To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terror attack on the World Trade Centre, I am joining Andrew Jones (aka TallSkinnyKiwi) in blogging a passage from the Koran.
I do this not in any way to disrespect the memory of all those people who died as the towers burned then collapsed but rather to open up a window through which we might seek to understand one another better.
Since 2001, America and her allies (above all, my own government) have unleashed war on whole nations, kidnapped, unlawfully imprisoned, tortured in reaction to the violence of a few Islamic terrorists. In doing so, they have created a culture of fear and revenge. To those who follow an Islamic faith all this seems like another unholy crusade. The end result is a classic feedback loop- one action creates a reaction which in turn creates a reaction and so on.
For many in the west, every Muslim is another potential suicide bomber and the Koran is a ticking roadside IED.
Except most of us have never read the Koran; we certainly have not tested it through scholarly engagement. Perhaps most of us never will, but on the terrible anniversary of the attack on the twin towers, being open to engagement with the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the ‘other’ has never been so important.
I have been doing a little reading of An-Nisa, the 4th chapter of the Koran- dealing with the issue of women- their rights and obligations, outlining the requirements of modesty, including the verse traditionally interpreted to require wearing of the hijab. I encounter these things as a white Christian male with little real insight into the culture or theological issues, or the real experience of women across the Muslim world.
The way some parts of the Islamic world regard women is one of those things that we in the West find most difficult to understand or tolerate. It appears to amount to God-sponsored and state-enforced oppression, particularly when these understandings are allied to fundamentalist interpretations of the text.
(We Christians are familiar with these kind of interpretations of course- we still have our own voices calling for hat wearing seen-but-not-heard child bearers who know their correct place of subservience.)
It might be of interest to remember that according to tradition, Muhammad was married either 11 or 13 times. However, his first marriage lasted 25 years- he married his employer, the 40-year-old merchant Khadijah. It was this marriage that appeared to release Muhammad to follow his calling- it was foundational to the development of an entire faith.
This marriage destroys any idea of submissive, invisible, powerless women. Rather, the very beginning of Muhammad’s ministry was made possible by his allegiance to a wealthy, independent female merchant. In many ways, the writings in the Koran might be understood as a means of protecting and enhancing the freedom and rights of women within the cultural context that they were written. Does this sound familiar to those of us used to trying to grapple with the writings of Paul in the Bible?
Even accepting this, there remains the question of what might constitute freedom in terms of gender relationships NOW. There was all the fuss recently about the (scandalous) decision of the French to ban the wearing of the Hijab in public. I think that ultimately, these are not primarily theological questions, rather they are cultural-political ones.
These verses are my portion from the Koran-
- “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly) (leave them ): ; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”
These verses are troubling and disturbing to our ears. If we read them with no understanding of the context that is, or the stories of the life of the man who wrote the words.
Holy words are encountered through the lens of faith used to examine them with. Conservative Islamic scholars will clearly have a very different understanding than liberal Muslims, or Feminist Muslims. From a human rights perspective, we might hope that these latter voices are strengthened, but this is a debate that we are on the outside of and ought to be cautious for that.
What we should avoid are black and white conclusions filtered through prejudice. It is easy to condemn all of Islamic teaching based on a cartoon of the Taliban. Just as it is easy to dismiss all Christians as fraudulent tricksters based on Jimmy Swaggart. Stereotypes can not survive encounters with real flesh and blood.
Only then might we seek to protest injustice wherever we encounter it- although perhaps we should always start with our own stuff before leaning into others.
I think I will finish be quoting a poem by and unknown author, relating to freedom. It is a poem which seems to be well known in the Moslem world. I quote it because it seems to me to ask some interesting questions about freedom- because we in the West worship our own version of freedom- or some would say the illusion of freedom. We enshrine it in all our philosophies- our politics, our economics, our gender relations.
‘Freedom’ is something we will kill others for, and send our young soldiers to die for. Our freedom is something we would enslave others to preserve.
What does ‘freedom’ mean?
Does the eagle want to swim in the sea,
Restricted by the sky?
Does the fish want to dance on the wind,
Not enough river to explore?
Yet the sky is freedom for the bird
but death for the fish,
The sea is wide for the fish
but will engulf the bird.
We ask for freedom but freedom to do what?
We can only express our nature as it was created.
The prayer mat of the earth is freedom,
freedom from slavery to other than the One,
Who offers an shoreless ocean of love to swim in
and a horizon that extends to the next life,
Yet we chose the prison and call it freedom.