Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Islamic Feminine?

Jean the Bean, has a post here with a question for me about Islam. The question, a very good one, is whether in Islam the feminine is neglected and whether this neglect is at the root of the masculinity and warrior ethos. It's not a question I had really ever considered before, these are just some initial thoughts. I hope this answers her question. I think I'm just trying to lay out as much of the information, pro/con, and let people make their own decision. Because I don't really know where I stand on the question.

Jean compares Islam to Christianity in this regard. Christianity is definitely a patriarchial religion and women were certainly not treated well (and still aren't) in classical Christianity. But especially Medieval Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) venerated Mary deeply. And it is definitely true that the Marian devotion, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, flows directly out of the ancient mother worship tradition. So while officially the "paganism" is gone from Catholicism, the feminine energy is still there. And Jean suggests, maybe this had something to do with the rise of feminism in the West. For support of that view, you can watch this talk by Thomas Cahill on his new book on the Middle Ages. Oh, and a complete side-note: Jean--original sin is not a Jewish notion but a Latin Christian one (even the Greek Christians don't believe in original sin, just a fall) can thank Augustine and his sexual neuroses for the whole blame women front. The Rabbis certainly have their typical male prejudices and fear of women's uncontrollable sexual power, but not this one.

But anyway, back to Islam.

A few pieces of information on the question of feminine.

Islam has a lunar calendar. They were a desert people and the Moon is traditionally a feminine image and was worshipped as such by pre-Islamic Arabs. That is still there within Islam, similar to Christianity in that it is not official but there it is.

The pre-Islamic Arab peoples were what we could call today animist or more educated ones henotheists--there were many different names for god/God but they were all the same God (your Yahweh is my Jupiter is his Zeus kinda thing). In early Judaism, (one strain anyway) God was named Elohim (God of gods), which conceived of God as a superior king-like being over a heavenly court. The common Canaanite (pagan) name for god was "El". Similarly the name Allah is "al-lah" "the god" or "THE GOD", Al and El related as both Arabic and Semitic are common language groups. So al-lah worship was simiilar in that Al-lah was in henotheism "the g/God" which all other gods were just names for or was the High God over top the other intermediary gods (which became angels essentially in Judeo-Christian-Islamic lore).

Mecca was a religious pilgrimage for all sorts of travelers in the Arabian peninsula. The Ka'ba, which is the black stone building with the cloth drapped over it where you see all the Muslim pilgrims circle around in the videos today, before Islam housed figurines/totems from all these different religions.

And definitely particularly strong in that time was the Cosmic Goddess/Dying-Rising Man-God Son Worship. When Muhammad captured Mecca he spared the city but he cleansed, in true monotheistic fashion, the Kaba. He smashed all the figurines, or what he called idols, in an effort to argue (in true "blue" fashion) that there was only One God and all were equal before that God. He did however spare one and only image: Mary and Jesus--which was definitely of the Egyptian Cosmic Goddess/Child God variety. So again that trend is still hidden in there.

But there was another episode that might speak more to Jean's exclusion of the feminine even more so in orthodox Islam than say Judaism or Christianity. In mystical Islam (Sufism) the feminine is everywhere, but mystical nondual Islam was unfortunately like Christianity officially expunged.

The episode involves the infamous so-called Satanic Verses. The story is disputed and Rushdie played on that theme and is a very emotional spot for many and nearly got himself killed for it.

The basic storyline goes something like this: Prophet Muhammad deeply wanted the Qurayashi--his tribe whoe ruled Mecca--to accept his message. Up to now that had not for he was considered an atheist in a way by them--he wanted to kill all their gods (as they saw it). It meant that their ancestors had worshipped idols and disconnected the people from their ancestral heritage. [Here is the Wiki vesion which is decent in its portrayal.]

So Muhammad hears a revelation that says that Allat, al-Uzza, and al-Manat are intercessors. These are traditional Arabic goddesses. Intercessor then being the consort imagery to the male God-King. As the story goes--and who knows the veracity of this--the Meccans rejoiced and worshipped (prostrated) with Muhammad. But then the Angel Gabriel came and rebuked Muhammad and said that he had erred. It was not God's voice but rather Satan's that had tricked him. God reassures him that just as with all the other prophets Satan had tested him adn that God remained faithful to him and moreover, the intercession of the female deity/angels was nothing.

So that was a moment we could say, in integral speak, where Islam could have transcended and included the early pagan worldview/religion. But it did not. I don't know how to read that. If you read the Hebrew Bible, like the Book of Kings, Samuel, etc. everyone is worshipping Yahweh with Asherah--a female consort. Judaism was not monotheistic from the beginning. It developed over 900 years. Christianity for Catholics-Orthodox (original blue Xty) has had this "pagan" (red/purple) structure there but does not officially acknowledge it. Which perhaps again connects with Jean's argument. Islam it just got thrown out and in one generation I think is the difficulty. Because it was the last of the great world religions it has had the least amount of time to revolutionize itself. But that episode is very relevant to the discussion.

--The status of women vis a vis the Quran and early Islam is a mixed bag. Muhammad did practice as was customary child brides (his favorite wife Aisha was 9 when they married, the Prophet [PBUH] something like 40-50). However Muhammad also allowed women to inherit property on their own and gave them the right of divorce. Jesus took the opposite route to the same destination: he disallowed men from divorce to protect women from being thrown out into the street. It has been co-opted by the Catholic Church to keep women in marriages and forcing them to have children. Similarly, the early prophetic (proto-modernist we might say) charge of both religions was quickly consummed back into the mythic value structure and unfortunately was bound to happen.

--The Quran, like the Bible, speaks of God in feminine terms. Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate is the most common form of God's 99 names: both feminine (Rahman in Arabic). Just as Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible is said to be like a mother holding her child (Israel) to her cheeck. Very deep and intimate beautiful imagery.

But yes all that being true, that Allah is beyond gender, beyond human conception, is still given the evolutionary record Masculine in Energy. Just (good), Concerned for the poor fighting on teh side of the forgotten (good) and retributive (not so good) as well as punishing (really not so good).

I think the Arab tribal setup is here particularly important. The Bedouin lifestyle of the Peninsula is a brutal existence. Even more so I would say than being an agrarian peasant in Palestine--although that was plenty bad itself. Anthropological cross-cultural analysis shows that in times of good and plenty in hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies, that the sharp division between male/female roles breaks down a bit. Still there no doubt, but not as sharp. But in the moment of crisis: famine, war, whatever, then immediately the total and sharp divisions between male and female roles re-emerges.

In the Arabian setup they were always in crisis mode. The Quran is written during a time of war, in the desert, where famine and access to water is paramount, and among a group of people cast about by their own families trying to create an entirely new social orer from the ground up. There was no identity beyond the clan/tribe before Muhammad in the Peninsula. So the sharp male-female role distinctions was for them a sorta permanent feature. The veil comes about from the practice of keeping Muhammad's wives protected (and subjugated?) covered in their tents. Muslim women as a way of identifying with the wives, as spiritual mother/sister figures, took up the practice which, in part, is such a difficult item today. It's not just an oppressive force laid on women by men (although certainly elements of that are there) but also was a choice by women. So is that female power? You could say its mythic (blue) feminism.

So as the Islamic empire arose in cosmopolitan areas, just as with Christianity, Judaism, Hellensim, Buddhism, whatever proto-feminism arose. There were powerful Islamic Queens (although that's not the word they used), advisors, and so on.

The real problem as I think I stressed in the last couple of posts is that the traditional form of Islam was destroyed by colonialism. The caliphate, the successors to the Prophet in Sunni Islam, of the Ottoman Turks was dissolved after WWI and Turkey was established as a modern secular nation by Kemal Ataturk. In Osama bin Laden's letters to the West you will hear him constantly refer to 1918--which is precisely this the dissolution of the Caliphate and hence the end of the Islamic Emipre.

With the rise of literacy, the internet, global communications and cheap publishing, Muslims (as well as Christian Protestants) worship very differently than did their ancestors. Islam has always believed that the Quran is the dictated word of God and Muhammad was simply a mouthpiece. But for most Muslms for most of history, the common way of hearing the Quran was chant and preaching on Fridays. There was a holism we could say to that.

With everyone know having their own books, fundamentalism has a much more modern feel to it. It takes out bits and pieces from wherever it wants and they become de-contextualized and read as the one program for all--a common de-historical, myth of the given modernist wave move.

And in this scenario, where Islamism is trying to re-build blue because from an evolutionary point of view it has to--there is no skipping stages--this classical/modern split is very key. When the context is stripped away and the Quran, as in Sayid Qutb, becomes simply this blueprint for Islamic takeover, then the Arab tribal context becomes the standard for all relations, particularly male-female. And in this regard, the brutality of the environment and the harshness of the bedouin tribal way of life--whch Muhammad and the early Muslims could never completely "transcend" if you will--becomes deeply problematic for the modern world.

Until there is a modern industrialized/infromational economy in the ME you will never see the jump passed patriarchy. That is why there were glimpses of it, in Muhammad's life, in Sufism, inn courtly circles, but never on the ground floor. And the blue-Islamist version arising today is often dis-eased/unhealthy blue. Although I am saying that classical Islam was not unhealthy blue but modern fundamentalism Islamism, mostly is. So I place a great distinction on the classical versus modern versions of the religion (even though both mythic). Others do not and see them as of one piece. People will have to make up their minds on that question. I just want to make my own viewpoint clear.

But either way, from an integral perspective, until there the techno-economic base there is no going forward. The oil here is a huge problem. It prevents modern economies from sprouting up. I'm not a Marxist or globalist determinist that the LR controls all destiny, but I do put major emphasis on that dimension.

Wilber argues that the techno-economic base is the single greatest determinant for the average mode of consciousness. Stress on single (not only) determinant for the average (not all) mode of consciousness.

The Islamic world is still disconnected from the global economy. It's single greatest determinant determines patriarchal structure. Even in the US Muslims generally live in a modern economy and overall there is non-threatening Islam. Although again here, single not only determinant. Some North American mosques are infiltrated with what we call extremist versions of Islam. But generally nobody joins up because they are living the good life. In Europe they are not so the message hits home. So it is not, even in the US, that this message is still not being spoken. It is, in certain places anyway. It's a weird place, where the message has not been overthrown, marginalized (in a good way) and yet isn't really making inroads among the people. Within 10 years I suspect we will see the first strong flowerings of what is now in genesis form, of Orange Islam within the North American context.

How it will deal with the feminine will be a really important question.


At 8:55 PM, Blogger Jean said...

Thanks Chris - the historical background and your comments and thoughts are much appreciated. I checked out some of that Cahill talk - haven't read the book, guess I'll have to order a copy for the library - but his comment about the "notable rise of the visual" during that period in the Middle Ages when Mary worship was at its height is right in line with Leonard Shlain's treatise, "The Alphabet Vs The Goddess" (a book Victoria emailed me to remind me to read.) Per Shlain, the visual and the feminine go hand in hand, so my guess is Islam is mostly, if not entirely about text, and next to nil with the visuals. And while the burkha, or veil, can serve a practical purpose in lands where blowing sand is a nuisance, I do find it notable that females are covered from head to foot - the feminine is quite literally unseen - in many of these countries. As far as to wear, or not to wear, politically, of course, for western women it's always about the issue of genuine choice.

I do agree that it's not just a lack of feminine energy in Islam that's problematic, but that it's this lack combined with a tribal/mythic worldspace, as well as the techno-economic factors that result in such a ultra-patriarchal, violent/death oriented mindset. The question I still ponder is if, even with a a modern/industrialized base, can the collective psyche of such a people truly make a leap without a reclamation of that important archetypal feminine/mother psychological foundation? Perhaps, per Shlain's premise, an ongoing exposure of visuals per television and movies would fill some of that void.

Oh, and thanks for the clarification on the original sin issue. I'm not much of a religious scholar - I guess in my Catholic grade school education I somehow conflated the Old Testament Eden story, the "fall," and "original sin," or at least that's how I remember it being taught, so I incorrectly assumed that notion came from the Jewish tradition. Eh, priests and rabbis all look alike to me anyhow. (ha.)
Best to you,

At 9:28 AM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


thanks for the response. you're not wrong about your catholic education. The Catholic tradition reads the Genesis story as a story of Original Sin. The Jewish tradition has the same story but interprets it very differently. Actually they don't put huge deal of emphasis on it at all.

Protestant Christianity, parts of it anyway, made the leap without Marian devotion and a deep lack of feminine energy. It's coming back around now for sure, but the modern wave releases the repression barrior at least around sex and then hopefully that opens up deeper questioning about energies. But certainly we in the West are not in some mightier than thou position.

anyway, nice point about visusal. it is true that Islam like Judaism bars images of God or even Muhammad--hence the Danish Cartoon controversy. That's Sunni Islam.

Shia Islam (Iran, s.Iraq, s. Lebanon) has visuals all over the place and now that I think of it, they are very Feminine. In fact Shia iconography of their martrys is based on Catholic-Orthodox icons, though they wouldn't admit this. And Iran, believe it or not, after Kurdistan, is on target to become the first really modern-wave Islamic state in the world.

In Judaism the feminine comes through in Kabbalh through the Shekinah, Divine WIsdom immanent in the world. Kabbalah (mystical Judaism) was not banned as in Islam but it was basically reserved only for elite rabbis. But it did filter down, particularly with the Hasidic movement (think Fiddler on the Roof).

(Sunni) Islam does have the beautiful tradition of calligraphy. If you have ever been in a mosque, seen a picture it is a stunning aesthetic and spiritual effect.

So I wonder if the visual has to be an image or could be more abstract.

Bc when thinking about the various dress versions, to my knowledge all of those existed prior to Islam. The Chador which you see Iranian women wear (headscraf and the black overcoat/shawl robe look) pre-dates Islam's entry to Iran. It was a custom of upper class Persian women. There was a similar pattern in upper class Greek and Byzantine Christian society and there certainly were uber-image laden.

I guess an interesting question to explore is why the upper class woman tradition in the Near East society spread down to the lower classes. Whereas in the Roman societies I don't think this was the practice. The NT does say for women to be veiled when prophesying but nobody quotes that anymore as a religious duty. So I'm not sure how we've gotten to this point.

Again I would be careful of how you phrase things like "ultra-patriachial violet-death oriented mindset." I don't think you obviously meant all one billion Muslims on the planet, but probably need to make more clear who those people are. In medieval times Islamic rule was (generally) far more enlightened than Western Christian.

But you still have this good question about whether the economic base moving is enough. By itself certainly not. I'm not a Marxist determinist when it comes to technology and econ.

The only thing I can say is that in the West you have Muslims promoting orange-green versions of their religion. Irshad Manji from Vancouver (google her site Or Reza Aslan (author of no god but God, the best book on Islam I can think of). I'm not sure about the Divine Feminine talk per se in their theologies, but certainly they are on board with the modern freeing of women to participate in the public sector and have choice of their own destinies.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Jean said...

Hey Chris,

Yes, I should have said the "potential" for a ultra-violent mindset...

Per the visuals, in briefly glancing at the Shlain book, it seems a representative image is necessary to fire up that feminine right brain connection - calligraphy or more abstract images, however beautiful, don't tend to work - perhaps they don't encode the symbolism required. Feminine comprehension tends to work in a multi-level way, pinging all sorts of associations at once, whereas the masculine, logical approach is focused on one idea, one level at a time. Shlain also mentions that a human face is "seen" or recognized by the "feminine" right brain - another interesting tidbit re the covering of the female face in Islam tradition.

Re Protestants - Shlain has a chapter covering the European "backlash" against women/Marion devotion, (witchburnings among other crimes) that correlates with the invention of the printing press and the returning emphasis on "logos." Haven't read the chapter yet, so can't say more, but, as already stated, my very general intuitive thesis is, in spite of this temporary fierce backlash, and an general ongoing patriarchal emphasis in Christianity, the earlier Marion worship healed enough of a developmental fracture, or lesion, in the collective psyche (in integral psych speak, a regression in service of transcendence) that allowed ongoing growth into a Western modern worldview, including the ongoing liberation of women. Other factors contributed to the growth, of course, including the devastating effects of the Plague. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it. :)

As far as Muslims in the modern world - in the Western world anyway, I had a young Pakistani woman as a roommate some years back - and it was a personal education for me to watch her try to straddle her two worlds. On the one hand, her family were very much about the modern status thing, with the emphasis on the Mercedes Benz and so on, and then on the other, she had been married off at 16 to a man she didn't know, just so he could come to the U.S. He divorced her as soon as he got his own green card, but of course the shame was on her. She rebelled at that point and wanted to make it on her own, but had few inner resources or skills to do so (in truth, although a sweet girl, she wasn't a very good roommate, and could be neurotic as anyone I ever met,) and her family was constantly trying to pull her back into their sphere of control, and in fact wanted her to marry someone else from Pakistan. It was especially interesting to see how her mother played her power within that family group - I suspect that this is the case in many a family in societies where women, traditionally deprived of any power outside of the family, weild it with an almost raging ferocity within the family unit. When it came to the ol' guilt trips, Catholic and Jewish mothers couldn't enter the same arena as this woman. Anyway, that's just a side story, but points out that Muslim immigrants, like most immigrants to America, probably have to spend a generation or two (at least) assimilating modern cultural norms. And even then, there will always be reactionary pockets that won't ever join the party, so to speak.

Ok, shutting up now,


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