On Saturday March 8, 2014 an unfortunate Muslim scholar named Abu Eesa posted some comments online that set off a heated exchange. It was International Women’s Day, and he made what he later claimed was meant to be a sarcastic joke. He said it was OK to have an International Women’s Day because the other 364 days of the year still belonged to the men.
A lot of Muslim women (and not a few men) got very upset about this and let him know it. His response was not apologetic, at least not at first, and the criticism began to fly, fast and furious. I don’t need to go into the details of who said what and who said what back. The part that interested me the most was that this became such an issue, an offhand comment that ignited a firestorm of emotional response.
The fact of the matter is, this issue of equal rights between men and women in Islam is a really raw issue. People on one side of the issue feel that huge injustices are being perpetrated against half of humanity in the name of Islam. People on the other side feel that the whole issue has been blown way out of proportion, and that those who do so are a threat to the religion. Our poor imam tried to make a joke about the issue itself, and perhaps he now sorely regrets it.
I feel for him, in a way. But I also side with those who argue that equality between men and women in Islam is not an issue that has been overblown, and is one that has not been satisfactorily confronted and put to rest. I myself have struggled with it mightily for the past three decades. And that struggle has brought me face to face with my need to understand the nature of Quran and the history of its revelation.
Let me start by saying that God/Allah surely has an exquisite sense of humor. I was a confirmed feminist when God guided me to Islam. I was committed to following my own path, convinced that no man was going to tell me how to run my life. Of course, I eventually ran up against the realization that this was not really making me happy, and that was about the time I started reading about Islam. To make a long story short, I got intrigued, and then I got hooked, and then I met a man who felt like destiny, and married him. Then I started going to the mosques, and I’m sure that’s when God started having a really good time with me.
“Really God?” I asked myself. “Really? This is the path I’m supposed to take now? First, the Holy Book is in a language that is about as impenetrable to me as they get. And reading it in translation is not much help. And I can’t pray beside my husband in our house of worship? And what is it with women I don’t know pulling my scarf over my hair for me if any of it shows; women arguing about whether their skirts should touch the ground – is it worse to show some ankle or allow your skirt to get dirty? Arguing that a curtain at least, but preferably a wall, should separate them from the men?”
“And what about this history? You say in the Quran, the Holy Book, that men and women are equal, but that men are allowed to have four wives? Yeah, I know you say IF the man can treat them all equally, and since that is impossible we should know that really means men can only have one wife. But why say men can have four wives in the first place? And what about the Prophet who brought us this religion? He had 12 wives, nine at the same time plus a concubine at one point? And he married one of them when he was 52 and she was nine? Ya Allah, I know feminism and independence didn’t have all the answers I needed, but What, exactly, am I supposed to do with all this?” [Now, I have to interject here, before you start wondering about me – I do not believe God talks to me – these are imaginary conversations…]
No one at the mosques could answer these questions to my satisfaction. And when I tried to talk about them with my husband, they were not perceived as questions, they were felt as attacks. We stopped going to the mosques, and silently agreed to put a hiatus on searching for the answers, for the sake of our marriage and our peace. We kept our faith, and trusted that eventually God would illuminate our path. Almost 30 years have passed, and we have a daughter with whom we have tried to share the beauty of Islam, without resolving these contradictions. They have not gone away. But now at least now I know that we are not the only ones who believe in the prophecy of Mohammad, but struggle to make sense of it all.
I do believe that we are meant to struggle with, and not run away from the contradictions in our faith.
Iqra bismi Rabbikal-ladhi khalaq.
Read in the name of your Sustainer who has created
Khalaqal-insana min alaq.
Created humankind out of a germ-cell.
Iqra wa Rabbukal-Akram.
Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One.
Alladhi allama bilqalam.
Who has taught humankind the use of the pen.
Allamal-insana ma lam ya’lam.
Taught humankind what they did not know. [96:1-5]
The first instruction from Allah to the prophet was to read – to learn.
And so, I have set about trying to read and learn as much as I can, and to reflect, as Allah says so many times in Quran, on creation and on the revelation:
Inna fi dhalika la ‘Ayatil-liqawminy-yatafakarun.
Verily, in all this there are messages indeed for people who think. [13:3, etc.]
And so, I give myself the challenge to think. But what can I think about the many passages in Quran that sound so oppressive of women to my ingrained feminist sensibilities? There are many examples, but let’s focus on just one, Surah At-Tahrim (Prohibition) 66:1-5:
O Prophet! Why do you, out of a desire to please one or another of your wives, impose on yourself a prohibition of something God has made lawful to you?
But God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace: God has already allowed you the breaking and forgiveness of those of your oaths that run counter to that which is right and just: for God is your lord Supreme, and is alone all-knowing, truly wise.
And so! The Prophet told something in confidence to one of his wives; and when she then divulged it, and God made this known to him, he acquainted others with part of it, and left out part of it. And as soon as he let her know it, she asked, “Who has told you this?” He replied, ‘The All-Knowing, the All-Aware has told me.’”
Say [to them[ O Prophet: ‘Would that you two turn unto God in repentance, for the hearts of both of you have swerved [from what is right]! And if you uphold each other against him [who is God’s message-bearer, know that] God himself is his Protector, and [that] therefore, Gabriel, and all the righteous among the believers, and all the [other] angels will come to his aid.’
O wives of the prophet! Were he to divorce any of you, his Sustainer might well give him in your stead spouses better than you – women who surrender themselves unto God, who truly believe, devoutly obey His will, turn unto Him in repentance, worship Him alone, and go on and on [seeking His goodly acceptance] – be they women previously married or virgins. [66:1-5]
There are a couple of different stories (Hadith) related to these ayat, which were revealed toward the end of the Prophet’s life, in Madinah, when he was living with nine wives. He would spend his nights rotating between them, so that each of them had an equal amount of time with him. He had just been given the gift of a Christian woman from Egypt, Mariah. She was not a wife, but an amah - a concubine. One story, according to At Tabari (based on about 10 different narrations), says that the Prophet spent time alone with her in the room of his wife Hafsa (who was the daughter of Umar), in fact, in Hafsa’s bed. This was on a day that should have been his turn with Aisha (the daughter of Abu Bakr). The Prophet told Hafsa, so this narration goes, not to tell anyone (i.e., the other wives) about it. Now Aisha and Hafsa, being daughters of the Prophet’s closest companions, tended to feel somewhat more entitled than the Prophet’s other wives. This was especially true of Aisha, who had never had any husband except the Prophet. (All his other wives were either widows or divorced when he married them.) Hafsa was angry, and so she told Aisha what had happened. Aisha got jealous, and confronted the Prophet about what he had done.
In Bukhari & Muslim’s version of this story, another of the Prophet’s wives, Zainab, had been given some honey by members of her family. She shared it with the Prophet when he stayed with her, and he liked it very much. Hafsa and Aisha were jealous that Zainab had something for him that they could not give him, and so they conspired together to tell him that the honey made his breath smell bad, and they did not like to smell it when he came from Zainab.
Whichever version is true, whatever the cause, the Prophet decided to stay away from all his wives for a month, and took to sleeping in the mosque.
I read these ayat and reflect on them, and I read the Hadith. And then I turn back to my imagined conversation with God.
“Really God? You told the Prophet that it was not OK for him to deny himself the pleasure of something You had provided for him – be it honey, or an amah – or whatever – just because it led to jealousy and bad behavior in two of his wives, when either of these two scenarios stems from the fundamental inequality and unfairness of one man having multiple wives when they can each have only one husband? And then you go on to tell him to reprimand the wives and tell them that he could divorce them and marry others who would be better than them? How, exactly, does that fit with what you said many times about men and women being equal? I really, truly want to understand this!”
And then I imagine God, bemused and ever patient, trying to explain it through my 21st century western, liberally educated, democratically fixated and sanctimoniously liberated sensibility.
“Look,” God says to me. “You’ve read about how those people were living when I decided to intervene and make Mohammad my last Prophet. They were a mess – burying infant girls, having children willy-nilly with no regard for their parentage or welfare – thinking that man-made statues could intervene to bend my will for them. I had to intervene, to correct their misperceptions. And I had to do it in a way that they would understand. I had to use their language, although of course in the process I raised their course language to a level of Divine beauty and grace. And I had to reach them through the culture they were in. I had to talk to them in the male voice, through a male, because they – neither the men nor the women - would not have taken a female voice seriously at that point in their development. But don’t forget that I sent the message to Mohammed when he was happily married to a woman who was up to sharing the burden of the prophecy – Khadija. Without her faith and love and support, he could not have withstood the force of my revelation. He would have gone mad. It took both of them together to bear its weight. And when her days came to an end, he could not have gone on without the support of many women. In fact, it took a whole team of women supporting him once the Muslims were living in community in Madinah, to counterbalance all those testosterone-driven male followers. Women felt that need in him, and they felt the power of his personality and the miracle of the prophecy, and they were drawn to him. And the only respectable and constructive way that women could be with a man who was not an immediate family member in that culture was by being married to him. None of those women married the Prophet against her will. They all knew they would have to share him, but it was worth it to them just to have him for one or two nights a month, and to have the privilege of helping him serve Allah. Allowing so many women to marry the Prophet was a mercy to them as much as to him. They all accepted the terms. He, and they, managed amazingly well, of course sustained by My Grace. But even the Prophet’s wives were human, and they got jealous in the end. I had to remind them of the bargain they had made with Me – they got to be married to the Prophet as long as they were faithful to Me and supportive of the Prophet and his role.”
“And,” God continues, “you cannot disregard the other message I sent through him, the standard for marriage for all time – that a man could not have more than one wife if the first did not agree. And I allowed for the frailties of human relationships by setting standards for divorce that were designed for that time, when men had full responsibility for the support of women and children.”
But what, I’m still thinking in this hypothetical conversation with Allah, what about Aisha? What about a child being married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather? “First of all,” God smiles benevolently in my imagination, “that was a different time, when the norm was that girls were married at puberty. Aisha knew the Prophet because he was a friend of her father. He was kind and beautiful, and she loved and trusted him. She was also destined for the role she played. Her young, bright, and absorbent mind soaked up the words of My revelations, and she kept vivid memories of all that happened around her. She carried those memories and shared them with the community for the rest of her life, helping to pass along the ayat and the chronicle of events for future generations.”
This is just one example of the imaginary conversations I’ve had with God, but that’s enough for now. I continue to reflect, and I continue to be humbled. I remember another passage of Quran, that came later on in the process of revelation, after the Muslims had migrated from Makkah to Madinah and established a community. Allah offered us a challenge:
Alladhi ja ‘ala lakumul-arda
firashanw-was-samaa ‘a binaa ‘nw-wa anzala minas-samaa ‘i
maa anfa akhraja bihi minath-thamarati
rizqal-lakum: fala taj ‘alu lillahi
andadanw-wa antum ta’lamun.
And if you doubt any part of what We have bestowed from on high, step by step, upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah of similar merit, and call upon any other God to bear witness for you – if what you say is true!
Wa in-kuntum fi raybim-mimma nazzalna
ala ‘abdina fat u bisuratim-mim-mithlihi
wad- u shuhadaa akum-min-dunil-lahi
Fa ‘il-lam taf ‘alu wa lan-taf alu
wal-hijaratu ‘u ‘iddat lilkafirin.
And if you cannot do it – and most certainly you cannot do it – then be conscious of the fire whose fuel is human beings and stones which awaits all who deny the truth!
God gave us our imagination, and here is telling us to use it – challenging us. It is sometimes not easy to discern the truth in revelations that came from God through a language not native to us, to a culture so radically different from our own. The challenge of it never ceases to push me to re-examine the assumptions of my own time and place, and the limitations of my own native language. And the exercise continues to exhilarate me – the reality of this text, this record that we have of a time in history when the Divine manifested through a single human being and guided him and his community, from military matters to the most personal issues.
Descended to their level, to the level of their imperfect human understandings and social structures, and gave them a new sense of direction, a new way forward. This was not an exercise in setting unrealistic standards. The real miracle of revelation was that it touched their lives so intimately, wove itself into the fabric of their daily activities.... gave them a path, a guide to change their behavior that was not so radically different as to be impossible for them to follow.
Now we are at a different time and place, living with a different language in a different culture. Does that make the Quran no longer relevant? None of us here believe that - we all still feel its power. But we also know that many of the details of Prophet Mohammad's time and culture no longer apply to us today. I cannot relate to being one of two, never mind many wives. And God revealed that I don't have to. What I can understand from Surat at-Tahrim is that it is wrong to be deceitful because I feel hurt by someone's behavior. And I can understand my responsibility to do what I can to make life peaceful for my husband, and his responsibility to do the same for me. I can learn from these ayat, even though the circumstances they describe do not pertain to me.
And so I continue to sort through the details in Quran, and the literature of Sunnah and Hadith, to discern the broader messages that still apply. This is my jihad.
Allahuma Ihdina ila tareek issalam
May God guide us all, and grant us peace.