ISLAM STANDING ALONE IN MECCA: ONE WOMAN’S STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF ISLAM By ASRA Q. NOMANI [HarperSanFrancisco, 320pp., 2005]
FORGIVE my dense honesty. While I agreed with many of Nomani’s descriptions of Muslim malaise, I strongly disagreed with the methodologies informing her prescriptions, though less harshly with respect to those prescriptions in and of themselves. In other words, I was less concerned with the practices Nomani suggested than I was by the means by which she arrived at her suggestions. Nor, I imagine, should Nomani expect any less of an examination: Her book claims to be more than it is, or can be. Her effort would be better recognized as a Muslim woman’s struggle to understand her faith, and then live out that understanding; her book conveys a possibly impossible intention. A “struggle” for the “soul of Islam.”
For this reason, one cannot and must not overlook Nomani’s lack of qualifications; indeed, she often picks up ideas from various sources secular, materialistic, feminist, existential – without bothering to see if these ideas are in harmony with Islamic prioritizations or even each other. She can be pushy, conceited, inappropriately honest – there is a pertinent difference between admitting a wrong and celebrating it – and she seems altogether too concerned with demanding all our spiritual attention on an agenda that has the unfortunate effect of skewing Islam. It seems gender has more salience than God, truth, morality or justice.
But though I might seem uncomfortably critical, I must also admit that Nomani tugged at me. What does she want? To live. And what human being can reject such an intention? She had a child out of wedlock; that is a great sin in the eyes of God, but mine are not the eyes of God. Mine are the eyes of a Muslim who has stumbled and still feels the scrapes inside of himself. One cannot simply announce, “Nomani is wrong, she should not have written this book.” It would be better to argue that in some respects Nomani is wrong, but not to go from there to saying that the book serves no purpose. Though she might not have the methodology the conscientious Muslim would demand, she is at least pointing to (and putting in print) an uncomfortable reality.
A Muslim should not be a coward. While personally I am ill at ease with the ideologies of radical feminism, in part because they poison the already difficult relationship between men and women, I cannot deny that women, especially Muslim women, have countless reasons to be up in arms. Things are generally better in the West than they are in most of the Muslim world, but this is a lame excuse: Muslim women are too often sidelined, ignored, talked over or down to, harassed, abused or otherwise insulted. It has long been time for a critical and thorough evaluation of why this situation endures, and what can appropriately be done to realize a just, moderate ideal. Where we seem to get stuck, however, is what exactly this ideal is. Progressivism proposes another picture altogether.
Before addressing this point more seriously, do not take me to presume that progressives represent some kind of homogenized bloc of revolutionaries. There are, clear differences within the schools and ideas that constitute “progressive Islam.” Nevertheless, this much is a safe assumption: Progressives tend, broadly speaking, to find themselves on the left-end of the Western intellectual spectrum; as such, they are especially prone to relying upon and even preferring materialist and socialist ideals. One consequence is that some progressives view life not firstly as the struggle to submit to God, but as little more than a contest for hegemony, w herein various discourses function to mask or subvert concentrations of power.
Hence progressives often do not take mainstream Muslim objections seriously, believing that in criticizing them, we are trying only to preserve our hegemony. Perhaps that is true for some of us, but not all of us. Reading Nomani, I feel concerned about the process by which her progressivism subsumes Islam into itself, absorbing the tradition and in the process conveniently expelling whatever it does not find congenial. What does this mean for Muslims who believe that the Qur’an, and not unaided intellectual speculation, is the guide to life? Does the Islamic tradition present, to openminded minds and unbigoted eyes, the possibilities for renewal and reform, or do we have to look elsewhere? Are we to turn to progressivism to fix our problems? More importantly, can it improve us without simultaneously and more drastically undermining us?
There is no argument that women are often oppressed in Islamic societies; the question, however, is whether a strategy that focuses largely on lifting the external sources of this oppression will be enough to change hearts. The mistakes of a previous generation of liberals, who dominated academic, intellectual and policymaking circles for some time, should concern us. While there have been noticeable and laudable improvements in civil rights, for example, in the United States, the rise of the Republican and Christian right seems to throw some of these gains into jeopardy. It is as if much of middle America is sick of being told what to do, especially by liberals who deny what is important to them – family, country, decency and God. Now the Right has lashed back, by various means, and liberalism seems increasingly confined to the coastlines of America – from where it can more easily be pushed into the sea – or the scholars who have little influence outside academe.
What is change, and what are the means for change? Is the decision for a woman to lead prayer, for example, only an end in itself, or rather an unfortunately outrageous means to a nevertheless appreciable end? Will the mainstream Muslim community, here and abroad, listen to lectures from activists who, while well-intentioned, often feel it is unnecessary to produce arguments for their conclusions, or to explain, patiently, the innovative and questionable methodology that motivated them? If you are reading Asra Nomani’s book for deeper insight into Islam, you will instead find a different way of understanding how Islam is lived. This, itself, is worthwhile – we need to understand what is wrong. Not only with interpretations of Islam, but with the criticisms and subversions of those interpretations, some of which have stood for centuries. If we refuse to understand, we will not have dialogue, and considering the consequences of that, I trust Muslims will prefer dialogue.