A JIRGA in northern Pakistan bans women from visiting tourist spots. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to deny education to girls as well as freedom to work or go out without male family members. The reasons they cite are that such activities are not condoned by religion or culture.
These men are either ignorant or deliberately avoid acknowledging the fact that religion says no such thing; quite the contrary. The Quran says that blindly following traditions of one’s forefathers places them in the group that does not think (2:170; 5:104). As they establish themselves as wardens of physical prisons for women, they imprison their own minds in dungeons of religious righteousness. And throw away the keys.
Many Muslims today are inclined to mourn their fall from what is considered Islam’s golden age between the seventh and 13th centuries. This epic fall, they say, is largely due to turning away from faith as in not visiting mosques, not fasting, ensuring a specific physical appearance, and not reciting the Quran nor visiting the Kaaba — as well as loosening the hold of men over women.
Spiritually, religiously and intellectually, Muslims of yore were superior to most other nations and had set up centres of learning across the world. Over the centuries, however, internal strife, poverty, lack of human development and political instability created by self-serving rulers on the one hand and an inward-looking society on the other led to decadence. This was catalysed by colonisation by Western powers and then social, economic and political interventions by the same countries.
Many Muslim men are trapped in dungeons of their own making.
Additionally, Muslims failed to establish at the individual and collective level the ethical foundations of Quranic teachings; they failed to recognise that understanding the Quran is an ongoing process of initial contextualisation, clear articulation of Quranic principles and the subsequent review of current socioeconomic aspects followed by new laws or revision of existing ones to better serve justice; they did not continue to invest in scientific and rational thought and research, nor ensure reform of their legal and juristic institutions, nor look to the future, nor accept women as equal partners. Instead, they continued to dwell on past glories.
They believed that all that was required of Quranic interpretation had been carried out, that no further work was necessary. As societies changed, they closed their minds to questioning, refusing to adopt an ongoing process of evaluation. The intellectual ‘freeze’ resulted in attention to form rather than substance; lack of accountability to society, and a widespread belief in the inferiority of women.As their minds remained cocooned in their self-satisfied shell of ‘Muslimness’ defined by religious rituals and past glory, the rest of the world made strides in discovery and innovation, ready to change opinions if necessary.
As discussed by Khaled Abu el Fadel in Reasoning with God, although early Muslims developed a large body of analysis and rules in the form of fiqh, derived from Quranic verses, the Sunnah, hadith and personal opinions, and it still forms a basis for guidance today, they also used it to control women and their agency.
It would not be unfair to suggest that many Muslim societies are still governed by tribalism and ethnic groupings that are inherently patriarchal. Technology and new developments are selectively accepted. Many men open bank accounts, use mobile phones and watch TV. Yet women must only look after the husband and his relatives, bear (many) children, cook and clean, within four walls. This system continues even in large cities. It is perpetuated by both women and men; the former brought up on the commands of males and a diet of literal and often wrong edicts, claimed as religious, a skewed understanding of hadith and the mixing of history, cultural practices, traditions and stories.
Consider the following: girls should not use mobiles as they might communicate with their fiancés which is forbidden; if married women refuse their husbands, they will be cursed by angels; if men allow even one hair of their sisters to be seen by other men, they will go to hell; women should not visit mosques or graves, etc. Such beliefs are communicated widely and those who don’t conform are rebuked. One can suggest that if today’s religious beliefs and practices are analysed, many aspects would be found to be dissimilar to the faith brought by the Prophet (PBUH).
An attitude of questioning one’s beliefs and practices and openness to diverse opinions must be developed to chisel away at the rigid walls of these mental prisons of religious self-righteousness. Outdated, harmful and unjust traditions, hidden under the cloak of religion need to be exposed for what they are: chains that prevent the full beauty of the Quran and the justice system that Islam stands for from being realised.
The writer is an individual contributor with an interest in religion.
Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2022