Inspire(-ation) At City Hall

Published at OnIslam.net

Entitled, “Speaking in God’s Name, Re-examining Gender in Islam,” this two day conference organised by ‘Inspire’ has been a melting pot of thoughts and ideas, an indulgence of sorts, bringing together a who’s who of liberal Muslims whose opinions and interpretations of the Quran have been a slap in the face to some in the classical-conservative field of view.

While some of the discussions addressed directly the subject of patriarchy, that is, the masculine interpretation of the Quran (and the hadith), there was a wider, more subtle message which I found paralleled verse 31:6 of the Quran which reads, “There are some people who purchase idle talk in order to lead away from Allah’s path without any knowledge.” That is to say, the conference invited the audience to look beyond established norms, to challenge the status quo, some of which can easily fall into the category of ‘idle talk’ – for if Allah Almighty critises those who follow blindly what their forefathers followed without thinking, questioning or improving their understanding,  sure repeating the same is also ‘idle talk’?

I have heard Amina Wadud speak previously, and I’m equally aware of some of her more controversial opinions. However, every time I learn of such discussions I’m continually reminded of Prophet Muhammad’s own example where men AND women would always approach him, and in many cases, the women would challenge him. The Quranic verse of ‘hear and obey’ while in principle may be sound, it doesn’t reflect the attitude of his companions, who first heard, then questioned, then challenged, then when satisfied, obeyed. The Quran isn’t wrong, our understanding of the process is wrong. The subtleties of language have a direct impact on our interpretation.

Throughout her talk, for example, Amina, when referring to Allah, would do so using ‘She’. While in Arabic the male plural refers to both men and women, in English, when we say ‘He’ this refers only to the masculine. So while Muslims know and understand that Allah Almighty is neither male nor female, the continued use of ‘He’ to refer to Allah in every English translation is inaccurate. By way of confession from myself, whenever I read the Quran in English and see ‘He’ I have always replaced it with ‘Allah’ as I myself have found it odd to refer to the Creator who is genderless with a word in my primary language which has a gender specific meaning.

Beyond language there is a disconnect with ‘common sense’ which sadly, still today, some Muslims argue, ‘has no place in Islam’. Having a number of his books and being a fan of his works, I have read some of what Khalid Abou elFadl has authored. Often chastised with many of his texts banned in some Muslim countries, he provided the example of where one day, on a visit to the mosque, his elderly mother walked in though the door labelled ‘men’ instead of the one for ‘women’. Immediately, a Muslim man chased after her shouting ‘fitna fitna’ to which Khalid’s response was, paraphrased, ‘Dear brother, tell me, how can this elderly woman possibly be temptation to men?’ No thought, no understanding, just an application of process centered around a female being a temptation.

When speaking of the balance between the Public and Private sphere, Halima Krausen referred to the Quranic verse which suggests that four witnesses need to be found who can testify to an act of illegal sexual intercourse.. Herself an older lady, she joked about the silliness of inviting a boyfriend to be with her – and four strangers to witness the act. Later someone questioned how this could even be possible given that we are told to ‘lower the gaze’ from seeing something inappropriate.

The public-private sphere also touches upon male-female interaction, specifically in the mosque where it was pointed out that Allah Almighty has made the whole world a place for prayer, except, it seems, most mosques today as many still do not accommodate women.  All the while we know that the mosque at the time of the Prophet were full of women who simply prayed behind the men – not at the back. Worse, the hadith about it being better for women to pray in their homes, referred to an elderly woman who had arthritis and so found it difficult to attend the mosque should not continue to be used deny women this basic right.

Further, in my own case, I continue to question the constant overhang of male female interaction, where it is embodied as a cloud of temptation. It is as if a man cannot be in the company of a woman without having sexual thoughts about the latter, or vice-versa. Yet once again the Prophet rescues men (and indirectly women) advising them that if they have such feelings they should return home and address them with their wife (or husband). The implication being that men and women did interact, and that for humanity to not only exist but progress, one gender cannot be excluded from the equation; with interaction based on respecting the opposite gender and not sexualising every encounter with them.

When speaking of the Quranic verses, Michael Mumisa included the example of language where some, in the past, interpreted the verse of the Quran which says, “Mary women of your choice, two or three or four” as reading “..two and three and four..” So instead of having one wife, a person ends up with nine! Of course this interpretation is rarely held by people in our time, but it made me wonder about the subject of language and the process of interpretation, particularly given that the Quran also says, “…it is better if you marry only one…”

He continued to explain giving the example of female circumcision where excusing the fabricated hadith, he addressed one, a question put to and responded to by Aisha, which says, ‘…when the two circumcised parts meet..’. Using the Quranic verse which reads, ‘Allah is Lord of the two east’s and the Lord of the two wests’ he observed, that while there is only one east, or one west, the usage of ‘two’ while referring to one, strengthens the meaning. That is to say that linguistically, the implication is one, not two; just as in the case of Aisha’s hadith, it refers to one, the male body organ which is circumcised, and not the male and female – despite latter being part of jahilliyah.

Over the course of the two days, there were two discussions which had a real impact on me. The first was an initiative being run by Samar Minallah, who uses the medium of film to raise awareness of a troubling cultural practice known as ‘swara’. This is where a young girl (in some cases young woman) is given to another family as ‘compensation’ for a crime that was committed against that family. She gave the example of an 11 year old girl being given to a 42 year old man who took her as his wife. Ignoring this practice in of itself, the Quran specifically states that no bearer of a burden can bear the burden of another. And while the law in Pakistan has made this practice illegal, it is shameful that culturally, in some parts at least, it is an acceptable practice.

The second, was the account of a lady named Mukhtar Mai which reduced many of us to tears. She was the victim of gang rape which was authorised by a local tribal council. Ignoring the ironies and absurdities of such a judgment – which have no place in Islam – custom dictates that after such an event she commit suicide – something also prohibited by Islam. Instead, and this to me is a proof that if Allah Almighty inspires a person with courage nothing can get in their way, she fought back. From first raising the issue with an imam who spoke about how unIslamic this is at a Friday sermon, she is now encouraging education en masse, having built a school which began with 4 and has now reached 700 girls. Her reasoning? Uneducated women told her to bear and accept her fate, that it was ‘kismet’, her ‘destiny’ to be treated this way, while educated women encouraged her to seek justice and stand up for her God-given rights.

In what was clearly a heavy set of presentations, we were blessed with recitals by Shagufta Kauser-Iqbal whose poem ‘Girls eat jam’ I found to be both relevant and apt. Based on the premise that men as labourers ‘do more’ and so require better nourishment, menfolk will have eggs, while womenfolk who ‘do less’ will have jam. To me this gender bias, the way boys are often preferred above girls, stems from the pre-Islamic practice where baby girls were once buried.  While I am grateful that this has not been the case in my own household, I struggle with the notion that any parent could give preference to one gender over the other by way of food, finding the notion rather alien. Worse, I find this to be such a poor reflection of justice within the home; a place that should be a sanctuary for all.

One of the speakers, Chris Allen, addressed a rather subtle point, the tie between a Muslim woman’s dress and societies perception of Islam. A recent subject of discussion in the news, the burkini illustrated the divergence of opinion. Simply, when a Muslim woman dresses in such a way she is oppressed because she is hiding and covering herself, all the while when non-Muslim woman such as Nigella Lawson, a famous personality chooses to go onto a beach in a burkini, does it, she is hiding her modesty from prying eyes. What is oppression for one is liberating for another, thus the dress code isn’t really the subject, rather it is the creation of fear of, and anger towards a faith i.e. Islam.

In this context, another of the speakers, Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, used her slot to address a number of the commonly misunderstood hadith relating to women. The classic example being a false narration where one of the companions Abu Huraira said that a man cannot pray if a woman or a dog is in front of him, to which Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, objected angrily saying that he has compared women to dogs. She then corrected him giving her own example of how the Prophet would pray and when he would prostrate he would tap her legs and she would move them out of the way so he could prostrate. Aside from the literal meaning of this hadith, it addresses a much wider concern, that is the attitude that even men who were close to the Prophet had with regards to women. If it happened here, where else did it happen? And more importantly, how have these attitudes remained to the point that the self-proclaimed champions of Islam do not view women as women but rather as sexualised objects that often need ‘protecting’?

Taking this further, Riba Mir-Hosseini, pointed out something which I hadn’t thought of previously. That is at a time of revolution and change, where some societies were trying to become more ‘Islamic’, in doing so, they simply uplifted conservative classical interpretation of Islam, integrating elements of them into their state’s legal code, without going through the same due process that took place throughout the differing periods of Islam. Even in early Islam where interpretation of the Quran and Hadith varied between the different regions to which Islam spread reflecting the conditions and circumstance of the societies that lived there, one set of opinions were established as the norm.  While in theory this may sound like a good idea, the problem is, that it included vast statements and opinions based on a patriarchal interpretation of Islam, which in many cases didn’t reflect the example of the Prophet Muhammad himself. As a result, in the Western world specifically, you have a much stronger conservatism of Islam than you do in many of the Muslim countries e.g. attitudes to music, where all music in the west to some Muslims is ‘haram’ but elsewhere in the Muslim world good music is good while bad music is bad.

Further, and this is what really struck me, is that in place of intellectual discovery which has been made possible in the west on account of the wider freedoms enjoyed by general society, when these evidences and discovery are then shared with the wider Muslim world – particularly with regards to women’s rights, they are disregarded for not adhering to the status quo, irrespective of whether they are sound or not. For me, a truth is a truth, irrespective of how it is derived. And for me, refusing to acknowledge the integrity of that truth, is a reflection of the Quranic verse where people are criticised for following what their forefathers did blindly, more often than not, under the guise of tradition.

The conference concluded with the launch of an initiative named Jihad Against Violence (JAV). The initiative driven by the team at Inspire along with the support of Daisy Khan and Uasama Hasan is built upon a single philosophy of the Prophet Muhammad, that is, to seek peace instead of war. That is to say that we haven’t been created different to disagree with one another, rather our differences should be adding value to the wider human experience.

One of the most important reminders this conference left me with is the knowledge and understanding of the relationship between man and Allah Almighty, one that is based on understanding and piety, not arrogance and self-righteousness. We are taught in the Quran that faith is a blessing. It is thus through our own individual actions that we must reflect the values of faith, from modesty to justice.

However, all too often Muslims suffer from a superiority complex, that is to say that we are on truth and others are on the path to hell. This attitude does not reflect the approach the Prophet himself had with others. Rather, his approach to any and every person was first that they are a human being, and that every human being as a descendant of Adam and Eve has the same rights with regards to freedom and justice as every other human being. Whether this is freeing women from pre-Islamic (and now post-Islamic) oppression, running the affairs of a state, or simply matters relating to everyday life, until such time as we adopt the Prophetic advice, ‘A person is not a believer until they want for the other what they want for themselves’; until we have understood and apply this in our daily lives, we as people have little right to claim that we are upon the path of truth.

In 2010, the journal Psychological Sciences reported on a study  commissioned by the University of Arizona which found idle talk made people unhappy, going on to say “that the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than solitary and superficial.” So I return to my opening quote from the Quran which reads, , “There are some people who purchase idle talk in order to lead away from Allah’s path without any knowledge.” And I ask myself, who exactly is facilitating this ‘idle talk’? Is it the person who accepts  (all of) the status quo (as is), or is it the person who perhaps challenges (some of) the status quo, seeking clarification and better understanding of faith?

The other day I was in a museum where amongst the items on display was a beautifully designed intricate necklace at the base of which was a container made of silver within which a person would place a miniature Quran. It seems to me as so many of us know the verses of the Quran, but, metaphorically, these verses simple hang around our necks like the bells hung around cows in a field; every time they move it makes a sound, just as every time we speak, we recite the verses of the Quran. I long for the day when the words of Allah Almighty are spoken by us with context and understanding for perhaps then, humankind will no longer inflict injustice on one another.

Throughout the conference, despite Norman Foster’s beautifully designed City Hall in London, sound from outside could still be heard in the background. As we came to a close, it seemed ironic that some of the lyrics heard included ‘Somewhere over the rainbow…” So I close with some advice from Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, and son-in-law, who said, ‘Consider not the one who is speaking, but what is being spoken’. Perhaps if we moved beyond labels, we would find something more of the beauty of Islam, discovering the metaphorical pot of gold. Kudos for Inspire for organising this much needed event, and may Allah Almighty have mercy and guide us all, ameen.

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