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Vol. 14, No. 1, 2015
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

convoluting the qur'an



Riaz Hassan is Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, and Global Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at New York University Abu Dhabi. His latest book is Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings (Routledge).

For many people the status, role and position of women are important distinguishing features of Muslim societies, which set them apart from their Western counterparts and symptomatic of their oppression in Islam. Moreover, it is argued that gender relations in Islam have been primarily shaped by its Arabian origins. It is true that Islam has borne the mark of its Arabian origins but it was also instrumental in introducing wide-ranging legal-religious enactments to improve the position and status of women in Arabian society.

In pre-Islamic Arabia polygamy was a common practice and while elite women enjoyed considerable power and prestige -- for example, Mohammad's first wife Khadija was a successful and highly respected merchant -- the majority were on par with slaves and had no political or human rights. Female infanticide was widely practiced.

Women were among some of the earliest converts to Islam and their emancipation was a central plank of Mohammad's 'social project.' The Qur’an forbade the killing of female children and gave women legal rights of inheritance and divorce: most Western women had nothing comparable until the nineteenth century. Several chapters of the Qur’an frequently addressed women explicitly; something that rarely happens in either the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Numerous Qur’anic injunctions give effect to these changes in the public and private spheres, most importantly by recognizing a woman’s full-fledged personality. Pakistani Islam scholar Fazul Rahman provides an overview of the reforms introduced by the Qur’an:

The Qur’an immensely improved the status of the woman in several directions but the most basic is the fact that the woman was given a fully-[f]ledged personality. The spouses are declared to be each other’s “garments”: the woman has been granted the same rights over man as man has over his wife, except that man, being the earning partner, is a degree higher. Unlimited polygamy was strictly regulated and the number of wives was limited to four, with the rider that if a husband feared that he could not do justice among several wives, he must marry only one wife. To all this was added a general principle that “you shall never be able to do justice among wives no matter how desirous you are (to do so)” ([Qur’an] IV, 3, 128). The overall logical consequence of these pronouncements is a banning of polygamy under normal circumstances. Yet as an already existing institution, polygamy was accepted on a legal plane, with the obvious guiding lines that when gradually social circumstances became more favourable, monogamy might be introduced. This is because no reformer who means to be effective can neglect the real situation and simply issue visionary statements. But the later Muslims did not watch the guidelines of the Qur’an and, in fact, thwarted its intentions.

Yet through selective, literal, non-contextual and ahistorical interpretations of Qur’anic injunctions, a majority of Muslim scholars and rulers have chosen to thwart rather than to follow and promote these principles. The religion later was hijacked by the men, who interpreted the sacred texts in a way that was negative for Muslim women.

Abd Allah al-Baydawi, a respected Sunni scholar of the thirteenth century, reflected this tendency when he set out to classify the ways in which men stand superior to women. Allah has favored the one sex over the other, according to al-Baydawi,

in the matter of mental ability and good counsel, and in their power for the performance of duties and for the carrying out of (divine) commands. Hence to men have been confined prophecy, religious leadership, saintship, pilgrimage rites, the giving of evidence in the law-courts, the duties of the holy war, worship in the mosque on the day of assembly (Friday), etc. They also have the privilege of selecting chiefs, have a larger share of inheritance and discretion in the matter of divorce.

al-Baydawi’s observations and conclusions were based upon a selective reading and interpretation of the sacred texts that ignored the intellectual message of the Qur’an.

Another Muslim scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Hasanayn Makhlouf, claiming the authority of Islamic law, issued a fatwa in June 1952 declaring that the Islamic social system lacked the authority to give women the right to vote or to be elected to parliament, given women’s inherently unsuitable nature.

In Pakistan Islamic scholar Syed Abdul A’la Mawdudi made similar pronouncements about the role and position of women in Islamic society. He quoted a saying (Hadith) attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity,” and warned of catastrophes that will befall those who leave their affairs in the hands of a woman. The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and Islamic jurist Khaled Abou El Fadl dispute the authority of this Hadith and cogently argue that its use is a clear illustration of how Islamic scholars, who have almost always been male and have enjoyed close relations with the ruling classes, have manipulated the sacred texts to ensure male hegemony and control.

The interpretations of the sacred texts by scholars like al-Baydawi, Makhlouf and Mawdudi have shaped the average Muslim’s views and attitudes toward women. They express the commonly held Muslim view of women as beings who are incapable of and unfit for public duties. For them as for other Islamic scholars, women’s autonomy and independence pose a problem for the general functioning of society, particularly in regard to the family and marital relations. Female autonomy constitutes a deviation from the divinely ordained, legally upheld and historically enforced duties of a wife and can therefore only be construed as disobedience. Female autonomy threatens to infringe upon male prerogatives.

A recent example of the misogynist attitudes in contemporary Muslim society can be found in a book published by the Lebanese scholar al-Sadiq Abdul Rahman al-Ghiryani. According to al-Ghiryani: a Muslim wife may not worship God by fasting without her husband’s permission because her husband may want to have sex with her during the day; a woman may not speak with her fiancé over the telephone because she may seduce him; a woman engaged to a man may not go out with him in public because she may seduce him; a bride riding with her groom in a car driven by a relative must make sure not to wear perfume because she may seduce the driver, who is not her husband; a woman who wishes to go a mosque to learn the Qur’an must obey her father if he forbids her from going, and the father need not express any reason for his opposition; a man who marries a woman with the intention of divorcing her after having pleasure with her but fails to inform her of his intention does not commit a sin, and the marriage is valid; a woman may not refuse her husband sex, except if she is ill, and refusing a husband sex without compelling justification is a grave sin. On the other hand, a husband may refuse his wife sex for a reason or no reason at all; as legal matter, the voice of woman is not an awrah (a privacy that must be concealed from all except a mahram), but nonetheless because of its seductive powers, the voice of a woman should not be heard in public, or in a private setting where it might cause sexual enticement; women should not mix with men even in public ways and even if women are wearing the hijab, and women should not travel unaccompanied by a male mahram; a woman may not chew gum because it is seductive; women may not dance in front of other women in a wedding even if there are no men around because it might be sexually arousing; women may not shorten their head hair because doing so is considered imitating men. However, women must remove any facial hair, such as a beard or moustache, because it is more feminine to do so, and because a woman must be sexually appealing to her husband; women should not attend funerals or gravesites or convey their condolences to foreign men, so as to avoid sexual enticement.

In his authoritative, historically grounded and sociologically informed book Speaking in Gods’ Name: Authority, Islamic Law and Women dealing with Islamic law and women, Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl shows that the determinations mentioned above are not objectively mandated by Islamic sources. He argues that such determinations are examples of what he calls ‘textual authoritarianism by abusing the text,’ which allows the Muslim scholars like al-Ghiryani to misinterpret divinely ordained law in order to justify and sanction injustices against women in Muslim society. He shows that Islamic law has become the playing field for shabby scholarship, political sloganism and ideological demagoguery. More often than not these scholars have a minimal degree of training in the Islamic scholastic tradition. Consequently they tend to reconstruct Islamic law into sets of highly simplified and dogmatic commands. Pursuant to these so-called, reformative formulations, Islamic law has become a poorly justified and non-persuasive set of rules, and not a methodology for an open process of discourse and determination.

To illustrate this, Abou El Fadl uses the example of the fatwas issued by jurists who make up The Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions (C.R.L.O), the official institution in Saudi Arabia entrusted with issuing legal opinions which often serve as the basis for official state law and which often have a wide impact in other Muslim societies. All the jurists are well known in the Arabic speaking world at the juristic and popular level. His analysis covers many fatwas related to women issued by the Saudi Permanent Council. In all its fatwas the Council adheres to the Wahhabi school of thought. Following are some of the fatwas issued by the C.R.L.O.

In its response to whether the wearing of brassieres is permissible under Islamic law, the Council jurist declared that some of the women have adopted the habits of wearing brassieres to create the impression that they were either young or virgins and if that is the case then this a prohibited form of fraud. However, if a woman wears a brassiere for health or medical reasons, then it is permissible. In other words, if the brassiere lifts the breasts, but the intent is to defraud, then it is prohibited. The fatwa is derived from the well known principle that fraud is illegal in Islamic law. But there is no mention of clothing such as turbans which make men look taller or undergarments that make a man look muscular, or clothing that makes a man look thinner. One is, therefore, left wondering if the legal principle being established here is a matter of truthful physiological disclosure then how far is the jurist willing to take the principle. The most honest physiological disclosure would be nudity. Is it, therefore, more ‘truthful’ to discard all clothing which may lead to creating wrong or fraudulent impression in favor of nudity? The underlying undisclosed value in this fatwa is that women are a source of fitnah (sexual enticement), so everything related to the functionality of women is seen from that perspective. The underlying principle prohibiting women to drive is also based on the possibility that it may lead to fitnah and thus to evil. The C.R.L.O jurists seem to assume that anything that might possibly lead to any degree of evil is to be prohibited. Regardless of the amount of good that driving or wearing a certain type of clothing could achieve and regardless of how speculative the fears of possible evils, they believe that women should bear the burden of the sacrifice and loss of rights.

The C.R.L.O. jurists were asked about the effect of a woman passing in front of a man in prayer. The C.L.R.O responded that if a man is praying and a woman passes in front of him without a screen separating them, the man’s prayers are invalidated and must be repeated. In support, the C.R.L.O. cites a transmission by Abu Hurayrah attributing to the Prophet the statement, “The passage of a woman, donkey, and black dog in front of man, invalidates his prayer.” In another response the Council asserted that some women are bad omens and therefore, divorcing them is justifiable. To support this response it cites a Prophetic tradition stating, “If bad omens exist in anything, they exist in (some) houses, women and mounts.” Other traditions, cited in the context of mandating the veil or in prohibiting mixing of sexes, draw an association between women and the devil. For example a tradition attributed to the Prophet, proclaims, “A woman comes in the image of a devil and leaves in the image of a devil.”

These determinations of the C.R.L.O are clearly demeaning for women and are based on the traditions of the Prophet which have very dubious chains of transmission; early scholars disagreed on the authenticity of Abu Huayrah’s traditions and alternative versions which are never taken into account. The C.R.L.O does not use these reports in order to explicitly demeanor or defile women. In fact, according to the C.R.L.O, their determinations honour and protect women from all forms of degradations. Of course, the way the C.R.L.O makes this point is by asserting that Islam, which they claim to represent, fully honours and protects women. The reports used in the Council’s fatwas are utilized in making technical decisions on particular legal issues. However, having employed reports that draw a connection between women and unflattering symbolisms, the C.R.L.O is able to draw upon social constructs or typologies of womanhood with devastating results. Significantly, this is done with an air of condescending benevolence, and not confessed malignity.

The key feature of the legal determinations that impose strict dress code on women and exclude them from public life is the obsessive reliance on the notion of fitnah. Women are viewed as walking and breathing bundles of fitnah. The C.R.L.O fatwas dealing with women invariably include references about the seduction of womanhood. For example, women may attend mosques only if it does not lead to fitnah; women may listen to men reciting the Qur'an or giving a lecture, only if it does not lead to fitnah; women may go to the marketplace only if does not lead to fitnah; women may not visit graveyards because of the fear of fitnah; women may not say amen aloud in prayer because of the fear of fitnah; a woman praying by herself may not raise her voice in prayer if it leads to fitnah; a woman may not even greet a man if it leads to fitnah. Veiling and segregation of women is based on the doctrine of fitnah. It does not seem to occur to the jurists who make these determinations that this presumed fitnah that accompanies women in whatever they do is not an inherent quality of womanhood, but is a projection of male promiscuities. By artificially constructing womanhood into the embodiment of seductions, these jurists do not promote a norm of modesty, but, in reality, promote a norm of immodesty. Instead of turning the gaze away from the physical attributes of women, they obsessively turn the gaze to women as a mere physicality. In essence these jurists objectify women as items for male consumption, and that is the height of immodesty.

The fitnah traditions do not describe an empirical reality but a normative principle that women are dangerous, and irrespective of the fact whether it can be empirically verified, one must accept the principle, believe it and act on it. These historical and contemporary interpretations of Islamic texts have profoundly affected the Muslim consciousness about the status, role and position of women in Muslim societies. But historical grounded and sociologically informed examination of these interpretations shows that they are not objectively mandated by Islamic sources. They are examples of ‘textual authoritarianism by abusing the texts’ which allows Muslim scholars to frequently misinterpret sacred texts in order to justify and sanctions injustices against women in Muslim society.

also by Riaz Hassan
Life As a Weapon


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John Butler
Muslim women should be cheering for Riaz Hassan! My only comment (as a non-believer who has spent a number of years in Muslim societies) is that the fitnah just makes men look weak and gullible, and looks a lot like "original sin" translated into Islamic terms. Both ideas objectify and demean women, but they also make men look like idiots.






































































































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