One of the most universal aspects of scholarship--or indeed anything that seeks to pass itself off as scholarship--is that one must examine the qualifications of the author as well as his/her motives. In the case of Islam, this is especially important, for within Islam and its current crisis, there are authors who are so blatantly apologetic that their words are often an insult to anyone with average intelligence. Many "defenders" of Islam are not qualified in Islamic studies, and their motives are the defense of their ideology at any cost possible. By the same token, there are those who will seek, by any means possible, to malign Islam and anything Islamic--and it is only fair that their qualifications and motives be questioned too. Once it can be proven that there is misinformation or a crass ignorance on the part of the author of any article, then reason would dictate that such a person be disregarded as an authority.
In Robert Spencer's article against Indonesian Muslim feminist Musdah Mulia (April 14, 2005), he manifests an unforgivable ignorance of the study of religion concerning law and interpretation. Mulia's position that the hijab is not mandatory is indeed the position of a large majority of women in Indonesia. But Spencer is upset that this woman who IS a scholar of Islam (whether she is a scholar of religion is another matter) should have made such a Qur'anic statement. Instead he chooses to attack her by talking about the Islamic tradition in which Muhammad supposedly commands that when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her to display anything except her face and hands. This tradition, as indicated by his own phraseology, is just a tradition from the body of literature known as the hadith.
As I have said before on Frontpagemag and elsewhere, this is a source of belief that is very problematic. It does not have the authority of the Qur'an and was made up long after Muhammad died. Musdah Mulia knows this, and for this reason, chose not to even follow this hadith. Now any student of Islam, within the first week, knows the difference between what Muhammad is supposed to have said, and what the Qur'an says. Spencer seeks to hide this issue.
Spencer sneers at Mulia for dismissing some practices as un-Islamic. Let us look at some of them in terms of history and context:
The Jewish and Christian women of Muhammad's time wore head coverings, and these also were an indication of demarcation between a slave woman and a free woman. The Qur’an (24:31, 33:59), as any good scholar will tell you, is NOT incipiently ordaining the hijab--but simply telling the women HOW the head covering is to be worn--that it is to be drawn over the breasts. The Qur'an is addressing a society where the head covering is obviously a norm. If time and place have changed, or "if the reason is no longer there, the ruling is obsolete" (in the words of the jurists), then such as Mulia's ilk have the right to view the hijab as no longer needed.
The Burka and Chador:
There are not mentioned in the Qur'an nor in the hadith. Yes, Muslim women do wear them in certain cultures, but that is the interpretation of their culture--the words are not even Arabic.
Did the Qur'an initiate polygamy, or are the verses of the Qur'an meant to LIMIT the number of wives a man may have to four? And did the Qur'an specify that "if you fear that you cannot be just...and you can never be just, then only one"? And did the Jews, Christians and other cultures of seventh century Arabia not practise polygamy?
Islam’s Unequal Inheritance Laws:
Yes, these are in the Qur'an. But once again: at least the Qur'an speaks of women having some right to inheritance. That the other scriptures of the Abrahamic religions do not have such laws speak volumes about the status of women at that time. They were not even allowed to inherit and by the process of gradualism, the Qur'an sought to give women a share of inheritance. No one will argue that those laws, by today's enlightened values, are equal. But they are certainly far better than anything that any Abrahamic religion had until then.
The Male Escort for Women:
This is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but in the hadith, the status of which has already been discussed.
Ban on Women Driving:
A Saudi interpretation only.
Spencer, it would seem, pays more attention to hadith than even the mullahs, except that he interprets them with malicious prevarication. So Ayesha is supposed to have said that "she had not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women." This certainly is not the place for an in depth explanation of what the hadith, were it true, would have meant. But in early Christianity the concept of suffering, as in Judaism, was a virtue--having nothing to do with subjugation of women, but rather their apparent lot in life.
Luckily for the perceptive reader, Spencer asks certain questions. What molds the cultural traditions and interpretations of Muslims if it is not islam? The answer: the Arab/Persian cultures shaped the traditions of early Islam, often in dissonance with the Qur'an. After what did the Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran model their laws on besides Islam? Well, Islam in Iran is different to Islam in Saudi, and once again, the culture of the regions. The word "chador" is Persian. At Muhammad's time, the Persian women were secluded in chadors.
Spencer seems not to know, as Mulia does, the difference between Fiqh and Qur'anic law. The former is AN INTERPRETATION that is subject to error, which is why she says that the mullahs who regard these man-made legislations as if they come from heaven are wrong.
Certainly Spencer does make some cogent points: the records of Islam as displayed in the Hadith are problematic. Muslims know this, which is why they question that source, and which is why people like Mulia come out against it. Yes, there are Muslims who talk about authentic and inauthentic, selectively according to their biases which hadith falls into which category.
But Spencer portrays himself as a scholar of Islam, and that he is not. He misquotes verses of the Qur'an, takes things out of context, and shamelessly lies. And just for the record: I am an observant Muslim, I believe that the Qur'an militates against hadith, and I believe that the Qur'an is the only Abrahamic scripture to speak of pluralism: "WE have sent unto every nation a prophet." Anyone who believes that salvation for the world lies only in Christ, or in reified Islam, is not committed to pluralism. Anyone who knowingly lies about the sources and beliefs of a religion commits not only a sin (the religious term) but an intellectual crime.
Prof. Khaleel Mohammed is an assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.