Mothers of the Believers

I finished reading another fascinating book – a volume with several essays by different writers on the theme “Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions” (1995; Edited by R.Kloppenborg and W.J. Hanegraaff).

There are two chapters on Muslim Female Stereotypes. One is on Sufi women saints and the other is titled, “The Mothers of the Believers: Stereotypes of the Prophet Muhammad’s Wives” by Ghassan Ascha. I don’t know if Ascha is Muslim but his research is fairly extensive into the subject. His approach seems objective, but he discusses some issues that a common Muslim would not discuss.

His essay discusses all the wives of the Prophet, offering detailed references to them found in the Quran and in some hadith and how their lives have become stereotypes for Muslim women in every era. However, Ascha blames every era of using these examples to their advantage. For example, he writes that early Muslims used their examples and references from Quran about the Mothers of the Believers to incarcerate women; today those same women and the same references from the Quran are used by feminists to show that Islam promotes gender equality. The example he uses often is that of Aisha in the Battle of Camel: medieval Muslims used that instance to say women must stay indoors and can’t become leaders, and contemporary Muslims use it to show Aisha’s bravery, defiance and stubbornness.

I’m not going to discuss the whole essay but a few points I wanted to note (for my records and for interested readers) are as follows:

  • I didn’t know that when the Prophet’s wives were given a choice to stay with him or leave him (Quran 33:28-31), there was a wife who chose to leave him. It is never mentioned by scholars who maintain that all his wives chose to stay with him. Ascha cites the story of Al Amiriyyah on page 92 from Ibn Saad. (I knew the Prophet had more than the nine wives and two slaves usually mentioned who either died or were divorced and that there was a woman Al Amiriyyah in his household but I didn’t know she chose to leave him. Scholars claim she became insane after leaving the Prophet and died soon afterwards).
  • I also didn’t know that Aisha had initially “set people against Uthman” before his murder (page 93), after which, she fought in the Battle of Camel against Ali for not avenging Uthman’s murder.
  • Ascha writes that, “it is probable that this jealousy (of the Prophet) has been the main reason why the Prophet’s wives are called “Mothers of the Believers” in this verse (33:6). This nickname came to strengthen the prohibition against marrying them after Muhammad’s death: what man would dare to marry his own mother?

This reminded me of the verse prohibiting Muslim men from making their wives haraam to themselves (like in the Times of Ignorance) by telling them that they were like “the backs of their mothers.” It was common practice in pagan Arabia to abandon a wife by uttering the words “you are like my mother/sister” and Quran warned against this practice (33:4). Two verses later, the Prophet’s wives are categorically called the Mothers of all Muslims thus prohibiting any Muslim man from proposing marriage to them. The Prophet is said in the Quran to be “closer to the believers than their own selves” (33:6) – not Father of the Believers, but his wives are the Mothers. I never thought about that.

  • I found Ascha’s conclusion interesting:

Each period has its own Mothers of the Believers, according to the prevailing cultural and moral values and social norms. Thus, the Prophet’s wives do not derive their importance from their historical personalities, but from the continuous modifications retouching and modernizations which these personalities have undergone. They have been used throughout the centuries, as we have seen, in order to justify a great variety of attitudes about the Muslim woman. They are ideal, obedient, gentle, affectionate, content, pious, dwelling inside the marital house and veiled. They are also jealous, angry, quarrelling, conspirational, endowed with great kayd, sowing fitna, and their mind (aql) is sometimes imperfect. But they are also erudite, teachers, daring endowed with strong personalities, intelligent, political activists, fighters, even leaders in wars… and, of course, feminists.

  • Ascha doesn’t mention Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter! She is the main stereotype for Shia Muslims and should have been mentioned.

Beyond Simplistic Apologia

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women as was kindly reminded to me again today by my bright and brave Saudi friend, Wafa. I don’t want to particularly talk about Muslim women and violence because violence is universal and is no way peculiar to the Muslim community.  But I thought I’d draw your attention to a Muslim man who thinks that “violence against women may physically and legally be a woman’s problem, morally and religiously it is very much that of men.”

I have already Farid Esack’s essay, Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia three times since I borrowed the volume, What Men Owe to Women: Men’s Voices from World Religions (Edited by J.C. Raines and D. C. Maguire) this morning. It was THAT different! The entire book is fascinating and the writers, all men, have each been accused by members of their faith for holding progressive ideas for women of their faith. Farid Esack’s faith was questioned by a Muslim reviewer (Riffat Hassan) because he writes in his essay that, “In general, one discerns  … a discriminatory trend (in the Quran) when it deals with the social and legal obligations of women.”

Esack doesn’t apologise. He makes no excuses. He doesn’t sugar-coat. In fact, he accuses Amina Wadud for doing just that – “gender sensitive Muslims have struggled to “swallow” this text (Quran 4:34) after much sugar coating”!

Esack begins his essay by giving a brief history about himself, his place amongst theologians and talking about the questioner and respondent of the question ‘What men owe to women?’ He then begins to skin the gender sensitive Muslims and their “sugar-coated” exegesis of the Quran!

The author divides Quranic verses referring to women into two types:

a) General statements made which both affirm and deny gender equality and

b) specific injunctions, which are generally discriminatory towards women.

He explains them like this:

The following texts affirm the notion of equality in ethico religious responsibilities and recompense: (Q. 23:35) and (Q. 23:219)In the following four verses, frequently invoked by Muslims committed to some form of gender equality, we see how equality in a generalized manner is only seemingly affirmed. My own brief comment on the limited usefulness of invoking them for gender equality follows each verse:1) They (women) have rights similar to those against them (Q. 2:228)Here we note that ‘similar’ is left undefined and, as conservatives correctly argue, is not synonymous with ‘equal’.2) To men a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave and to women a share of what parents and relatives leave (Q. 4.7)“A share” is left undefined and, when another verse elsewhere does define it then it becomes clear that it is an unclear share.3) “To the adulteress and the adulterer, whip each one of them a hundred lashes […]” (Q.24.2)The fact of the inequality in the burden of proof in adultery is ignored. Pregnancy in the case of an unmarried woman is automatic proof of extra-marital relations while naming the male partner in the absence of witnesses to the act is tantamount to slander.4) “Say to the faithful men that they should cast down their eyes and guard their modesty; that is pure for them. And say to the faithful women that they cast down their eyes and guard their modesty.” (Q. 24:30-31)The succeeding verses, usually unmentioned in apologetic works, add an array of further specific injunctions regarding the social behaviour of women.  While one may argue that men are not absolved from these, women are the ones singled out.

Esack then continues with:

In social and legal matters, it is very difficult to avoid the impression that the Qur’an provides a set of injunctions and exhortations where women, in general, are infantalized “to be protected, and economically provided for by men, but admonished and punished if they are disobedient”.  The following are a few examples of this. a) Men marry their spouses while women are “given in marriage” by their fathers or eldest brother though they may have a say in the choice of a partner). b) The groom purchases her sexual favours though she may have a choice in the amount. Here we also observe the implicit notion of a one sided duty to fulfill the sexual needs of her husband. c) In the matter of divorce, the right of males is automatic while that of females is to be negotiated, contracted, and decided upon by male judges. d) The male may take up to four spouses though he may be compelled to treat them with equity and the first wife may leave him if the marriage contract proscribes him from taking additional wives. e) Muslim men may marry women from among the people of the Book but Muslim women may not. (Q. 2:220)

After discussing the verse on the “mono-gendered nature” of nushuz (4:34) in some depth, Esack asks, “If the excellence (of men over women) flows from God’s grace rather than from economic activity, then how does a shift in income patterns alter that excellence?” Indeed most feminist interpreters of Quran have tried to explain that the “excellence” of men over women as mentioned in 4:34 comes from economic superiority (AbulKalaam, Asad, Wadud, Hassan) which in Esack’s mind creates the problem that there is “the idea that a specific gender can acquire advantage as a group over another by virtue of some of its members possessing enjoying some grace or virtue (even if only economical).”

Explaining the same verse, Esack writes:

“While liberal readers insist that the second characteristic, “qanitat” (lit. “the obedient”) refers to obedience to God, most of the traditional interpreters have viewed this as obedience to the wishes of the husband and suggest that the obedience to one’s husband is, in fact, an extension – even a condition, of righteousness… it fairly obvious that the traditional exegetes are nearer to the truth in their fusion of duty to God and to husband… Sexual fidelity is thus portrayed as a combined duty to husband and God and while fidelity may also be a duty of the husband, the wife is singled out and her sexuality is joined to the husband’s property. In the process she and her sexuality are further objectified and notions of women as owned commodities underlined.”

I somewhat concur with this explanation as I mentioned once in a comment.

The problem, Farid Esack sees is that with the Quran, “there is no way that one can ascribe ‘discriminatory’ texts to a mysoginist Paul, or a well-meaning but time-bound David” since it is the word of God. But at the same time, “The Qur’an’s essential audience is male…(with women as) essentially subjects being dealt with – however kindly – rather than being directly addressed.”

Then he caught my attention with the rhetorical question, “How can one be content with a Transcendent who speaks about you and rarely to you?”

Esack’s answer can be found in the paradox of the sentence “while the Qur’an is far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be, that it, nevertheless, contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos.”

Esack believes that he owes women a call for forgiveness because he has realised that “God is even above Islam” and that Quran first “affirms the centrality of God in a believer’s life and not the law which is the contextual means of achieving the pleasure of God.” Despite Quran’s claims that it is a guide for humankind, Esack rightly points out that we can’t deny that the initial audience of the Book were the people of Hijaz in the 7th Century and so “those who place gender justice at the core of their concerns – rather than scripture – cannot but be cognisant of the severe limitations that such ahistorical notions place on them.”

Perhaps Esack’s   message for all of us on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women would be to develop a theology that is positive for both genders – “Our view of what we owe to women, is really a view of what we owe to ourselves. The kind of theology that we develop in thinking through this is as much a statement of our deepest selves as it is about the God whose presence we seek in a broken world desperate for wholeness and justice.”

What do you think? I welcome your comments.

Note: A version of Farid Essack’s essay is available online here.

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Slaves, concubines, and housemaids

Edited for brevity and focus.

A topic that I wish more Muslim feminists would address in the Blogosphere is that of concubines in Islam. I know that most will flail their arms in the air and moan “it doesn’t happen anymore so get on with other important issues”, but Muslim women must understand that it “does still happen” and it is a very important issue that must be addressed immediately.

Most active Muslim feminist bloggers write from outside the Arab world and if they have never lived in the Arab world they will not know the intricate realities of the Islam that is practiced by men and women here. Our sad disregard for their plight has caused the abuse and assault to escalate rapidly.

While I disagree with slavery in general, my particular concern has always been with concubinage. Slavery and concubinage continued openly in the Arab and Muslim lands until as late as the 1960s. And it still exists in Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mauritania (where approximately 90,000 black Mauritanians are enslaved by Arab/Berber owners). In 1997, El Hassan Ould Benyamin, a masjid imam in Tayarat openly condemned efforts to abolish slavery:

“This ‘abolition’ [of slavery] is illegal because it is contrary to the teachings of the fundamental text of Islamic law, the Quran … [and] amounts to the expropriation from Muslims of their goods; goods that were acquired legally.”

In all these countries, sex with slaves is a given and is tolerated by other Muslims as well as wives of men who keep concubines. Sexual slavery is an “epidemic” in Darfur. You can read here how as late as 2003 there have been Islamic leaders calling for slavery to be reinstated.  Shaikh Saad Al-Buraik openly urged Palestinians to practice concubinage by saying that, ‘(Jewish) women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours. Why don’t you enslave their women?’

I don’t wish to go into the theological underpinnings of sex with slaves; I want to draw attention to some groundbreaking work that has been done particularly by Segal (2001) to explain how slavery and concubinage became synonymous with ‘black people’ which has resulted in slavery still existing in Africa.

Segal explains that Arabs preferred Africans for slavery because according to some of the most renowned scholars African people were created for slavery[i]. Thus by the Middle Ages, the Arabic word abd was exclusively used for a black slave, while mamluk referred to a white slave.

Segal mentions that thousands of Berber women were publicly sold at Cairo in 1077 for revolting. That is where the demand for Black concubines gained sudden popularity. Al Idrisi spoke of the beauty of Nubian concubines in these terms:

Their women are of surpassing beauty. They are circumcised and fragrant-smelling… their lips are thin, their mouths small and their hair flowing. Of all the black women, they are the best for the pleasures of the bed … It is on account of these qualities of theirs that the rulers of Egypt were so desirous of them and outbid to purchase them, afterwards fathering children from them.

Similarly, Segal notes that Burckhardt found that Hijazi men especially from Mecca always preferred Ethiopian women as concubines:

The concubines are always Abyssinian slaves. No wealthy Meccan prefers domestic peace to the gratification of his passions; they all keep mistresses in common with their lawful wives … Arabians are more expensive, and less disposed to yield to the will of the husband … Upon their arrival (foreigners also) buy a female companion, with the design of selling her at their departure.

What can be derived from the two passages quoted above are the following few important points:

  1. African women were preferred as concubines for their physical qualities
  2. Hijazi men preferred their passions over domestic peace
  3. African concubines were not “expensive”
  4. They easily yielded to the will of their owners because they were in bondage

These are the also the main points why domestic servants from Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines are sexually assaulted today by Muslims living in Muslim countries. These women are attractive but powerless in a foreign country, they are poor and dependent on their host families and in most cases are in no situation to deny the sexual advances of their sponsors. If they stand up for their rights and do collect the courage to complain against the sexual assault, they run the risk of being punished for fornication under Sharia law.

However, men find nothing wrong in approaching these women because they believe they have ownership of these women since they sponsor them. More importantly, they have never been taught that a woman’s consent is necessary for sex to take place since in their culture the right to consent lies only with a free woman who is a legal wife.

Wafa has a horrific story to share on her blog today. There is the case of a man willing to swap his old and beaten car with a healthy Indian or Sri Lanka housemaid! There are also photos of brutally abused maids by their female owners! (Something to ponder on is the possibility that perhaps the female abusers of these maids are jilted wives who are jealous of these younger and more attractive foreign women – after all, their husbands are known to prefer their passions over domestic peace!). This happens in countries where slavery is still silently practiced for which Butt bravely accuses Muslims in carrying out gender apartheid. Exactly a year ago CNN published this graphic tale of an Indonesian maid treated as a sex slave for more than a year. The Women’s Rights website carries more stories. Across the border in Sudan, slavery is still firmly in place. (Also this, and this).

It is obvious in today’s moral structure to treat sex with non-consenting women as immoral, indecent and plainly – rape. Today even if slavery exists, sex with a slave is considered rape. A woman is now seen as an adult human being; an equal to the male human. A woman, even if socially inferior, deserves full right over her own sexuality and hence her consent is necessary.

Perhaps many Muslim feminists are scared to talk about concubinage in Islam because it would seem that their loyalties don’t lie with Islam (there is Kecia Ali’s book but that’s almost it). There is invariably the need for justification with words similar to “to talk only about the Middle East is an obvious attempt to demonize Muslims and Islam. Yes, the situation of female maids in the Middle East is often atrocious; but so is the situation of female maids in Asia, and for that matter, of Filipino workers enslaved in U.S country clubs.”

However, Muslim feminists, I feel, must talk about these problems because first, misery can’t and shouldn’t be compared; second, if we don’t talk about the atrocities committed by Muslims, then we offer the chance to others to discuss it on their terms; third, no matter how far removed we are from the original Islamic idea of slavery and concubinage, the fact is that today it is a Muslim problem if it happens in a Muslim country and so it is our problem; and finally any woman who is abused by a Muslim becomes the problem of a Muslim feminist.

My questions to you are:

  1. Why do you think many Muslim feminists ignore to discuss the suffering of women sold into slavery?
  2. What concrete steps do you think Muslim feminists must take to end this suffering?
  3. How do you feel about all this as a Muslim and a feminist?


Further reading

Concubinage. Wikipedia.

Segal, R. (2001). Islam’s Black Slaves. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Sikainga, Ahmad A. (1996). Slaves Into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan. University of Texas Press.

Thousands of Nigerian women ‘found in Mali slave camps’, BBC report.


[i] Based  on Ibn Sina’s work on relationship between climate and human temperament Said Al-Andalusi, a judge at Toledo said that Africans were best suited to slavery because, “living under the long presence of the sun at the zenith causes their temperaments to become hot and their humors fiery, their color black and their hair woolly. They lack self-control and steadiness of mind and are overcome by flickleness, foolishness and ignorance.”

Ibn Khaldun wrote that, “the Negro natioans are,a s a rule, submissive to slavery because they have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”

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