This talk by Dr Rebecca Masterton was delivered at Dundee University Muslim Message Society for the Interfaith Event called Women: Muslim & Christian Perspective which was held on 8th November 2011 at University of Dundee, Scotland In her speech, Dr Rebecca gave a critique of the secularist society as well as expanded on how we the human beings have become distanced from our primordial nature and highlighted the need to return back to that in order to progress and develop ourselves
This is a different formula, but this is called a return to our primordial nature. In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.
The last hundred and fifty years in Europe have seen the breaking away of society from religious structures, religious schools and their religious way of being. Conflating the teachings of the prophets with the authority of priests, Europe has sought to liberate itself not only from religious structures, but from the divine itself. Man has cut himself free of God, it would seem, and thus catapulted himself into what he calls existence. He has felt the intoxication of being able to challenge, question and deconstruct, of being able to say no. And thus he has found himself in a kind of permanent adolescence where the pinnacle of human development is a triumph of defiance against all that is apparently oppressive.
So man has come up with questions and a way of life that revolves around challenging and defining and in addition to that, experimenting and exploring, free of all parent restrictions, enjoying the intoxication of breaking boundaries. But what has not come up with is answers. And while in the 20th century he may have a tendency to move beyond the stage of deconstruction. He has struggled to come up with any effective means of reconstruction and restoration. He has cut himself free and drifted into the wide open wastelands of existence. And he has tasted existence up to a point. He has tasted everything that man might like to taste, all kinds of power, different fashions, different moral boundaries, different relationships, different lifestyles. And he became very sophisticated too, experimenting with art that asks questions, experimenting in literature that asks questions. Experimenting with films that asks questions.
And then he discovered that he couldn't find any clear answers. And when he discovered that, he began to scoff at the desire for clarity. And then he became depressed. But he didn't want to show. Nevertheless, in his sophisticated way, he could use art that reflected his sense of loss, emptiness and confusion and literature that commented on our dysfunctional psychic lives and film that express the ultimate alienation from ourselves.
After the intoxication of being free to run around in the open wastelands of existence comes the sobriety of realizing that existence in itself is just existence. It has nothing to say to us for all its color and entertainment. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger attempted to build some kind of philosophical edifice that told us how wonderful existence is, and how truth can be revealed through it and everlasting journey. And that's what it's all about. But when compared to the mystical practices of the prophets, these philosophical constructions look like mere hypotheses and hypotheses which still fail to provide the real answer.
What ultimately is the truth? Should we be satisfied with being told that it's an ongoing journey to find out? Because that's the point that philosophers of all time reached. Well, we don't really know. Hey, enjoy the journey. And our daily lives reflect this philosophy. Well, we don't really know why we're living our lives, but let's just carry on living them anyway. And we could say that this emptiness and pointlessness lies at the heart of much of European culture as it is today.
I'm just focusing on Europe because we are in Europe. It is better and safer not to ask questions anymore. With regard to the women of our age, it can't be denied that they have real battles to fight. The fight to be seen as having the intelligence to participate in politics, the fight to be able to go to university and to exercise our talents to the best of our ability. Many people these days hark back to the supposedly golden age of the 1950s. But that was also an age where women who were seen as morally deviant would put away in asylums. There can be no doubt that women have had to fight against different kinds of oppression, but with the throwing off of certain patriarchal shackles, a narrow, shallow interpretations of the prophetic path, and again, with the intoxication that has come with that, women have moved out into the open wastelands of existence and existence to sacred dimensions have all but disappeared.
Women have become economic beings in their scramble to excel in the workplace, and sexual beings, in the primeval scramble to find a mate. In a capitalist, individualistic society, they are encouraged to compete with each other and everything, women have become ruthless with each other in a battle to find the truth of their existence within the limits of this existence. Interestingly, my generation is now turnaround, women are exhausted. The intoxication of breaking free of boundaries has passed, and they find themselves faced with the mundane challenge of providing for the family, as men used to do.
Just last week I read an article by a woman who goes out, works long hours to support the family while her husband stay home looks after their baby girl. She says, I am caught in the age old male trap of seeing every penny I earn, back away into the future nursery fees, roof repairs and supermarket bills and wondering why I bother. She expresses the regret of having to rebuild the bonds that gets strained by the end of a long week away from her daughter. And she says perhaps this is how working fathers felt all along. But there is one inescapable conclusion is what we've done and fought for, the right to do as men do, be careful what you wish for.
I'm not saying that a woman's place is in the kitchen, but rather what I learned about my culture as I grew up and was able to reflect back upon it, is that people in European countries have become... as they have become supposedly more sophisticated and advanced, they have at the same time moved further and further away from their primordial and even cosmic way of being.
We have become obsessed with the world and with our place in it, and that is with our place as individuals. And we have already forgotten that there is a deeper and more comprehensive aspect to our being, and a deeper and more beautiful purpose to our being here. Western women, are pitying me, and supposedly unsophisticated Muslim women who have not gone through the whole process of deconstruction. Muslim women appear to be still stuck in an age that Western women have proudly glided past. Even in these very same Western women now find themselves out on a limb stuck in a state of existential anxiety.
It is rare for contemporary, post-industrial societies to see women as spiritual beings. While women of previous generations have reacted perhaps to a dry, restrictive morality of the 1950s, women of later generations are finding that they are having to reconstruct themselves after everything has been taken apart. This may take perhaps 15 or 20 years of battling to find a way out of the chaos. Atheists may smear the desire for certainty. But let's replace certainty with clarity. Who wants to live without clarity, without comprehension of oneself?
While my upbringing was very much with the thinking that religion is irrelevant to one's life, I never stopped intuitively sensing that there is a transcendent entity that lies beyond the phenomenal world. And I actually used to listen for guidance, even though it never occurred to me to be to ask for guidance, I always instinctively felt that my consciousness is connected to that transcendent entity and that my life needs to be built in harmony with it. The way of life, at least in this country, is distinctly out of sync with that. When I discovered Islam, I also found a very much a vibrant living initiatic tradition with which resonates with an energy or light, you can say, and the clarity of coming from the One and leading back to the One, and then dawned on me how much more logical it was to place One absolute existence at the heart of one's life, to make the foundation and pinnacle of one's life, rather than just think about it sometimes going in all directions than other times.
The path began when I placed the One at the heart of my life, the axis, the qutb around which everything else revolves. Not only is this a living and ever unfolding, but path back to the divine, a path of along falls in line and clarity rather than a path of guesswork and relativism. It is also something that lifted me out of the matrix of an apparently advanced and sophisticated society, which is nevertheless virtually illiterate when it comes to matters of the soul and of the consciousness.
The secular Western way of being is not in my mind the pinnacle of perfection for which you should be aiming. It is simply to shallow and incomplete. What Islam teaches about how to be as a human being and how to be as a woman is probably the opposite of what young women, young women are taught in our society. Young women are told that if you exploit yourself and know how to sell yourself, then you will succeed and be loved to. This is nothing but a lie, and I'm not the only one to call this out. Women go out of their way to exploit themselves in the hope of success and love. And while that may benefit the men in the society that self-exploitation, they really benefit themselves. Success and love may or may not materialize, or if it does, at what cost to oneself?
Islam teaches what today would be seen as outdated values, but they are values that cuts across all ways of life, that cultivate the soul and are actually perennial. These are very simple things, such as protect your soul, guard yourself against evil, value your dignity and the most unfashionable being chaste. In short, it teaches the opposite of self exploitation to the world. Woman is a spiritual being, a soul, that its his journey through this world to a destined end the above wisdom in proximity to divine. Our objective in this world is to know our own souls, to be at peace with ourselves, to aspire to gain knowledge and to be people of knowledge. Islam teaches us to cultivate beauty and the soul. This goes to both men and women. We are striving to create a beautiful world where this is the essence of ourselves that shines.
This means that we do away with faithfulness within ourselves. The way of being for many women around the world to follow the post-industrial Western model is something which involves a self conscious artificial construction. How many women could make up war-paint and feel that they need to apply to go out and face the world? Islam is about stripping away artifice. It's about being on the outside of what you are on the inside and not colluding with forces. It is about being free spirited without having to compromise yourself or expose yourself to the markets.
And don't look at the leading female figures in Islamic history in isolation. A key part of being women was their place in our society and how they relate to the men of the society. What we see is that history is not women competing with men, but cooperating with men and vice versa. And everybody is working towards the same goal, establishing a way of life that places cultivation of the soul at the centre. Thus, there was mutual assistance among men and women. And this can be seen on the battlefields where women and men have been wounded or where women themselves actually fought. This can also be seen in the manners, adab akhlaq, or code of etiquette that were instilled by the Holy Prophet and his purified progeny, his daughter Fatimah and the Imams who came after her.
One simple example is the loving relationship that existed between Lady Fatimah and the Holy Prophet in a society where it was seen as un-manly even to have daughters in one's family. She was called "umm abiha" the mother of her father, and he used to get help from her when she entered the room and offered his offered her his place to sit. We don't even see such respect shown to a daughter by fathers in sophisticated industrialized societies, in the tradition of the followers of the holy household of the Prophet, Fatimah was more than the daughter of the prophet. She was a being who was born in heavenly circumstances, who had about her a sense of paradise, who transmitted the esoteric knowledge of the religion down through a purified progeny. She is the mother of the divinely selected leaders who came after her father. The Imam says to their followers: we are a proof over you, and Fatimah is a proof over us. We can see the respect shown to women, in the Imams choice of wives too. Many of them there women who served in the household of the Imam, who are seen as having the same stature and nobility of character to better weight the responsibility of being the mother of the next.
And on the issue of covering with a scarf or dressing modestly has been turned to something controversial by the media, as we know, it is amazing how it promotes such extreme reactions. Covering does have many dimensions to it. I want to say that women wear it all for the same reasons. My turning back to a primordial way of being has included an inward reconnection. The inner nurturing of the soul is facilitated by establishing a gentle, outward barrier against the market of the world. Western women have tried to find other such barriers. As I said, the wearing of war paint or sharp, masculine suits. I myself in my struggles to be treated with respect in the workplace in my 20s and on the street before I converted and found that wearing a pinstripe suit was quite effective.
But then why should I have to dispense with my femininity in order to survive? Women have asked me why I concealed my femininity with the scarf, but I find that on the contrary, the hijab is very feminine. It definitely marks a woman out for a man. And ironically, this is what often displeases some Western feminists too, hijab is a small family garment that transcends materialistic corporate culture. Covering is awful time for it is part of going back to the primordial self, the primordial self is connected to and integrated with the sacred dimensions of creation. The Muslim woman is a reminder in a desacralized world, all the sacred dimensions will be and of that divine, transcendent entity that brought existence and to be as a way of knowing it, as a means back to it. She is on an internal journey to the infinite, that will continue to unfold into the pathways of light long after she has left this world.
Thinking about our role in the world today as beings attentive to, attempting to leave a life of purification, and ever increasing consciousness, Muslim women have a great responsibility to bear, actually, just as they did in the early days of Islam. We see Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn witnessing his slaughter on the plains of Karbala and establishing the tradition of gathering together to remember what happened as a way of asserting again and again the difference between truth and falsehood. Lady Zaynab, daughter of Lady Fatimah, stood up as a witness to the truth in the face of those forces that sought to impose a ruthless dictatorship upon the people. Her role in preserving and transmitting the pristine teachings of Islam was essential.
Similarly, today, Muslim women have a tremendous task in campaigning against corruption at a political level as well as at the social level. They have the challenge of trying to establish a society that educates and nurture the soul, that provides an environment where they can be harmoniously oriented towards the divine. And all this while they remain the targets of politicians who find them useful to gain political capital.
In the foreseeable future, Muslim women are going to be the loci for the projection of fears of the other. They are going to be tools in the election campaigns of politicians or just a dumping ground for people's general discontentment. But the fact that more and more Western women are coming to Islam demonstrates that in spite of all this, the beauty and profundity of the primordial cosmic way of being continues to lift us out of this darkness.