PREACHING IN 7th-century Arabia, the Prophet Muhammed said that in a just and fair Islamic society, women would be able to travel without fear and alone on a camel’s back to Mecca to circumambulate the Kaaba. This was a revolutionary aim, given that bandits and thieves notoriously ruled the Arabian wastelands at the time and female infanticide was widespread. Far from mandating that women stay invisible, the Prophet made it a mission to establish norms so that women could go anywhere anytime, be it the deserts of Arabia or the streets of New Delhi. Never did he suggest that women needed protectors or caretakers; rather, he saw them as independent individuals with a deep sense of responsibility.
Unfortunately, recent statements by some Indian Muslim leaders, suggesting that the way women conduct themselves is responsible for the violence against them, run contrary to this spirit of Islam as the Prophet espoused. These leaders don’t offer solutions. In fact, their mindset is the problem.
Far from being a doctrine or a religion, Islam is, in fact, an experience of building a society that gives primacy to a just and equitable community where individuals come closer to God by experiencing values lived communally and not by traditional faith alone. The Holy Quran makes it mandatory for both men and women to strive for justice and freedom; for Muslims, there is no scope for dormancy and neutrality.
There were no schools or universities during the Prophet’s time and both sexes packed the mosques to attend the Prophet’s sermons. The Prophet’s wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman with enterprises as far away as Damascus. The Prophet regularly involved himself in domestic chores, which sadly are now reserved for women. Every year, millions of Muslim women and men mingle without segregation at the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina during the Haj, which is the single most important ritual for the Muslims. When narrating the story of Solomon and Sheba, the Holy Quran draws a portrait of Queen Sheba as a just and democratic leader.
The famous Islamic jurist Ibn Hajar Asqalani, whose rulings are taught in all religious madrassas in India, received his diploma and instructions from female teachers and scholars. Moreover, his wife, Anas Khatun, was a renowned public speaker and lecturer on Islamic jurisprudence. In 859 AD, Fatima al-Fihri, a prominent Muslim woman, founded the world’s oldest living university granting degrees: the University of Qarawiyyin in present-day Morocco. It would have been impossible for these women to leave their mark on history if the limitations as propagated today were imposed on them.
Thus, women’s role as being proactive, independent and dynamic are part of the Islamic legacy. These arguments are not, as traditional scholars may state, an influence or overdose of western materialism or modernity; rather they are implicit in Islam itself. As per the Quran, an aalim (scholar) is not an expert of Islamic precepts alone. Her/his expertise must also include the natural world, political trends, economic policies, philosophy, etc. Hence, a scholar issuing a fatwa must know the intricacies of the contemporary world, otherwise he has no right to issue it.
The appalling views some Islamic scholars hold on women, especially in north India, following the brutal rape and murder of a girl in New Delhi last month, reflects a blissful ignorance of Islam and sheer irresponsible behaviour.
Once when Islam’s second Caliph, Omar, was in the middle of a Friday sermon on dowry for women, a young woman interrupted him and publicly rebuked him for bringing what she considered untoward legislation in social affairs. Omar remained silent and graciously welcomed the admonishment. Islam encourages such revolutionary action that challenges power structures. This spirit must be fostered as the way forward.