By Carla Power
6 November 2015
The Sheikh’s Work Challenges Bigots of All Types
The Sheikh’s work on women scholars challenges bigots of all types.
The Taliban gunman who shoots a girl for going to school.
The mullah who bars women from his mosque.
The firebrand who claims that feminism is a Western ideology undermining the Islamic way of life.
The Westerner who claims that Islam oppresses women, and always has.
And yet, with the exception of a single-volume introduction, published in English, his research lies dormant in the hard drive of his computer. Forty volumes would prove too expensive, said his usual publishers in Damascus, Beirut, and Lucknow.
Despite entreaties from his students, he wants to see it as a book before publishing it online. Some of his students have started a Muhaddithat fund, attempting to raise money for publication.
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 eleven 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, by the standards of both our own time and hers.
Aisha is not the only wife of Muhammad whose life explodes notions of what constitutes a “traditional” Muslim woman. Khadija ran a caravan business in Mecca. A wealthy and successful trader, she was also a twice-widowed single mother, fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, and his boss.
Her marriage proposal to the future Prophet was forthright:
“I like you because of our relationship, your high reputation among your people, your trustworthiness, your good character and truthfulness.”
Even Today, Aisha Is Known As ‘The Beloved of the Beloved of Allah’
Khadija emerges as an impressive presence, but it is Aisha who shimmers: her penchant for wearing safflower red, her jealousy of her co-wives. Here is her crisp account of a quarrel with Safiyya, a Jewish convert and the Prophet’s tenth wife: “I insulted her father, and she insulted mine.”
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 firm 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.
She was ten when I met her, in Sana, Yemen. I’d been sent by an American magazine to interview the girl who had become Yemen’s most famous divorcée. A child with a passion for Tom and Jerry cartoons, she had been married at nine.
After one sister was kidnapped and another raped, her unemployed father, who had sixteen children and two wives, figured an early marriage would keep Nujood fed and safe. On her wedding day, she got a twenty-dollar ring, three dresses, and two hijabs, but the excitement wore off by the evening, when, she said, her thirty-year-old groom raped her.
She Was Married At Nine and Divorced At Ten
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 seventeen, it met with so much opposition from conservatives that it was repealed.
In 2010, the Associated Press reported that Yemen’s Muslim leaders had issued a statement declaring that any supporters of the new law would be denounced as un-Islamic, and apostates. It took until 2014 for there to be a concerted push to pass a law banning child marriages.
One Sunday, the Sheikh was teaching a class on child marriage in Oxford. “There were about forty guys in the room, and just a few women,” recalled Arzoo, one of those women.
Arzoo raised her hand and asked how Islamic law could possibly condone anything that led to such suffering. She spoke of parents marrying off 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, Arzoo and Mehrun, another female student, debated the issue with Akram. At first, he held that while child marriage was permissible, no girl should have sex before she begins menstruating.
Verse 4:34 of the Quran Has Been Called the ‘DNA of Patriarchy’
Then, one Sunday, Akram made an announcement.
“He said, ‘I have been talking to Arzoo and Mehrunnisa and I’ve revised my position,’ ” recalled Arzoo, in a Skype conversation.
He had gone back to the sources, and had found an eighth-century judge and jurist, Ibn Shubruma, with a sound fatwa against the practice of child marriage. Ibn Shubruma argued that the issue hinged on autonomy. 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.
Unfortunately, many of the men who deny their wives and daughters basic freedoms hide behind their Qurans. A favourite passage for patriarchs is the famous 4:34, the thirty-fourth verse of “The Women,” the Quran’s fourth chapter.
These six lines must surely rank among the most hotly debated in Muslim scripture. The women’s group Musawah has called them the “DNA of patriarchy” for the Islamic legal tradition. For it is here that many scholars have claimed to find Allah setting out men’s superiority and authority over women, an authority that can be backed up by force.
Debates on How to Translate the Verse Rage
One popular translation, by the early-twentieth-century English translator Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, reads:
"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [for the support of women]. So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them."
Debates on how to translate the verse rage. New translations suggest less sexist meanings than earlier ones.
One casts men as women’s “protectors and maintainers,” another says that “men are to take care of women, because God has given them greater strength.”
One thing remains certain: men’s interpretations of the verse have made millions of women miserable.
Muftis, or Islamic judges, cite it to excuse domestic violence. The Saudi Arabian government leveraged its message to legislate a “guardianship” system wherein women could not, until recently, open a bank account or travel abroad without a male relative’s permission.
When I raised it with him, Akram told me that verse 4:34 starts by saying men and women are created “from one soul.” So the Quran starts from the assumption of absolute equality in creation.
Besides, he noted, the Prophet never hit his wives. “The best among you,” said the Prophet Muhammad “is the one who is best towards his wife.”
Once, 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 first 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 Quran, reading meant far more than mere literacy.
Across the world, Muslim progressives in places as disparate as Jakarta and Virginia have read 4:34 anew, chiselling off 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 Quran advocates female genital mutilation. Meanwhile, Malaysian campaigners travel to small-town mosques and schools, handing out pamphlets with bright red cover asking, “Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah?”
The Sheikh wouldn’t call himself a feminist. Just a Muslim who has read his Quran.
More and more people are realizing that the answer to that last question is yes. A few years before I started studying with Akram, I attended a conference organized by Musawah, the global women’s organization devoted to reforming Islamic family laws, held at a glittering hotel ballroom in Kuala Lumpur.
Toward the evening’s end, the Quran’s verse 33:35 was read over the loudspeaker. It was revealed to Muhammad after one of his wives, the formidable Umm Salamah, asked him why, exactly, it seemed sometimes as though God only spoke to men, not women. The response came soon after:
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,
the men who are truthful and the women who are truthful,
the men who are constant and the women who are constant,
the men who are humble and the women who are humble,
the men who give charity and the women who give charity,
the men who fast and the women who fast,
the men who are chaste and the women who are chaste,
and the men and women who remember God a lot, God has arranged forgiveness for them, and a magnificent reward.
It was the promise of this forgiveness, of this reward, that drove the Sheikh.
He wouldn’t call himself a feminist. Just a Muslim who has read his Quran.
Part One of the Article:
Adapted from IF THE OCEANS WERE INK by Carla Power, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carla Power. All rights reserved.