Thursday, April 20, 2006

Islam Should Speak for Itself...

Peace, one and all...
I'm currently still ruminating on Rumi (I do love that phrase), so I don't yet have anything to offer on that score. I do feel something coming though (insha Allah); so, get ready!
Now, with the imminent end of the Easter holidays (which means I've started getting the train again), I've been reading quite a bit lately. I've just finished an interesting book and so want to offer a few thoughts on it here.
The work in question is M. Smith's Rabi`a: the Life and Work of Rabi`a and Other Women Mystics in Islam (published by Oneworld, 1994). As the title suggests, the book focuses mainly on the early woman mystic, Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya.
The work is split into three sections: section 1 focuses on her life; section 2 looks at the Sufi path (as exemplified by Rabi'a); section 3 looks more broadly at Women mystics in Islam. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. That is, it offered a useful introduction to Rabi'a's life and thought. I must confess it's not a subject I know a great deal about. I have heard of Rabi'a (May God grant her mercy) and know that she was one of the most eminent mystics of the entire Islamic tradition; indeed, her teachings (based upon self-effacing experience) have been deeply influential. In that sense, the book is a welcome addition to the study of Islamic mysticism.
Smith's exploration of Sufi thought (which, so the cover proclaims, was based on her PhD) is interesting. However, given that this was, apparently, her PhD, it does seem a little uncritical. That is, it offers a description of the Sufi path and its principal stages, but does not seem to offer much of an analysis. Her discussions of the stages of Repentance (tawba), Patience (sabr), Gratitude (shukr), etc are all welcome - but, after reading them, they seem more like a pastiche of quotes than a reasoned argument. Or, rather, she seems to accept all these different statements (from mystics such as al-Hujwiri, al-Ghazzali and so on) as unquestionably part of the same process. She doesn't seem to explore the links and connections critically enough for my taste. Now, it has to be admitted immediately, that I am not a Sufi; I thus make no claims to experiential understanding of these 'states' (May Allah grant me the tawfiq to pursue such a path). But, it seems to me, that although there is a path trodden by Muslim sages (in all its manifold diversity), a work such as this needs to explore the issues more critically.
I was also struck by Smith's use of comparative material from other religious (mostly Christian) traditions. Again, this works on two levels, exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin). Esoterically speaking, as God is but One, so is the Ultimate Reality. Thus, at a certain level, differences disappear. On this level, such marterial works very well. On a personal note, the idea that Truth is ultimately One is what lead me to Islam. On my office wall (which I'm looking at now), I've got a Biblical and Quranic passage side by side (Proverbs 1:7 - 'The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge...' and 'Fear God and God shall teach you...' from the Quran). Again, it's in (or perhaps by) this light that I read the Old Testament (as Christians refer to it).
Exoterically speaking, however, I have reservations about the seemingly uncritical reservations about the use of such comparative material. Smith offers no disclaimers about this material and the fact that it is potentially dangerous to use material in this way. Indeed, reflecting on the book as a whole, it seems clear to me that this perception lies behind the entire work: it leaves me wondering about her own allegiances (which are left unclear).
These thoughts are further strengthened in the first chapter on section 3 ('The Position of Woman in Muslim Lands'). I have major problems with this chapter. Firstly, although its title seems to reflect a broadly sociological approach, what we really have here is an unworthy pastiche of fairly standard anti-Islamic material. It's difficult to emphasise properly how strange this chapter appears after the largely positive account in sections 1 and 2.
Basically, Smith argues that Islam, as a religious system, is inherently anti-woman. That is, Islam is theologically anti-woman, and, this theology is based on Muhammad's ( ) own sexism (as apparently evidenced by his marriage to Khadijah). As a believing Muslim (and a student of history), I find this picture hard to swallow. Firstly, although Rabi'a (and other mystics) sought God for His own sake (rather than through fear of punishment or hope of reward), they were led to these spiritual heights through following Muhammad's example. In other words, the purity of the internal states Smith describes in section 2 could not have been achieved by an impure, sexist heart.
Smith's evidence for Islam's misogyny is largely drawn from a comparison with examples from pre-Islamic poetry. Here, though, a number of points are worth noting. Firstly, is it fair to compare an idealised (indeed, romanticised) picture of an imagined past with a pciture of (perceived) 'reality'? Pre-Islamic poetry is, of course, almost the only source for pre-Islamic Arabian society - but, it is certainly not without bias.
First of all, it should be remembered, that this poetry only survives in the writings of Muslims themselves. It seems to have been largely a product of the growth of adab literature in the second and third centuries after the hijra. And, as made brilliantly clear by Tarif Khalidi in his Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (CUP, 1994), such poetry often portrays the pre-Islamic bedouin as an archetype of the 'noble savage'. In other words, such poetry often says much more about its transmitters' times than about pre-Islamic Arabia. An example from Roman history may help here: looking at Tacitus' Germania demonstrates that his 'noble savages' are, in many ways, counterpoints to his 'degenerate' Roman elite.
Indeed, the very fact that the 'freedom' of the women cited is so emphasied suggests that common practice was very different. One need only read some of the early Makkan chapters of the Quran to see that women were considered little better than property (in terms of marital rights, divorce rights and rights of inheritance).
Now, many contemporary Muslim writers lay much emphasis on the rights that Islam grants to women (true, undoubtedly) whilst at the same time ignoring the suffering that has (and continues to be) perpertrated in the name of Islam. However, as Fatima Mernissi (in her seminal work, The Veil and the Male Elite) emphasises, Muhammad himself was radically different. Moreover, Muslim women are actively, indeed noisily, present in early Muslim history (as the sources Smith herself cites show). Her presentation of Muslim women appears, to me at any right, as skewed. Upon reflection, it might even be said that her work (especially in its use of comparative material) is a somewhat polemical Christian understanding of Islamic mysticism.
This leads me on to another point; namely, the importance of letting Islam (or any religious tradition) speak for itself on its own terms. Viewing Islam as, at best, a faulty interpretation of Christianity is flawed both methodologically and ideologically. In order to understand Islam properly, you have to accept that it is a major world religion in its own right and as such, exists above, beyond and outside other interpretations.
Undoubtedly, Judaism and Christianity have influenced Muslims and their religious thought. Moreover, there are many ideological and spiritual similarities. Should these be viewed as 'borrowings'? Or, do they really represent similar explorations of similar issues; after all, aren't Jews and Christians 'Peoples of the Book'?
Wa Allahu `Alim (And God knows best).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman


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