A centuries-long enslavement? Gender and Islam in the Hispanic Enlightenment: an exploratory approach
From Firenze University Press Journal: Diciottesimo Secolo
Monica Bolufer, Universitat de València
In his widely reprinted and translated essay Defensa de las mujeres(1726), a fi rm defence of the moral and intellectual equality of the sexes, the enlightened Spanish writer Benito Jerónimo Feijoo strongly attacked the misogyny rooted in the European intellectual tradition, beginning with Aristotle. He did so by comparing the injustice of those who «speak of the [female] sex as a common sewer of vice» with the «delirium» of Islam, which denied women entry to heaven:
Mahomet, the false prophet, has excluded women from that chimerical paradise, which his debauched imagination has planted for his followers, and makes all their elicity to consist in beholding, from without, the men wal-lowing in magnificence and luxury within. Married women, to be sure, must account it no small part of that blissful state of voluptuousness, to see their husbands in the arms of other women, whom that visionary has feigned to be formed anew for those gratifications. That such a chimera could ever gain credit in a great part of the world, is one of the most palpable tokens of man’s weakness and depravity.
It was a powerful rhetorical device: likening those Europeans reluctant to acknowledge gender equality to infidels, capable of such madness as believing that wom-en would stand helplessly by as their husbands indulged in adulterous affairs with the houris promised by the Prophet to the chosen ones. Feijoo probably came across this idea in Confutación o confusión de la secta Mahomética y del Alcorán, published in 1515 by the mysterious Muslim convert ‘Juan Andrés’: a refutation based on Muslim sources, and one of the most important books published on the Islam in 17th-century Europe, translated into Italian, German, French, Dutch, Latin and English. More broadly, the notion that the Islamic paradise was brimming with sensual delights (delicious food and drink and willing virgins all on tap) was part of a long tradition of anti-Islamic Christian apologetics, and remained a matter of debate in 18th-century Arabist scholarship in the West3. However, in the third edition of his work, having by this time consulted the Qur’an (in translation, as he could not read Arabic), Feijoo amended his original text to say that the holy book contained no such statement:
What we said here about the unhappy delight that Muhammad promised his followers, can be read in some authors, from whom we deduced that fact; but having afterwards examined with reflection the whole Qur’an, we do not find such a thing within its pages.
He does though continue to insist that there is no mention of women in its description of paradise and that they must therefore be excluded from entering that realm, an idea that Lady Wortley Montagu’s Letters from Turkey (1763) refuted, as noted by Feijoo’s anonymous English translator5. Two things in particular interest me about Feijoo’s partial retraction. The first is the idea that an educator and essayist such as Feijo himself, a man who habitually relied on secondhand testimony (including Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique,1697, and Barthélemy d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale, 1697), should go to the trouble of reading the Qur’an. The second is the fact that he recognizes his deductions have led him to exaggerate the degree to which the «Mohammedan» religion oppressed women.The way in which this ‘feminist’ essay mentions the Qur’an for its own purposes serves as an introduction to two fundamental aspects of Enlightenment thinking as regards Islam. On the one hand, there was an inter-est in looking beyond the clichés about infidels found in Christian apologetics and learning more about Islamic culture. On the other, there was the continued belief that such disregard for women was further proof of the errors inherent in Islam, as upheld by many Christian scholars, or even of the despotism of Muslim nations, as argued by Montesquieu and other philosophers. This article explores the role played by gender in the process of constructing images of Islam in the His-panic Enlightenment. If, as noted by Jürgen Osterhammel, «the Enlightenment’s discovery of Asia entailed a more open-minded, less patronizing approach to foreign cultures than suggested by those who see it as a mere incubation period of Orientalism», is the same true of Hispanic Orientalism, even if it were more a ‘rediscov-ery’ of something that had never really been forgotten?6Did it align with stereotypical European thinking about relationships between the sexes in Islamic territories, or was it more open to looking beyond the clichés? To what extent was the incipient tendency of many European thinkers and travellers to bracket together the Hispanic and the Islamic (notably in relation to gender) either accepted or challenged by Spanish intellectuals? Did the country’s own Islamic past enable such perceptions to be modulated in any way? Did it help create more nuanced visions of the ‘oriental’ or did it instead help underline the differences between Spain and the Orient? I will address these questions, not by attempting to deal exhaustively with an area whose ramifications are numerous and complex, but simply by indicating possible avenues of analysis.
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