Women locked in timewarp

October 10, 1997

SHABBIR Akhtar ("Ex-defender of the faith", THES, August 22) comes close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. His article reads like one recanting, and one is left confused, wondering what place exists for faith in his vision of the rational mind. As for his attitudes on the use and usefulness of Arabic, they are confused.

Subki bin Ahmad's reply (THES, September 26) on the other hand is just plain wrong. "It is the gratuitous nature of free expression in the West that Muslim intellectuals deplore," claims Bin Ahmad. If this generalisation is true then I, a practising Muslim since the early days of my British Academy-funded doctorate in Indo-Persian Sufi interpretations of Hindu scripture in the Mughal period, do not exist.

"Why do you worship idols which neither help nor harm you?" asks Abraham of his idolatrous compatriots in the Qu'ran. "Because we found our fathers doing so," comes their reply. Bin Ahmad may quote from the Prophet Muhammad's final address to his Companions to support his view, but the reason why they are remembered is precisely because of their willingness to question and ultimately to reject the age-old truths of their day.

Analysing Bin Ahmad's reply, I suspect that Akhtar could not have wished for a better vindication of his polemic, for it rehearses examples of most of the flawed arguments that pass for popular intellectual debate in the contemporary Muslim world. The most glaring of these is the contention that the existence of God can be classed with "what is known to be the truth and therefore beyond question". If faith were identical to knowledge as claimed, then unfaith would be no more widespread today than is flat-earthism, and religious experience would be as easy to replicate as a classroom experiment in Stage 1 of the national curriculum.

Akhtar "neglects to mention that Islam was the first religion to address the issue of women's rights. Islam put a stop to female infanticide," charges Bin Ahmad.

The first assertion is clearly untrue: earlier religions did address women's rights, though in comparative terms early Muslim women are often seen to have been offered a better deal; as for the second, if Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity did not address female infanticide it was because it was not an issue. Underlying this weakness on Bin Ahmad's part is his unwillingness to tackle the fundamental issue. Is it God's will, in granting through the Prophet Muhammad's ministry so many unprecedented rights, to establish a principle that women should be treated fairly in Islam, or was the intention to erect a proverbial glass ceiling?

The unescapable conclusion of Bin Ahmad's reasoning is as Akhtar inferred. Women's status is locked in a timewarp on highly selective though scarcely justified grounds. Where, one might ask, would Islam be today had the same reluctance to adapt to change been applied as consistently to other areas of society such as industry, communications, transport or, indeed, warfare?

There is tendency this century, as Akhtar wrote, "to play the moral card" and blame the West for one's woes. It has nothing to do with Islam per se, but, from the post-imperialist condition of the Muslim world. Moaning about cultural imperialism will change nothing unless it is matched by some serious soul-searching on the part of mainstream opinion formers.

Roderic Vassie

Cartman's Cottage Deighton, York

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