The art of dissidence through creative knowledge

It’s been a while since I mused here. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Islamic feminist literature these days and there is a lot I want to discuss with Muslim feminists starting with the terminology we use for feminisms within Muslim societies to what we can do to empower Muslim women.

Last week I finished re-reading Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence by Kecia Ali which left me with questions that I hadn’t asked myself the first time I read the book when I wasn’t a graduate student. Then I watched Kecia Ali’s interview where she mentions how she, like me, started her research with “contemporary questions” about feministic interpretations within Islam. She mentions in the video that she read a lot of “history” at that point.

Once while going through my father’s old books I found a book on the history of Hinduism. I remember highlighting a particular passage from the book which discussed the role of women in Hinduism. Although I have lost the book and forgotten the name I researched on the passage that I could recall. It was about marriage in Hinduism. In the Baudhayana Prasna I, Adhyaya 8, Kandika 16, verses 1-2, it is written:

“There are four castes: Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras. Males belonging to them may take wives according to the order of the castes: Brahmana four, a Kshatriya three, a Vaisya two and a Sudra one.”

Some years later when I was reading this book on polygamy that left a deep and disturbing impression on me I would engage in long conversations on the topic of Muslim polygamy. During one such online dialogue with a woman in a polygynous marriage I confessed how the idea of polygyny disturbed me. This self-confessed feminist told me that had it not been for Islam, polygamy would have been unlimited. She told me she found peace with her husband’s second marriage after an imam explained to her that it was God’s mercy that she didn’t have to deal with an unlimited number of co-wives for no religion before Islam ever placed a limit on polygamy.

This I knew was not true. I had read that Hindu law had already placed a restriction on polygamy at least 700 years before Islam. What did this knowledge mean for me?

I see world religions as manifestations of socio-political scenarios of the ancient world. In the absence of the contemporary distinction between the ‘state’ and the ‘church/mosque’, in the ancient world religion equaled the state. It is common knowledge that Jesus’ trial was not motivated by religion but by politics. The pharaoh’s enmity with Moses was not due to religious beliefs but on the grounds of politics. The Prophet Muhammad was both the head of the religious body and the state.

It is therefore necessary for me to know both religion and ancient world history to make sense of why a religious edict was instated and why it was carried on.

This morning I was watching a video clip of Nawal El Saadawi speaking. Around 10.20 in the clip she mentions how “women became inferior in religion because of the political system.” She goes on to say, “in fact religion is a political ideology.” El Saadawi believes that “creativity is related to understanding and knowledge. And knowledge comes from connection. True knowledge come from connections and undoing the split between specialties.”

Coming back to what did that knowledge of Hindu law meant for me – it meant the opportunity for creativity. I made immediate connections with Islam. Restriction on polygamy not only set social order – one man producing six dozen children with unlimited women (and this is happening even now) – it also created class consciousness. The rich who could afford to be *fair* would have more. The poorest class that couldn’t afford three square meals logically couldn’t afford polygamy either. The elite were not only “serial grooms” (always keeping no more than four wives) they also kept many concubines to exhibit their elitism.

Restriction on polygamy or even the injunction to treat all wives fairly has not really protected women’s rights because as you can see from the video link I posted above men know ways to get around the limits laid down by religious/state law. If a man can’t be fair between two wives he divorces one. If he can’t have more than four he keeps divorcing and remarrying. This has always been a male practice for centuries even after Hindu and Muslim law limiting polygamy.

What we need is to make more connections and be creative. This opportunity arose once more for me when I read ‘The origin of mut’ah (temporary marriage) in early Islam’ by Paula I. Nielson. In her work Nielson traces the history of mutah marriage which in pre-Islamic times was not a temporary marriage but was a “matrilineal marriage.” A common stipulation in such a matrilineal marriage contract was the “female-oriented privilege” that the man would not remarry as long as she lived. Nielson points to several facts surrounding the marriage of the Prophet and Khadija and claims that their marriage was matrilineal which is why soon after her death he immediately remarried several times.

This is important knowledge for contemporary Muslim women who find polygamy troubling. Khadija is mentioned in every feminist discourse to show the independence Islam gives women (although her freedom and independence existed much before Islam). It should be empowering for a Muslim woman to know that even Khadija found polygamy troubling and then use that information to argue the point that there is nothing wrong with not wanting to share your husband. None of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters shared their lives with a co-wife. They remained the only wives as long as they lived, but their husbands did practice polygamy after their death.

I can understand that most Muslim women neither have the interest nor the time to become scholars of history or religion. But I was wondering what feminists think about what I have written here and the examples I have offered – do you think that those Muslim women who have gender activist interests would benefit if they sought ‘knowledge’ of theological histories and made ‘connections’ to become ‘creative’ in their arguments like Kecia Ali does so well?

Since my research is based solely on online interaction of Muslim feminists I have been wondering about the genres of writing Muslim feminists produce/read and the discussions on it that ensue. How much empowerment would such knowledge give Muslim feminists if someone made these connections and Muslim feminists read it and used that information in their arguments?

6 thoughts on “The art of dissidence through creative knowledge

  1. Lat says:

    Maybe, if some Muslim women are interested in learning and comparing the different theological histories but if they are solely concerned with Islam and the other two Abrahamic religions then they may not be able to make ‘that’ connection and thus be ‘creative’. I know of some women who hardly venture anywhere near the so-called ‘other’. I feel that’s a waste.

  2. Metis says:

    ” I know of some women who hardly venture anywhere near the so-called ‘other’.”

    What do you think is the reason for that? Is it fear of ‘wiswas’ (whisperings of Satan) or is it something else?

  3. Lat says:

    haha @’wiswas :)

    The most told fact is that the ‘other’ is one the wrong path and ours is the true one.Why embark on a path when it’s already astray.Heavily indoctrinated,I know. Even with the kadijah eg, men still want their rights to be exercised whenever they see fit. How does this eg impact or amde to register to men more than women?

    A few forum Muslim writers both Malay in recent times have written articles that show more compassion and tolerance to other faiths and races to an extent of not judging them on a chosen syndrome rule and trying to learn from them as well esp from the local multi-racial climate and in Malaysia where racial tensions been increasing.I did change my opinion a little after this….just a little.

  4. ramy says:

    Is there really any extant copy of Khadija’s marital contract where she clearly stipulates a monogamous relationship? To be honest, I think some readers will always be a bit skeptical of such a narrative unless it’s documented…and even then, some people might resort to “that was before the advent of Islam”

    I think what might be more effective is to provide historical precedent from within the jurisprudence corpus for the fact that it was regarded as a woman’s right to stipulate a monogamous relationship…and that it shouldn’t reflect badly on her, that she has weak emaan or that she’s objecting to God’s laws or other such arguments.

    • Metis says:

      Thank you Ramy for your comment and welcome to this blog :)

      Perhaps because the Prophet was illiterate (or for some other reason) I don’t know if any of marriage contracts exists as an extant copy. From hadith we know that his marriages with Aisha or Saffiya, for example, translated to drinking milk from the same cup with Aisha and him putting a cloak over Saffiya’s shoulders. And the feast, of course.

      Similarly, marriage contracts of his daughters also don’t exist (if they were written in the first place). We know all if this only from historical accounts.

      Also, most of what we know about Khadija (her independence, power, wealth, matriarchy, love for the Prophet, business, role as a boss etc) are from pre-Islamic period so anyone arguing “that was before the advent of Islam” should also know that Khadija the Prophet’s most powerful wife was powerful before Islam and it actually shows that pre-Islamic people were not as misogynist as we think. But I know what you mean.

      I think the idea that “historical precedent from within the jurisprudence corpus” be extracted is a very good one!

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