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Honour Killings in Muslim Societies: the Role of Patriarchal Hadith



By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

27 January, 2014

In accordance with best (academic) practices I shall start this article with some necessary ‘self-positioning’. I am a practicing Muslim of Bosnian ethnicity and an academic on issues pertaining to contemporary interpretation of Islam with specific focus on gender issues. I am currently a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the University of Malaya. I am also a father to two children one of which is a 5 year old girl and the other a 3 year old boy. In what I write below should be understood as a plea for understanding and as an expression of genuine voice of concern both as a father and as a practicing Muslim.

A number of scholars such as F. Sabbah, F. Mernissi and Kh. Abou El Fadl to name but the most prominent few have discussed what the classical Islamic tradition considers to be an organic conceptual link between the categories of active and for the believing Muslim men potentially disastrous (both in salvific and this worldly fortunes) female sexuality and the concept of socio-moral chaos (Fitna) caused by the very presence (or even a smell) of a woman in the public sphere. According to this view of the nature of male and female sexuality, women, as a conceptual category, are identified with the “irreligious” realm of sexual passion, as repositories of all “lower” aspects of human nature, the very anti- thesis of “illuminated” sphere of male (religious) knowledge, in which the sole source of religious authority resides. In the words of El- Fadl women are seen as walking, breathing bundles of Fitna and womanhood is artificially constructed into the embodiment of seduction. Based on this active concept of female sexuality classical Islamic tradition has put in place a number of mechanisms to regulate this ‘omnisexual’ female sexual instinct by “external precautionary safeguards” such as seclusion and (complete) veiling of women, gender segregation, and women’s constant surveillance to ensure their modesty (Haya’). In turn, male honour is constructed exclusively in terms of (extreme) forms of sexual jealousy (Ghairah) and (extreme) conceptualizations of women’s modesty as for example based on the nine parts of desire Hadith (Asbagh bin Nubatah quotes Imam 'Ali as follows: "Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then He gave nine parts to women and one to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness/shame (`Awra عورة).. then each man would have nine women related to him.")  That is accepted by both classical Sunnism and Shi’ism on the basis of which gender segregation, public invisibility of women and their constant surveillance are upheld as the religious ideal.

Now, as I demonstrated elsewhere there is no Qur’anic basis for such a view of male or female sexuality, however, there is a voluminous Hadith based literature (again found in the studies I referred to as above and in many others) of variant authenticity/soundness criteria (if we take classical Ulum ul Hadith sciences as their ultimate measuring tool) which supports such a view. Indeed, that Hadith stipulate that women’s (and men’s) modesty (Haya’) is a branch of faith is well known fact. Importantly, one of the 5 essential higher objectives of Islamic law (Maqasid al Shari’a) as identified by Imam Al Ghazali (d.1111CE) and subsequently incorporated by others including the father of ‘Maqasid al Shari’a’ Imam Al-Shatibi identifies. This concept of honour (‘ird) is conceptually associated ,  among other things, especially in the contemporary period, primarily with women and their sexuality. In this context the author of the entry ‘ird (honour) in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edition ) writes as follows:

At the present day, the meaning of the word ʿir has become restricted, relating particularly to women: in Transjordania it is associated with the virtue of a woman or even with her beauty. In Egypt the ʿir of a man depends in general on his wife’s reputation and that of all his female relatives. In Syria the reputation of every member of a tribe reflects on a man’s ʿir. (Farès, Bichr. "ʿIr." Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online, 2014. Reference. University of Melbourne. 29 January 2014 .0

The conceptual linking between women and the nature of their sexuality   is also evident in the connotations surrounding the word ‘Awra which among others signifies words such as femininity, woman, nakedness, blemish, defect. As we know in some classical Islamic schools of thought woman’s voice is considered Awra. We find similar disturbing evidence of conceptual linking between women and deficient rational faculties. For example , the medieval dictionary of the Arabic language written by Ibn Manzur who in his entry on ra’y  which he defines as “well considered opinion , mental perception and sound judgment” applies this  description to  some males only because he considers that women as a general category of humanity could not posses ra’y. Similar framing/conceptulisating  of genders in artificially  oppositional dichotomies is evident in much of the classical Islamic though. For example, Al-Ghazali relates that the fourth caliph ‘Ali and  the first Shi’i Imam as having said the following : “The worst characteristics of men constitute the best characteristics of women; namely, stinginess, pride and cowardice. For if a woman is stingy, she will preserve her own and her husband’s possessions; if she is proud, she will refrain from loose and improper words to everyone; and if she is cowardly, she will dread everything and will therefore not gout of her house and will avoid compromising situations for the fear of her husband”(Imam Al Ghazali, Marriage and Sexuality in Islam, translated by Madelaine Farah, Islamic book Trust, Kuala Lumpur,2012, p.78).

Those who have (hastily) argued that honour killings ( whose continued and high prevalence in Muslim majority communities has been established in the academic literature without a shadow of doubt )  have nothing to do with either the concept of male ‘honour’ described above  or the classical Islamic tradition’s socio-cultural values  since they exist  across cultural and religious divides and or are not present in all Muslim societies, have never examined systematically the question as to  what extent have the patriarchal Hadith ,such as the nine parts of desire ,  and many more which can be found in books of Aid  Qarni (“You Can Be The Happiest Woman in the World”)and similar others,  have played in affecting the moral compass of men  and women ( as often honour killings have a {tacit} approval of the victim’s male and female kin) that, potentially,  can be seen as  creating a socio-cultural and psychological atmosphere conducive to the perpetuation of these horrific crimes . These types of arguments against the usefulness of  the category of honour killings and insufficient consideration of the ‘religious element’ in the same  are also based on a number of other problematic assumptions that I cannot possibly address adequately here due to space concerns and concern the artificial creation of clear cut delineating of socio-cultural from religious values as well as a number of presuppositions regarding the nature of the Qur’an-Sunna discourse that I have addressed elsewhere.

 My basic argument (or plea for understanding) is that we need to seriously examine the question to what extent, directly or indirectly, have these patriarchal Hadith ( or more specifically the socio-cultural norms and practices they  have played a role in engendering) which have penetrated the socio-cultural values and moral outlook of segments of Muslim societies as evident in the very vocabularies of the languages of Muslim cultures (  i.e. conceptual links between woman=awra=fita=’ird that for example can be seen at play in  the word ‘fitmekusa’ which in Bosnian refers to a woman who chooses to live a non tradition life i.e. woman who has not internalized the kind of blind obedience to the male kind and has restricted herself to the private sphere of her home.) are to be implicated in motivations /justifications/rationalizations behind  honour killings in Muslim contexts. If these Hadith are considered to be reflective of the Islamic teachings , as they often are, than can the views of male and female sexuality  found in these Hadith and the  socio-cultural norms and practices they give rise to, as discussed above,  be seen as creating a socio-cultural and psychological atmosphere conducive to carrying out of honour killings?  While I do not have a categorical answer to this question, I do believe that we as committed Muslims must have this discussion.

One solution that I have proposed elsewhere with regards to the normative nature of sunna body of knowledge is to separate it conceptually and hermeneutically from the hadith bodies of knowledge (and there are good reasons why this can and should be done while still being faithful to our tradition)[1]  which would permit us to question their normative nature while maintain our commitment to the teachings and values in the Qur’an and Sunna.

Another important thing to do is to once and for all break this conceptual linking of woman=Fitna=Awra=’ird  and unreasonable and, at times ,alarmingly disturbing  conceptualizations of Ghairah and Haya’ and  recognize that these conceptual links  were incorporated into Hadith literature and medieval Muslim societies though the customs (‘urf) of the tribalistic 7th century Hijaz that were unproblematically assimilated into classical Islamic law and ethics. To do this we need a novel Qur’an-Sunna hermeneutic that is receptive to many conceptual ( as well as other) assumptions  that I have discussed elsewhere that were guiding classical Islamic scholarship when interpreting the same, especially as they relate to nature of men and women and in particular their respective sexualities and develop alternative  conceptualizations of ‘honour’ , female ‘modesty’ and male sexual jealousy which are divorced from  medieval ‘urf-based considerations. I am also inclined to say that the very concept of honour should be done away with altogether and replaced with the Qur’anic concept of Karama (dignity). [1]