March 10, 2013

Women in Islam: Muslim Perspectives and Fethullah Gülen

M. Sait Yavuz*

Women in Islam
This article argues that one does not necessarily need to fully accept or reject either the conservative arguments or the modernist/feminist conceptions. The Islamic tradition and modern concepts are not mutually exclusive, as the Islamic tradition, on the one hand, is flexible enough to open new venues for modern ways of life, and modernity, on the other, favors the principle that each individual has the right to choose any lifestyle that she thinks it as the best for herself.

As a contemporary Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen states, Islam is universal with respect to its principles; therefore, it has flexible areas where Muslims could resume ijtihad (intellectual effort) and re-interpret the Islamic tradition (tajdid) in a way compatible with the Qur'an, Sunna (tradition of Muhammad), Ijma (scholarly consensus) and Qiyas (analogical reasoning). Moreover, contrary to the controlling nature of conservative Islamists, Gülen introduces a moderate point of view by arguing that Islam gives people more freedom of choice in personal matters than it has been considered.…

Fethullah Gülen as the representative of Moderate Islam in Turkey

…Gülen does not accept the argument that Muslim women should be emancipated from Islam through secularism. He argues that secularism could neither be an enlightenment project nor 'emancipate' the so-called suppressed people of the Muslim world since there was no place for suppression in the spirit of Islam. He describes secularism as a legal term that defines the status of the government vis-à-vis the religion; therefore, for Gülen, a state could be secular, but an individual could not. He asserts that it would be a fallacy if secularism is regarded as depriving the social and individual realm of religion; indeed, both secularism and religiosity could co-exist in a democratic setting; and the overlapped areas would be regulated through demarcating the limits of governments' responsibilities and individual freedom.

On women's rights issues, Gülen criticizes the 'western champions of women's rights' although he agrees that in some parts of the Muslim world Islam has been contaminated with local customs and traditions that oppressed women. In his words "most champions of women's rights and freedom only excite women with physical pleasure and then stab her spirit." Gulen thinks that for the sake of so-called freedom, women were used as objects of pleasure, means of entertainment, and materials for advertisement, which reduced 'freedom' to sexual liberty.

Gülen's articulation of an ideal Muslim woman, as somebody observing the religion and turning her way towards immortal values, does not mean that women could not work outside their homes. He does not promote exclusion of women from the public sphere. He states that the contribution of women in certain fields is inevitable and is not banned in Islam as long as the working conditions suit women. He argues that there is no such limitation on women's lives in Muslim communities; if so, the source of that specific practice should have been a local customary practice.

Gülen discards the patriarchal judgment that men's desire is women's mistake. To an interview question whether or not women could be administrators, Gülen responds that there is no reason why women should not be administrators; besides, in Hanafi jurisprudence, women were allowed to be judges since they would understand and make better judgments over certain matters related to female issues. Gülen argues that in Islamic societies where the religion has not been contaminated with non-Islamic customs or traditions, Muslim women live a free life, and have been full participants in daily life. Using the traditional argument, he asserts that women engaged in businesses, led armies, prayed in the mosques together with the men, and were able to express themselves to an extend that they could even oppose the caliph in a judicial matter on women's right to assess the value of the dowry, whereas in contemporary Europe there have been debates over whether or not women have spirits or are devils or human beings.

Gülen utilizes the story of Lady Montagu, who accompanied her husband on his embassy to the Ottoman capital in early eighteenth century, as she admired the status of the Ottoman women and their roles in Muslim society:
Even the pre-modern veiled women of polygamous harems were both sexually and economically freer than their European contemporaries. When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey in the eighteenth century, she wrote that she "never saw a country where women may enjoy so much liberty, and free from all reproach as in Turkey"….. Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century, English women continued to report on the superiority of Turkish women in almost every sphere of social life, including hygiene, economics, and legal rights.
None of these rights has been granted to the British women until the end of nineteenth century. It was a time when exotic images of Muslim women as depictions of harem scenes were in circulation among the British intellectuals. Lady Montagu's admiration of the Ottoman society was an open challenge to European stereotypes of Muslim women and the English patriarchal society as the contemporary British common law denied the married women the right to own property upon marriage.

On gender roles, Gülen thinks that there is no obstacle in front of women in having equal rights and responsibilities with men; however, women and men have been physically and emotionally different so that gender roles have had to suit these differences. In contrast with the conservative point of view Gülen thinks that these differences could not be used as bases for gender hierarchy. Islam does not separate men and women since both are human beings and have fundamental rights; however, in another sense, men and women are not equals, but complementing each other like two sides of a coin. Men have been physically stronger and apt to bearing hardship, while women are more compassionate, delicate and self-sacrificing. Therefore the responsibility of motherhood is given to women, so that they naturally become the first nurturers, educators, and trainers of the new generation. This makes women the first teachers of the humanity, which is a unique position bestowed upon them by God.

On the issue of polygamy, Gülen thinks that although it was allowed by the Prophet Muhammad; there is no record in the Qur'an or Hadith that Islam requires Muslims to marry more than one woman as a fulfillment of a religious duty. Qur'an mentions polygamy only as a permission under special circumstances, and marrying just one woman is recommended and encouraged. Therefore, Gulen does not consider marrying more than one woman as a fulfillment of a Sunnah or any religious law. Instead, Gülen sees the act of 'presenting polygamy as an Islamic way of life' the most abominable misrepresentation of Islam since it is nothing more than a temptation to fulfill carnal desires if there is no 'real reason'. Islam, as a universal system, made polygamy possible so that no women should be left alone without protection when they are widowed, and this have helped a lot especially during the wartime, which brought misery, chaos and many hardships to the women and children.

Gülen rejects the idea that Islam regarded women inferior before the law when it comes to inheritance law and testifying before the court. He argues that Muslim women had equal rights with men such as freedom of religion, expression, finance and freedom to live a decent life, and were equals before the law. The rule of two women as witnesses was issued for oral testimonies regarding the financial agreements, which was a business act usually out of most of the women's scope in the earlier times. This rule was not effective for only the women, but also for the Bedouin, who were not accustomed to the city life and had little knowledge in financial issues. The issue of inheritance was a totally different issue. It did not have anything to do with women's inferiority; rather it was a financial decision aiming at helping male inheritors to have more means (lands etc.) to support their own families.

For Gülen, veiling is compulsory for women in the Islamic tradition; however, it has never been an issue of primary importance.
There are no formal rules in Islam concerned with the way one wears one's hair, the style of clothing or anything else related to external appearance. What is important in Islam is that followers must present an Islamic identity, interpret its spirituality, and represent in a good manner the beauty of Islam in their life. Rather than making rules on what should be worn, Islam teaches people how to be modest.
For Gulen, any kind of covering, whether it is turban, beard, or veil, are furuat, which are 'of secondary or lower importance', and one who did not follow the furuat does not become an infidel. Veiling and wearing loose clothes [for women] are among neither the essentials of faith nor the pillars of Islam therefore; they are of secondary importance although they are compulsory for all Muslim women, and disobeying would not render anyone blasphemous. Turban, robe and beard [for men] are only details of lower importance and were not compulsory; therefore, nobody should drown into these small details.…

* Lecturer and Director of Academic Affairs at Gulen Institute, University of Houston

Excerpted from the author's paper titled Women in Islam: Muslim Perspectives and Fethullah Gulen. presented at the conference Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gulen Movement, held on November 14-15, 2008 at Georgetown University.

You may refer to the following link for the full article and its references.

This article is also available in Chinese