Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Problem of Interpretation: Theological misogyny

So I read this story in the Huffington Post about an Afghan actress killed by a Muslim mob, apparently for playing roles “against Islamic values”.  As bad as the story already is, it gets worse when you read that her friends - who managed to escape the attack - were then arrested for “moral crimes”, subjected to virginity tests, and may find themselves jailed.  At face value, it would seem that the sexist teachings of Islam are to blame for this crime, but is this so?

There is a common view in the West that Islam is not to blame; rather such crimes are committed by the sort of misogynists common in all cultures, and the difference is that these men use Islam to justify their actions.  We could draw a parallel with Christian misogynists, who might well quote the Bible to defend their sexist attitudes.  It’s not religion, it’s bad people using religion in bad ways: or “bad religion”, as it’s often labelled.

I am surprised how many people find this argument persuasive.  When one looks at the Quran, or the Bible, a rich treasure trove of conflicting moral values is revealed.  It’s a real buffet for ethical cherry pickers of all hues.  The misogynist Christian can quote:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. ( 1 Timothy 2:11-14)

Whereas the feminist can quote:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Similarly, apologists for Islam might quote the Quran to support the “moderate” thesis that Islam is compatible with modern views on sexual equality:

O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness --- on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. (Quran 4:19)
Their Lord responded to them: "I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female - you are equal to one another.” (Quran 3:195)
Others might quote sexist statements from the Quran:

And let two men from among you bear witness to all such documents [contracts of loans without interest]. But if two men be not available, there should be one man and two women to bear witness so that if one of the women forgets (anything), the other may remind her. (Quran 2:282)
If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (Quran 4:34)
Hot on the heels of such quotations, is usually some defence of why the “moderate” or “misogynist” teachings are the correct ones to follow.  This is the “good religion” v “bad religion” dichotomy again.  An oft overlooked fact is that these discussions are an implicit admission (by both camps) that the Quran contradicts itself.  Alas, it would seem this is no more than a trifle for believers…

I call this “The Problem of Interpretation”, and it’s a real bugger.  In a nutshell, the problem is this: who is the arbiter of what “interpretation” is correct?  I can read the Quran (or the Bible), interpret it my way, and you could read it and interpret it completely differently.  Who can say which of us is correct?  Do we look to religious “experts”?  Well firstly, how do we decide who the best “experts” are, and secondly, what happens when the “experts” disagree?  And even if they agree, is there any reason to believe they’ve decided on the right interpretation?  The Catholic Church sought a solution to this very problem, by appointing the Pope as infallible judge.  The sectarian splits throughout the Christian world are testament this “solution” has rather fallen on its arse.

The problem of interpretation is why so many different Christian denominations exist today.  The truth of the matter is that these religious books are whatever the reader wants them to be.  The Bible is not the “ultimateguidebook for life”, it’s a whole library of guidebooks catering for people of all political persuasions.

Likewise, the Quran, and its accompanying Hadith, can be used to justify slaughter of non-Muslims, or equal rights for women.  Truly if either book is God’s Word, he’s not making it clear enough what he wants us to belief, or how he wants us to live!

The apologist for Islam, and for religion in general, therefore ignores one of the main problems inherent in religion: it provides supporting arguments for virtually any position you want to take, and – most dangerously – it provides the argument on the basis of divine authority.  What can you say to someone who honestly believes their interpretation of scripture is God’s own?  Only religion offers divine authority for someone’s opinion, and that is why it continues to be a dangerous concept whose power we must abate.

1 comment:

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