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Women need to play a role in ‘restoring’ Saudi Islam

In a wide-ranging interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. "MBS") discussed, among other topics, the recent anti-corruption drive and liberalization of Saudi society. Call it a kinder, gentler form of authoritarianism – with a progressive touch. Notably, MBS refused to address his country's interference in Lebanese politics or its unconscionable scorched-earth policy in Yemen.

Nonetheless, Mr. Friedman was effusive of MBS's plans to veer Saudi Islam to a "moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples." The Prince calls it a "restoration" of the faith to its origins – namely the Prophetic period in the early 7th century. This has the potential to reverse the puritanical strain (Wahhabism) currently at the heart of Saudi society, where, for example, a woman is under male guardianship from cradle to grave.

The late Sunni scholar Abdul Halim Abu Shaqqa chronicled in his comprehensive study of the Koran and authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad, Muslim women were far more engaged in society during the Prophetic era. They had more rights and opportunities to build a vibrant society, in partnership with men, than many contemporary Muslim cultures (including Saudi Arabia).

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Mr. Friedman believes this "restoration" project "would drive moderation across the Muslim world." In fact, most of the Muslim world has soundly rejected Wahhabism. Yet, the deeply entrenched patriarchy of Saudi society finds parallels in many Muslim countries.

While MBS has promised to grant Saudi women more liberty, his top-down approach towards "restoration" of Islam raises a number of questions.

Will the man who allowed women to drive, allow them a place to drive the "restoration" as well? Or will it be a vehicle steered exclusively by men, with women seated as passengers, while men alone navigate women's role in society?

Women's voices and perspectives will be essential if there is to be any meaningful reform of contemporary Muslim cultural practices.

In her groundbreaking book "Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition," UBC Professor Ayesha Chaudhry makes it abundantly clear that the "Islamic tradition" – beginning a few centuries after the Prophetic era to the precolonial era – reflected worldwide patriarchy of the times. The hierarchical paradigm was unambiguous: God (or Allah) at the top, followed by men below, then by women subordinate to men and finally slaves below women. This view shaped pretty much all religious discourse – from Koranic exegesis to Islamic jurisprudence.

Ismail ibn Kathir, a 14th-century Sunni scholar whose works still carry great influence, was unequivocal. "The man is better than the woman," he wrote in his authoritative commentary of the Quran. By no means was he alone. Prof. Chaudry's meticulous research shows how devastating this paradigm was in relation to domestic violence. All Sunni scholars and jurists advocated beating a "recalcitrant" wife – specifying when, how often, where on her body, with either one's fists or a sturdy object, and so on. The Hanafi school of jurisprudence was the harshest, allowing a husband the leeway to beat his wife as he saw fit, so long as he didn't kill her. The book is a painful read, but should be read by those interested in reform.

The problem is that much of this patriarchal Islamic tradition – developed by male medieval scholars – is still taught uncritically in many Muslim seminaries and reflected in a number of Muslim cultures, where male privilege reigns.

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Muslims must take a critical look at this tradition in light of contemporary norms. Like Abo Shaqqa, Prof. Chaudhry points out the obvious: Domestic violence advocates were/are unable to reconcile the fact that the model for all Muslims, Prophet Muhammad, never once raised his hand. He rebuked those who did.

The postcolonial period had ushered in a more egalitarian view, in which men and women are on the same moral plane before God. However, this approach has had uneven acceptance. Very rarely will men give up their privileged position to be on equal footing with women.

Yet Muslim women still insist on gender justice. Contemporary female Muslim scholars, such as Prof. Chaudhry, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Asma Lamrabet, have challenged patriarchal interpretations of the Koran, thereby providing women with exegetical tools to confront male privilege rooted in theology.

Elsewhere, Muslim women in India are challenging the patriarchy entrenched in Muslim institutions, through education and legal reform. There are now female judges to solemnize marriages and adjudicate divorces, thereby restoring balance to proceedings which were exclusively presided by men.

If MBS really wants to return to a "moderate, balanced" Islam, he must include the perspectives of women on equal footing.

Anything less will be a whitewash.

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