Islamic Feminism, Part II

(In case you missed it, Part I of the dialogue starts here.)

Ahlam:  Yes, about this leaving of yours.  Don’t you think it was a bit premature?  You know what the Qur’an teaches about Iesa–why jump so quickly into the arms of this carpenter?  After all, this Bible of yours has been used as a tool of patriarchy for centuries.  I mean, look at this verse: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  Here, even an apostate must admit, the Qur’an has the upper hand concerning women.  For no Qur’anic text ever claims that Eve was ever a lesser creature than Adam.  Yet the Old and New Testaments alike do this on multiple occasions.  And doesn’t the Genesis story also mandate patriarchy when God says to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you”?

Safiya:  I’ve been studying these texts for a while now, Ahlam—please don’t think that I would leave Islam, much less become a Person of the Book, without doing some research!  Habibi, our Sciptures simply don’t work in the same way yours do.

Ahlam:  But this is the revelation of God, is it not, Safiya?

Safiya: In a sense, Ahlam, yes: but not in the sense that you think.  See, the Qur’an is very . . . self-consciously Scripture.  You can hardly get a page without being reminded that this text considers itself to be, as you say, the final disclosure of Allah to human beings.  The Bible doesn’t really work like that.  It is more unassuming—a random collection of myths, parables, letters, histories, visions, poems, songs, and all kinds of genres of literature.  In fact, because it is a compilation of texts from a variety of sources, there are all kinds of agreements and contradictions between the texts—like they’re having a conversation, almost.  What that means is that Christian Scripture cannot be interpreted simply on a verse-by-verse basis.  You have to look at the whole thing.

Ahlam:  But Safiya, am I understanding you correctly?  If biblical texts are a having a “conversation”, as you would have it, then how do you know which voice to listen to?  And if you privilege one voice over others, then doesn’t that nullify the authority of the other voices?

Safiya:  No, no, not at all!  Here, let me show you what I mean.  You raised two very important texts when it comes to feminism and Scripture: Genesis 1-3 and 1 Timothy 2.  Could we take a closer look at the creation narrative?  There’s no better text for us People of the Book, if we are going to be talking about gender.

Ahlam:  Sure—after all, Muslims regard the Bible as provisionally authoritative, too.

Safiya:  Great.  So—if you will—would you read Genesis 2:18?

Ahlam:  Sure.  “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’”

Safiya:  Right.  In short, Adam is lonely.  He needs what this translation calls “a helper as his partner”.  But that’s a rather limp translation, if you ask me.  The Hebrew phrase is ezer kenegdo, and it’s a much trickier phrase to translate than most interpreters would like to think.  Ezer doesn’t just mean “helper”—that’s far too, well, domestic of a translation.  It’s not like she’s made to be Adam’s assistant.  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the word is used of Allah Himself when He is most desperately needed.  It’s military, not domestic.  Even comes to Adam’s aid just as she is most desperately needed—indeed, here it is Adam, not Eve, who must rely on wife.  The best translation of the word is not “helper,” it is “savior” or “rescuer”.  Kenegdo simply means “perfect correspondence.”  She fits exactly right.  Now, Paul’s interpretation of this passage in 1 Timothy (which we shall deal with shortly) notwithstanding, where is the patriarchy here?

Ahlam:  Interesting . . .

Safiya: That’s what I said too.  It’s nowhere to be found.  Their unity is so perfect that Adam can only describe it with metaphor: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Ahlam:  Now, but what about the fact that Adam was created first?

Safiya:  I think the question you have to ask yourself is, does Adam’s priority necessarily imply his superiority?  Or are we reading that into the text from our own patriarchal culture, rather than out of the narrative itself?  The text does not demand this inference—and, I think, neither should we.  In fact—and this is really the crucial point—the narrative does not explicitly discuss the dominance of male over female until God’s words after the Fall in Genesis 3.  What does it say in Genesis 3:16?

Ahlam:  “. . . To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  See, that’s what I mentioned earlier!  In Genesis, God endorses the patriarchal order.

Safiya:  Not necessarily.  Look closer: while God curses the serpent and the ground, he does not use the same language toward Adam and Eve.  Patriarchy, where the man “shall rule over” the woman, is instead described not as a mandate of God, but as a result of the Fall.  It is not a part of the natural created order, but a consequence and an indicator of human sin.

Ahlam:  I like that.  But you’ve still got your St. Paul to deal with, don’t you?

Safiya:  Yes, of course.  Here’s what I’m driving at: while we Christians cannot deny or attempt to ignore the patriarchy that colors much of the Bible, we must place it in the narrative context of the entirety of Scripture.  The story of God’s salvation of humankind—the story that Holy Scripture intends to tell, and that the Holy Spirit is still revealing to us—is one of restoration.  See, here’s the thing: God’s statement that “he shall rule over you” points two directions, I think.  It points backward, to a time when male-female relations were characterized by intimacy, equality, and radical interdependence, yes.  But for Christians, it also points forward to a day when the curse is lifted.  In Christ, God reconciled the world to himself by taking on the curse and so removing it.  St. Paul knew that Christ’s reconciliation of humans with God also meant the reconciliation of humans with other humans.  That’s why he declared that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Ahlam:  So what?  This is, after all, the same person who forbade women to teach men in church.

Safiya:  Yes, of course.  The Bible is a product of humans and thus subject to all of our assumptions and prejudices.  But Christian Scripture, while in one sense affirming patriarchy, also deprives it of a theological grounding in the creation narrative, and also points beyond it in the person of Jesus as embodied, albeit imperfectly (thus, 1 Timothy 2), in the Church.  The Bible is in this way self-transcendent: its broader narrative arc, from Genesis to Revelation, is actually subversive of its own patriarchy.  Does that make sense?

Ahlam:  You know, I think that’s something that I can get behind.

Safiya:  Sure—but habibi, I’m afraid you can’t do it and remain a Muslim.

The Arabic name for Jesus.

1 Timothy 2:12-14, NRSV.

Genesis 3:16, NRSV.

Galatians 3:28, NRSV.

Safiya owes her argument to Francis Watson’s chapter “The Limits of Patriarchy” in his book Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective.

UPDATE: The conclusion starts here.

This entry was posted in bible, Feminism, Islam, Religion, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Islamic Feminism, Part II

  1. Pingback: Islamic Feminism? « Of City Streets and Falling Leaves

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