Muslim Women’s Jamaat

By Kabir Bavikatte

Dominant Islamic theology has excelled in something called ‘pamphlet Islam’. Pamphlet Islam consists of brightly coloured pamphlets that deliver ‘faith in a nutshell’. In most cases, the victims of this ‘pamphlet Islam’ are women. One usually comes across pamphlets written by men entitled ‘status of women in Islam’ (never status of men in Islam), usually sponsored by Saudi money and therefore cleaving to a literalist, Wahhabi ideology. This may include a 2-page summary of a 1400-year-old tradition, highlighting instances in which Muslim women have played a significant and vocal role. Such a summary is dishonest, since it never reveals ‘the status of women in Islam’ as according to whose interpretation - is it Muslim men, Wahhabi clergy, local ulema, or Muslim women themselves?

The proponents of ‘faith in a nutshell’ have another affliction, which is to make falsely authoritative statements on a tradition rich with debate and intellectual ferment by introducing it with clichés like ‘Islam is simple’. Islam, on the contrary, is anything but simple - if one peruses the vastness of Islamic literature spanning theology, science, logic, philosophy, politics and spirituality. But the ‘Islam is simple’ folks tend to also assume that ‘Islam is us,’ implying that whatever they say about it is the only true Islam. The lay Muslim, ignorant of the varied theological commentaries and writings, is never informed as to the sources of particular interpretations or the dissenting views therein. On the contrary, the image that is painted is that of a monolithic, unchanging faith - far from the truth of a tradition that is rich with the lives and ideas of courageous theologians, philosophers, scientists, and Sufis, whose ideas brought an end to the Dark Ages in Europe and heralded the European Enlightenment.

Muslim women in ‘Pamphlet Islam’ oscillate between two positions - the first constructs her as a fragile being, who needs to be hidden to protect her from the men who would fall victim to her predisposition to lead them astray. The second is apologetic, and reflects what a Muslim theologian colleague calls ‘a theology of dole’- which is an interpretation of Islam that preaches kindness and gentleness towards women; sort of giving them warm soup and blankets while they form a permanent queue outside the citadels of male power, with no hope of ever sharing in that power. The liberal, secular intelligentsia are equally guilty of buying into these constructs, albeit in a different way - they view Muslim women as absolutely marginalized, steeped in tradition with no ability to fight their own battles, and they assume that they must be saved from themselves. This, according to them, can only happen when the so- called ‘enlightened majority’ bestows on them the Uniform Civil Code, or worse still, attacks a country militarily, ostensibly to ‘liberate’ Muslim women.

September 2004 heralded the 5th meeting of the Tamil Nadu (TN) Muslim Women’s Jamaat Committee (MWJC) in South India, which has disproved the above stereotypes. It has validated the historical truth that Muslim women, from the time of the Prophet onwards, have consistently fought for their right to interpret Islam in an egalitarian way, refusing to be straitjacketed by male interpretations of the faith. The MWJC was formed in response to the patriarchal rulings of the male dominated jamaats in TN. These jamaats function as dispute settlement authorities, dealing with ‘domestic’ affairs ranging from dowry harassment, arbitrary divorces (talaqs), domestic violence and child abuse, to sexual harassment and cheating. Tired of the misogyny of the all male jamaats, some Muslim women got together in conjunction with a local NGO called STEPS Women’s Development Organisation, and formed their own jamaat. Since a jamaat is usually an informal group of worshippers who pray at a particular mosque, the women decided to build their own mosque. Of course a women’s mosque would need a woman to lead the prayers, and so the search is on for a woman Imam. This, according to the Women Living Under Muslim Laws project, is a huge milestone, since both the women-only jamaat and mosque are one of the first of their kind in the world (there is also reported to be such types of mosques in China). This is also unprecedented in recent Islamic history of the sub-continent, since just a miniscule number of mosques actually provide spaces for women to pray. The genius of the women’s-only mosque lies in an astute understanding of the mosque space as not just religious but also profoundly political. Many decisions affecting the religio-cultural life of Muslims are made in the mosque, and the Friday sermon is the discourse that significantly informs the personal ethics of the believer.

Women’s access to mosque space and their genuine participation therein has been hotly contested by Muslim women the world over. Recent controversies include the struggle led in the US by Asra Nomani, the grand-daughter of the eminent Indian Muslim jurist Shibli Nomani, and the mid-90s struggle of South African Islamic feminist Shamima Sheikh in Johannesburg for their right to pray in the front of the mosque, rather than being relegated to a separate enclosure at the back or upstairs. The most controversial one was the Friday sermon itself delivered by Amina Wadud, an African- American Islamic feminist in Cape Town, despite widespread protests by the all-male clergy. These women have challenged the clergy’s interpretations of Islam, arguing that the restrictions of women’s access to mosques and to conducting of prayers are merely pre-Islamic or Near Eastern patriarchal practices, codified as Islamic injunctions by male Muslim jurists in the 9th century, and have no basis in either the Qur’an or Prophetic practice.

The real question, nevertheless, is one of power. By what theological sleight of hand have the clergy denied Muslim women the right to sit on the jamaat committees and have a say in decisions affecting their lives? An oft-quoted hadith (Prophetic saying) is one where the Prophet Mohammed is reported to have said “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity”. At its face this seems unlikely considering specific egalitarian verses in the Qur’an such as “…men and women who speak the truth, persevere in righteousness, are humble…God has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (Q 33:35) and considering the Prophet himself asked Muslims to take a ‘part of your religion from A’isha’, his wife, revered as the ‘mother of the believers’.

The source of this controversial hadith of people not knowing prosperity in the hands of women has been brilliantly interrogated by Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatima Mernissi. Mernissi notes that this hadith was reported by one Abu Bakra, who was a notable in the city of Basra at the time when A’isha asked him for his support in the war against Ali (the Prophet’s nephew). A’isha in 656 was waging war against Ali who became the Caliph after the assassination of the third Caliph Uthman. Abu Bakra, along with most of the citizens of Basra, felt the war had little to do with them. His position was typified by a response of one of the Basrans who challenged A’isha that since they had never been consulted on the choice of any Caliph, why were they now being dragged into a war not of their making? The further risk was that if A’isha lost the war, then Ali wouldn’t spare her supporters. Mernissi says that Abu Bakra must have had a fabulous memory, since he recalled this hadith 25 years after the Prophet is alleged to have said it when he was informed that the Persians had appointed a woman ruler. Abu Bakra was a former slave who was freed by the Prophet in the siege of Ta’if. He had risen rapidly after that and was shrewd enough to know that he could lose it all by one small mistake. All this makes one wonder about the authenticity of this hadith not to mention that significant Muslim commentators like al-Tabari have rejected it. What also casts a doubt on Abu Bakra was that he had already been punished by the second Caliph, Umar, for giving false testimony in a case of adultery.

Perhaps whenever the clergy feel the urge to opportunistically use this hadith, they would do well to bear in mind the caution advised by Imam Malik, the founder of the Maliki school of jurisprudence: He rejected people as narrators of hadith simply because he saw them lying in their relations with people. Denying Muslim women decision-making power says more about the inadequacies of Muslim men than it does of women - As Maryam Rajavi, in her work Islam and Women’s Equality, says, ‘In a society where women are second-class citizens, how can any man claim to be free and not suspect their own humanity…Aren’t men in bondage too? They too are chained by their quest to dominate.’

Kabir Bavikatte is a seeker of Truth whose journey is far from complete. He lives in Cape Town and earns a living as a human rights lawyer among other things.


Khalid Anis Ansari


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