Loathed by Some, Revered by Others
Ibn al-Jawzi: An Antiquated View of the Sexes
More than eight hundred years ago, in Baghdad, one of the best-known Sunni scholars of the age, Abd ar-Rahman ibn Ali ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200/1201 CE), wrote a book about the rules for women in Islam. Alarmed by the extent of the ignorance of religious duties and the correct Islamic way of life among his contemporaries, especially among women, he produced the book as a kind of guide for Muslim women. In it al-Jawzi collated all the religious and legal regulations that he deemed relevant for the women of his time. He writes about prayer, pilgrimages, fasting, alms, menstruation and mosque attendance, as well as about behaviour within marriage, dealings with parents and children, or the ban on abortion. Topics such as female circumcision, wife-beating, the ban on fleeing the marital home and correct forms of sexual intercourse are also represented. In addition to this book Ibn al-Jawzi wrote more than five hundred others, and his comprehensive knowledge of Koranic, hadith and legal scholarship, as well as of history, literature, medicine and preaching made him, even in his own lifetime, a man of extraordinary universal scholarship. It was above all his talent as a thrilling orator that enabled him to attract great crowds to hear his sermons, addresses and lectures. The fascination he inspired still endures today; indeed, it seems to have grown stronger with time. Many of his works have been republished in the Arab world in recent years, edited and with critical annotations; there are also a number of monographs on him. This development not only indicates the position that Ibn al-Jawzi still occupies today; it also typifies a trend for appropriating the works of classical authors to address contemporary issues.
The strengthening of Islamic identity
It seems that one of the main reasons why, in addition to all Ibn al-Jawzi’s other works, the Book of Rules for Women has also been republished in a number of new editions in recent years is in order to call for and promote the development and strengthening of an Islamic identity that offers an alternative to a more Western-style way of life. It was presumably Ali al-Muhammadi who opened the floodgates when he brought out a critical edition of the book in 1981. Since it first appeared in printed form the book has been republished numerous times and has also been printed in other, unannotated editions. It is impossible to say how many copies have been sold or how widely they have circulated, but the book was and still is printed in Lebanon and Morocco at least, and can be purchased in bookshops in a number of Arab countries. In addition, one should not underestimate the extent to which the work has been disseminated via the internet, where it can either be bought or downloaded for free. The website Almeshkat, which has offered the book as a download since 2006, states that it has been accessed more than 11,300 times.
The Beirut-based internet book shop An-nil wa-l-furat (Nile and Euphrates) uses the following text to advertise the book on its website. In so doing it follows a trend for stressing its up-to-the-minute topicality: ‘This book, Rules for Women, is one of the treasures of the Islamic canon, as it is considered to be an authentic legal encyclopaedia regarding all regulations applying to women, such as liturgical duties etc. The validity and authenticity of the book derive from the spirit of its author, for Ibn al-Jawzi is one of the most important personalities of the Hanbalite school […] The significance of the book is therefore that it provides women with answers to all their questions and saves them the time and trouble they would have to spend seeking the answers to their questions in dozens of legal books and their innumerable chapters. This book saves them time and trouble; it is also useful for researchers and people interested in questions about women in helping to familiarise them with the regulations.’
Source of backwardness
The assessment of the book by Zahia Salhi, Director of the Institute for Arab and Middle East Studies at the University of Leeds, is the antithesis of the positive presentation in this eulogy. In one of her lectures she describes the edition as part of a media campaign, which in turn is part of a discourse in the Muslim world: ‘“Defenders of Islam”’, who claim to be concerned about its future and make it their mission to defend Muslim society against the dangers of change and Westernisation, invest heavily in publications about women, equating defence of the Muslim faith with the defence of woman. […] A quick glance at some of the chapter headings gives the reader a general impression: Chapter 26, “Advise women not to go out”; Chapter 27, “Advantages for the woman who stays in the home”; Chapter 31, “The proof that it is better for a woman not to see men”, and Chapter 67, which accords the husband “the right to beat his wife”. The most astonishing chapter, however, is Chapter 6, which is dedicated to “Female circumcision”. In this section Ibn al-Jawzi describes in detail the bodily mutilation to which women are subjected, such as circumcision, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and was completely unknown in seventh-century Arabia.’
What we see here is not just a contrast between high regard of and objection to a book and its author; it is a much more far-reaching discrepancy between two ways of dealing with the past and the tradition. This is of interest not only to researchers: the way in which one’s own cultural, spiritual, and above all religious heritage – from which one may perhaps have become alienated – is dealt with, and how to deal with it oneself, are matters of concern for every individual. Muslims in particular are subjected to critical scrutiny in their quest for their roots, their identity, and access to the store of religious knowledge. In particular, a preference for the religious and a traditional way of life are frequently regarded in Europe as an expression of anti-modernity and backwardness. The particular Western European way of the strong secularisation of society is often promoted as universally applicable, especially in disputes over Islamic ways of life. And yet there are many different ideas among Muslims too about a woman’s role in society and how big a part tradition and religion should play in her life. In every discussion, supposed champions of women’s rights set themselves up as having the prerogative of interpretation over the self-determination and ways of life of Muslim women. Some issue warnings about Westernisation and sexualisation, others about oppression and patriarchy. Some see in the Islamic tradition, especially in the Koran and in the hadiths, a fundament that cannot be called into question; others consider this postulated inviolability the problem from which contemporary Islam all too often suffers. However, the question that all concerned must seriously ask themselves relates to their dealings with religious traditions and the status these have in their faith and in their life. To what degree, then, are Ibn al-Jawzi’s observations justified today, and when does one have the right to be spared them, to reject them outright and leave them to the past? What method should be chosen to deal with this difficult heirloom of Islamic religious history? It seems too easy and too sweeping to label it as outdated and set it aside, to want to describe the author as misogynistic, above all when one considers all those who ascribe to the book unbroken topicality and make use of it. However, the assumption that a book written in the twelfth century is able to provide answers to the problems of the twenty-first is also one that must be subjected to critical scrutiny.
Still valid today?
When Ibn al-Jawzi’s book was published in German translation last year, Ali Mete reviewed it for the website of the Islamic community Millî Görüş. In order to evaluate the relevance of the book, Mete wrote, three aspects must be taken into consideration: ‘…the author’s intention, the question of how binding his statements are, and their integration into Islamic legal tradition’. He continues: ‘It is not only because legal provisions relate to the time in which they are made that it is incorrect to assume that the work of a Muslim scholar of the Middle Ages would also have unqualified legal force in the present day. A scholar’s statement does not always immediately acquire legal force simply because it is based on verses [from the Koran] and hadiths. This is because this would bypass the methods of finding justice (usul al-fiqh) that were developed to find new approaches for new circumstances, when these very methods, in particular ijtihad [the independent interpretation of existing law], are absolutely essential if one is to live one’s life according to the will of God. Just as it is impossible to comprehend Islamic laws without taking into account the circumstances and linguistic usage of those to whom the Koran was initially addressed, transferring and applying these laws to the current age without recourse to the methods developed within Islamic law is not productive.’ Mete also postulates, and in doing so quotes the editor of the German translation, that a critical approach to the book cannot be made ‘“by applying a simple gender concept extrinsic to the text itself”, as this is usually categorically rejected by the so-called traditionalists. They usually ascribe a certain merit to the works of the scholars, and in doing so rely more on the authority of the relevant scholar than on his approach or the relevance of a judgement to the present day.’ Mete argues that undifferentiated criticism of author and book, like the uncritical acceptance of its contents, are neither helpful nor profitable. Rather, two things are important: on the one hand, becoming aware of the historical context in which the work was written, and on the other, wariness of an interpretation that takes contemporary ideas as the measure by which to judge a historical work. Otherwise there is the danger that attitudes will harden and serious debate will be superseded by a pattern of polemical discussion.
In her review, journalist and author Hilal Sezgin adopts a far harder stance towards the book and its author. Unlike Ali Mete, as a Muslim woman Sezgin is much more directly affected by the book’s contents. She describes Ibn al-Jawzi’s attempt to banish women from the public domain and place them under male sovereignty, even though in so doing he comes across hadiths that tend rather to oppose his convictions, as follows: ‘“If one of you is asked by his wife for permission to go to the mosque, he should not forbid her to do so.” And: “Do not forbid your wives to go to the mosque, although their houses are better for them.” Where these hadiths are concerned, we do not know in either case whether the Prophet Mohammed spoke these words precisely in this form. However, if we read them as documents of their time – that is, first and foremost, of the time when they were first recorded, and possibly also of the very beginning of the Islamic era – we can see a clash between two conflicting beliefs: between the need on the one hand to control female presence and sexuality, and on the other the awareness that, on a spiritual level, women and men are equal. Al-Jawzi could hardly ignore the fact that the Koran addressed men and women as believers equally. Drat! You can almost hear Ibn al-Jawzi gnashing his teeth in frustration that he could not simply forbid women to go to the mosque.’ Sezgin concludes that ‘Suhrkamp [the publishing house] may like to continue to translate and print such texts. However, scholars of Arabic will read a text like this one – assuming they are interested in doing so – either in the original or in English; and it is not much help to us ordinary believers, either. Let us therefore set this nauseating book aside…’
Setting the book aside is not, however, quite so easy. It is too widely circulated and too often referred to for that, as well as being a classic example of a particular way of dealing with Islamic texts on legal matters. The wind must be taken out of the sails of those ‘defenders of Islam’ who regard the book as an authoritative source that it is unproblematic to contemporise. Similarly, one should not underestimate the task of confronting Islamophobia, which is increasingly finding acceptance and is especially fond of holding forth on the topic of the oppression of women, presenting Islam as a religion stuck in a dark medieval past and incapable of further development.
Ibn al-Jawzi wrote his book in Baghdad in a time characterised by political turmoil, religious extremism and natural disasters. During this period large crowds would go to listen to miracle workers, popular preachers and Sufis on the one hand, traditionalists and fundamentalists on the other. It seems that the yearning for clear rules and transcendental experiences was an important factor in their appeal, and both men and women were captivated by it. Although in the Abbasid society of the day women no longer had as great a role in public life as they had done in the early years of Islam, they seem nonetheless, according to al-Jawzi’s remarks, to have left the house for all kinds of reasons: to go shopping, to take part in Sufi gatherings, to visit the mosque, to go to the public baths, and so on. Although they were excluded from actively taking part in the teaching activity in the madrassas, many women were nonetheless educated, whether because they had been taught within their own family, or had attended informal courses given by scholars. In spite of this it seems that the majority of Muslim women in Baghdad had very little knowledge of Islam and its rules, and that their religiosity was characterised by many elements external to Islam – prophecy, for example. At this time, Ibn al-Jawzi advocated a return to the certainty of Islamic life values, which were strictly in line with tradition and avoided extreme forms. His book for women therefore also reads like an attempt to present women with an ideal and alternative model of a meaningful life, orientated above all towards Prophetic tradition and scholarly wisdom. Ibn al-Jawzi’s views in this regard are characterised by the conviction, widespread at the time, that social life and society itself can only be successful if the man is superior to the woman, because on the one hand woman needs man as a guiding hand, while on the other hand men are susceptible to women’s sexual power.
Ibn al-Jawzi’s Book of Rules for Women is no simple document of Muslim contempt for women; rather it expresses a historically deep-rooted conviction regarding a certain relationship between the sexes, one that many Muslims – like Hilal Sezgin – today consider to be as incompatible with early Islamic ideas as it is with modern ones. As well as sharp jibes at women’s expense, the book also contains a great deal of other material that is capable of taking the oppression of women to the point of absurdity. The legal trickery he employs when dealing with controversial topics such as female circumcision or women appearing in public, as well as his attacks on apparent enemies of an orthodox religious life, such as Sufis, highlight the self-appointed pedagogue’s casuistry where women’s issues are concerned. Furthermore, the numerous biographies of and anecdotes about women cited by Ibn al-Jawzi in the last and longest chapter tell of strong, educated and witty women, and are more than capable of suggesting a more differentiated image of womanhood. It is also not a purely legal compendium, as Muslim advocates of the book falsely suggest; it is a text that very often takes the form of an emotionally-charged sermon. The way it deals with the tradition is adapted accordingly; it is selected and ordered subjectively. A great many topics are omitted, while those about which Ibn al-Jawzi felt especially strongly are highlighted excessively, such that almost throughout the emphasis is on women’s duties but their rights are not emphasised. Above all, it becomes apparent that the book is deeply rooted in its historical context. Nonetheless, it must also be noted that there are a number of chapters that can indeed be regarded as timeless, for example the rules on ritual washing, and those regarding the order of prayer, or pilgrimages. These have remained unchanged right up to the present day.
Certainly the personal living conditions and forms of society in twelfth-century Baghdad cannot be compared with those in Cairo, Tunis, or Berlin-Kreuzberg in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, there are numerous Muslims who regard developments in the world around them as misguided and, just like Ibn al-Jawzi, lead or preach a life orientated towards the rules of Islam, guided by the Koran and the Sunna. The book The Ideal Muslim Woman – again written by a man, Muhammad Ali al-Hashimi, published in Arabic, English and Spanish and widely distributed – is an example of a design of how women should live their lives that has been developed in the present day with reference to these sources. Al-Hashimi does indeed refer to Ibn al-Jawzi’s work and quotes whole sections from it, but his book does additionally pursue other avenues of thought. It is impossible to clarify the extent to which women have ever followed Ibn al-Jawzi’s ideas or al-Hashimi’s model to the letter, as disparaging voices are generally more easily heard – especially in Europe – than those in agreement.There is no avoiding the necessity for critical, in-depth analysis of the historical sources generating ideas in the present day, without defining them in advance as either sacrosanct or irrelevant. Only when this is carried out will it stimulate new thought processes and provide incentives that could lead to an examination of inherited designs for living and their relevance in the modern world, or challenge some of the identities ascribed to Muslims.
holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies and Evangelical Theology. She is an academic researcher with the Seminar for Semitic and Arabic Studies at the Free University of Berlin, working on the Collaborative Research Centre 626, ‘Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits’. She edited and translated into German Ibn al-Jawzi’s Book of Rules for Women (Verlag der Weltreligionen, Frankfurt 2008).
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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