The sexualisation of piety

A friend shared this video couple of days ago and I’ve been contemplating since then if I should share it here. I’m sharing because being already out there and the words spoken and recorded, this requires counter-narrative.

I had read all of this before in hadith and seerah and tafsir. I’m aware that this narrative exists in texts, but when I was reading it, at a subconscious level, I thought that nobody really believed it like I didn’t believe it. Hearing it, and listening to it being taught had a completely different impact on me.

It is quite clear that the ‘imam’ fully believes what he’s teaching. The link he creates between different ahadith and tafseer excerpts as well as the Quranic verses is well thought out – men shall outnumber women in heaven (from the hadith that women will outnumber men in hell) because women display their awra (from the hadith banning perfume and Quran banning display of ‘adornments). He goes on to explain the physical attributes of the hoors (from Tirmizi, volume 2, pg 35-40; Bukhari vol.4, book 55, number 544; Quran: 55:72-74; 78:33; 56:37-40; Al-Bukhari volume 4, book 52, number 53; Al-Bukhari vol.4, book 54, number 476). Men’s sexual capacity in heaven is also expounded (from Ibn Majah, volume 5, number 4337) and how they will be busy “breaking hymens” (from Ibn Katheer, 3/564). Again and again the imam tells his congregation that there’s no sin in talking about sex and about the breasts and hymens of these heavenly females because it is right here in Quran and hadith; it is all for Muslim men. While human females must hide themselves, there is no sin in fantasizing about the hoor. There is great emphasis on female virginity – so much that the imam tells the men that each time they have sex with the hoor and return from another one, the first would be a virgin again! At the same time, there is no requirement from men to be virgins as if the concept of male virginity does not even exist (or at least occur to the imam).

This seriously affects how women are treated in the physical world. It is linked to misogyny and is a great reason we need Muslim feminism so that this type of thought and narrative can be challenged. This is being taught to young men in mosques, inside places of worship we hold scared, where actually women are delegated the back spaces. Young men are taught that while they are flawless, human females are tainted, sinful and literally hellbound. In case some women do make it into heaven, there is no description of what they should await. The focus of heaven’s bounty – the food and wine, and sexual pleasure, is the Muslim heterosexual man. Obviously then, the flawless men should teach and control the sinful women.

A friend suggested that one way we can counter this narrative is to encourage our husbands, brothers and sons to report if something like this is taught in mosques. While this can be done in Western mosques, I wonder if someone can actually do much if this is taught in a Muslim-majority country where dissent is met with death. Please, please offer suggestions on how this kind of teaching can be stopped. We all know this isn’t a single instance; we’ll seen and read this before.

Support versus Independence

Scenario 1: March 2003

A young Muslim man, Ahmad, goes on a business trip to Africa, returns home to the US with hemorrhagic fever and dies from complications within a week. He had an MBA in marketing. His wife, Ayesha, hadn’t even finished high school. Her father had died when she was eight years old. Ayesha was looked after by an uncle when her uneducated mother was married off again by her brothers. The uncle had five children of his own so he married Ayesha to Ahmed when she was only 18 years old as Ahmed didn’t demand dowry. They had two children. He was a caring husband and a doting father. But after his death, his parents kept his children under their care and sent Ayesha back to India. She was a burden. Last I heard she was married off by her tired uncle to a man in his late sixties.

Scenario 2: June 2014

A Pakistani couple, Faheem and Fatima, had been married for 13 years. They lived in Dubai with their five children. Faheem had found a reasonably good job in Dubai after job hunting for 15 years. They were taking their newborn home from hospital when Faheem turned to look at his wife, collapsed at the steering wheel and died. He is remembered as the ‘most involved father, and an extremely caring husband.’ Fatima is shattered and finds herself absolutely helpless. She has a high school diploma but has never worked – she didn’t have to; she was Faheem’s queen. She had never gone outside the house without Faheem. Her male family members and Faheem’s arrive in Dubai quickly and take over the ‘important affairs.’ She is told that they will ensure her children get the best possible education back home. She would have to move in with some family member, but they will invest her husband’s savings in a way that she gets some cash every month. Fatima’s mother cries every day that her youngest grandson would never know his father. Faheem’s mother mourns the loss of a great son and that his daughters would get married without their father. Fatima’s worries are different. She’s worried about how she would now survive. She doesn’t even know Faheem’s bank account number.

These are two cases I know; you may know some too. These are not isolated cases. Millions of women, Muslim and non-Muslim, are never raised to become independent. The situation of Muslim women concerns me more because we are always highlighting the “status of women in Islam” and how women are “empowered” while we ignore how women are cripplingly dependent on men in Muslim cultures who assume the role of sole maintainers and providers.

Someone recently posted on the Muslim Feminists Facebook Page that “…all women deserve a good man who will support, protect, nurture … her” and later “real muslim men nurture and support his (sic) wives when she (sic) is weak and use (sic) his strength to protect the women and empower her (sic) to be a greater queen, In Sha Allah.” Few words can be more damaging than this. Women, we are told, are “precious pearls” and “queens” that have to be “nurtured.” We are weak and so men must use their strength, wealth and wisdom to protect us.

The problem is we are not. We are not Disney princesses who have the luxury of lounging on silky cushions and sipping virgin pina colada. Majority of Muslim women are very real and very *human.* We have children, we toil in garment factories and paddy fields, we serve our families, we work protecting, supporting and nurturing, we go through hours of labour (it’s not called ‘labour’ for nothing!). True that women, like men, need support and protection, but the most long-lasting support and protection anyone can offer to a woman is independence. Parents need to understand that marrying off young and immature girls will only trap them further into life-long dependence on their much older husbands who are more like father-figures and will naturally pass on before them. Husbands should realise that by keeping their wives emotionally, socially, financially and physically dependent on them makes women vulnerable to life-long misery when the husband is gone either through divorce or death.

I’m slightly disappointed that feminists within Islam spend a great deal of time and effort ‘proving’ how the Quran made “many changes to the status of women” while little is done to understand the real reason why women are not in conditions we want them to be in Muslim cultures.  Muslim women are not suffering because a thousand years ago patriarchal men interpreted the Quran to give more power to men by giving fewer rights to women. We are suffering because all the laws that are derived from the Quran support women making them dependent “queens” rather than empowering them to become independent regular human beings.

Look at all the Sharia laws regarding women: 1) requiring two women witnesses; 2) unequal inheritance laws; 3) enforced hijab; 4) travel only with a Mahram; 5) inequality in divorce laws; 6) payment of Mahr; 7) lack of requiring consent for sex; 8) polygamy; 9) spousal discipline; 10) custody of children after divorce/death of the man – all of these laws support rather than empower a woman.  Feminists who want equality claim that these laws are there to support women, and that’s exactly what they do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these laws if a woman wants to be treated like a precious pearl, but these laws are not going to make her independent or empowered which is the first step towards equality. I also have trouble accepting the argument that these laws were alright for the 7th Century but not now and were “meant to become obsolete” because this way we are claiming that it was alright to make women dependent and vulnerable to abuse in the 7th Century but not today. This brings me to the question – were women really downtrodden and stripped of all rights before we created Sharia law to elevate their status?

There are over a billion Muslims today who follow a religion that was initially based solely on the belief in the witness of one woman who said “I testify that you are the awaited Prophet in this nation.” She didn’t require another woman to remind her that she wasn’t erring. Muslims have a popular saying that goes something like, “Islam did not rise except through Ali’s sword and Khadijah’s wealth” fully realizing the role she played in investing her wealth to benefit her husband’s mission. She inherited great wealth from her father, and two dead husbands then proposed to a young man much younger than her who was running her business. She kept all her children from her previous marriages making her oldest son a great supporter of the Prophet Muhammad – his step-father. Her third husband, the Prophet, moved in with her as he had “no means to marry.” There was no option of polygamy in the marriage as she was an independent and strong woman who was actually the maintainer, support and nurturer in the marriage. In her honour, the Prophet said, “She believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when others called me a liar; she sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me; and Allah granted me children by her while depriving me of children by other women.” Now imagine if Khadeejah had been made to live under Sharia law that are imposed on many Muslim women – What course would Islam have taken without the support, testimony and belief, wealth, intellect, wisdom, and independence that she was able to offer without Sharia Law?

How do we expect Muslim women to be empowered like Khadeejah when we clip their wings through laws that are arbitrarily imposed upon them in Muslim cultures like polygamy and ban on driving in KSA, child marriages and polygamy in Yemen, enforced temporary marriage and hijab in Iran and KSA, unfair Khula laws in Egypt, hudood law in Pakistan, stripping of citizenship rights if a woman marries a foreigner in the GCC countries etc? How can we gain inspiration from the “fierce independence” of Khadeejah while we are taught that the ten laws I highlighted above are for our support and protection and that we are sinning if we object?

Women like the ones whose examples I offered in the two scenarios in the beginning will survive with support from their families. But is mere survival our goal? If men really want to offer lifelong support and protection to their women they have to accept that it is through financial, social and intellectual independence that is achieved through education and trust in the equal human capabilities of women.

Thinking about the words “equal” rights

Muslims believe that Allah has given humans the rights that suit their gender which are seen as equal but different by some, and unequal but equitable by others.

History of pre-Islamic world shows that women enjoyed rights based on their social status and where they lived. Societies like the Egyptian and Persian gave women far greater rights than let’s say the Athenian and Indian societies. Even in India, women in the Southern region had more rights than those in the North. Upper caste Hindu women were treated better than women from the lower castes. In Greece, Spartan women were more independent than the Athenian women. Islam established a standard in Arabia. Whereas women in other communities differed in their rights according to their gender and social status, all Muslim women from all parts of Arabia had equal rights within Islam (obviously the Mothers of the Believers were different). This means that some of their previous rights were curtailed in some cases and new rights were given to them that some may never have enjoyed before.

I first thought about this standardisation of rights so that all women form a uniform ummah when I read Idolator Islam by Ali Eteraz some six years ago. In that essay, Eteraz writes this about the Prophet:

Where he was solitary, an exile from the Qureish, he made an Ummah, a brotherhood greater than all tribes. Where he longed for a family, he indulged in a family-making of the grandest proportion. To bring in by way of marriage — since the ways of blood-relations were absent — everything from mothers, to sisters, to cousins, to nieces, and, of course, lovers. All of them were to him different elements of a greater family, though he called them “wife.” Islam, it turns out, is simply that, which, as with Jesus, gave a social exile a place to belong. Is it, then, any wonder that Christianity and Islam have been the world’s great missionary faiths? Judaism and Buddhism have always been far more strict with who is let in, and it makes sense, as they were handed down by princes, men who had great followings.

Giving all women equal rights within the ummah could have been accidental or it may have been purposeful. But within Islam, all women are equal whether they are queens or beggars and it had amazing consequences for at least the pagan women who belonged to patriarchal tribes and came from oppressive backgrounds.

Some rights women are promised in Islam are incomparable. For instance (without going into details and references), in Islam it is the husband’s duty to foot the wedding bill. It is his duty to look after all the financial needs of the wife. She doesn’t have to work if she doesn’t want to; and in sharia she doesn’t have to cook if she doesn’t like it. Fiqh allows women the right to demand domestic help. In early Islam many households had slaves and women of a household only worked out of “kindness.” There are many references to the Prophet cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, sewing, and even mending his shoes despite having at least nine wives at a time and several slaves. In Islam if a woman works she has the right not to spend any of it on her family. This is the consensus of scholars although early Muslim women like Khadeejah spent their money on their families. Men are also entirely responsible for their children’s financial needs. A woman is not obliged to work to support the children although one can argue that it was easier in early societies when life was simple. In Islam a child must be breast-fed but a mother is not forced to breast-feed her child and she can demand the services of a wet-nurse for her child.

In Islamic fiqh a woman doesn’t have to live with her in-laws if she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t have to look after them either. If she lives with them or cares for them, it is again out of kindness. This is an interesting ‘right’ because Muslim societies are essentially collectivistic but it is also not from Sunnah since none of the Prophet’s wives had any in-laws to worry about. Islam gives women the right to stipulate in their marriage contract that they have the right to initiate divorce; demand custody of the children in case of divorce; and demand divorce in case of husband’s polygamy. The marriage contract is a ‘take it or leave it’ document. If a man is not comfortable with the stipulations a woman puts in her marriage contract he can back out very early on and save everyone the headache of a male-dominated marriage.

(Interestingly studies conducted on Muslim countries with the highest rate of divorce show that divorce in their communities is related to women realising and demanding their rights: initiating divorce because of polygamy; asking for enormous dowry; refusing housework and consequently demanding domestic help; wanting to work full-time; and delaying or refusing pregnancy. The last two points are not Islamic rights.)

Historically, Muslim women in the past held important leadership positions unlike we are told today that women can’t become leaders. Some prominent Muslim consorts and leaders are Khayzuran of Baghdad, a slave turned caliph-consort who made important political decisions for her husband; Empress Shulü Hatun of Qidan, who ruled Qidan until her son was elected as a successor; and Asma Bint Shibab al-Sulayhiyya of Yemen whose husband Sultan Ali al-Sulahi delegated much of the administration of the kingdom to her; Radiyya Altamish; Kassi of Mali; Oghul Qamish; and Dudu of Janupur. Almost all of these Muslim consorts and leaders are famous for sermonising at the Friday Khutbas, waging wars, setting up health and education programmes, improving state economy, and proved to be capable leaders. The Islam of their time allowed them all these honours.

Today scores of Muslim women pray behind a male imam in another room or from behind a curtain from where they cannot view the imam, but there is also the possibility that men do the same and pray behind a woman from behind a barrier so that the veiled woman’s figure does not “naturally arouse the instincts in men so as to divert their attention and concentration, and disturb the required spiritual atmosphere”! It shouldn’t be inconceivable.

I think that before Muslim women ask for equal rights; they need empowerment through education and understanding of their Islamic rights. Many contemporary Muslim societies that are largely patriarchal do not empower their women with knowledge. How can women be expected to gain equal rights when they don’t have the power to raise their voice? I once wrote on the history of status of women in Islam and I would like to end with the same quote I used in that article:

“…in order to survive and thrive, the Quran had to be addressed to, understood and accepted by the Arabs of the 6th century. This concept is crucial to understanding the status of women in Islam and the extent of their rights as well as their obligations. The rights of women established in the Quran, although progressive in their essence and content, were limited in their scope and implementation in order to suit the human society which received the divine message at the time. As we approach the end of the 20th century and taking into account the enormous socio-economic changes that have taken place since the time of the Prophet, women’s rights must be extended to the best of what they can mean in our modern time. Based on the Quranic teachings of what is fair (al adl) and what is generous and perfect (al-ihsan), we must go beyond the literal or interpretative limitations and examine the Quran’s underlying principles which promote the equality of men and women- morally, spiritually, intellectually, socially and politically. It is this general principle that should serve as our guiding light in defining women’s rights.”

Do you have any thoughts on this subject that you’d like to share?

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.

Construction of the homosexual ‘other’

I just finished reading an article titled ‘The construction of the homosexual ‘other’ by British Muslim heterosexuals’ by Asifa Siraj which appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Islam on 31 January 2009.

In Siraj’s own words, the article, “explores Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality and homosexuals … and examines the connection between participants’ attitudes towards homosexuality and their understanding of gender and gender roles… Data suggest that participants held negative attitudes towards homosexuals and this is the result of being religiously conservative in their attitudes towards homosexuality and gender roles.”

Siraj believes that Islam, in its original and pure form, does not explicitly condemn homosexuality in the Quran, but Hadith is another matter. An excerpt of most importance from the article is as follows (p.46):

Jamal (2001) in her analysis examined the moral terminology used in the 14 verses concerning homosexuality, and found that same sex-activities in the Qur’an are not considered as different from certain other illicit opposite-sex and non-sexual practices. What is equally important to the debate is that the Hadith which attributes the story of Lut exclusively to same-sex sexuality has shaped the interpretation of the Qur’an. Jamal (2001) further contends that although the sins committed by the people are frequent, the Qur’an does not declare that the people were destroyed for this particular sin. She concludes that the Qur’an does not provide a definitive position on the issue of homosexuality. Omid Safi, an American Muslim scholar, similarly comments that the issue of same-sex relations in the Qur’an is unclear and talk of homosexuality as an abomination is ambiguous because ‘what an abomination is remains open to interpretation’. Moreover, nowhere in the Qur’an does it state explicitly or implicitly that death is the appropriate punishment for being homosexual. Indeed, in order to implement punishment, guilt must first be established, and the Shari’ah requires incontestable evidence such as a confession or four reliable eyewitnesses verifying that they saw penetration (sodomy) take place (cf. Sofer 1992; Schild 1992). According to Vanita and Kidwai (2001) ‘the difficulty of finding eyewitnesses to confirm instances of penetration in effect removes private acts between consenting individuals from the realm of punishment’ (Vanita and Kidwai 2001: 111). Homosexuality is condemned when it is publicised and therefore transgresses Islamic morals (Schild 1992).

Despite all these arguments, Siraj’s study concludes that homosexuality is not, and perhaps will not be, accepted by Islam and Muslims.

As a feminist I feel this study is very important but I am personally not surprised at the results at all. I feel that contemporary Muslims must be educated about homosexuality and homosexuals. Homosexuality is as old as heterosexuality and it is not an “abomination” for which a man or a woman who is homosexual should be killed. This is why such studies are important to me as a feminist because I understand that Muslim women are more easily and more swiftly punished than Muslim men although comparatively it is easier for a Muslim man to have homosexual partners than a Muslim woman living in Muslim countries.

However, I don’t understand what progressive Muslims, Muslim feminists and educated, broad-minded scholars like Siraj want? Do we foresee a future where Muslim men and women and imams and scholars will embrace homosexuality as just as *normal* as heterosexuality (which is what Siraj believes Islam has created) and will welcome homosexuals into mainstream Muslim circles? If that is what we foresee, then I predict disappointment. While I personally don’t find homosexuals as ‘abominable’, I think it will take Muslims another four or five centuries to begin accepting homosexuals as equal human beings worthy of love, tolerance and respect.

What are your thoughts?

Muslim women and non-Muslim men

I read this a long time ago on Khaled Abou Fadl’s website:

Surprising to me, all schools of thought prohibited a Muslim woman from marrying a man who is a kitabi (among the people of the book). I am not aware of a single dissenting opinion on this, which is rather unusual for Islamic jurisprudence because Muslim jurists often disagreed on many issues, but this is not one of them…

…This is the law as it exists or the legal legacy as we inherited it. In all honesty, personally, I am not convinced that the evidence prohibiting Muslim women from marrying a kitabi is very strong. Muslim jurists took a very strong position on this matter–many of them going as far as saying if a Muslim woman marries a kitabi she is as good as an apostate. I think, and God knows best, that this position is not reasonable and the evidence supporting it is not very strong. However, I must confess that in my humble opinion, I strongly sympathize with the jurists that argued that in non-Muslim countries it is reprehensible (makruh) for a Muslim to marry a non-Muslim. God knows best–I have reached this position after observing that the children of these Muslim/non-Muslim marriages in most cases do not grow up with a strong sense of their Islamic identity. It seems to me that in countries like the U.S. it is best for the children if they grow up with a Muslim father and mother. I am not comfortable telling a Muslim woman marrying a kitabi that she is committing a grave sin and that she must terminate her marriage immediately. I do tell such a woman that she should know that by being married to a kitabi that she is acting against the weight of the consensus; I tell her what the evidence is; and then I tell her my own ijtihad on the matter (that it is makruh for both men and women in non-Muslim countries). After telling her all of this, I add that she must always remember that only God knows best; that she should reflect on the matter as hard as she can; then she should pray and plead for guidance from God; and then ultimately she must do what her conscience dictates.

This is quite liberating and empowering for a Muslim woman to read. We don’t see many scholars telling a Muslim woman that “she must do what her conscience dictates” even if what her conscience dictates goes “against the weight of the consensus.”

Of course, this leads to the questions: 1) How important is the the “weight of the consensus” when it is clearly almost always patriarchial? 2) How *fair* is the concensus? and more importantly, 3) Doesn’t Muslim Feminism appear to be an antithesis of  the “concensus”?

Do you know any feminist work done to the topic of Muslim women marrying Christian/Jewish men? Can you help me with some resources on ‘fatwas’ like Abou Fadl’s? What do you personally think about the topic?

Praying behind women

Until the 15th Century the Friday khutbahs were preached in the name of the queens and women heads of states in Yemen and Iraq. That is an extreme honour because these women literally dictated the sermons so, in effect a woman did ‘deliver’ the khutbah. I have been told that there are also a couple of ahadith that suggest that women led prayers in the Prophet’s time and he acknowledged that.

However, traditionally the Friday prayer has become men’s hanging out time in a ‘religious manner.’ It is a time to create brotherhood bonds, discuss religion and politics, and generally ‘chill out’ Islamically. That is why, I believe, Friday prayers should be a soothing experience and the sermons should stimulate the intellect.

On the other hand, we must realise that women are increasingly getting involved in politics and work outside the home. They need intelligent conversation too. Where I live I have plenty of relatives living in the same town. However, all my cousins are homemakers who haven’t studied beyond high school or best attended some college courses. I share no interests with them and our conversations become extremely boring after a while because despite my efforts I cease to contribute effectively.

I think women also need congregations where their concerns are raised. I don’t want to discuss anything with men. I don’t want them to pray with me. I don’t want men to pray behind a woman. I don’t care for all that. That is not equality and that is not what interests me. I want to discuss investment opportunities for Muslim women within Islamic means and regulations. And I want to discuss it with a woman who knows about Islamic finance because I know that a man will tell me to sell jam.

We need to hear from another woman and not a man what lies for us in religion. Blogosphere is not our khutbah place. We need to connect with women in the real world. At least I need that. I want to hear what a Muslim woman like me thinks about politics, religion, feminism, marriage, child-bearing and child-raising. I want to know what God says about women. I want to know what lies in Heaven for women. I want to know how God feels about lesbians. I want to discuss the feminine side of God; how He loves us like 70 ‘mothers.’ I want to know what should be done to men who rape their wives. Sorry but the khutbahs don’t tell me all that. I want to do more than swap recipes and talk about fashion with women.

Consequently, I don’t look forward to Friday for spiritual revitalization. I wish I could look forward to it as a day when the entire family can go out and meet like-minded people; where we can spend a good hour or so praying and talking about what is important to both men and women in Islam.

Therefore, I feel that it is important for women to be included in Friday sermons. One way of doing it could be to have separate sections in the mosque where two separate khutbahs could be delivered – for men and for women by men and by women respectively. Having it on any other day after any other prayer will dampen the spirits of the many interested women because Friday prayer is so hyped up in Islam. Mosques should ideally arrange for a child-minding facility while mothers congregate because many women can’t attend Friday prayers as they have to stay home and look after their children. This way women will be able to see and communicate with the khatibah rather than peek through screens to see the khatib.

So here is what I think: feminists should stop trying to tame the shrew. Sermonizing men and women and leading them in prayer is the end product; the process is different. Women like Wadud are jumping at the result without going through the process.

First, we need to convince women that it is important for them in the 21st Century to get involved in religion and politics. Women should reach out to like-minded women and tell them that it is equally important for women to communicate and share ideas. I am very sure that women who have no where else to go if they need answers or if they are in abusive marriages will love the idea of meeting up once a week for Friday prayers and opportunities for discussions.

Would I pray behind Wadud? Yes, I would. I would do it for the novelty of it. And I would because I haven’t prayed behind an imam in many years. I don’t want to pray behind a man who has no interest in me as a human being. In all the khutbahs that I have attended, none ever addressed women issues. When Muslim men believe that woman outnumber men, shouldn’t they discuss issues that plague women? I am certain listening to Wadud speak in the khutbah would have been rejuvenating for me.

If I were in Wadud’s place I would insist on separate prayers and discussion opportunities for women. I have both led women prayers in my school and prayed behind women. It was the single most uniting experience for me. I wouldn’t care about men praying behind women just because I don’t even bother about their religiosity.

What are your thoughts on this? How many of you think equality is achieved through men praying behind women? How important is this issue for you as a feminist?