairo were funded and staffed entirely by women. The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher:

‘IfU.S.and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’

Stereotypes come under almost intolerable strain when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities. A’isha, Mother of Believers, who taught hadith in the ur-mosque of Islam, is as always the indispensable paradigm: lively, intelligent, devout, and humbling to all subsequent memory.

But until past ideals are reclaimed, a polarisation in Muslim societies is likely. The Westernised classes will reject traditional idioms simply because those styles are not Western and fail to satisfy the élite’s self-image. The pseudosalafi literalists will continue to reject Sufism’s high regard for women, and its demand for the destruction of the ego. The same constituency will defy legitimate calls for a due ijtihad-based transformation of aspects of Islamic law, not because of any profound moral understanding of that law, but because of a hamfisted exegesis of usul and because those calls are associated with Western influence and demands. Whether the conscientious middle ground, inspired by the genius of tradition, can seize the initiative, and allow an ego-free and generous Muslim definition of the Sunna to shape the agenda in our rapidly polarising societies, remains to be seen. No doubt, the Sufi insight that there is no justice or compassion on earth without an emptying of the self will be the final yardstick among the wise. But it is clear that the Islamic tradition offers the possibility of a truly radical solution, offering not only to itself but to the West the transcendence of a debate which continues to perplex many responsible minds, contemplating an emergent society where the absence of roles presides over an increasingly damaging absence of rules.

What We Should Be Teaching Our ChildrenBy Imam Zaid Shakir

 

When we talk about Islamic education and our children, the discussion usually revolves around strictly academic issues related to technical aspects of curriculum development, testing standards and methodologies, balancing between secular and religious education, and similar concerns. Sometimes we miss the greater objective of an Islamic education. That objective, in terms of what is necessary for the immediate success of our children in this world, and their ultimate success in the next, is nurturing balanced, wholesome, honest human beings who live lives based on principle and who exemplify good character in their dealings with other people.  The basis for the obtainment of this objective is captured in the following prophetic tradition, “Be mindful of God wherever you are, and follow up any misdeed you might do with a good deed that will wipe it out (being weightier in the scale).  And deal with people on the basis of good character.”[1] I will endeavor to expound on some of the relevant lessons from this tradition in the balance of this article. This tradition mentions three very important things that should be fundamental to our educational endeavor.  The first is endeavoring to instill a healthy fear of God in the child.  Part of that endeavor lies in imparting to our children some of the aspects of what Americans refer to as “that old-time religion.” Many aspects of what actually constitutes that old-time religion are sometimes viewed as prudish or unfashionable in today’s society. However, they involve religious themes that have been instrumental in guiding people for millennia. One of the bases of “that old-time religion” is a healthy fear of God.  That fear, which has to be balanced by hope for God’s mercy, revolves around the awareness that God’s punishment is real. Hell and its torments are real. The retribution of those who have behaved wrongfully in the world is real. Sometimes we can become so engrossed with intellectualized discussions of our religion, so steeped in philosophical discourse, that we forget, at the end of the day, the hard realities mentioned above. If as adults we are heedless concerning these things, it is difficult for us to realize their importance for our children, especially during their formative years. Cultivating a healthy fear of God is rooted in mindfulness of Him. Mindfulness is a prerequisite for fear. For this reason, one of the initial goals of the spiritual path is cultivating fear of God.  This is the initial thrust that propels the aspirant through subsequent stages of true human development. As one wise man once mentioned, “The fountainhead of all wisdom is the fear of God.” It is mentioned in the Qur’an, Rather it is His righteous servants who fear God. {Al-Qur’an 35:28]  This fear is one of the keys to Paradise. God says, As for one who fears the station of his Lord, and guards his soul against the things it inclines towards, Paradise will be his refuge. [Al-Qur’an 79:40-41] Hence, the fear of God is something we should endeavor to instill in our children.  One way to do that is to remind them that transgression incurs punishment.  That punishment can occur in ways great and small.  For example, we might tell our children “Don't touch that stove!  You're going to burn your hand.”  Despite this warning they touch it.  We follow up, "See?  You disobeyed me, and you burned your hand."  We can then suggest, “One day, if we disobey God in this world, we're going to burn our entire body.” They might not understand this latter warning, but as they grow, the message will increasingly resonate.  Someone might consider such a warning harsh or inappropriate. However, this is one of the essential messages of the Qur’an.  Namely, disobedience can have painful consequences.  If we do not try to instill that message into our children at a young age, we may inadvertently be depriving them of the conceptual basis to subsequently understand one of the most critical messages of the Qur’an. Of course such messages have to be presented with gentleness and wisdom. Our intention should never be to overwhelm our children. However, we should take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves in everyday life.  While every responsible parent endeavors to keep their children’s hopes and dreams alive, we have to also let them know that there is something to aspire towards beyond this world. Just as our life in a real sense, did not begin with our physical emergence from our mother’s womb, it does not stop with our entrance into the grave.  When we journey to the next life, we will suffer or enjoy the negative or positive consequences of the actions we did in this world.  By using situations we find everyday, we can emphasize, according to our experience and our children's cognitive abilities, this message. The second point emphasized by the tradition we are discussing is encouraging a spirit of repentance in our children.  As we mentioned, sins and transgression involve consequences.  With sincere repentance those consequences can be eradicated. Emphasizing this point and further emphasizing other manifestations of God’s mercy provide a balance that mitigates the harshness that might accrue by focusing on the reality of divine retribution and punishment. God is most willing to accept repentance. He is most merciful. Again, we can take advantage of situations occurring in our everyday lives to cultivate a repentant spirit in our children. If they tell a lie, we can mention how inappropriate and harmful lies are. We can then add, “You are going to have to ask God to forgive you.” Not only do situations such as this introduce the child to the idea of repentance, they also encourage them to get in the habit of communicating with God. One of the things missing from many of our Muslim homes is active communion with God.  Many of us who have converted to Islam from Christianity remember how we were in the habit of saying our nightly prayers. Such devotional acts provided sweetness to our faith. Although we may have found a superior creed when we adopted Islam, in some cases we find that the sweetness to be found in intimate discourses with God gradually leaves our lives. Prayerful repentance is one way we can begin to recapture that sweetness, and to encourage it in our children’s lives. Another advantage to be found in using everyday situations to convey meaningful lessons to our children is that they allow us opportunities for informal lessons. We can teach without stopping everything to sit down for a formal “lesson.” If we tell our children when they tell a lie, for example, “We are going to sit down and have a little lesson on repentance. First of all, you have to immediately stop your sins. Secondly, you have to vow to never repeat the sinful act.  Thirdly, you have to express remorse for having committed the sin.  And fourthly, if the sin is associated with the right of another human being, you have to restore that right.”  Children generally dislike being lectured to, and the lesson probably will not be too effective. It would probably be more effective to emphasize, informally, how bad lying is, the need to ask God’s forgiveness, and conveying a firm threat to wash out the child’s mouth with soap if they tell another lie. Of course, such threats have to be credible. They might not involve soap, but they should involve something that will be remembered by the child, without being harmful.  What is important is conveying the gravity and seriousness of lying or other negative speech or behavior. Repentance is a desirable at both the individual and at the communal level. God says in the Qur’an, So turn in repentance altogether, you believers, in order that you be successful. [Al-Qur’an 24:31] Hence, this particular point is relevant for all of us, not just the children. Repentance is very important and has to be constantly encouraged in order to become a natural action for a developing child. In addition to reminding our children to repent and asking God’s forgiveness when they slip, we should also encourage them to ask His forgiveness when they say their nightly prayers. This brings up another very important point. We should try to get our children in the habit of saying nightly prayers.  As they become older, they can be taught the prophetic supplications and invocations to be said at night and before retiring. However, at younger ages cultivating a free and open communion with God is a very powerful practice. Sleep itself is our lesser death. Our children reminding themselves that God alone can bring them safely through the night; that He alone restores their consciousness after sleep; that He alone has the power to take our soul whenever He chooses, are all messages that cultivate a healthy god-consciousness. Another very important part of our children’s Islamic upbringing, something we generally neglect as a community, involves their participation in “fun” activities that involve a cross section of the community. One such activity is hiking. Hikes are accommodating to the young and old. Hence, children and adults can get involved together. Furthermore, while outdoor activities such as hiking are not religious activities per say, something appreciated by the older children who may be struggling with their Islamic identity, they provide great settings to involve the children in group devotional activities such prayer, Qur’an reading, Dhikr, or testimonials.[2] Such activities also provide a setting where children can interact with community elders in an informal, nonreligious setting. Many children may not appreciate the fact that the local Imam has studied Islam for twenty years and is a master of Arabic rhetoric. However, when they see that the elderly gentleman can climb a hill much faster than they can, or jump over a stream unscathed while their boots are filled with water, they have an accessible basis for respecting the Imam. This opens up doors for a deeper personal relationship that will facilitate their subsequent willingness to benefit from his religious knowledge and experience. Such activities are very positive because they also allow children to see that they have an Islamic identity group that is larger than their individual and possibly isolated family. They are with fifty Muslims trekking through the woods, calling cadences, singing songs, telling stories, stopping in a meadow for a football or soccer game, and the food is pretty good also. Such activities can leave an indelible positive mark on a child’s life. The third point raised by this prophetic tradition is to treat people with good character.  We should constantly emphasize this.  Our Prophet, peace upon him, has said, “I have only been sent to perfect good character.” Muslims have historically been people known for their upstanding character. One of the greatest threats to Islamic character and manners is our contemporary youth culture, and one of the most destructive means conveying that culture is television.  One of the greatest things we can do for our children in terms of trying to instill good character in them is to get them away from the television.  To be effective, we have to also endeavor to keep them away from children who watch television. This may seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, when they are younger and their universe is smaller and more controllable, this may not be as challenging as it appears. However, it is a communal task that requires a tremendous commitment on the part of many families.  Parents should encourage one another to form television-free communities. Islamic schools should consider an enrollment policy that requires homes to be television free for children to be admitted. This is very important, for if your child is going to an Islamic school and does not watch television, while his or her classmates are constantly reminding him or her what Brittney Spears is up to, or how great the Rolling Stones were during halftime at the Super Bowl, much of what you are trying to accomplish will be readily and easily undermined. Saying this, I am not advocating an absolute ban on viewing motion pictures. Families can promise their children a weekly movie if they do well in school. They can gather their children to watch documentaries, nature shows, and other commercial-free fare that is controlled by the adults. Having some televised entertainment and education help to prevent the deep longing for the medium that can develop in children that are totally cut off from it. The main thing to avoid is commercialized network television. The overt and subliminal messages involving everything from the glorification of criminality, to the belittling disrespect of elders, crass sexual exploitation, blatant inducements to become involved in a destructive consumer culture, and the irreverent denigration of religious themes, make viewing commercial television arguably questionable from a religious perspective. Many programs clearly have hidden agendas involving normalizing practices that Muslims hold forbidden, such as witchcraft or homosexuality. I would argue that any parent who allows their children to watch network television is derelict in their parental duties.  As we mention above, we can provide alternatives to network television.  We can gather our children for a weekly movie with their friends, complete with the popcorn.  We can select wholesome films whose content we have previewed. Hence, we are not talking about draconian measures that leave the concerned parent with no viable options for their children. One of the most destructive effects of television is that it reinforces the false idea that between childhood and adulthood there is an increasingly longer adolescent phase, during which what are functionally adults are permitted to continue to act like children. When we travel to visit the Muslim world, we are amazed to see that in the villages and other areas not deeply affected by modernity, there is no adolescent phase. Older children are working the fields, selling in the marketplace, and taking care of younger siblings just like little adults. The silliness, giddiness, and irresponsibility we see even amongst many college students here in the West is totally absent. That used to be the case here in America. Marriages between thirteen and fourteen year olds were once common. Thomas Edison was a self-made millionaire before he was fifteen years old. George Washington was an accomplished social and political thinker at the age of fifteen. Grammar schools equipped children with the tools to engage in the formation of mature thoughts before completing grade six. Now many university graduates have absolutely no exposure to logic, nor any of the other basics of a classical education. We should also understand that America became great on the basis of significant and tangible characteristics and principles. If the generality of people in this country abandon those characteristics, as a community, we should try to retain them.  These include a sound work ethic, willingness to sacrifice, hard work, thriftiness, respect for authority, courtesy, etiquettes, sound manners, empathy for the weak, and many other traits. Not only are these principles being undermined by many aspects of popular youth culture, in many instances the exact opposite values are being encouraged.  We have to constantly encourage good character and manners in our children. “Did you say please?”  “You didn’t say thank you.” “You should have held the door for the lady coming into the store after you.”  Such urgings have to be constantly repeated until the desired traits become ingrained in our children. Repetition in many situations is a great pedagogical tool. It goes without saying that constantly repeated instructions also have to be diligently reinforced by adult example. Again, is important to emphasize that this type of training should be carried out in a pleasant manner.  We should try to avoid raising our voices and nagging. We should convey messages such as those mentioned above in a subtle, gentle way that almost sneaks up on our children. However, we should not avoid being firm in situations that demand firmness. God-willing we will be able to raise a generation that acts on the basis of good character. The three points emphasized by this prophetic tradition should clearly be goals in our child rearing and education programs.  A fourth thing that is also extremely important is to teach our children the love of the Prophet, peace upon him. We should start by taking the time to remind them who the Prophet, peace upon him, was, and what he looked like.  We should inform them what his height was, how he kept his hair, what color his hair was, what his build was, what color of his eyes was, how his complexion was, etc.  By educating them about his physical characteristics, he becomes more than an abstraction.  We must endeavor to make him real for them. Many of our Muslim children can tell you how tall LeBron James is, how much he weighs, what color his eyes are, where he went to high school, and how much his sneakers contract is worth. But they cannot mention a single attribute of their Prophet, peace upon him. This is an unacceptable situation we should strive to remedy.  Perhaps we could develop cards about the Prophet and the companions, just as we have baseball, and basketball cards featuring sports figures.  Valuable information about our important personages could be conveyed in this way. Who was the tallest companion?  Who lived the longest among them? They could trade these cards among themselves. Again, this would be an informal way of conveying information that we usually limit to formal settings. Familiarization is a key ingredient in the cultivation of love. It is difficult to love someone you do not know.  We should also praise our children when they display prophetic character. That praise should be directly linked to the Prophet, peace upon him. For example, “The prophet will love what you did for that cat because he taught us to be kind and merciful to all creatures.” Perhaps your child will come one day and relate an incident like he following: “The kids found a bird at school today, it could not fly. Everyone was throwing rocks at it, but I didn’t throw any rocks.  I tried to stop them.” We should enthusiastically respond, “That was so great!  God and His Prophet, peace upon him, will really love you for that. God will show you mercy one day for your mercy to that bird.” Now they not only feel good because they did something pleasing to you, they feel good because they did something pleasing to God and His Prophet, peace upon him. Once again, these are practical lessons that occur in the context of our everyday life, and not formal lessons, abstracted from any meaningful context. If we merely related to them in a classroom, the Prophet, peace upon him, did this, or said that, we deny them any agency in their education. The former, more informal approach emphasizing that they themselves did this or that in a manner consistent with prophetic teaching, allows them to take agency in their religious life. This is empowering for them and can go a long way towards fostering a healthy Islamic identity. Another bit of beneficial advice, culled from the prophetic teachings, is avoiding feeding our children the very best of food all the time. This teaching is a reflection of the fact that the way of the Prophets, peace upon them, is moderation. For example, we should avoid constantly giving them ice cream, pizzas, and other types of food they find particularly enjoyable.  We should try to give them ordinary food as much as possible. Then, when we do periodically give them something they really like, it is so much more enjoyable for them. This is one way to get them to appreciate the blessings of God.  If we constantly give them the best of food and constantly give them the food they like, they’ll take the blessings of God for granted.  That is something that can make their hearts become hard or cold.  Similarly, we should not give our kids the best of clothes even if we can afford to do so. Doing so could also lead to them taking the blessings of God for granted, and it might cause them to arrogate themselves over poorer children.  Dressing them in the very best and finest of clothes might also make poorer children jealous of them and then make fun of them to attempt to belittle them because they see them as being better than themselves. On the other hand, one should try to avoid dressing them shabbily as that might lower their self-esteem.  We should try to maintain the balance that is characteristic of our religion.  This balance will help them avoid developing arrogant, condescending, or insecure personalities.  We should get them accustomed to manual work.  I recently asked a group of Muslims if anyone of them had ever changed a flat tire. No one in the entire assembly answered affirmatively. These are the sort of things every child should learn how to do. At Islamic schools we can have local mechanics come in to give short courses on the basics of automobile maintenance. When our male children reach their teenage years we can arrange for apprenticeships for them at a local Muslim mechanics shop during summer vacations. We can make arrangements to pay for the child’s “salary” ourselves. Gardening is a great activity for both boys and the girls. Our children should learn to get their hands dirty.  We might also consider sending our high school and college age youth to work in Muslim refugee camps. This is a great way to help develop a healthy social consciousness in them. It also gets them close to the earth. Children who have visited such areas generally become a lot more appreciative of the blessings they enjoy here. Our Prophet, peace upon him, knew the value of work. He was a shepherd; and he guided caravans across the desert. These activities were integral in shaping his character.  We should start training our children in the martial arts at an early age. If they grow up practicing a particular art it will become easy and natural for them. If a child started a particular martial art at six or seven years old, when he or she is twenty-one, they would have studied that art for fifteen years and would be an absolute master. Studying the martial arts is not to enable them to bully other children. It is a means for them to have healthy self-esteem.  That makes it easier for them to be Muslim in a sometimes hostile environment. If they know they can defend themselves, it makes it easier to deal with the pressure and potential intimidation that comes from being different. That is something that is very important for our children. A person who is confident in himself would never start a fight.  The best martial artist is the one you would never suspect, not the one beating on his chest, flexing his muscles and elbowing people. This is something that is very important in the healthy development of our boys and girls. In conclusion, we should try to make the space for the children to be children, to enjoy their childhood years. However, we must let them know that these years are preparation for adult life, and that adulthood is very serious. That coming seriousness though should not be used as a justification to overwhelm them. Moderation provides a golden means. Respecting that means helps us to avoid the extreme of an overindulgent childhood followed by a period of perpetual adolescence, just as it helps us to avoid stultifying, rigid, overbearing child rearing practices that can effectively rob our children of a rich childhood .  Hopefully we can remain balanced, giving our young generation the space to be children, but letting them know that they’re preparing for a serious life.

[1] Imam Abu ‘Isa Muhammad bin ‘Isa at-Tirmidhi, Jami’ at-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar As-Salaam, 1999/1420), p. 460, no. 1987.

[2] Testifying is another activity the many converts from Christianity are familiar with. Believers, in a public setting, testify to the affect the Gospel has had on their lives. This is a great group activity that Muslims should encourage. Stories of how a person converted to Islam, why another began serious about the religion after a life of sin or other personal narratives can have a tremendous impact on Muslim children, especially those who may be struggling trying to live a righteous life.

 

The Fall of the Family

The Fall of the Family (Part I)

 Abdal-Hakim Murad


Abdal Wadod Shalabi has remarked that a society only becomes truly decadent when "decadence" as a principle is never referred to in public debate. Prior generations of Muslims and Christians were forever fretting about their own unworthiness when measured against past golden ages of goodness and sanctity. But in our self-satisfied era, to invoke the idea of decadence is to invite accusations of a retrograde romanticism: it is itself perceived, perversely enough, as decadence. 

Muslims looking at the West with a critical but compassionate eye are often disturbed by this absence of old-fashioned self-scrutiny. We note that no longer does the dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus. In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the future that is to serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly outrageous ("blasphemous") discourse remains possible in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberalism supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which is often in reality manufactured by the small, often personally immoral but nonetheless ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes. 

The debate over the status of the family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between the bloated but "decadent" North and the progressively impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity being massaged by an endless, earnest-humane diet of documentaries about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World, and the wicked reluctance of its peoples to conform to the social doctrines of the liberal democracies. To the average Westerner this one-way polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions of superiority which allay his nervousness about problems in his own society. It shapes the public opinion that goes on to acquiesce in the liquidation of Palestinians, Bosnians or Chechens with only the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt. In fact, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social doctrines of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies of the closing years of the century, as polemicists use orthodox feminism and homosexualism as the perfect sticks with which to beat the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce; now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the underlying attitude of contempt has remained essentially unchanged. 

Muslims living in the West are perched in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic theologians have written on the "westernisation process" in the Muslim world and its nefarious effects on family life, the reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being championed by obsolete secular elites whose cultural formation was the achievement of the old imperial powers. The family lifestyle of the average secular Syrian or Turk is not that of a modern European, despite his outraged claims to the contrary. His clothes, furnishings, marriage rituals, and most details of life are more redolent of the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence. And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands of the "liberated" West. 

As we attempt to theorise about our own condition, we are at once confronted by the irony that the country to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-nurturing Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the "guest-workers" and their "hosts" were in most respects reassuringly and productively similar. 

That overlap has now almost gone. Even the Churches no longer claim to be the coherent and convincing voices of absolute moral truths, as an increasingly spongelike rock of ages finds itself scoured and reshaped by the libertarian sandstorm. Cardinal Hume, the usually clear-headed spokesman of Britain's Catholics, has recently made conciliatory remarks about homophilia; while an Anglican bishop, resplendent in tight jeans and leather jacket, has openly announced his relationship with another man. So far from representing family values to their flock, 200 out of 900 London priests are said to subscribe to homosexual tendencies. The number of Christian and Jewish organisations and individuals eloquently singing the virtues of Sodom seems set to rise and rise, cheered on by the secularists, until the remaining voices of tradition are finally shouted down. 

All this means that the Muslim community, already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, is now having to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form of alienation. As newcomers who are the sole defenders of values which would be recognised as legitimate by earlier generations of Britons, we are in a disorienting position. The temptation to panic, to retreat into factions and cults which excoriate the wider world as impure and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making headway on the campuses. But such a sterile and facile temptation should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship with the "host community". 

But a strategy for the articulation of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist "metanarrative" whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status as a definer of cultural identity. Such has been the emergent error of the twentieth-century's rival essentialisms, particularly nationalism and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to, or even replaced by, the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity. The narrative of Muslim civilisation, inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists until the 1970s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative of "the Salaf", on the problematic claim that the Salaf followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion and concern rather than a chronic obsession with purity. 

What this means is that unless Muslims in Britain can counteract the impoverishing and exclusivist "ideologising" of Islam that has taken place in some Muslim countries, and return to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug, "But who cares what the unbelievers think". For Muslims are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed, if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of real assistance. 

The time for such an advocacy is now. In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock; a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce; within twenty years fewer than half of the nation's children will be brought up by their own two parents; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age. Sheppard and Sacks lament together that in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked by that most basic of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we all shout for our rights and chafe under our duties. The lesson is irritating but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis of Adam Smith's advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties as to endanger the whole undertaking. Greed creates rich men and happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price. Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra policing, prisons, social workers and a growing blizzard of DHSS cheques. The socialist revolution has already failed; it seems that capitalism too may ultimately choke on its own contradictions. 

So far, so good. It is unarguable, and not just to religious people, that greed has been a culprit. And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution. If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that simple appeals to "be good" rarely have much impact, and must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform. Neither the bishop nor the rabbi seem to have much to offer that is practical and concrete; which is perhaps why they have been tolerated and even platformed by politicians and the liberal media. But as Muslims, possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary whose status as "a mercy to the nations" was manifested in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the present plight of society will never be reformed through homiletics. Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they can be painful. 

Hardly less obvious than the causes of family decline are the reasons why establishment ideologues refuse to recognise them. The politicians are the most flagrant instance: last week's sorry resignation by Social Charter minister Robert Hughes in order to "repair his marriage" after an illicit fling is simply the latest in a string of by now frankly boring incidents which show the political establishment (and not even the moralising Mr Ashdown, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been immune) as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need. There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting moment, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned up indeed may prove his undoing. The number of MPs who have secretaries as second wives is second only to the number with surreptitious concubines. Only aberrant idiocy - or complaisance - can ignore the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation for both. 

But politics is merely the most notorious example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, "fire dwelleth with cotton". As the current anguished debate over sexual harrassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician or social strategist must see it. 

In Tom Wolfe's popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city "drowning in concupiscence" and he is its child. It is not simply the routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of duty-free sex. Wolfe's adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings cannot behave responsibly. 

New York is not yet London - but the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of the public space has become part of our culture. Middle-aged men with middle-aged wives once had little to tempt them, short of an unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either stupid, or belong to that category of powerfully moral human beings which always has been and always will be a minority. 

A radical diagnosis, although obvious enough: but is there a cure? Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour a crime unimaginable in the West: khalwa, or "illegitimate seclusion". Moral disasters always have preludes; Islam seeks to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. Thus our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation of the Clackmannan headmaster who last month introduced the rule that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from each other, because 'spring is in the air." But schools are the merest starting-point. The workplace, too, while not obstructing female advancement, should ensure that the rights of spouses are protected by denying all possibility of illegitimate seclusion in the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons. Pornography and sub-pornographic advertising should be carefully censored as intolerably demeaning and as an incitement to marital infidelity, the task of censorship being entrusted to those feminists who so rightly object to such portrayals of their sex. 

The tragedy for Britain is, of course, that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work, the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern relationships will continue to encourage and live in the public environment which is at the root of the problem. But Islam by its very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened. The process of family collapse is proving so radical in its economic and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own. 

 

The Fall of the Family (Part II)

© Abdal-Hakim Murad


The secular mind may be too witless to notice, but to religious people the New Social Doctrines are fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The twentieth century's great liberationisms often feel like powerful sublimations of the religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly ties and the straitjacket of the self becomes strangely transmuted into a great convulsion against restrictions on personal freedom. 

In this sense, the politically-correct West is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and theologians, its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression of blasphemy. 

Some have mused that all this is necessary, and that human beings need certainties and causes, and that without an orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that the new doctrines, which are now enshrined in legislation, school curricula and broadcasting guidelines, do not make up either an authentic new religion, or even a sustainable substitute for one. For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Eskimo, holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West's new religion, in absolute contrast, teaches that it comes about through the enjoyment of rights. 

Given the extremism of this inversion, it is not surprising that the societies which it affects should be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O"Brien, the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is certainly a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies have worsened our social ills rather than bringing us into a shining and liberated utopia - but this is what has happened. And yet the pseudo-religion is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided over such destruction may not be subject to criticism in polite society. Muslims are perhaps the only people left who do not care for such politeness. 

One of the most characteristic liberationisms of this century has been feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies, some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into unimaginable territories of witchcraft and lesbianism, this is a movement about which few generalisations can be made. But perhaps a good place to start is the observation that women were the major though unintended victims of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional Christian cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering was caused to those for whom the social supports were cut away, and who found themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice. It moved Western society away from Christian tradition, and towards the Islamic norm in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage, retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right to initiate legal proceedings. 

What Muslims are less happy about is the new feminism of the past three decades, the militantly ideologised world-view of Friedan, Greer and Daly. These thinkers initiated a new phase by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society, but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity. "Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women will continue to be subjugated", wrote Simone de Beauvoir; and similar noises could be heard from the new feminists everywhere. In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with feminity and maleness with manhood was biologically and morally meaningless, and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional edifice of "patriarchy". 

At this point, people of Muslim faith have to jump ship. The Quran and our entire theological tradition are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are part of the inherent polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in pairs, we believe; and it is this magnetic relationship between alternate principles which brings movement and value into the world. Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the 1,001 Things into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle, not simple biology - but metaphysics. 

Allah has ninety-nine names. Some are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Loving-Kind. The former category are broadly associated with male virtues, and the latter with female ones. But as all are God's perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither set is superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian notion that God is male (the "Father"), an assumption that has been invoked to justify traditional Western notions of the objective superiority of the male principle. 

Islam's position is thus a nuanced one. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles in society "here-below". The divine names have distinct vocations; and human gender differentiation was created for more than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God's khalifas on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine perfection their "ministries" differ in key respects. 

Islam's awareness that when human nature (fitra) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women will incline to different spheres of activity is of course one which provokes howls of protest from liberals: for them it is a classic case of blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian terms which are the liberals" reference, the case for absolute identity of vocation is highly problematic. However heavily society may brainwash women into seeking absolute parity, it cannot ignore the reality that they have babies, and have a tendency to enjoy looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers while their children are small increasingly have to put up with accusations of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring up children better than childminders, that breastmilk is better than formula milk, and even - this as the ultimate heresy - that bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or driving buses. 

There are already signs that women are rebelling against the feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute parity of function with men, and that "dropping out" to look after a child is less outrageous in the minds of many educated women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands shows little sign of success; and many houses have become more like dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, tin-opening affairs; both parents are too exhausted to spend "quality time" with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home, they feel they are not leaving very much. 

In such a dismal context, dissolution is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater than many normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some) pleasure at work are poor compensations for the increased scope for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman's gift for warming a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing lone parent, she finds that society has little interest in her. She has joined the new class of "wives of the state". 

The state, luckily, can afford to be a polygamist. The social unravelment of modern Britain has coincided with a massive augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there is little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally millions of single families is a harsh one. The case for traditional single-income families, in which women are permitted to celebrate rather than suppress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking more moral than the liberals have guessed. 

But the feminists are not the only moths to have been gnawing the social fabric. There are others, some of them even more radical. The most strident are the homosexualists, the curious but always repulsive ideologues who are forcing on the population a dogma whose consequences for the family are already proving lethal. 

As with feminism, the theological case against homosexuality is related to our understanding of the "dyadic" nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same sex is therefore the most extreme of all possible violations of the natural order. Its biological sterility is the sign of its metaphysical failure to honour the basic duality which God has used as the warp and woof of the world. 

It is true, nonetheless, that the homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It appears as the definitive argument against Darwinism's hypothesis of the systematic elimination over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings with the Arabian bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication of the practice. In other societies, particularly modern urban cultures, it is very widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be so: some researchers speculate that in overpopulated communities the tendency represents Nature's own technique of population control. Laboratory rats, we are told, will remain resolutely heterosexual until disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, and extreme overcrowding. Other scientists have speculated about the effects of "hormone pollution" from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this remains without proof. 

But what is increasingly suggested by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always acquired, and that some individuals are born with them as an identifiable irregularity in the chromosomes. The implications of this for moral theology are clear: given the Quran's insistence that human beings are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired, homosexuality as an innate disposition cannot be a sin. 

It does not follow from this, of course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable. Similar research has indicated that many human tendencies, including forms of criminal behaviour, are also on occasion traceable to genetic disorders; and yet nobody would conclude that the behaviour was therefore legitimate. Instead, we are learning that just as God has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests some of us by implanting moral tendencies which we must struggle to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. A mental patient with an obsessive desire to set fire to houses has been given a particular hurdle to overcome. A man or woman with strong homosexual urges faces the same challenge. 

To the religious believer, it is unarguable that homosexual acts are a metaphysical as well as a moral crime. Heterosexuality, with its association with conception, is the astonishing union which leads to new life, to children, grandchildren, and an endless progeny: it is a door to infinity. Sodomy, by absolute contrast, leads nowhere. As always, the most extreme vice comes about when a virtue is inverted. 

None of this is of interest to the secular mind, of course, which detects no meaning in existence and hence cannot imagine why maximum pleasure and gratification should not be the goal of human life. The notion that we are here on earth in order to purify our souls and experience the incomparable bliss of the divine presence is utterly alien to most of our compatriots. And yet there is a purely secular argument against homophilia which we can attempt to deploy. 

Homosexualism represents a radical challenge to the institution of marriage. Its propagandists will not concede the fact, but it attacks the most vital norm of our species, which is the union of male and female for which we are manifestly designed and which is the natural context for the raising of children. In times such as ours, when nature is no longer regarded as authoritative, and lifestyles are in all other respects an abnormal departure from the way in which human beings have lived for countless millennia, society cannot afford to believe that male-female unions are of only relative worth. The more the alternatives proliferate, the less the norm will be seen as sacred. Every victory for the homosexualist lobby is thus a blow struck against that normality without which society cannot survive. 

It is in the context of the struggle to protect the family that the campaign against homosexualism becomes most universally accessible. The screaming fanatics who "out" bishops and demand a lowering of the "gay" age of consent are among the most bitter enemies of the fitra, that primordial norm which, for all the diversity of the human race, has consistently expressed itself in marriage as the natural context for the nurturing of the new generation. That which is against the fitra is by definition destructive: it is against humanity and against God. This awareness needs to be reflected in legislation, which for too long has sought to relativise the family as merely one of a range of lifestyle options. Muslims sometimes hold that the collapse of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity. Decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for morally-strong Islam to regain its place as the world's dominant civilisation. The trouble with this theory is that the implosion shows no sign of leading to total collapse. Technology and wealth allow the creation of surveillance and social-security systems which can deal with the growing number of casualties. There is certainly an irony in a New World Order policed by a state which cannot keep order in Central Park after nightfall. But unless we are foolishly optimistic, or hope for absolute totalitarianism, we cannot but be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the Western family is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and we must offer our views until the time comes when our friends and neighbours, their doctrines Boys will be Boys

What We Should Be Teaching Our Children

 What We Should Be Teaching Our Children

Imam Zaid Shakir

 

When we talk about Islamic education and our children, the discussion usually revolves around strictly academic issues related to technical aspects of curriculum development, testing standards and methodologies, balancing between secular and religious education, and similar concerns. Sometimes we miss the greater objective of an Islamic education. That objective, in terms of what is necessary for the immediate success of our children in this world, and their ultimate success in the next, is nurturing balanced, wholesome, honest human beings who live lives based on principle and who exemplify good character in their dealings with other people.  The basis for the obtainment of this objective is captured in the following prophetic tradition, “Be mindful of God wherever you are, and follow up any misdeed you might do with a good deed that will wipe it out (being weightier in the scale).  And deal with people on the basis of good character.”[1] I will endeavor to expound on some of the relevant lessons from this tradition in the balance of this article. This tradition mentions three very important things that should be fundamental to our educational endeavor.  The first is endeavoring to instill a healthy fear of God in the child.  Part of that endeavor lies in imparting to our children some of the aspects of what Americans refer to as “that old-time religion.” Many aspects of what actually constitutes that old-time religion are sometimes viewed as prudish or unfashionable in today’s society. However, they involve religious themes that have been instrumental in guiding people for millennia. One of the bases of “that old-time religion” is a healthy fear of God.  That fear, which has to be balanced by hope for God’s mercy, revolves around the awareness that God’s punishment is real. Hell and its torments are real. The retribution of those who have behaved wrongfully in the world is real. Sometimes we can become so engrossed with intellectualized discussions of our religion, so steeped in philosophical discourse, that we forget, at the end of the day, the hard realities mentioned above. If as adults we are heedless concerning these things, it is difficult for us to realize their importance for our children, especially during their formative years. Cultivating a healthy fear of God is rooted in mindfulness of Him. Mindfulness is a prerequisite for fear. For this reason, one of the initial goals of the spiritual path is cultivating fear of God.  This is the initial thrust that propels the aspirant through subsequent stages of true human development. As one wise man once mentioned, “The fountainhead of all wisdom is the fear of God.” It is mentioned in the Qur’an, Rather it is His righteous servants who fear God. {Al-Qur’an 35:28]  This fear is one of the keys to Paradise. God says, As for one who fears the station of his Lord, and guards his soul against the things it inclines towards, Paradise will be his refuge. [Al-Qur’an 79:40-41] Hence, the fear of God is something we should endeavor to instill in our children.  One way to do that is to remind them that transgression incurs punishment.  That punishment can occur in ways great and small.  For example, we might tell our children “Don't touch that stove!  You're going to burn your hand.”  Despite this warning they touch it.  We follow up, "See?  You disobeyed me, and you burned your hand."  We can then suggest, “One day, if we disobey God in this world, we're going to burn our entire body.” They might not understand this latter warning, but as they grow, the message will increasingly resonate.  Someone might consider such a warning harsh or inappropriate. However, this is one of the essential messages of the Qur’an.  Namely, disobedience can have painful consequences.  If we do not try to instill that message into our children at a young age, we may inadvertently be depriving them of the conceptual basis to subsequently understand one of the most critical messages of the Qur’an. Of course such messages have to be presented with gentleness and wisdom. Our intention should never be to overwhelm our children. However, we should take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves in everyday life.  While every responsible parent endeavors to keep their children’s hopes and dreams alive, we have to also let them know that there is something to aspire towards beyond this world. Just as our life in a real sense, did not begin with our physical emergence from our mother’s womb, it does not stop with our entrance into the grave.  When we journey to the next life, we will suffer or enjoy the negative or positive consequences of the actions we did in this world.  By using situations we find everyday, we can emphasize, according to our experience and our children's cognitive abilities, this message. The second point emphasized by the tradition we are discussing is encouraging a spirit of repentance in our children.  As we mentioned, sins and transgression involve consequences.  With sincere repentance those consequences can be eradicated. Emphasizing this point and further emphasizing other manifestations of God’s mercy provide a balance that mitigates the harshness that might accrue by focusing on the reality of divine retribution and punishment. God is most willing to accept repentance. He is most merciful. Again, we can take advantage of situations occurring in our everyday lives to cultivate a repentant spirit in our children. If they tell a lie, we can mention how inappropriate and harmful lies are. We can then add, “You are going to have to ask God to forgive you.” Not only do situations such as this introduce the child to the idea of repentance, they also encourage them to get in the habit of communicating with God. One of the things missing from many of our Muslim homes is active communion with God.  Many of us who have converted to Islam from Christianity remember how we were in the habit of saying our nightly prayers. Such devotional acts provided sweetness to our faith. Although we may have found a superior creed when we adopted Islam, in some cases we find that the sweetness to be found in intimate discourses with God gradually leaves our lives. Prayerful repentance is one way we can begin to recapture that sweetness, and to encourage it in our children’s lives. Another advantage to be found in using everyday situations to convey meaningful lessons to our children is that they allow us opportunities for informal lessons. We can teach without stopping everything to sit down for a formal “lesson.” If we tell our children when they tell a lie, for example, “We are going to sit down and have a little lesson on repentance. First of all, you have to immediately stop your sins. Secondly, you have to vow to never repeat the sinful act.  Thirdly, you have to express remorse for having committed the sin.  And fourthly, if the sin is associated with the right of another human being, you have to restore that right.”  Children generally dislike being lectured to, and the lesson probably will not be too effective. It would probably be more effective to emphasize, informally, how bad lying is, the need to ask God’s forgiveness, and conveying a firm threat to wash out the child’s mouth with soap if they tell another lie. Of course, such threats have to be credible. They might not involve soap, but they should involve something that will be remembered by the child, without being harmful.  What is important is conveying the gravity and seriousness of lying or other negative speech or behavior. Repentance is a desirable at both the individual and at the communal level. God says in the Qur’an, So turn in repentance altogether, you believers, in order that you be successful. [Al-Qur’an 24:31] Hence, this particular point is relevant for all of us, not just the children. Repentance is very important and has to be constantly encouraged in order to become a natural action for a developing child. In addition to reminding our children to repent and asking God’s forgiveness when they slip, we should also encourage them to ask His forgiveness when they say their nightly prayers. This brings up another very important point. We should try to get our children in the habit of saying nightly prayers.  As they become older, they can be taught the prophetic supplications and invocations to be said at night and before retiring. However, at younger ages cultivating a free and open communion with God is a very powerful practice. Sleep itself is our lesser death. Our children reminding themselves that God alone can bring them safely through the night; that He alone restores their consciousness after sleep; that He alone has the power to take our soul whenever He chooses, are all messages that cultivate a healthy god-consciousness. Another very important part of our children’s Islamic upbringing, something we generally neglect as a community, involves their participation in “fun” activities that involve a cross section of the community. One such activity is hiking. Hikes are accommodating to the young and old. Hence, children and adults can get involved together. Furthermore, while outdoor activities such as hiking are not religious activities per say, something appreciated by the older children who may be struggling with their Islamic identity, they provide great settings to involve the children in group devotional activities such prayer, Qur’an reading, Dhikr, or testimonials.[2] Such activities also provide a setting where children can interact with community elders in an informal, nonreligious setting. Many children may not appreciate the fact that the local Imam has studied Islam for twenty years and is a master of Arabic rhetoric. However, when they see that the elderly gentleman can climb a hill much faster than they can, or jump over a stream unscathed while their boots are filled with water, they have an accessible basis for respecting the Imam. This opens up doors for a deeper personal relationship that will facilitate their subsequent willingness to benefit from his religious knowledge and experience. Such activities are very positive because they also allow children to see that they have an Islamic identity group that is larger than their individual and possibly isolated family. They are with fifty Muslims trekking through the woods, calling cadences, singing songs, telling stories, stopping in a meadow for a football or soccer game, and the food is pretty good also. Such activities can leave an indelible positive mark on a child’s life. The third point raised by this prophetic tradition is to treat people with good character.  We should constantly emphasize this.  Our Prophet, peace upon him, has said, “I have only been sent to perfect good character.” Muslims have historically been people known for their upstanding character. One of the greatest threats to Islamic character and manners is our contemporary youth culture, and one of the most destructive means conveying that culture is television.  One of the greatest things we can do for our children in terms of trying to instill good character in them is to get them away from the television.  To be effective, we have to also endeavor to keep them away from children who watch television. This may seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, when they are younger and their universe is smaller and more controllable, this may not be as challenging as it appears. However, it is a communal task that requires a tremendous commitment on the part of many families.  Parents should encourage one another to form television-free communities. Islamic schools should consider an enrollment policy that requires homes to be television free for children to be admitted. This is very important, for if your child is going to an Islamic school and does not watch television, while his or her classmates are constantly reminding him or her what Brittney Spears is up to, or how great the Rolling Stones were during halftime at the Super Bowl, much of what you are trying to accomplish will be readily and easily undermined. Saying this, I am not advocating an absolute ban on viewing motion pictures. Families can promise their children a weekly movie if they do well in school. They can gather their children to watch documentaries, nature shows, and other commercial-free fare that is controlled by the adults. Having some televised entertainment and education help to prevent the deep longing for the medium that can develop in children that are totally cut off from it. The main thing to avoid is commercialized network television. The overt and subliminal messages involving everything from the glorification of criminality, to the belittling disrespect of elders, crass sexual exploitation, blatant inducements to become involved in a destructive consumer culture, and the irreverent denigration of religious themes, make viewing commercial television arguably questionable from a religious perspective. Many programs clearly have hidden agendas involving normalizing practices that Muslims hold forbidden, such as witchcraft or homosexuality. I would argue that any parent who allows their children to watch network television is derelict in their parental duties.  As we mention above, we can provide alternatives to network television.  We can gather our children for a weekly movie with their friends, complete with the popcorn.  We can select wholesome films whose content we have previewed. Hence, we are not talking about draconian measures that leave the concerned parent with no viable options for their children. One of the most destructive effects of television is that it reinforces the false idea that between childhood and adulthood there is an increasingly longer adolescent phase, during which what are functionally adults are permitted to continue to act like children. When we travel to visit the Muslim world, we are amazed to see that in the villages and other areas not deeply affected by modernity, there is no adolescent phase. Older children are working the fields, selling in the marketplace, and taking care of younger siblings just like little adults. The silliness, giddiness, and irresponsibility we see even amongst many college students here in the West is totally absent. That used to be the case here in America. Marriages between thirteen and fourteen year olds were once common. Thomas Edison was a self-made millionaire before he was fifteen years old. George Washington was an accomplished social and political thinker at the age of fifteen. Grammar schools equipped children with the tools to engage in the formation of mature thoughts before completing grade six. Now many university graduates have absolutely no exposure to logic, nor any of the other basics of a classical education. We should also understand that America became great on the basis of significant and tangible characteristics and principles. If the generality of people in this country abandon those characteristics, as a community, we should try to retain them.  These include a sound work ethic, willingness to sacrifice, hard work, thriftiness, respect for authority, courtesy, etiquettes, sound manners, empathy for the weak, and many other traits. Not only are these principles being undermined by many aspects of popular youth culture, in many instances the exact opposite values are being encouraged.  We have to constantly encourage good character and manners in our children. “Did you say please?”  “You didn’t say thank you.” “You should have held the door for the lady coming into the store after you.”  Such urgings have to be constantly repeated until the desired traits become ingrained in our children. Repetition in many situations is a great pedagogical tool. It goes without saying that constantly repeated instructions also have to be diligently reinforced by adult example. Again, is important to emphasize that this type of training should be carried out in a pleasant manner.  We should try to avoid raising our voices and nagging. We should convey messages such as those mentioned above in a subtle, gentle way that almost sneaks up on our children. However, we should not avoid being firm in situations that demand firmness. God-willing we will be able to raise a generation that acts on the basis of good character. The three points emphasized by this prophetic tradition should clearly be goals in our child rearing and education programs.  A fourth thing that is also extremely important is to teach our children the love of the Prophet, peace upon him. We should start by taking the time to remind them who the Prophet, peace upon him, was, and what he looked like.  We should inform them what his height was, how he kept his hair, what color his hair was, what his build was, what color of his eyes was, how his complexion was, etc.  By educating them about his physical characteristics, he becomes more than an abstraction.  We must endeavor to make him real for them. Many of our Muslim children can tell you how tall LeBron James is, how much he weighs, what color his eyes are, where he went to high school, and how much his sneakers contract is worth. But they cannot mention a single attribute of their Prophet, peace upon him. This is an unacceptable situation we should strive to remedy.  Perhaps we could develop cards about the Prophet and the companions, just as we have baseball, and basketball cards featuring sports figures.  Valuable information about our important personages could be conveyed in this way. Who was the tallest companion?  Who lived the longest among them? They could trade these cards among themselves. Again, this would be an informal way of conveying information that we usually limit to formal settings. Familiarization is a key ingredient in the cultivation of love. It is difficult to love someone you do not know.  We should also praise our children when they display prophetic character. That praise should be directly linked to the Prophet, peace upon him. For example, “The prophet will love what you did for that cat because he taught us to be kind and merciful to all creatures.” Perhaps your child will come one day and relate an incident like he following: “The kids found a bird at school today, it could not fly. Everyone was throwing rocks at it, but I didn’t throw any rocks.  I tried to stop them.” We should enthusiastically respond, “That was so great!  God and His Prophet, peace upon him, will really love you for that. God will show you mercy one day for your mercy to that bird.” Now they not only feel good because they did something pleasing to you, they feel good because they did something pleasing to God and His Prophet, peace upon him. Once again, these are practical lessons that occur in the context of our everyday life, and not formal lessons, abstracted from any meaningful context. If we merely related to them in a classroom, the Prophet, peace upon him, did this, or said that, we deny them any agency in their education. The former, more informal approach emphasizing that they themselves did this or that in a manner consistent with prophetic teaching, allows them to take agency in their religious life. This is empowering for them and can go a long way towards fostering a healthy Islamic identity. Another bit of beneficial advice, culled from the prophetic teachings, is avoiding feeding our children the very best of food all the time. This teaching is a reflection of the fact that the way of the Prophets, peace upon them, is moderation. For example, we should avoid constantly giving them ice cream, pizzas, and other types of food they find particularly enjoyable.  We should try to give them ordinary food as much as possible. Then, when we do periodically give them something they really like, it is so much more enjoyable for them. This is one way to get them to appreciate the blessings of God.  If we constantly give them the best of food and constantly give them the food they like, they’ll take the blessings of God for granted.  That is something that can make their hearts become hard or cold.  Similarly, we should not give our kids the best of clothes even if we can afford to do so. Doing so could also lead to them taking the blessings of God for granted, and it might cause them to arrogate themselves over poorer children.  Dressing them in the very best and finest of clothes might also make poorer children jealous of them and then make fun of them to attempt to belittle them because they see them as being better than themselves. On the other hand, one should try to avoid dressing them shabbily as that might lower their self-esteem.  We should try to maintain the balance that is characteristic of our religion.  This balance will help them avoid developing arrogant, condescending, or insecure personalities.  We should get them accustomed to manual work.  I recently asked a group of Muslims if anyone of them had ever changed a flat tire. No one in the entire assembly answered affirmatively. These are the sort of things every child should learn how to do. At Islamic schools we can have local mechanics come in to give short courses on the basics of automobile maintenance. When our male children reach their teenage years we can arrange for apprenticeships for them at a local Muslim mechanics shop during summer vacations. We can make arrangements to pay for the child’s “salary” ourselves. Gardening is a great activity for both boys and the girls. Our children should learn to get their hands dirty.  We might also consider sending our high school and college age youth to work in Muslim refugee camps. This is a great way to help develop a healthy social consciousness in them. It also gets them close to the earth. Children who have visited such areas generally become a lot more appreciative of the blessings they enjoy here. Our Prophet, peace upon him, knew the value of work. He was a shepherd; and he guided caravans across the desert. These activities were integral in shaping his character.  We should start training our children in the martial arts at an early age. If they grow up practicing a particular art it will become easy and natural for them. If a child started a particular martial art at six or seven years old, when he or she is twenty-one, they would have studied that art for fifteen years and would be an absolute master. Studying the martial arts is not to enable them to bully other children. It is a means for them to have healthy self-esteem.  That makes it easier for them to be Muslim in a sometimes hostile environment. If they know they can defend themselves, it makes it easier to deal with the pressure and potential intimidation that comes from being different. That is something that is very important for our children. A person who is confident in himself would never start a fight.  The best martial artist is the one you would never suspect, not the one beating on his chest, flexing his muscles and elbowing people. This is something that is very important in the healthy development of our boys and girls. In conclusion, we should try to make the space for the children to be children, to enjoy their childhood years. However, we must let them know that these years are preparation for adult life, and that adulthood is very serious. That coming seriousness though should not be used as a justification to overwhelm them. Moderation provides a golden means. Respecting that means helps us to avoid the extreme of an overindulgent childhood followed by a period of perpetual adolescence, just as it helps us to avoid stultifying, rigid, overbearing child rearing practices that can effectively rob our children of a rich childhood .  Hopefully we can remain balanced, giving our young generation the space to be children, but letting them know that they’re preparing for a serious life.

[1] Imam Abu ‘Isa Muhammad bin ‘Isa at-Tirmidhi, Jami’ at-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar As-Salaam, 1999/1420), p. 460, no. 1987.

[2] Testifying is another activity the many converts from Christianity are familiar with. Believers, in a public setting, testify to the affect the Gospel has had on their lives. This is a great group activity that Muslims should encourage. Stories of how a person converted to Islam, why another began serious about the religion after a life of sin or other personal narratives can have a tremendous impact on Muslim children, especially those who may be struggling trying to live a righteous life.

Projects News

Projects Events

Projects Donations