Khaled Abou Fadl on Abu Hurayrah

I was reading Speaking in God’s Name having left it unread for a few years and was very happy to note again that Abou El Fadl has written on all the *difficult* hadith which have bothered many Muslim women. The two ahadith (women outnumbering men in Hell; and angels cursing women who don’t want sex), along with a few others, are discussed at length in the book.

Abou El Fadl writes, “It is not exaggeration to say that according to these traditions, the wife lives as the husband’s humble servant; she is to submit sexually on the back of a camel and lick his puss-filled ulcers if need be. A similar message is affirmed by another tradition also reported by Abu Hurayrah asserting that the Prophet said: “If a man calls his woman to bed, and she refuses to come, the angels will continue to curse her till morning.” (pg. 212)

He continues, “There is no question that these traditions, and others discussed below, have grave theological, moral, and social consequences… they also contribute to the general denigration of the moral status of women. After all, even the angels in the heavens are moved to the point of cursing women if they do not surrender their will and body to their husbands. Regardless of the jargon generated by apologists about how Islam liberated and honored women, these traditions subjugate a woman’s honor to the will of men.” (Ibid) [Emphasis mine].

Abou El Fadl donates three pages to Abu Hurayrah, the original transmitter of the traditions which according to Abou El Fadl “denigrate the moral status of women.” He gives several reasons why Abu Hurayrah’s transmitted ahadith should be scrutinized by “thinking beings who carry the burden of free will, accountability and God’s trust” …by asking “to what extent did the prophet really play a role in the authorial enterprise that produced this tradition? Can I, consistently with my faith and understanding of God and God’s message, believe that God’s prophet is primarily responsible for this tradition?” (pg 213).

Abu Hurayrah, Abou El Fadl explains, was a late convert to Islam and spent only three years in the Prophet’s company but transmitted the most ahadith. Aishah and Omar Ibn Khattab chided Abu Hurayrah on several occasions for transmitting traditions wrongly. Eventually Omar threatened to exile Abu Hurayrah if he did not stop transmitting Prophet’s traditions which increased tremendously upon Omar’s death. Abou El Fadl presents several stories, evidences, and traditions of Aishah and Omar to explain Abu Hurayrah’s position in early Islamic history.

According to Abou El Fadl the Prophet could have never said that if prostration to another human were allowed he would have asked a woman to prostrate to her husband because “a powerful symbolic association is created between the status of the Prophet and the status of husbands. We observe a similar association between husbands and the symbols of Divinity in the submission tradition. A whole host of angels in the Heaven are aggrieved by the frustration of a man’s libido. This only raises the question: what is it about a man’s sexual urges that make them so fundamental to the pleasure of the Heaven?” (pg 214) [Emphasis mine]

Abou El Fadl feels that such traditions “require a conscientious-pause, and perhaps a faith-based protest. These traditions seem self-evidently immoral and shocking.”  Overall, Abou El Fadl asserts that the Quran and Prophet’s life (sirah) oppose the traditions that demean women because such traditions “contradict the theological notion of the undivided supremacy of God and God’s Will …evidence suggests that [such traditions] cannot be relied upon because we cannot conclusively assert that the Prophet played the primary role in the authorial enterprise that produced them.” (pg 214).

Dangers of claiming that Muslim women are not oppressed

The place is New York. The date is November 10, 2008. Thousands of women, and men, have come to attend the Glamour Women of the Year awards. There are tall women and slim women. There are powerful women and women in Gucci gowns. Amongst the 10 recipients are powerful names like Hillary Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Condoleezza Rice.

And then there is one recipient who wears plain clothes and doesn’t speak English. She is the 10-year old Yemeni, Nojoud Ali. At 10 years of age she has already been beaten and raped by her husband, and divorced.

Nojoud was eight years old when she was married off by her father to a man in his 30s. Now Nojoud’s father claims that the man “was a criminal, a criminal. He did hateful things to her. He didn’t keep his promise to me that he wouldn’t go near her until she was 20”.

Nujood got her divorce, but based on the principles of Islamic Sharia law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200. The human rights lawyer who represented her donated the money. (Source)

We all know Nojoud. A determined little spirit who went against her people’s century old custom of child marriages to older men and boldly told a judge that she wanted divorce from a man who beat her and raped her. In her own words the man “insulted [her]”.

Watching the news item on CNN two years ago the only word that stuck out to me and yelled louder than any word can possibly yell was “ He insulted me”.

I don’t believe in comparing Muslim women with non-Muslim women. I don’t want to talk about rights Islam has or has not given women. Women are abused and oppressed in every society, in every country. And that does not exclude the Muslim world. The problem is that only the voice of the Muslim women who are not oppressed is heard.

A woman lawyer and a humanist judge took notice and helped Nojoud get divorce from her husband but according to her cultural laws she had to pay a literal price to get divorce. Yet we still like to claim that Muslim societies are not oppressing women. Is it not oppression that a man with two wives and 16 children sells his daughter to a man three times her age because he can’t afford so many children? Is it not oppression that the man the child is married to rapes her and beats her? Is it not oppression that the child herself recognizes that she was insulted? Is it not oppression that the woman who gave birth to this battered but self-respecting child does not speak even once on CNN’s report? Is it not oppression that we see this mother only as a slit in a black shroud in one scene?

How can you be “married off” when Islam as the most modern religion gives women the complete right to accept or refuse a proposal? Yet, young girls are “married off” everyday, sometimes when they are not even old enough to know what is happening.

They are oppressed even in the fast-developing Arab countries because while their men can marry anyone they like from any country they like, these women can only marry men from their country. And if they defy the traditions, customs, and state laws and go on to marry a man from another country, they are stripped of all legal rights and of their nationality. They cannot inherit or own any land, business or property in their country. Is it not oppression?

There are many Nojouds who are bearing the heavy weight of their much older husbands. There are Nojouds who are beaten and raped. Despite being given the right by religion, there are Muslim women who are not allowed to marry whom they like. They are not allowed to wear what they want, work or study. There are Muslim women who are insulted everyday. And most don’t even know it because we refuse to acknowledge their oppression.

The danger is when we refuse to accept that Muslim women are oppressed because we fear that we will belittle Islam, although such oppression has nothing to do with Islamic doctrines. Thus, we only help to perpetuate oppression. We empower abusive men and women by claiming that all is perfectly fine in the lives of Muslim women. There would have been no need for Muslim Feminism if Muslim women were enjoying full rights given by Islam and were not subjugated by their society. This is where the job of the Muslim feminist starts. A Muslim feminist does not belittle Islam, s/he only tries to show what Islam promised and society denied.

‘Bol’: a feminist film

A student of mine whose father is a film distributor in the Middle East was able to hold a private screening for her friends (and me!) of the Indian/Pakistani film ‘Bol’ (speech/words/speak) that I mentioned here on Facebook. I am very happy that I was able to watch it and encourage every Muslim who calls themselves feminist to watch it. Bol is a Hindi/Urdu word that is often a noun meaning speech or words, even lyrics but can also be an imperative to mean ‘speak!’

Bol is Pakistani film producer and director Shoaib Mansoor’s brilliant work. Mansoor has very artfully raised almost all the issues that Muslim feminists address regularly. I would call Bol a bold Muslim feminist film. Some of the general and feminist themes that I noticed Mansoor tackle are:

  1. Deep rooted and menacing desire for a male child
  2. Scorn and hatred for the “third gender” (as has now been officially accepted in Pakistan)
  3. Polygamy
  4. Prostitution
  5. Desire for the female child by the segment of society that lives off prostituting women
  6. Honour killing
  7. Forced marriages
  8. Giving young women in marriage to much older men
  9. Sectarianism
  10. Wife beating
  11. Theft and its micro and macro effects
  12. Extortion and bribery
  13. Denial of education to women
  14. Lack of use of contraception
  15. Scorn for rationalism
  16. Rape
  17. Disregard for public by politicians
  18. Belief amongst the under-educated class that gender of the fetus is determined by the mother
  19. Superstitious belief in tarot reading

The desire for a male child is a theme that runs throughout the film and is one that gives rise to other themes. The “patriarch” (I seem to be really milking this term!) of the family, Hakim Sahab, wants a son and this desire causes his wife to become pregnant fourteen times. The eldest daughter, Zainab, is the protagonist of the film who yells towards the end “why is it that only killing someone is a crime while giving birth isn’t?”

Sometimes indirectly and often directly Mansoor tries his best to educate people about issues that plague many societies especially his Pakistani society. There are some points I found powerfully poignant in the film. For example, in one scene Zainab engages in an argument with her father who is abusing her for making her mother undergo tubal litigation after her fourteenth pregnancy that had made her very ill. Hakib Sahab tells his daughter that even though they are deathly poor this should not stop him from having more children and trying for a son because it is Allah who “gives food if He gives mouths” and that the Prophet had once shown his desire to have “the greatest ummah (following) on the Day of Judgment.” At this Zainab retorts that if the first argument was true people wouldn’t be dying from hunger and poverty in many parts of the world and questions why Muslims always understand “greatest” as in population?! Why couldn’t the Prophet have desired a following greatest in wisdom, honesty and prosperity?! Zainab shows her doubt that the Prophet could have wanted a populated ummah that was poor and “as stupid as an ass”! At this Hakim Sahab slaps Zainab for doubting the words and intentions of the Prophet that only he can understand better.

At another point in the film Hakim Sahab is being interrogated by police for murdering his son (who was not a problem for Hakim Sahab to kill since the child was a hermaphrodite and a tarot reading had allowed the father to make this easy decision). The police officer asks Hakim Sahab what prompted him to kill his own son and the latter replies that it was an “honour killing” (the child had been gang raped!). At this the police officer comments very matter-of-factly that “it is only daughters that are killed in the name of honour.”

Hakim Sahab also takes on another wife without the knowledge of his first wife. The second wife is a prostitute and part of his decision to remarry is his desire to have a son since his first wife is “only good at two things: cooking and producing girls.” Nevertheless, he is almost forced into marriage by his new father-in-law, a pimp by profession, who wants a granddaughter that he could prostitute since he has five “useless sons” of his own and he had learned that Hakim Sahab has seven daughters. It is this pimp who educates Hakim Sahab that science (which he says is often disregarded by homeopathic doctors and religious people) has proved that gender of an unborn child is determined by the sperm and not the egg. He is convinced that Hakim Sahab would be able to give him a granddaughter whereas the former doesn’t believe “faulty science” and is hopeful that the new and young wife would give him a son. He has another daughter.

Hakim Sahab who is portrayed as a deeply-religious man is shown having no inhibitions in marrying again without the knowledge of his first wife. He beats her at one point – quite mercilessly, losing his senses in a fit of rage and kicking her in the stomach several times. He kills his child in the name of honour when he is raped and beats Zainab several times in the film for “raising her voice” and “doubting hadith.” His beliefs are often naïve but also very common. He hates his Shite next-door neighbour, doesn’t believe in birth control, doesn’t believe in educating daughters, dislikes modern science, and holds superstitious beliefs. All this makes him a very strict, unhappy and angry man. The only two times he smiles in the film are when he thinks his wife has given birth to a son (who then is revealed by the doula to be a hermaphrodite) and when he is in the private chamber of his prostitute second wife. His innocent son notices his father’s behaviour very early on in his life. When Zainab encourages him to “act like a man” he says, “how hard is it to be a man? All you have to do is yell at your family and be angry.”  Zainab corrects him that not all men are like their father.

That is the bottom line – while there may be many terrible men in this world, not all men are terrible. This world is beautiful because there are beautiful women and beautiful men. Good men like Hakim Sahab’s Shite neighbour and his son are also shown in the film. I think Shoaib Mansoor himself is a remarkable man for not only identifying but also boldly highlighting such disturbing issues.

Bol is a film that will leave you asking yourselves many questions. It is a film that has a hard throbbing feminist vein and since it is based on the life of a common Pakistani and Muslim family it may prove a valuable resource to those who are interested in exploring the lives of Muslim women in developing Muslim countries who don’t have the luxury, means or even the permission to know Islamic Feminism and what the movement is doing for their rights.

A Critique of the Feminist Reinterpretation

Mai Ghoussoub observed in 1987 : “Some of the most outstanding contemporary feminists, daunted by the scale of the tasks before them and the isolation in which they stand, have changed their tone recently” (1987 : 17). Critical feminism seeks refuge in the holy text. This trend can be called neo-feminism. The explicit feminist terminology is still apparent, but the sharp edge of iconoclasm is blunted. This neo-feminism, like earlier Islamic reformism, contends that traditions are layers of societal experiences accumulated under specific circumstances obscuring the true meaning and spirit of Islam. The argument is based on an ideological assumption that there are two different Islams : the good Islam, as reflected in the lay Muslim’s understanding of ethical and egalitarian messages of the Quran, and the bad Islam of shari‘a as interpreted by the ulema. That ideological assumption is itself a result of refurbishing a pre-modern paradigm with the trappings of modernity. Thus, the neo-feminist discourse converges with the Islamic reformists’ attempt to construct a new Islam outside its historical framework and free from its traditional confines of shari‘a. This insertion of feminist consciousness into the mind-set of a revealed religion has further embellished and mystified the past. The most potentially iconoclastic discourse, secular feminism, is harnessed to the worn-down wheels of Islamic reformism.

– Egalitarian Islam and Misogynist Islamic Tradition : A Critique of the Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic History and Heritage by Reza Afshari

I came across this article just now. Thoughts? This could generate some excellent discussion, don’t you think?!

If Men Could Menstruate

by Gloria Steinem 

Living in India made me understand that a white minority of the world has spent centuries conning us into thinking a white skin makes people superior, even though the only thing it really does is make them more subject to ultraviolet rays and wrinkles.

Reading Freud made me just as skeptical about penis envy. The power of giving birth makes “womb envy” more logical, and an organ as external and unprotected as the penis makes men very vulnerable indeed.

But listening recently to a woman describe the unexpected arrival of her menstrual period (a red stain had spread on her dress as she argued heatedly on the public stage) still made me cringe with embarrassment. That is, until she explained that, when finally informed in whispers of the obvious event, she said to the all-male audience, “and you should be proud to have a menstruating woman on your stage. It’s probably the first real thing that’s happened to this group in years.”

Laughter. Relief. She had turned a negative into a positive. Somehow her story merged with India and Freud to make me finally understand the power of positive thinking. Whatever a “superior” group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever and “inferior” group has will be used to justify its plight. Black men were given poorly paid jobs because they were said to be “stronger” than white men, while all women were relegated to poorly paid jobs because they were said to be “weaker.” As the little boy said when asked if he wanted to be a lawyer like his mother, “Oh no, that’s women’s work.”

Logic has nothing to do with oppression.

So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?

Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.

To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.

Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- “For Those Light Bachelor Days.”

Statistical surveys would show that men did better in sports and won more Olympic medals during their periods.

Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priests, ministers, God Himself (“He gave this blood for our sins”), or rabbis (“Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean”).  Male liberals and radicals, however, would insist that women are equal, just different; and that any woman could join their ranks if only she were willing to recognize the primacy of menstrual rights (“Everything else is a single issue”) or self-inflict a major wound every month (“You must give blood for the revolution”).

Street guys would invent slang (“He’s a three-pad man”) and “give fives” on the corner with some exchange like, “Man you lookin’ good!

“Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!”

TV shows would treat the subject openly. (Happy Days: Richie and Potsie try to convince Fonzie that he is still “The Fonz,” though he has missed two periods in a row. Hill Street Blues: The whole precinct hits the same cycle.) So would newspapers. (Summer Shark Scare Threatens Menstruating Men. Judge Cites Monthlies In Pardoning Rapist.) And so would movies. (Newman and
Redford in Blood Brothers!)


Men would convince women that sex was more pleasurable at “that time of the month.” Lesbians would be said to fear blood and therefore life itself, though all they needed was a good menstruating man.

Medical schools would limit women’s entry (“they might faint at the sight of blood”).

Of course, intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. Without the biological gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets, how could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics– or the ability to measure anything at all? In philosophy and religion, how could women compensate for being disconnected from the rhythm of the universe? Or for their lack of symbolic death and resurrection every month?

Menopause would be celebrated as a positive event, the symbol that men had accumulated enough years of cyclical wisdom to need no more. Liberal males in every field would try to be kind. The fact that “these people” have no gift for measuring life, the liberals would explain, should be punishment enough.

And how would women be trained to react? One can imagine right-wing women agreeing to all these arguments with a staunch and smiling masochism. (“The ERA would force housewives to wound themselves every month”: Phyllis Schlafly)

In short, we would discover, as we should already, that logic is in the eye of the logician. (For instance, here’s an idea for theorists and logicians: if women are supposed to be less rational and more emotional at the beginning of our menstrual cycle when the female hormone is at its lowest level, then why isn’t it logical to say that, in those few days, women behave the most like the way men behave all month long? I leave further improvisation up to you.)

The truth is that, if men could menstruate, the power justifications would go on and on.

If we let them.

Online Interviews

Dear friends,

I am looking for blogging Muslim Feminists to interview (via email) for my research and also for Muslim and non-Muslim readers of blogs by Muslim Feminists. I’d be very grateful for your help. Please email me at phdmetis at gmail dot com if you’d like to help me.

Many thanks in advance!

Warming up to the veil

I was away, as some of you may know. I got the opportunity to visit my university again and spend some time there. I discussed whatever I have learned up till now about blogging Muslim Feminists with my research supervisor and she was happy to read what you all have been writing/discussing. Lots of interesting stuff there!

I also got the chance to reconsider my stance on the face veil while sitting one warm and sunny morning in London’s Hyde Park. On a turf lay a woman sunbathing in nothing more than a towel wrapped around her trunk. My littlest pointed towards her and said “she is barefoot!” It amazed me that he didn’t notice that she was mostly bare! Sometime later an Arabic-and-tourist-looking couple passed by us and sat nearby. The woman was covered from head to toe and wore red shades. My son went near them to fetch his football and took no notice of the woman’s clothing.

I began to think how equally natural a scantily dressed woman is to my child from a woman in a complete veil. Yet how many times I have not been open-minded about the niqaab although I’m uncomfortable with nudity and it is because of this discomfort that I moved to the Middle East hoping that I’d see less flesh! I prefer to wear modest clothing but somehow I began equating face veil with extreme conservatism and felt uncomfortable that it had become a symbol of religiosity.

I discussed niqaab with my research supervisor (whom I consider more conservatively Muslim than myself) and she holds similar opinion about the niqaab to mine. But I’m not sure anymore how I feel about the niqaab. It is an identity for a number of women whether that identity is newly formed or is very old. It makes some women who they are and more importantly what they want to be. To some it offers hope of reward, to others it is devotion to God, and to some it is a means of identification strangely from a lack of clear facial recognition.

I am not blind to the fact that many women are forced to cover their faces either overtly or by being shown examples. There are also women who silently imbibe it from the throbbing placenta of the religious understanding of older womenfolk in the community and household. But should we judge all niqaab-wearers equally?

What do you think? Do you think niqaab should be accepted as a symbol of religion or a symbol of culture? How do you differentiate Islam from Muslim culture? Do you think Muslim women should “do as the Romans when in Rome”?

Thank you and hope you all have had a blessed Ramadan and a joyful Eid!