When Islam Isn’t Islam

The Toronto Star last week profiled Indonesian Muslim feminist Musdah Mulia, who “blames Muslims, not Islam, for gender inequity” in the Islamic world. This is related to a large and growing problem: analysts attribute the actions of terrorists to a hijacking of Islam, without caring or daring to look at what exactly it is about Islam that gives rise to fanaticism and violence.

Musdah Mulia, says journalist Haroon Siddiqui, “wears the hijab but says it’s not Islamically mandatory, a position augmented by a big majority of Muslim women in Indonesia, indeed around the world, who don’t don it and feel no less Muslim.” Neither Siddiqui nor Mulia mention the Islamic tradition in which Muhammad commands that “when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except†¦face and hands.”

Musdah Mulia, exults Siddiqui, “is an Islamic scholar, with a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies” in Jakarta. “When her bosses issued a white paper last year updating religious laws, she wrote a 170-page critique that annoyed them and the conservatives.”

Mulia is the “granddaughter of a cleric, went to an Islamic boarding school and grew up in a strict environment.” But then she traveled to “other Muslim nations” and realized that “Islam had many faces. It opened my eyes. Some of what my grandfather and the ulema [clerics] had taught me was right but the rest was myth.”

So what led to her transformation? It turns out that her parents, her grandfather, the clerics, everyone had Islam all wrong, and she, Mulia, had gotten hold of the real Islam: “the more she studied Islam, the more she found it modern and radical.”

So the hijab, polygamy, divorce that the man achieves by uttering a phrase three times, the unequal inheritance laws–all this is now, according to Mulia, un-Islamic. After all, Islam, she says, “had liberated women 1,400 years ago, well ahead of the West.”

The claim that Muhammad actually improved the lot of women is based on the supposedly terrible position of women in pagan Arab society. But did those conditions really improve with the coming of Islam? Even Aisha, Muhammad’s beloved child bride, said: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.”

So many fighters for women’s rights in Islam are like Mulia.: They cannot admit to others or apparently to themselves that Islam itself contains the texts that are responsible for the continuing mistreatment of women–not only in the Koran, but in the “authentic” Hadith, and in the records of Muhammad’s treatment of and attitude toward women in the Sira–It is much the same with all too many Islamic reformers: they speak blandly of how the jihadists, or terrorists, or Wahhabis, or whatever is the villain group du jour, have hijacked Islam, without offering any coherent program for converting all these multitudes of violent misunderstanders of Islam worldwide into peaceful, tolerant pluralists.

The Islamic attitude toward women is properly reflected in the difficult position of women throughout Muslim lands–a position that is difficult to the precise extent that any country’s legal system approximates the theoretical ideal of Islamic law, the Sharia. Look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan. It is only in those Muslim countries that are the least Muslim that women have had a chance for a more decent existence.

Mulia does not explain how the “cultural traditions and interpretations” to which she objects arose in Islamic countries. What molds the “cultural traditions and interpretations” of Muslims if it isn’t Islam? After what did Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran model their laws and fashion their mores besides Islam?

Like many other Islamic reformers, Mulia seems to be on the side of the angels, but is actually helping to promote confusion about Islam. Many think they must defend Islam at all costs, whatever mental contortions they have to perform in order to do so–even if it means glossing over and refusing to face the elements of Islam that jihad terrorists use to justify their actions. It is only “bad Muslims”–Wahhabis, or extremists, or what have you — who are responsible. Yet these “bad Muslims” seem to be those who most fervently accept, in every area of life, the actual teachings of Islam. The more unobservant and non-literal minded the Believer, the better his treatment of women and his commitment to pluralism and peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims.

That is something that even Mulia cannot hide from forever.

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