Islamic Info Center
The Poverty of Western Criteria for Judging the Emancipation of Women
by Dr. Eric W. Sikander
Specific invective against Islam from the West may often be traced all the way back to John of Damascus and the Syrian Christian polemicists. More recently, invective against Islam seems to focus on the supposed mistreatment of all Muslim women. In the news reports and popular magazines which are often the sole source of "information" about Islam to many Westerners the most salient image which comes across seems to be the veiled woman. ("Scholarly" articles are, almost without exception, no betters.) The similar covering habits of Christians or Jews in the same regions are immaterial: somehow covering the female body is solely the dastardly scheme of Islam. Similarly, the state of being covered or disrobed becomes the sole criterion for judging the status of woman. It is an impossible task to find an article or news report in which the covering clothing of women is not directly linked to the "oppressive" religion of Islam and turned into a yardstick of emancipation. It is extremely significant that until perhaps only this century, the entire vituperative against Islam concentrated on the supposed lewdness of Muslims and the Prophet (PBUH) - a criticism which when the state of repressed and distorted sexuality of the times is remembered, meant simply that the Prophet (PBUH) loved his wives. The first part of this article locates this early vituperative in the ambivalence toward sexuality and marriage which has strongly permeated Christian thought. The texts and cultures of Christians create a double bind for guilt, because sexuality has no unambiguous, healthy existence. The rabbinic tradition denouncing the female sax itself, seeing the birth of a daughter to be a disaster, and thanking God each day for not having been born female is known, as in the often widespread belief of Christians that women are evil because they brought original sin Into the world (through Eve). But no one is really criticizing the status of women in Islam from a historical Christian perspective. What the critic does is lam- bast women's status in Islam from the perspective of Western civilization and the so-called modem world. This article there- fore examines the sexual ambiguity and misogyny of the early Christian tradition and the assumptions of modern Western criticism. While an understanding of the origins of Christianity and of Western civilization is not the same as an understanding of Christianity and Western civilization, certain events in history with social and political consequences go a long way in explaining the position of women in Christianity and Western civilization. This article first examines formative processes in early Christianity, which eventually contributes to the ambiguity of sexuality in Christianity along the lines developed by Elaine Pagels. Second, this article considers the episteme (knowledge configuration) of the West itself and rejects the legitimacy of its criteria for judging the status of women along anarchic or radical lines developed by Jean Baudrillard and Rene Guenon. From this analysis, I intend to demonstrate the incompetency of the West or Christianity to judge the status of women, and proceed to suggest different criterion for judgement located in the Holy Qur an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH). Elaine Pagels pinpoints the sexual attitudes associated with Christianity in the first four centuries of the common era. She is criticizing for reducing Christianity to political and social events, and indeed the criticism runs still deeper than she acknowledges. Pagels writes that she is not saying that religious ideas are nothing but a cover for political motives, as if, for example, Christians in the fourth century first chose to join forces with the Roman state and then adopted the doctrine of original sin to justify their new political direction... An act of religious affirmation is always, in some sense, a practical and consequential act. But her critics who are perennialists  might argue that Christianity cannot be reduced to its material causes, and such a reduction is indeed untenable. However, the analysis of the social and political environments (Sitzen im Leben) of those first four centuries does contribute to an understanding of social and political choices, and the political, social, and historical position of women in Christianity is entirely amenable to such an analysis. Pagels identifies a number of different realities in the early environments of early Christianity. One such environment is that provided by the Hille-Shammai debate. Scholars of early Christianity situate the New Testament Jesus in this debate in odder to understand the significance of various New Testament verses. The pressures on the text to meet the needs of early churches are there- by linked to needs addressed by Hillel and Shammai and their (Jewish) followers. Form criticism also locates environmental pressures on the text. For instance, the gospel writers have Jesus say that divorce Is not permissible and then have him give a private explanation that the man who divorces a woman and marries another commits adultery, and that the woman who divorces her husband and marries another, commits adultery. Now the last statement makes no sense In the original Jewish environment, simply because women were not allowed to initiate divorce. But in the Greco- Roman environment, women did divorce their husbands, and thus divorce initiated by a woman was an issue for some early churches. The environment of some of the early churches demanded a "reading" on what they should do about a woman divorcing the husband, and so the gospel writer supplied the reading that she commits adultery if she remarries. Another important environment is that of apocalyptic fever. In light of the believed imminence of the Last Days, Jesus supposedly rejected his mother and brothers and called for voluntary celibacy. The view that it is better not to marry (cf. Mt. 19:8ff) and that one's believing family ought to be rejected (cf. Mt. 3:33ff) clearly contradicts everything Muslims know about prophets, and in fact these statements may be traced to apocalypse minded churches. Pagets writes that "the authors of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, finding Jesus' prohibition of divorce Impossibly severe, added a phrase that apparently allowed divorce In the case of the wife's infidelity (me epi pornela) '[except] for Immorality,' a crucial exception that placed Jesus on the side of teacher Shammal.. And Matthew softens what, according to Luke, Jesus had said about hating one's family. Matthew rephrases the statement so that Jesus says: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of men.  The apocalyptic fever, then, was softened by the authors of the Gospel of Matthew. While it might be argued that this anti- marriage feeling can be attributed to the imminent apocalypse, such an argument is not tenable with Paul, who seems to have other reasons for hating marriage, and by extension, women. With Paul, we move from obsession with the apocalypse to misogyny. Pagels writes that 'shockingly, he [Paul] takes the passage from Genesis traditionally used to describe the institutions of marriage and applies it instead to an encounter with a prostitutes' Paul wrote to the Corinthians 'or do you not realize that the one who joins with a prostitute is one flesh [with her]? For they become, it is said, 'two in one body'[Gn.2: 24]. The verse traditionally used to explain and support the institution of marriage becomes with Paul a kind of sordid, obscene fear of women. Proof of Paul's misogny is given by his later followers, who "proceeded to compose, in Paul's name, letters of their own designed to correct what they believed were dangerous misinterpretations of Paul's teaching." Thus, while Paul enjoined voluntary celibacy, the 'Paul' of 1 Timothy urges marriage and family upon men and women alike." Paul's followers wanted to re4nstate the institute of marriage, so they wrote his name letters, which would urge marriage. But the same followers do not see fit to change the evidence of Paul's hatred of woman, propagating as fact the idea that women are basically immoral and unfit for anything but subservient lives. One of Pagels' themes is that the alter- native interpretations of Christianity discovered recently and generally categorized as gnostic provide beneficial perspectives on women. Some gnostic gospels reject the ranking of Peter as the head of the church, because while he was the first man to see the, risen Christ,' a woman was the first person to see the 'risen Christ.' The gnostic gospels also show evidence for less apocalyptic interpretations of Jesus' mission and also reject the physical resurrection of Jesus. Among the other interpretations of Jesus which did not survive the battles of canonicity, the Gospel of Barnabas is notable for seeing Jesus as the penultimate prophet, prefiguring the advent of Muhammad (PBUH) centuries before the revelation of the Holy Qur an. In short, the interpretation of Jesus, which survives today, is singularly deficient in providing a consistent, salutary perspective on woman. But while modern secular society admits the inability of the Christian tradition to achieve a fully healthy perspective on women, it also trumpets the scowled emancipation of woman, which has been achieved in the last century or so. Let us turn to two radical thinkers to upset this complacency about female emancipation. Perhaps one of the few truly radical voices in Western intellectual circles, Jean Baudrillard wrote a book suggesting we "for- get Foucault" (Qublier Foucault). Foucault of course is one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century in the West, a thinker who attacks the pretensions, imperialism, and alienation of the Western epistems. Foucault is one of the few western thinkers who recognize the connection between knowledge and power. But for Baudrillard, he is simply not radical enough. Baudrillard inveighs against the simulacra of modern society, arguing that the events in modern society are all farcical effects hiding the total absence of truth. An example is the democratic vote, which is supposed to be giving power to people, but is in fact simulacre, an effect which looks like people are deciding their fate, are becoming empowered, when really they have no power or control at all. He writes The "free choice" of individuals, which is the credo of democracy, uncorks in effect exactly the opposite: voting has become thoroughly obligatory, if it isn't legally, it is so by statistical duress, structural in its alternation [between yes/no], reinforced by public opinion polls. Voting has become thoroughly aleatory (random); when democracy attains formally an advanced stage, It distributes itself around equal quotients (50/50). Voting overtakes the Brownian movement of particles or the calculus of probabilities, it is as if everyone voted randomly, it is as if monkeys were voting. It is the pretense of voting which is most pernicious, and indeed the false feeling that somehow the vote counts is the focus of Baudrillard's criticism of so-called advanced democracies. A similar notion that we have some power, control, and importance is linked to the idea of personalization." Baudrillard note that The "person" In absolute terms, with his/her irreducible traits and specific weight, that which the entire Western tradition has forged as the organizing the myth of Subject, with his/her passions, wishes character, or.. banality, this person is absent, dead, swept away from our functional universe. And it is this absent person, this lost Instance, who is going to be "Personalized." Too, the irony is apparently lost on those buying mass produced bumper stickers proclaiming them to be "an original person." Clearly, for Baudrillard modern society is pernicious precisely because it is so seductive, numbing, and misleading. Any cooperation with this society betrays truth. Acceptance of any aspect of Western society in effect affirms the entire society, and there- by contributes to increasing the effects of truth, to simulacre. And so he criticizes Foucault for treason against the truth. Baudrillard's specific argument against Foucault is that he has hypostatized the movements, which might breach the wall of Western civilization. He writes that "in a way, psychoanalysis put an end to the unconscious and desire, as Marxism put an end to class war, by hypostatizing them and burying them in their theoretical enterprise. As part of his argument that Western civilization has reduced reality to simuiacre, Baudrillard explains that the so- called liberation of women In the West is nothing but a "liberation" from herself so that her body can be taken over mechanically for the use of society and the processes of Fashion. Everything in Western societies, Baudrillard suggests, is reduced to a use value. He asks whether sex itself "isn't already a compulsory materialization: doesn't the advent of sexuality belong to the Western realistic, to the actual obsession of our culture to instancize and instrumentalize everything?"  For Baudrillard, women have been reduced from full human status to an Instance, to an Instrument of modern society. In the same context, he mentions that this predilection to reduce everything social to an instrumental concept is found in the absurd notion that religion, economy, politics, and juridical practice in other cultures can be analytically separated. These, categorical fantasies" are "old sicknesses with which we infect cultures in order to understand' them; in this way it is absurd to atomize sex as an instance, as an irreducible given, as to see how everything else can be reduced to it." Baudrillard seems to sup- port the case against Western Orientalists who insist on reducing Muslim societies to discreet, atomistic, instrumental units com- posed of politics, religion, and economics. This move to remove meaning from societies (and the self-description of its members) by 'infecting' them with instrumental categories is parallel by the move to reduce women to fashion. In one place, he mentions that fashion is drifting away from woman, and this would presumably mean that women may once again be female human beings, because fashion is becoming less and less affiliated with women. 'But wait,' he says: This doesn't mean neither a progress nor liberation. The same logic still operates, and if fashion is diffusing and leaving the privileged support of women in order to open itself to all, it is that the prohibited area of her body has itself been diffused, under a more subtle form than puritanical repression, under a form of general desexualization." She no longer retains neither her privacy nor her sexuality, but loses it as it becomes transformed into a materialized sexuality, leading to general desexualization. The process of simulacre is demonstrated by the fact that the ideal body of medicine is the corpse, the ideal body for work the robot, and the ideals body for women the mannequin. The so- called "emancipation" of women is a farce, because "we watch concurrently the emancipation of women and the renewal of fashion. Fashion can't be seen except with Femininity but not with women." One of the leading voices of perennialist thought is Rene Guenon (Sheikh 'Abd al-Wahab). The power and solidity of Guenon's argument is suggested by the prefaces of his work, which inevitable mention that his ideas have not needed to be changed in the slightest, and that contemporary events have demonstrated the correctness of his views. Guenon argues for traditional society, traditional science, and. tradition religion, demonstrating that modern society is alienating and distorting, modern science a superficial, material body of ignorance, and modern religion some kind of sentimental, "feeling" emotion. The first mistake of modernity is the topsy-turvy inversion of the ladder of knowledge, where the lowest, most bass (i.e. material) realm is elevated to the highest pedestal of worthy research and science. He writes that people no longer recognize anymore effective authority in the spiritual order, no legitimate power in the temporal world; "profane' people allow themselves to discuss sacred things, to contest its character and even its existence itself; the inferior judges the superior, ignorance imposes limits on wisdom, it is error which gets the jump on truth, the human which substitutes for the divine, the earth which gets the better of heaven, the individual who makes the measure of everything and presumes to dictate to the uncerse laws drawn entirely from his own relative fallible reason What happens in this inversion is that science reduces itself to the lowest realm of existence and proceeds to exclude all higher knowledge. He writes that all of the profane science which was developed in the course of the last centuries is nothing but the study of the sensate world, in which it is exclusively entrapped, and its methods are not applicable except in that very domain, now these methods are proclaimed "scientific" to the exclusion of everything sells, which comes backs to deny all sciences which does not relate to material things. The focus of such a science on materialism is made possible by individualism. Guenon remarks that this same science of which [the modern world] is so proud, represents nothing but a simple deviation and is a caricature of true science, which, for us, is identified completely by what we have called "sacred science" or "traditional science.' Modern science, proceeding from the arbitrary limitation of knowledge of a certain order, and which is the most inferior of all, that of material or sensate reality, has lost, by the fact of this limitation and the consequences which immediately follow, all intellectual value, at least if we give 'intellectual' its full meaning, if we refuse to participate in the "rationalist" error, that is, to assimilate pure intelligence to reason, or, which comes to the same thing, to deny intellectual intuition. What is at the bottom of this error, is at the bottom of a great many other modern errors, and is the very root of the entire deviation of science as we have explained, is that which can be called "individualism," which is the same as the anti-traditional spirit itself, and whose multiple manifestation, in all real ms, constitute one of the most important factors of the disorder of our age. What we have, then, is a disordered society founded on individualism. This inversion of knowledge itself would render any objective findings of modern societies on the status of women in Islam suspect. But more importantly, people in modern societies have been reduced to "experts' an material, bass reality, and their entire world- view is predicated on material criteria. What makes this even more destructive is that the Islamicview of women, based as it is on God's revelation and law, is denied reality in the material critique. It is truly a situation of ignorance imposing limits on wisdom, error getting the jump on truth. The entire set of criteria imposed by the West judging the emancipation of women is fatally flawed. Nothing could be more harmful for Muslim women to accept the goals, methods, and techniques of Western emancipation. (Similarly, nothing could be more harmful for Muslim men than to accept Western goals, methods, and techniques for achieving 'the good life.') Should Muslims then be content with the present status of women? By no means. Located In the Holy Quran and Sun- nah of the Prophet (PBUH) are numerous criteria for judging the status of women. Selecting only a few of the as criteria, let us look at the dismal state of women in the many so-called Islamic societies. The cult of virginity found throughout the world, even In Muslim societies, Is harmful to women. Whence this emphasis on virginity? The Prophet (PBUH) married one chaste virgin, his other wives were chaste non-virgins. Obviously the key point is that his wives were chaste, not that they were or were not virgins. This worship of virginity has been shown to prosper in cultures where sex is considered dirty and polluting (for the women, not for the man!). People who believe that a woman who had, sex with her husband in a marriage con- ducted within the limits of God (subhanahu we ta ala) is somehow polluted and unfit for remarriage are committing a grave sin because they are not allowing what God allows - they are legislating laws against God. Divorce is the worse of the permissible but if women who are legally divorced cannot remarry, then their condition is lowered. Much of the cult of virginity comes from the West, because sex as pollution is a powerful theme in Western literature, religion, and culture. But there is some Input of this evil from Eastern culture too. Muslim men must examine their own culture and realize that they must use the sources of Islam as their foundation, not their cultural norms. Those men who consider their wives to be servants must be informed that in Islam the wife has no obligation to cook, clean up, or even to nurse. N she chooses to do household work, her husband will be grateful. It is a long fail from gratefully appreciating the wife who chooses to work to taking her servile status for granted. We saw that women benefit from their rights given by God if society judges them by their chastity, not by their virginity. Women also benefit from the rights given them by God when their mahram takes up his full responsibilities. In the West, many young women do not get married right away, but live on their own. They often must work at minimum wage jobs and give up further education. They often become single parents, with boyfriends moving in and out of their rooms without commitment. Contrast this common situation with the mahram system in Islam. The Muslim women are free to get a good education and can wait in security until a good husband is found. The West is unable to judge the status of women in Islam. Modern societies are predicated on an epistemology fundamentally flawed In Its material emphasis. A popular magazine recently selected explicit criteria for judging the emancipation of women in different countries. In contrast to their views, Islam does not hold that the ability to have many abortions and to marry at a late age constitutes an emancipated woman. Neither is the quality of material covering the body a very good indicator of emancipation. Indicators like sexy fashions, multiple lovers, and bisexuality play very well in modern, secular societies, and Indeed Muslims should reject those Western criteria. But this is no time for complacency, because after having rejected these Western criteria. But this is no time for complacency, because after having rejected those criteria Muslims must turn to the Hold Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (POUH), where after applying Islamic criteria we will find the present condition of Muslim women to be very much In need of Improvement. Elaine Pagels 119881, (PLEASE UN- DERLINE ADAM, EVE AND THE SER- PENT) Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Random House, New York, P. xvii. Pagels , p. xxvii I.e. those who believe that all religions and people participate in the divine, attack "modernity," and support tradition and "sacred science," and include Frithj of Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, and Rene Guenon. Pagels , p. 22. Pagels , p. 16. First Corinthians, my translation. Pagals , p. 23 Pagels 11988], p. 25. Jean Baudrillard , L'Eschange symbolique at al mort, Gallimard, p. 106, my translation. Baudrillard [;1976], p. 125, my translation Jean Baudrillard 11977], Oublier Foucault, Gallimard, p. 16, my translation Baudrillard [/977], p. 29, my translation Baudrillard , p. 29, my translation Baudrillard , p. 148, my translation Baudrillard , p. 148, my translation. Guenon , p. 1 10, my translation Guenon , p. 131, my translation Rene Guenon , p. 88, my translation. The End of this one, please stand by for yet another article !!!