Friday, January 21, 2011

Understanding Islam Today: Traditionalists, Reformers, and Revivalists

This post came about from an argument between MOP & his wife, an OPNO, about women praying in the Mosque with no barrier or wall between the women and the men of the Mosque. As an expat, you'd find a men-only Mosque totally sexist. I assure you most adamantly, I do too, and find this story most amusing, and to the point about the state of discussion that intellectually we are in today, regarding the religion of Islam, whether one is Muslim or not. If you are an Omani, you may be on either side of the fence with this one, or trapped, like MOP is, in the middle, behind the barrier, and for knocking it down.

So unto the tale:

Being that we were all about on a road trip, we were unable to pray in our individual houses, which is what is BEST/EASIEST/NOT A SIN for women (not men who are not travelling---for men who are not travelling it is a SIN/NO REWARD not to pray in the Mosque). Muslims get this belief that prayer is allowed/better for women in their individual houses, because the Prophet Mohamed, peace and blessings be upon him, told Umm Humayd Al-Sa`idiyyah "A woman's prayer in her house is better than in her courtyard, and her prayer in her own room is better than in the rest of the house." (Chain of narration recorded by Abu Dawud).

MOP's wife reasoned that this is because she can concentrate better on her personal connection with her Creator in her own home and she is physically very safe there. And that women being allowed to pray at home and not having to go to the Mosque as something that is compulsory for them, was a gift from their Creator, making their faith easier to maintain in the days when there was no brith control [for example, women & men were discouraged from bringing children to the Mosques that would interupt or hinder the worship and spiritual/intellectual development of others'] . MOP's reasoning was that it hard for men to have that same connection to their Creator when a distracting woman is in the Mosque with them, and that if something is not done in the culture, it is merely best to avoid things that are sinful, and that it is not sinful for a woman to offer her prayers in a place that is not a Mosque.

You see, dear readers, this whole argument came out from the fact that when we had stopped on our journey, we did indeed find a Mosque, but we could not find one that had an area purposely for women. Mosques in Oman usually have an entirely closed off seperate area for women to pray in. This Mosque it seems, at least in terms of the culture, been built soley for the use of men.

Now had there been such an area for women, I doubt MOP's wife would have argued very much. There are many advantages to a closed-off women's only area, such as being able to adjust and re-adjust one's clothing, and them not having to worry as much about the Islamic requirements for their clothing, or even breastfeeding babies (not something you do while YOU pray, but something that can be done in an women-only side of a Mosque, and not something SO easily done when prayers are preformed by both the sexes together, and that, when a Mosque is mixed in terms of sexes, the Mosque purely becomes a learning and religious center for women, not a social one, whereas informal socialising may take place easily on a women's only area of a Mosque.

The important factor in the tale I am about to relate, is that in this case, there WAS no seperate women's area, but there was indeed a Mosque. And, in Omani culture, this Mosque was used only by men.

As MOP's OPNO would argue, a Mosque is built for Islamic culture, not any nationalistic culture, and the rules of the Mosque are the rules of the religion, not those of the place where a Mosque happens to be built.

Since there WAS a Mosque, albeit, lacking a seperate woman's prayer area, my dear friend and I had concluded that we would pray in the Mosque, rather than outside the Mosque.

MOP wanted us to pray outside.He was more than willing to pray with us there.

To sway his mind I said the following, quoting a saying of the Prophet Mohamed , peace and blessings be upon him: ""The Prophet (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, “If people knew the reward in praying Fajr and Isha together in the Mosque, they would go to the mosque even if they had to crawl.” And the chain of narration is recorded by Bukhari & Muslim. And the Prophet didn't just say 'if men knew, he said 'if people knew' meaning women too."

So MOP related the hadith/saying about women's prayer being best in their homes. To which is my friend intelligently replied: "Habibi, we are far from our houses. But we do have a Mosque. The hadith does not say, 'it is better for women to pray in the courtyard of the Mosque than in the Mosque'. In fact, Allah [God] made it perfectly clear that women are to attend the Mosques in that the Prophet Mohamed told the men "Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from entering the House of Allah [i.e the Mosque]" and from many sayings of the Prophet and historical records, we KNOW that women among the BEST generation of Muslims prayed in the same room with the men, no barrier between them, albeit, in very modest dress void of perfumes, and in the back rows so that guys couldn't check out their butts." She was smirking.

MOP of course, knew it was perfectly halal for women to pray in the Mosque, and that we were all Muslim women dressed in a manner to attend any public event in the presence of men but he reasoned that since it was something regarded as outside the culture, it was ALSO perfectly acceptable to render prayers OUTSIDE the Mosque, and less trouble to do so.

WHYYYYY were there seperate prayer areas for women in Oman? both my friend AND I enquired of poor MOP.

MOP said, because it was hard for men to concentrate on their prayers with women in the room.

Why was this, all OPNO girls wanted to know (even the non-Muslim one) when the men among the earliest Muslims managed to, without treating the women like meat?

"Because it is a corrupt time for Muslims" MOP helplessly cited, which brought about the true reason for this post.

"More sin now than before?" my lips curled into a sneer at that line of reasoning. MOP's wife and I are of western education, and both spent time as Muslims in the West. This line of reasoning annoys the heck out of us, because all [well, in Islamic scholarship anyways] Muslims believe that Islam as evidenced in the Qu'ran and practiced/explained by the Prophet Mohamed was the perfect example for all Muslims, for all times.

My girl, picked up from there, as it WAS HER husband afterall. "So you would reason, that we should leave off what was done by the Prophet, because what he left us with isn't good enough? That Islam should be CHANGED to meet these corrupt times?"

Of course, that is not what any decent Muslim Omani man could mean, but that is where his kind of reasoning leads. It leads to Muslims in the West who openly reject the things in their religion that don't so easily fit into their modern lives, like the jilbab and khimar, which takes the form of the black abaya and headscarf, that few Omani men like MOP would want their sisters and mothers and wives to reject. Yet in the West, my friend and I have seen it. Women say, it may be in the Qu'ran as a command, but it doesn't pertain to today. Well, there was no requirement of men and women praying seperate BEFORE but there is today. Same reasoning, opposite lines of the spectrum.

"What harm can come from you praying outside the Mosque?" MOP asked his wife as she shouldered her way past him up the steps of the Mosque as if she couldn't hear his question.

On our way there, an Omani boy, ten years younger than myself, tried to stop us, saying there was no women's Mosque. He did not know, that is was allowed for Muslim women to pray in a Mosque, so long as they did not wear perfume, and did all their Islamic requirements in way of public dress, and did not use the Mosque for purposes other than prayer and reducation from Islamic lectures. He did not know, clearly, that it is a SIN for a man to forbid a woman from attending the Mosque.

MOP prayed in front of us, we prayed in the back, and another Muslim man, who knew enough of Islam to calm the Omani boy down about us women being there, prayed on the opposite end of the Mosque from out party respectfully a small ways in front, as men are to do in the religion.

When we left the Mosque, OPNO belonging to MOP and he to her respectively, answered his question.

"The harm does not come from praying in the Mosque or outside it, but it lies in your reasoning, and what that reasoning allows us to forget. That boy no more knew what was allowed, than he knows why it is not allowed. Your reason, that it makes men uncomfortable, is not a reason in Islam, as Islam allows women to go where it is necessary and even pleasing and certainly beneficial for them to go. The women of Sahaba [the first Muslims] interacted with men in Islamic capacities where it was halal [not sinful] and beneficial for society for them to, in education, business, and religion. The danger, and it IS evidenced IN OMAN for our Western/Convert eyes to see--- by the way, is that when you seperate us from the Mosque, men stop seeing us equals in the religion, and more as meat. You see us as mothers maybe, and wives, at best, and at worst... If men cannot behave as the Prophet himself behaved at the Mosque, than they have no means of being there either."

MOP regarded her desperate plea, and assured us he was on the same side, and wanted very much for these things to be changed, but didn't want his wife to be the one to do it, in the manner that she did.

But then who is to to do it? We asked? Who is to change it? We all agreed, seperate areas for women had their benefits, and women enjoyed them, but that some women suffered from their inability to approach Imam's weekly or daily with questions, or to recieve the same education and information Muslim men recieve from attending the Mosque regularily.

MOP even admitted to us, that in his village in Oman, women do not come to the Eid prayers, when praying the Eid prayer in congregation is CUMPULSORY on muslim men AND WOMEN, even women who have their periods, ect...

That is the danger of reforming/pseudo reviving of Islam. You lose the right legality, and the true message of it, whether the reform is in a liberal or a conservative direction.

Which brings me to:

Today, there are, intellectually, 3 different ways of studying Islam, no matter the sect or manner of jurisprudence within those sects.

Now I am stealing these definitions, credit to sister Nida, from her blog, and she's stealing it from Abdelwahab El-Affendi ;):

Definition: Those following traditionally approved approaches and methods of interpretation, and basically handing down what has come from before in the same manner as before. These do not wish to update Islam, and seek to do what has always been done ie come to the same conclusion. *many intellectually documented ways of studying & viewing Islam are reform or revival based Islam passed down in the manner of traditionalists but those same types of intellectual Islam would not necessarily BE traditionalist in nature*

Definition: Revivalists distinguish themselves from traditionalists by redefining the tradition into purist terms, while the former tend to accept the traditionl more or less in the context as it was handed down. The purpose of doing so it to impose an idealizized idea of Islam, with a tendancy to instrumentalize religion and to define their movement sociologically, rather than theologically. This can be done in either a very conservative or very liberal manner.

Mr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi's conclusion of this movement in terms of discussing Islam, the same as, and so much more eloquently expressed than my own: "Their version of instrumentalized Islam is spiritually, artistically, and humanly impoverished and narrowly partisan.”

Definition: Reformers differentiate themselves from Revivalists by interrogating the tradition in more radical ways. Seeking to exploit the differences and conflicts within orthodoxy to eliminate or discredit those aspects of the tradition that have become difficult to defend in the modern era, selectively picking and choosing from various accepted authorities to support their modernizing (usually liberal, but not always) agenda.

This approach seeks to work within the confines of orthodoxy while working hard to redefine it. It attempts to develop a radical rereading and reinterpretation of traditional Islamic sources by adapting traditionally approved approaches and methods of interpretation.

Ultra-radical reformers launch a frontal attack on traditionalism, sometimes advocating treatment of the Qur’an as a “human” text and using the tools of modern literary criticism to decipher it.

Mr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi observes that "such a deliberate drive for a reformation... is based on copying another (Christian) experience in another religious tradition in another era is condemned from the start to the loss of innocence: it is no longer religious reform but social engineering and intellectual tinkering.”

Mr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi wrote, that while reform of Islam is much applauded from non-muslims in the West, that they should be cautious in this as well: “The efforts of U.S.-based Muslim intellectuals to undermine Islamic authoritarianism could warrant an “even more ambitious agenda following up on changes in Islam’s ideology with changes in leadership and religious practices.” Much justifies these ambitions, but ambition must not be allowed to shift to illusion. To move from a valid appreciation of the increasing importance of the intellectual contributions of Western Muslims to a “wag the dog” theory that ascribes to them a leadership role in religious reform may be as misguided (and as dangerous) an illusion as the idea that creating an American colony in Iraq would be an advertisement of America’s love for democracy and an inspiration for freedom lovers throughout the Muslim world. Both illusions spring from the same quintessentially Western overconfidence, even arrogance, of which Muslim Westerners are not immune.”

I wholly agree, as a Muslim who lived in the west, letting the likes of Tariq Fatah and Irshadd Manji speak for me, and represent Islam, is misguided. Though one MIGHT say, the same reform movements exist in Egypt, ect.... to quote Nida who'd say it like I would but better;): "What defines 'progressive' islam is a distinct Western liberal ideology, so anyone ascribing to this ideology, be they American or Egyptian or whatever, is elevating Western ideology above tradition (a universal set of moral and ethical values). I believe the reason why the progressive ideology is popular in places like Egypt is due to the deep rooted colonial and neo-colonial legacy. It is mostly people who have been 'exiled' from their countries and had a 'Western/European' intellectual upbringing who are the leaders of this particular movement."

But that does not mean, living here now in Oman, that I am free from the influence and power of such misguided reform movements. As this entire post has been an example of, the same line of reformist thinking exists heavily in even Arab culture.

as Nida pointed out, what some call 'revivalism' is in fact reform: "changing the religious interpretations to an idealized modern vision of what they believe Islam looked like at the time of the prophet (peace be upon him)", regardless of whether or not that vision is based on the classical interpretations of Islam. "As per the mosque example, according to the classical texts women used to pray directly behind men, and now they are being boxed away into small corners of the mosque and encouraged to pray at home. The argument that is being used to justify this practice in some mosques is that "today there is more fitnah/sin"; therefore implying that we have to re-interpret Islam for modern, albeit corrupt, historical time period."

People have to be aware of where their ideologic reasoning leads them, same as when one studies socialism/fascism, two spectrum of the same reasoning spectrum.

I myself, do not support a reformation of Islam but a reformation of self, and the only revival I engender, is one of knowledge and awareness.


Lamya said...

Good post mushallah. I do not like the barrier or the idea that woman cant use the mosque in some places. Though more then once I have gone into a "mens only" mosque to use the bathroom, after all other bathroom choices where not an option. Someone went in first to make sure no men where there then sent me in and stood at the door keeping guard for me. I did have a little boy and some other kids come upto me once, but it was just to tell me there was no water there.

Anonymous said...

My local masjid does not have a prayer area for women. Their reason is the lack of space to even accomodate the men which I accept. What I don't and can't accept is that they have absolutely no services for women. At the least they could do a saturday halaqa or something which I think the women in our area could really benefit from. Even the prophet's(saw) very simple and basic masjid made space for women and these days we get giant huge mosques that have no space for women.
Once, my friend was on a bus and it was maghrib time so she quickly jumped off when she saw a huge masjid. But when she got to the door they said sorry we don't accomodate for women. I mean, I'm sure they could have given ONE women a space to pray. Afterall she has the same obligation as any other man to pray salah.

Anyways thanks for the post