October 29, 2014 By Adv Zainaba Ummer

Ziauddin Sardar: The Careless Critic

Ziauddin Sardar_550

I have just emerged safe from reading Ziauddin Sardar’s article on Muslim men. Those who are surprised at what I actually mean should understand that articles, thoughts and reflections of authors can inflict harm on you by perverting realities and misrepresenting truths while remaining earnest, sincere and disinterested and papering over the seemingly credible, but politically incorrect statements with clichés. Zia does not mislead; he simply leads us to a wrong destination, thinking that he is showing us the way. He does not misrepresent or misinterpret; he simply wrongly interpret facts, thinking that he is interpreting them in the right way.

But Zia is my favourite author. His Desperately Seeking Paradise and Orientalism are kept in the must-read section of my personal library. His Reading Quran is another worthy title to read; though one may find many arguments he poses as holding not much water. He is one of the relevant voices of sanity and satire among the writers about Islam. He always keeps a critical distance from the universalizing tendency of the western modernity, though he is not sympathetic to the Muslim juristic tradition as a whole. But whenever he is not cautious enough to keep such a critical distance and his lack of sympathy to the tradition is sternly evident, he appears to be standing on the same pedestal that the Orientalists had once stood tall in such a way that if the article misses by-line, one may mistake it for having been written by Daniel Pipes or Thomas Friedman.

Firstly, his criticism is against scriptural interpretations, Sharia law and mysticism, not against those in this generation who could not revitalise interpretations, according to the needs and requirements of the society, thereby absolving them of attitudes and contents demeaning to women. What we call law comes about in each society as part of interpreting scriptures with the express purpose of deriving normative principles. The process of derivation is a standard worthy of emulation and Islamic law is renowned for systematizing this standard. The principles thus derived may not have universal relevance. They are relevant only in the space and time where and when they are derived. So the culprit is neither sharia per se; nor the system of legal formulation for that matter. But today’s society which, instead of revitalising the system and reformulating the principles, sticks to the letter and spirit of law formulated aeons ago. All legal luminaries in Islam lived at a time when patriarchal values in all communities were stringently demeaning to women. They tried to reformulate and accommodate women’s role in the legal corpus in such a way that it would have been progressive and radical at that time. When we look back on that society and reflect about it, anachronism sets in two ways: first, we sanctify their pronouncements and copy-paste it in our locus; second, we call them misogynists and male-chauvinists. Zia falls headlong exactly to the second type of anachronism. Only when he understands that Syed Qutb lived at a time different from Zia’s, can he understand the spirit of liberation in Qutb’s voice about women (Zia himself agrees that Islam and Social Justice contains some positive evaluations). Of course, Qutb’s observations are not beyond criticism, but anyone who reads Quran 4:34 according to the mainstream interpretation inescapably falls into the pit of patriarchal norms. The Quran uses the word kawwama, fallala and one can interpret them as ‘in charge of’ (instead of financial providers) and exalt (instead of financially equipping) respectively in same way that these words were usually held to mean. One needs anthropological and sociological understanding to reinterpret the verse as signifying a temporary socio-economic set-up and not as a normative gender evaluation. Living in a locus as he was where such a radical interpretation is not done but frowned upon, Qutub can’t go beyond it, though he envisages a more positive role for women than the present muftis in Saudi Arabia.

So my contention is simply this: Collapsing the differences between Saudi Arabian or Doebandi muftis and the medieval fuqaha is not good. To conflate them together is a travesty of understanding and scholarship, which only Daniel Pipes can do.

Another irresponsible conflation is that between Syed Qutb and Harun Yahya. Syed Qutb was man of letters and a politician. He has not said, to my knowledge, anything authoritatively about science. He has not made the claim that he is an authority on science, either. So what makes Zia liken him to Harun Yahya, one of the crudely self-styled guides on Islam and a famed Islamic magician, so to say? Is it because of his paradox alone? Are we not all so full of paradoxes that we can be likened to one another? Just because Zia has paradox (while thinking of Sharia as an inhuman and violent institution, he speaks not about its abolition, but just reform-while not seeing ways and methods for reform), can we say, ‘like Harun Yahya, Ziauddin Sardar is a paradoxical man.

Another glitch in the article is that he says that Yusuf al Qardhawi’s defence of apostasy law is termed as sentiment and fear that is used to keep Muslim women in their prescribed positions. He does not outline or explain the transference of one sentiment to the other. That would have helped us to put in perspective the patriarchal fear in Muslim societies. This is more significant in view of the fact that many progressive-minded Muslim women consider some of Qardhawi fatwas as full of potential for liberation and reform. Though I am not fan of Qardhawi, I don’t believe that just because he supported apostasy, he holds ideas demeaning to women. Also, Zia does not cite the source for Qardhawi’s quote. He says it is TV interview. So it is a question and answer. So Qardhawi’s statement can be taken out of context. This is problematic in view of the fact that Zia often boasts that he does not know Arabic and that Qardhawi speaks only in Arabic. That part of his statement needs citation of the video link so that we can believe it.

We believe that Islamic law codified each day should be humane (just as all laws in the world should be humane and just); that there should not be patriarchal assumptions among Muslims (just as there should not be patriarchal assumptions among our scientists, politicians, corporate CEOs, actors and actresses); that there should be a space in Muslim societies where women are respected and her voice is treated as equally valid as that of man (just as there should be such a space in all societies where she is raped, abused, degraded and ridiculed); that the Muslim legal corpus should be free from medieval notions that spawn patriarchy and injustice (just as all legal corpuses should be free from such notions as to be able to spawn Abu Ghuraib and Nazist ghettos). But an attempt for the same should be made sans generalisations, regurgitations of pre-conceived notions and careless conflations.

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