The Case Against Patriarchy in Islam: Fitra, viceregency, and universal principles

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This article is published in the winter 2019 issue of Tikkun Magazine.

I define patriarchy as a socio-cultural system in which men are ideologically viewed as inherently dominant over women, regardless of abilities, and therefore belong in positions of power and authority over them. Women in this worldview are viewed either as children, needing to be protected or cared for, or as tools of power in service to men, never truly whole or independent of men, let alone equal to them.

Patriarchal ideas at different levels exist throughout the world in every social system and are especially present in religious communities, where scriptures or the will of God are used to justify them.

In practical terms, I highlight in this article what patriarchy looks like in Muslim American institutions today. I aim not to single out my community over others, many of which are much worse in this regard, but rather to provide an example of what patriarchy looks like in one specific context.

In religious leadership:

  • Women are excluded from speaking at the pulpit during Jumah, Friday congregational services, even to give an announcement, let alone to teach by delivering a bayan (the teaching portion of congregational prayers) in the presence of a mixed congregation.
  • The title of “imam” is reserved exclusively for men, even when women perform much of the imamate’s pastoral activity, such as counseling, washing bodies for funerals, visiting the sick, etc.

In religious space:

  • Women are generally required to pray behind men even when there’s space to pray side-by-side (with a divider between them).
  • Prayer spaces for women are often not maintained to the same standards as those of men, or even kept available, because it’s assumed that since women don’t have to attend religious services there’s no point in bothering with maintaining their spaces.
  • Women are often expected to sit behind men even in community events other than prayers.

In political leadership:

  • A woman’s status or position is often determined by her relationship to a male family member: father, husband, or broth- er, unless she has celebrity status which she gained through social media or other channels.
  • Mosque boards (often all male) convince themselves that women “are just not interested” when they find few women volunteering to run for leadership positions.
  • Mosque boards dedicate a special seat or group of seats for women, thereby excluding them from other functions on the board, such as board president.
  • A woman’s opinion is often only heard or considered when a man gives voice to it and the idea or opinion is attributed to him, not her.

In Muslim-majority societies, including Muslim institutions right here in the United States, the greatest impulse for patriarchy comes from Muslims who believe that Islam itself is inherently patriarchal, or that God calls for a patriarchal system in the Quran, or that historical tradition requires the maintenance of patriarchal structures in which women are a step behind men in both family and community.

Having studied the Quran, which we believe to be the directly revealed word of God, on numerous occasions and with a number of different scholars, and as a practicing Muslim, I’ve not found places where God specifically commands the domination of men over women. On the contrary, the Quran, revealed over 1400 years ago, confirms the spiritual equality of women and men, gives women the right to inherit, to own property (and not to be considered property), to seek a livelihood, to marry only by their consent, to divorce and keep their children, and to be educated—rights that were won by Western women only in the last century. Verses in the Quran that suggest patriarchal arrangements should not be treated as time- less or universal but must be understood as a response to specific historical circumstances. This in fact accords with the traditional Islamic principle that many verses in the Quran need to be interpreted in the light of the situation in which they were revealed.

We get the patriarchy not from the text but rather from early interpretations of the Quran that disregard the text’s social-historical and cultural context and that are glaring in their patriarchal import. Such interpretations are considered authoritative, indeed almost sacred, because of the character of those delivering them. People fail to consider the human limitations of these interpreters as people impacted by their time and place, circumstances, upbringing, and even mental disposition. Even religious geniuses and men close to God are human beings not immune from their experiences and the cultural biases of their time and place.

Overcoming Patriarchy

Overcoming patriarchy in religious communities will probably be easier to do than it will be in non-religious communities where one may have to appeal to values that not everyone embraces on a woman’s worth and value. In Muslim communities, overcoming patriarchy will require us to remember three things about our religion that mandate the equality of women and men in every respect:

First, to recognize that revelation from God applies to men and women equally: Everything in the foundational beliefs of Islam and in ritual practices that applies to men applies equally to women. Both men and women will be held accountable equally in the hereafter, and both are equally required to be vicegerents of God on earth and must therefore be educated and given the resources in order to practice their religion fully and manifest good works as they’re obligated to do.

Second, to keep in mind that Islam’s universal principles apply equally to men and women as we interpret our sacred texts and traditions: These universal principles include the sanctity of all human life, male and female, the taking of which is among the gravest of all sins; the right to freedom of thought, religion, conscience, and expression; the right to security in one’s livelihood, profession, and residence; the divine diversity of all of creation; the mandate to uphold human dignity; and the obligation to model prophetic traits in our lives and characters and to work for the good of our homeland and society, wherever that might be. All of these apply equally to men and women.

Third, and most important, to remember that God created human beings, men and women, in a state of fitraFitra is an Arabic word that is usually translated as “original disposition,” “natural constitution,” or “innate nature.” Islamic theology holds that fitra is the state of purity and innocence that we are all—men and women—born with; it includes an innate inclination towards tawhid (Oneness of God), which is encapsulated in the fitra along with compassion, intelligence, ihsan (virtuous behavior), and all the other attributes that embody what it is to be human. This innate nature belongs equally to all human beings, male and female, and thus implies a fundamental and inviolable equality.

Therefore, in the vision of Islam, men and women are inherently equal in their nature and their relationship to God. Men and women share equally in the fullness of human nature and deserve equal dignity. Interpretations of the Quran and prophetic traditions should be viewed and understood in this light, and when an interpretation is found to be bound to a particular time and culture, it should be relegated to its historical time and place.

Above all, we must remember that in Islamic understanding, God is considered The Just, or the standard of justice Who never commands injustice. Therefore, any interpretation of the Quran that leads to injustice against women, in this case, must be wrong or misguided.

Religious men who understand this should therefore be among the foremost in calling for women’s equality in every aspect of life, beginning with their rightful place in Muslim institutions and societies. So Muslim Americans— men and women—must ensure that women are equally represented on the boards of mosques, that they have the right to speak dur- ing religious services and to deliver the bayan, that they can be given the title of imam, and that their prayer spaces are maintained equally with those of men. Eventually this will lead to women’s voices and opinions being heard and considered in the Muslim community.

The task of overcoming patriarchy cannot be left to women, as if they bore the responsibility for their oppression; rather, men must take responsibility for changing a situation which was created and is maintained by men. Achieving complete equality for women is a task that requires men and women working together.

Overcoming patriarchy in the Muslim community is not simply a matter of fulfilling a social or political demand; it is a fundamental religious obligation. I therefore call upon my sisters and brothers in the Muslim world to join with me and others to build a movement aimed at challenging patriarchal cultural, religious and political structures, practices, or teachings. I’m happy to announce that Tikkun magazine will give space on their website for anyone who wants to present articles seeking to pro- mote this campaign that accord with Tikkun magazine’s larger goal of healing, repairing, and transforming the world. Send your ideas to Ca[email protected]