My methodology for reading, understanding, and interpreting Qur’anic verses is not a unique one; however, it is inarguable that over the past centuries, the Qur’an has been subject to gross misinterpretations, particularly by individuals who read to indulge their debauchery rather than with the best meaning as the Qur’an advises. Thus, I’m compelled to describe some aspects of my approach and explain its differences.
One thing to note is whom the Qur’an addresses. There are several audiences, which I can describe in detail later, but the main addressees of the Qur’an are the Prophet and believers. Since Arabic distinguishes between the singular and plural ‘you’ it is easy to recognize, at this surface level, when we consider only these two audiences, when a verse is addressing the Prophet in particular rather than all believers. Sometimes, there is a transition within a verse, where the singular (Prophet) and plural (believers) shift. (10:61) This is important to note particularly because, while we are inclined to imitate the Prophet, the Qur’an itself makes a distinction between the Prophet and those believers who walk his path.
This brings us to the voice which delivers the message to the addressees. As I’ve mentioned before, the voice of the Qur’an is a feminine one. The Qur’an makes references to sex, but its references to gender and gender roles are tied to sex only loosely, and sex itself is transitory. In one commonly cited verse where the God(dess) declares that everything is created in pairs (36:37), a verse frequently employed by adherents of man-made patriarchal systems to establish rigid gender roles based on rigid gender identities, the Qur’an itself discusses the transitory nature of pairs, such as removing the light of day from the night in order to make darkness—an allusion to dawn and dusk—or the phases of the moon, another example of transformation. In fact, 22:61 describes the God(dess) as merging night into day and day into night. Imagine if our approach to gender had not stopped at a simple declaration of pairs but had considered the entirety of the Qur’anic description. Our understanding of gender might have likened it to phases of the moon or the transition of light to darkness rather than stark night and day, female and male.
My approach to the Qur’an can be likened to moon phases—the presence of the full moon should be evident in every waning, every waxing excerpt of the text. Each Qur’anic verse incorporates within it the entirety of the Qur’an; therefore, our understanding of each should encompass Qur’anic entirety.
A third item to note is the most obvious—the Arabic language has evolved. There are nuances in meaning between classical and modern Arabic. For example, walad (child) in classical Arabic carries no gender specifications. In modern Arabic, it refers specifically to a male child. There are several parts of the Qur’an where this information becomes pertinent. In general, considering the entirety of the Qur’an especially in verses mentioning children permits a deeper understanding. It is also important to note where the Qur’an subtly addresses and subverts the limitations of the Arabic (and any human) language especially pertaining to gender. In verses 53:19-23, the God(dess) refers to the deities worshipped by Meccans prior to the arrival of the Qur’an and demands, “So have you seen the Goddesses and their daughters? Is for you the male and for the Him/the Goddess, the female? This is an unfair division. They are nothing except names.” In these few verses, the hypocrisy of assigning gender is criticized (“an unfair division”), and the Oneness of the God(dess) is emphasized (“they are only names”) over the arbitrariness of gender.
Allah (swt) is not criticizing Meccans for worshipping goddesses, as is the common patriarchal reading. Instead, it is blatantly and indisputably clear that the God(dess) is condemning the insincerity and pretense of feigning reverence toward femininity while burying one’s daughters alive. In fact, this hypocrisy is consistently stressed throughout the Qur’an. Verses 43:17-19 point out the hypocrisy between men expressing grief during the birth of daughters yet depicting the angels as female and worshipping them (“raised in ornaments”). In the same breadth, he debates murdering his female children (16:58-60).
Only after arguments are firmly substantiated with Qur’anic verses and sound in Qur’anic principles should we apply hadith. Hadith that contradict the Qur’an must be discarded. Consider the infamous verse 4:34, in which a man is instructed to advise against his wife’s suspected adulterous actions, then forsake her (in the bedroom) if she persists, and then bring her forth to court (daraba) if she refuses to listen. The Qur’an proceeds to instruct that if the matter cannot be dealt with fairly, the couple should appoint arbitrators (4:35), which confirms that the third and final action against yet unproven adulterous behavior is to cite the spouse to a court of law with 4 witnesses. While patriarchal readings have left open the subject of these proceedings to include petty “disobedience,” in the Qur’an the violation is the sin of adultery—and nothing short of. Imaan Az-Zahra arrived at this same conclusion by a different means than I did, by linking 4:34 with a preceding verse, 4:19, in which men cannot seek a way against their wives unless an open and lewd sin (adultery) has been committed. Therefore, in 4:34, in which a man suspects he has been wronged, he cannot seek action against his wife until she is brought to a court of law. Forsaking the wife in bed is level with addressing unproven adulterous actions. The dropping of the charges in 4:34 is consistent with court proceedings regarding adultery in which the woman denies the action, in which case her testimony is sufficient to overturn any sentence against her.
In this manner, the entirety of the Qur’an is considered in interpreting 4:34 (for example, this interpretation is supported by 58:1-4, “in which a woman cites her husband to the Prophet after her husband pronounces zihar on her,” as my beloved disciple Imaan Az-Zahra pointed out in conversation), as well as the verse’s surrounding context. Imaan is also expecting to write a post about the Prophet’s farewell sermon in regards to this verse, thus referring to hadith only as supplementary to the Qur’an.
Of course, I could (and just might) write 150 pages on how to read and interpret the Qur’an. This article is only a fragment of the methodology, and hopefully in the coming weeks, I’ll have the opportunity to survey other aspects.
On April 23rd, 2012, Mona Eltahawy wrote an article titled, “Why Do They Hate Us?” to protest the treatment of women in the Middle East. The article, featured in Foreign Policy magazine, prompted a variety of responses, ranging from admiration for the author’s courage to criticism for her portrayal of Egyptian men. In online Islamic feminist circles, the most frequent and perceptive criticism was that Eltahawy had written the article in English, even though she is a native Arabic-speaker capable of effectively conveying her message in the language of the demographic she critiques. Eltahawy’s decision to protest in English served to partially remove the language barrier between Egyptian feminists and a potentially harmful English-speaking audience. This is significant because it suggests that the language barrier serves a protective purpose in protest. The language barrier does more than specify an audience: it precludes one.
Typically, the language barrier is a source of frustration when there is a desire for interaction across linguistic boundaries, which social media facilitates. However, the choice of language can be utilized advantageously in protest: it is a way to criticize misogyny in the Muslim community and circumvent inciting Islamophobia. When Muslim women critique Muslim men in English, some assume the women’s passions for equality are influenced by colonialism, and proceed to appropriate these critiques to embolden xenophobia. However, when Muslim women write in, for example, Arabic, Pashto, Bangla, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Farsi, not only are their critiques rendered inaccessible to an unintended audience, but that audience is barred from assuming ownership of those critiques. The language barrier deters the piracy of the marginalized voice.
There are ways in which, rather than stifling the effect of protest, the language barrier subtly enhances it by limiting agency to those whose struggles are central to its objective, and by enforcing these limits on social media platforms. In fact, language as a metaphorical shield even predates social media: during the British conquest of India, revolutionary writers, such as Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose rebellion against British colonialism won him the title of “Rebel Poet,” advocated gender equality and protested the bigotry of invaders by calling for independence in Bangla, an indigenous language; subsequently, the colonists were hindered from the immediate identification of a threat because they could not access or read his writing. Eventually, Kazi Nazrul Islam was jailed as the language barrier between Indians and the British began to erode. It was Nazrul Islam’s title as “Rebel Poet” that aroused British suspicions. It is no well-kept secret, furthermore, that when colonists arrived on Turtle Island, they not only sought to eliminate Native cultures but the children’s use of indigenous languages in schools. In the United States there are often workplace policies against the use of non-English languages among employees: in 2010, sixty-nine Filipina immigrants filed a lawsuit against the Delano Regional Medical Center in California for harassment and discrimination due to the hospital’s English-only policy. This is a strong indication that the language barrier has a potential to uproot establishments of power by leaving them out—a potential that those in power recognize.
However, in these examples, the potential object of the speakers’ criticism is the system of power itself, and not the religious interpretations or cultures of those who speak the Othered language. There are several prominent Islamic feminists, such as Asra Nomani, as well as prominent Muslim male writers, such as Haroon Moghul, who’ve used their social media platforms to critique the Muslim communities’ application and practice of Islamic beliefs—in English. A subject of criticism among Islamic feminists is Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa’s article in TheWashington Post titled, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity”; the article does not—as the title suggests—discourage against cultural appropriation. Instead, it advises non-Muslim women “not [to] wear a headscarf in ‘solidarity’ with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with ‘honor.’ Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.” Although Nomani and Arafa discuss the re-interpretation of “hijab” to mean “headscarf” and argue that this is not the original command of the Qur’an, detailing their struggles against Muslims who’ve harassed women to wear the headscarf—and although these are all points made and supported by other Muslim feminists—the targeted audience of the article, (white) non-Muslim women, questionably repositions non-Muslim feminists into the role of the imposing white savior, from which so many Islamic feminists have fought to remove them.
In the case of Nomani and Arafa, the target audience is made clear even from as early as the title of the article, which blatantly addresses a non-Muslim audience. In most cases, however, it is only implied, and can be deciphered from where the publication appears and its main audience.
Subsequently, the question then arises of where Muslims who speak only English are situated in protesting the inequalities in Muslim communities. Muslims critiquing oppressive power structures in either English or non-English languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in their own languages is protest, and effective. Muslims critiquing each other in English, such as the scholar and Islamic feminist Amina Wadud, for Muslim audiences is protest, and effective. Amina Wadud still operates within a form of the language barrier; since she writes for a Muslim audience, she does not define words that recur in Islamic discourse. Culture is tied very much to language, and the language barrier encompasses a cultural one. However, articles in journals such as The Washington Post and The Guardian don’t cater to a Muslim readership or bare the burden of social responsibility, and become sensationalist. Mona Eltahawy, whose activism has been valuable, fell short with her Foreign Policy article.
Articles written in English are still effective if published on a platform whose audience is aware of not only the injustices which the author protests, but of the injustices affecting the Muslim author herself. An author who critiques gender inequality in the Muslim community is just as subject to Islamophobia from her audience as she is to misogyny from her community. Since language hierarchies exist in most Muslim communities in the United States, with a preference for Arabic above all Others, it is important to find a place for diasphoric Muslims who speak languages other than English or Arabic. This may, after all, facilitate the development of a different facet of feminism, one that is freer from both a white savior complex and Arab exclusivity.
When, in Los Angeles in February of 2015, an all-women’s mosque opened as an alternative space to the oppressive, segregated mosques in the remainder of the country, it was identified at once by male scholars as problematic in prohibiting the attendance of men, even though mosques with barriers—literal barriers—bar (and discourage) female attendance. While disparaging women, scholars like Yasir Qadhi, struck by an opportunistic enlightenment, encouraged their audiences on Facebook to address the “root” of the problem: the unwelcome atmosphere in mainstream mosques. Women who attend the mosque, Qadhi argued, should be treated with a special respect for choosing to attend instead of shopping. He stated that it was natural that women would “counter-react” to feeling unwelcome and that some of those counter-reactions would be “illegitimate.” The implication that an all-women’s mosque was illegitimate would have come as a surprise to Muslims who primarily speak neither English nor Arabic, such as, for example Muslim women in China.
In “Debates over Islamic Feminism and Empowerment in Contemporary China,” Masumi Matsumoto describes all-female madrasas and mosques in China:
“Nüxue, or female madrasas, have been mushrooming in China’s Muslim communities since the beginning of the 1990s. Arabic and Islam are taught there. The government permits them tacitly. Such schools have given Muslim women unexpected gender roles and have supported the growth of China’s Islamic feminism. The female madrasa offers alternative values which Party-controlled public schools cannot provide. Based on the tradition of female mosques and female ahong, nüxue is the result of intense negotiations between Muslims and non-Muslim Chinese society, between Muslim women and men, and between Muslims of different social classes. Islamic feminism in China is aimed at eliminating gender discrimination and traditional patriarchy. However, their notion of gender equality with Islamic characteristics contradicts with the more “masculine” gender equality supported by Western feminists and the CCP, which tend to emphasize materialism, nationalism, and militarism.”
In China, the concept of female imams and religious leaders is not a foreign one. Islamophobia is as rampant in China as it is in the United States, but Chinese Muslim feminists have developed an Islamic feminism that is able to dodge accusations from critics of Western influence—they face, I am sure, different accusations, but this raises an incredible point: if (Western) Muslim feminists are too influenced by Western feminism to attain legitimacy in their own communities, how have Chinese Muslim feminists arrived at the same interpretations for centuries? Muslim men who are concerned about neocolonialism and Islamophobia may have an appropriate fear, though manifested in inappropriate measures, of Westernization (colonialism), but their arguments against Islamic feminism perpetuating neocolonialism are insufficient when Chinese Islamic feminists, who don’t communicate their interpretations primarily in English or any Western language, engage in the same practices, assign the same leadership roles to women, as the “Westernized” Islamic feminist.
From the language barrier erect between Muslim American feminists and Muslim Chinese feminists, we are able to discard the notion that equality is inherently and exclusively a colonialist value—it is, in fact, inherently not. There is a feminism that survives in non-English speaking communities that is worth preserving, because it serves the very people it is meant to serve rather than imposing domineering, incompatible concepts, by precluding colonialist audiences and allowing feminism to develop organically in the community.
This preclusion of colonialist audiences through language is already a subject of amusement on social media. In the beginning of 2016, an image was viral on major social media platforms—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—which read In Bengali we don’t say ‘I love you.’ We say ‘Tui manush na goru,’ which means ‘My heart loses purpose without you,’ and I think that’s beautiful. Of course, tui manush na goru means Are you human or cow? The joke takes a stab at cultural appropriators, who employ languages foreign to them to maneuver through cultural experiences from which they are barred(i.e. the popular question “How do you say ‘I love you’ in your language?”). It is a subtle, and humorous, form of protest—which makes it powerful. Despite popular notions that Muslim cultures require colonialist influences to create a more just and equal society, Nazira Zeineddine, a pioneer of 20th century feminism, addressed a prominent contemporary scholar she criticized for using an interpretation of Islam to perpetuate misogyny, saying,
“You mentioned, my dear Sheikh, that the health and the morality of the Bedouin and the villagers earned them the right to be unveiled. It was a corrupt morality of city dwellers that blighted them with the veil. Excuse me, sir, I’m a village woman living in the city and I have observed both villagers and city dwellers. I have not seen your city sisters and brothers to be inherently less moral than my sisters and brothers from the villages […] Woe to us if we do not join with our men in breaking our chains to seize our freedoms that are gifts from God Almighty. They provide for the welfare, advancement, and happiness of all.” (Unveiling and Veiling, 290)
Zeineddine manages to make a compelling feminist argument within the parameters of Islamic philosophies. When referencing European authors or appealing to concepts popularly attributed to Western thought, Zeineddine strips herself of pretention by communicating her argument in Arabic. She discusses, specifically, the settings in her own country—the village, the city—to formulate her argument against male figures of authority. Because she communicates her point in Arabic, she speaks to the people whom she criticizes, rather than speaking behind them, the conversation is a more honest one.
Ghalayini, Zeineddine’s most frequent subject of critique, published a refutation entitled Views on the Book “Attributed to Miss Nazira Zeineddine” in which he alleged that Unveiling and Veiling had been written not by a woman named Nazira Zeineddine but by a group of men, while simultaneously accusing Zeineddine of treason by connecting her to the French and foreign enemies of Islam who seek to embarrass the religion—subsequently admitting, of course, that his own interpretations were embarrassing to the religion.
When such critiques are written in Arabic or indigenous languages, it provides a larger space for examination and reexamination. It provides a larger space to examine and reexamine freely, but removing external pressures—which is the reason I suspect that al-Ghalayini and men like him reach desperately for the confines of those pressures even when criticism is communicated in their own languages.
There was a time when I used to read the Qur’an daily for about 30 minutes. When I did this, I noticed myself changing and was forced to reduce the reading to twice a week. When I read “too often,” I became calmer, more at peace, and I cared very little about troublesome events or material loss. It was as though I were turning to water. Unfortunately, this all also meant that I was too tranquil when any kind of injustice befell me. I can not afford to be so forgiving. I need to be a fighter.
I was thinking recently, with all of the Islamophobia I’ve seen, with Muslim women harassed, with men showing up at masjids with guns, that the “violent” verses of the Qur’an that used to bother me–don’t anymore. I’ve written an entire series about verses taken out of context, about how they are actually defensive, but even when I knew that, they’d still bothered me a little, because who really wants to see any unashamed advocation of violence anywhere, even if it is in self-defense, especially in their religious texts of Love? And now they don’t. I have always been unapologetic, but I have never been as unapologetic as now. The non-Muslims who present these verses out of context to prove how violent I am have literally driven me to not caring, to thinking “Good. I hope you learn not to oppress those who are coming to worship.” It made me realize that what I thought was a virtue of my character, the sense that these verses were too harsh, was an unkindness to those whose situations I could not understand. What seems like God’s vengeance towards one group of people is in truth God’s mercy toward another.
I hope this post finds everyone well, happy, and looking forward to a new beginning, despite the reality that a new journey around the sun involves no indication that our old problems won’t continue. (They most certainly will.) With the acknowledgement that I am a little late, I’d like to begin the new year with a kind of post that I don’t normally write: a reminder.
As most of my (close) friends know, I detest “reminders”–which are usually just patriarchal disguises for slut-shaming, gender-shaming, you’re-not-practicing-your-religion-properly shaming, and all kinds of other shaming in the guise of “reminding” you to be their definition of a better Muslim. It’s the sign-off for every man politely bullying Muslim women to remain patient, kind, and hijabed: “And I remind myself before I remind anyone else.” (Except, of course, he doesn’t; that’s why he’s arrogant enough to regulate your modesty.)
So, I’m not the type to bestow an entire khutbah uninvited–oh, of course I am. Apparently, as evidenced by this post. But lately, I’ve noticed something in other people that I recognized because I do it myself as well, though hopefully not as often anymore. But I want you to know this is forbidden. Forbidden! Listen closely, because other than alcohol and sexual harassment (two unrelated things) and occasionally bananas, your author forbids things neither often nor easily.
It’s tempting, and I know firsthand, to believe that when an event devastates us, or hurts us, or otherwise doesn’t flower as planned, it’s because we don’t deserve the thing in question, or we deserve to be punished. I’ve done this with smaller things–hurting my ankle over my high heels, or catching my brush in my hair, or (cringe) the comb-to-earring phenomenon. I’d stop and wince at the pain and think, “Well, that was for a past or future sin.” I want everyone who does this–and I’ve seen it, so I know there’s quite a few of you, to stop and consider the enormity of what you’ve just done (to yourself.)
Verse 29:10, which I’ve cited on this website before, reads:
They treat men’s oppression
as if it were the Wrath
and I if it isn’t obvious from the hundreds (hundreds?) of posts I’ve already written, I tend to like to clip and magnify verses into brief bits of poetry like that, for the effect. I’ve used this verse to address systemic oppression, especially since patriarchal men behave as though their oppression is mandated by God. But since every ayah of the Quran can be applied in various colors, in shades and degrees of truth, let’s broaden the context of the lines to the entirety of the verse. “And of the people are some who say, ‘We believe in God,’ but when one (of them) is harmed, they consider the persecution as [if it were] the punishment of God. But if victory comes from God, they say, ‘Indeed, God is with us.’ Is not God most knowing of what is within the breasts of all creatures?”
It isn’t only detrimental to the health of your soul to believe that God is punishing you, this verse indicates that such an attitude is offensive to God. Whenever one reads the Qur’an, there is a feeling of peace with the reoccurring realization that God is hardly ever offended by the endless list of petty things men claim offends God, but that what is actually indicated as being offensive to God demonstrates even more deep compassion. It is a mark of the Feminine Divine, of Mercy and Graciousness, that is imbued in every verse encouraging us not to harm ourselves with hurtful thoughts exactly like these.
What’s astounding about the verse is how far it goes: the act of believing one is being punished by God with a misfortune is not only written as an act that is hurtful, but one that is hypocritical. The verse says it is hypocritical to believe “God is with us” when we face victory and not when we face harm, and the next line, “God knows what is in your heart,” often repeated when one is being disingenuous in her faith, confirms this reading. It also hints that true punishment means that God is not with us, by equating the belief that we are being punished with the belief that God is absent from us–the opposite of the mindset that God’s reign is to be associated with punishment. Pain isn’t beautiful, and it isn’t Divine.
Understandably, we want to believe that God’s punishment translates to our closeness with God, because it must mean that our pain is meaningful, or that if we are punished it means God is near for the punishing. But the verse commands us to believe that God is near in the duration of the punishing, not as the source of the punishment. I’ve heard imams and hafizes and religious scholars alike make claims that, “If we could see how much sin God removes from us when we are sick, we would wish to be sick all our lives.” This, I think, is an unholy way of twisting what would have been an otherwise beautiful sentiment: that God is with us in pain, because God is with us always, but that pain isn’t something to uphold as desirable, or holy, or something to seek out, or–I emphasize–something to justify.
God does not want you to justify being “punished.”
Please remember that this year, and always. And be good to yourselves. Nothing distresses me like receiving emails and emails filled with women deprecating themselves, women who are convinced their misfortunes–and their oppressions–are punishments from God, who are frantic in “saving” their souls and redeeming themselves. This, this calamity, has nothing to do with God. God isn’t the source. Oppressors are. And, non-Muslims who happen to read this, if you don’t mind, consider it a religious lecture for you too. And be good to yourselves. Take care of your souls.
I’ve been avoiding this post. I’ve successfully avoided writing it for four years. As most of you know I’m conscious of the context to which I contribute exegesis (or anything), and whether or not hijab is mandatory is a question that is irrelevant in a context where women are harassed for wearing the hijab—and for not wearing it. Because of this context I have, reluctantly, written more posts here about hijab than I ever cared to write, and all about men minding their own business.
There is one verse that is used by male scholars to “encourage” women to cover their hair. Humorously (or not) enough, this verse does not explicitly make this command; it reads, instead,
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms (Qur’an 24:31)
In case you’re wondering how “bosoms” is understood as “hair” when they are pretty clearly distinct body parts (insert joke about judicial male “expertise” knowing nothing about female anatomy here) let’s look at the word “veil.” The verse already hints that a veil existed; it doesn’t command, for example to veil as though the action is revolutionary or unpracticed, but to draw their veils, as though the women already owned fabric they understood could be used as a veil. And that’s exactly correct. The area where male scholarship is wrong, however, is in arguing that the veil was already used to cover the hair, and that 24:31 merely commands the inclusion of the bosom with the hair, thus advising that both the hair and bosom are covered.
But there are problems with this—mainly that the assumption that the sole purpose of the veil was exclusively to cover the hair in pre-Islamic Arabia is an incorrect one.
“The cloth was more utilitarian in purpose than just as a piece of clothing. It served to protect against weather, to carry babies, to haul such things as wood. It was tied around the waist and used like a tool belt of sorts, to stick things in it, etc. The “hijab” [before the Revelation] was never exclusive to be used as a head covering because it would have to be removed from the head in order to use it for those other purposes. The ayat in the Quran is basically telling women to use that piece of cloth, that they already have and are using (to make it easier on them, no need to get a special “hijab” so to speak) and use it to cover your chest/breast.”
If the line of argument for scholars is that hijab is commanded in the Qur’an because the cloth to which the Qur’an refers in advising women to cover their bosoms is the same cloth women used to exclusively cover their hair (which is the male scholarly line of argument) then it is an inadequate one. And it’s inadequate for the simple reason that hair-covering was not the exclusive purpose of this fabric. Would it have made sense to interpret that women should cover their bosoms and with the same fabric we use to hold tools? If our logical standards are that all previous purposes of the cloth have now become mandatory with the inclusion of covering the bosom, then it does. Otherwise, there is no reason for scholars to focus solely on the cloth’s purpose to cover hair as an extension of the command to conceal the bosom.
The command to conceal the bosom was given because non-Muslim men would harass Muslim women due to prejudice (you know, all too familiar) while knowing full well these women were Muslim, but since all Arab women exposed their chests, when confronted the men claim that they did not recognize that the woman was Muslim and couldn’t tell, and therefore had not been harassing her for her religion. The verse was revealed to blast away this poor excuse. Muslim women were defined clearly from non-Muslim women, so that, in Lee Ann’s words “those men had no excuse other than they were assholes.”
This is why the verse cites the reason “so that they will not be harassed” in advising the hijab—it’s not meant to be interpreted as the responsibility to avoid harassment is placed on the woman: it’s meant to be interpreted so that the excuse given by men (“I did not recognize her as Muslim and therefore was not committing the 7-century version of a hate crime.”) is rendered illegitimate.
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,
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Although I’ve already written about Maryam as our Prophetess, I’d like to expand on her significance by comparing the cosmological role of our Prophet Muhammad to that of our Prophetess Maryam. There are several interesting parallels between Maryam and Muhammad; the first and most obvious is not only that both recieved word from the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel) of their Prophethoods, but that the reactions of these two Prophets to that word are strikingly similiar. When Muhammad is greeted by the Angel, he is terrified until he comes to recognize the entity; the Prophet had, at first, run frantically down the moutain. Likewise, when the Angel approaches Maryam, she cries,
“Indeed, I seek refuge
in the Most Merciful
from you, so leave me
if you fear God!”
until her visitor responds,
“I am only a messenger
of God to bring you news
of a child.” (19:18)
But what is more intriguing is the dialogue that takes place. Maryam proceeds to ask,
“How can I birth a child
when I am a virgin?” (19:20)
while Muhammad, when commanded to “Read!” at the revelation of Surah Iqra, responds, bewildered, “But I cannot read.”
The Prophet was indeed illiterate, and in this exchange his illiteracy plays the same role as Maryam’s virginity. This response, “I cannot read,” is paralleled with Maryam’s, “How can I birth a child when no mortal has touched me?”
Since Islam does not elevate the Maryam’s virginity to the extent that it is certainly elevated in other faiths accepting her as a religious figure, the Islamic approach to Maryam’s virginity is the same as its approach to Muhammad’s illiteracy. In other words, these two states are considered neither particularly virtuous nor are they frowned upon. They are merely the conditions in which these historical figures existed before greeted by the Divine. I am not entirely comfortable in drawing the theory that Muhammad’s illiteracy and Maryam’s virginity are symbolic of spiritual receptiveness to the Word of God, that the absence (of literacy and sexual experience) of each of these “worldy pretenses” made each Prophet the most receptive vessel, unobstructed by human finitude, for the Word of God to be Delivered–for Maryam, God’s Word in childbirth, and through Muhammad, God’s Word in the Qur’an–but it is nonetheless one to be considered.
A second parallel is the cleansing of both Prophets before the creation of the universe and all that exists. A hadith reads, “There is none born among the offspring of humankind that Satan does not touch; a child, therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Maryam and her child.” (Sahih Bukhari) This is an indication that both Maryam and her son are free of sin, like Muhammad who is distinguished by his isma, protection from moral depravity: “Did We not expand your bosom?” (Qur’an 94:1) so that the Messenger of the Qur’an could convey the message without error. Our Prophet’s heart is cleansed during his ascendance through the Heavens, and several hadiths, in which this described concept has been meditated upon by mystics, read that the Prophet existed before the very creation of the first human being, and several hadiths read that “the first thing God created [when Adam was still between water and clay] was my [the Prophet’s] Light.” As the Prophet is distinguished as exceptional compared to all humankind, so is the declaration made for Maryam at her birth,
“When she [the mother of Maryam] had delivered,
she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered
of a female child!”—and God knew best
what she delivered—
“And no wise is the male
like the female.
I have named her Maryam (Mary), and I commend her and her offspring to
Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.” (3:36)
Just as the Qur’an is protected from defect through the protection of the purity of Muhammad from moral depravity, so is Prophet Isa’s protection from Satan invoked in the same protection of his mother.
What are then, the cosmological and mystical implications of both these figures? It is no accident that the Prophetess and the Prophet have inspired the same passionate praise and meditative repose among those who follow them and submit to God. One of the most fundamental attributes of the Prophet is his Light, believed to be a direct reflection of the Light of God, the noor of Muhammad is so close to God that Muhammad is Loved if God is Loved. Likewise Maryam, who occupies the realm of the Womb, is tied closely, almost inextricably, to the realm of the Divine, as made clear in 4:1. Prophet Isa, son of Maryam, is secondary to his mother, as the Qur’an reads he declares,
“I am a servant of God;
God has given me a Book and made me
and blessed me and enjoined upon me
prayer and charity and made me dutiful
to my mother
who bore me.” (19:30-32)
There are two things to take away from this: (1) Prophet Isa was made dutiful to his mother, which has interestingly never been interpreted as a Divine Ordination of matriarchy (though Isma’il’s dutifulness to God has been conveniently misread as dutifulness to Ibrahim as a patriarch), and (2) although it is true the conception was Immaculate, it is emphasized over and over in the Qur’an that Isa is the son of Maryam: she, alone, birthed him, harnessing the Divine powers manifested in the realm of the womb and acting singularly (without a man) to perform a miracle, a sign of the Prophets.
And Maryam is most certainly a Prophet. Whether she can be called a Messenger, having carried and delivered the Word of God in the form of a human being, just as Muhammad delivered the word of God as the Qur’an, is a decision I personally haven’t made and will leave up to you, dear readers. One thing is certain: Maryam, and Asiya, and Eve, and the numerous women who inarguably qualify as Prophets demonstrate with their capacities that the distinction between a Prophet and a Messenger is hazy and not so distinct, and more uncertain than widely defined.
I propose that there is an entire league of female Prophets who transcend patriarchal categorizations of Divine Interaction.