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.