After the thoroughly depressing read of the chauvinist attitudes at CallToIslam, this is a refreshing and inspirational speech given by Usama Hasan at the Inspire conference, “Muslim Women: Pioneering Change in 21st Century Britain”
In addressing women’s issues in today’s society, Hasan firstly points out how with the constant obsession (but not debate) over the obligation of the hijab and level of covering, we have managed to reduce Muslim women merely to what we wear on our heads. Later on in the speech it is pointed out that regarding covering up, the need is to “dress modestly, that’s the holistic reading of it…I put it to you that in this society and in most societies, most women do dress modestly..especially in this cold weather!” This is the kind of language and understanding we expect from Muslims who know and live in our society. This idea that Western women all go out near-naked is so wrong and offensive, it makes you wonder what planet the other so-called scholars are living on, and is no different to the stereotyping of Muslim women by other people who lack knowledge. With his own understanding of extremism, himself declaring he had been down a radical path before, he attributes “hardline teaching, that women with their hair uncovered are naked according to shariah” to the odd views of young men who go out thinking “this is all haram, it’s all kufr, it’s all fitna, with all these naked women everywhere”. Hasan rightly blasts this as “just nonsense!”, from people stuck in the past.
He also raises the issue of restrictions placed on women in mosques, highlighting the fact that there were no physical barriers or separate entrances for men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in his time, something that is commonly found in mosques in Britain today. Although, he states, the women prayed towards the back, they were still fully able to see and be seen by the imam, and he narrated an amusing story about some companions of the Prophet who would pray near the back rows so that they could steal glances at some of the pretty women in the front row. That’s probably something you wouldn’t hear from many of those who claim to follow the Prophet and his companions so rigidly today, yet it shows that even the best of people can appreciate the beauty of women without trying to abuse or control it.
The subjects of women leaders and female warriors were also brought up, in contrast to the many teachings we seem to hear today telling women our place is in the home and that we have no place in public life, let alone in politics. Despite the outrage found in many circles over the novel “Jewel of Medina” (many of whom never bothered to read it before commenting) Hasan describes how he actually found some parts of the novel very moving, yet also calmly criticised the passages he found highly offensive. He laments how the debate within Islam has been stifled, whereas it was much more open in the past. He uses the example of Ibn Hazm, in his discussion on prophethood, who believed that Mary was a prophet /prophetess, saying “It just shows, the fact that he could say that and feel empowered to say that says a lot about Islamic tradition and discourse throughout the centuries. It used to be at a much higher level than it is now”.
In addressing the traditional teachings that are still found in most mosques, Islamic centres, and universities, where women are “restricted largely to the home, their role, must cover from head to toe in public”, he asserts that we “desperately need to raise our level of discussion of shariah” instead of sticking to these restrictions that have been unjustly placed on women in modern times. There is no obligation for women to stay in their homes, he states, giving the example of Aisha (ra) leading her army miles outside of Medina to deal with a pressing political issue. This is a woman who knew these Koranic verses more than anybody else!
Hasan goes on to say that the word shariah is misunderstood by Muslims and others. After discussing what the shariah is really about, he states that “we, Western Muslims, are actually so comfortable in the West because we connect to a shared legacy…or a tradition of these universal values about law and civilised behaviour”. How nice to listen to somebody who refuses to buy into the ‘clash of civilisations’ rubbish!
Whereas many people assume the shariah is a set of unchanging rules and laws, Hasan insists that one of the fundamental principles of shariah is that “fatwas and legal rulings not only can, but must change according to time, place and context”. He quotes Ibn al Qayyim, who believed ‘a jurist must know the context. If they are ignorant of the reality of society and the environment etc. they are prohibited from passing fatwas, giving rulings’…and states that “it is because so many fatwas are given out of context that we have so many problems”
“…a magnificent quote again from Ibn al Qayyim”, relates Hasan, “He said ‘What is Islamic law all about? It is about wisdom and welfare; it is about justice, mercy, wisdom and goodness…therefore anything which replaces those four with their opposites…is nothing to do with Islamic law, with shariah…It doesn’t matter how many verses or hadith you quote in favour of nonsense”
Hasan endorses the view that “[Traditional teachings of women] should be seen as the beginning of a process of liberation of women, not of a fixed standpoint“, and compares it to the process of freeing slaves. The Koran does not explicitly prohibit slavery, but starts off the process by encouraging people to and in cases demanding people free slaves. The end result being the abolition of slavery. The same principle should be followed regarding the emancipation of women.
Regarding the issue of female witnesses, we hear that we should actually be concerned with whether a witness is trustworthy or not, not about whether they are male or female. This is a subject that is quite important to me, given the negative response by some Muslim organisations towards the new ‘Muslim Marriage Contract’ (although not related to this discussion, something I will blog in the near future) as it does not require the witnesses to be either male or Muslim.
Hasan then touches on the topic of women as inheritors, commenting that “the inheritance share is related to the patriarchal societies where the men were the breadwinners all the time, and it made sense. That is the usual apologetic defence you get. But remember in Arabia when that verse was revealed women were actually inherited… They were being inherited, with the verse of the Koran there [quotes 4:19], which forbade that. It was a revolutionary step to stop women being inherited as possessions and property and actually make them inheritors.”
Ending the speech, we are told that we need to encourage our women and our men to fulfill their potential in any field, “especially in societies like Britain where we have tremendous opportunities.”