living islam _ Islamic tradition
What is this "general paradigm" I refer to here? It is, as you know, (1) either one or anotherof a 'feminist' perspective - in its weak or strong variants: and generally as "feminism" would be defined at its sources ( read=western, modernist, or post-modernist: whether liberal, socialist, radical, or anarchist) - Or, (2) it is a variant of the modernist, secularist, "enlightenment" perspectives which biases its readings and attitudes to self, other, and world: leading to its internalization of western historical, ideological, epistemological values, perceptions, and attitudes: taking them as one's own, generalizing them, and leading to a distorted vision of the world, self and other. What does this mean in our present context ?
In the immediate context of our paper, it means that both the understanding of what constitutes the nahda, and what constitutes the desirable evolution, or change, and social and cultural development, are all contingent (depend) on these definitions... As a result: the decision as to whom to include in the women's discourse and whom to ignore... and also: how to read this woman's discourse, what to select and what to leave out, are all prejudiced, in favour of this internalized understanding and appropriation of the values of the dominant paradigm..
The result of our freeing ourselves from these confining and 'conformist' attitudes, is that we also expand the parameters of our research, and broach new horizons: New horizons bring with them new questions, as well as new vistas (=openings, windows, landscapes). This means two things. It means that research that frees itself of existing constraints is in a position to contribute to the cause of knowledge, of historical and scientific investigation. It is above all in a position to vitalize and renew the currents of patient and diligent inquiry, as the lifeline of the advancement of science and learning. There is in other words a congruence between the interests of an authentic piece of research and inquiry, and genuine research and inquiry. This no doubt adds to the value of a liberated and liberating impulse that we are likely to experience as we re-examine the sources and unveil some of the hidden gems as we dust off the cobwebs, or shine of the light into depths and shades of meaning long lost to conventional horizons. So from modest beginnings and piecemeal initiatives, we hope to be demonstrating the benefits, the promise, and the potential of the kind of inquiry that goes beyond the prevailing canon.
But there is another meaning to broaching new perspectives in our field of research, here, as we revisit the earlier moments of a women's discourse on the eve of the nahda. It tells of the possibility of keeping a distance, and of taking our measure, applying a sense of proportion and critical enlightenment, through this distance. 'Distance' refers to the sources and, more importantly, to the manner in which to approach these sources. The bane of much good research lies not in its failure to distance itself from the sources, but in the fact that it frequently overlooks the need to question the conventions of its research: it takes for granted the questions asked and the sources it engages: without ever stopping to question the criteria of the selection, and the grounds, or the ends, on which it conducts its research, or from whence it constructs its discourse. In going beyond the norm in current discourse and research on women on the eve of the nahda, one is opting for alternative possibilities in reading the text. This means that we do not have to follow in the straight and narrow path that has been trodden before, especially when that path is value-laden, and not necessarily to our benefit or the benefit of its subject.
The past is rarely a neutral time-unit that indicates a chronological sequence. The "before" here refers to the academic, and intellectual calendar of the modern university, with its battery of disciplines, scholars, researchers, ( and the travellers, explorers, missionaries, and administrators before them). Many of whom may once have been for some of us our mentors from the West, but we must realize that they bring with them a heritage of their own, as well as their own ideal and material interests, knowingly or otherwise, to their research agendas and their research interests. Consequently, while we may defer to their learning and benefit from it, we should not abdicate our own best judgement, nor fail to be discriminating and critical as we learn.
One of the safeguards for maintaining our autonomy as we learn from others, and as we live out our training through the modern schooling system, is to be aware of the nature of the field of our exposure ( anthropology, history, art, politics, language, psychology, etc.), as well as of the learning process. We need to realize that together with its 'surface component', its tangible constituents, there is always attached to it an intangible component, a 'depth dimension', that ultimately constitutes its most 'valued' import or impact: valued in terms of durability and pervasiveness - (and, one may add, its sheer elusiveness). For, long after we may have graduated from our modern western schooling, and after the details of the field of specialization may have been forgotten, that which remains with us to shape our thinking and our attitudes will be that imperceptible component that was imparted as part and parcel of our modern training in our field of specialization.
And to the extent that we may have exerted ourselves and excelled in the field in question, there will be a commensurate (= to the same measure) internalization of the hows, the wherefores, and the grounds, that constitute the matrix or underlying apparatus, into which that discipline took its form: its scope, postulates, questions, techniques, values and measures. So that when Qasim Amin formulated his views on the Woman Question, he had been through no formal course in 'women's studies' - nor had he gone through the vast literature that has been produced mainly in the American academy, over the past two decades. All it took to trigger the baggage he carried from his graduate schooling in the modern disciplines of his day, was a chance encounter with an opinionated stance by a lofty member of a dying breed that drew fresh blood from its musings on the exotic ways and manners of specimens of the human race: it was this chance encounter with the opinion of the French Count that provided the catalyst for a journey of self-discovery, and with it, a forceful articulation of an impassioned stance on the Woman Question of the Orient of the day, the flip side as it now appears in retrospect, to the much touted Eastern Question.
Of course, Qasem Amin, was not simply reacting to a point of view: he was contesting a condition that was fully played out in the cultural and ideological politics of his day, as we well know. It was in that frenzied medium that the conditioned reflexes of the opposing protagonists took shape, to leave us, posterity the documentation to record the drama and the trauma of an anguished psyche, in its encounter with a modern world shaped by the arrogance of what one contemporary historian called, "the great western transmutation." [Marshall Hodgson] The hero in that drama will no doubt remain Amin: not so much for any exceptional merits of his person, which by the standards of his day and his social class and status was as representative and mediocre as any other, but by the fact that his evolving stance constitutes an exceptional articulation - and illustration, of the range of reactions to the Western encounter of an entire generation, in fact of a range of responses that were played out across more than one generation - (reminiscent of the current masterpieces of the Egyptian film industry, or its soap opera variants - (bayn al qasrain or layali al hilmiya) ; Beyond transforming Amin into a pregnant and telling moment in the history of the Muslim Orient, there is doubtless another critical role played out by the Qasim Amin Moment and its historical significance in documenting the crystallization of the 'feminist consciounsess' in the annals of our cultural history.
The symbolism of the two controversial works on Tahrir al Mar'a and al Mar'a al jadida: The Emancipation of Woman, and The New Woman, will be completely lost if the debate is turned to the beginnings of a woman's consciousness, social and historical, or to the antecedents of the formulation of a woman's question in the cultural orbit of the Muslim Orient. Rather, it was the politicization of an evolving social and cultural issue that marked the turning point, and turned the Woman Question from the periphery, to the center. What a decade of a thriving woman's press, and what learned excursions and dissertations on the status of women in Islam, and the need to reform the condition of women in Muslim societies could not achieve, was incontrovertibly and irreversibly achieved through the flood stream of assertions and counter-assertions provoked by the publication of those two modest essays. If before there may have been any doubt that the reform of women's condition was part of the reformist movement in the Muslim world, now that doubt was put to rest, once and for all as the Woman Question acquired a legitimacy that would henceforth make it not only an integral aspect of Islamic Reform, but for some, it was a condition or a prerequisite, for others, it was a vital and sure means and warrant to this Reform.
It is not hard to see how the Woman Question came center stage, and why it acquired the urgency as well as the legitimacy it did in mainstream public discourse: for ultimately it touched a raw nerve in the collective psyche of a generation that perceived a real threat to its survival as representatives or bearers of a culture under siege. For some, the converts to evolutionism, the only way out of what seemed to be the inevitable was to reform by transforming, even transcending, the self as culture: The 'New Woman" was non other than that new frame of reference that had to be adopted as the logical and historical sequel to journey's end. Others preferred to stay the route and play out the martyrs to their convictions, having in all good conscience stood their ground, notwithstanding the inevitable. (Wajdi's defence)... Others still believed the tide could be stemmed, if only they held fast onto their grounds, and kept their women in line.. The meaning of Reform was tailored to these parameters...."