Way back in the early ’80’s, one of the very first things that I read about women and Islam was a pink booklet with a black and grey photo of a mosque on the cover, entitled “Status of Woman in Islam.”
I hadn’t seen that booklet around for years. But now, it was in my hand, and I was gazing at it. My hand was shaking a bit, and my stomach was turning over.
Until now, I had had a vague recollection of this booklet having a pale pink cover. Perhaps my recollection had faded with time. But now, I held the real thing in my hand, and its pinkness was brighter, somehow newer-looking than I had remembered. Odd.
Was I going to open it, or not?
This is ridiculous, I told myself. It’s just an old booklet. It shouldn’t be so unnerving to look at the cover of an old, cheaply-made booklet, that had been published way back in 1972 by the MSA. One of those low-budget dawah booklets that used to be sold for a nominal price at MSA events and mosque bookstores and halaal butcher shops.
But ridiculous or not, it was definitely unsettling. Partly because it was evoking so many old memories. Faces of people I hadn’t thought about for years, scenes from Muslim gatherings I had been to where this booklet had been sold flashed before my eyes. Stray words and phrases from speeches and the afterwards chit-chat at those gatherings emerged into clarity out of the buzzing in my ears.
And then, even older memories. Memories of me sitting in the library, reading the very limited selection of books on Islam and trying to sort out what it was exactly that I believed.
I opened the booklet, and read through it. It was an odd experience.
As I read, I vividly remembered how I had read it when I had first encountered it. How I had taken it at face value, without asking any critical questions about either the accuracy of the claims it presented or the purposes behind its publication and distribution. What a simplistic view of the world I had had in those days. I had been a voracious reader, but I had never really learned to read critically.
And I was looking for answers.
Now, three decades later, I looked at the booklet and understood the claim that the meanings of texts are created by the interaction between the texts and those who read them. I had read that booklet all those years ago, and in the process, I had also read my own concerns and questions into it. So, it had seemed to provide some answers that I had thought that I needed at that time. What a lot of weight for a cheap twenty-eight-page pink booklet to bear.
Rereading it today was like meeting ghosts—ghosts of myself, and of others. Like watching faded, rather staticky VHS tapes of long-past events. What is now a ghost, a memory, once existed in the present.
And if one could go back in time?
Of course, nobody can. Not really. Not even those of us who seem to be condemned to relive the past in our minds. We watch it unfold, but we can’t intervene to change the course of events. Helpless, we must witness events unfold as we know they must, with a certain inevitability. I had read this booklet at the tail end of my teens. I had lived an almost ridiculously sheltered life in a very small town, with limited access to libraries, or even to tv or radio. I had nobody to talk to about what I was reading either, really. Nobody who I trusted, nobody who I would have listened to if they had tried to draw my attention to the booklet’s limitations.
Perhaps what happened had been pretty much inevitable. And perhaps being trapped in those memories forever is inevitable too?
Or perhaps not.
It’s time for an exorcism. An exorcism by commentary, and super-commentary (hashiya).
STATUS OF WOMAN IN ISLAM
by Dr. Gamal A. Badawi
Published by The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada (1972)
Commentator: What genre does this booklet belong to? Who has written it, and why?
Early ’80’s ghost: What’s a genre?? Not sure who Gamal Badawi is, but he has a Muslim name with “Dr.” in front of it, so he presumably knows what he is talking about. I suppose. I mean, why else would a Muslim student group publish a booklet written by him on women and Islam?
Commentator: Always ask what type of writing it is that you are reading. There are different genres of writing—such as poetry and novels and encyclopedias—and they are written for different reasons, and they play by different rules. People don’t approach novels with the same expectations as, say, obituaries in the newspaper. Or at least, they aren’t expected to. This booklet is an example of late 20th century North American Muslim apologetics.
Super-commentator: Meaning, it was written in order to convince the reader that “Islam” is fair to “woman.” It is defensive. Note the use of wide generalizations here: universal “woman” as opposed to “women,” and “Islam,” with no reference to any specific interpretation, school of thought, sect, time or place.
“The Status of women in society is neither a new issue nor is it a fully settled one.
The position of Islam on this issue has been among the subjects presented to the Western reader with the least objectivity.
This paper is intended to provide a brief and authentic exposition of what Islam stands for in this regard. The teachings of Islam are based essentially on the Qur’an (God’s revelation) and Hadeeth (elaborations by Prophet Muhammad).
The Qur’an and Hadeeth, properly and unbiasedly understood, provide the basic source of authentication for any position or view which is attributed to Islam….”
Early ’80’s ghost: “This paper.” Hmmm. This sounds like an academic article. This booklet is trying to set the record straight, by correcting Western biases with an objective look at what Islam really teaches about women.
Commentator: Anyone can call anything a “paper.” Remember, a student group published it. That’s a way that academics tend to talk. But what matters is its methodology and content. Is it really aiming to be objective—to give different sides of the story? What research methods does it use? What sources does it quote?
Early ’80’s ghost: Well, anyway, he is explaining what Islam teaches, by quoting the Qur’an and the Hadith. Muslims follow what the Qur’an says, and the example of the Prophet, which is found in the Hadith.
Commentator: “Islam” is a world religion. “Islam” itself doesn’t say or teach anything, any more than it wakes up in the morning and eats breakfast and runs to catch the bus (paraphrasing Omid Safi here). It is Muslims who speak and teach. And Muslims throughout history have debated how the Qur’an should be interpreted, as well as which hadiths are more likely to be authentic and which are probably less so. Hadiths also have their own long history of interpretation, which continues until today.
Super-commentator: The statement that “the Qur’an and the Hadeeth, properly and unbiasedly understood…” implies that there is one self-evidently correct way to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith, that most Muslims have always agreed upon. This is simply not true. This ignores centuries of Muslim scholarship and debate on these sources and what they mean. What the author is doing here is presenting a typical Salafi interpretation of how Muslims “ought” to go about understanding what God wants as the way that Muslims have always approached these sources. But the Salafi movement began in the 19th century.
As Khaled Abou El-Fadl points out, presenting only one viewpoint as “what Islam says” without acknowledging the existence of other Muslim scholarly perspectives is an authoritarian (rather than an authoritative) way of talking about Islam.