When I was young, my father introduced me to Harold C. Goddard’s enlightened interpretation of Shakespeare. I remember experiencing the instant conversion to his arguments, which felt so right, so consistent with the morality I aspired to – and yet, such a surprise, because he lands on conclusions that fly in the face of the interpretations held by the vast majority of commenters. The first firecracker of a conclusion, for me, was that Kate was no shrew at all, but a justifiably cranky child (because of the favoritism shown her sister by her father), and that she ends up not tamed, but rather, in fact, holding the upper hand in her marriage (and at last properly, passionately, loved and understood). The second breakthrough, for me, was Goddard’s argument that we are all wrong in assuming that Hamlet should have killed his uncle, or should have killed him earlier. He should not have killed him; he should have forgiven him, and the best part of him knew it, and that he killed instead of forgiving was his downfall. No audience, caught up in the group-think of revenge and hard justice, can see this clearly – but after the performance, as the play festers and worries the mind and heart, we might begin to suspect – and if we are lucky, and we read Goddard, it becomes clear at last, and we are elevated from our eye-for-an-eye existence to a higher plane of understanding where bloodshed is never the right answer.
So, how does this relate to Islam?
Islam has a long tradition of reform and discussion and challenge, but (as with all religions and their texts), there is a darker tradition, a habit of twisting the Islamic texts to one’s own ends. (The key texts are the Qur’an, the word of God as reported by the Prophet Mohammad, and the Hadith, the record of the life of the Prophet as remembered by his companions and passed down by word of mouth.) In the immediate aftermath of the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his community endeavored to be inclusive and govern by consensus. In the next couple of centuries, human understanding of the shari’ah, the divinely ordained path of conduct that guides human behavior, was recognized as being open to a variety of interpretations. But, over time, a school of scholars would agree on an element of interpretation, and this very agreement would freeze the consensus opinion, which then came down to subsequent generations to be accepted without question. Yet interpretations were thoroughly influenced by the culture and context of the time. In a culture where women were oppressed, for example, the interpretations tended to treat women as second-class, as possessable, as less capable than men, even without any support for that bias existing in the Qur’an.
For me, as an outsider curious about Islam, a number of aspects presented insurmountable problems when I first encountered it. One of these was the apparent elevation of men above women, justified with reference to the Qur’an and the Hadith, and to older Abrahamic traditions. What a delight, then, what a relief and a recognition, to discover the arguments of the Islamic feminist Riffat Hassan, who endeavors to throw off the weight of centuries of scholars and accepted “wisdom”, and argues eloquently and compellingly, addressing every problematic verse, that the Qur’an clearly advocates perfect equality of men and women. And then to trace back that theme of fair treatment and enlightened interpretation to the Aga Khan and Muhammad Iqbal and further back, right back to the Prophet himself, his relationship with his intelligent and supportive wives, and his advocacy for disadvantaged women.
I love that experience, of being shown an unexpected path, an intellectual solution, that explains a familiar text -- but in a new way, that contradicts nearly every previous commenter and elevates the interpretation to a higher moral level. Don’t you?
- Riffat Hassan (b. 1943), “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam,” in the collection After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions
- Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” Kitab Bhavan, 2000 (originally published in 1930)
- Harold C. Goddard (1878-1950), “The Meaning of Shakespeare,” The University of Chicago Press
- John Esposito (b. 1940), “Islam, The Straight Path,” Oxford University Press