The Masculine Impulse in the Feminist Critique of Islam

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Sachiko Murata is not a widely known figure among Muslims. But she should be. Currently a professor of religion and Asian studies at Stony Brook University, where she teaches Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, she holds a PhD in Persian literature on the role of women in the Haft paykar, a poetical work by Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209). She tried to pursue a second PhD in Islamic law in the Faculty of Theology at Tehran University, Iran, where at the time she was the first woman and first non-Muslim to study Islamic jurisprudence. However, she did not manage to complete it because the Iranian Revolution broke out shortly before she could write her dissertation. and she had to leave the country to the U.S. along with her husband Willian Chittick.

Among Murata’s published works is the 1992 book The Tao of Islam, which stands on its own in opposition to others written on the subject of gender relations and the positions of men and women in Islam. Murata’s background sets her apart from other writers on this subject in that she deliberately quarantines the Western perspective in her analysis. Her concern is not so much about the law as it is about the cosmological underpinnings of it. Instead of engaging with the sociopolitical manifestations of the Sharia, Murata does what she calls a “backdoor approach” to this topic, where she comes “at Islam not from within a Western context, with all the presuppositions about sexuality and gender roles that this implies, but from the East.”

In the introduction of The Tao of Islam Murata pens an interesting observation on the Western feminist critique of Islam, which she alludes to having contributed to a number of misconceptions she held about Islam that were not native to Japan where she first got introduced to them, but were imports into the Japanese mind from the West:

“It did not take me long [after I began my studies in Islam] to realize that my preconceptions about the place of women in Islamic society – preconceptions that the Japanese learned originally from Western sources – had nothing to do with the realities of Iranian society (this was long before the ‘Islamic’ revolution.”

Murata’s use of quotation marks in the qualifier of the Iranian revolution as “Islamic” is a product of a point she makes earlier in the text:

“Society in the contemporary Islamic world knows abuses like society anywhere else. But we need to distinguish between abuses that arise from living in accordance with Islamic ideals and those that arise from breaking with those same ideals. In the former case, I would maintain that the ‘abuses’ are more apparent than real and go back to our inability to grasp the principles that animate an alien civilization. In the latter case, the abuses are real.”

A quick survey of the current public discourse on Islam and the malaise of Muslim societies brings this to light. The constant use of and reference to Muslim societies as “Islamic” makes it seem as if the challenges they face, especially Muslim women, can all be attributed to Islamic teachings. But a study of the Islamic tradition does not bear this out. Unfortunately, as this false assumption is now well entrenched in the West, whenever a solution is proposed to change this condition, it always involves, as Murata noted, “changing the principles upon which Islam is built.” Rather than acknowledging that Muslim societies by and large are not living in accordance with Islamic ideals, Western propositions are focused on the religion itself, which for all intents and purposes is an imagination perpetuated without verification based on a worldview that stands in opposition to Islamic cosmology. Murata tackles this issue directly:

“It seems to me that feminists who have criticized various aspects of Islam or Islamic society based their positions upon a worldview radically alien to the Islamic worldview. Their critique typically takes a moral stance. They ask for reform, whether explicitly or implicitly. The reform they have in view is of the standard modern Western type. Among other things, this means that there is an abstract ideal, thought up by us or by our leader, which has to be imposed by overthrowing the old order. The reform is of the same lineage as the Western imperialism that originally appeared in the East as Christian missionary activity. The white man’s burden gradually expanded its horizons – or reduced them, depending on how you look at it. Salvation was no longer touted as present in Christianity, but in science and progress. The ‘orientalist’ perspective fits nicely, as many scholars have shown, into this blatantly triumphalistic approach to non-Western societies. Here we have the masculine impulse toward domination run wild, with catastrophic results for the world. Remember that unbridled technological expansion with its concordant ills – the rape of the earth – grew up directly out of this same impulse.

Many other reformist currents in Western thought have been infused with the same will to do good for others, even if others do not realize that good is being done for them. Certain forms of feminism seem to fit in the same line of thinking. We see new variants on the old, domineering, and negatively masculine attitude known as proselytism. In the Islamic world…its appeal has been heard only by those who have lost touch with their own intellectual and spiritual universe. The spokespeople for the movement tell us that the rest will follow, as soon as their consciousness is raised. But here we certainly cannot be blamed for asking how we can tell the difference between up and down.”

This insight from Murata highlights a couple of ironies. Western feminism is in its essence anti-religion, yet it takes a religious approach to “save” those it decides need to be saved, even if they did not know they needed (or even wanted ) to be. But more damning is its adoption of negative masculinity as it attempts to dominate the Muslim mind in an imperialistic fashion. Instead of raising the consciousness of the feminine, it is a masculine force masquerading under the guise of feminism, which ultimately disrupts this natural duality in human society.

Indeed, there is a problem in Muslim society with regards to how women are viewed and sometimes treated, but this is not a product of Islam. Rather, it is a product of a disruption in the balance between the masculine and the feminine, the active and the receptive, the yang and the yin. What Murata observes here is that Western feminism is not a solution to be sought by Muslims, but an exacerbation of the problem of male dominance as it helps further subjugate the female.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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