Muslim & Modern

The Muslim Next Door
The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing
by Sumbul Ali-Karamali
White Cloud Press (2008)

After the rise of so called Islamic fundamentalism and the perceived threat against the west, Islam has been subject to scrutiny, interpretation, and critical analysis by Muslims as well as non-Muslims in the United States. Countless numbers of books have been published. “The Muslim Next Door” is one of the best. It is a very fascinating book that offers a refreshing departure from the ordinary presentations of Islam by others.

It examines a wide variety of issues pivotal to the religion of Islam. The author, Ms. Sumbul Ali-Karamali, a Western educated Muslim woman, offers her own views concerning these pivotal issues, especially those related to Muslim women, their role, and their rights under Islamic law. Her analyses are always logical, occasionally polemic, but always well-versed and masterfully presented.

I have found this book really enlightening and consider it a must-read book for every Muslim living in the United States. Justifiably, the author analyzes these issues through the lens of her own life experience in the United States and the Islam acquired through oral tradition from her parents, family, and friends.

She argues rightfully that because Islam is over 1,400 years old, it is almost impossible to accurately find out everything about this religion. “And because it is difficult to know exactly what happened hundreds of years ago, historical debates surrounding religion have always raged, too”. Most Islamic laws, therefore, are based on medieval texts and the interpretations of Quranic verses compiled throughout the history of Islam by religious scholars and passed on from one generation to the next. Such interpretations are often marred by tribal culture, traditions, biases, and personal opinions.

The author believes, as do many other Muslims, that the Quran cannot be translated into non-Arabic languages because these translations fail to convey its intended message. If that is the case, then how can the message of the Quran be communicated accurately to non-Arabic speakers such as Iranians who must be able to read it in Farsi?

I believe the prohibition against translating the Quran into other languages is purely political and not religious. It is designed to confer and to preserve power among religious clergy who have always sought to keep the monopoly of power to themselves. Even though translation of holy Quran is not allowed, there are many voluminous interpretations of the Quran written by various Islamic scholars from different Islamic branches.

In various chapters of her book, the author often offers her own alternative interpretations of some important Quranic verses, especially verses related to women and family. I have found her interpretations quite pioneering. While there can be no qualms about such interpretations, I wish her good luck explaining them to the fanatic Mullahs in Islamic countries.

Understandably, the author analyzes the issues from the perspective of someone who has lived comfortably in one of the most affluent, most democratic nations on the face of earth and as one protected by the secular laws of this nation. However, women in Islamic countries do not get much respect, power, or opportunities under religious laws. Often they have no choice but to submit to this unpleasant acquiescence.

Historically, Islamic women have not been given proper recognition, a situation that has survived well into the present. The common mentality is that the primary duties of women are raising children and serving their husbands. While such a similar biased mentality can be found in other countries, it is more intense in Muslim societies that are rooted mostly in the textual Islamic documents of the medieval era. Based on commonly relied upon interpretations of the Quran, some Muslim jurisprudents have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men and hence, must be subordinate to them.

The author holds to her courageous view that most verses of the Quran, especially those that are considered unfair or sexist by Westerners, were written in a seventh century society and were revealed to the prophet Muhammad in response to particular situations that occurred during his lifetime.

Despite that assertion, however, she occasionally insists on their applicability to modern societies of the twenty-first century, and she repeatedly tries to innovate odd justifications for them. (See especially pages 80-82.) This is indeed a clever approach. I think it is the duty of every Muslim living in this country to find ways to shed some light of plausibility on such Islamic issues in an effort to modernize this religion.

In my opinion, occasionally the author comes across minor inaccuracies in this book such as “Quran is the only miracle Muhammad ever claimed”. In fact, the Quran was put together by the third successor to the prophet Muhammad, Othman, twenty years after the death of prophet. How then can the prophet claim the Quran as his miracle if it did not exist in his time?

If the Quran was prepared based on the words of the prophet, one may wonder who decided what should be included and what should be excluded from this sacred book. One also wonders why the Quran was not prepared while the prophet was alive. This would have enabled him to sanction the authenticity of what was included in the Quran or remove any verses that may not be the words of God. I believe Islam cannot be flexible and hence, cannot be modernized while we hold onto such a dogmatic view of the Quran.

I believe the author is sincere in her endeavor to prove that Islam is not sexist. Such an attempt is indeed commendable and I think necessary. Her favorable views and well-crafted justifications of the Quranic verses related to women reflect the fact that she has received her pacifist, inclusive Islam from her parents; but it is very different from the Islam imposed by religious rulers and practiced in many prominent Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. She is probably unaware of the kind of desolation this gloomy brand of Islam has created for people like my folks back home. They have lived all their life in deprivation and poverty believing, as Mullahs have always told them, that this world was indeed the “prison of the pious people.”

I wish that Ms. Ali-Karamali’s views could be heard, sanctioned, and adopted by these Mullahs who are so powerful that they can change people’s lives by the stroke of a pen or by the words they utter.

To prove that Islam is neither sexist nor oppressive to women, she explains how women have been appointed to top government positions in some Muslim countries like Iran. This is true, however, we should also remember that some of the improvements that have taken place in a few Muslim countries were not the result of the voluntary softening of positions by Mullahs, but were in response to pressure exerted by feminist groups and ultra-national organizations. Even with this pressure, the fundamental basis sanctioning the unequal treatment of men and women is still intact.

We should also keep in mind that if the same top executive women want to leave their country, they must still obtain permission from their husbands as if they were minors. (This was a requirement at the onset of the IRI and it may still be in effect.) Contrary to the author’s statement in page 10 that “women have historically led prayers and continue to do so today,” women cannot be imam and lead prayers because they cannot stand in front of the men while praying. Women cannot even stand at the side of the men either.

Because Sumbul Ali-Karamali lives in the US and not in one of these strict Muslim societies, her knowledge of what is actually happening in some Muslim countries in the name of Islam is perhaps scant. The author writes (page 123) that Quran puts “women on equal footing with men” based on Verse 35, Surah 33. I checked this verse and found nothing in it that could be explicitly construed as equal treatment of men and women.

Ms. Ali-Karamali keeps referring to the historical instances of unjust behaviors or ruthless customs directed against women in Western countries or other parts of the world. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with that nor with comparing Islamic laws with the pre-Islamic tribal customs and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula as she has done in almost every chapter of her book.

No one disputes that Islam tried earnestly to uplift the status of women in the seventh century; at that time there was unquestionably significant broad-based improvement. However, that fact should not constitute an excuse for continuing to impose seventh century restrictions on women in a modern era known for its attention to women suffrage, social justice and feminism.

I think the problem is that some Islamic apologists insist that these laws are eternal and unalterable and, therefore, must be exercised by Islamic society even in the twenty-first century. It seems to me that these apologists do not have the desire or the courage to modernize and revamp these outdated laws so that they can be practiced in modern societies.

Throughout the history of this great religion, the Quranic verses have been manipulated by backward-minded men to further their misogamist agenda and to serve their own self interest. For instance, while there is no outright mandate in the Quran for women to cover their hair, in many Islamic countries, veiling has become the most strictly enforced Islamic dress code and the most visible sign of being a Muslim woman around the world.

In Iran, for example, the police will arrest and dehumanize any woman who does not fully comply with the strictly imposed Islamic dress code. The crucial issue concerning the veil is that people should not be denied the freedom to choose whatever they wish to wear; the author has admirably asserted this throughout her book. “I have never been secluded or housebound or veiled,” she says in page 132. However, imposing certain dress codes is undemocratic and should not be tolerated because it is oppressive. I believe that mandatory veiling is a means by which men can force their tyrannical whim upon women.

The author of this book associates women wearing the head scarf with freedom, freedom from harassment or being ogled. She goes on further to claim that “The hijab sends a message, ‘Hands off; I am not available, and stop treating me like a sex object.’” Frankly, I found this statement outlandish because it implies that women who do not wear Islamic hijab, or women who are not veiled, are available. If we have to cover women because men may stare at them or harass them, isn’t that like penalizing the victim instead of the culprits? Why should women be covered and wrapped because of the promiscuity of men?

The author continues to say, “The hijab sends the message that the appearance and body image do not equal the sum total of our worth as human beings.” For her information, in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a city of more than ten million Muslim inhabitants, veiling is mandatory. Tehran also has earned the dubious distinction of being the “nose-job capital of the world.” Veiling, therefore, has not prevented millions of women living in Tehran from being fascinated with and concerned about their body image.

In defense of polygamy which is allowed by Islam, the author appeals to part of a Quranic verse that seems to require “equal treatment” among wives as a precondition for polygamy. The author interprets that phrase as a deterrent to polygamy and as an intent to ban it gradually. She argues in page 142 that Islam “allows polygamy reluctantly and fence restriction around it.” Equal treatment, however, is a vague phrase because it does not specify what constitutes “equal treatment.” If it means equal economic treatment, which I think it does, then it favors only wealthy men who can afford to have up to four wives which he can also afford to treat them economically equal. I think if Islam wants a man to marry only one woman at a time, it should say so with no ambiguity.

The author mentions in page 147 that “At least one verse of Quran implied that women should have divorce rights equal to those of men.” It is not clear which Quranic verse has granted the equal right to divorce to women. I checked her reference to Surah 2, verse 228 as her source, but this Surah has only 200 verses, so there might be a typographical error here. As far as I know, Tunisia, through its court system, is the only Muslim country that has recognized and granted Islamic women the right to divorce.

The author also believes that wife beating, which is allowed in the Quranic verse Surah 4, verse 34, is reserved only for cases of “grave and known sin” (fahsha). The question then arises, what happens if a man commits the grave and known sin? Who is going to beat him? Technically, however, this will not happen because a man can claim that he is married to the woman, especially under Shia Islam which allows temporary marriage (motah).

I wholeheartedly commend Ms. Ali-Karamali’s courage in challenging so passionately the mainstream views that have been crafted by the medieval Islamic jurisprudents who have resorted to every possible Quranic verse or hadith to justify these views. I wish this book could be translated into other languages and sold in Islamic countries. However, I doubt it can be sold in many Muslim countries because the author has chosen to put an unveiled picture of herself on the cover.

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