Dossier 25: A Border Passage

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Leila Ahmed
October 2003
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She ran from the table and locked herself in the bathroom. He had had no idea, he said later, weeping out loud, that what she was doing was climbing out the window.

I remember going to their apartment the day after her death for ‘aza (condolence). She had survived for only a few moments on the pavement, a crowd forming round her as she moaned in great pain, and then had died, no one she knew at her side. She was buried the same day. She was forty-two.

I almost could not bear to offer my sympathies to her husband, as I was required to do, going into the room where he sat with the men, receiving condolences, his face looking stricken and shrivelled.

And I found myself angry also at her sisters, my mother and aunts, their eyes swollen and red, receiving condolences in the rooms for women. Why are you crying now? I thought. What’s the point of that? Why did you do nothing to help her all this time, why didn’t you get her out of that marriage? I thought it was their fault, that they could have done something. If they had cared enough they could have done something.

That is what I thought then. Now I am less categorical.

Grandfather lived into his nineties, dying just as the new revolutionary government enacted the Land Reform Laws, redistributing the land once owned by the “feudalists” to its legitimate owners, the Egyptian peasantry. By some process, the details of which I do not know, Zatoun was taken over (“rented” for a nominal sum) by the government and put to use as a school. That is what Zatoun is today.

It is easy to see now that our lives in the Alexandria house, and even at Zatoun, were lived in women’s time, women’s space. And in women’s culture.

And the women had, too, I now believe, their own understanding of Islam, an understanding that was different from men’s Islam, “official” Islam. For although in those days it was only Grandmother who performed all the regular formal prayers, for all the women of the house, religion was an essential part of how they made sense of and understood their own lives. It was through religion that one pondered the things that happened, why they had happened, and what one should make of them, how one should take them. Islam, as I got it from them, was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical – just as they themselves were. Mother’s pacifism was entirely of a piece with their sense of the religion. Being Muslim was about believing in a world in which life was meaningful and in which all events and happenings were permeated (although not always transparently to us) with meaning. Religion was above all about inner things. The outward signs of religiousness, such as prayer and fasting, might be signs of a true religiousness but equally well might not. They were certainly not what was important about being Muslim. What was important was how you conducted yourself and how you were in yourself and in your attitude toward others and in your heart.

What it was to be Muslim was passed on not, of course, wordlessly but without elaborate sets of injunctions or threats or decrees or dictates as to what we should do and be and believe. What was passed on, besides the very general basic beliefs and moral ethos of Islam, which are also those of its sister monotheisms, was a way of being in the world. A way of holding oneself in the world – in relation to God, to existence, to other human beings. This the women passed on to us most of all through how they were and by their being and presence, by the way they were in the world, conveying their beliefs, ways, thoughts, and how we should be in the world by a touch, a glance, a word prohibiting, for instance, or approving. Their mere responses in this or that situation – a word, a shrug, even just their postures – passed on to us, in the way that women (and also men) have forever passed on to their young, how we should be.

And all of these ways of passing on attitudes, morals, beliefs, knowledge through touch and the body and in words spoken in the living moment – are by their very nature subtle and evanescent. They profoundly shape the next generation, but they do not leave a record in the way that someone writing a text about how to live or what to believe leaves a record. Nevertheless, they leave a far more important and, literally, more vital, living record. Beliefs, morals, attitudes passed on to and impressed on us through those fleeting words and gestures are written into our very lives, our bodies, ourselves, even into our physical cells and into how we live out the script of our lives.

It was Grandmother who taught me the fat-ha (the opening verse of the Quran and the equivalent of the Christian Lord’s Prayer) and who taught me two or three other short suras (Quranic verses). When she took me up onto the roof of the Alexandria house to watch for angels on the night of the twenty-seventh of Ramadan, she recited the sura about that special night, a sura that was also by implication about the miraculousness of night itself. Even now I remember its loveliness. It is still my favorite sura.

I remember receiving little other direct religious instruction, either from Grandmother or from anyone else. I have already described the most memorable exchange with my mother on the subject of religion – when, sitting in her room, the windows open behind her onto the garden, the curtain billowing, she quoted to me the verse in the Quran that she believed summed up the essence of Islam: “He who kills one being [nafs, ‘self’, from the root nafas, breath] kills all of humanity, and he who revives, or gives life to, one being revives all of humanity.” It was a verse that she quoted often, that came up in any important conversation about God, religion, those sorts of things. It represented for her the essence of Islam.

I happened to be reading, when I was thinking about all this, the autobiography of Zeinab al-Ghazali one of the most prominent Muslim women leaders of our day. Al-Ghazali founded a Muslim Women’s Society that she eventually merged with the Muslim Brotherhood, the “fundamentalist” association that was particularly active in the forties and fifties.

Throughout her life she openly espoused a belief in the legitimacy of using violence in the cause of Islam. In her memoir, she writes of how in her childhood her father told her stories of the heroic women of early Islam who had written poetry eulogizing Muslim warriors and who themselves had gone to war on the battlefields of Islam and gained renown as fearless fighters. Musing about all this and about the difference between al-Ghazali’s Islam and my mother’s pacifist understanding of it, I found myself falling into a meditation on the seemingly trivial detail that I, unlike al-Ghazali, had never heard as a child or a young girl stories about the women of early Islam, heroic or otherwise. And it was then that I suddenly realized the difference between al-Ghazali and my mother and between al-Ghazali’s Islam and my mother’s.

The reason I had not heard such stories as a child was quite simply that those sorts of stories (when I was young, anyway) were to be found only in the ancient classical texts of Islam, texts that only men who had studied the classical Islamic literary heritage could understand and decipher. The entire training at Islamic universities, the training, for example, that al-Ghazali’s father, who had attended al-Azhar University, had received – consisted precisely in studying those texts. Al-Ghazali had been initiated into Islam and had got her notions as to what a Muslim was from her father, whereas I had received my Islam from the mothers, as had my mother. So there are two quite different Islams, an Islam that is in some sense a women’s Islam and an official, textual Islam, a “men’s” Islam.

And indeed it is obvious that a far greater gulf must separate men’s and women’s ways of knowing, and the different ways in which men and women understand religion, in the segregated societies of the Middle East than in other societies – and we know that there are differences between women’s and men’s ways of knowing even in non-segregated societies such as America. For, beside the fact that women often could not read (or, if they were literate, could not decipher the Islamic texts, which require years of specialist training), women in Muslim societies did not attend mosques.

Mosque going was not part of the tradition for women at any class level (that is, attending mosque for congregational prayers was not part of the tradition, as distinct from visiting mosques privately and informally to offer personal prayers, which women have always done). Women therefore did not hear the sermons that men heard. And they did not get the official (male, of course) orthodox interpretations of religion that men (or some men) got every Friday. They did not have a man trained in the orthodox (male) literary heritage of Islam telling them week by week and month by month what it meant to be a Muslim, what the correct interpretation of this or that was, and what was or was not the essential message of Islam.

Rather they figured these things out among themselves and in two ways. They figured them out as they tried to understand their own lives and how to behave and how to live, talking them over to gather among themselves, interacting with their men, and returning to talk them over in their communities of women. And they figured them out as they listened to the Quran and talked among themselves about what they heard. For this was a culture, at all levels of society and throughout most of the history of Islamic civilization, not of reading but of the common recitation of the Quran. It was recited by professional reciters, women as well as men, and listened to on all kinds of occasions – at funerals and births and celebratory events, in illness, and in ordinary life. There was merit in having the Quran chanted in your house and in listening to it being chanted wherever it was chanted, whereas for women there was no merit attached to attending mosque, an activity indeed prohibited to women for most of history. It was from these together, their own lives and from hearing the words of the Quran, that they formed their sense of the essence of lslam.

Nor did they feel, the women I knew, that they were missing anything by not hearing the exhortations of sheikhs, nor did they believe that the sheikhs had an understanding of Islam superior to theirs. On the contrary. They had little regard, the women I knew, for the reported views and opinions of most sheikhs. Although occasionally there might be a sheikh who was regarded as a man of genuine insight and wisdom, the women I knew ordinarily dismissed the views and opinions of the common run of sheikhs as mere superstition and bigotry. And these, I emphasize, were not Westernized women. Grandmother, who spoke only Arabic and Turkish, almost never set foot outside her home and never even listened to the radio. The dictum that “there is no priesthood in Islam” – meaning that there is no intermediary or interpreter, and no need for an intermediary or interpreter, between God and each individual Muslim and how that Muslim understands his or her religion – was something these women and many other Muslims took seriously and held on to as a declaration of their right to their own understanding of Islam.

No doubt particular backgrounds and subcultures give their own specific flavors and inflections and ways of seeing to their understanding of religion, and I expect that the Islam I received from the women among whom I lived was therefore part of their particular subculture. In this sense, then, there are not just two or three different kinds of Islam but many, many different ways of understanding and of being Muslim. But what is striking to me now is not how different or rare the Islam in which I was raised is but how ordinary and typical it seems to be in its base and fundamentals.

Now, after a lifetime of, meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find that this Islam is one of the common varieties – perhaps even the common or garden variety – of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics. It is an Islam that may or may not place emphasis on ritual and formal religious practice but that certainly pays little or no attention to the utterances and exhortations of sheikhs or any sort of official figures. Rather it is an Islam that stresses moral conduct and emphasizes Islam as a broad ethos and ethical code and as a way of understanding and reflecting on the meaning of one’s life and of human life more generally.

This variety of Islam (or, more exactly perhaps, these familial varieties of Islam, existing in a continuum across the Muslim world) consists above all of Islam as essentially an aural and oral heritage and a way of living and being – and not a textual, written heritage, not something studied in books or learned from men who studied books. This latter Islam, the Islam of the texts, is quite different, quite other Islam: it is the Islam of the arcane, mostly medieval written heritage in which sheikhs are trained, and it is “men’s” Islam.

More specifically still, it is the Islam erected by that minority of men who over the centuries have created and passed on to one another this particular textual heritage: men who, although they have always been a minority in society as a whole, have always been those who made the laws and wielded (like the ayatollahs of Iran today) enormous power in their societies. The Islam they developed in this textual heritage is very like the medieval Latinate textual heritage of Christianity. It is as abstruse and obscure and as dominated by medieval and exclusively male views of the world as are those Latin texts. Imagine believing that those medieval texts on Christianity represent today the only true and acceptable interpretation of Christianity. But that is exactly what the sheikhs and ayatollahs propound and this is where things stand now in much of the Muslim world: most of the classic Islamic texts that still determine Muslim law in our day date from medieval times.

Aurally what remains when you listen to the Quran over a lifetime are its most recurring themes, ideas, words, and permeating spirit, reappearing now in this passage, now in that: mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, charity, mercy, justice. And yet it is exactly these recurring themes and this permeating spirit that are for the most part left out of the medieval texts or smothered and buried under a welter of obscure and abstruse “learning.” One would scarcely believe, reading or hearing the laws these texts have yielded, particularly when it comes to women, that the words “justice,” “fairness,” “compassion,” “truth,” ever even occur in the Quran. No wonder non-Muslims think Islam is such a backward and oppressive religion: what these men made of it is largely oppressive. Still – to speak less judgmentally and, in fact, more accurately – the men who wrote the foundational texts of official Islam were living in societies and eras rife with chauvinism, eras when men believed as a matter of categorical certainty that God created them superior to women and fully intended them to have complete dominion over women. And yet, despite such beliefs and prejudices, here and there in the texts they created, in the details of this or that law, they wrote in some provision or condition that, astonishingly, does give justice to women. So, even in those bleak days, the Quran’s recurring themes filtered through. They did so, however, only now and then in a body of law otherwise overwhelmingly skewed in favor of men.

I am sure, then, that my foremothers’ lack of respect for the authority of sheikhs was not coincidental. Rather, I believe that this way of seeing and understanding was quite common among ordinary Muslims and that it was an understanding passed on from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters. Generations of astute thoughtful women, listening to the Quran, understood perfectly well its essential themes and its faith. And looking around them, they understood perfectly well, too, what a travesty men had made of it. This ingrained low opinion that they had of sheikhs, clerics, and ayatollahs stemmed from a perfectly just and astute understanding of their world, an understanding that they passed on to their daughters and indeed their sons.

Leaving no written legacy, written only on the body and into the scripts of our lives, this oral and aural tradition of Islam no doubt stretches back through generations and is as ancient as any written tradition. One could even argue that an emphasis on an oral and aural Islam is intrinsic to Islam and to the Quran itself, and intrinsic even to the Arabic language. Originally the Quran was an aural, and only an aural, text recited to the community by the Prophet Muhammad. And it remained throughout his life, and indeed for several years after his death, only an aural text. Moreover, a bias in favor of the heard word, the word given life and meaning by the human voice, the human breath (nafas) is there, one might say, in the very language itself. In Arabic (and also Hebrew) script, no vowels are set down, only consonants. A set of consonants can have several meanings and only acquires final, specific, fixed meaning when given vocalized or silent utterance (unlike words in European script, which have the appearance, anyway, of being fixed in meaning). Until life is literally breathed into them, Arabic and Hebrew words on the page have no particular meaning. Indeed, until then they are not words but only potential words, a chaotic babble and possibility of meanings. It is as if they hold within them the scripts of those languages, marshalling their sets of bare consonants across the page, vast spaces in which meanings exist in a condition of whirling potentiality until the very moment that one is singled out and uttered. And so by their very scripts these two languages seem to announce the primacy of the spoken, literally living word, and to announce that meaning can only be here and now. Here and now in this body, this breath (nafas) this self (nafs) encountering the word, giving it life. Word that without that encounter, has no life, no meaning. Meaning always only here and now, in this body, this person. Truth only here and now, for this body, this person. Not something transcendent, overarching, larger, bigger, more important than life -- but here and now and in this body and in this small and ordinary life.

We seem to be living through an era of the progressive, seemingly inexorable erasure of the oral and ethical traditions of lived Islam and, simultaneously, of the ever-greater dissemination of written Islam, textual, “men’s” Islam (an Islam essentially not of the Book but of the Texts, the medieval texts) as the authoritative Islam. Worse still, this seems to be an era of the unstoppable spread of fundamentalist Islam, textual Islam’s more narrow and more poorly informed modern descendant. It is a more ill-informed version of old-style official Islam in that the practitioners of that older Islam usually studied many texts and thus at least knew that even in medieval texts there were disagreements among scholars and many possible interpretations of this or that verse. But today’s fundamentalists, literate but often having read just a single text, take it to be definitive and the one and only “truth.”

Ironically, therefore, literacy has played a baneful part both in spreading a particular form of Islam and in working to erase oral and living forms of the religion. For one thing, we all automatically assume that those who write and who put their knowledge down in texts have something more valuable to offer than those who simply live their knowledge and use it to inform their lives. And we assume that those who write and interpret texts in writing – in the Muslim context, the sheikhs and ayatollahs, who are the guardians and perpetuators (perpetrators) of this written version of Islam – must have a better, truer, deeper understanding of Islam than the nonspecially trained Muslim. Whereas the fact is that the only Islam that they have at deeper understanding of is their own gloomy, medieval version of it.

Even the Western academic world is contributing to the greater visibility and legitimacy of textual Islam and to the gradual silencing and erasure of alternative oral forms of lived Islam. For we too in the West, and particularly in universities, honor, and give pride of place to, texts. Academic studies of Islam commonly focus on its textual heritage or on visible, official institutions such as mosques. Consequently it is this Islam – the Islam of texts and of mosques – that becomes visible and that is presented as in some sense legitimate whereas most of the Muslims whom I know personally, both in the Middle East and in Europe and America would never go near a mosque or willingly associate themselves with any form of official Islam. Throughout history, official Islam has been our enemy and our oppressor. We have learned to live with it and to survive it and have developed dictums such as, “There is no priesthood in Islam” to protect ourselves from it; we’re not now suddenly and even in these new lands going to easily befriend it. It is also a particular and bitter irony to me that the very fashionableness of gender studies is serving to disseminate and promote medieval men’s Islam as the “true” and “authentic” Islam. (It is “true” and “authentic” because it is based on old texts and represents what the Muslim male powers have considered to be true for centuries.) Professors, for example, including a number who have no sympathy whatever for feminism, are now jumping on the bandwagon of gender studies and directing a plethora of dissertations on this or that medieval text with titles like, “Islam and Menstruation” but such dissertations should more aptly have titles along the lines of “A ,Study of Medieval Male Beliefs About Menstruation.” For what, after all, do these men’s beliefs, and the rules that they laid down on the basis of their beliefs, have to do with Islam? Just because they were powerful, privileged men in their societies and knew how to write, does this mean they have the right forever to tell us what Islam is and what the rules should be?

Still, these are merely word wars, wars of ideas that, for the present anyway, are of the most minor significance compared with the devastation unloosed on Muslim societies in our day by fundamentalism. What we are living through now seems to be not merely the erasure of the living oral, ethical, and humane traditions of Islam but the literal destruction and annihilation of the Muslims who are the bearers of those traditions. In Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, and, alas, in Egypt, this narrow, violent variant of Islam is ravaging its way through the land.

If a day won’t come
When the monuments of institutionalized religion are in ruin
… then, my beloved,
then we are really in trouble.

It has not been only women and simple, unlearned folk who have believed, like the women who raised me, that the ethical heart of Islam is also its core and essential message. Throughout Muslim history, philosophers, visionaries, mystics, and some of the civilization’s greatest luminaries have held a similar belief. But throughout history, too, when they have announced their beliefs publicly, they have generally been hounded, persecuted, executed. Or, when they have held fast to their vision but also managed to refrain from overtly challenging the powers that be and thus avoided violent reprisal, they have been at best tolerated and marginalized – accepted as eccentrics outside the tradition of “true” Islam. From almost the earliest days, the Islam that has held sway and that has been supported and enforced by sheikhs, ayatollahs, rulers, states, and armies, has been official, textual Islam. This variant of Islam has wielded absolute power and has not hesitated to eradicate – often with the same brutality as fundamentalism today – all dissent, all differing views, all opposition.

There has never been a time when Muslims in any significant number have lived in a land in which freedom of thought and religion were accepted norms. Never, that is, until today. Now, in the wake of the migrations that came with the ending of the European empires, tens of thousands of Muslims are growing up in Europe and America, where they take for granted their right to think and believe whatever they wish and take for granted, most particularly, their right to speak and write openly of their thoughts, beliefs, and unbeliefs.

For Muslims this is, quite simply, a historically unprecedented state of affairs. Whatever Islam will become in this new age, surely it will be something quite other than the religion that has been officially forced on us through all these centuries.

All of this is true.

But the fact is that, however genuinely humane and gentle and pacifist my mother’s and grandmother’s Islam was, it left them and the women among whom they lived wholly accepting of the ways of their society in relation to women, even when those ways were profoundly destructive. They bowed their heads and acquiesced to them even when the people being crushed were their nearest and dearest. Tradition and the conviviality, warmth, companionship, and support of the women of the extended family were rich and fine and nourishing and wonderful so long as things went well and so long as these women were dealing with men whom they loved and who loved them. But when things went wrong, the women were powerless and acquiescent in a silence that seemed to me when I was young awfully like a guilty averting of the eyes, awfully like a kind of connivance. This, in any case, seems to me to be what my aunt Aida’s story points to.

Aida’s marriage was absolutely miserable from the very start, but divorce, according to Grandfather, was simply not a permissible thing in his family. And yet his own niece Karima, my mother’s cousin twice over (her parents were Grandmother’s sister and Grandfather’s brother), had divorced twice, and each time by her own volition. The difference was that Karima was an heiress, both her parents having died when she was young. Independent and wealthy, she had married on her own terms, ensuring always that the ‘isma, the right to divorce, was placed by contract in her own hands. (The Islamic legal provision permitting women to make such contracts is one of those details that I mentioned earlier that are written into and buried deep in what is otherwise a body of law overwhelmingly biased in favor of men. Generally only rich women and women with knowledgeable, protective families are able to invoke these laws. Many people don’t even know of their existence.) Aunt Aida had not inherited anything as yet and was financially dependent on her husband and her father.
Grandmother, grieving all her life over the cost of Grandfather’s intransigence toward their son Fuad, was powerless to alter his decision about Aida. For all I know, Grandmother even acquiesced in the notion that divorce was so great a disgrace that, despite her daughter’s misery, she could not bring herself to advocate that course or attempt to persuade Grandfather to relent. Karima, her own niece, always received, of course, with warmth and unconditional affection in their home, was nevertheless regarded by Grandmother and her daughters as somewhat scandalous, or at any rate as someone who was rather unconventional and living dangerously close to the edge of impropriety. Aunt Karima further added to her reputation for unconventionality when she founded an orphanage for illegitimate children. It was scandalous to men like Grandfather for respectable women to mention such a subject, let alone to be founding a society and openly soliciting funds from him and his cronies to support an organization addressing the matter. She raised substantial funds for it over the course of her life as well as for another society, which she also founded, for the care and training of the blind. Both still flourish today and honor their founder. A bust of her stands in the front garden of the Society for the Blind.

Grandmother would not live to witness Aida’s suicide. But she was witness to Aida’s sufferings and unhappiness in her marriage, and the electric-shock treatment she underwent.

There is an irony to all this. In the circumstances in which Aida found herself, Islamic law would in fact have granted her the right to a divorce or an annulment. Had she been free to take her case to an Islamic court and had she not been constricted by the conventions of her people, she would have been granted, even by that male-created law, the release that she sought. Not by Grandfather and his customs or by Grandmother and her daughters and their conventions, steeped as they, too, were in the ways of their society, but by Islamic law, in another of those unexpected, startlingly just provisions of this otherwise male-biased construction.

Nor was this the only situation in the various family circumstances I’ve described when women would have been more justly treated at the hands of Islamic law than they were by the traditions of the society, traditions by which the women of the family, too, were evidently bound. Islamic law, for example, frowned on the practice, entirely accepted by cultural tradition, whereby a man repudiated a woman, as my dying uncle had done, because he doubted her virginity. Asked about such a case, a medieval Islamic judge responded that the man had no right to repudiate a woman by claiming she was not a virgin, since virginity could be lost in many ways – just by jumping about or any such thing. He could divorce her nevertheless, since men had the absolute right of divorce even if in the absence of good reason, but the woman was entitled to full compensation and could not be regarded or treated as guilty of anything.

And so we cannot simply conclude that what I have called women’s Islam is invariably good and to be endorsed. And conversely, everything about what I’ve called men’s Islam is not to be automatically rejected, either.

‘To refuse to veil one’s voice and to start “shouting,” that was really indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve. . .’

Excerpt from A Border Passage
by Leila Ahmed
Copyright © 1999 by Leila Ahmed
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
ISBN: 0 14 02.9183 0