When Middle East correspondent CARLA POWER be­gan study­ing the Qur’an, she found that it nowhere ad­vo­cates the op­pres­sion of women – and that Is­lam has a rich his­tory of for­got­ten fe­male lead­ers

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - FRONT PAGE -

WHEN I TOLD A MUS­LIM FRIEND that I was to study the Qur’an with a sheikh, she had one re­quest. ‘Ask him why Mus­lim men treat women so badly.’

When I did, sheikh Mo­ham­mad Akram Nadwi said it was be­cause men weren’t read­ing the Qur’an prop­erly. All too of­ten, peo­ple read the Qur’an se­lec­tively, Akram said. ‘They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that con­firm what they want to hear.’

Ed­u­cated in In­dia and Saudi Ara­bia, Akram has a cul­tural scope that spans con­ti­nents. My own cos­mopoli­tanism was born of a child­hood be­ing towed around the world by a rest­less father. I had lived in Tehran, Kabul, Delhi and Cairo grow­ing up.

In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to re­port on life for women un­der the Tal­iban. Dur­ing their ve-year reign in Kabul, the Tal­iban’s ma­jor pol­icy was to ban any­thing they deemed un-Is­lamic, in­clud­ing the pub­lic dis­play of women’s faces. The most dev­as­tat­ing of the Tal­iban edicts, how­ever, was the ban on women’s education. In the years they were keep­ing women at home and un­e­d­u­cated, Akram was un­cov­er­ing a rad­i­cally di er­ent ver­sion of Is­lamic tra­di­tion. Its lu­mi­nar­ies in­cluded women like mm al-Darda, a sev­enth-cen­tury scholar who taught ju­rispru­dence to men and women in the mosques of Da­m­as­cus and Jerusalem. An­other woman in Akram’s dis­cov­er­ies: the 14th-cen­tury Syr­ian scholar atimah al-Batai­hiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Me­d­ina.

His re­search had be­gun by ac­ci­dent, Akram said. Read­ing clas­si­cal texts on ha­dith the words and deeds of the Prophet Muham­mad , he kept nd­ing women’s names as au­thor­i­ties. He de­cided to do a bi­o­graph­i­cal dic­tio­nary that in­cluded all the women ex­perts of ha­dith. ‘I was ex­pect­ing to nd maybe 20 or 30 women,’ he says. ‘I was plan­ning to pub­lish a pam­phlet. But it seems there are more.’ How many more ‘Thou­sands.’

Akram’s work, al-Muhad­dithat: The Women Schol­ars in Is­lam, stands as a ri­poste to the no­tion that Is­lamic knowl­edge is men’s work and al­ways has been. ‘I do not know of an­other religious tra­di­tion in which women were so cen­tral, so present, so ac­tive in its for­ma­tive his­tory,’ Akram wrote. Women schol­ars taught judges and imams, is­sued fat­was (a rul­ing on a point of Is­lamic law) and trav­elled to dis­tant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East.

At rst, I as­sumed th­ese women’s names had been for­got­ten – as women had been in most of Western civ­i­liza­tion where men wrote his­tory. Un­til fem­i­nist his­to­ri­ans be­gan un­earthing women’s achieve­ments af­ter the 1960s, women’s con­tri­bu­tions were left unsung. In the con­text of Is­lamic cul­ture, the era­sure of women was more com­plex. ‘Mus­lim so­ci­ety prizes fe­male mod­esty,’ Akram said. ‘Tra­di­tion­ally, many Mus­lim fam­i­lies didn’t want the names of their wives or their daugh­ters pub­lished.’

Keep­ing women’s names out of class­room or mosque records was just a broad in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the con­cept of hi­jab. The term, com­monly used to re­fer to women’s head cov­er­ings, in fact re­ferred more gen­er­ally to the mod­esty re­quired by both men and women. In an e ort to keep women shielded from pub­lic view, the lives and works of learned women were left un­recorded. The broad in­ter­pre­ta­tion of hi­jab per­sists to­day, he said. ‘Once, I wrote an ar­ti­cle about go­ing on hajj [the Mus­lim pil­grim­age to Mecca],’ Akram told me. ‘I wanted to in­clude the names of the peo­ple in my pil­grim­age party, but all the men told me not to use the names of the women in their fam­ily.’ ‘So how did you re­fer to them?’ ‘As “the wife of so-and-so” and “the daugh­ter of so-and-so”.’ Given this tra­di­tion, the 9 000 women Akram found were prob­a­bly just a frac­tion of the fe­male Is­lamic schol­ars through his­tory. ‘I tell peo­ple, God has given girls qual­i­ties and po­ten­tial. If they aren’t al­lowed to de­velop them, if they aren’t pro­vided with op­por­tu­ni­ties to study and learn, it’s ba­si­cally a live burial.’

His work on women schol­ars chal­lenges big­ots of all types, from the Tal­iban gun­man who shoots a girl for go­ing to school to the West­erner who claims that Is­lam op­presses women, and al­ways has.

If there was ever proof that a pi­ous Mus­lim woman need not be a sub­mis­sive wife and mother, it is the life of Aisha, the third of the Prophet’s 11 wives. She has di­vided opin­ions ever since the sev­enth cen­tury, among both Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims. A top Is­lamic scholar, an in­spi­ra­tion to cham­pi­ons of women’s rights, a mil­i­tary com­man­der rid­ing on camel­back, and a fatwa- is­su­ing ju­rist, Aisha’s in­tel­lec­tual stand­ing and religious au­thor­ity were as­ton­ish­ing.

She was be­trothed at six or seven. ‘I was play­ing on a see­saw and had be­come di­shev­elled,’ she said. ‘I was taken and pre­pared and then brought in to him. He was shown my pic­ture in silk.’ The silken im­age ap­peared to the Prophet in a dream. The an­gel Gabriel ap­peared hold­ing the por­trait, and said, ‘Marry her. She is your wife.’

The mar­riage was an ex­tremely happy one. Muham­mad’s love for Aisha was ‘like a rm knot in a rope,’ he once told her, ever con­stant. Even to­day, she is known by the ep­i­thet ‘the Beloved of the Beloved of Al­lah.’

Still, Aisha’s de­scrip­tion of the short route from see­saw to silk pic­ture dis­gusted me. I couldn’t help think­ing of Nu­jood Ali, Ye­men’s most fa­mous di­vor­cée, who, in 2008, had been mar­ried at nine.

Af­ter one sis­ter was kid­napped and an­other raped, her un­em­ployed father, who had 16 chil­dren and two wives, gured an early mar­riage would keep Nu­jood fed and safe. On her wed­ding day, she got a $20 ring, three dresses, and two hi­jabs, but the ex­cite­ment wore o by the evening, when, she said, her 30-year-old groom raped her. A year later, she made Ye­meni his­tory by tak­ing a taxi down­town to the courts and de­mand­ing a di­vorce. Asked by her fu­ture lawyer why, she re­sponded: ‘I hate the nights.’

Nu­jood’s case made head­lines across the world. When a law in Ye­men was passed rais­ing the min­i­mum mar­riage age to 17, it met with so much op­po­si­tion from con­ser­va­tives that it was re­pealed. In 2010, Ye­men’s Mus­lim lead­ers is­sued a state­ment declar­ing that any sup­port­ers of the new law would be de­nounced as un-Is­lamic. It took un­til 2014 to pass a law ban­ning child mar­riages.

One Sun­day, sheikh Akram was teach­ing a class on child mar­riage in Ox­ford. Ar­zoo, one of only a few women, raised her hand and asked how Is­lamic law could pos­si­bly con­done any­thing that led to such su er­ing. She spoke of par­ents mar­ry­ing o their kids for money rather than pro­tec­tion; of in­ter­nal bleed­ing and pro­lapsed uteruses, those all-too com­mon re­sults of un­der­age in­ter­course and un­der­age child­birth.

For weeks, Azroo and Mehrun, an­other fe­male stu­dent, de­bated the is­sue with Akram. At rst, he held that while child mar­riage was per­mis­si­ble, no girl should have sex be­fore she be­gins men­stru­at­ing. But Akram went back to the sources, and found an eighth-cen­tury judge and ju­rist, Ibn Shubruma, with a sound fatwa against the prac­tice of child mar­riage. Ibn Shubruma ar­gued that when girls reach pu­berty, they can choose whom to marry. By be­ing mar­ried in child­hood, this choice was taken away from them. Ar­zoo and Mehrun had changed Akram’s mind. ‘I’ve learned from th­ese girls,’ he said.

Dur­ing one class, when a stu­dent asked him what he thought of feminism, Akram an­swered with­out hes­i­ta­tion. ‘Feminism wants jus­tice for women. Where Mus­lims aren’t do­ing jus­tice for the women, th­ese move­ments will come.’

But chang­ing pre­vail­ing at­ti­tudes will take time, Akram ad­vised me. ‘In Europe,’ he said. ‘They talk as though it was al­ways the way it is now for women. But in some places, women have only been vot­ing since the 1970s.’

From the mo­ment the rst rev­e­la­tion – ‘Read!’ – came down to the Prophet, Is­lam was es­tab­lished as a faith of the word. The good Mus­lim must read the sources. But with a text as in­tri­cate and pow­er­ful as the Qur’an, read­ing means far more than mere lit­er­acy. Across the world, Mus­lim pro­gres­sives in places as dis­parate as Jakarta and ir­ginia are chis­elling o the man-made prej­u­dices that have hard­ened into truth over cen­turies. Pak­istani school­girls are de­fy­ing Tal­iban edicts in their quest for education. African ac­tivists are de­mand­ing that lo­cal mul­lahs point to where, ex­actly, the Qur’an ad­vo­cates fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.

A few years be­fore I started study­ing with Akram, I at­tended a con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by Mu­sawah, the global women’s or­gan­i­sa­tion de­voted to re­form­ing Is­lamic fam­ily laws, held in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

To­ward the evening’s end, the Qur’an’s verse 33:35 was read over the loud­speaker. It was re­vealed to Muham­mad af­ter one of his wives, Umm Salamah, asked him why it seemed some­times as though God only spoke to men, not women. The re­sponse was:

For the men who ac­qui­esce to the will of God, and the women who ac­qui­esce, the men who be­lieve and the women who be­lieve, the men who are de­vout and the women who are de­vout…

and the men and women who re­mem­ber God a lot, God has ar­ranged for­give­ness for them,

It was the prom­ise of this re­ward that drove Akram. He wouldn’t call him­self a fem­i­nist. Just a Mus­lim who has read his Qur’an.





Au­thor Carla Power spent a year study­ing the Qur’an with sheikh Mo­ham­mad Akram Nadwi

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