The psychology of hate and why men hate the ‘other’ women

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes” – Winston Churchill

Abu Eesa made a mistake. And it is my sincere belief that if he has been a real student of Islam, he has learned valuable lessons from it (although it’s hard to say what lessons he has learned as a ‘scholar’).

Islam teaches humility and repentance to Allah if you have hurt another human’s feelings (particularly if that human is another Muslim). Quran categorically lists the errors of some of the prophets all of whom were wise men and competent judges of their people so that humanity can learn from their mistakes and from their habit of repentance. Quran also reprimands the Prophet Muhammad when he (80:3–11): عبس وتولي  – “frowned and turned away.” This entire Quranic chapter is called عبس, meaning ‘frown’ and tells the Prophet that he was indeed wrong in frowning and turning away from a blind man who had approached him for he may have learned valuable lessons from the Prophet and may have grown in purity. The chapter goes on to tell the Prophet that he paid eager attention to the ones who could see/the self-sufficient/the knowledgable  even though he could not guarantee that they would increase in purity, yet ignored the blind man who ran to him with eagerness and fear of God in his heart.

What do we learn from this chapter? We learn that indeed it is the job of the teachers of deen to attend to the needs of everyone who seek their knowledge (including the self-sufficient and the needy) but it is particularly important for them not to frown and turn away from anyone who is a fellow Muslim because they do not know how much eagerness or fear of God they have in their hearts. Moreover, they don’t know who may benefit from their wisdom. To then mock them, and curse them to “wither and wiggle in rage” is certainly not in keeping with the Prophet’s sunnah nor is it in accordance with the teachings of the Quran.

People who support this blatant disregard for the Prophetic tradition and Quranic discipline and adab are at greater fault. In this most remarkable essay, the writer argues that “neural activity is important because it tells us something critical about how people think about one another. Those who are close to us are considered mindful human beings, “like me.” As people become more and more different from us, or more distant from our immediate social networks, they become less and less likely to engage our MPFC (medial prefrontal cortex). When we don’t engage this region, others appear relatively mindless, something less than fully human” – that is the psychology of hate and how we deny human beings their humanity. Abu Eesa and those who support him have distanced themselves from other Muslims who are “not like them” and hence such Muslims, progressives and feminists, are considered “relatively mindless, something less than fully human.” They “don’t understand Abu Eeas’s superior British humour”, they “don’t know him enough”, they are “hateful and want to cause fitnah.”  Abu Eesa’s supporters and recently he himself reposted his Facebook Note from June 2013 in which he calls the ‘sisters’ “awesome.” The keyword is ‘sisters’ who “keep pushing it higher and higher and raising the standards in Deen and ihsan. They are busy running the homes, raising the next generation, doing the da’wah on the streets, educating themselves and others, and just being all round superstars.” And then he lists examples of the superstar sisters. They are not journalists or fashion designers or businesswomen or anthropologists or neuroscientists; they are either students of Islam or ones who sacrifice “a good and free life” to support their husbands. But what about the thousands of Muslim women who don’t want to sacrifice a good and free life for a man, who want to study subjects other than Islam, who don’t cover their heads, who believe that women and men are equal in worth, and who support everyone based on humanity? They are less likely to engage Abu Eesa’s MPFC and hence are the ones who are mocked and cursed. More dangerously, he has consciously or inadvertently taught his students to hate and be arrogant. His students use similar sexist rhetoric to scare Muslim men from supporting women. The mindset is that if Muslim men support women they are emasculated and so for a Muslim man to be manly, he must make fun of women.

Is Abu Eesa really a misogynist who hates women? I don’t think so. I don’t think he hates *all* women. But the words he uses (which are banned in my own home) certainly do show hatred towards women who don’t form part of his approved circle.

I have said before that I don’t believe that traditional Islam, Islam as it was at its inception, and Islam as practiced in orthodoxy today by the likes of Abu Eesa believes in the equality of men and women in society. I don’t think that was ever the purpose of the earliest movement, but (if you read that previous post you will see that) all free Muslim women within Islam have equal rights. This is why it came as a shock to many Muslim women, including me, to see an alleged ‘ustad’/imam/sheikh ridiculing and cursing Muslim women only because they are also feminists.

Abu Eesa is now asking the ummah to “stay united” and not let “secular” people cause fitnah. Muslims have been united even if we showed our disagreement with him. We feel united and part of one ummah which is why we are offended when one of us shows his blatant male chauvinism. And this is one of the reasons I feel it was necessary that Muslims showed their disapproval in large numbers.

I believe that Abu Eesa’s *jokes* were deliberate to warn the women in his ‘circle’ from ever joining the feminist movement – for if they did, he would mock them in a similar fashion. He didn’t make one passing comment, but a series of sexist remarks cloaked in the garb of British humour. He didn’t educate himself enough to learn that IWD is not only supported by feminists but is celebrated even by women who refrain from calling themselves feminists.  But that is beside the point. The point is that since Abu Eesa and other men like him have no role to play in IWD, they feel that it threatens their security as the “all-knowledgeable” custodians of Islam without whom no movement can prosper, and so he feels it is a day that must be mocked, shunned and ridiculed.

No, Yasir Qadi that is not British humour. I’m amazed that British people are not offended by this persistence that Abu Eesa has “dark British humour.” His humour is of its own kind. If Abu Eesa claims to be British in humour then he should also be British in apology and should have apologised unconditionally right away if he realised that he had “frowned and turned away.”

But he didn’t realise it and only made it worse when a woman displayed her anger:


What AE said in response was not a *joke*, he is right. I also don’t believe he was condoning such behaviour. But I think he is not enlightened enough to understand the gravity of his words on public forums. It was worse than his regular *jokes.* It was an arrogant and angry outburst at the woman for which he claims he had to stoop at the intellectual level of his interlocutor (BTW, if you can access it, there’s a scholarly paper on how “challenging chauvinist attitudes often results in anxiety or other symptoms“). Again, Muslims have questioned if Abu Eesa’s response was in keeping with proper adab. While one may be able to pick and point to ahadith in which the Prophet cursed his interlocutors in the same tone as was used (Volume 8, Book 73, Number 57) one quick scan of the page will show that he never cursed fellow Muslims and Islamic history stands witness that he in fact pardoned and blessed those who harmed him in Taif. That is the Prophetic tradition. Abu Eesa on the other hand, apparently caused post-traumatic stress for not just one Muslim sister through his comments, but others too who didn’t realise they were suffering from PTSD. Like Omid Safi says, “Abu Eesa is simply, sadly, pathetically, and unprophetically, not funny.”

Abu Eesa’s students keep pleading that they know him better and that this is his ‘style.’ However, he didn’t contain his ‘style’ to his classroom; he brought it out because the women he hates are the ones outside his classroom. And the women he mocked, who are angered, are Muslim. Non-Muslim women don’t know Abu Eesa and don’t care about what he says because in their minds he’s just another Muslim man acting like just another stereotypical Muslim man mocking Muslim women, women from his ummah, women who look like him and behave like him. Only Abu Eesa doesn’t realise this. And then we complain why our men are stereotyped! This is also why Muslim women are angry with him. They feel betrayed by one of their own. They feel he’s belittling their cause – a cause that wants recognition of Muslim women as fully equal in worth as human beings, a cause asking men to be tolerant and respectful, a cause expecting men to be their allies, a cause they think Abu Eesa should be supporting as a self-professed follower of Quran and Sunnah.

Muslim women have always asked for their rights from the beginning of Islam. Islamic/Muslim Feminism as it is called today, is not bidah (an innovation). The very reason that men like Abu Eesa exist and think like he does is enough for feminism to exist in Islam of today. Abu Eesa makes IWD essential.

However, I noticed that Abu Eesa is making an effort to show women that he’s not a monster (and he isn’t!) – by re-posting an old Note in which he praises Muslim sisters, he shows that he respects at least the women in his circle.

The teacher just needs to learn to extend that circle.

List of reactions

Safiyyah Surtee’s status update –

Abu Eesa’s anxious outburst –

The Shaykh and the F Word –

How Al Maghrib Blew It –

Muslim male allies –

Wa’Mutasima! –

An Open Letter to Abu Eesa Niamatullah –

On Islam and Feminism –

Imam  Suhaib Webb –

Guest Post – Speak Good or Remain Silent: A Response to the Recent Remarks of a Muslim Teacher –

Muslims for White Ribbon –

Damsels in distress, the chivalrous caliph, and the misogynistic scholar: a modern fairy tale –

Al Maghrib’s comment –

Yasir Qadi’s thoughts on Abu Eesa –

What Abu Eesa’s comments did to my family this week –

We deserve better than sexist and racist “teachers”: Honoring real leaders, and a rejoinder to Abu Eesa –

Oh, Abu Eesa: an apology letter on your behalf –

Feminism, male privilege, and Abu Eesa –

The onus of chastity and the veil

I have been going back to verses 30 and 31 of Surah An-Nur. It was Farid Esack who first made me think about these verses. He writes,

“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.”

When I read just the two verses again together (like shown on this website) it is even visually apparent that verse 31 has several “further specific injunctions.” This is not problematic in itself if we believe in the argument that women “are created differently.” Esack explains that such verses are time-bound by quoting Cragg, “the eternal cannot enter time without a time when it enters. Revelation to history cannot occur outside it. A Prophet cannot arise except in a generation and a native land, directives from heaven cannot impinge upon an earthly vacuum” (Cragg 1971, 112), thus essentially arguing that many of the verses that seem unjust towards women are for the 7th Century Arabs.

Several other scholars have argued similarly. What they fail to comment on is the obvious question, “does that mean that gender injustice was alright for the 7th Century Arab woman but not today?” This becomes even more confusing because we have examples of some very bold, brave and strong women from the Pre-Islamic period, for example Hind and even the Prophet’s first wife Khadeejah whose independence before Islam is well documented. These women would certainly not have accepted injustice in any form.

Mecca was conquered in 630 AD and with no further hope of regaining it, defeated Meccans accepted the Prophet’s leadership and took the pledge of alliance. When it was Hind’s turn to take the oath the Prophet asked her to swear: “You shall not commit adultery.” Hind is famously known to have retorted,

“Does a free woman commit adultery?”

This one sentence tells us a lot about the ancient Arabian beliefs and principles.

The ‘muminaat’ (believing women) were essentially the free women. It is now a well-known fact that enslaved women were not allowed to veil like the free women (see Abou El Fadl) indicating that “class factors as well as general community norms were vital in setting standards for female dress.” There is also evidence in Islamic history that “Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women” (Source; also listen to Hamza Yusuf on this).

I am not going to talk about whether or not hijab is mandatory. It is my personal belief that it is mandatory, but that it was one of the social laws in the Quran that change with the evolving needs of every society. What confounds me is that the modesty of free Muslim men, enslaved men and enslaved women is the same (navel to knees to be covered) while the heavier burden of chastity and modesty is placed on free women. In fact, the free women did not even always have to be Muslim – their freedom is dependent on their association with a free Muslim man as a wife, daughter, sister or mother. Upon the death of a master, an enslaved woman who had given birth her master’s child would automatically become free. It was only then that she had to veil herself especially because she was the guardian of a Muslim child, the free child of her Muslim master. She also veiled to exhibit the sudden difference in her rank.

Both, Muslim men and Muslim women, are ordered to ‘guard their gaze.’ But if a woman chose to “expose her adornments” or “stamped her feet to reveal the adornments” then she created the chances to allure men who must guard their private parts because it is “purer for them.”  Men, on the other hand, are not feared to create such chances which may be because women’s sexuality was seen as more passive and ‘less demanding.’

There is reason to believe from what we hear from Hind that free women never created opportunities for adultery. Her rhetorical question indicates that free women, the women of the upper class, always veiled, even pre-Islam, to guard and indicate their chastity. In fact, when Hind came to the Prophet to take oath she was completely veiled, perhaps as an act of defiance: she was accepting the leadership of the Prophet on her own terms – she was a free, veiled woman who did not commit adultery; her retort indicating the same – she was not enslaved. Adultery was “an act that was known to be for slaves and prostitutes only; not for honorable pure women who have dignity and pride.” Historical records confirm this. The Jewish women in Medina who belonged to the elite class even covered their faces and left only the left eye exposed to see their path thus not tempting men and committing the crime and sin of adultery which under Jewish Law was punishable by stoning.

When Safiyyah Bint Huyayy’s tribe was attacked and she was captured, the believers waited to find out her fate: if the Prophet ordered her to veil, she was to become his wife and be free; if he didn’t, she was to remain enslaved and unveiled. Apparently, she was captured without a veil which means that upon capture, veils of elite veiled women were removed. This not only symbolised their new status, it also symbolised that the onus of chastity was lower for them.

According to the Quran (4:25), enslaved women guilty of indecency are to receive half the punishment that free women are to receive if they were indecent. But what is even more interesting is that such enslaved women would only be liable for punishment *if and when* (fa-itha) they were married to a Muslim man. This is worth noting because enslaved women would become free upon receiving a dower yet there is a sense of differentiation between the classes: women born free in a Muslim household and those who were slaves and became free either upon marriage to a Muslim man or upon the death of the Muslim master (only if they had his children whose paternity the master accepted).

In the present day, every woman who covers her head believes that it is a Divine Command put in place to ensure her safety. This in part is true according to 33:59. Free women were meant to be *recognised* (يعرفن) as free women so that they are not “harmed” (يؤذين). The safety of enslaved women is not discussed in this instance. In fact, free women were to be “recognised” only if the slaves did not veil as well. Veiling, therefore, protected free women from men who were unable to guard their gaze. The veil symbolized that the woman was “honorable and pure with dignity and pride.” There is some hint in 24:33 that selling enslaved women into prostitution was a crime “if they desired chastity.” Yet, if the master forced his slave to prostitute, “verily God will be gracious and merciful unto such women after their compulsion” but we do not learn about the punishment reserved for such a compelling master. Thus there may be some truth in the assertion that adultery was “an act that was known to be for slaves and prostitutes only” that is, the women who are not commanded to veil.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

“Does a free woman commit adultery?”, said the defiant, free and veiled Hind.

How does veiling work within the Quranic context in the present day when there are no slaves from which free women are to be “recognised” as “pure and honorable”? How do we understand the “Status of Women in Islam” when the status depends on the religion and freedom or lack of it for the woman? If the ‘aurah’ of men and enslaved women is the same then how do we understand the Islamic concept of gendering and gender roles? Who bears the greater burden of chastity and what role does veiling and social status play in it?

These are some of the questions Muslim feminists should be discussing when we discuss gender justice and gender equality in Islam for an educated understanding of the Law.

How unnoticed privileges contribute to a system of oppression

Today marks the fourth anniversary of my decision to study Muslim feminism and support sisters and brothers who are Muslim feminists.

I’m ashamed to confess that about six years ago, I wrote an article on a now defunct website titled “Why Muslims don’t need Feminism.” To make matters worse it was a three-part article! My brave and beautiful friends who are Muslim feminists treated me with greatest compassion. There was no backlash; probably because they thought how much can they argue with someone that stupid! I mistook the silence for the fact that I was right.

I wasn’t.

I believed that Muslim societies didn’t need any feminist movement because *I* was already enjoying all the rights. Men in my family didn’t force any form of clothing on me. I wasn’t told not to pursue further education or career.  Pregnancy was a joint decision between my husband and I. Child rearing was joint responsibility. I believed that Quran allowed men to mildly hit an unruly wife – I wasn’t unruly. Some women are less educated/intelligent so obviously they can’t be trusted as witnesses – I wasn’t stupid or poorly educated. Men have different needs and maybe some need more than one wife – well, that wasn’t happening to me. I never made the effort to understand divorce laws. Thus, I never consciously realised that if my husband and I were to divorce he has the right to arbitrary unilateral divorce while I don’t. I would have to ask him for divorce. It isn’t the same. I didn’t understand the monogamy-stipulating concept of Mahr. I didn’t appreciate the problems with khula. I had no idea about automatic child custody in Islamic Jurisprudence. In fact I didn’t even know that to be able to drive, work or travel on my own in a few Muslim countries I needed a formal written permission from my husband.

In short, I had no idea how majority of women, if not all, lived under Muslim laws.

Then on a hot June day my daughter came home from school in an Arab Muslim country and said that a girl in her class had asked the Islamic Studies teacher if it is haram (forbidden) to beat one’s wife. The (female) teacher had replied that indeed it is not a man’s right but responsibility to bring an errant wife onto the Right Path; he was “commanded” by Allah to beat a wife albeit lightly, like with his headdress, and command her to “BEHAVE” in a strict tone. My daughter asked if a woman is also given similar commands by Allah to punish an unruly husband. The teacher said that a husband has the wisdom and sense of responsibility not to do anything wrong and if a woman fears that her husband is unduly rude to her then she can seek arbitration; in extreme cases, if she has good evidence, she can even ask for divorce.

With tears in her eyes, my daughter told me that she wished she were born a boy. We hadn’t raised her to think like that and we hadn’t given her any reason to hate her existence. A patriarchal system had somehow managed to make her think that she was a lesser human. I had read articles on various alternative interpretations of the verse in question (4:34). There was an article on Laleh Bakhtiar’s groundbreaking interpretation translating daraba as “abandon”. There was Riffat Hasan who argues that daraba means ‘hold errant wives in confinement’. Ahmed Ali claims that the command is to return to having sexual relations with the wife. I printed Bakhtiar’s interpretation and copied Hasan’s analysis of the same verse and sent them in a sealed envelope for my daughter’s teacher. The teacher dismissed these, arguing that these were arguments of “feminists” and have no place in traditional (aka True) Islam. She also explained to me that she was right in her assertion that “a husband has the wisdom and sense of responsibility” to be “in charge” of disciplining a wife no matter how we interpret the command “adrubhunna.”

However, I understood from this incident that it is important to realise that not everyone is able to enjoy their rights. While I was enjoying equal rights with my husband, there is no guarantee that the man my daughter marries would not think that it is his “responsibility” to discipline his wife. For the first time I understood how unnoticed “privileges contribute to a system of oppression.” I understood the importance of listening … listening to what Muslim feminists have to say. It was also important for me to know that men and women can be different and equal. Equality does not equal sameness. Quran calls women’s rights similar to the rights it gives to men where men enjoy a degree of privilege over women (2:228). But Muslims who are feminists are re-interpreting these verses to argue that men and women are equal in Islam. They argue that polygamy has no place in modern society. They claim that Quran does not give men the right to beat their wives and that men are not “in charge of women.” Many Muslim feminists also believe that women too can be religious teachers and leaders.

One thing I have learned is that feminists do not just wake up one day and announce that they are feminists. Feminists in any society, including Muslim feminists in Muslim societies, are created. Men and patriarchal systems create feminists. Thus, if anyone complains that Muslim feminism is not needed, they need to learn that it is they who are creating the need for Muslim feminism. I would still say that Islam as a religious system does not have to change.  Muslim patriarchy, however, must go.

Just like in Christianity, many of the millennial Muslims also grow up with “a warped understanding of what feminism is.” Just like in “conservative and/or fundamentalist Christian communities in which feminism was not only vilified, but also considered literally evil” most Muslims treat Muslim/Islamic feminism with skepticism and even hatred. This has to change. The Facebook Page on Muslim feminism aims to initiate dialogue on Muslim women and feminism so that more people can realise the importance of Muslim feminism and its true focus. I respect Muslim feminists; I appreciate their struggle, but above all, I love them for teaching me that if there are ten different ways of interpreting a Quranic verse, then it is both safe and wise to choose the interpretation that is most tolerant and fair.

Internalization of colonialism and Muslim feminism

Ahmed (1992, p. 178-179) argues that “the internalization of colonialism and of notions of the innate superiority of the European over the native- the colonization of consciousness, in short- could complicate feminism.” This is true. However, another fact in tandem with this is that even the earliest forms of Islamic feminism appeared in a post-colonial Muslim world because of the “internalization of colonialism.” It is no coincidence that all the early Islamic/Muslim feminists were either born in a colonised Muslim world or were European educated women and men (often bilingual) who claimed to “be progressive about gender, sexuality, ritual, law, or other questions of Islamic reform… in the face of naked hatred from outside” (Knight, 2013). Impact of colonisation can be gauged from the example that although Iran resisted being colonised in the 19th Century it lost part of its territory to Russo-Persian and Anglo-Persian Wars where Western influence set its roots giving rise to political and social unrest. It was in such a socio-political scene that  Fatimih Baraghani was born (who later converted to Babism), the “first woman to unveil and to question both political and religious orthodoxy” (Nafisi, 2003). Baraghani was succeeded by other gender reformers like Huda Shaarawi, Muhammad Abduh, Aisha Abd al-Rahman, Qasim Amin (whose work is now considered by modern Islamic feminists as andocentric and colonist [Ahmed, 1992]), Fatma Aliye Topuz, Nezihe Muhiddin, Halide Edip Adivar, Hind Nawfal, Nazira Zain El Din, and Labiba Shamtin all of whom were born in the colonial and post-colonial era and were influenced by the European colonist thought. It is no wonder then that for the conservative Muslims who opposed both colonialism and gender reform “”feminism” became linked to colonialism and Western imposition, having to defend Islam as a sign of identity of Muslim societies against every “external” current, as if justice for women was a cause unrelated to Islam” (Quiroga, 2012, para. 6).


Similarly, I believe that globalisation, Wahhabism, and the explosive growth of Islam that has reached the West has reinvigorated Islamic/Muslim feminism which has been influenced by both globalisation and the critical thinking skills that Western education emphasizes (Hassan et al. 2010). Two commonly held beliefs exist in the Muslim community: 1) the belief that every edict in the Quran is timeless; 2) and that every statement in the Quran is a religious law. These beliefs have given rise to the need for some modern Muslims (often called by others and themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ Muslims) to indulge in new theological debates that either build upon or negate the existing discourses by classical scholars of the Quran like Qadi ibn Arabi, Ibn Katheer, Muhammad al Tabari and others. Most Islamic feminists who attempt to reinterpret the Quran are either Western or have been raised/educated in the West, and fault the classical interpretations for their “patriarchal slant” (Barlas, 2002; Wadud, 1992; Hassan, n.d; Mir-Hosseini, 2012; Shaikh, 1997). Their argument is that although Quran was revealed in 609 AD, it is a text of guidance for all people of all times, hence contested verses (particularly Quran: 4:34; 4:3; 2:222; 4:11-12; 24:31) must have always had a progressive and feminist intent but were misinterpreted by patriarchal scholars to control women. Where the vast majority of Muslim and Islamic feminists today are either Western or have been educated in the West, ironically many of their opponents come from similar socio-political backgrounds like, Maryam Jameelah, a Jewish convert to Islam who became the second wife of a Jamat-e-Islami member and emigrated to live in Pakistan from where she wrote that, “Never has moral corruption and social decadence menaced mankind on such a universal scale as is the case now. The adoption of feminist ideals degrades humans lower than the animals” (Jameelah, n.d). In between the progressive and the conservative Muslims is another group that rationalises gender and Islam slightly differently.


While there are many feminists who blame ‘patriarchal interpretations’ of the Quran for the “oppression of Muslim women”, there are other feminists who believe that some injunctions in the Quran were revealed for a specific time and a specific people, and that not every edict in the Quran is a religious command. For instance, Muhammad Abduh “radically” distinguished between Ibadat (the principles or doctrines of worship) and Muamalat (laws and commandments concerning social relations, customs and mores). Ibadat according to Abduh were constant, universal and unchanging like Tawhid (monotheism) and Salah (prayer), while Muamalat were not constant and depended on  the cultural context in question. Such a view allowed Abduh to explain the unnecessity of polygamy in the modern world (Abduh, n.d., P. 117). Similarly, Wadud (1999, p. 55) tries to explain Hur-al-‘Ayn as “something specific to the Jahili Arab… (that) demonstrates the Qur’an’s familiarity with the dreams and desires of those Arabs” (emphasis mine). Wadud rationalises that, “If we take these mythological depictions universally as the ideal female, a number of culturally specific limitations are forced on the divergent audiences of the Qur’an” (Ibid). These feminists have demonstrated an acceptance and  approval of cultural relativism, and acknowledge that the first audience of the Quran was remarkably different from us that must have required some time and cultural bound Quranic decrees – the Muamalat. 

What type of feminist are you – the one who thinks Quranic interpretations are patriarchal or the one who thinks there’s a difference between different laws in the Quran? And what do you consider as the reason you are a feminist?

The politics of reproduction in the golden cages

During the 16th and 17th centuries imperial harems of the Ottoman emperors greatly contributed to the spread of politics and religion. However, these were, at the same time, completely misunderstood and misrepresented by the West (Peirce, 1993:viii).

Throughout history, from Arabia to Turkey to the Mogul India, influential and financially capable men kept concubines that helped in increasing the population. Slavery was an integral part of Ottoman society and as late as 1908 women slaves were still sold in the Empire (Source). The last Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar had “four wives and numerous concubines”. He died in 1862 so till that time concubinage was openly practiced in India. It is recorded that Mogul kings slept with as many as 300 concubines in their lifetime. Similarly, till 1960s in Saudi Arabia concubinage was an ‘open secret’. King Ibn Saud had between 80 and 100 offspring from the many views and concubines.

In the Mogul and Ottoman empires, the royal harems contained as many as 12,000 women (wives, daughters, concubines, slaves, and sisters) and their quarters were guarded by strong women and the royal eunuchs:

“Eunuchs at the Ottoman court were preferably taken from Africa, especially Sudan. Since lighter skin was considered more aesthetic than dark skin, the sultans felt the chances of an affair developing between their, mostly Eastern European, concubines and their dark-skinned eunuch caretakers extremely low” (Source).

Peirce (1993:20) observes that while political maturity for males began with the “onset of fathering children”, the maturity for concubines was marked by the “cessation of childbearing” which Peirce calls the “postsexual status”. Each concubine was allowed to bear only one son. After the birth of the son the emperor would stop sleeping with her and she would live the rest of her life training her son to become the royal throne’s successor. The sons would learn literature, art, archery, fencing, politics and all subjects that make a man out of a man. In the second half of the 16th century princes were caged in the royal harem in the Ottoman Empire – “The Ottoman harem was often called “the golden cage”. Male princely heirs lived in a part of the palace that was called kafes, which translates as “cage” from Ottoman Turkish. Here the princes had to live in seclusion until they were either executed so as not be a threat to the crown prince, or be released once they become sultans” (Source).

Klein (2007: 63-83, in Campbell et al.) notices that the Ottoman emperors hardly ever required more than one wife with the abundant supply of beautiful European concubines and during the 15th and 16th centuries marriage of emperors in the Ottoman Empire had become obsolete. This happened in early Abbasid period as well when “after the death of the Abbasid Harun-al-Rashid, the caliphs apparently only rarely married relying instead on their concubines to produce children” (Kennedy, 2006). The harem system lured non-Muslims towards Arabization – in Spain during the reign of Abd-al-Rahman II “the lure of the language, literature, religion and institutions of the conquerors – including the harem system – had become so strong that a large number of urban Christians had become Arabized” (Hitti, 1970).

Thus, concubinage was very much a part of elite male life throughout history. With the modern view and desire for  mutual respect, equality of genders, and equitable sexual morality there is dislike for sex outside ‘legal’ marriage and hence we like to perceive concubinage as a deviation from the standard (which is only a recent phenomenon) and even like to pretend that it never existed. Yet, harems and concubinage had a lot more to do than just sex. The Golden Cages produced strong women and great leaders who were former concubines and sons of those concubines. More than sex there was the politics of reproduction at play.


Campbell. G, Miers. M, and Miller, J.C. (Eds).(2007). Women and Slavery, Volume One – Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Hitti, P. K. (1958). History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. London: McMillan.

Kennedy, H. (2006). When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Da Capo Press.

Peirce, L.P. (1993). The Imperial Harem – Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press

Islam belongs to the feminists too

This post has seen many procrastinated mornings and evenings. I’m still not sure if I’d be able to articulate what I want to say. But no harm in trying.

Two years ago, Muslim feminism was just a project for me. Today I have fallen in love with Muslim feminists. A good part of my day is spent thinking about you, the Muslim feminists, and about Muslim feminism.

I was born into a Hanafi/Shafi family and a few years ago when I was at the peak of my religious fervor for madhab (Sunni school of thought, either: Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki or Hanabli)I wrote that Islam doesn’t need Muslim feminism (yes, horror!). I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While we chant the mantra often that “Islam is not monolithic” or that “there is extreme diversity in the Muslim community”, it is often because of our intolerance that we refuse to respect co-religionists who are different in their practice of the religion from us. Many Muslim feminists *choose* how they want to practice Islam and  let’s face it – we don’t like it! Dr. Amina Wadud leading the Friday prayer made many Muslims, men and women, uncomfortable. It was the first time I realised that Muslim women and feminists are constantly harassed – not only by non-Muslims but also by Muslims.

Each one of us believes that we are practicing the religion absolutely correctly – “as it was meant to be.” A very quick look into the history of Islam and Muslim nations would put our views straight. None of us can truly say what was the Islam of the first Muslims. Very soon after after the Prophet’s death Islam began to imbibe elements of religious practices of Sasanian and Byzantine nations that Muslims conquered: quick wealth meant veiling, which was exclusively for the elite, became widespread; men began denying inheritance to their womenfolk; Caliph Umar banned women from going to mosques and instated stoning as punishment for adultery – apparently even claiming that stoning was mentioned in the Quran and the verse was eaten by a goat!; Aisha’s failed leadership was used to warn against women taking up political roles; homosexuality became punishable as a crime and a sin and people began recalling hadith instructing the murder of homosexuals; the Umayyads created large harems and secluded their women. Not only this but according to early qiyas all Madhabs fixed minimum mahr (by analogizing the loss of virginity with theft) as the highest value of stolen goods before punishment of hand amputation was valid! (Oh yes, jurists also recalled 200 years later that the Prophet used to punish thieves by cutting off their hands). While Hanafis allowed an adult (note: not a minor) woman to contract her own marriage, other three require a male guardian or wali. Fathers and male guardians could marry their minor daughters without their consent recalling that Abu Bakr never consulted Aisha.

This is the Islam handed down to us, packaged in madhabs, fiqh and shariah. Can we ever successfully sift Sasanian and Byzantine influences from the “pure Islam” that we claim to know?

I don’t blame Muslim feminists who oppose all or part of the laws (not Islam!) I mentioned above. Most Muslim feminists use the Quran to argue that veiling was strictly for the Prophet’s wives. They want due inheritance as promised in the Quran. Feminists argue that it is their religious right to be allowed to pray in mosques just like men. All Muslim feminists are against stoning of adulterers and killing of homosexuals. Muslim feminists use examples of other great women to argue that Islam doesn’t forbid them from entering politics. These men and women are generally against child marriages, polygamy and concubinage and demand that dowry be seen as a gift, not price for sexual access. Is that too much to ask?

Post 9/11 we (Muslims) have become a paranoid nation and rightly so, but sadly paranoia also comes with rejection of anything that seems foreign. But have we ever stopped to think that what we may think as “foreign” is actually the native religion and what we have been accepting as Islam is filled with “foreign” influences?

The only self-proclaimed Muslim feminist that I don’t like much is Asra Nomani but I listen even to her. No one makes absolute nonsense and there is always something to be learned from others even if it is a painful lesson from an enemy. Why is it that we like to first (mis)judge feminists who are Muslim before we even listen to them?! These men and women are NOT against Islam. They just want their rights and want to live in the 21st Century not in the dark shadows of the Abbasids and Umayyads.

A few weeks ago I tried to understand the views of a friend and tried to make him understand the views of Muslim feminists. But you know what? If the traditionalists don’t want to listen to Muslim feminists, I don’t think Muslim feminists want to talk to them either. Islam belongs to the feminists too.

Imaan, deen, adaab and the niqaab

I have been thinking about the difference between deen and imaan. Broadly speaking, imaan in Arabic means faith or belief while deen means practice of faith or religion. The two words are used interchangeably but recently I have wondered if they are really interchangeable. In my opinion now, they are two distinct words with two distinct meanings. Deen is the structure around and in which imaan is practiced. While imaan is spirituality, deen is its organization. The more emphasis on deen the more a religion is organized.

I was also thinking how there are many of us in the same deen with exactly the same imaan but different interpretations of what the deen requires. Hence the practice is different for each one of us. For example, all Muslims believe that there is one God and that this one God appointed Muhammad as His Messenger and Prophet. That is the basic Muslim imaan or belief. We differ in how we practice that imaan. Some believe we can’t be Muslim unless we submit completely to the will of God as interpreted by a fiqh (scholarly sect of Islam). In three out of four schools of fiqh of Sunni Islam, for instance, dogs are declared haraam but in the Maliki sect Muslims are allowed to keep dogs as pets inside their homes. None of the schools of fiqh is completely wrong or completely right – theoretically. Similarly many Muslims believe that women have to dress in a certain way in Islam. This dress code may include a headcovering or a face veil depending on the understanding and interpretations of the individual Muslim or school of thought.

To be honest it has taken me years to reach this level of tolerance for fellow Muslims! I was deadly against the niqaab and I still find it very hard to accept it … but I have learned that acceptance is a little different from tolerance. I can’t expect people to be tolerant of my views if I’m not tolerant of theirs.

I never thought that there would come a day when I would write something in defense of niqaabis. Certainly I am still not defending the niqaab but I think it is really unfair that we think that all women in niqaab are faceless fools. About six years ago when I was almost at the rabid stage of my feelings against niqaab and polygamy equally I met a woman online who was both a fan of niqaab and into a polygamous marriage. I attacked her instantly and incessantly. It took me only a few weeks to understand just how wonderful she is as a woman, mother, artist and wife. I am certain there are many, many Muslim women like her – women who are smart, intelligent and choose to veil their faces. I don’t agree with their understanding of the deen but I can tolerate their choices because we share an imaan.

Here is the connection – while imaan and deen are distinct imaan affects deen. These women who choose to veil their faces, some of them believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. I would like to ask, in the absence of a pope in Islam, who decides that I, who thinks niqaab is not a religious requirement, am right and all others are wrong?

Why do we believe that a woman who calls niqaab “unappealing, hot, isolationist fabric” used as “testaments of theology” is right and a woman who says that niqaab “frees” her is wrong? This is what I have been thinking about recently. Is it impossible for both women to be correct? After all it is a matter of interpretation of deen.

So why am I writing all this? I am writing this because although I don’t cover my head I know that it doesn’t make me smarter than this online friend of mine who covers everything but her eyes. I am also writing this because anyone who really wants equality and respect for women should know that  we can write against the niqaab without resorting to insults by calling women in niqaab faceless “domesticated pups.”

I am also writing this to inform those who don’t know that the Khaleeji burga (see a photo here) is a traditional article of clothing which is deeply respected and honoured. First, it is not made of metal. It is fabric that is dyed indigo and polished by rolling glass over it (hence the shine and metal appearance). Second, it is only worn by older women who are matriarchs of their families. If these women are seen with their “male chaperones going about the business of taking care of the women’s business” it is not necessarily because such women live in a “patriarchal world of their own myopic delusions” but mostly because these women are too proud, important and powerful to go about their own business.

As I type this I recall the story of my student’s 80 year old grandmother who walks outside her house everyday for an hour in the night and carries a pistol in her jalibiya’s pocket. She says she fired her first pistol when she was a young woman and enjoyed it so much that she always kept one with her for a day when a rival tribe should attack! She owns three taxis that form her personal income and a large house where all her children and grandchildren live with her. I have never seen Umm abdulRehman without her burga. But she is neither faceless nor a muzzled pup!

Linked to deen is the concept of adaab (good manners). Adaab are very important in Muslim-Muslim relationship. I like to extend them to non-Muslims and even those who may dislike me personally. Adaab require that we don’t use abusive words to address other people.

I don’t think that niqaab has a place in non-traditional or Western societies in the 21st century. But that is because I don’t believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. Yes, I think it is prescribed in the Quran but I see it as a social requirement dependent on the time and context of revelation (and in that context women who veiled were free and privileged and proud of the fact that they were too good to be seen by non-related men!).  I think it is still valid in societies that are tribal, traditional and patriarchal just like 7th Century Arabia was and still is to this day. However, some women believe that niqaab is a religious requirement and frankly I don’t think these women owe me an explanation. I can try to make them see my point of view but I certainly cannot ridicule them for their choices. I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces.

And I oppose advertising and romanticizing the niqaab even though sometimes it isn’t bad at all.