Feminism through the lens of Islamists

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Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa

The post-modernism discourse on Islamic feminism is an area many Islamists dare not tread. And if they were faced with a challenge in such a discourse, they will then revert to rhetoric.

One of the commonest heard rhetoric from a section of Islamists is that the Qur’an has granted rights to women fifteen centuries ago with vast improvement in comparison to the situation of women in Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. What many Islamists failed to understand, or perhaps conveniently ignored, is the fact that the rights of women in Islam began to decline and revert back to pre-Islamic norms after the death of the Prophet.

While it is true that Islamic feminism is distinct from Western-styled feminism, as much as the shift from Western models of society and government to “Islamic models”, there are still many things in common with the struggle of Western feminists.

Despite the struggle to unshackle from the cultural imperialism marketed by the West, the major struggle seems to be more centered in the house of Islam itself, considering the retrogressive policies of many Muslim countries; Malaysia not excluded.

Islamic Feminism of the twentieth century

It was in the late 19th and early 20th century that the struggle for what is known as feminism started in the Muslim world. And it was from the work of one exceptionally brilliant man that this movement had spread across the Muslim continents and reached the shores of our country. This exceptional man was Muhammad Abduh (right), who had published the journal al-Manar (The Lighthouse) which propagated Islamic reform before his appointment as Mufti of Egypt in 1899.

Abduh spent his life reinterpreting Islamic laws in light of modern conditions. Through his writing, teaching, preaching and legal opinion, Abduh not only championed the cause of reform in Islamic law, theology and education but also in areas affecting the life and status of Muslim women or what is known as feminism.

Abduh advocated the utilization of reason and consistently maintained that that there was no conflict between religion and reason. Hence the renewal of Islam and Muslim society should be based not simply on Western secular modernization, but could be accomplished through Islamic legal and social change. The distinctive nature of his idea on reform (Islah) and renewal (Tajdid) was not simply seeking to restore the past i.e. the period of the pious predecessors (as-salafus salih); but a reinterpretation and reformulation of the Islamic heritage to respond to the political, cultural and scientific challenge of the West and modern life.

Abduh’s position on polygamy

Recognizing the discrepancy between the true spirit of Islamic reform propounded in the Qur’an and the waywardness of the Muslim society with regard to the rights of Muslim women, Abduh advocated a thorough reformation in educational and legal spheres affecting the Muslim women.

Abduh was very critical of polygamy and its deleterious effect on family life. Polygamy, according to Abduh, was permitted in the Prophet’s time as a concession to the prevailing social conditions. If Qur’anic texts were to be re-examined, then it will be clear that more than one wife was only permissible when equal justice and impartiality were guaranteed. When achieving such a feat is considered a practical impossibility, Abduh concluded that the Qur’anic ideal must be monogamy.

Abduh asserted that the moral point of the Qur’an is the text’s highest and ultimate aim. In Tafsir al-Manar, his view on this issue was clearly illustrated:
“God has made the condition that one keep far from injustice to be the basis for His giving of a law (concerning marriage). This confirms the fact that justice is enjoined as a condition and that duty consists in thriving for it.
Polygamy is like one of those necessities which are permitted to the one to whom it is allowed (only) with the stipulation that he act fairly with trustworthiness and that he is immune from injustice. In view of this restriction, when one now considers what corruption results from polygamy in modern times, then one will know for certain that a people cannot be trained so that their remedy lies in polygamy, since, in a family which a single man has two wives; no beneficial situation and no order prevail.”

The voice of Abduh in the Malay archipelago

Abduh’s struggle for reform in the Muslim world reached a new milestone when his students from the far East, Malaya and Indonesia, established a link with al-Manar. And among the students of Abduh that stood out was a young man by the name of Syed Shaykh al-Hady (left). Together with other al-Azhar-educated students of Abduh, namely Shaykh Tahir Jalaluddin and Abbas Taha, al-Hady founded the journal al-Imam (The Leader) in 1906, dedicated to reform and renewal.

Throughout his life, al-Hady championed the cause of modernization and reform of his own society. True to the spirit of al-Manar, al-Hady not only condemned taqlid (blind imitation) but upheld the torch of ijtihad (independent reasoning).

Abduh’s argument that religion could never enter into conflict with knowledge, and that reason would necessarily accept the dogmas of religion after testing the proofs of its truth; had a profound effect on al-Hady. He was so impressed by this argument that he wrote a book titled Kitab Agama Islam dan Akal (Islam and Reason) in which he presented Abduh’s ideas in simple terms for the Malay readers.

Alas, perhaps the most important social reform to which al-Hady dedicated his effort was on women’s emancipation and feminism. His views on women were radically different from that of the traditionalists of the time. He argued in defense of women’s education and emancipation, and conveyed the idea that women should be treated as man’s equal. In that sense, al-Hady may be referred as Malaya’s first feminist.

Faridah Hanum: The protagonist of Malay Feminism

In his endeavor to propagate feminism, al-Hady started to write on issues affecting women’s education and position in the home and society. Articles were published in a monthly periodical, al-Ikhwan (The Brethren). But then, it was a novel written by al-Hady that took the Malay community by storm.

Hikayat Faridah Hanum (The Story of Faridah Hanum) was perhaps the first Malay literature that features a woman as its central character. The character of Faridah Hanum was endowed with personality, agency and purpose; not a passive subject that merely reacts to her surroundings. She was portrayed to be a woman of substance, and demanded that she be treated as man’s equal. Faridah Hanum to al-Hady symbolizes an ideal modern progressive Muslim woman capable of exercising her own rational agency and freedom of choice, while remaining true to her religion and moral values.

What al-Hady had brought to surface from his depiction of Faridah Hanum was the monopoly of the discourse of Islamic jurisprudence by the traditionalist ulama’, and the fallacious contention with regard to the subservient attitude of women that were regarded as fundamentally weak and in need of constant protection by men.

Faridah Hanum broke all taboos, stood by her principles and fought against orthodoxy. She exemplifies the embodiment of the rational, progressive and modern Muslim who is capable to retain control of her body and sexuality and at the same time exercising her rational faculty.

Challenges ahead

Despite the story of feminist activism, started by Abduh and subsequently disseminated by his disciples; and the struggle to articulate gender equality and social justice based on the liberating spirit of the Qur’an; patriarchal thinking and practice, bundled with its inequalities and injustices, had intruded into our modern lives and making Islam appears to be patriarchal when in fact the religion had came to eradicate the inequalities and injustices of patriarchy.

The defenders of patriarchy and orthodoxy must be made aware that any efforts to obstruct the implementation of Qur’anic message of equality and justice will only revert and ossify our society back to the pre-Islamic era.

The voice of Islamic feminism must not only be echoed by the modern-day Faridah Hanums, but must also be accompanied, if not spearheaded, by Abduh’s reformist-minded men.

“Women, women, women! You are the Honor of Life, the Guide to Goodness. You’re the magicians who cleverly sow the seed of progress and the splendor of life which men strive for after they have been taught its real meaning (by you).” - Syed Syaikh al-Hady.