The cool and hip, if occasionally shouty, face of young Islam in Australia, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, opines that if sharia law has got some rough edges it’s all the fault of dead white males. Yes, you’ve read it correctly – the White European colonisers have turned the progressive and feminist sharia into a tool of patriarchal oppression:
The advent of modern colonisation, starting with the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch entering India and Indonesia in the late 16th and 17th Centuries, would eventually lead to some pretty drastic changes in how Sharia was practised and understood. With the arrival of the colonisers in predominantly Islamic communities came the concept of the nation-state — and with it, codifying (translating and writing down) laws. The colonisers viewed Islam as a threat to the system and civilisation they understood, and began thoroughly remodelling Islamic legal systems.
Started by the Governor of Bengal Warren Hastings in the 1770s and followed by the Dutch in the 1880s, western powers began separate projects to translate, write down and convert the Sharia — as they understood it — into written law. In doing so they turned Sharia’s fluidity rigid, and hollowed out the interpretive core that Sharia law depended on. Islamic law became unable to do what it needed to do to function.
What’s more, this process actually wound back progressive aspects of Islamic law to conservative Western standards. Sharia and Islamic law had bestowed women with rights and privileges that were advanced and equalising; when the laws were translated into colonising languages, those nuances were removed and the patriarchal colonising culture prevailed, writing the rights women had enjoyed under Sharia out of the system entirely. The “Sharia” notion that a man is the head of the family to be obeyed without question was a post-colonial inclusion that completely changed the original intention of the Islamic ruling, and Governor Hastings, along with his counterpart Governor-General of India Charles Cornwallis, felt like Islamic law allowed criminals to escape punishment too easily, complaining that Sharia was “founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed”.
Given Islamic law’s current reputation, this is kind of ironic.
White man is truly the devil; is there anything evil he can’t do?
I’m loath to argue Islam with Ms Abdel-Magied – she is a Muslim, I’m not – but when she strays into history and politics I feel quite free to call bullshit when I see it. And this is the biggest pile of bullshit I’ve read this year.
Firstly, even if you accept Ms Abdel-Magied’s reading of history (a big if), the supposedly nefarious influence of the British and Dutch colonisers only really applies to the Dutch East Indies and British India, or what is now Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These are essentially the countries of eastern Islam, away from the Arab heart of ummah. Ironically, with the exception of Pakistan, these are today reasonably liberal Islamic polities, which kind of defeats her argument. Deobandi, the most conservative and hard-line school or popular movement of Islam in South Asia, was actually a reaction against the British colonialism, seen as corrupting the pure Islam. Deobandis can be seen as the Wahhabis of the sub-continent – these are the people whose madrassas gave us the Taliban and the whole host of other Islamist extremist groups throughout the region.
And what about everywhere else? Turkey was never colonised by anyone; neither was Saudi Arabia (except by Turkey). Neither was Pesia/Iran, or Afghanistan in any meaningful sense. Egypt wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, and the countries of the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria) as well as Jordan and Iraq not until the aftermath of the First World War. How is the fact that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia today somehow the fault of Warren Hastings in India in the 18th century? Indeed, what is the European legal contribution to the Wahhabism, which poisons Islam throughout the region and, thanks to the Saudi petro-money, the rest of the world? Muslim Brotherhood, which competes with Wahhabism in the poison stakes (with their progressive motto “God is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of God is our highest hope. God is greater!” and all that), like Deobandism, was a reaction against the corrupting liberal Western influences brought by the Brits to Egypt.
Which, secondly, brings me to a wider argument. Ms Abdel-Magied presumably has read Koran; so have I. It is the foundation of the Islamic law, supplemented by the sayings of the Prophet and subsequent legal interpretations of various schools of Islam. Sure, in few specific areas like the property ownership by women, sharia was ahead of Western legal systems. But let’s not pretend that Islam is, or ever was, “the most feminist faith”, neither in theory and certainly not in the subsequent practice. Certainly not today and not in the real world out there. That Ms Abdel-Magied can say that with a straight face suggests she’s either delusional or ignorant.
Dead European males did not make sharia what it is today; they did not make it more conservative, more patriarchal and harsher. They are not responsible for apostates and homosexuals being put to death and criminals being mutilated. They are not responsible for the different – and inferior – treatment women receive in legal proceedings, in divorce, or in cases of adultery. They are not responsible for the restrictions placed on women’s movement and behaviour, on their educational and employment opportunities, or on what they have to wear. They are not responsible for excusing, allowing and promoting domestic violence, marital rape, child marriages and polygamy. They are not responsible for the segregation of the sexes.
But – even if they were, why would the Islamic law be incapable of evolving and liberalising over the subsequent centuries? Why are Muslims in the 21st century still doing what Hastings and Cornwallis told them to do in the 18th? Don’t they have any freedom, any choice, any agency? Why have all the movements to return Islam to its original purity resulted in more conservative and oppressive interpretations of Islam rather than the return to Ms Abdel-Magied’s pre-1770s feminist sharia utopia? Shouldn’t the Wahhabis be the women’s libbers instead?
To blame the Europeans on reshaping the Islamic law in the past is an ahistorical delusion. To blame them for the shape of the Islamic law and practice today is an idiocy of historic proportions.
P.S. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 – the worst scored countries. As if there is some pattern there… Feminism, perhaps?