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Mernissi: Not Impressed

MONDAY, MAY 26, 2008

This was written by Sakina and originally appeared at Ruined by Reading.

The Veil And The Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi is probably worth reading even if you don’t agree with it, and it should only take you 2-4 hours to get through. I don’t agree with a lot of what she says, and I really, really don’t agree with many of her interpretations and ideologies. This really isn’t a book for non-Muslims, unless you know know your way around Islam and Islamic history.

Let’s jump into the criticisms, shall we?

[image]The first issue I have is with Mernissi’s definition of a Muslim, which is one who lives under a theocratic (Islamic) government. There’s no room for personal choice, and this is the kind of attitude I’ve seen in some African and Arab authors before: we’re the real Muslims, you’re not. If you live in a democracy, you’re not real, and you don’t really know what it’s like to be a Muslim. She also comes off as thinking that even those who aren’t Muslim, or are non-practicing, are still Muslim. This also irks me to no end. I really can’t stand people who were raised in a “Muslim culture” with a Muslim family, and who give up Islam completely, yet still like to call themselves Muslims in academic circles. I guess it makes their criticism seem more scandalous. Either way, it’s old. I mean, who would consider someone like Wafa Sultan a Muslim? I’ve seen it done, though.

I also take issue with her use of the word bid’a. She doesn’t seem to use it correctly, and seems to label everything “wrong” as bid’a. Bid’a is innovation, right? Right. But she makes the statement that individuality is bid’a. How? There are also other things she claims as being bid’a, just because it’s wrong or disliked, though it doesn’t really meet the definition of innovation. (Yes, I’m nit-picking.)

One thing that caught my eye was her citation of the Moroccan Code of Personal Status, which states that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, where procreation should be done as steadily as possible, under the direction of the husband. My jaw dropped, but I don’t know why I was surprised.

She first tackles the hadith from Bukhari: Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity. She makes a case as to why this is so totally not reliable, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard the argument. I’ve heard it from a very educated Saudi woman who was earning her Ph.D studying hadith sciences at a prestigious university in Saudi Arabia. She was a conservative niqabi, and not a liberal feminist by any means. The argument is that since the hadith was related by Abu Bakr, it should be disregarded. Especially since it seems to go against Aisha’s entire life in politics, and the attitude of Muhammad. Why is Abu Bakr unreliable? Because he was flogged for lying by Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Malik ibn Anas said that hadiths related by known liars, whether they lied about other hadith or lied in their daily lives, should be ignored. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, as she scholars in the past have hotly contested the hadith. However, knowing that Bukhari was very strict in what he accepted, I think it best to further research it and look at what actual scholars have said instead of Mernissi. In fact, that should be the approach to the entire book. It raises questions for further research, but should not be taken as the final word.

Another narrator that was questioned was Abu Hurayra. Abu Hurayra means “father of a little female cat”, and was a nickname given by Muhammad, but apparently he remarked once that, no, it was Abu Hirr (father of a little male cat) because men are better than women. Real classy (if it’s even true). On many, many occasions Aisha corrected him on hadith, and he confessed to lying about hearing something directly from Muhammad at one point. Aisha said, “He’s not a good listener, and when he is asked a question, he gives wrong answers.” That whole hadith about women being one of the three things which bring bad luck? Reported by him, and corrected by Aisha. Muhammad said the Jews believed three things brought bad luck, one of them being women. Abu Hurayra came in in the middle of his sentence. Unfortunately, the Bukhari collection only contains that one, inaccurate hadith, and not Aisha’s correction or other variations of it. Interesting.

I really, really love how she says that Malik ibn Anas said that we have the right to question narration. I can’t stand the mentality that it should never be questioned, and to do so is akin to blasphemy. It is blind faith, and I despise it.

Her second, and final section is about hijab. When I skimmed the first chapter I could tell I was going to hate it. I absolutely believe hijab is obligatory (even though I can’t wear it all the time, go figure), and no amount of wiggling around historical “evidence” can change my mind. She seemed to be gearing up to blame hijab on absolutely everything wrong in the Eastern world. It’s really nothing to comment on because I see the proofs as being weak, old, tired, and nothing we haven’t heard before. She also makes a case for democracy, which as much as I love, I can’t stand the idea that a Western invention is superior to laws outlined by God himself. But what do I know?

On the plus side, the book was definitely interesting and easy to get through. In my experience, a lot of books on anything Islamic isn’t very user friendly. There’s no doubt she’s an educated woman, it’s just matter of what exactly she’s educated and qualified to speak on, and I don’t think she’s the one to be the final word on any of the matters raised in the book.




Achelois said...


I quite agree with your review, although I loved the book. There is some very casual writing in places though, like you pointed out. I believe hijab is not obligatory but don't agree with Mernissi that it is the root of all problems.

BTW, wasn't it Abu Bakra and not Abu Bakr that she mentions in the book?

MAY 26, 2008 1:09 AM

Farah said...

Not a comment on the detail, I'm not a Muslim and not a theologian.

But the comments on who is and isn't a Muslim depressed me.

I'm a lapsed Jew, But I am still a Jew because what I have lapsed from is Judaism, and my core beliefs came from Judaism and the things I feel guilty about doing/not doing are all about being a Jew.

I am a very *bad* Jew, but I am still a Jew.

MAY 26, 2008 3:16 AM

Fatima said...

Hmmm I just got this. I am really interested to read it now... especially the part about the hijab since I don't believe that it is obligatory.

MAY 26, 2008 7:58 AM

Anonymous said...

I find this review very interesting. I wish someone like that conservative niqabi could write a book about the issues with Abu Bakr and Abu Huraira. That would be worth reading! Thank you MMW for hosting a more diverse range of opinion than I have seen in the past.

MAY 26, 2008 8:10 AM

Anonymous said...

It's "Abu Bakra", not "Abu Bakr." The Companion, not the first caliph.

That book of Mernissi's was published in French in 1987 and in English in 1991. In other words, it's old. Practically a classic.

Mernissi opens up a number of issues for further thought and research. So why has there been so little critical written response from Muslim women to it (aside from apologetics)? What a shame.

What Mernissi writes about hijab is less "history" than opening up several ethical cans of worms. Can Muslim women who claim to support justice continue to wear something which historically was meant to mark free women in contradistinction to slaves? What do we do conceptually with slavery anyhow--the Quran speaks of it as a reality, but we have abolished it. Why is hijab then deemed a non-negotiable part of Islam?

Once we consider the fact that slave women weren't legally obliged to cover their heads (even when praying, according to most classical jurists), then the arguments we are accustomed to hearing as to why women have to wear hijab--in order to reduce temptation in society, in order to show respect to women, because God has commanded it in the Quran, because a woman's prayer isn't valid without it...--all come into question.

MAY 26, 2008 9:04 AM

Irfana said...

I read this book for a class about veiling and Muslim women, if I remember correctly the person that transmitted the hadith about women being leaders is not Abu Bakr (the first caliph and close companion of the Prophet) rather he is another person with a similar name with different spelling, could you please double check that I dont have my book with me right now.

MAY 26, 2008 10:16 AM

Zeynab said...

Personally, I love Mernissi's work. But I have to agree that living under an Islamic government is not enough criteria to make anything more than a cultural Muslim. While I agree with the idea of "cultural" Muslims, I don't think her complete omission of western or revert/convert Muslims is acceptable.
Does Wafa Sultan herself identify as a Muslim?

MAY 26, 2008 12:04 PM

Sakina said...

Perhaps it was abu bakra and not bakr, my apologies (I wrote this review).

@ anonymous: The slave girl argument was the one I found most compelling, though it didn't persuade me to "her side". Personally, I find a lot of the arguments and reasons for hijab to be flawed, even though they do make a point (respect, modesty, avoiding temptation, etc.). I think the idea of hijab today has a lot of flaws. Not because of hijab itself, but because of Musl. I think the treatment or view of those who don't wear hijab is a big problem and, as I stated in the review, I do believe it to be obligatory, but I also believe in the right to choose and the responsibility we have to respect others choices.

MAY 26, 2008 3:23 PM [image] 

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