July 25, 2021
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'There Are Many Different Forms Of Islam...'

...and multiple interpretive reform traditions within Islam, each inflected by the culture or region in which they are located.

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'There Are Many Different Forms Of Islam...'

There is a popular perception that Islam is resistant to change...

The claim that Islam is resistant to change simply cannot be substantiated by most of the historical, anthropological, or religious studies scholarship on the Islamic world.

There are many different forms of Islam, and multiple interpretive reform traditions within Islam, each inflected by the culture or region in which they are located. The scholarship on India has shown that the interweaving of community practices and traditions is dynamic and constantly shifting, incorporating new elements and leaving others aside. Islam is a religion that has influenced and has been influenced by the cultures that it inhabits. Thus, Muslims in North or South India may have different traditions, inflected by Panjabi or Tamil cultures, even as Muslim practices in South Asia may differ substantially from Muslim practices in Africa, Indonesia or the Middle-East. The very diversity of Muslim cultural beliefs and traditions insures that Islam will always be changing and adapting itself to new circumstances.

There may indeed be a perception that Islam is resistant to change, but in that case one has to understand how that perception is created. I would argue that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the cold war, the U.S. and Europe attempted to politically reconstitute themselves by defining themselves ideologically against Islam.

Samuel Huntington's (1996) book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is a notorious example of this tendency to treat Islamic society and civilization as radically opposed to the morals of Western civilization. Western commentators often reduce Islam to one driving concept, jihad, rather than focusing on plural traditions of ijtihad, interpretation, that can often make for democratic forms of debate and dissent within Islamic societies. It is also clear that Islamic orthodoxy often emphasizes the immutability of tradition in an attempt to wrest authority from reformers within Islam. But perhaps paradoxically, it is both Islamic fundamentalists and the hardline advocates of the superiority of Western civilization that are most invested in the notion of an inflexible Islam; the faith of millions of observant Muslims is both more open and flexible in practice. And while there are certainly versions of Islam that claim to speak on behalf of a "pure" unchanging religion, Islam is not alone in this respect. There are strains of fundamentalist Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all over the world that seek to distort and misrepresent the practices of its believers, and which must also be challenged.

Does this resistance to change stem from the immutability of Quran, as well as because Islam makes no distinction between personal and public domain?

Once again, it makes no sense to examine only Islam from this perspective. Some adherents of Christianity or Hinduism may also consider their religious texts to be immutable. While there are a lot of theological constants in Islam (and all other religions), Islam as a practiced religion has not only adapted to its environments across the world but has also engaged in serious internal debates about its practices.

There is abundant evidence that speaks to both to the changing historical and cultural specificity of Muslim practices throughout South Asia, the Middle East, and indeed, the rest of the world. I cannot emphasize enough the presence of literary debate and theological discussion around women's rights in the Islamic world. In 1905 Rokheya Hossein published a gentle satire called "Sultana's Dream" in which men were kept in purdah, and women inhabited public space. There are also long traditions of Islamic reform, from the publication of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar in India at the turn of the century, to the publication of Qasim Amin's "Liberation of Women" in Egypt at the same time. The idea that Islam holds women to be intrinsically inferior is a pernicious stereotype that must be refuted. For example, in Maulana Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar, men and women are fundamentally the same, possessed of equal faculties, and held equally responsible for their behavior. Men and women are similarly positioned in the struggle between intelligence (aql) and undisciplined impulses (nafs). For Thanawi, women and men had different social roles, but were otherwise identically endowed as conscient beings. Thanawi made no argument that women, by nature, were morally inferior to men. 

What do you think are the reasons why democracy is absent in large parts of muslim society? Why have most Muslim states been unable to separate the Church from the State?

It is not always the case that Muslim states are unable to "separate Church from State." Turkey is a Muslim society with a secular state. Algeria and Egypt too, are secular, majority Muslim societies with democratically elected governments. The political scientist Mervat Hatem, even coined the term "state feminism" to describe the Egyptian government's advocacy or women's rights. Sociologists of Muslim societies such as Mounira Charrad and Deniz Kandyoti also emphasize that the question of Muslim women's rights must be linked to state policy, and not to Islam per se.

One would need strong historical blinkers to suggest that blame for the autocratic regimes of the middle-east lies at the door of Islam. The strategic importance of the area for the West has played a vital role in the creation of these corrupt structures of governance. First, the colonial powers and now the United States have worked hard to destabilize, dismantle and overthrow any democratic movement in the region (remember Iran before the Shah?) and have consistently supported and installed autocrats who are willing to safeguard the interests of the western powers.

The question of Islamic States has to be treated with some care. Though Iran is an Islamic Republic, its political leaders are democratically elected, and its citizens enjoy a higher standard of life, a higher status of women, a higher rate of literacy, and more personal freedom than in Saudi Arabia, a corrupt monarchy indebted to US military support. Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen BOTH military dictatorships and periods of democratic rule. But it is important to recognize that U.S. support of Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, another Islamic State, or of the mujahideen in Afghanistan is directly linked to the rise to fundamentalist Islam and the subsequent erosion women's rights in those countries. The notorious Zina and Hudood Ordinances were brought into law during the U.S. backed Zia regime; a regime that was the beneficiary of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid. In other words, Islam does not always have much to do with the shape or direction an "Islamic State" takes--histories of colonial underdevelopment and economic indebtedness to the U.S, the IMF or World Bank more often determine the paramenters of religious response to western modernization. One could draw the same analogy to the present Indian government's attempt to define India as a "Hindu state." This move says everything about current communal politics, but very little about the nature of Hinduism, or the faith as it is practiced by thousands of Hindus the world over.

Why is the condition of women in Muslim societies subservient to men? Considering Quranic injunctions--and their very narrow interpretations--about polygamy, divorce, dress code, etc, what are the ways out for women?

Yes, Muslim women in many parts of the world face difficult conditions, but remember that women in any culture or any society of the world are not treated as full equals. The United States, for example, has one of the highest rates of rape and domestic violence in the world. Women in the U.S. are also paid substantially less for the same work as men; and this is true in every field from medicine to law. But interestingly enough, while two predominantly Muslim states, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have both had women Prime ministers during periods of democratic rule, the United States, which thinks of itself as "the oldest democracy" is unlikely to have a woman president in the near future.

Let us not derogate Muslims, especially Muslim women, by suggesting that they passively accept gender inequality. The history of Islam is a history of struggle too. Muslim women have been active and vocal in working to change practices and traditions that are restrictive or hamper their freedom. The international network "Women Living Under Muslim Laws" and the "Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan" (RAWA) are but two examples of such activism. There is no Muslim country or society in the world where women are not advocating for their rights. Strong and well-documented feminist movements exist in Muslim majority countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Palestine, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, Sudan, and Indonesia, to name a few. Muslim women are not necessarily seeking a "way out" of their religion; some are seeking change and reform within Islam. Our role is to express our solidarity with their struggles to claim and exercise rights.

(Kamala Visweswaran is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Texas, Austin and is currently a Bunting Fellow, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)

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