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Evolution in Islam

A conversation I came across on another blog three weeks ago provoked the desire to respond with some thoughts of my own. Kenza mentioned in her blog Murmures that she’d come across some videos on YouTube of Islamic “religious scholars” instructing men on the correct way to beat their wives according to the Qur’an. She kept viewing one after another as if in a trance, feeling a mix of morbid fascination and seething anger, unable to pull herself away.

    I watched a second one, a third, a fourth… between those who explain the rules to follow, and those who describe the types of women who only function properly when they are beaten… another who explains that a man can only live with certain women if he keeps a stick constantly on his shoulder, another who talks about a small switch and a maximum of ten blows, or the fact that one mustn’t leave a mark, or draw blood… and finally one who speaks of the Qur’anic verse advocating beating one’s wife as a sort of owner’s manual similar to the one you receive when buying a car….
    I was as if hypnotized, my will was frozen, I wanted to see more… I felt a stupor of disdain, of disgust and little by little a sort of rage froze my heart… my stomach turned inside out, I wanted to spit in their face.

Two Moroccan men got involved in the comments. Both were educated, though one was a bit more enlightened than the other. Kenza got impatient with him, because she felt that he was more concerned with how such backward thinking looks in the West than with its actual effects on women. The other man was an apologist for the traditional view. Both pointed out that the Qur’an is clear. It gives men the authority to beat their wives, but only in extreme cases, and then only in moderation. One of them knew the exact verse, 4:35, Sura an-Nisa’ (Women). The following is my synthesis of several different translations of this verse.

    Men are the protectors of women because Allah has given one more than the other, and because they spend out of their wealth. So good women are obedient, guarding in secret what Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them, leave them alone in their beds, and beat them. Then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them. For Allah is High, Great.

I want to present the progressive face of Islam that I believe is its true face, so I will give the most progressive reading I can of this verse. It establishes a contract between men and women that goes both ways. It starts with the assumption that men are the sole breadwinners, which was the social reality at the time. Thus, men have the obligation to “spend out of their wealth” to provide for their wives. Women, in exchange, have the obligaton to remain faithful even when their men are away. Men are admonished to deal with “rebellion” diplomatically, much like going to the Security Council for sanctions before resorting to the use of force. First they should try words, then shunning, and only then physical discipline. This must have been a step forward for women, compared to what had gone before! Yet for our modern sensibility it leaves a bad taste. We rebel against the notion that under certain circumstances a man may strike his wife, and God is okay with that.

The text of the Qur’an can’t be amended, because its every word is believed to be divine speech, dictated to Mohammed from God through the angel Gabriel. Tampering with the text is beyond the authority of any human being, and since there are no more prophets after Mohammed, there isn’t even the possibility of God having second thoughts and revising the Qur’an himself.

There would seem to be only two options for Kenza, either to renounce her religion, or to accept that her husband (I don’t think she’s married) would have the authority to beat her under certain conditions. To her credit, Kenza doesn’t go to either extreme, which would be a capitulation in my opinion. Nor does she simply stick her head in the sand. Rather, she affirms the central truth of Islam, which is that it is alive and evolving. God doesn’t want blind obedience. Religion evolves as our understanding evolves. Precisely because it is valid in all times and places, Islam shows different sides of itself in different conditions.

    I defend Islam by conviction, by faith and by respect… personally I don’t see any aberration in Islam… Islam came with a clear idea, which is that it is a religion that is good for all times and all places, because it is a religion that glorifies reason and stimulates the development of thought and evolution… the spirit of Islam since its beginning has been a spirit of change and of revolution in mentalities… but people thought that the revolution was only once, then we rest on our laurels… I don’t think the philosophy of Islam early on was to remain shut inside this beautiful revolution the Prophet brought….
    The Prophet of Islam arrived at a time when people were burying baby girls alive because they brought bad luck, at a time when a woman was an inferior being… he pulled her out of that, gave her the right to life, to inheritance, to spend her own money, to choose her life companion, and I could go on… isn’t the sense of all that to evolve, to move ahead, not to remain shut in by what our predecessors were doing?… to reflect and act according to what is good and honorable?….
    That’s what I see in my Qur’an… as far as aberration is concerned, it’s in us, in our heads that are still those of monkeys who mimic without understanding, taking baby steps out of fear of being slapped on the hand, preferring the security of letting others think for us, and saying amen it’s less risky that way….

Regarding the issue at hand, the beating of women, she called changing the text of the Qur’an “out of the question”—an absurd idea for any Muslim—but added that our interpretation must change because the context has changed. Men no longer keep their wives under some kind of tutelage. Nor are they “the protectors of women” as the verse proclaims.

    Today the reality is that she is his equal, and the aftershocks of striking are not of a physical nature, but rather psychological and relational….
    What’s needed is a courageous reflection on what the Muslim world is today, and on the practice of Islam and its errors… maybe the text is immutable and sacred, but the errors that flow from it are multiple and dangerous and far from being sacred… and if the role of society is to protect its members, particularly its weakest members, then society is obliged to do that and take a stand….
    And that begins with women above all, who must come to realize their role in society, that this verse of the Qur’an should no longer be applied to them by men who only hold onto the part of their rights and obligations that is convenient to them and accommodates their mediocrity….

Since I began studying the Qur’an, it has occurred to me that it is really at least two different books, operating on two different levels. The books say fundamentally the same thing, but address themselves to audiences at different stages of development. Modern psychology teaches us that there are some people who only do what is right out of fear of being punished, and others who act according to an internal moral compass. The first group might steal your mobile phone if you leave it on the cafe table while no one is looking. They are the reason we have policemen. The second group will avoid stealing even if they are under no risk of being caught. However, they might disobey a law they know is unjust—for example, by helping a slave to flee. Let’s call the first group the rabble, and the second the philosophers. The genius of the Qur’an is that it offers something to both groups.

For the rabble, the Qur’an lays down clear rules, for which there is no ambiguity. Prayer is mandatory, fasting and pilgrimage are mandatory for those who are able, lying and stealing and adultery and hypocrisy are sins. In fact, anything a person hides because he is ashamed for it to be known is a sin. God sees those sins, and punishment in the afterlife will be swift and certain. Various tortures are described, from lakes of fire to drinks of boiling metal to having the skin of your face peeled off. We are supposed to have an angel on each shoulder recording our actions. Good and bad are tallied according to an intricate set of calculations. The policeman is always there, handcuffs at the ready.

The Qur’an offers a different vision to philosophers. It is not a contradictory vision, but a vision that comes closer to the truth. The Qur’an states more than once that anyone who believes in God, his prophets, and the afterlife will know Paradise. So what is the point of all those calculations? Rules are for those who need them, but those who act spontaneously, from their own understanding, have a greater faith. In Islam this is known as ihsan or the “perfection” of faith. The philosopher understands that it is more pleasing to God to do the right thing voluntarily than to do it under compulsion. That proves we “get it,” which is the whole point. The danger is that to the rabble, this may look like we are breaking the rules! But God does not turn away from those who use the intelligence that is their birthright. Indeed he strengthens them in guidance, as the Qur’an also says many times. God cherishes a free man or woman who accepts the responsbility of that freedom, more than someone who plays it safe and obeys all the rules.

I realized a couple of years ago that we must never leave religion to the fundamentalists. What I call the “details” of religion, the specific practices or beliefs that make one religion different from another, are there simply to provide structure to their respective communities. Ultimately God doesn’t care if you pray like a Muslim or Hindu or Jew, so long as you are a vehicle of the Truth. As Kenza says, religion didn’t arrive on this planet to offer us a comfortable certainty in which we could curl up and hide. God needs no prophet or book to reveal the Truth, because it is happening around us all the time. It is the universe itself, and our presence here. To think that God would have sent Islam simply to teach men to beat their wives lightly, so as not to leave a trace, is insulting to God. God sent religion to teach us to take these questions into our own hands, to struggle with them, and complete his revolution. We are part of it, we are it. It is about freedom, responsibility… and love.

No doubt there are many who know Islam better than I do. I haven’t even read the whole Qur’an, certainly not in Arabic. I’m looking forward to your comments on this piece, particularly if it will help me learn.


Comment from Kenza
Time: December 6, 2006, 17:21

Hi eatbees
First of all thanks for your translation of what I’ve said on the issue :), it is an honor to get my text and comments translated and analysed that way :)
As for your ideas on the subject, I was amazed to read something that I can easily say myself.
I will comment your ideas the best I can (soemtimes in english sometines in french :)

You are saying that when reading the Quran you felt that it is really at least two different books, operating on two different levels.

I went across a text on the internet (je n’arrive plus à le retrouver et ça m’ennerve) this person was also studying the quran and he came up with an idea that I found very interesting
He said that we, as human beings, are accustomed to read any book, any text, a certain way, we have a logic that we follow which is the introduction, main idea and conclusion. We function with anything we read that way
He said that the way the quran is written is different, but we tend to read it and understand it the classical way. The idea in itself is very interesting and can make us reflect on way too many things about how we read, understand and apply things.
I am not trying to confirm anything here, what I say is that this idea is interesting in itself and can open doors that could be too easily shut

As for some of the ideas you mentioned:
– God doesn’t want blind obedience. I completely agree, I believe that god could have written something way too simple for us to understand and to apply very easily without thinking, he is capable of doing so… but that would defy the main object.
He wants us to think, to learn, to evolve.
He could have just given us instinct to act the right way, no thinking like animals that adore Him as mentioned in the quran
God gave us a brain to think, He distinguished human beings and preferred them form other creatures by that brain and their capacity of thinking, why do people forget that I can’t understand… for me it is as if someone gave me a great gift and I just throw it aside and continue to smile to him trying to please him…

– people who only do what is right out of fear of being punished, and others who act according to an internal moral compass
I confess that I never saw things that way, and that it is a very interesting perspective indeed.
I always saw it as an evolution, from acting out of fear to internalizing certain moral concept that will end up as being a second nature (guess I am too optimistic about human nature :)))

– I also agree with you when you are saying that it is not the way we worship that matters, by the truth we have inside us.

There is but one truth, the way we handle it is but different, there are multiple facets to that truth and we only understand one or some of these. My truth is different from another’s but not better, it is when I start to think that it is that I get the farthest from it.

By the way how did you conclude that I was not married ??? :)))) (just curious)

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 6, 2006, 20:51

It’s true, the Qur’an is not a book to be read “beginning to end”! It wasn’t composed that way, and I’ve found that we can only begin to understand it if we take a verse from here, another from there, and play them off each other—to see the variations, and the seeming contradictions that must be resolved at a “higher” level.
This is what makes it so much a “living” book, but at the same time makes it hard for a Westerner to enter, because our instinct is to ask, “But where’s the story…!?” We’ve been trained by the Old and New Testaments to expect the “beginning to end” format.

When I mentioned the two groups of people, I didn’t mean to suggest that one CAN’T evolve into the other. I was lucky to be raised by parents who explained the reasons for things, instead of saying “Do it or else…!!” Part of being an adult is understanding that choices have consequences. For example, invading a foreign country will create chaos and resistance. Watching television all day will make you passive and ill-informed. Maybe you can “get away with it” for a while, but sooner or later, the consequences catch up. Of course, some people never learn from their mistakes. Look at GWB! But I’m optimistic that most people can. Not only that, I believe it is necessary for human survival. If we didn’t have that skill, we wouldn’t be here now. Include me in the optimist club!

A friend of mine in Essaoura calls the Qur’an, coming as it did over 23 years, a “pedagogic” project whose whole idea was to teach people a better way of thinking. Of course , it wasn’t meant to stop there. One man, even a prophet, can only plant the seeds or lay down the “infrastructure.” I believe that Islam doesn’t just “allow” inquiry and the quest for knowledge, in fact this is the heart of the entire project. I hope to say more about this, inch’allah!

About how I decided you’re not married… of course it’s just a guess… although you talk in your blog about your home life, your sister’s plan to come to Canada to study, but you don’t say anything about a life partner. Usually if one has found that person it shows through!! :)

Comment from adel
Time: December 7, 2006, 01:49

I really tired to post something insightful but I couldn’t do it without looking like I’m attacking Islam, if it were my blog I wouldn’t prevent myself… however

I salute you Kenza, Marcel

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 7, 2006, 02:14

Good to see you here, Adel. Put it on your blog then, if you have the time! You know, my parents are both atheists, and they wonder why I keep trying to make Islam (or any religion) look reasonable. The answer is what I said in the post. We can’t leave religion to the extremists! If the people who “believe too much” and the people who “believe too little” won’t even talk, we end up with a divided world.

Comment from Kenza
Time: December 7, 2006, 10:52

(Comments on adel’s response)
Hi adel
You know what, we didn’t say that much different things as you think.
You should have read my post and my comments.
I don’t try to make sense out of non-sense as you said. I try to undersand both the religion and what people do from it.

If you have read my post you would have understood that for me there is no excuse for women’s beating and that whatever those people are saying society have to protect its members and the guy who is beating his wife must pay for that.

the difference between you and me is that I live in a world where religion exists and I think that eventhought for me it has to be and remain a personel affair, it is not the case for others. If I keep quiet the guys out there who are talking and talking about the way they see their religion will end up imposing that point of view, because me and others like me once said: it is nonsense I dont wanna talk about it.

I have friends that are animists, I do believe that they detain a certain truth, and I respect their beliefs… as I said everyone can see a facet of the truth but when he strats saying mine IS the truth he starts getting the farthest from it.

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 7, 2006, 15:55

In case you’re wondering what Kenza is responding to, the conversation continues over here.

Comment from Liosliath
Time: December 7, 2006, 16:10

“Ultimately God doesn’t care if you pray like a Muslim or Hindu or Jew, so long as you are a vehicle of the Truth.”

Hear, hear!

Comment from Amine
Time: December 8, 2006, 20:42

Hello everyone, I read this article and your comments and i’m gonna keep turning that in my hea d for a while to get my own opinion on the subject …
Thank you all

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 9, 2006, 15:05

@Amine — The door is open! Frankly, we need a “barbu” here to give me a hard time, but I don’t think they are reading…. :)

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