"Reform and Social Context,"
by Asghar Ali Engineer /*/

These days Taslima Nasreen is the darling of the press. All this because she attacks religion in general and Islam in particular. Her reactions against Islam seem to be extreme. Either she has no patience or no understanding of the issues involved. A Genuine reformer does not draw pleasure from attacking certain contextual practices but seeks to reform them with profound knowledge and wisdom. This requires a great deal of patience with people. There are humanists, rationalists, and atheists, who blame everything on religion. They, like religious bigots, display complete impatience and want others to condemn religion and God. For them, the very idea of God is superstitious and anything ascribed to Him or His commands must be outright ridiculed. Taslima Nasreen belongs to this genre. Her face turns red with anger the moment anyone mentions any religious practice before her. I do not imply here that one has no right to be an atheist. One has every right, in my opinion, to be either theist or atheist. However, theism or atheism should be treated as a serious philosophical position and one should not attack the other. However, we often find on both sides of the fence narrow-mindedness and bigotry. It is thought that only those who believe in religion are orthodox and narrow-minded. It is not so. Those who are upholding atheistic point of view are also often found to be quite intolerant, narrow-minded, and sectarian. They totally refuse to appreciate the viewpoint of those who believe in God. It should be udnerlined that tolerance or intolerance is a psychological and not religious category. It is [not] correct to say that a religion is tolerant or intolerant. To me it makes no sense to say that Hinduism is a tolerant religion and Islam is not. We can find a Muslim who is highly tolerant and another Muslim who is quite bigoted and intolerant. Similarly, a Hindu, a Christian, or a Sikh would be tolerant or intolerant depending on the person's psychological dispensation.

Ms. Taslima Nasreen is a woman in hurry, both to acquire publicity and to establish sexual equality. You cannot establish sexual equality merely by condemning religion. First, even if a religion preaches sexual equality, it is quite naive to believe that sexual equality will be established and if all religions are done away with it is equally naive to believe that sexual equality would be the order of the day.

I would like to cite examples bor both the situations. Islam normatively accorded equality to both the sexes. There is a clearly worded verse in the Koran (33:35) which strongly and unambiguously advocates sexual equality. However, it made concessions to the then prevailing context and accepted slight male-superiority. When a woman complained to the Prophet that her husband had unjustly slapped her, the Prophet advised her to retaliate (iqtasi). The women of Madina were jubilant. But this was short-lived, as the men protested to the Prophet and Allah had to make a concession to the men as they were earning members of the then society and women and children were dependent on them (see the Koran 4:34). Thus the social context had to be taken into account for legislation.

It was also made clear by the Koran (33:35) that sexual equality was the norm. But despite this the Islamic society never accorded equality to women and continued to suppress them. The entire fabric of the Shari'ah laws was evolved in such social context. All those Koranic injunctions about sexual equality were totally disregarded mainly because it was a male-dominated society.

The second example is of the communist society. The communists were confirmed atheists and also firmly believed in sexual equality. Those who knew the Russian society during the heyday of the communists know very well that it has singularly failed to achieve sexual equality. Women, though ideologically and theoretically equal, were far from so.

It will still take a few generations to get the idea of sexual equality accepted unambiguously by society. So mere abolition of religion or preaching of sexual equality by religion, cannot establish it. One has to suitably change the social conditions in order to achieve it.

Ms. Taslima Nasreen keeps on issuing press statements or saying such things in press interviews which not only betray total lack of understanding of issues on her part but also needlessly provoke orthodox Muslims and fundamentalists. She said in an interview to The Statesman that since the Koran preaches sexual inequality it should be thoroughly revised. It raised a storm of protest in Bangaldesh and the fundamentalists were up in arms against her.

She then changed her stand and wrote a letter to The Statesman denying her statements. Her clarification was published on May 11 in the letters column. In her clarification she said, 'I do not hold the view that the Koran should be revised thoroughly, because I think it is impossible to revise the Koran. As I said in the interview, any one who proposed to bring in the changes is a kafir. Why should we try to change a religious text which is held sacred by many? My view on this issue is clear and categorical. I hold that the Koran, the Vedas, the Bible, and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as out of place and out of time." She also maintained that the non-Muslim interviewer of The Statesman could not differentiate between the Shari'ah law and Koranic texts. She sais the 'inexperienced journalist' had created the mess.

However, The Statesman stood by its version and denied that it had misquoted Ms. Nasreen. She also gave an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel making the same point. Not only that soon after her denial she said in an interview to the Australian television that Islam "enslaves women." It is this obvious that Ms. Taslima Nasreen, far from being a wise social reformer, is an irrepressible and impetuous person totally lacking any philosophical basis and mature understanding of complex social issues. She behaves like a neo-convert to atheism and in a hurry to convert everyone to her point of view.

In fact no reforms can be brought about if they are totally out of tune with our socio-cultural ethos. Our great and scholarly reformers like Raja Ram Moham Roy, Vidya Sagar, Sir Syed, Maulvi Chirag Ali, Syed Amir Ali, Vivekananda, and several others never sought publicity nor did they outrage the feelings of their countrymen. All of them had a sound philosophical basis of their social reforms and most of them justified these reforms on the basis of their respective religious scriptures. Many of them had acquired higher western learning and yet they never cut off their roots from their own social and cultural ethos.

Ms. Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, and people of their ilk are thoroughly westernized and have cut themselves adrift from their own roots. They talk like aliens and needlessly provoke their fellow religionists. Non-conformism has great creative and progressive potential provided it is based on some respectable value premises.


/*/ Originally published in Spotlight, Chicago (15 July 1994).


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