Tradition Does Not Entail Legitimacy

Photo by Haidan on Unsplash

So I’ve been having years-long struggles with faith as a Muslim.

Growing up, I’d been pretty oblivious to gender norms and sexual norms prescribed by religious leaders that I respected– many of which promote patriarchy and put women in a subservient position. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I came across these. In college, I accepted a lot of the widely held ideas among Muslim communities such as the idea of only men being able to lead prayer and being the default leaders in social makeups of the mosque (also, please refrain from being Islamophobic– these ideas aren’t exclusive to Muslim communities but are also present in communities of all Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions). It wasn’t until recently that I started challenging a lot of traditional beliefs, by the grace of God.

Across Muslim communities and any religious community, really, you see the notion that the traditions and cultures in which religion was revealed or birthed are merged with religion. It’s quite a challenge to separate our religion from culture, as religion is significantly adapted by cultures. It’s often hard to pinpoint the “true” and “pure” form of religion. For example, there is debate on the requirement of a woman being required to cover her hair in public as part of the hijab dress code, which I’m not going to get into too much right now. But the questions surround whether the covering of the head is culturally required in the context of the society and time that people find themselves in, or if there is a universal code of modesty ordained by God for women to follow regardless of culture, time and place.

In a struggle to hold onto religion, people hold onto traditions in that accommodated religion. Islam, for instance, was revealed in a strongly patriarchal society whose culture was deeply ingrained with oppressing women. There was little difference between the status of a wife and a female slave, both subservient to the man they were bonded to with the wife having a slightly higher degree in status compared to the slave. Women’s autonomies were largely limited to the will of men who viewed them as property. Yet, the religion revealed through the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhummad, may peace be upon him, was quite progressive, for the time in which it was revealed. Like I said, the patriarchal society in which it was revealed was also extremely misogynistic, and what was revealed in the Qur’an and revolutionized by the Prophet Muhummad, peace be upon him, was a huge step for the start of giving women rights.

Let me emphasize what I said: it was the START– Not the END– of progress. The Qur’an initiated progress for humanity to continue, not stop.

Yet, modern religious scholars try to hold on to patriarchal traditions and keep the progress of gender egalitarianism stagnant. They refrain from dare challenging famous classical scholars, asserting that because these scholars studied Islam most freshly after its birth, and because they spent their lives dedicating their studies of the deen or religion with more timely proximate resources than we have, they must have been the most correct. This is in addition to their argument that popularity of these scholars also shows their validity– which isn’t automatically the case in reality, which I will expand on later in this post with regards to FGM. These modern religious scholars and preachers assume that by challenging traditional ideas and interpretations, they are challenge the “authentic” Islam, the pure Islam, itself.

They continue to promote the submissiveness of a wife to her husband, saying that she needs to be sexually available for him at all times. According to them, it doesn’t matter what she is doing– even if she is about to go somewhere, even if she is in the middle of a task, she needs to drop everything and go to answer his call for sexual fulfillment. Oh, and if she doesn’t and her husband is angry with her, then she is cursed by the angels until he is not angry with her anymore. I really don’t see any respectable man using notions like this to coerce and control his wife into bed and sexual submission. There’s a huge difference between mutually respecting communication where each partner expresses their needs and where their autonomies and personhoods are respected by each other versus telling your husband/wife, “oh, you have to have sex with me, otherwise you’re cursed and a sinner!” And it’s interesting how the sexual rights are more often times or not emphasized for the husband and given little thought to for the wife. This also goes into the whole thing about hoors– beautiful companions described in the Qur’an who will accompany those who make it into Heaven. Despite “hoor” being a gender- neutral term in the holy book itself (the Qur’an), many scholars and preachers love to promote that hoors are female virgins that are property of men exclusively to have endless sex with in Heaven– this is a gross objectification of women and is too often brought along with the idea that women won’t be getting any hoor because they’re just not as sexual as men are. Instead, according to these same preachers, women will be rewarded with jewelry and be happy to be with her husband who has a bunch of these virgin brides to enjoy sex with, and she won’t fret because all she cares about is having her husband’s affection the most more than his beloved sex objects and because she’ll be prettier than them and doesn’t care about sex or desire other parterns like her husband does (hold on, my eyes rolled so hard that they fell out of my face. Give me a sec while I go and try to find where they went…)

While so many male preachers and scholars talk enthusiastically with these raunchy details of all the female virgins they will get (again, even though these hoor are gender-neutral in the Qur’an, these male preachers and scholars create and promote lustful descriptions of them to suit their sexual fantasies), they simultaneously get irritated and shoo women off and demean them when they ask what they will get in Heaven or if they will also get male versions of hoor for themselves. Because, again, these men can’t fathom that women should have the privilege of sexual pleasure in heaven, especially when they’ll have husbands that they can only exclusively belong to sexually even if the husband has the privilege to however many sexual partners. Hold on, I gotta find my eyes again…

It’s so disgusting how men get irritated, and even angered– at the idea that women have sexual feelings and desires, too– as if sexual pleasure is something that is exclusively reserved for men. Um… I mean, who’s going to tell them about female orgasms? Simultaneously, these same men tell women that they won’t be jealous in Heaven even if they as their husbands have multiple sexual partners so she should just shut up and be appreciative and withhold her jealousy now. Because, you know, it’s just so easy to look forward to Heaven in this life knowing that your husband will desire and get more than you while it’s nearly impossible to be heartbroken at the fact in the time-being while you’re on earth. Because while your husband has things to motivate him in this life for the next, you as a woman don’t and are just supposed to shut up and be happy that your husband will still want you in the first place. Meanwhile, this is after your husband gets mad and jealous at the idea of you having partners other than him. When you’re jealous as a woman, it’s immature and selfish, but when he’s jealous, it’s justified because he’s a MAN and is allowed to feel that way.

Ugh. May Allah protect us women from men like these.

Anyway!

Ideas like these, as many other similar ones echoing such an idea of female sexual submission to men, have turned me off from faith and have put me on the verge of leaving it. Thankfully, I recovered and learned not to associate this with religion, but rather with perceived gender roles of culture attempted to be grilled into religious belief. Just the patriarchy trying to assert and have strong holds on male power, entitlement and dominance. Because religion is supposed to be an inherently good thing that promotes egalitarianism and goodness in people, I would assume that people would put their patriarchy aside. But alas, I underestimated the impact of the patriarchy and its bad intentions and biased ideas that exclude women.

Classical scholars have promoted the reduction of women– and especially a wife’s duty– to be a sexual haven for her husband. Keep in mind that this was already how women were viewed when Islam was revealed– this was something that was already ongoing in society. Islam didn’t bring such patriarchal societal structures down– it sought to improve them and push them toward egalitarianism, from my understanding. In the society that existed, women were not seen much more than slaves for sexual pleasure– there were literal slaves who were used for sex if they were female (there were of course male slaves, too, but of course, women were not allowed to have sex with their male slaves, but those male slaves could still have female slaves to have sex with, because, you know, they were men), and men married unlimited amounts of women to whom they did not treaty fairly or justly. Women were deprived from having a choice in their marriage partners, too, prior to Islam.

In the Qur’an, verses were revealed to reclaim a woman’s personhood– something that was met with much resistance from the men of that time. Even the verses revealed were meant to apply to that kind of society– they were meant to initiate progress- not end it. We’re supposed to learn from this progress of women’s autonomy and personhood to promote more progress– so why are so many scholars and preachers still resistant to this progress?

Here we are, several (mostly) male scholars seeking to uphold patriarchal standards of the society that limited women’s autonomies to the wills and whims of their husbands and men of their families. The same Muslims who are in consensus about the idea that the Qur’an sought to abolish and eliminate slavery are also the ones who describe and promote the dynamics of Islamic marriages as ones where the woman is a slave to her husband. So they’re basically saying that yeah, Islam intended to get rid of slavery… but not the slavery of women to their husbands though? Ugh, patriarchy.

As alluded to earlier, I will give one example that shows that traditional thought is not superior to progressive thought– too many Muslims keep rejecting progressive interpretations and thinking on the basis that they are progressive. They equate progressive to being the opposite of traditional and the opposite of traditional to being the opposite of Islam.

The example is female genital mutilation [FGM], also known as female circumcision. It is disgusting and harmful– both physically and mentally. Yet, it is practiced and even endorsed in many places in the world in the name of Islam– but please note, FGM isn’t exclusive to Muslim cultures. Many non-Muslim cultures also practice it.

If you ask most Muslims if FGM is Islamically endorsed, they will be horrified and hurry to say that it is haraam, or prohibited because it is harmful, as proved by science. Yet, many of these same Muslims, if they follow Sunni traditions, will promote that if you deviate from what the four main schools of thought, the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i and Maliki, have established as the proper way to follow Islam, then you are deviating from practicing Islam properly itself because you haven’t dedicated the same amount of time and had the same resources that they did. To give more background to those who aren’t familiar, these are the four main schools of thought for those who follow the Sunni Islamic methods– each school is named after the scholar who formed them. Each of these four schools recognize each other’s thoughts and ideas as valid even if they differ from each other’s own in the same areas of practicing Islam. It’s funny that people often refuse to think outside of these four schools, because guess what?

None of these schools condemn FGM. None!

The Hanafi school says it’s okay, though there’s no religious significance attached to it. The Maliki school says that female circumcision is preferred— as if the dangerous and painful torment of this act is okay in the first place. The Hanbali school says that it is honorable for women to undergo FGM– as if it’s not only okay, but that it is good. And the Shafi’i school says that girls/women have to do it.

Now, I’m not here to bash these thinkers and say that they purposely forged these ideas that FGM is permissible for their own sick pleasure. They may have thought that there were health benefits or something other totally off fact and reality that were’t with the intent of harming women.

But look at how far off they were, and the damage and harm it’s done to way too many girls and women. Not only has it stripped women from experiencing sexual pleasure that they’re entitled to, but it’s also harmed them in inexplicible ways.

My case in point– just because something is traditionally accepted in the history of religious thought does not mean that it is more likely to be correct and reflective of the religion itself– in this case, I am referring to Islam from my perspective as a Muslim. It’s way past time that fellow Muslims, especially those preachers and scholars and leaders with considerable influence, stop throwing away progressive interpretations and thought of religion on the basis of them contradicting traditional thought. At the end of the day, we are human– we are not God, who is omniscient– we could have believed something as religious before and widely accepted it as such, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance for it to be proven wrong later. Classical scholars are not superior to newer and progressive scholars. We can’t reject “progressive” ideas and thinkers on the basis that they differ too much from traditional thought and practice– in fact, rejecting traditional thought may actually bring us closer to religion through progress.

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