Romantic Outlaws:The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley won the National Book Critics Circle award on March 18, 2016. In their own lifetimes, these women were called “whores.” Wollstonecraft was known as “a hyena in petticoats.” Shelley’s critics said she was “monstrous” and “perverse.” Now, here they are, at the center of a book that has just won a national award. Incredible.
Donald Trump, like other demagogues, remains remarkably untroubled by facts. He would rather win than get it right. But as a historian of religion, I cannot let his false statements about Muslims go unchallenged.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have violent pasts, but if anything, the violence in the Quran and the Hadith is more muted than in the Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions. The Quran only calls for Jihad when believers are under attack; the slaughter of innocents is strictly prohibited. Acts of terrorism against civilians, called irjaf, are condemned.
In contrast, there are notorious moments in the bible that promote herem, the complete annihilation of the enemy – not just the soldiers, but the women and children, too. From Joshua’s genocidal war at Jericho to Christ’s ghastly punishments of sinners in Revelation, these passages praise violence in the name of God. Indeed, as everyone but Mr. Trump seems to realize, much of the religious hatred of the preceding centuries has been inspired by the bible, not the Quran.
Fortunately, the bible is also filled with stories of love, and perhaps the bible story that can best defeat Mr. Trump’s campaign against Islam is the story that actually accounts for its origins. Abraham, the great patriarch of Genesis, is universally recognized as the father of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. What is less well known is how this came to be.
In a story worthy of Mr. Trump’s personal life, complete with multiple wives, jealousy, and legal battles, Abraham’s barren first wife Sarah suggests that her husband sleep with her slave, Hagar, so that he can have a son and his legacy will be assured. All goes smoothly. Hagar bears a child named Ishmael; the story could have ended here. But instead God decides to works a miracle and allows Sarah to get pregnant. She gives birth to Isaac, who, God says, will be the son of His covenant. As a result, modern Jews and Christians trace their scriptural origins to Isaac, not Ishmael. But what about Ishmael, Abraham asks, worried about his beloved first son. Don’t worry, God says to Abraham. I will bless Ishmael and make him the father of a great people as well. Who will these people be? The Muslims. Ishmael is the ancestor of Mohammed.
We all know that families can be dysfunctional. Just because Jews, Christians, and Muslims trace their lineage to the same father does not mean that they will live in harmony. But the biblical account actually lays a blueprint for peace, not war.
At first glance, though, the situation does not seem promising. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, as she does not want her son to share Abraham’s legacy with Ishmael. Startlingly, God tells Abraham to do what she says.
My students are always deeply troubled by this moment in the story. God seems to support Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of exclusion and hatred. Why would He allow Abraham to banish his firstborn son? For that matter, why did God set this whole situation up? Didn’t He realize that Sarah and Hagar would fight? Did God want to sow discord?
The answer is no. If Hagar and Ishmael had remained in Abraham’s household, they would have remained slaves. When they leave, they begin their lives as free people. Released from captivity, Hagar, according to Muslim tradition, goes on to build the well at Mecca, and her son Ishmael does indeed create a great people. In the bible, Isaac and Ishmael come back together to bury their father Abraham. There is no evidence of strife between them or their descendants. In the Muslim versions, there are no conflicts between Sarah and Hagar. The story is a story of two sons, two mothers and one father, all living in peace.
What then can the tale of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar teach us?
Both Isaac and Ishmael are sons of Abraham. Their tradition is one of peaceful coexistence, of brotherhood instead of war, and of love instead of hate. For those of us who value the principles of reason and analysis, who have respect for the historical record and the integrity of religious traditions, and who wish to live in a pluralistic society, as America’s founders intended, it is still important, I hope, to get things right.
Read my Huff Po article on what it’s like to teach Wollstonecraft to college students!
April 27, 1759. Strangely enough, today — April 27, 2015 — is also the day before the publication of Romantic Outlaws, the book in which I tell the story of Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. People look at me blankly when I tell them what my books is about. Mary Wollstonecraft? They know who Mary Shelley is, or think they do, because of Frankenstein. But no one seems to have heard of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or any of Wollstonecraft’s pioneering escapades.
So, in honor of her birthday: Mary Wollstonecraft was the first to articulate the rights of women. She was a foreign war correspondent, an active journalist, a political philosopher, and a novelist. She argued against the inherent injustice of eighteenth century marriage laws: wives were not allowed to own their own property or initiate a divorce. Husbands were allowed to whip and rape their wives. Wollstonecraft had grown up watching her mother be abused by her alcoholic father; she rescued her younger sister from an unhappy marriage. As a result, she did not believe in marriage and had her first child out of wedlock. Ultimately, she would relent and marry Mary Shelley’s father, but she saw this as a compromise, a necessary evil in an imperfect world.
For me, Mary Wollstonecraft is an inspiration. When I am afraid to say something I think people may not like, I remember Wollstonecraft and how brave she was. She endured social exile and terrible cruelty for the sake of her ideas. If she could speak her mind, then I can speak my mind. If she could live up to her ideals, then I can live up to mine.