After divorce or widowhood, women in the first Muslim societies married and remarried without the disparagement of social stigma. It was not until the Abbasid era, upon the conquering of immensely patriarchal cultures and the expansive harems that arose in consequence, that the contractual rights of monogamy enforced by women began to erode, and the acceptability of marrying nonvirgins began to change. Widows and divorcees—among whose circles were once the most beautiful, intelligent, and renowned women—were viewed as shameful, their characters and capabilities reduced to their (non)virginity. By the Abbasid era women were quiet, secluded, wrapped in fine fabrics and heavy jewels, neatly set away to keep, cloistered and confined.
When I was young(er) I was told a story by a beaming older woman: a man who was very handsome, very poor, and very righteous walked along a river when he noticed a single apple floating along its current. Overcome by hunger, the man consumed it. But the minute he finished, he was racked with guilt, because the apple was never his and thus he had committed thievery. Realizing that by following the river upstream he may encounter the rightful owner, he walked miles in search of forgiveness. After days of walking he came to a vast, beautiful orchard. He sought the owner of the apple orchard, confessed his sin, and begged to be forgiven.
The owner of the orchard decided that this was a very righteous young man, and told the young man he would be granted forgiveness on one condition: that he marry the orchard owner’s daughter. The young man agreed, but the owner stopped him. “My daughter is deaf, blind, and mute,” he added. “She has never seen, she has never heard, and she has never spoken.”
The man was saddened, but at the prospect of saving himself from the wrong he had committed against the owner of the orchard once again consented to the marriage. Walking into the house, he found the room he was instructed to enter, and to his astonishment dwelling within was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
The young man returned to the owner of the orchard, frustrated and confused. “You said your daughter could not hear, could not see, and could not speak! But I came unto the room and there was a beautiful woman.”
Even at the age of nine, I wondered why the man had equated a list of disabilities with being visually unbeautiful. This unknowingness was not excusable in his century (“long, long ago…”). He was righteous, but perhaps he was logically fallacious and incongruent? I wondered if his righteousness made up for his utter lack of common sense. Perhaps he was so kind it could be overlooked?
Anyway, I suppressed my protests and permitted the storyteller to continue, curious to know the resolution. I did enjoy twists.
She continued: the owner of the orchard said, “My daughter is blind because she has never seen a man. She is deaf because she has never heard a man, and she is mute because no man has heard the melody of her voice.” And the young man understood, and was joyous, and married the beautiful woman.
For a minute I sat in a shocked, horrified silence.
Then I shouted outraged, “THAT’S NOT EVEN CLEVER!”
“Nahida,” the woman said testily, simultaneously still glowing at the story, “you don’t understand the lesson of virginal virtue. She was not only pure of body, but pure of mind.”
“Yes, Eve before the apple,” I sneered. “But the man ate the apple didn’t he? He ATE IT!”
“He’s a righteous man.”
“Has HE ever seen a woman?” I threw a fit. “Jealousy! Treacherous, Satanic—even the existence of Eve is erased in the story by the jealousy of men—the sin she shared with Adam! Her role NEVER HAPPENED! Her impact!—belittled and ignored.”
And the man’s reward for eating the apple? Pleasure with a woman who will never know it in return. Who never consumed such knowledge.
“Stop using big words, Nahida, they sound funny coming from such a young girl. Now what on earth are you talking about?”
“That was the most unIslamic story I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s very Islamic!”
“That was never Khadija.” My eyes burned. “That was never A’isha.”
I was rather articulate at the age of nine. But I wasn’t—and still am not—articulate enough to describe my level of rage. As I would estimate later, the story is most likely a remnant of the Abbasid era, the heinous standards of which still largely infect the mentality of Muslim civilizations today. Imbued in it is the silent woman, the cloistered beauty, her worth diminished to the ability of her womb and the intactness of her hymen. She would never speak, never quarrel, never challenge, never even come to realize the opinions to which her mothers were once entitled, the freedoms they once practiced under the name of the very same religion. She would never think to seize the power that is rightfully hers, that her foremothers in the wake of corruption fought bravely to sustain. Would she admonish with internalized patriarchy the great women before her who wielded swords? Would she retain the capacity of thought to even disapprove? Or was she lost in an abyss of darkness and compliance, like the girl-children men buried alive? Is she told that she is so nonjudgmental and sweet, by evilly scheming men who have never known willing sweetness?
And what about Khadija, who had not only been married before, but was fifteen years older than our Prophet and a successful businesswoman and leader? What about Umm Kulthum, who was so moved by Islam that she converted even despite the outrage of her family, and immigrated alone to Medina to join her fellow Muslims? Whose brothers returned to collect her, and whom our Prophet defended after she pleaded with him to not allow them to make her return? Who fully exercised freedom of judgment and action?
She married our Prophet’s adopted son, Zaid, who died in battle.
After Zaid passed, Umm Kulthum married again, to Zubair ibn al-A’wwam—a man who was cruel to her. She cunningly tricked him into pronouncing a divorce. And when she gave birth to a child, Zubair complained to the Prophet that he had been tricked into divorce—our Prophet took the side of Umm Kulthum, and Zubair’s complaints were to no avail. Instead Umm Kulthum freely married Adul Rahman, and upon his death, when she was in her late forties, she married the conqueror of Egypt, Amr ibn al-As. She bore children from her first three husbands.
Then there was Atika bint Zaid, beautiful, intelligent, renowned for her literary ability who married four times—her third husband being Zubair ibn al-A’wwan, whom she skillfully kept in check. He was not allowed to beat her or prevent her from praying in the mosque. Able to masterfully control him, she remained married to him until he died in battle. At the age of forty-five she took her fourth husband, Hussein, the son of Caliph Ali.
What would they say of Aisha bint Talha, our Prophet’s niece, named after his wife, who was renowned for her knowledge of astronomy, history, literary works, and genealogy—all of which she had learned from the aunt after whom she was named? She married three times. What about Sakina, who married six? Sakina, who publically initiated a divorce amid scandal when she found that her husband had dared to be unfaithful? She had enclosed not only monogamy in her marriage contract, but that he could not oppose any of her desires! She lived near her friend and acted as she pleased.
And even before them! What about the wives of our Prophet, who themselves became widows, and were held in esteem in their community, their opinions honored and reverenced though they would not remarry! They were independent, not answering to the authority of any man as dictated by Muslims in modernity, who require that women live under the authority of men.
During the brink when it all came undone, Umm Salama—who lived three decades after Sakina and A’isha—noticed a young man, to whom she proposed marriage. The man was al-Abbas, who later became a caliph. Upon his marriage to Umm Salama, he swore he would never take another wife or a concubine.
Al-Abbas was not only heir to the Arabs, but also heir to the Persians, who made up the upper class of his region. They were the bureaucrats of the new state, who had remained upper class after having been conquered, and had converted to Islam. Their practices were highly patriarchal; their kings not only traditionally had thousands of concubines, but also were so disgusting as to “order” specifications of the “kinds” of women they wanted.
A courtier named Khalid ibn Safwan offered this to Al-Abbas. Khalid “informed” the Caliph Al-Abbas that he was depriving himself by not sampling the varieties available in his kingdom, “the tall and slender, the soft and white, the experienced and delicate, the slim and dark, and the full-bullocked maid of Barbary.”
Women were fruits in a bowl, things to be sampled, not people or leaders to be honored and reverenced. These were the changing attitudes in the approaching Abbasid era.
But the Caliph Al-Abbas did not submit, and as soon as Khalid left the room Umm Salama entered and—upon finding her husband troubled—persuaded him to disclose to her what had happened.
Then she ordered that Khalid be beaten within an inch of his life.
Al-Abbas’s successor, al-Mansur, was the husband of Umm Musa. He also consented to a marriage contract that forbade him from taking another wife or concubine. But when he took the caliphate, he invoked judge after judge to find the contract invalid, but Umm Musa always won by discovering in advance which judge he had appointed and delivering to the judge gifts to win a rule in her favor. It was not until her death that the courtiers were able to present al-Mansur with one hundred virgins.
The jihad to preserve the right to contract a monogamous marriage was stolen and dishonored by patriarchy, bringing about a severe deterioration of the rights of women, one that would rule the perspectives of Quranic interpreters for centuries to come.
“Men transform themselves into dirt to pollute their partners, and by the same token they turn the sexual act into an act of destruction and degradation. The deflowered virgin becomes a lost woman, but the man, like the legendary phoenix, emerges from the fray purer, more virile, better respected. […] For the patriarchal sexual act is childish, it is the act of a man who has never outgrown the terrible fear of his insignificance in relation to the life-giving mother, and who has never become adult enough to see the sexual pleasure as a relation between equals rather than as a mechanism for establishing a hierarchy and enforcing power, domination and therefore dehumanization.” –Fatima Mernissi, Women’s Rebellion & Islamic History, page 38