Removed from Societal Context: Verse 33:53, the Veil, and the role of Umar

Umar, the only corrupted caliph of the first four, publicized stoning as a punishment for adultery, a penal ordinance that does not appear in the Qur’an and was delivered by the Prophet in cases when the adulterer was non-Muslim, such as the case of a Jewish woman in Medina whose people had agreed to an Islamic government only if it were separated from Jewish law. The Prophet, in order to keep peace and maintain religious freedom by recognizing non-Muslim laws among the residents he governed, allowed Jewish citizens to maintain their own sub-courts. However, association of stoning with Islamic law was promulgated by Umar after the Prophet’s death.

Unsurprisingly, Umar was known to be cruel to his wives and to physically assault them. Attempting to confine women to their homes, Umar also sought to deter women from attending prayers at the mosques, and, though he failed to accomplish this, managed temporarily to assign not only separate groups but separate imams for men and women. Although the men were led by an imam of their own sex, the women, of course, were led not by a female imam but a male one. They were also prevented from being imams themselves, though while the Prophet was alive, a woman—Umm Waraqa—was appointed to lead both men and women in prayer. This separation arrangement was revoked by the succeeding caliph, Uthman.

Part of Umar’s agenda to confine women to separate quarters manifested in his prohibition for Muhammad’s wives to go on pilgrimage, from which they had not been forbidden while the Prophet was alive. He lifted the restriction the year before he died, but the (historically influential) damage of this and other laws was done. It was not the first time that Umar sought to regulate the behaviors of women by restricting their ability to travel or interact with the opposite sex; while Muhammad was alive, Umar insisted that the Prophet separate his wives from himself, as was the practice of wealthy leaders. Umar was initially unsuccessful with this, as Muhammad did not have his own separate room but shared different rooms with his wives on different nights. While it is true that Muhammad’s wives were harassed by hypocrites who would attempt to assault them, Umar’s proposed solution (that the wives make themselves unrecognizable as the Prophet’s wives by separating themselves from the Prophet) was different from God’s—which was the veil.

But unlike what is commonly understood as the function of the veil, the purpose of the hijab is to separate the intimacy between a wedded couple from the patriarchal intrusions of the outside world. When the Prophet married Zeynab bint Jahsh, a woman renowned for her incredible beauty, he was quietly frustrated by indiscreet male guests who overstayed their welcome, and—as the verse curiously notes that none of the Prophet’s wives are permissible to other men—may have been meddling for indecent reasons. The verse reads,

O you who have believed!
do not enter
the houses of the Prophet
except when you are permitted for a meal,
without awaiting its readiness.
But when you are invited,
then enter;
and when you have eaten, disperse without seeking
to remain for conversation.
Indeed, that [behavior] was troubling the Prophet,
and he is shy of [dismissing] you.
But God is not shy of
the truth.
And when you ask [his wives] for something,
ask them from behind a partition.
That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.
And it is not conceivable or lawful for you
to harm the Messenger of God
or to marry his wives after him
, ever.
Indeed, that would be in the sight of God an enormity.
(33:53)

It is clear from context then that the notion of whether the men were inappropriately interested in the new bride is not one that is out of question. This opens the verse to the possibility of an abstract interpretation: a veil over the heart, to ensure its purity.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan writes in “A Feminist Reclamation of Islam?” the following:

“The verse on the hijab descended at precisely the moment when the Prophet’s desire to consummate his marriage to the beautiful Zeynab was frustrated by the boorish behavior of his male guests who kept sitting in his living room long after the wedding banquet was over, and who the overly polite (“bordering on timid” as Mernissi describes him)—prophet of Islam, simply could not muster up enough courage to ask to leave. Finally, when they did depart, one male companion still hovered around, by the name of Anas Ibn Malik, and it is he who reported the event of the revelation of the verse about hijab as a witness.

Thus, according to Mernissi, the circumstances of this revelation point to an understanding of the notion of hijab as a tool to protect the intimacy of the wedded pair—their privacy—and to do so by excluding a third person, the man named Anas. He becomes a symbol, then, of a male dominant community that had become too invasive in the life and personal affairs of the prophet.”

This means that the hijab, in the most traditional sense, is meant to serve as a sanctuary against patriarchy; and not in the wear-this-and-you-will-be-protected-from-the-male-gaze kind of way accorded by mainstream, contemporary interpretations of Islam. Rather, it is meant to preserve the private expression and pursuit of Divine Love within a marriage from the overbearing reach of patriarchal exhibitionism.

Originally intended to keep out overbearing men, like Umar who attempt to tell other men how to behave toward their wives and seek to seclude them, from the privacy of quiet, marital understanding, the veil, over the centuries, has been misconstrued as a symbol of the exclusive rights of a husband to the beauty of his wife. In reality, the husband is included behind the veil, encompassed in a shield of love, and protected from the bellicose forces of masculine performance and societal expectations. Umar, patriarchy embodied, had attempted numerous times to impose the patriarchal practices of pre-Islamic societies and of the surrounding cultures onto Muhammad—an infamous preoccupation of the patriarchal male.

The hijab-literally ‘curtain’—‘descended,’ not to put a barrier between A man and a woman, but between two men.

(Mernissi 85)

A woman’s beauty, of course, belongs to no one, and can be policed by no one. Umar had tried—for the rest of time Umars will continue, in vain, to try.

“When are you getting married?” or, Why We Need Married Heroines

While I was East Coasting it recently, the 10-year-old daughter of one of my friends dashed through the door of my hotel room and flipped herself onto the bed. “Where have you BEEN?”

Everywhere. The answer was everywhere. But seeing as I don’t live anywhere near her, it was a peculiar question. I ran my fingers through the hair she’d spilt over the comforter. “In space, darling,” I nearly sang.

“No really!” she insisted, pushing against me to sit up. “You never visit.”

“I’m visiting now.”

“No, only because you have work to do, so you’re not really visiting,” she added, “and you never pick up the phone—”

At this I blushed a little. Guilty as charged.

“I wish I could travel places. I wish I could visit my friends everywhere. And wear perfume. And lipstick. And bring presents,”—she hugged the gift I’d given her—“and have roses in my room and a beautiful calm voice and fly away and make everyone miss me.”

Struck with a combination of shock and protest, I suddenly realized how she saw me. I watched her, remembering what it was like to be 10—frustrated, imprisoned, full of desires I could not name.

“I miss you,” I said gently.

“I’m not really anyone to you, though, am I?”

Ow, kid. 

“Is something wrong, love?”

“I can’t explain it.” She asked suddenly, “When are you getting married?”

“Why would I get married? You’re the love of my life,” I cooed.

“What if you get married and you disappear?”

“I wouldn’t I’d still come—”

“No, I mean what if you get married and you stop wearing dresses like that,” she patted my thigh, just above where the form-fitting black dress ended, “and wearing perfume and playing music?”

“Why would I stop doing any of those things?” I asked.

“Because married women are boring.”

She didn’t know it, but she’d touched on a concern of mine. Not that I would ever become boring (unless I’m boring now, because I am certain I will be exactly the same) but that somehow my life would be less significant, of less importance, or potential impact and promise, that I would mean less, cease to be the heroine of any novel. After all, what novel doesn’t dispose of its heroine after her marriage?

“What if my husband is kidnapped?” I asked.

“Well, that would be highly extraordinary,” she remarked doubtfully.

“What if I think he’s dead because I saw him fall into a river, but really he was pushed, and the river is an entrance to another dimension opened by people like him, who can manipulate space, and have locked him there in order to merge together all existing universes and cause chaos for humankind?”

I was roughly reciting off a manuscript written by one of my classmates, the only writer I know to make a married woman in her early 20s the main character of her novel. Until I’d read the manuscript I hadn’t realized I needed it. It wasn’t just that it was a young married woman—it was that it was a novel written for young adults. It was a young married woman whose biggest issue wasn’t her baking contest or her husband’s infidelity or the mysterious murder of her neighbors like some cheap soap opera. It was a woman who travelled dimensions to rescue her husband and thought everything was ridiculous.

“Married women aren’t like that,” she said, though sounding uncertain of herself. “But… you… can be like that. I see it.” She reached out and moved a dangly earring I was wearing, as though to inspect it for otherworld-suitability.

“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” I said in a soothing tone. “Would you like some tea?”

“Yes! Mom never lets me drink tea!”

“Is that so? Maybe I shouldn’t…”

“No! Please!

“Okay.”

As I ripped open tea bags, she jumped off the bed. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“I will never have a boyfriend. I don’t use that word.”

“Then what word do you use? How should I ask?”

“Ask me if I’m in love.”

“Are you in love?”

“I’m in love with everything,” I announced.

She sighed, evidently unsatisfied. “No, I mean really. You never answer my questions.”

“I answer your questions all the time! Just yesterday you called and asked what’s on the other side of space and I spent half an hour answering your question. I love your questions.”

“You don’t answer them when they’re about you.” She moved to a chair and dangled her legs. “We had sex ed in class today.”

“Oh? I forgot you skipped a grade.” I poured hot water.

“Can I ask you a really really personal question? Like really personal.”

“You’ve been off to a good start, haven’t you?” I teased.

She swallowed a mouthful of air. “Have you lost your virginity?”

“No. And I don’t use that word either.”

“What do you say then?”

“Sexual debut?” and when she giggled I turned to her with a look. “Really?” Although, I wasn’t sure about the term myself.

“I’m trying not to giggle,” she said, attempting to straighten her face.

“No, that’s okay,” I flipped a section of hair over my shoulder decidedly. “Do what you want.”

“I guess we’re not supposed to until we’re married right?”

“Be careful, it’s hot.”

Right?” she pressed.

“Certainly, if that’s what you believe.”

“I don’t know what I believe. Just what people say I believe.”

“Well I’m glad you can recognize that. One day you’ll decide if you believe it.”

“Do you believe it?”

“Whether or not that’s an accurate interpretation of Islam doesn’t make much of a difference to me in terms of how I live.”

“You always do whatever you want.” Her voice sounded distant. “I hope I don’t disappear after I’m married.”

“Now listen to me.” I was done. “This is important. Your value is not dependent on whether you are still available to other men. Do you understand? You don’t just disappear because you’ve got a ring on your finger.” I was suddenly fuming, remembering a particularly horrendous episode of How I Met Your Mother. And Scrubs. And every comedy ever that tried pulling the same running gag in which a woman literally vanishes off screen as she slips on her ring. “Your availability is not something you contribute to society. It is not something that makes you important, or valuable, or a person—it’s not something anyone should even think to care about. You are not a commodity to lose all value when you’re ‘off the market.’ Whether you are available to men is absolutely and despicably meaningless. Only the worst of people think otherwise. Do you understand?”

Well, do you?

Quranic Verses and Misconceptions: Divorce and Male Privilege

A common practice before the introduction of Islam—and continuing afterward illegally despite severe restrictions by the Qur’an on the gratuities of men in pre-Islamic divorce—was for a man to perpetually divorce his wife, each time pretending to take her back and divorcing her again to coerce her either to surrender her dower for autonomy or inhibit her from remarrying to obtain the protection of another husband. The Qur’an renders this practice illegal, along with the practice of initiating a divorce on false charges so that a man may legally confiscate some of his wife’s property,

A divorce is only permissible twice:
after that, the parties should either
hold together on equitable terms,
or separate with kindness.
It is not lawful for you (men)
to take back any of your gifts (from your wives.) (Qur’an 2:229)

and ordains that after the third time, he may not divorce her again until she has been married to someone else,

And if he has divorced her [for the third time],
then she is not lawful to him afterward
until [after] she marries a husband other than him.
And if the latter husband divorces her [or dies],
there is no blame upon the woman
and her former husband for returning
to each other if they think that they
can keep [within] the limits of God. (Qur’an 2:230)

There is a misconception among Muslims—and consequentially among non-Muslims—that divorce in Islam is very easy and privileges the man. This is because Muslims blatantly ignore these verses. Were they taken into account and incorporated into the legal routine of Muslims, divorce for the husband would be the most difficult situation he has ever undergone as a believer. Divergent to the way in which divorce is commonly outlined and implemented, Muslim women have the right not only to extended provisions three months following the divorce but the right to their husbands’ kindness.

And women shall have rights
similar to the rights of men against them,
in kindness, according to what is equitable;
but men have a degree (of advantage) over them.
And God is Exalted in Power, Wise. (Qur’an 2:228)

This verse is actively contrary to the commonly held belief that men may divorce their wives at any time and for any reason, spontaneously and unilaterally; it contains also mention of the infamous “degree” that men have over women, referring of course to advantage, or privilege, without tolerating privilege—and, in fact, actively restricts this advantage by commanding that women must have the right to kindness and equity. The Qur’an therefore once more employs the female perspective to address men, who were privileged in pre-Islamic society with these powers, but does not intrude on the rights of women—and, in fact, expands them. Although the verses elucidating the process of divorce are addressed toward men (because of the unauthenticated privilege of men) women are not hindered from initiating divorce and for whatever reason they wish, unlike what is most commonly interpreted, since the Qur’an does not place constraints on divorces initiated by the wife. Instead it only holds men accountable for the license of divorce they have granted themselves and considers this in allocating rights to women—it does not support this license, nor does it deny a woman the power of repudiation. And in fact, in considering male privilege in its allocation of rights to women, the Qur’an additionally holds men responsible for a three-month waiting period following the divorce in which they must provide for their wives, in case the wife is pregnant, and to which a woman has right,

Divorced women shall wait
concerning themselves for three
monthly periods, and is not lawful
for them to hide what God hath created
in their wombs, if they have faith
in God and the Last Day.
And their husbands have
the better right to take them back
in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. (Qur’an 2:228)

also retaining the responsibility of reconciliation on the husband. If the woman does in fact give birth to a child, the Qur’an expects (but does not require) that she will breastfeed the child for two years and then obliges her ex-husband to maintain her “on a reasonable scale”:

Divorced women shall be maintained
on a reasonable scale.
This is a duty on the righteous. (Qur’an 2:241)

and also that she is not shamed for the child,

No mother shall be treated unfairly
on account of her child.
Nor father on account of his child. (Qur’an 2:233)

The Quranic approach toward divorce is radically advanced, even by contemporary standards. It states about the accommodations men must provide during a divorce,

Let the women live in the same style as you live,
according to your means:
and do not harm them in order to oppress them
And if they carry (life in their wombs),
then spend (your substance) on them
until they deliver their burden:
and if they suckle your (offspring),
give them their recompense:
and take mutual counsel together,
according to what is just and reasonable.
[…]Let a man of wealth spend from his wealth,
and he whose provision is restricted,
let him spend from what God has given him. (Qur’an 65:6—65:7)

Though male scholarship has claim that a woman who displeases her husband displeases God and wrongs her soul (collapsing God with the husband and committing the sin of shirk), the Qur’an makes a reverse implement (obviously without the shirk, as it is not about the wife but the justice toward women granted by God), addressing men and proclaiming that “any who transgresses the limits of God does wrong his very soul.” (65:1)

Decent behavior is especially commanded on the husband’s part at all intervals of the separation procedure, from when he may divorce his wife to how, and the way in which he must support and treat her, illegalizing (as mentioned at the beginning) the practice of perpetual divorce in order to confiscate the woman’s wealth or obstruct her from seeking protection,

When you divorce women, and they fulfill
the term of their waiting period,
either take them back
on equitable terms
or set them free
on equitable terms;
do not take them back to injure them
or to take undue advantage—
If anyone does that,
He wrongs his own soul.
Do not regard God’s signs as a jest. (Qur’an 2:231)

Punctuated in a warning. In fact the Qur’an adopts the female perspective so wholly that it takes into consideration in the process of its revelation the complaints of a particular woman who protests a manner by which her husband divorced her (58:1), going so far as to list penalties for men who pronounce a divorce in this manner, including freeing a slave and fasting for two months.

These are the requirements in an event of divorce; above all, the Qur’an encourages tolerance and the preservation of a marriage. Attempts of compromise and harmony should be made initially, and divorce will follow only if all else fails. Despite the fact that the culture of the Muslim community often blames women for divorce, the Qur’an once again holds men accountable,

If a woman fearth ill-treatment
from her husband, or desertion,
it is no sin for them twain if they make
terms of peace between themselves.
Peace is better.
But greed hath been made present
in the minds of men.
(Qur’an 4:128)

Thus marital peace is recommended even in circumstances of great difficulty, but—as men commit acts of greed—divorce is permitted in order to separate a woman fearing ill-treatment from her husband.

Women in Islamic History: the Unlawful Erosion of Monogamy and the Correlating Objectification of Women

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

Islam, interfaith marriage, broken hearts, and human rights

flora ring

A little over a year ago I was speaking to a friend who had known me for two years and, in his own words, fallen in love.

You can probably guess what I told him. Here’s a summary: “I can’t be with you, you’re Christian, and besides that I’m not looking to get married any time soon so even if you were Muslim we couldn’t date yet with the intention of finding out.”

He was devastated. Half of you readers are probably very cross with me at this moment. And you will become more and more cross with me as you read further, but for now please understand something.

A couple of you know–and most of you have probably correctly guessed–that I don’t believe Muslim women are prohibited from marrying Christian and Jewish men, unlike what the majority of (male) scholars have interpreted. The Qur’an says nothing about this prohibition. Scholars concluded that only Muslim men were allowed to marry People of the Book because the Qur’an is very restrictive and reluctant in its permission to men, and therefore special permission would be given to both men and women were they both allowed to marry outside Islam. As the verse was only addressing men, it is therefore supposedly implied women were prohibited.

Weak, presumptuous logic if you ask me, but it’s better than the other explanation I’ve heard involving some asshole mansplaining to me that children are more likely to take their father’s religion. I will at least tolerate people who use the former explanation, but any scholar who gives this, latter one is a douchecanoe whose perspective is obstructed by submission to problematic and inaccurate cultural trends, rather than driven by the principles of truth and the pursuit of social justice, and is subsequently unworthy of my respect. Islam has nothing to do with arbitrary, sexist cultural perceptions.

This interpretation involves men making something forbidden that God had not, and therefore is an incorrect interpretation. God has clearly told us what is or is not forbidden, and we are not allowed to make forbidden what has not been said to be forbidden. Those who believe this and yet continue to conclude that Muslim women cannot marry outside of Islam regardless of the fact that the Qur’an says no such thing are contradicting themselves and picking and choosing what parts of Islam to enforce.

Now the question is why I cited his religion as a reason rejecting him, when I disagree with the interpretation that Muslim women are not allowed to marry outside of Islam, and the answer to that is simply, I want with my significant other the closest possible level of understanding and intimacy, and Islam–these beliefs and practices–are basically my soul. To feel the weight of my responsibility, the pressures of this world from my perspective, to know how my heart moves and what moves my heart–that, spirituality, is as important of a factor to compatibility as personality.

Also I don’t want to teach my kids everything myself. (And I’m going to entirely overlook for now the fact that I kind of have a loving nature and am bound to stumble over it.)

We stayed friends, because I’m a sort of idealistic kind of person, and because he’s everything anyone ever wants in a friend: astonishingly patient, deeply considerate, compassionate, and dependable. We talk about social justice, the recession, black holes in space, string theory, what kind of pasta tastes the best, deforestation, weird creatures that live in the sea, tuition, how fetuses look like weird creatures that live in the sea, books, feminism, religion, and other things I can’t remember.

Sometime during all this, he confessed that he selectively locks some of my texts in his phone, so that they wouldn’t be deleted, and occasionally he reads them over.

This is where you will become crosser with me. I demanded that he delete them. He said, quietly, that he couldn’t. I said I’d do it for him. I ordered him to hand me his phone. He did, slowly, looking down to avoid my eyes. And, as he sat there with his face twisted and crumbling in pain, I unlocked and deleted every single one.

When I think back to it now, I’m horrified with myself. I believed then, and still believe now, that I had every right to delete those texts. They were mine. I wrote them, and owned them. I can do what I want with my work.

No, what horrifies me is the motivation for deleting them. I wanted to save his heart, to shorten the time it would take him to get over me, to relieve him as quickly as possible of loving someone he could never be with so that he may move on and live happily. Sounds noble doesn’t it? That’s how it sounded in my head as I deleted them.

In reality, in the reality I couldn’t see, I was crossing a line. I was choosing for him his method of recovery, I was choosing for him the option of recovery, I was disrespecting and belittling him in being convinced that he needed to be “saved,” I was violating his basic right to choose what happened to him and to choose how to cope with his distraught. I was interfering with his thoughts. In reality I was arrogant, manipulative, and righteous. In reality I was intrusively forcing my beliefs on him.

And it hurt him for no greater good.

Polygamy is expired.

“But some people still like going through the garbage.” –one of my friends
Seriously, why is this even a question? I’ve been putting off this post because it’s just that old and obvious to me. (And also mostly because I’ve alarmed myself at how quickly I’ve been spewing out entries.) But it’s been on my Things to Write About list, which essentially is a mental list because I’m just that disorganized.
Polygamy was only allowed in the following conditions:

  1. There was an incredible amount of people who were living in poverty. Polygamy was used to relieve them of this. We still have an unbelievable amount of world hunger, but are more ways of earning money than inheriting it from your parents–-and orphans don’t need to be saved from starvation, for the most part, not on this side of the world. So what about other parts?:
  2. #1 can only be done if #3 is valid.
  3. The man must be able to treat each wife (limit is 4) equally. This is already impossible to do. It’s even harder when you’re impoverished. There wouldn’t be men in poverty marrying women in poverty or vice verse in an Islamically sound manner because that would defeat the purpose of #1. The same goes if both parties are rich. And I don’t see many marriages where a rich person marries a not so rich person. I doubt that happens. Like, ever.
  4. A woman cannot be forced into marriage or to stay in marriage. When the Prophet’s daughter came to him and told him her husband wanted a second wife, the Prophet told him not to marry again, because it would displease his daughter. This provides that a man cannot marry again if his wife won’t allow it.
  5. Especially in modern times, #3 and #4 are pretty much impossible, and #1 is pretty much unnecessary or doesn’t occur in actual practice.

Conclusion: Polygamy is no longer allowed, under the very conditions and limitations outlined in the Qur’an.

In order to accommodate widows in times of war, men of sound finances and character shall be encouraged to marry these widows. If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly, then you must not take additional wives. This will prevent injustice and financial hardship. (Qur’an 4:3)

This might be a good time to consider what I’ve said already. I quote myself,

The Quran is timeless. Timeless does not mean that context doesn’t matter. As a matter of fact, it is precisely the context that makes it timeless, in emphasizing that these actions are only to be taken in the following conditions. This allows us continuous reference.

It is the interpretation, unfortunately, that changes once the contexts of the Quranic verses are forgotten and instead interpretation is derived from culture rather than the actual historical conditions and issues being addressed at the time of revelation. Because these conditions are actually outlined in the Qur’an, they are as important as the rest of the parts. The conditions are a part of the orders, and it is the inclusion of these in part of the whole, the recognition that certain actions are called for in certain conditions, that make the Qur’an timeless.

I have a feeling I’m going to be repeating this a lot.
Here’s where I get accusations of being an apologist. I’m not an apologist, dude, you are. You’re the one defending this oppressive practice by bringing up the supposed “sexual needs” of men. Who’s the apologist?
“But the Prophet did it! Don’t forget, woman!” Not because he wanted to. This is not something you make a goal. Here’s the thing: the Prophet (P) was actually decent* and didn’t aim to marry four women at once. I don’t want to hear it. If you can’t keep it in your pants often enough for just one woman, go convince a different one. I’m not budging. Also, if you call me “woman” like that again I will punch you in the face.
“Nahida, that’s really mean.” –everyone
Cry me a river.
Men will stop at nothing for excuses. Some have been suggested that polygamy is not only allowed but necessary in populations in which women outnumber men. The Qur’an says NOTHING about qualifying polygamy in societies where there are more women than men. The only qualifications for polygamy are WAR and only to WIDOWS who cannot support themselves. This is clear, and would make nearly all polygamous marriages today Islamically unlawful.

*Not that every other man married to more than one woman is indecent. I realize there are women out there who are second wives in polygamous marriages who become very frustrated when no one believes that they’re happy or satisfied. I’m not talking about you.