leila ahmed’s islam

Leila Ahmed is one of my favourite feminists and authors. I initially discovered her when I became interested in women and Islam, and decided that I wanted to do my MA on that topic. She’s written one of the most definitive books on the subject called “Women and Gender in Islam”. I borrowed her autobiography from a friend recently (“A Border Passage”) and absolutely loved what she wrote on Islam (excerpts are in italics):

Now, after a lifetime of meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find that this Islam is one of the common varieties of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly pays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. Islam as a broad ethos and ethical code and as a way of understanding and reflecting on the meaning of one’s life and of human life more generally.

I completely agree with seeing Islam as not only about the ritual and formal practice (praying, fasting etc) but also about the spirit and broad message, which most Muslims these days seem to be ignoring. If you’re a judgmental, malicious person, will praying 5 times a day completely make up for that?

Ahmed goes on to distinguish between aural and oral Islam, and textual Islam, saying that textual Islam has been developed by a minority of men who over the centuries have come to wield enormous power. This type of Islam is men’s Islam, according to her.

The Islam that developed in this textual heritage is very like the medieval Latinate textual heritage of Christianity. It is as abstruse and obscure and as dominated by medieval and exclusively male views of the world as are those Latin texts. Imagine believing that those medieval Christian texts represent today the only true and acceptable interpretation of Christianity. But that is exactly what the sheikhs and ayatollahs propound and this is where things stand now in much of the Muslim world: most of the classic Islamic texts that still determine Muslim law in out day date from medieval times.

Aurally what remains when you listen to the Qur’an over a life-time are its most recurring themes, ideas, words, and permeating spirit: mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, charity. And yet it is exactly those recurring themes and this permeating spirit that are for the most part left out of the medieval texts or smothered and buried under a welter of obscure “learning”. One would scarcely believe, reading and hearing the laws these texts have yielded, particularly when it comes to women, that the words “justice”, “fairness”, “compassion”, “truth” ever even occur in the Qur’an.

Again, this goes back to the point of the spirit of Islam, which tends to get ignored. The Qur’an is a very positive text, and yet centuries of male misinterpretation has left Islam with a very negative image. Personally, this negative image of Islam is what made me think twice about becoming an active Muslim. It was only when I read the Qur’an and some other texts that I realized how badly Islam has been projected by Muslims themselves.

Leila Ahmed goes on,

I am sure then, that my foremother’s lack of respect for the authority of sheikhs was not coincidental. Generations of astute, thoughtful women, listening to the Qur’an, understood perfectly well its essential themes and its faith. And looking around them, they understood perfectly well, too, what a travesty man had made of it.

Women in Islam have, it can be said, even more rights than men. Why then do most sheikhs and Muslims in general treat (or at least see) women as second-class citizens? Why marriage laws that put the minimum age at 9? Why are outdated practices that need to be changed still widespread? Why are honour killings and female circumcision still attributed to Islam? We cannot deny that women in Muslim countries tend to have less rights than non-Muslim countries. However, this is not due to ISLAM. It is due to centuries of misinterpretation and centuries of misrule across the Arab and Islamic world.

To finish off, a quote from the lovely Rumi:

If a day won’t come
when the monuments of institutionalized religion are in ruin
…then, my beloved,
then we are really in trouble.


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