“She made me do it!” shouted Adam as he looked God’s way, while pointing at Eve, his female companion in the Garden of Eden. And indeed, if the collection of children’s Bible stories that was being read out to us in the junior school assembly was to be believed, the genesis of humanity was all one big blame game started by Eve, who was such a character as to have colluded with Satan himself to bring about the fall of man with one single bite.
The primary school that I attended in the ‘90s was not religious. In fact, pupils were from a reasonable mix of religious and racial backgrounds, but most of the teachers were old-style Christians, firmly believing in the Bible as the word of God and passing on those beliefs to us in an easy-to-digest format. What with the Quran having no such simplified English edition at the time, this was my first conscious introduction as to why we humans had been forced into this terrible plane of existence.
The only thing that led me to question it was that disruptive influence, the television, upon which I had watched Oliver Twist. The film accurately depicted the scene where Mr Bumble the beadle attempts to blame his wife for stealing Oliver’s mother’s jewellery. Mr Brownlow, the solicitor to whom he is speaking, responds by saying to Mr Bumble, “indeed, you are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.” (To which Mr Bumble replies with that famous phrase, "the law is an ass" although this does not change his unfortunate situation.)
With my child’s knowledge, this was curious to me. I understood that Dickens’ era took the Bible very seriously, and I had just been taught that Eve had the power to lead men by the nose, even if it meant bringing humans to oblivion. But in the “real” world that Dickens described, it was the opposite, with the man, rather than the woman, being at fault. Had I not watched this film, I may have left primary school with the understanding that we women were a difficult species, but given the circumstances, I thought that humanity was problematic in its own way and that it was typically the case that men and women were competitors, and that this had to somehow stop for all the issues in the world to be resolved.
Having grown up with no technicoloured children’s adaptation of the Islamic story of the Prophet Adam and his wife, named in the Quran as Hawwa, it was only some years later that I learnt what was really said. Having been told time and time again by that same set who grew up with the Bible stories that society would treat me as lesser, and that I would come across “glass ceilings” simply because I was a woman, this was quite a breath of fresh air.
So, what does Islam’s rendition of the “Fall” of Man story teach about men, women and the dynamic between them?
First of all, Islam sets a very clear context regarding the creation of humanity. Allah (the Arabic word for the God of all monotheists) states to his angels, “Behold…I will create a vicegerent on Earth”, (Quran 2:30). [NB: many Quranic verses are extremely long and this quotation is one section of a particularly lengthy verse. Should you wish to do further research, please note, this translation comes from The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.] Here we see the Quran clearly state that, prior to their creation, God had openly stated that the purpose of Adam and Hawwa was not to observe how long they could resist the temptation of eating a piece of fruit, thereby losing their home in Paradise. It was so that human beings could tend to our little blue planet, acting as God’s representatives upon it.
As in the Bible, the first humans in creation enjoyed a period of time in Heaven until the point at which “did Satan make them slip from the Garden and get them out of the state (of felicity) in which they had been” (Quran 2:35). This is all that’s mentioned in the Quran about this. No gender issues, no blame, no childish finger pointing. Just a quick description of how Satan, the first enemy of God, caused humanity to exert its free will (by eating of the “forbidden” fruit).
In fact many commentators say that Adam and Hawwa followed Satan’s suggestion and ate the fruit because they were so pure and innocent that they did not realise one of God’s own creatures could lie to them, something that we can all relate to, seeing as we usually need to experience other people’s dishonesty a few times in order to develop our notions of trustworthiness.
As we have already learnt in the same chapter of the Quran, this “sin” was necessary for the execution of God’s greater plan. He had already decided that He would create humanity to rule upon the Earth, not in Heaven, and this was the means by which we free and wilful beings first got here.
As to the dynamic between Adam and Hawwa, or indeed man and woman in general, the Quran, in Chapter 7, Verse 189, has this to say: “It is He (Allah) who created you...and made his mate of like nature in order that he might dwell with her in love.” Although we seem to have made it somewhat complicated in our modern age, God, in the Quran, asks us to be good to one another and to treat one another as the earthly kings and queens that we are.
Yes, the practice of many modern Muslims fails in this respect, and I believe we must attribute this, in part, to its context, of the brutally aggressive colonisation that many in the Muslim world have suffered. However, Islam, and certainly the Islamic rendition of the story that we in the West believe is a root cause of patriarchy, provides a hugely differing narrative
So then, where does patriarchy come from? I will not pretend to identify its source, but perhaps this was the easiest way for Satan, whom we learn has followed us to Earth to trouble us until Doomsday, to pervert our position as Vicegerents. Regardless of motives, the first man to denigrate women had, himself, slipped from his noble position and, of course, mothers who believe that they are lesser will pass on this belief onto their children until they should choose to break the cycle.
As for patriarchy in the modern West, I believe it starts at school, maybe in the home for some. But independent of the Bible stories or any other religious references, it was at school where I learnt that my greatest value lay in my looks which would leave me worthless in old age, that my gender would either prevent or make it harder for me to succeed and excel in any field and that, after all of that, it was a superior thing to aspire to join the “world of men” rather than to settle for “mere” motherhood. These were not educated into us, and, indeed, I was not treated as lesser for being a girl, but again and again, such comments and references would pop up, often where conversations became more general, not because of the National Curriculum, but because of the social paradigm.
Fast-forward over a decade into adulthood and I see our “progressive” society, where women demand an end to gender inequality, desperately endorsing patriarchy at a time when women are at their most vulnerable and glorious, during childbirth. I was recently informed by a birth worker of a hospital in Scotland that had performed a forced, unnecessary episiotomy on a labouring woman without the use of anaesthetics, while in the “Bible-thumping” states of America where having a baby outside of the hospital environment is outlawed, childbirth, often at the hands of severely abusive male obstetricians, could, perhaps, be the title of a blockbuster-style horror movie.
This belief that birth is woman’s eternal punishment for Eve’s destruction of humanity is alien to Islam where original sin does not exist and where a mother, because of her pregnancy, birth and child-rearing, is a heroine in full bloom. In accordance with other ancient traditions, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) stated that childbirth is the Jihad of woman. She is not passive, manipulated and left weakened by it. Rather, it is her initiation as a powerful warrior, and for this act, which she may perform many times, she receives a reward equal to that of a man who defends his fellow Muslims in battle.
In writing this, I acknowledge that I am a third generation British Muslim and so I am in a place of privilege. The first Muslim immigrants to the UK had a tough life. Britain saw divorces being caused due to the 2008 Financial Crisis and, well, these early Muslim families were often dirt poor with the husband, usually a physical labourer, being the sole breadwinner. So, you bet there were tensions between spouses. Couple this with the fact that every country has its own version of patriarchy and that they bought their own paradigm over here, and we can safely say that things still do not run smoothly in the Muslim community.
Unlike our parents and grandparents, we now live in an era of globalisation where doing whatever we want is easy. The “Ummah Wide” website recently published The 50 Most Innovative Global Muslim Startups 2015 showcasing entrepreneurial Muslim men and women who had become extremely successful, predominantly due to their leveraging of the Internet to access an online audience. Companies mentioned included MuslimGirl, which is described as follows: “Powerful content that changes the story about Muslim women. Read this publication for five minutes and whatever stereotypes you may have had about Muslim women will get permanently knocked out of your head.” So there you go, despite what mainstream information sources would have us believe, patriarchy is not a force in the lives of swathes of Muslim women.
Still, the paradigm of gender inequality harping back to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve remains embedded in Western consciousness, and I believe that, as a Muslim woman, to learn about Islam is to be removed from the fundamental basis of patriarchy in any culture. Islam has numerous historic examples of powerful women and as we are seeing, now is the perfect time for us to become strong, independent financial wizards just like Khadiha, Muhammad’s (PBUH) first wife. Those Western Muslims and non-Muslims who believe that Islam is an unenlightened religion must move beyond the Biblical paradigm and study the Quranic narrative of Adam and Hawwa, which is about the purpose and power of creation. It is in understanding our divine truth that we, men and women, may escape the limitations of human thought and the weight of a patriarchal society defined by “can’ts”, “shoudn’ts” and "mustn'ts" and become our greatest selves.