Every time that a giant of the intellectual scene in parts of the world simply and misleadingly dubbed “Islamic” passes away, I am reminded of how much work must be done to keep their memory alive and more importantly to make their words reach a larger audience. These thinkers have opened so many avenues for their societies and for humanity in general to conquer hate, fear, and oppression. Nevertheless, their voices remain drowned in the sea of loud ideologues and profiteers seeking to impose their agendas on everyone without serious debate, critical analysis, or inclusive conversation.
It is a big loss for all of us to stay unaware of the humanist contributions of the likes of Fatema Mernissi, a great thinker and scholar who passed away today at the age of 75 in her native Morocco. Mernissi was a sociologist by training, having received a PhD in the field from Brandeis University. She later returned to Morocco and pursued a successful career as a professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat. She has authored many important books on a variety of topics although she is mostly remembered for her feminist readings of Islam. Here is not the place to discuss her work in any detail. I suggest to those interested in learning more about her thought to read one of her books that were translated into English. I recommend one of these:
To help your appetite to acquire one or more of these gems, let me briefly highlight some of Mernissi’s insights:
1– The lives of average people in Muslim societies matter. One must pay close attention to what people in all their diversity do everyday. An important part of this is the dynamics of gender and sex. It is a fascinating world that must be approached beyond the usual stereotypes.
2– Religious traditions also matter. They influence the behavior/actions of social beings in important ways. This is clear in how a male-dominated order establishes boundaries that limit the lives of women in vital ways. It is therefore important for women to reclaim religion from the hands of this patriarchal order and participate in the interpretation of religious texts and in the shaping of their present and future.
3– A critical approach must be embraced in analyzing both the Islamic tradition and Western modernity. The dichotomy of the “authentic local vs. the imposed foreign” is harmful. Such critical approach shows the equality of all human beings to be at the center of both visions even though in practice there are many deviations that continue to undermine the pursuit of egalitarian and tolerant orders.
4– Democracy and non-violence must be integrated into the institutions of Muslim societies if their current crises are to be overcome.
R.I.P Fatema Mernissi (1940-2015)