No religion descends from heaven in a social vacuum nor is it practised in an ethereal or ideal environment. Every religion comes into existence in a given society with its values, its ethos, customs and traditions. Often a religion comes into existence in a society when its gets corrupted or deviates widely from the acceptable path which can ensure good for the whole society. Thus one has to understand genesis of religion in the light of the society it is born in. Also, no religion can be practised in social vacuum. Whatever the religious ideals or teachings it is practised by the people in their own way, in the light of their own customs and traditions.
Religious injunctions as contained in its scriptures also do not altogether avoid social contexts and those injunctions could be understood only in those contexts. Of course the orthodox theologians often refuse to see those injunctions in the light of given context. In the light of what is said here it is obvious that one has to adopt sociological approach to religion in order not only to understand its genesis but also its practice. Same religion, when practised in different societies will develop its own different practices.
One cannot understand Islam and its practice in different societies without adopting sociological approach. However, it does not mean that one could give mechanical or vulgar explanations, which some half-backed sociologists do. For example some sociologists maintain that the concept of monotheism in Islam is product of monotony of desert life. It is not only vulgar but factually also incorrect explanation. Monotheism was not prteached by Islam for the first time; it was preached by Judaism and Christianity before Islam and both Judaism and Christianity were product of fertile crescent.
A religion always tries to reform a society by providing certain ideals and values. But the people adopt these ideals and values quite selectively so as not to harm their interests. Human behaviour is never determined simply by religion one follows. It is determined by several factors - personal or group interests and inspirations, social mores and traditions and tribal or national expectations. Social changes also deeply affect what could be termed as "religious behaviour".
One often keeps on bemoaning that religious teachings are not being followed and hence social degeneration or corruption. It is also interesting to note that religious teachings mean different things to different people depending on social class one belongs to and knowledge of religion one has. Understanding of religion also varies from tribal, national or ethnic community to community and also according to ones personal commitment. There cannot be single or uniform understanding of religion by all. This is an important dimension of sociological approach to religion.
Islam also has to be approached sociologically apart from being understood theologically. One always finds tension between what is theological and what is sociological. This tension could be both creative or problematic depending on the situation or approach of the people concerned. Often it becomes problematic rather than creative. Islam, as pointed out in my other articles, was a great revolutionary movement based on ideals like equality, human dignity, justice - social as well as economic and sexual equality. These ideals were partly acceptable to the tribal society of Mecca and partly not acceptable at all. Equality and human dignity was acceptable to a limited way within tribal social boundaries. Members of a tribe could be accepted as equal but not those of other tribes. Members of other tribes could be acceptable only as a mawla (client), not as equal. However, Islam did not restrict equality to any tribal boundary. Its concept of equality and dignity was totally universal (see 17:70, 9:71 and 49:10)
The concept of universal brotherhood or sisterhood and inter-tribal equality created great deal of social tensions throughout Islamic history. Within Arab society itself these tensions became explosive soon after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). By the time the Holy Prophet died different tribes of Arabia had embraced Islam. Sociologically speaking those tribes having hostile relations also entered the fold of Islam leading to tension between them.
The concept of universal equality received setback when the tribe of Quraysh claimed caliphate quoting a 'hadith' and superiority over other tribes. It was theologically not acceptable (as the Qur'an stresses universal equality of all human beings and believers) whereas the Arab society was not prepared to accept it. Thus it resulted in tension between what was theological and what was sociological. This tension became more problematic than creative.
In fact Islamic concept of universal equality was never accepted sociologically. Islamic society soon transformed into feudal society once great Roman and Sassanid empires were conquered. The Roman and Sassanid societies were strictly hierarchical and did not admit of equality of all believers. These hierarchical values remained integral part of Muslim communities also in these societies.
In this connection it is also important to note that all do not embrace a particular religion only because they are attracted by its teachings. The reasons for embracing a religion could be quite varied. Some embrace it collectively along with other members of the caste or tribe or nation, some embrace it for political or economic advantage and some after deep study of religion and inner conviction.
Those who embrace religion for reasons other than personal conviction do not necessarily understand the religion they embrace. They embrace it because other members of their tribe or caste or community did. They do not absorb the real ideals and values of that religion. Islam was also embraced by many tribes and castes collectively in many places. Also, Islam was embraced by weaker sections of societies attracted by its emphasis on human equality and dignity. But in hierarchical feudal societies they were denied the dignity and equality they were entitled to. Though they embraced Islam their social status did not change for sociological reasons. The structure of a feudal society did not permit them what was theirs theologically.
Thus it will be seen that social structure plays very important role. In fact, more often than not, social structure does not change but it changes the religious practices. Social structure remains more fundamental than theological ideals and values. The Arab society has remained tribal in structure until today. Had Islamic ideals and values prevailed Arab society would have undergone radical changes and tribal norms and values would have been replaced by Islamic ones.
And this despite the fact that the Qur'an lays great deal of stress on equality of all believers and totally denies the concept of hierarchy in society. The Qur'an even stresses that the Prophet is also a human being like others except that he receives revelation (23:33 and 25:7). But in feudal society not only a monarch but also his courtesans considered themselves much superior to ordinary human beings. Thus even a feudal society although Muslim, denied universal equality and allowed social and political hierarchy as an acceptable norm though it was totally against Islamic values. The 'ulama who were part of feudal establishment hardly ever protested against feudal hierarchy.
Also, all Muslim societies have retained national, tribal or ethnic distinctions and discrimination. Tribal or ethnic pride was never subdued. Thus sociologically speaking it will be very difficult to talk of pure 'Islamic culture'. Each Muslim society has its own distinct tribal or national or ethnic culture even though ritual practices ('ibadat) may be the same. Though the Qur'an even permits marriage with what is called kitabiyah ( i.e. a woman from Jewish or Christian community) Muslims from different tribal or ethnic groups do not inter-marry. If they do there will be a great turmoil in that caste or ethnic or caste community. In Pakistan and in India such marriages can result even in killing the boy and girl if they marry outside the ethnic or tribal group. The Meo Muslims from North India do not allow marriage even within seven gotras (i.e. in the same category of family sevenfold removed). The Meo boy or a girl, if it violates this, is severely punished even though Islam permits marriage with first cousin.
Thus sociological prevails over theological. One should not ascribe all Muslim practices to Qura'n or to Islam. However, it is often the practice resulting in deep prejudices against Islamic teachings. There is practice of honour killings in most of the Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan etc. Strictly speaking it is against teachings of Islam. If a woman is accused of misconduct it is to be proved and if the accuser fails to prove he, not woman, will be delivered eighty lashes. But social values in these countries are such that the father or brother will kill the woman if she is even seen meeting a man outside the family. This honour killing is even condoned by the courts and the killer is exonerated as he killed to save the family honour. This is against Islamic teachings. But social norms become more important than Qur'anic teachings.
The understanding of the Qur'anic verses are greatly influenced by the social norms and ethos of a society. The Islamic shari'ah integrates some of the social practices known as 'adat (customs) but unfortunately these customs integrated with shari'ah also become its integral part even if they violate Qur'anic norms of justice. The 'ulama too often take sociological than theological view. It is much more so when it comes to problems relating to women.
It is often argued that Islam does not do justice with women. It denies them their basic rights to acquire education, to earn their living and to lead a life of dignity. They are subjugated completely to their husbands as their lords. These arguments are valid if one looks at the practice of Muslim men. In fact they do treat women as chattels like Taliban did in Afghanistan. However, this should be treated as sociological critique rather than theological one.
Muslims are greatest sinners as far as treatment of women is concerned and the Qur'an is greatest champion of women's rights. There is no single Qur'anic injunction in respect of women which the Muslim men have not violated. Qur'an gave women all the rights men had and recognised them as full legal entity which no religion or legal system before Islam had done. What is stated in 2:228 in Qur'an is indeed revolutionary. It was revolutionary declaration of equality of rights of both the sexes. One could not even contemplate such declaration in early 7th century.
Qur'an gave to women all the rights - right to marriage (marriage was made contractual and called mithaq-i-ghaliza i.e. a strong covenant), right to divorce (2:229 which is called right to khula'), right to inheritance (4:11) and right to earn (4:32). Also, the Prophet gave her right to education by making it obligatory on her to seek knowledge. These were by any means most revolutionary approach to women. These rights were not given to women as late as early 20th century. Until then women had neither right to property, nor to inheritance nor to education. Islam gave these rights to her in early 7th century.
However, Muslim society was not at all prepared to concede these rights to her. It was a patriarchal-feudal society. All the rights accorded to women by Qur'an were slowly eroded and she lost almost all these rights by 2nd century of Islam. Several hadithes were invented to take away these rights from her and subjugate her to the authority of her husband as was the practice before Islam.
One hadith even said that if sajda (prostration) were allowed for men, wife would have been obliged to prostrate before her husband. The Qur'an, it is interesting to note uses authority-neutral word for husband - zawj (one of the couple) The word zawj does not indicate an authority as the word husband does. The word ba'l, which was one of the gods of the Arabs for husband has been used only four times in the Qur'an and that too as it was part of usage. Husband has not been given any authority over wife by the Qur'an. Even the verse 4:34, which is often quoted by male commentators as proof of man's authority over woman is subject to different interpretation. We have thrown detailed light on this verse in the book Rights of Women in Islam (Asghar Ali Engineer, Sterling Publishers, Delhi).
Even in this verse (i.e. 4:34) the words used are not husband a wife but men and women. And man has been described, as one who maintains which is more functional. It hardly indicates superiority of man over woman. However, we do not want to go into discussion of this verse here. If one adopts holistic approach to woman's question in Qur'an it becomes quite obvious that Qur'an considers women as equally dignified as is obvious in the verse 17:70. Children of Adam definitely include women as much as men. Other verses of the Qur'an like 3:194, 2:219 and 33:35 are further indications of equality of men and women. What those men who are out to prove superiority of men over women not only quote selectively from the Qur'an but also explain the verses in a manner which will prove men's superiority. But these verses clearly establish equality of two sexes.
Women were not only treated as chattels by Muslim men throughout medieval ages but were also confined at home and some theologians from South Asia and even from Egypt maintained that they should not be allowed to learn to read and write as it will corrupt them. Some theologians even argued that if they know to read and write they may write love letters and thus will be spoiled. This was all to keep women under male domination so that they do not assert their Islamic rights and acquire dignity of their own. Some theologians even obliged them not to step out of their houses without the permission of their husbands even if their parents were critically ill.
She was also required to cover herself from head to toe, including her face. However, the Qur'an does not state that she cover her face. The verse 24:31 which gives clear instructions about displaying adornment publicly no where says she should cover her face. It, on the contrary, requires women "not to display their adornments except what appears thereof". This part of the verse clearly allows them cultural space to manifest what could be manifested in the given culture. This portion of the verse can be and should be subject to cultural interpretation. And the following portion of the verse "And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms" is also significant indicator that covering of the face is not insisted upon.
Covering of bosom was recommended as in tribal culture of Mecca and Madinah women did not even cover their bosoms as it happens in many tribal cultures even today. As urban culture was developing in Mecca and Madinah and thus it was necessary to prescribe dignified dress for women graduating to urban culture. But the intention was not to impose restrictions but rather to give her more dignity.
However, this verse was used to impose severe restrictions on her during medieval culture. She was made to observe hijab, which meant covering herself from head to toe just keeping two peep- holes to see. She was even not allowed to step out of the house without a male accompaniment. There is no such prescription in the Qur'an. It is only in the hadith but hadith prescription (supposing hadith itself is genuine) should also be seen in the light of the then social context. In Saudi society even today a woman cannot go without a male companion within the prohibited degree of marriage (mahram). She is not even allowed to drive a car though there is no such prohibition in shari'ah since automobiles did not exist in the world. But we do hear of women camel drivers in the Arab society of the Prophet's period. This prohibition to drive car exists only in the Saudi society. In other Muslim countries women are free to drive cars. Thus the Saudi prohibition for women to drive car is sociological than Islamic.
The Qur'an provides lot of cultural and social space to women all of which was taken away by man. The restriction imposed on women in Muslim societies should not be blamed on Qur'an. They must be seen in the sociological context. Unfortunately it is not only Taliban in Afghanistan who imposed such unacceptable restrictions on women in the name of Islamic shari'ah but many other Muslim societies also impose similar, though less rigorous, restrictions on their women. More and more women, who have the benefit of modern education, are now resisting these restrictions and creating more social space for themselves.
The shari'ah formulations were also affected sociologically as pointed out above. The concept of 'adat is also basically sociological but unfortunately it became part of permanent baggage of shari'ah. It is well known proposition in philosophy that one needs instrumental values to achieve implementation of fundamental values in a given society. The shari'ah provided these instrumental values which were suitable for the medieval society. Obviously fundamental values as embodied in the Qur'an are more important than the instrumental values provided by the shari'ah.
However, again for sociological reasons these instrumental values have become more important than fundamental values themselves. Any suggestion to change the instrumental values in order to better realise the fundamental values is not only resisted but denounced as heresy. Thus in Islamic world struggle for change is always dubbed as deviation from Islamic teachings.
The Islamic countries have been slow to modernise and also their political culture is still feudal and hence authoritarian. For change and reform democratic culture and a strong middle class is very necessary. Many Islamic countries have not even entered the industrial era. Hardly any Islamic country is engaged in fundamental research in sciences. Generally 'ulama (Islamic clergy) comes from extremely backward and poor families without any modern vision. No scientific education is imparted to the students of theology along with the education in religion. Thus the outlook of the 'ulama remains pre-modern and feudal.
These 'ulama also often become part of power structure and support political status quo. Those at the top even control powerful but extremely conservative religious establishments. Thus they find it beneficial to resist change and reform and thus negate the spirit of Islamic dynamism. The Qur'an had challenged the stagnant society of pre-Islamic Arabia and infused it with new dynamism and totally transformed it. Some such operation is needed once again to bring about transformation in Islamic societies. But unfortunately it is very difficult and challenging task as most of these societies are poor, backward and stagnant on whom all significance of going beyond has been lost. And the Muslim elites quietly surrender to the 'ulama so that they can keep the Muslim masses under control.
Thus without transforming Muslim societies they cannot be elevated to the high ideals of Qur'an. It is easier to bring down the Qur'an to social level rather than elevate society to the Qur'anic level.