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Friday, November 08, 2013

Karen Armstrong kisses up to Mohammed (and throws her sisters under the camel train)


So, what did Mohammed really think about women?  Did he hang around the tent, chatting amicably with his women-folk, as Karen Armstrong supposes?  Or was he a sexual tyrant and master manipulator whose example and teachings help explain the low status of women in the Muslim world today?  Let's begin looking for answers to that question in the Quran itself. 

I have to admit, sometimes I enjoy it when females disrespect females in the abstract.  Maybe it's the old "divine and conquer" instinct.  Not that I'd want to listen to it every day: I'm glad that the women in my life get along.  Still, whatever doubts I have about Ann Coulter, I smiled the other day when she said she thought that in times of crisis, it's best that a nation be led by a man, not a woman.  I don't know if she is right -- I was just reading about Queen Tamar and the Golden Age of Georgia in the 11th Century yesterday -- but I smiled when she said it. 

But in her Short History of Islam, "religious scholar" Karen Armstrong takes betrayal of her own gender too far for my taste. 

First, I'll quote Armstrong on Mohammed's attitudes towards women.  Then I'll quote Mohammed himself, in the first chapters of the Quran, on women.  (I claim no expertise in the Quran, I'm simply reading through it and noting what the book says.)  While you read what Mohammed has to say about women, ask yourself, "How would Karen Armstrong have liked to have built up her writing and speaking career in that harem?" 


A. Armstrong on Mohammed and women

“His wives were sometimes more of a hindrance than a pleasure . . . Mohammed was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company of women.  Some of his male companions were astonished by his leniency towards his wives and the way they stood up to him and answered him back.  Mohammed scrupulously helped with the chores, mended his own clothes and sought out the companionship of his wives . . .

“The emancipation of women was a project dear to his heart.  The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded such status . . . The Quran makes men and women partners before God, with identical duties and responsibilities . . . (Women) did not seem to have experienced Islam as an oppressive religion, though later, as happened in Christianity, men would hijack the faith and bring it into line with the prevailing patriarchy.” (Islam: A Short History, 15-16)

B. Mohammed on women

First, a few generalization observations. 

(a) The Quran is clearly written to men, not women.  Mohammed's habitual First Person Theocratic is, "when you take wives," like "when you buy a camel," not "when you get married."  During Pilgrimage, a pilgrim should "not go into his womenfolk." (Cow, 194)  The Koran often treats women as one of the good things in life, like gold or children or fertile land (House of Imran), and flatters and makes allowances for the male libido. 

Following proscription on sex during a woman's period, Mohammed, that romantic devil, offers this divinely-inspired imprecation:

“Your women are a tillage for you; so come into your tillage as you wish . . . “  (Cow, 223)

(b) Many of Mohammed's rules are practical, maybe even sensible, though it would be hard today to call them inspired.  Women should breast feed for two years, or less if the parents want: it's the husband's job to "clothe them honorably."  (Cow, 230)  Divorce your wife if you want, but don't marry her again unless someone else marries her and divorces her first!  Women should wait four months and ten days after their husbands die, to marry again. 


(c) There are provisions for women.  If you cut off an engagement before sleeping together, the girl still gets half the dowry.  (Cow, 235)  The wife gets to stay in your house for at least a year after you die. 
The spiritual nature and value of women is generally affirmed:
“I waste not the labor of any who labors among you, be you male or female – the one of you is as the other.” (House of Imran, 194)
And whosoever does deeds of righteousness, be it male or female, believing – shall enter Paradise, and not be wronged a single date-spot.” (Women, 124)
(d) The superiority of the male is almost everywhere assumes, and often explicitly stated.  Two female witnesses are worth one male witness. (Cow, 283)  Women get half the inheritance of men, which are "God's bounds." (Women, 8-16)

(e) Mohammed also casually affirms what we would describe (and must  have felt like) the oppression of women.  You shouldn't marry "idolatresses," but believing slave girls are fair game (Cow, 220).  If your wife fools around on you, confine her to the house until she dies (Women, 19): if she's a slave girl, give her half that punishment.  (Whatever that means.) 
(f) The reader of the Quran is given a lot of leeway, and some guidelines, in which women to marry, and how many:
"If you feel that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seems good to you, two, three, four; but if you fear that you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial.  And give the women their dowries as a gift spontaneous; but if they are pleased to offer you any of it, consume it with wholesome appetite.”  (Women, 3)
One shouldn't marry mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, mothers-in-law, “your stepdaughters who are in your care, being born of your wives you have been in to – but if you have not yet been in to them it is no fault in you.”  Also avoid your sons’ wives, or two sisters at the same time, or wedded women “save what your right hands own.”  

Is that license to take a slave woman away from her husband, into your own bed?  That's what it looks like. 

Mohammed even allowed men to marry their father's former wives, unrelated to themselves, if it "be a thing of the past." (Women, 26) 

(f) While the Quran speaks often of justice and alms for the poor, it is not hard to see that it was written by a rich man, eager to justify the perks of wealth.  A Muslim is allowed to make the best of money for his sexual gratification:

“Lawful for you, beyond all that, is what you may seek, using your wealth, in wedlock and not in license. Such wives as you enjoy thereby, give them their wages apportionate; it is no fault in you in your agreeing together, after the due apportionate.”  

This sounds, on the surface, like a form of legalized prostitution.  

But if you don’t have the money to marry free women, you might as well marry one of your slave girls.  If she cheats on you, she earns “half the chastisement of a free woman.  That’s if you care about such things: it’s “better for you to be patient.”
(g) And then comes this famous passage about how to deal with women, which Armstrong failed to mention:
“Men are the managers of the affairs of women, for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over the other . . . Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding.  And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they obey you, book not for any way against them.”  (Women, 38)
The question is, if men are the "managers of the affairs of women," and women are supposed to obey their menfolk, how much good does it do women to "own" stuff?  And then if they mouth off, slap them around some until they fall in line.  Not that Mohammed limits faithful Muslims to just slapping their ladies. 

I don't doubt that Mohammed "enjoyed the company of women," as is clear from his history of conquests and forcible captures, and from the many stipulations in the Quran in support of the male sex drive.  But I am having a hard time reconciling what is actually written in the Quran with Armstrong's claim that men and women are given "identical duties and responsibilities."  And I also have a hard time picturing this fellow darning his own socks and chatting with his wives about the price of dates in the Mecca market.  (I suspect he'd rather chat with male colleagues about the price of new slave girls.)
The Quran is written frankly from the perspective of a rich, slave-owning, war-mongering, imperious, over-sexed male.  Women are to obey, to be ruled by men, and to be beaten if they mouth off.  Too bad for poor men who can't afford a wife, or don't own any comely slave nymphs.   
Which brings us to a story Karen Armstrong also related.

Mohammed came back from battle with some loot.  His wives started quarrelling over who got what.  So "the Prophet threatened to divorce them all unless they lived more strictly in accordance with Islamic values.  But it is still true that Mohammed was one of those rare men who truly enjoy the company of women." (15)

This seems a masterpiece of sycophancy. 

The war lord kills his enemies, steals their bling, and brings it home to his hoard of wives.  They fight over it like jackals.  The war lord threatens to divorce the lot of them for their failure to live up to the lofty standards of Islam.  That means what -- kick them out of the house, and go where, in the city where he is dictator? 

Mohammed here, or elsewhere, does not strike me as particularly saintly.  This looks to me like the picture of sexual tyranny, and an excuse for tyranny down through the ages. 
And let's not talk about "hijacking" a sexually-egalitarian religion.  I may stand on the other side of the War of the Sexes (if there is such a war), but Armstrong's shameless apologies for the oppression of women by a favored saint, I do not find attractive. 
I understand that the reaction of many readers will be, "But what about Christianity?  What about Canaanite slave girls?  What about male disciples?"
Certainly that is Karen Armstrong's own instinct.  Often, when forced to mention some evil in Muslim tradition, she responds by pointing to some equal or (in her mind) greater evil in the Christian tradition, and saying, "At least Mohammed didn't do that!"
Often this involves comparing the worst that one man committed, to the worst of a tradition.  And that, itself, is a telling confession. 

It is more reasonable to compare Jesus to Mohammed.  In an earlier post here, I examined how Jesus treated women in the gospels.  I am now reading Koran, and noting and taking account of every passage that touches on women. 

So far, the contrast is stark, indeed.

11 comments:

bbigej said...

Sexual tyranny? Is that anything like how your God allowed the Israelites to keep the women of conquered nations as sex slaves?

David B Marshall said...

BB: Read the whole series, and see how the Gospel has liberated billions of women around the world.

domics said...

OK, it is true that in the Old Testament we can find difficult passages as Joshua's conquest of Canaan or the many wives and concubines of Solomon; as it is true that in the history of Christianity we can find (as I read in a comment in a previous article) the wars made by Julius II and Luther's anti-Semitism, BUT none of these characters is presented as the example to follow for a Christian believer while in the Koran (33:21) it is explicitly written that the Prophet was sent by Allah as an example in which each Muslim believer must conform himself.
Again: I do not see anything wrong in trying to emphasize in the later biographies of the Prophet the most positive aspects as the stories about his housework (omitting from the same biographies the most problematic stories) hoping so that modern Muslims reconsider their position on women. But if this is done, as in Armstrong's book, to create a contrast with Christianity this becomes unpleasant (as well as historically false) and then a response is due.

David B Marshall said...

There is also the very important question of historical truth. If it is true that Joshua was a cruel tyrant and phony prophet like Mohammed, let's admit that fact, and not praise him as the greatest thing since Fig Newtons. (Though I think if BB turns the page in his Secularist Handbook, he'll find that he is not allowed to believe in the historicity of the Conquest of Palestine.)

Brian Barrington said...

There are a couple of points which can reasonably be made here (a) Jesus is a prophet of Islam, so Muslims admire Jesus as a true prophet of God. In so far as Jesus was humane and kind, then Muslims admire that humanity and kindness (b) Christians think that Jesus was God. Since God is a perfect being it follows that for Christians Jesus must be a perfect being. Muslims do not think that Muhammad was God - he was just a human being – maybe a great human being in many ways, but still a human being. In fact, in so far as only God is a perfect being, it follows that Muhammad was not himself a perfect being. In fact it would be blasphemous for Muslims to claim that Muhammad was a perfect being. (c) Muhammad, like Moses and David, was a political and military leader as well as a religious and spiritual leader. Jesus was not a political or military leader so it makes little sense to compare him to Muhammad. It makes more sense to compare Muhammad to Moses, the chief prophet of Judaism – they were both prophets of God who founded political nations. Moses and David did immoral things by Christian standards and yet Christians regard them, and other OT characters such as Solomon (with all his wives and what have you) as genuine prophets of God. (d) Koran 33:21 says “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often.” It seems to me this can be interpretted in numerous ways (as far as I understand it, many Muslims tend to think that only God has a full, true and complete understanding of what the Koran means, so all merely human interpretations are somewhat provisional) – in any case, it seems plausible that the passage from the Koran means “follow Muhammad in his worship and understanding of God” and does not mean “always follow Muhammad in every particular of his existence”. I mean, even Christians can hardly follow Jesus in every particular of his existence, since Jesus had no children, so if everyone followed that the human race would die out.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: A word of explanation might help you a bit, here. I'm doing a series on "How Jesus Liberates Women." I'm not just picking on Islam, again: I'm planning on analyzing how all the "great Scriptures" treat women, for better and for worse. Mohammed will not prove to the be worst, that will probably be the Law of Manu. But I'll try to call them all as I see them, including the OT, if I get to it.

David B Marshall said...

Also, most of the study will be historical and sociological, not exegetical.

Brian Barrington said...

Well, since I am an ardent feminist, if it turns out that Jesus was also a feminist then I shall be delighted to hear it.

Crude said...

if it turns out that Jesus was also a feminist

Feminism has about as much to do with liberating women as Larry Flynt does. This makes about as much sense as reading David's words and saying 'Oh good, if it turns out Jesus was an Objectivist I'll be tickled pink.' ;)

David B Marshall said...

The word "feminist" can mean different things. If we mean, "Jesus respected and cared for women, and did a great deal to help them and to elevate their position in the world," then I think we can find common ground. I don't take Brian to be comparing Jesus to Margaret Sanger, heaven forbid.

Brian, let me encourage you also to read the series here entitled "How Jesus Liberates Women," of which this is a part.

Crude said...

If we mean, "Jesus respected and cared for women, and did a great deal to help them and to elevate their position in the world," then I think we can find common ground. I don't take Brian to be comparing Jesus to Margaret Sanger, heaven forbid.

Why not? Because he regards Margaret Sanger as a foe to feminism? If so, well - let's hear him say as much. I've argued abortion with Brian on here, so if he turns out to not think that abortion rights (throughout pregnancy? Or even to Singerian levels?) are not an important part of feminism, I will be pleasantly surprised to hear of this.