I’ve just started reading Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam, and I came across a paragraph in which she explained perfectly my current dilemma with reformist Islam. Many reformists/progressives have suggested that all that is needed for the Qur’an to be seen as applicable to modern Muslims is to contextualize problematic areas. So for example, although the Qur’an says one male witness = two female witnesses, that is only for then: today, times have changed.
Two propositions: presuppositions of interpreters matter a great deal in implementation, and the idea that in some instances the Qur’an accommodates or gradually prohibits certain practices that God/Muhammad might have preferred to abolish immediately (e.g. consumption of alcohol).
An approach to revelation that takes both propositions seriously allows one to interpret scripture without being bound by the assumptions of previous generations of exegetes who accepted male superiority and other social hierarchies, including slavery, without question. Additionally, one can see certain passages and Prophetic sunnahs as gestures in the direction of egalitarianism, capable of full realization only in a world where equality and freedom are common shared values.
While I see this process as absolutely necessary if I am to practice Islam today, a voice in my head still had one question: if God sees men and women as equally valuable, why did he allow men greater rights to begin with? Why did he allow men to have concubines? Why did he allow men to be polygamous and women to not be, when both sexes were polygamous before Islam?
Kecia Ali addresses this issue by questioning it herself:
What about the critical, and critically difficult, question: where is God’s justice in permitting slavery in the first place, if slavery constituted an injustice and a wrong in the 7th century, just as it would and does in the 21st century? And if it did not constitute an injustice in the 7th century in God’s eyes, then on what basis may anyone subsequently declare it unjust without rendering divine justice subordinate to the vagaries of human, and therefore inherently flawed, moral sensibilities?
This is an extremely important question, and one that remains unanswered for me. If we believe, as Fazlur Rahman suggested in his work, that God allowed certain things in the Qur’an because the 7th century context required that, then how can we believe in a God that not only gave in to constraints but also allowed things we see as unjust, such as slavery? For me, the difficult thing is to believe in a God that allowed slavery, polygamy, and other such things. Even if this is me reflecting my own subjective ideas of morality onto Islam, how do I overcome this? I refuse to accept something like slavery. So what does that mean? And before people comment and say that we should just blindly accept anything in the Islamic tradition, that is not a logical argument for me.
What do you think?