Muhammad was a Feminist II: Deepening the Dialogue

Muhammad was a Feminist II: Deepening the Dialogue

Jim Garrison (President of Ubiquity University) and Banafsheh Sayyad (author Dance of Oneness)

We want to thank everyone for sharing their perspectives. In writing the oped, we were aware that we were entering a domain of high voltage in the current inter-religious and inter-cultural debate. Few topics in the world are so inflamed and emotionally charged as that between Islam and the West. There seems to be an unbridgeable divide between Judeo-Christianity on the one hand and Islam on the other, despite the fact that all three religions trace their origin to Abraham and pray to the same God. In today's polarized world, to say that there is any good coming from the other side is to risk heresy. Asserting that Muhammad was a feminist is so contrary to prevailing Western and many secular and religious views in the Middle East that it is shocking to people. We recognize this and within this context thank everyone for their engagement on this important issue.

In the spirit of intellectual debate and honest search for deeper truth, we would respectfully make the following points:

1. The main assertion of those criticizing our point of view is that we are omitting many aspects of the Quran that indicate a pejorative attitude toward women. We agree with most of the points made and examples given. Patriarchy in the ancient world was egregious and violent against women, and this is expressed in all the ancient texts such as Torah, New Testament, Quran, Mahabarata, Dhammpada, and Analects. The only exception seems to be the Avesta, the holy text of Zoroastrianism. We completely agree that Islam, like all the other axial religions, was conceived and developed within a culture of hierarchy and patriarchy in which women suffered. This is undeniable.

It is precisely because of this that Muhammad's work to enhance the role and status of women is so dramatic. It is within the context of patriarchy, and he himself sharing many of the misconceptions about women, that Muhammad made tremendous advances for women in the key areas of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance. He continuously asserted women's complete equality with men before Allah and he extended important rights to women in critical domains directly affecting their lives. The status of women in Arabia after Muhammad was radically better than before Muhammad. The historical record is incontrovertible on this.

This is what makes Muhammad a feminist in our view. We call him history's first feminist because, as far as we know, Muhammad was the first historical leader to speak proactively and specifically about the need to empower women and to take concrete steps to actually enhance the role of women in critical domains important to their wellbeing. This is the essence of feminism. Within the constraints of his day, Muhammad identified an oppressed group and worked toward their empowerment and equality. It was partial, to be sure, but Muhammad began a process that if continued would have made Islamic women some of the most liberated in the world today. It was the reassertion of patriarchy in the name of sharia after his death that condemned the women of Islam, not the actions generated by Muhammad himself.

2. Many of our critics claim that Muhammad was a rapist and pedophile because he married Aisha when she passed puberty around age 9. Projecting 21st century norms back to the 7th century is very problematic at best and seldom correct or useful. The situation then was that it was customary for girls to be married around puberty. This was a practice shared worldwide and which continues in many parts of the world today. For husbands to be older, sometimes considerably older than their wives was and is also commonplace. Muhammad's marriage with Aisha was within this cultural context. Do we agree with this practice? No.

Muhammad's marriage to Aisha was also within a very important strategic consideration concerning his successor. His relative and close friend Abu Bakr, one of the first converts to Islam, succeeded Muhammad as Islam's first caliph. Aisha was Abu Bakr's daughter. The marriage was arranged to consolidate an extremely important political alliance and secure Abu Bakr's succession. It transformed their alliance into a sacred bond.

For Muhammad to have raped Aisha, he would have had to force himself sexually upon her before they were married and without her consent. In all the accounts, Muhammad honored her pre-pubescence and waited until she was of age according to the standards of the day. In all the accounts, Aisha embraced the marriage, and in all the accounts, they enjoyed a deep and loving relationship. She was in fact his favorite wife after Khadija with whom he was monogamously married for 25 years previously. Muhammad is said to have received divine revelations in Aisha's presence. She collected, disseminated and taught the Hadith after his death. She knew the Quran by heart. Muhammad died in Aisha's presence. There were serious dynastic, emotional and spiritual layers to their relationship. There was no rape or pedophilia. This assertion is simply not supported by any historical evidence available to us.

3. There were a number of comments from Iranians to the effect that Islam is a foreign invader and that the Persian tradition that predated Islam had progressive views about women. This is true. In ancient Iran, women owned property, were involved in managing their assets, participated in economic activities of the estate, had employment opportunities, earned wages, and as a result were able to be economically independent. Patriarchy was certainly the over-arching societal framework and men enjoyed far more rights and privileges than women, but the evidence clearly indicates that the life of a woman in ancient Iran was not limited to the domestic sphere. During the final years of Muhammad's life, Persia was even ruled by two queens, Purandokht and Azarmidokht. The status and role of Persian women changed dramatically and negatively after the collapse of the Sassanian Empire to the Islamic invasion in the eight century C.E.

Persian women were as liberated as they were because gender parity is firmly rooted in the teachings of Zoroaster in the Avesta which reflect the prevalent worldview in ancient Persia. In the Avesta, women were accorded moral and religious agency equal to that of men. Women could qualify to be priests. There is frequent praise and veneration of righteous adherents, irrespective of their gender. So we are not saying Islam is superior to the Persian tradition by any means. By establishing Muhammad as a feminist, we are neither negating the status of women in pre-Islamic Iran and the great advances that were made in that arena, nor demeaning the glory of Persian kings like Cyrus the Great, one of the greatest rulers in history whose royal Cylinder has been called the oldest known charter of universal human rights.

We are seeking answers for the problem of Islam in the world today. We need to have a strategy, a peaceful strategy, and that begins with reform. We wrote our oped in the hope of inspiring a serious dialogue about how to address the escalating danger Islamic Fundamentalism is posing to our world and how it can reform itself. Banafsheh completely understands the point of view of her Iranian compatriots and sympathizes with them. She has fully experienced the horrors of living under sharia law, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, she has chosen to look at the heart of the mystical tradition of Islam that connects back to the Mithraic and the Zoroastrian traditions to find the antidote to the poison sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism have released into the world.

4. The main point of the oped endures in our view, that the liberation of women is key to any reform of Muslim/Arab society and for any genuine re-ignition of a sustainable Arab Spring. The theological point we are seeking to make to the adherents of Islam is that the suppression of women cannot be justified by either Muhammad's life and teachings or upon the egalitarian spirituality of the Quran itself. The suppression of women by Islamic fundamentalists is the product of history and culture, not divine instruction or foundational principle.

The fundamental point is that we do not have to look outside of Islam to justify women's liberation. We join with many others in saying that the liberation of women in Islam needs to come from within the tradition itself, otherwise it will ultimately be resisted by the majority of Muslims. If Islam would seize the day on liberating women as consistent with its origins, it would do more than any other single act to revitalize its message. Otherwise it will continue to be culturally crippled, subject to fanaticisms of all kinds, and increasingly out of alignment with the mainstream of global civilized society. The liberation of women in Islam is the key to bridging the divide between Islam and the rest of the world and for insuring a future of peace on our planet. Muhammad began this process. Islam should liberate women on the foundations he built and evolve to standards befitting the twenty first century.

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Monday, 18 December 2017