Islam, Judaism and women

Islam, Judaism and women

One of the events in which I participated in the heart of the United States was a panel on “Women in Abrahamic Religions.” A protestant pastor, a reformed rabbi and I spoke on the topic, with faith in our traditions but also with criticisms about the problems we see in them.

The most interesting speaker was probably not me, though. It was the rabbi. Despite what that religious title implies at first sight, this Jewish cleric was not a man, but a woman. Born in the United States and educated in Israel, she was you would think as a modern, stylish and hence presumably secular woman. But as her kippa put it right away, she was a believer devoted to the divine.

In her speech, the female rabbi explained that Judaism was born into a patriarchal culture and that therefore the Jewish tradition carries a lot of elements that are unfair to women. But this did not make more egalitarian-minded believers like her distant to the faith. They rather distinguished between the divine core of the faith and the human culture around it that they saw as the root of the problems.

As listened to this reformist Jewish perspective, I noted how similar it is to that of modern-day Muslims who believe that the large body of literature and culture that we call “Islam” needs some significant reinterpretation and revision. Not because that Islam’s divine core has any flaw - no true believer would think so - but because that core has been unfolding in human history and has thus mixed with many human attitudes, including misogyny.

This approach is based not simply on the typical wishful thinking of believers, but also objective empirical support. A careful comparison of the Quran and the post-Quranic tradition reveals that almost all the injunctions that suppress women originate in the latter. The Quran, in fact, had come to 7th century pagan Arabia as a liberator of women, granting them securities and rights that they never had before. Some of these, such as property rights, were not even available in the modern West until the late 19th century.

In my own speech I also explained how the very interpretation of the Quran had been twisted over time due to the pre-existing misogyny in medieval cultures. The Quran, like the Bible, presents a story of Adam and Eve, but unlike the Bible, it does not portray Eve as the deceiver. In fact, Adam gets the real divine reproach for the fall. But after the second century, those who wrote the detailed exegeses (tafseers) of the Quran began to portray Eve as the deceiver, with a subtext defining women as cunning, untrustworthy creatures.

The existence of these nuances in Islam, and the growing interest in them, suggests to me that there will increasingly emerge a “reformed Islam,” especially among the more urban, educated, cosmopolitan Muslims. But conservatives and ultra-conservatives (like the Salafists) will remain as well, creating a spectrum that won’t be too dissimilar to today’s Judaism.

The key is to avoid tension, conflict and violence between such different manifestations of the same faith. And this will be most easily achieved when all different groups accept on principle that they cannot declare and impose “true Islam.” Because only God knows true Islam. We mortals can only follow the interpretations that we find most compelling.