Blog: Alia Hogben

Author: Alia Hogben

image4What I planned to write today was about the exciting book by Canadian Islamic scholar, Ayesha S. Chaudhry – Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. However, under the grim shadows of destructive ISIS, and the ongoing wars in so many parts of the world affecting Muslims, I am overwhelmed and discouraged.

It is incredible how media and individuals have reacted to the heartbreaking photograph of a little Syrian boy`s body washed up, at the edge of the sea. There have been months of horror stories of people drowning, others locked in sealed containers, others in refugee camps with little food because the U.N is running out of food; and yet it appears that none of these touched us as much as that of the single child on the beach.

These tragedies are the fault of so many governments, but what is happening to ordinary peoples is so terrible that all of us have a responsibility to do something. For example, what are the helpful roles the oil rich Muslim majority states have in alleviating the conflicts? We know the roles played by many Western governments and yet none of their interference has made life better for Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis. The rapid rise of ISIS has left governments and individuals reeling and unable to stem the tide of destruction.

At home, what have we as Canadians done to alleviate this situation? Imagine Germany taking in 800,000 refugees while we in Canada with all our resources have made helping difficult with bureaucratic forms and procedures.

Amidst this maelstrom, I wonder how to talk about something like scholarship and the possible changes within the understanding of Islam. Yet, I think it is vital for Muslims and non-Muslims to discuss how we must move towards egalitarian and compassionate interpretations within Islam. It is urgent to counterbalance the interpretations and practices of groups such as ISIS and other arch–conservatives.

Muslims can be proud of our history of intellectual critical thinking and of the knowledge we passed on to other parts of the world, such as Europe. However, what is the point of harkening back to a “glorious past” when the present is somewhat stagnant and intellectual curiosity is discouraged?

This major task of revitalizing critical thinking is fortunately being tackled by a number of scholars, but sadly this scholarship is not widely disseminated. Instead, what we Muslims have are several so -called experts with their websites preaching a lot of mistaken interpretations as gospel truth. They claim for themselves a mantle of religious authority because they are fostered/financed and disseminated by states and individuals, well-endowed with oil rich resources.

On the other hand, an example of intellectual questioning is the Chaudhry book. It is thought provoking and questions some dearly held ideas about patriarchy and domestic violence. She challenges the interpretations of a controversial Quranic verse in a clear and cogent manner.

She divides Muslim religious thought in two periods – pre- and post- colonialism. Pre-colonial is the period of early Islam to the17th century, while the post-colonial is the twentieth to twenty first centuries. She uses these periods because colonialism changed Muslim discourse. Her research has demonstrated that pre- colonial scholars believed in a patriarchal cosmology – a particular ordering of the universe – a hierarchal line with God on top, next are men or husbands, with women/wives below.

In contrast, an egalitarian cosmology is not hierarchal, but sketched as a triangle with God at the apex, and men and women at the base of the triangle, equidistant.

Amongst some Muslims the “Islamic tradition” of jurisprudence and Quranic interpretations of early Islam are the sources of “authority” and are sacrosanct. You just need to quote one of these early jurists/scholars and what you state is unquestionably “the truth.”

Chaudhry sees this “overblown and overbearing authoritative status” as an impediment to any change in our times. How can we argue for an egalitarian understanding of the Quran if we also insist on the authority of this Islamic tradition which espoused patriarchy with women below both God and men?

She concludes that the mythologized Islamic tradition is an obstacle to deriving newer interpretations. The pre-colonial patriarchal and post- colonial egalitarian cosmologies are fundamentally irreconcilable with respect to gender and other issues. The critical issue for current scholarship is that if one dismantles the authority of the “Islamic tradition” what replaces this authority? Chaudhry wonders if the community of believers and present day scholars can be the source of authority.

How does this kind of intellectual questioning influence the mainstream Muslim interpretation of Islam, the practices of believers including arch conservatives and groups such as ISIS? How does one influence Wahabism which has spread so widely? Who can talk to the Saudis and others?!

If only they would open their minds and hearts and listen to the message of the Quran: “…there are messages indeed for those who use their reason,” and “Truly in this is a sign for people who think.”