Over the centuries the greatest loss to the Islamic community has not only been the lack of vigilant participation of strong, opinionated, and unrepentant women but the increasing intolerance of differences in jurisdictions without breaking Islam into sects. The differences that today divide the faith into militant segments had once in fact unified it, because Muslims used to actually care more about each other and respecting Islamic rights than they did about winning—and, most extraordinarily, they understood that one’s afterlife was no one else’s business. This is essentially because there was once a remarkable trust in God and in the nature of truth: if someone were spreading incorrect information, it would by its nature perish, for it is the nature of inoperative devices to perish. Additionally, individuals were held accountable for their own interpretations, and not for those who follow these interpretations, thereby creating a cultural complex in which no one was responsible for “saving” anyone else’s soul: each individual is fully responsible for his or her own interpretations and actions, because human beings are capable of rational thought.
Through this understanding that one should trust God, the nature of truth, and humans as rational beings who are each responsible for xir own beliefs, disagreement was considered natural and idiosyncrasies in practices of faith were expected. In fact, Umm al-Darda, a tabi’yyah, used to pray with the posture of a man rather than of a woman. And it was perfectly fine. (Can you imagine that frantic spew of “corrections” that would ensue today?)
Another example of this mentality is demonstrated by the narration of a hadith by Fatimah bint Qays, a famous scholar whose husband divorced her irrevocably while he was away. In the next few weeks he sent her some barley to pay her expenses, which angered and offended her. She refused to accept it, and in response her husband proclaimed in exasperation, “By God, you will have nothing from me!”
Recounting the tale to the Prophet, she reported that the Prophet had replied in the affirmative, “Your expenses are not an obligation on him.”
So, the Prophet agreed with her. Well, here’s the problem: the Qur’an very clearly states that an ex-husband is responsible for the expenses of his ex-wife until three months after they are divorced. (65:1—6) But Fatimah bint Qays’s ex-husband had sent the provisions prior to the end of the period; according to the Qur’an, he is still responsible for her expenses. In fact (to go back even further) according to the Qur’an, Fatimah bint Qays should have been waiting at her ex-husband’s house during this period—but instead, after consulting the Prophet on the matter, she was staying with her male cousin.
Of course, following the incident Fatimah bint Qays was criticized by several of the Companions for transmitting this hadith, including A’isha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, who blatantly said, “What is it with Fatimah? Does she not fear God in narrating this hadith?” According to A’isha, the Prophet had told Fatimah to stay with her cousin rather than at the home of her ex-husband because Fatimah and her in-laws would frequently quarrel—it was an exceptional case. A’isha, of course, was right to be concerned that the hadith would be removed from its context, since we can see today that so many have been.
But Fatimah was not stopped. Not even by Umar, who also disapproved of the narration of this hadith as he perceived it as a contradiction to the Qur’an. (Later jurists would conclude that it is not contradictory, with the explanation that the Qur’an is referring to provisional divorces whereas Fatimah’s divorce was definitive. Additionally, the verse itself does not dictate that women must stay with their ex-husbands or be provided for by their ex-husbands for the three months following the divorce, only that it is their right [which one can choose to practice] and in fact asserts they should not be oppressed or pressured.) Even despite the fact that Umar was a famously patriarchal man, he did not attempt to prevent Fatimah from narrating this hadith and greatly influencing jurisprudence, demonstrating the power rendered to women during the early stages of Islam. Fatimah continued to transmit the hadith and lived as she pleased, and she continued to be a famously respected scholar with great authority and acceptance in her community. Everyone stopped for a minute, glanced at her disapprovingly, then shrugged and went on with their lives. After all, the hadith itself affected only her and her personal practice of religious freedom, and her actions did not inflict harm on other members of the community, nor did she infringe on the rights of others to practice Islam as they believed it should be practiced.
Differences in interpretation were inevitable, and it was the right of the interpreters to adhere to these beliefs without pressure to conform to the majority. Women’s rights to independent reasoning were so inarguable that women continued to publicly teach opinions that were vastly refuted and remain highly respected citizens of the religious society.
Another example is a hadith narrated by A’isha, concerning breast milk. A man is not allowed to marry a woman who had been his wet-nurse. One day a woman came to the Prophet and said that one of her slaves had reached manhood and he made her husband uncomfortable whenever he entered the house. The Prophet replied, “Give him some of your breast milk, then you will become unlawful for him and then your husband will be at ease.” She did so, and her husband was at ease.
Much to the disagreement of many of the Companions, A’isha interpreted this to mean that if a woman gave an adult man her breast milk, it would have the legal effect of making marriage between them unlawful. Those who disagreed with her had astoundingly good reason—particularly the Quranic verse 2:233, which states that children have completed their breast-feeding after two years, suggesting that breast milk would have no impact on voiding a marriage with men drinking it after the age of two. Among the Companions, other wives of the Prophet disagreed with her, stating that the permission was particular to the woman whom the Prophet had addressed merely so that her husband would feel at ease, and not for everyone. Other Companions opposed Aisha’s interpretation on the basis of other hadiths, including the Prophet’s statement that breast-feeding is out of hunger; in other words, when a child is grown enough for nutrition other than breast milk and can satisfy xir hunger by solid food, the act no longer qualifies as breast-feeding.
But A’isha—beautiful, glorious A’isha!—did whatever the hell she damn well saw fit. Because she was awesome. And even though I disagree with her here (it’s not often I disagree with A’isha), and find her interpretation of the incident quite absurd, it is impossible not to admire A’isha, not to love her. Sharp-tongued A’isha in all her intelligence and magnificence continued to narrate the hadith and use her interpretation as guidance, and jurists continued to cite it.
The power acquired by the Companions and the closeness some of them had to the Prophet did not permit them to inhibit the distribution of interpretations they opposed. Information was public domain. They differed without dividing, and those who differed did not lose solidarity or respect from their communities.
And now when a woman, with the argument that it violates the message of spiritual equality in Qur’an itself, rejects the hadith of Abu Huraira—of whom A’isha herself disapproved—that insists women must pray in the back, she is accused of twisting Islam to fit her own agenda, even though the precedent of individuality has been set and no one in the past would have dared place themselves in the position of God and judge intentions, even though so many before have rejected the hadith of much more prominent figures such as Fatimah bint Qays and A’isha. When a woman leads men in prayer—as the Prophet himself allowed Umm Waraqa to lead men in prayer—she is the recipient of death threats and is violently betrayed by her own sisters.