Thursday, 7 April 2016

In conversation with Amanullah De Sondy on ‘The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities’ - Published in The Irish Times

A shorter version of this was published in on Tuesday 5th April 2016
The Irish Times
Buy The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
What is the crisis of Islamic masculinities?
 “Rigid notions of masculinity continue to cause a crisis in global Islamic communities.  In the book, I open with the construction of masculinity which we are quite used to seeing, and that is a highly politicised view, a singular rigid presentation. I use the work of the political Islamist Abul Ala Maududi, who can be regarded as one of the founding fathers of Pakistan, and I decided to look at him particularly rather than a political Islamist from the Arab world, because part of my project was to try to decentre our view from the Arab Middle East. If my aim is to challenge a singular version of masculinity than it is also to challenge a singular version of Islam.
Maududi found himself at the end of the British rule and had to construct a very clear vision of what he wanted to see in society, which was links to politics, the state and post-colonialism. So his construction was very much a reaction against the west, and one way he did that was by creating that rigidity of saying, men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers. But there were other voices at the time, and I look at the philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal who knew that Pakistan had to be established on religious credentials but he wasn’t so antagonistic to the west, and then there was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who was more a secular minded individual. You can still see today how Pakistani society wavers between these three ideals.
 “It’s important to understand how driven Maududi was because I can’t imagine being in a country that has been colonised for so long. How would you react against that, and marry your ideas of statehood and religion? So Maududi was a very clever individual trying to do that. But what we lose sight of is the fact that these are human endeavours and charismatic male figures like Maududi have throughout history done an excellent job of positioning themselves where to question them is like to question God.”
 “I go onto to look at the critique of Maududi by Muslim-feminists. They are largely trying to use their own experiences and interpretation of sacred texts to understand their own Islamic femininity but they still want to hold strong to family, and we have to accept that family in any societal construction can be a place to cement patriarchy. How egalitarian can a family structure be where you have a father, son, daughter and a wife?”
What does the Qur'an say about gender roles?
 “You would think the Qur'an would tell you what it means to be a man or a woman but it doesn’t do that. The Qur'an is, and I say this in a positive sense, a superbly ambiguous and dysfunctional text, and the reason the text has to be dysfunctional is because it has to relate to dysfunctional lives. So the Qur'an is full of these men and woman who don’t reall fit this rigidity of Maududi. I give the example of figures who did not fit neat families. You have Jesus in the Koran, who is regarded as a prophet. Jesus had no father; we don’t know whether the Qur'anic Jesus was married.
 Then there was Joseph who fell in love with his step mother; we don’t know whether Joseph got married. The Prophet (Muhammad) was monogamous in marriage to one woman until she passed away but then he had 10, 11, 12 wives. So which model of Islamic masculinity is the one that needs to be upheld?
 And If you look at the story of Adam and Eve I’m not convinced it’s about traditional roles because it doesn’t actually say in the Qur'an Adam was created to be the breadwinner and Eve was created to be the homemaker. The only commandment that was given to Adam and Eve was: Submit to me and stay away from that tree. God only knows how people have arrived at the conclusion that that story is about heterosexual union.  What is common to them all is their individial submission to the one God.  They show us that the highly persona relationship humans and God doesn’t lend itself to organising society because that relationship cannot be replicated or typified.
 So how does this text, that Muslims hold as divine, help us to understand this crisis further? What does it say?  I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the Qur'an is continually trying to focus the believer’s attention on that one, singular commandment which is that they must submit to and obey god. I don’t think the Qur'an is a text which is trying to organise society. It can be read in that way and it can be manipulated in that way but the Qur'an for me is a very colourful and very  thought provoking text which is not a legal text. You can try to box the Qur'an in whatever way you want but it bursts out at the seams because it does not fit neat categories.”
 Why are so few Muslim men feminists?
 “It’s quite simple. Why would a man who is at the centre of everything try to rock the boat. I remember when I was doing my PhD people were saying, why are you looking at this? They were actually quite shocked. It was a Methodist minister who once said to me, you are a fundamentalist because you are going to the absolute foundations and reclaiming the term fundamentalist. And in a sense I think that needs to happen because the ripple effect of doing this type of critique or analysis will help us understand Islamic societies better , and it will allow us to introduce alternative voices, especially those marginalised ones, which have been pushed out because of this imagined centre point in Muslim societies which are normally headed, or policed, by very charismatic, heterosexual men.”
 “And because these Muslim men who have tried very hard to set the boundaries of what is masculine and Islamic, you have a mass exodus towards secularism. For example, I have spoken to many LGBT Muslims and have asked ‘Do you reconcile your sexuality with you faith?’ Many of them will say, ‘No, because we know this is a sin, we know it’s wrong, it’s not Islamic’. And so this begs the questions, ‘Under whose authority have they been thrown out of the centre point, that very category of ‘Islamic’?’  Now more than ever before this needs to be debated.
 “A lot of the discourse within Muslim communities focuses on Islamophobia, and I say, OK, Islamophobia exists but if you only concentrate on that it stops you from critiquing. We need to be able to offer critique while also keeping in mind the sense and sensibilities of Muslim communities.  Keeping that fair balance is a hard task.”
 Has studying this field weakened your faith?
 “No, in a way my own faith has been strengthened by questioning and critique. I do believe that Muslims from the very beginning have thrived in doubt and the unknown. I would regard myself as someone who lives in the real world. I know there is a lot of subjugation and oppression of women globally in the name of Islam so its bridging the text and lived reality but my project is hoping for a long-term impact.  I want to help my students and readers to think and I don’t regard myself as an activist. A lot of people come to me and say, ‘but Aman you have to tell us Maududi’s model is not Islamic’ and I say, I can’t do that, he has a right to access the text in exactly the same way as another Muslim, whose Islam you agree with, accesses the text. That’s not often helpful in our current geo-political climate because people often want to be told what to do. But I hope people will think through this and in turn helps us all to prosper.”

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