WHAT THE QUR’AN REALLY SAYS ABOUT WOMEN
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
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.
AKRAM WAS UNCOVERING
Author Carla Power spent a year studying the Qur’an with sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi