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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Towards A Fiqh Al Nisa (Legal Framework for Women's Issues

Wishing all my Chinese readers Gong Xi FaCai! May the New Year ring you happiness, peace and prosperity! Bakri Musa

Towards A Figh Al Nisa (Legal Framework on Women’s Issues)

Book review: Understanding Women In Islam: An Indonesian Perspective

Syafiq Hasyim

Solstice Publishing, Jakarta 2006.

ISBN 9793780193 US$12.95 203 pp

No contemporary issue incites more passion and evokes uglier prejudices than the role of women in Islam. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have deeply held myths, views and convictions on the matter. These serve more as barriers rather than elements upon which to build greater understanding.

Syafiq Hasyim’s Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective demolishes many of the legends that have been erected and used as excuses to keep women subjugated throughout much of Muslim history and world. Many of these beliefs have become so concretized over the centuries that they are now viewed as the very foundation of the faith.

A great faith however, cannot be so readily adulterated; its truth, compassion, tolerance and justice would eventually emerge. Nonetheless it would take monumental intellectual, educational and other efforts to chisel away these false foundations.

Syafiq Hasyim makes two key points. One, the role of women in Islam must be viewed in the broader context of other faiths and cultures. Two, we should take a longer historical perspective.

Cultural and Historical Perspective

Despite the glaring misogynist beliefs and practices in Islamic societies throughout much of our history including and especially today, it is good to be reminded of certain realties. For instance, while America is only now celebrating its first female Speaker of the House (second in line to succeed the President) and contemplating nominating its first candidate for President, a female executive head of state is no longer a novelty in the Muslim world.

For another, the Muslim world has been spared such gruesome practices as wife burning (satee) and female infanticide. China and India’s lopsided sex ratio and what Amartya Sen calls the “missing women” reflect a far sinister denigration of women. The difference between female infanticide and the “free choice” of aborting female fetuses (made possible through sex determination via ultrasound) is only a matter of weeks. The underlying repulsive mindset remains the same.

Even the West, where gender equity is pursued to the point of denying even the inherent biological differences between males and females (hence women combat soldiers), is not spared. Pornography, which represents the ultimate degrading of women, is a multibillion dollar industry in America, and fast growing.

Then there are the ubiquitous beauty pageants, even for cute little girls as portrayed in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, and so tragically lived through ever so briefly by the pathetic “beauty queen” Jon Benet Ramsey. She was only six when brutally murdered during presumed sex abduction.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives

A prerequisite to understanding the issue of women in Islam is to first examine it. This is where the problem begins. Discourses on Islam in much of the Muslim world are severely constrained. The faith has been effectively co-opted by the corrupt and authoritarian state. As such, the views of the authoritarian rather the authoritative, to borrow Khalid Abdul Fadl’s phrase, prevail.

Those with views at variance with the state or who dare challenge accepted orthodoxy are forced to publish their works elsewhere. Increasingly that means the West and in English. That language is now the most important in Islam, next to Arabic.

Such scholarships risk being dismissed as tainted with “Orientalism,” of currying “Western agenda.” Traditional scholars are not the only ones leveling those charges, so too are Western educated professionals and scholars who ought to know better.

Syafiq Hasyim’s book and research institute, The International Center for Islam and Pluralism, are funded in part by an American outfit, the Asia Foundation. It does not surprise me then that he is not getting much attention in the Muslim world.

The other negative consequence is that as traditional Islamic scholars are for the most part English illiterate, they are deprived of these innovative ideas. The tendency is to denigrate such new thinking as bida’a (adulteration of the faith), the convenient fallback of those with a closed mind.

Syafiq Hasyim notes that women played major and pivotal roles during the Prophet’s time. His wives Khatijah, and later Aishah, together with others were actively involved in spreading the word. It was only subsequently when the luminaries were formulating their various schools of jurisprudence (Fiqh) were women systemically excluded. Whether by design or a reflection of the prevailing cultural norms is immaterial, the results are the same: a Sharia insensitive to women’s concerns.

While there are Quranic verses alluding to the lesser value of witness accounts of females and the favoring of sons over daughters in matters of inheritance, there are also clarion calls on the equality of all before God. Only virtue and piety are worthy of Allah’s attention, not our sex, race, or skin color.

Pursuing the issue of inheritance, it is well to remember that prior to the Prophet’s revelations, women had no inheritance at all, they were the inheritance, chattels of their husbands. Seen in this light, the Quran and Sharia represented a quantum leap in intellectual advancement. Also to be noted, this anti feminine bias of the period was not limited only to Islam.

Gods and Goddesses

Before the age of the alphabet, the deity was always portrayed in the feminine form, as seen in various cave drawings and ancient paintings. God was the mother figure, nurturing, protective, and from whom we draw sustenance. The masculine God, the Punisher and the Controller, came later with formal religion and a clergy class made up exclusively of men.

The San Francisco surgeon Leonard Shlain makes an intriguing observation in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Before the written word, communication was primarily through drawings. We draw with both hands and thus use both sides of our brain, the left (rational, linear and masculine side) and the right (emotional, non linear and feminine). In writing however, we use primarily the right hand and thus the “left male” brain; hence the increasingly masculine God in the culture of the written word.

In this computer age with the keyboards and multimedia graphics, we are again communicating using both hands and sides of our brain. With that would come, we hope, a greater appreciation of both our feminine and masculine sides.

Concept of Naskh (Abrogation)

In reconciling the apparent contradictions of the Quran, it would help if we were to remember that its central message (and that of the prophet’s teachings) is one of justice, tolerance, and mercy.

The ancient scholars reconciled the apparent inconsistencies by emphasizing certain Quranic verses over others, in particular giving more emphasis on the later Medinah verses over the earlier Meccan ones, using the concept of naskh (“abrogation”). Generally, the Meccan verses express the universal values and ideals of Islam while the Medinah revelations dealt with the practical realities of daily living.

Through naskh, they were able to craft the Sharia and the various schools of jurisprudence (Figh). Syafiq Hasyim suggests that we too should today fashion our own Figh al Nisa, an Islamic framework (meaning, based on the Quran) to address women’s issues. Figh al Nisa should be by, for, and from women, that is, the discourses must be inclusive to also include Muslim women especially those schooled in disciplines other than Islamic theology.

Emory University’s Abdullahi An Naim goes further and calls for a total review of the Sharia to take into account current norms of human rights, gender equity, and constitutional law. I look forward to his soon-to-be-published The Future of the Sharia. Beyond calling for a Fiqh Al Nisa, Syafiq does not formulate his own ideas on the matter. I hope he does so in his next book.

These innovations from the periphery of the Islamic world follow in the grand tradition of our faith. After its initial flowering in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam again blossomed in Andalusia Spain, and later, the Indian continent and Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. Islam is today one of the fastest growing faiths in the West, and with that the potential of Islam’s renaissance.


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