Notes about the Lecture on “The Position of Women in the Muslim World”
Organised by: Dr. Hind Khattab UNFPA United Nation Population Fund
(Cairo – February 19th, 2005)
Speakers: Dr. Amna Nosseir, member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University and Dr. Abdel-Mo'eti Bayoumi, professor of Islamic Philosophy at Al- Azhar University.
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Dr. Amna started the lecture with questioning the position of women in Islam, caught between jurisdictions and applications. She explained that a total equality between the sexes is not only a wrong assumption but also not possible as there are certain differences between the two genders. She added that these differences would hamper a total equality, but equality per se was granted. In her opinion the now almost demeaning position of women in Islam comes from three factors:
1. Patriarchal societies.
2. Ignorance of women of their own rights.
3. The influx of different traditional practices and habits from various cultures and societies over time (Ottomans, Fatimids, Mameluks, Bedouins etc).
She continued explaining that women are by no means the weaker gender and quotes Omar Ibn Al Khattab telling the women in his family how many more rights they gained now with Islam and that has made them even stronger than ever before, to the extent that he himself has to be careful now.
She mentioned the much abused Hadith:
Volume 1, Book 6, Number 301: Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:
“Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o 'Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle ?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion."”
She explained that this particular Hadith is taken out of context and that the context in which it was said was actually more of a light conversation before a joint prayer, it happened in front of a mosque and there were many women present waiting for prayers, and that it would be very wrong to take this particular Hadith as a basis for implementing some jurisdiction or rule. She explained that this jocular tone was frequently used by the Prophet, sort of like a father scolding his children and should in no way be taken in any other manner.
She also quoted another frequently abused Hadith:
Volume 9, Book 88, Number 219: Narrated Abu Bakra:
“During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler."”
In her opinion this particular Hadith is to be taken in the historical context related to Buran (spelling?) the daughter of King Kesra only and not to be extended to any other woman and conclude from it that a woman is not allowed to be Grand Imam or leader, which is not forbidden anywhere in the Quran. She added that in the times of the Prophet women were considered equal in many ways, even in fields that were reserved for men like warfare. She mentions Nassiba, Rafida and Umm Hany (Ali’s sister) who used to fight alongside the men and were given shares in the loot like the men.
Furthermore she adds that Mullahs and Sheikhs, essentially men, usually resort to a too literal meaning of the Quran to remain patriarchal, and sometimes even twist the words a bit to mean what they think is right. She added that the door of Ijtihad was open until the end of time and anybody who would engage in it would get some kind of reward, even if he / she arrived at a wrong conclusion, but still the effort would be rewarded. She based that on a Hadith (which I couldn’t find in English, sorry).
Hence sticking too rigidly to outmoded fiqh and rigid fatwas is not to be done and taking them as a given should also not be done, because certain fatwas are time and incident dependant and should be taken in their very own special context and not used to enslave women centuries later.
She ended her part of the lecture by quoting Omar Ibn El Khattab again, who said that women are to be protected as well as respected and only the wicked would humiliate them.
Next to speak was Dr. Bayoumi, who started his part of the lecture saying that it was time to change certain understandings which have long been outmoded and replace them by new ones, or rather older ones that existed long before and somehow got lost in the course of history. He said that reformists were almost equal to prophets and mentioned a metaphor used by Gamal Eddin El Afghany who likened Islam to a huge tree, sort of a banyan tree where there happened to be so many branches that the core ended up being hidden. Dr. Bayoumi said that this was the case now and that one needs to cut off some branches to allow the sun to reach the core again. He added that many fatwas and fiqh questions were issued in historically very weak times and during decaying periods where the jurists were bought to serve the caliph and hence ended up more coloured by personal power struggles as well as traditions, habits and local practices than by the teachings of Islam. He stated that if Islam was applied correctly, the way it should be, then the Muslim woman would be the most cultured amongst women.
He went on to discuss equality between men and women in the Quran and unlike Dr. Amna mentioned that equality exits in almost a total way. If one compares both genders one finds that both have certain responsibilities as well as rights, duties and privileges, even if they differ in nature, they are still balanced. He mentions that women have a right to work and even choose their own husbands if they prefer marriage. He gave the examples of Asma’ Bint Abu Bakr and Maimunah bint Al Harith. He also based the equality concept on Sura [30.21] “And one of His signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” And on Sura [4.1] “O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you.” And on Sura [7.189] “He it is Who created you from a single being, and of the same (kind) did He make his mate, that he might incline to her; so when he covers her she bears a light burden, then moves about with it; but when it grows heavy, they both call upon Allah, their Lord: If Thou givest us a good one, we shall certainly be of the grateful ones.” His explanation is that the word yourself means that there are no differences, that the words “one single being” means equality as they are then basically the same (of like nature).
Furthermore he quoted the Hadith:
Volume 4, Book 55, Number 548: Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah 's Apostle said, "Treat women nicely, for a women is created from a rib, and the most curved portion of the rib is its upper portion, so, if you should try to straighten it, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So treat women nicely."
He explains that this “rib-thing” has been abused to make it seem like women are inferior to men because they were created from a rib, a part, whereas he believes that the base of that is not inferiority but linguistic perfection and metaphors, because the rib is curved and rounded. He bases this opinion of his on a tafseer by Ibn Katheer and to take it to mean inferior is biased and wrong. He adds that being curved means it can withhold higher pressures as it is already bent and wouldn’t snap and break like a straight item would.
On the topic of tafseer, he mentions the many differences found between the tafseer of Ibn Katheer and the one by Ibn Hazm. While Ibn Hazm shows extreme positions (even in all other of his declaration that any type of analogy (qiyas), or imitation (taqlid), or legislative opinion (ra'y) was outside the pale of Islam), Ibn Katheer shows much more tolerance, in all issues and specially the issues pertaining to women. In his opinion this is due to the upbringing of both men. Ibn Katheer was born in Basra. His father was the local Imam and the deliverer of the Friday Khutba in his village and he died when Ibn Katheer was only four years old. He moved to Damascus at the age of five and was raised mainly by his mother who engaged mostly female tutors for him for starters to tutor him in Quran, Hadith and Sunnah. This gave him the necessary respect for women and their abilities and knowledge. Ibn Hazm on the other hand was born into a princely family in Cordoba and was raised very strictly by a harsh authoritarian father, which resulted in his extreme (if not even rigid and arrogant) views.
He then moves to touch upon the subject of polygamy and explains that Islam permitted it as a solution to certain social problems and not as an absolute right for men. He rests his opinion on the fact that the issue of polygamy was mentioned in the Quran within the context of dealing with orphans and not as a topic in itself. He emphasized again that Suras should be taken in context of both the text and the reason for the revelation. As per Sura [4.3] “And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.” In His opinion this permission was due to the Sahaba starting to fear being unjust to the Orphans and refraining from taking care of them.
He also continues with mentioning Sura [4.129] “And you have it not in your power to do justice between wives, even though you may wish (it), but be not disinclined (from one) with total disinclination, so that you leave her as it were in suspense; and if you effect a reconciliation and guard (against evil), then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” In his opinion this is a negation of marrying more than one and the permission granted is for certain reasons only.
He used the Prophet’s long monogamous life with Khadiga as an example (the normal state of affairs rather) and explained that his other wives were all taken in marriage for specific reasons and not for the purpose of diversifying wives in general. He mentions Aisha and argues that his marriage to her was to bond with Abu Bakr, as ‘in-law relationships’ were highly valued during those times. He mentions Maimunah bint Al Harith who wanted to be one of the wives of the Prophet and offered herself and her proposal was accepted. The reason being to show that women can make their own choices about whom to marry. He also mentions Zaynab bint Jahsh, who married the Prophet after her divorce from Zayd. The reason being to demonstrate beyond doubt that in Islam an adopted son is not regarded in the same light as a natural son, and that although a father may never marry a woman whom his natural son has divorced, the father of an adopted son is allowed to marry a woman who was once, but is no longer, married to that adopted son. He also mentions Safiya Bint Huyay from the Beni Nadir tribe. The reason being that she was Jewish and this would show that Muslim men can marry Jewish women, which is the same for Maria Al Qibtiya who was originally a gift from the King of Egypt then. The reason being that Muslim men can marry slaves as well as Christian women. (People of the book) So for every additional marriage there was a social reason or a message behind it rather than simply for marriage’s sake.
He picked up on the issue of the Grand Imam being a woman and said that in the Quran there was no Sura prohibiting this. In his opinion even the Hadith about Kisra’s daughter should be taken as a prohibition of totalitarian and despotic rule rather than the rule of a woman per se, as ruling should always be based on shura and council, almost a democratic concept. According to Dr. Bayoumi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldoun and Imam Malik were early advocates of democracy. He added that the interpretation of every Hadith has to be related to the reason why it was said, and if the reason in the past, and the reason now, coincide then we could apply the Hadith. In this particular case the Prophet was referring only to the queen, Kesra’s daughter, who was a tyrannical ruler, while the Queen of Sheba for example was highly respected and accepted as a ruler.
He then touched upon the subject of female circumcision and denied any Islamic roots to it but attributed it solely to traditions and local practices. He mentioned the only two Hadiths about this subject :
Mohamed is recorded as speaking of the sunna circumcision to the Ansars' wives, saying: "Cut slightly without exaggeration, because it is more pleasant for your husbands". Again, this appears to be related to the least intrusive method of circumcision.
"Circumcision is sunnah for men, and makrumah for women" And in another reported version “Circumcision is sunnah for men.” He argues that the phrasing “for men” means that it is exclusive for men only and not including women.
He said that the authenticity of both Hadith and their versions are weak, and that some scholars have refuted them. Even if true, they only permit the practice; they do not mandate it. He added that Mahmud Shaltut, former director of al-Azhar University, stated that they are neither clear nor authentic, hence offer little credibility.
He ended by reiterating that some people interpret Islam in the way that suits them, whereas it was evident during the Prophet's time that women enjoyed all their rights. He repeated that people affected Islam with their traditions and cultures and used a metaphor of Islam being like the Nile, pure in its origin and adding impurities along the way till it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, the impurities being traditions, Bedouin practices, tribal laws, patriarchal rules and the like. He believes firmly that if we want to get things straight, we need to stick to the Quran and clear out the interpretations derived from the peoples’ own and different cultures which are only misconceptions and far removed from the real Islam.
The lecture was followed by a question and answer session, where the questions were divided up between both lecturers.
I was very disappointed with the reaction of the women. I expected them to be happy and ecstatic because both lecturers slayed their dragons. They destroyed all that these women have heard and were made to believe in since their birth. Personally I think they have been in this position of being regarded as second class for too long to really care and all what they said will be ignored the moment they step out.
I was also very disappointed with the type of questions asked. Mainly they were very silly questions about specific issues in inheritance laws or travelling without a mehrem for studies or work. They all related to very specific personal issues instead of anything to do with the lecture.
What I found extremely interesting (so as not to use the word shocking) was the conclusion that the fate of perhaps all Muslim women seems to be dependent on the upbringing of the men writing the various tafseers. There are like hundreds of different tafseers floating around and all seem to be coloured by the author's own experiences, upbringing traditions, location etc.
What encouraged me was the fact, that a man like Dr. Bayoumi, who has gone through all the traditional studies of theology at Al Azhar, holds such progressive (almost feminist views). His repetition of promoting a more literal reading of the Quran instead of the various tafseers was encouraging. His assertion, as well as Dr. Amna’s, that the door to ijtihad was open until dooms day, is also very encouraging. Both their affirmation that women were granted so many rights by Islam, and that those rights were being abused by the men, patriarchal societies, tribal rules, traditions and cultural colourings gives me hope that one day, we shall possibly be able to overcome all that, perhaps not by reform, but rather by taking a few steps back to the basics. (No, I don’t meant fundamentalist Wahabi views, but rather the fundament of Islam, the Quran, as well as all the Hadiths proven to be sahih, rather than a complete collection of weak and planted and fake ones).