Fall of the Family
© 2015 Abdal-Hakim Murad is Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College and Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University
Abdal Wadod Shalabi has remarked that a society only becomes truly decadent when “decadence” as a principle is never referred to in public debate. Prior generations of Muslims and Christians were forever fretting about their own unworthiness when measured against past golden ages of goodness and sanctity. But in our self-satisfied era, to invoke the idea of decadence is to invite accusations of a retrograde romanticism: it is itself perceived, perversely enough, as a decadence.
Muslims looking at the West with a critical but compassionate eye are often taken aback by this lack of old-fashioned self-reproach. We note that no longer does the dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus. In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the vague but shining future that is to serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly outrageous discourse remains possible in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberal beliefs supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which are often in reality manufactured by small ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes. This proud commentariat has no use for taking advice from the past; neither is it in the habit of radical self-doubt.
The debate over the status of the family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between the bloated but “decadent” North with its imperial liberal confidences and the progressively impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity being massaged by an endless diet of documentaries about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World and the baffling reluctance of its peoples to embrace the social beliefs of the forward-looking liberal democracies. To average Westerners this one-way polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions of superiority which allay their nervousness about malfunctions and divisions in their own societies. It shapes the public opinion that acquiesces in invasions of Iraq or the massive recourse to drone assassinations with only the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt. The West is the future, and is hence unarguable! Often it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social beliefs of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies of the new century, as polemicists use them as the perfect sticks with which to beat the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce; now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the underlying attitude of disdain seems hardly to have changed.
Muslims living in the West are perched in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic theologians have written on westernisation processes in the Muslim world and their solvent effects on family life, the reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being championed locally, at the hands of subaltern secular elites whose cultural formation was the parting gift of the old imperial powers. This dates the elites noticeably and sometimes ridiculously. The family lifestyle of average secular Middle Easterners is not that of modern Europeans, despite their outraged claims to the contrary. Their clothes, furnishings, marriage rituals, and most details of their lives are more redolent of the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence. And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands of the “liberated” and mobile West. Our cultured despisers are not local anachronistic elites, but the powerful champions of what modernity truly is.
As we attempt to theorise about our own condition we are at once confronted by the irony that the country to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-friendly Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the “guest-workers” and their “hosts” were in most respects reassuringly and productively similar.
That overlap has since withered. Only a minority of Britons now self-identify as Christian. Anglicanism’s rejection of, say, homosexual marriage and Catholicism’s characterization of homosexual impulses as an “objective disorder” symbolically hold the line for tradition, but even churchgoers, confused by the culture wars, often take a more liberal view. The bulk of the population, vague in its spirituality, inclining to a pick-and-mix hybrid of mindfulness, yoga, Feng Shui and an occasional white wedding in the parish church, tends to be more mobile still. If it feels that something is wrong with society, it will blame not the decline of religion, but immigrants, bankers, and the London elite.
All this means that Muslim communities, already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, and constantly battered by accusations of radicalism, are now having to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form of alienation. As newcomers who are often the major remaining defenders of values which would have been recognised as legitimate and necessary by earlier generations of Britons, we are in a disorienting position. The temptation to panic and to retreat into factions and cults which excoriate the wider world as impure and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making headway, to very general alarm. But such a sterile and facile temptation should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship with the wider community, one based on empathy and mercy, and on “voicing the fairest word.”
But a strategy for the articulation of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist narrative whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status as a definer of cultural identity. Such was the typical error of the twentieth-century’s various essentialisms, particularly nationalism and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to or even replaced by the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity. The narrative of Muslim civilisation, inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists until the 1980s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative of “the Salaf”, on the problematic claim that the Salaf followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion and concern rather than a chronic obsession with the purity of the in-group. Too much in modern religion is not particularly religious.
What this means is that unless Muslims in Britain can counteract the impoverished and exclusivist ideologising of Islam that has taken place in many Muslim countries, and return to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug, “But who cares what the unbelievers think?” For Muslims are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed, if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of practical help.
The time for this kind of advocacy has surely come. The decline of traditional British family life has become vertiginous. Fast-paced dual-career living ensures that only 20% of the population regularly use a dining table. Grandparents are confined to care homes. Teenagers send over three thousand texts a month but scarcely hear their parents. And the civic structures are facing unprecedented strains. 48% of British children are now born outside wedlock; 42% of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce (with a much higher percentage of splits among cohabiters); a quarter of children are brought up in single-parent situations; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: children are nine times more likely to commit crimes if they are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age. Religious leaders lament that in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked by that mother of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we are all shouting for our rights and chafing under our duties. The lesson is irritating but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis of Adam Smith’s advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties as to endanger the whole enterprise. Greed creates rich men and happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price. Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra policing, healthcare, prisons, and social workers; but since the credit crunch the budgets have been steadily sliced away, with disastrous human consequences.
It is unarguable, and not just among religious people, that greed has been a culprit. And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution. If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that simple appeals to “be good” rarely have much impact, and must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform rooted in an alternative vision of life. As Muslims, possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary whose status as “a mercy to the worlds” was manifested in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the present sufferings of society are unlikely to be healed through homiletics. Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they might be drastic.
Hardly less obvious than the causes of family decline is the reason why establishment ideologues refuse to recognise them: they are complicit themselves. The politicians are the most flagrant instance: the recent Daily Mail headline ‘No. 10 Rocked by Secret Love Affair’ caused barely a ripple among a public which sees the politicians as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need. There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting hour, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned up indeed may prove his undoing. Only aberrant idiocy – or complaisance – can ignore the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation for both.
But politics is merely the most notorious example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, “fire dwelleth with cotton”. As the current anguished debate over sexual harassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician or social strategist must see it.
In Tom Wolfe’s popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city “drowning in concupiscence” and he is its child. It is not simply the routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of duty-free sex. Wolfe’s adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings cannot behave responsibly.
London is not yet New York, but the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of the public space has become part of our culture. The middle-aged once had little to tempt them, short of an unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either stupid, or belong to that category of strangely moral human beings which always has been and always will be a minority.
A radical diagnosis, although obvious enough: but is there a cure? One evident answer is to cultivate forms of entertainment and advertising that do not endlessly promote themselves through the use of idealized female bodies. The argument here is familiar, although progress is not being made. But there is a further, more social step that we would counsel. Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour a crime hardly familiar in the West:khalwa, or “illicit seclusion”. Moral disasters always have preludes, and Islam seeks to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. This is one reason for our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation of the Clackmannan headmaster who recently introduced the rule that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from each other, because “spring is in the air.” But schools are the merest starting-point. Families and relations should maintain clear boundaries; the victims of Rolf Harris were the victims not only of his advances, but of his friends’ careless acceptance of khalwa. The workplace, too, while not obstructing female advancement, should try to ensure that the rights of spouses are protected by minimizing the chances of illicit seclusion in the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons.
The tragedy for Britain is, of course, that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work, the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern relationships, and which was horrified by Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis, will continue to encourage and live in the public environment which is the precondition for the problem. But Islam by its very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened. The process of family decay is proving so serious in its economic and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own. Already, conversions to Islam, always preponderantly female, show that despite the media’s poisonous polemic against “Shari’a law”, reflective people are seeing that Islam has drawn its boundaries in wise places. The future of the Muslim community will depend in large part on our ability to welcome and nurture these brave dissidents and refugees from the increasingly totalitarian mindset of coercive liberalism.
The secular mind may be too secular to notice, but to religious people the New Social Doctrines are fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The twenty-first century’s great ideologies of liberation often feel like powerful sublimations of the religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly ties and the straitjacket of the self strangely mutates into a great convulsion against restrictions on personal freedom.
In this sense the liberal establishment is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and revered preachers, its feminist doubts about science, its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression of blasphemy. Increasingly it is persecutory: witness the penalising of Christians who wish to display crucifixes, or the difficulties of Muslim students who wish for voluntary gender separation at ISOC events. OFSTED inspectors, performing their solemn rituals of execration and chastisement, increasingly act like familiars of the Inquisition.
Some have mused that this new faith is necessary, since human beings need certainties and causes, and without a proud orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that the new doctrines, which are with ever-greater vehemence enshrined in legislation, speech codes and broadcasting rules, do not make up either an authentic new religion or even a sustainable substitute for one. For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Inuit, holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West’s new religion, in significant contrast, teaches that it comes about through the enjoyment of rights.
Given the extremism of this inversion it is not surprising that the societies which it shapes should be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O’Brien, the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is effectively a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies might have worsened our social ills rather than led us into a happy and liberated utopia – yet this is what seems to have occurred. Income disparities continue to widen. The use of antidepressants spreads like an epidemic. Young women suffer from increasing levels of depression, self-harm, and anxiety; children say they crave a loving mother and a father, but often find themselves in broken homes. There is a vague but general search for stability, for harmony with nature and for “being real”. And yet the pseudo-religion is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided over such dissolution may not be subject to criticism in polite society. In the lands of free speech only a narrow bandwidth of social opinions may in practice be populated. The Liberal Democrats fail only because Labour and Conservative politicians are also liberal democrats. Muslims are among the few people left who do not care for this stifling narrowness.
One of the most iconic liberative ideologies of the twentieth century was feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies, some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into remarkable territories of witchcraft and anti-male lesbianism, this is a movement about which few generalisations can be made. Camille Paglia is against most of it. But perhaps a good place to start is the observation that women might be seen as the major though unintended victims of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional European cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering were caused to those for whom the social supports were cut away and who found themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice, recalling that of A’isha, who took to arms when, as it were, she was denied her vote. It moved Western society away from church tradition and towards the Islamic norm in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage, retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right to initiate legal proceedings.
What Muslims are less happy about is the androphobic feminism of the past half-century, documented by writers like Christina Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?). The new thinkers took a brave new step by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity. “Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women will continue to be subjugated”, thundered Simone de Beauvoir, as usual ahead of her time, and similar noises can be heard from many new feminists. In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with femininity and maleness with manhood was deemed scientifically and morally improper, and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional edifice of “patriarchy”. Perhaps shadowing this, some intelligent women now decline to reproduce; Satoshi Kanazawa of the LSE has speculated about the very strange long-term consequences of the modern correlation between high female IQ and voluntary infertility. As though to return the complement, men are increasingly refusing to partner with women or to become fathers, thanks to the “war on men”, as Helen Smith calls it in her Men on Strike, which documents what she sees as the discriminatory anti-male ethos spreading through society as the result of the new gender feminism.
Contemplating this dysfunctional strangeness, people of Muslim faith must find the courage to dissent. The Quran and our entire theological tradition are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are real, being an aspect of the inherent polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in pairs; and it is this magnetic relationship between alternate principles which brings movement and value into the world. Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the Ten Thousand Things into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle, not simple biology – but metaphysics.
Allah has ninety-nine names. Some are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving, the Loving-Kind. For our esoterists, the former category are broadly associated with male virtues, and the latter with female ones. The divine matrix of the world is dyadic, the world is “created in pairs”. Under the One, the number two is determinative. But as all are God’s perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither Beauty nor Majesty is read as superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian notion that God through an incarnation “bodies himself forth” as male, an assumption that was once invoked to justify traditional Western notions of the objective superiority of the male principle. So Muslims, unlike atheists among scientists, are axiomatically committed to the principle of the equivalent natural worth of the genders.
Islam’s position on gender is thus more complex than many sceptics assume. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles in society “here-below”. The divine names have distinct vocations; and human gender differentiation was created out of more than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God’s khalifas on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine perfection their callings differ in key respects.
Islam’s awareness that when human nature (fitra) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women will tend towards different spheres of activity is of course one which provokes howls of protest from orthodox liberals: for them it is the paradigmatic blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian terms which are the liberals’ usual frame of reference, the case for an absolute identity of vocation seems highly problematic. However heavily society may inculturate women into seeking absolute parity in all dimensions of life, it cannot ignore the reality that they still, as the likes of Vanessa Redgrave courageously assert, have babies and report a tendency to enjoy looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers while their children are small often have to put up with charges of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring up children better than childminders, that breastmilk is better than formula, and even – this as the most dangerous heresy of all – that bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or driving buses.
There are already signs that women are rebelling against the sort of feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute parity of function with men. Taking time “out” to look after a child is less outrageous to the minds of many educated women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands progresses only fitfully; and many houses have become more like dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, microwaved affairs; both parents are too exhausted to spend “quality time” with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home, they may feel that they are not leaving very much.
In such a dismal context, dissolution is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater than some normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some) pleasure at work are poor compensations for the broadened scope for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman’s gift for warming a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing lone parent, she finds that society has less interest in her. She may even join the new class of “wives of the state”.
The state, luckily, can afford to be a polygamist. The postwar unravelling of traditional Britain has coincided with a steady augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there is in theory little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally millions of single-parent families is often harsh and underreported. The case for traditional families, in which women are permitted to celebrate rather than repress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking more moral than the liberals have guessed.
During this ongoing chewing of the social fabric, the elites arrogantly repeat their mantra that the very notion of gender is socially constructed. Even de Beauvoir might be amazed at how far this doctrine has progressed. Hence for Kate Bornestein: “women couldn’t be oppressed if there were no such thing as ‘women’. Doing away with gender is key to the doing away with patriarchy. Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders.” In this advanced liberal view, chromosomes may be XX or XY, but gendered behaviour and identity must always be a matter of free choice.
Here again we see the Third World pilloried and scorned for failing to accept this new doctrine. At the 2000 Beijing UN Women’s Conference, Sweden and Germany demanded the sacking of Nicaragua’s Minister for Family Affairs. His crime was to reject the European Union’s definition of gender as an indefinite variable defined by the individual concerned. When he insisted that he believed that there were only two genders, the craven and aid-needy Nicaraguan government obediently fired him. Ordinary Nicaraguans were amazed and angry, but their views, when briefly noted by European journalists, were dismissed as primitive and clearly in need of Western advice and correction.
As with its response to androphobic feminism, the traditional theological critique of homosexuality is related to the Muslim understanding of the dyadic nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are seen as complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same sex is therefore traditionally associated with biological sterility, which, in classical Muslim moral thinking, is the sign of its metaphysical inadequacy in honouring the basic complementarity which God has used as the warp and woof of the world.
It is true, nonetheless, that the homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It is sometimes claimed as a definitive argument against Darwinism’s hypothesis of the systematic elimination over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings with the Arabian bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication of the practice. In other societies it is widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be so: some researchers controversially speculate that in overpopulated communities the tendency represents Nature’s own technique of population control. Other scientists have speculated about the effects of hormone pollution from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this remains without proof.
But what is sometimes suggested by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always acquired, and that some individuals may be born with them. The science is still hotly debated, but the implications for moral theology are clear: given the Quran’s insistence that human beings are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired, homosexuality as a disposition cannot be a sin.
It does not logically follow from this, of course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable; that would be an example of what ethicists term the “naturalistic fallacy”. Instead we are learning that just as God has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests some of us by implanting tendencies which we must struggle to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. Those who cannot succeed in this must be treated with understanding and compassion.
The major religions have united to oppose homosexual marriage as a tendentious political redefinition of the meaning of marriage itself. But an amusing side-effect of the debate has gained salience. Allowing marriage to be redefined has opened the doors to the legalizing of polygamy, confusing not a few liberals. Already California’s state assembly has permitted judges to consider more than two people as parents to a single child. In the Netherlands the first polygamous civil partnership was legally registered in 2005. And in Brazil, registrars have begun to recognize three partner marriages. The Brazilian Family Institute comments that “we have to recognize the private nature of relationships and learn to live in this pluralistic society which recognizes different desires.”
For civil liberties reasons it seems inevitable that this trend will continue; the only noticeable counter-argument among the chattering classes being that such legislation would please the despised Muslim underclass. The argument against polygamy was historically a mainstay of Islamophobia; with the new relativistic definitions of marriage, that argument is at risk. Other controversial issues, however, will need to be explained.
One of these is female genital mutilation, often held up as proof of the wicked inferiority of some non-Western peoples. Here the riposte should be simple: all mutilation is haram, forbidden. The customs of East Africa and Egypt are, precisely, “pharaonic”, an offense against the prophetic Shari’a. The argument for “inclusive circumcision”, which holds that women should experience some form of physical initiation into Abraham’s covenant, to demonstrate their inclusion within it along with the men, has been proposed by a few Jewish feminist groups. In a Muslim context however, it would seem safer to impose a complete moratorium on all female genital cutting. The search for a symbolic makruma must be outweighed by maslaha considerations in an age where so much exaggeration and abuse seems to prevail. This is the position of al-Azhar itself.
Another canard used to discredit Islam’s social vision is concubinage. In ancient times this existed as a means of preventing the misery of women in service in great houses who would become pregnant by the master of the house, and then found themselves cast out with a child whose paternity was denied. This is a cliché of lurid Victorian novels; but British royal history is also filled with tales of royal concubines who fell from favour. Even Nell Gwynn, when dying of syphilis, still complained that the king was allowing her to die in poverty. Many historians believe that medieval Islamic conceptions of concubinage provided a better status for women than the equivalents did for their counterparts in the medieval West: their children were considered legitimate, and they had the right to maintenance in their old age. Lord Cromer, the imperial governor of Egypt, took this view. However this may be, the ulema no longer recognise the institution; treating it as the memory of an age in which life was almost unimaginably different from our own. Recently the subject of an attempted resurrection by the Wahhabi ultras of ISIS, it is another dead letter, as the wider scholarly ijma against the contemporary validity of a contract of slavery is now deeply entrenched. And to go against ijma is fisq, mortal corruption.
Muslim preachers sometimes hold that the collapse of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity. Indulgent, individualistic decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for a morally-strong Islam to regain its place as the world’s dominant culture. The effete metrosexuals of consumer societies cannot long resist the vigour of Homo Islamicus. The flaw in this theory is that the implosion shows no sign of leading to systemic collapse. Technology and wealth have allowed the creation of surveillance and social security systems which can deal with the growing number of casualties. The Islamic world, too, needs to deal with its Wahhabi insurrections and provide authentic visions of Islam that will genuinely appeal to Westerners looking for an alternative diagnosis of their malaise and a new and sacred horizon in their lives.
We cannot but be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the Western family and classical definitions of gender is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and however scorned we may be, we must patiently and compassionately offer our views and live exemplary lives, until the time comes when our friends and neighbours, their doctrines broken on the anvil of reality, are humbled enough to listen. We should be confident about this. In any battle between a genuinely sacred and a profane orthodoxy, the outcome is fairly predictable. Let us have hope and trust, and remember always that “God’s word is uppermost.”