Against the Term “Moderate Muslims”

abril 12, 2007

Several months ago, an English sociologist told us that she was commissioned by her government to conduct a survey of “moderate Muslims.”  The survey was about what a score of Muslim leaders in Great Britain thought about the fight against terrorism, the place of Islam in Europe, religious fundamentalism, etc.  According to the sociologist, not a single one of them accepted being pigeonholed as “a moderate Muslim.”  And that despite the English government considering them as such.

Equally interesting is the fact that there are other Muslims who, yes, willingly accept the said label and even use it as a sobriquet.  A notable example is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to whom his acolytes always refer with the formula “the moderate scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi.”  But Qaradawi doesn’t exactly fit into the English government’s notion of a “moderate Muslim,” and in fact he is denied entry into the United States on account of being thought of as “extremist.”  Therefore, we are confronted with the following paradox: those who are designated by outsiders as “moderates” reject the label, while those who are regarded as “extremists” claim it.

In reality, the term “moderate Islam” is strange, since Islam is in essence a moderate religion.  That being the case, why did all the Muslims categorized by the English government as “moderates” reject the label?  According to the aforementioned sociologist, their main argument is that the use of this label is misleading, since it makes “moderate” positions seem like minority ones in a sea of fanaticism.  At the same time, it creates an artificial division within a community characterized always by its diversity.  The Muslim respondents refused to participate in a game of definitions initiated from positions of power with neo-colonial political aims.

A proof of the political significance of the term “moderate Muslims” is found in Daniel Pipes.  In a series of typically inquisitorial articles, Pipes has devoted himself to a “search for moderate Muslims in the United States,” introduced as the only valid interlocutors for institutions.  Pipes analyzes the writings of outstanding Muslims in the United States and rails especially against all who are remotely critical of any part of US policy, be it domestic (the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, detentions without due process, legalization of torture) or foreign (invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, tortures at Abu Ghraib, the CIA’s secret prisons, bombings of civilians, crimes committed by the US military, etc.).

Thus, groups like the Progressive Muslim Union of North America are represented by Pipes as “radicals” in spite of their defense of causes such as Islamic feminism and gay rights.  The reason is simple: Pipes is ultraconservative and the Progresive Muslim Union of North America is, in contrast, of the Left.  For Pipes, “progressive Muslims” are almost worse than terrorists.  In his attacks on Khaled Abou el Fadl (one of the most brilliant Muslim intellectuals today), Pipes reproaches him for, among other things, making the case that jihad is purely a term for defense.  This seems to bother Pipes greatly, to the point that he considers it as an unequivocal sign of fanaticism. . . .

According to Pipes, a moderate Muslim is one who agrees that Islam is violent but considers that it can be reformed; who supports the Patriot Act’s abridgements of liberties as a valid means to protect national security; and who applauds the invasion of Iraq as a means to bring democracy to the Islamic world.  Needless to say, he can’t find many Muslims who fit in his schema.  Consequently, Pipes concludes that the Americans have a problem, since most of the Muslim leaders who live in their country are extremists.

All this may seem funny, but it isn’t if we think about the fact that in the United States there exists a movement to harass Muslim leaders and intellectuals, that several professors of Arab-Muslim origin have been dismissed from American universities for defending the Palestinian cause or protesting against American democracy’s drift towards totalitarianism, and that all their writings and conferences are scrutinized by such organs as Campus Watch, dedicated exclusively to spotting and denouncing pro-Islamic speeches at American universities.  Campus Watch has a strong presence in the universities that have Islamic or Middle East Studies departments.  Its method is not just to keep an eye on professors’ writings, but to ask “patriotic” students to denounce any suspicious phrase that a professor (Muslim or non-Muslim) may utter in one of his or her classes.

In Spain, we encounter a similar situation which affects us, especially those of us associated wtih WebIslam and Junta Islámica.  Thus, while we are categorized by many as “moderates,” the radical Right considers us “radical Islamists.”  The reason for that has nothing to do with where we actually stand within Islam but everything to do with our criticism of Islamophobia characteristic of the new reactionary thought.

For example, Gustavo de Aristegui‘s change of attitude illustrates this point.  In his book Jihad in Spain, he wrote: “Not all converts to Islam are Islamists, because, upon seeing the drift of Islamists, many converts decided to follow a moderate line native to Spain.  That is the case with Junta Islámica, communities presided over by Mansur Escudero, who by the way was the only Muslim religious leader in Spain bold enough to issue nothing less than a fatwa condemning Al Qaeda terrorism and censuring Bin Laden, which certainly requires a great deal of courage” (p.186).  Nevertheless, a year later Aristegui radically changed his opinion, as a result of Junta Islámica spokesman Yusuf Fernández calling him out on his Islamophobia.  From that moment on, in the imagination of the radical Right, Junta Islámica has become a member of a sinister (and rather phantasmatic) legion of radical Islamist groups trying to re-conquer Al-Andalus and impose Sharia on all Spaniards. . . .

Under these circumstances, the search for “moderate Muslims” is no easy task.  Those who from a doctrinal point of view are “progressives” in their way of Islam will necessarily reject Western policies toward the Islamic world as totalitarian and denounce the racist ideology that animates the neo-colonial policies of the West.  In fact, many of them will see in the current condition of democracy in the West a caricature of democracy, dominated by the mass media and financial lobbies, without which nobody can get to govern.

Given the situation, what the English and American governments are looking for doesn’t exist.  That doesn’t mean that they cannot fabricate it, and in fact they are already seriously working on it, constructing artificial leaderships to serve them.  That is a good reason to reject the label “moderate Muslims” that some try to impose on us, doing their part to broadcast an image of Islam in which “moderates” are an exception in a sea of fanaticism, when the reality is exactly the opposite.

With this article, we wish to counsel Muslims against accepting a terminology imposed from outside.  As we wrote on another occasion: the surrender to God (Islam) cannot but be a radical act by which a human being commits himself or herself to abandoning all idolatry, to beginning to divest himself or herself of all dogmatism, of all the projections that human beings make on the world to veil their connection to the unconditioned.  There is no moderate Islam, because there isn’t any immoderate Islam, for the same rule of three: if someone is fanatical, it means that he has made his religion a barrier, an idol against other religions, therefore he has not accepted diversity as a mandate, and he has not submitted himself to a Creator who gives us diversity as one of His most marvelous signs.  But neither does there exist an un-integrist Islam, if we take the word “integrist” in its exact sense: to preserve integrity, a conception of life as an indivisible whole.  In other words: Islam is a radical opening toward unity of diversity, and that very radicalism excludes all sectarianism.

The Shari’a issue

noviembre 30, 2006

Conference at the Second International Congress on Islamic Feminism.
Barcelona, 3rd November 2006.

The First international conference on Islamic feminism (Barcelona, October 2005) was considered a presentation of Islamic feminism as a cross-national movement, bringing to light the desire of many Muslims, men and women, to fight against injustices committed against women in the name of Islam. At that time, we listened to reflections from Muslims of different nationalities as to the situation of women in countries such as the U.S.A., Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Mali or Nigeria. Through their words and the memory of their deeds we were able to sense the importance of Islamic feminism as an emerging movement that seeks gender equality –as yet a minority movement, but whose message holds great hope for the future.

At this Second conference, we wanted to take another step forward, to pose a debate concerning the Shari’a and gender discriminatory Family codes currently in force in many countries with a Muslim population. Our intent is to focus directly on certain topics where patriarchy exercises its control over minds and bodies. In the next few days we will have well-known intellectuals and activists among us who will present their views on polygamy, divorce, abortion, family planning, sexual rights and the spiritual leadership of women. All of this from an Islamic perspective, and in opposition to those sectors which seek to impose an obscurant view of Islam. In other words, we will speak of the confrontation between Islamic feminism and judicial Islam, of real situations of injustice which many Muslim women are subjected to, and of responses to these injustices from an egalitarian standpoint.

The conference will not be limited to this topic, and the topic itself may serve as a thread which takes us in other directions. If we speak of laws pertaining to family, we must speak of the worldview which sustains it, of a concept of family where the woman is subject to the man. If we speak of regaining rights, we are recognizing that these rights have been violated. If we speak of the reestablishment of justice and equity between the sexes, we are evoking the ethical dimension of Islam, upheld in the Qur’ánic conception of the human being, al-insan, a creature capable of love, solidarity and transcendence. A creature gifted with an essential dignity regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual tendencies.

The purpose of this initial address is to offer a general introduction to the topic: I will present perspectives of Islamic feminism in connection to the issue of Shari’a. In what terms is the Shari’a debate presented in the Islamic world? And more specifically, what overall view can we contribute to this debate from a feminist perspective? In order to answer this question we must ask another: What is the Shari’a? What does this word mean in the life of every Muslim man and woman? And this is where we meet the first difficulty in understanding, the first methodological snag which we must clarify in the simplest fashion.

Surely many of those present (some of whom are Westerners with little knowledge of Islam) have heard the word Shari’a in connection with barbaric laws and corporal punishments. Just a few days ago we received news of the imminent execution of a sentence of stoning in a case of adultery in Iran. The court which decreed this sentence claims to be fulfilling the laws of Islam. Likewise from Somalia we receive worrying news, the so-called courts of the Shari’a are imposing corporal punishments and other sentences. These are courts with questionable legitimacy, who disregard all the legal procedures.

Cases like these fully account for the rejection against the word Shari’a, associated with a type of legislation that seems to arise from the depths of our own history. Let us not forget that the fight against corporal punishment marks the beginning of a new paradigm in legal matters in Europe. Thus, it is understandable that the news that reaches us concerning the Shari’a elicits strong rejection.

Here we run into a snag, since the word Shari’a has another meaning which must be clarified. An etymological look at this Arabic word can help clarify the term, shedding light on what it means for Muslims. The word Shari’a appears in the Qur’án in a very broad sense: “We have set you in the way (sharíatin) which proceeds from the Decree” (45:18). Allah, evoking the earlier revelations of Moses and the Torah, of Jesus and the Gospels, declares: “In the matter of religion, He opened a way (Shari’a) for you that He had entrusted to Noah, the same way that we revealed to you; the same way that was entrusted to Abraham, Moses and Jesus: firmly establish worship (of God) and do not make it into an object of division.” (42:13).

These verses show that the Shari’a, in the Qur’án, is the broad way which leads man towards the divine being, and not a specific legal code. In all of its forms, the Arabic term Shari’a has the same root as the verb shara’a: to make one’s way toward a spring. A way which leads toward a spring of water, a metaphor for God, the unique Fountain of existence. This is very different from legal prescriptions or fiqh, drawn up by men from ethical principles that can be found in the revealed word, and that have a historical character, linked to a precise situation. We want to make this very clear, since normally these words are used interchangeably, as if the Shari’a were a synonym of fiqh, jurisprudence.

This ethical orientation and its quality of spiritual Guide is the fundamental objective of the Qur’án. This is a spiritual message and not a legal code. Out of more than six thousand verses contained therein, a mere 80 can be considered legal prescriptions. It is completely absurd to reduce the Shari’a, an orientation for life, to just these verses, which represent less than 3% of the total revelation. What I mean by this is that the Shari’a is something broader than the law, and that this translation, so often used, impoverishes its meaning.

Although the Shari’a is typically associated with corporal punishments and laws which discriminate against women, it is necessary to step aside from stereotyped views for a moment and come closer to what it means in the Muslim’s daily experience of Islam. A basic thing about Islam is that it is construed as a practice. It is not only a matter of more or less abstract beliefs, but rather a praxis directed toward putting man into contact with Reality. The objective of all Islamic rituals or practices is to guide man toward the undivided fountain, the goal of all that has been created. In other words: this fountain-way that we call Shari’a is construed as fiqh, jurisprudence.

The practical discourse of the Shari’a encompasses, first of all, all aspects of the ‘ibada, the practice of worship. Such as praying, fasting, carrying out a pilgrimage. If the Shari’a were not put into concrete terms, Muslims would not know how they should do these things, how to practice the pillars of our religion. Only if we understand this can we understand the meaning of the classic expression “there is no Islam without Shari’a”. The Shari’a is the practice of Islam, what determines how the ritual prayers should be performed, and what the zakat consists of, the obligatory donation of part of one’s earnings to the needy. The Shari’a establishes how one carries out the pilgrimage to Mekka, how one fasts during the month of Ramadan. In this sense, the Shari’a is essential for every Muslim man and woman.

Now then, the Shari’a prescriptions go beyond these typically religious practices. In addition to all that is the practice of worship, we have what we call in Arabic mu‘âmalât, which regulates the believer’s relations with society, including commercial transactions or family rights. This is to say, all norms for all matters that are addressed in the social life of Muslims. Toward this end it has been applied to the penal procedure, to administrative law and to war. The word mu‘âmalât means, literally, transactions, exchanges. If the ‘ibada refers to the vertical dimension: man’s direct relationship with the divine being, the mu‘âmalât refers to the social, horizontal dimension of Islam.

All this brings us to the current situation. There are numerous Islamist movements in certain Muslim-majority countries that in recent decades have invoked the Shari’a as the only way out of the political, social and economic evils which they are suffering. This demand for the Shari’a coincides with the zeal for de-colonization, with shaking off a foreign heritage which is perceived as destructive, not only of culture and traditional life style, but also of the economy which guaranteed the subsistence of these countries’ populations during centuries.

As Lily Zakiyah Munir expressed, “ Failure of modernizing secular state is evident by political decay, the decline of politics into authoritarianism, patrimonialism, corruption, and the dissatisfaction with the project of the post colonial secular states. The growing saliency of religion in the politics of countries throughout the world is a struggle for cultural liberation in search for authentic identity, political representation, and more equitable development in third world countries”.

Thus, the return to religious matters is not necessarily a step backward. Acceptance of modern Western values is problematic for countries that have been colonized, tortured and exploited by the countries who claim to represent this modernity, and this problem increases with the continuity of post-colonial regimes, who have applied repression politics against all those currents which demand greater social justice and an end to privileges. This is the context in which Islamist movements call for the application of the Shari’a as a way to attain a more just society. Taking all this into consideration, it is understandable that this possibility is attractive to many Muslims. The problem is that when the Islamists speak of applying the Shari’a, they are speaking of applying legal constructions drawn up by the great jurists of the classical period of Islam. In practice, this involves implementing the death penalty, corporal punishments, and a whole series of laws whose principal victim is the woman. This process is known as a “re-islamization of society”. But one must keep very much in mind that this re-islamization does not mean returning to a traditional Islam, rooted in people’s daily life, but rather the implementation of Islam as a religion of the State.

I quote again Lily Zakiyah Munir: “While this growing Islamization has had an impact on states, societies, and communities, women seem to be impacted the most. More than anything else, gender-related issues present some of the most difficult and complicated challenges to contemporary Islamic law. Islamic legal system regulating women-related issues, the family law (al-akhwal al-syakhsyiyyah), has remained static and immutable since its codification a thousand years ago. Time and space have changed, and Muslims are currently living in a completely different socio-cultural and political context, but the conventional shari’a on gender and women remain unchanged. This same law has been used as a reference on issues like gender relations, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, women’s leadership role, etc. which, unsurprisingly, reaffirms the already patriarchal attitudes of many Muslim males. Under the guise of uplifting Islamic law, the war against women is launched demonstrating the misuse and abuse of God’s authority in order to impose a suffocating patriarchy among Muslim society. [1]

At this time there are groups which advocate the implantation of a codification of Islamic law dating back to the 8th or 10th century, and which in practice means nothing more than corporal punishment, justification of domestic violence against women, dress codes which restrict freedom, family codes which are strongly discriminatory and chauvinistic, restricting women’s rights to divorce, inheritance, and exercising certain professions.

Faced with these attempts, Islamic feminism denounces that this supposed Islamic law is not the ‘law of God’, as its proponents affirm, but rather a human creation codified too many centuries ago, in the context of societies where the woman was considered property of the man, and where religious discourse was in the hands of men. This movement considers that the Islamic tradition has been degraded and the Qur’án has been distorted. It postulates that genuine Islam contains important elements of liberation and it proposes that these be regained as the basis for the Muslim woman’s emancipation.

The need for Qur’ánic hermeneutics from an egalitarian perspective becomes evident here, as has been proposed by Asma Barlas in her book ‘Believing Women in Islam’. An analytical reading of the Holy Qur’án makes clear that classical Islamic jurisprudence is not merely an objective implementation of Qur’ánic principles, but rather an interpretation linked to a concrete historical period, carried out from a patriarchal perspective, and linked to a hierarchical concept of society.

I would like to mention a specific example of how such hermeneutics work: the famous case of the daraba and domestic abuse, beginning at verse 34 of chapter 4 of the Qur’án:

“… wa l-latî tajâfûna nushûçahunna fa’dzûhunna

wa ihÿurûhunna fî l-madâÿi’

wa idribûhunna.”

(Qur’án, surah 4, an-Nisa’, verse 34)

This passage has been the object of innumerable explanations and interpretations throughout history. The problem originates in the polysemous nature of the last word, idribûhunna. According to numerous authors, the verb daraba in this context means ‘beat, strike’, with which the Qur’án is permitting, as a last resort, the beating of wives:

“As for those women with whom you may have a dispute;

admonish them;

then leave them alone in bed;

then beat them.

This understanding situates us within the patriarchal legal tradition of Islam. Given its contradiction with the general teachings of Islam and with the Sunna of the Prophet (peace and blessings), scholars have to explain this verse in some way. In relation to this matter Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly showed his rejection of all forms of violence against women: “Never beat God’s handmaidens”, “He who beats his wife is the worst of all men”, and “The best amongst you men is he who best treats his wife”. Thus with the intention of “emptying of violence” this “beating”, a series of limitations are indicated: one cannot strike in moments of anger; one cannot strike sensitive areas; one can only strike lightly, etc. Anyone can see that these limitations dilute the punishment to its minimum and make it ridiculous or impossible.

This has an explanation in the very polysemous nature of the word idribûhunna. Taking into account that many Arabic speaking Muslims read verse 34 of an-Nisa as “beat them”, and that the Sunna explicitly prohibits this, the fuqaha have come up with a means of uniting the two. They have come up with a series of limitations to this “beat them” making it so absurd that it cannot take place. For example, there is a hadith which speaks of “not beating the face” of the enemy, given that the face is the sign of our likeness. The idea of beating with a siwak (a type of toothbrush) has its origin in a hadith in which the Prophet (saw), angry with someone, said to him “if it wasn’t for the fact that I know that it will weigh against me on the Day of Judgement, I would beat you with this [showing a siwak]” (passed on by Ibn Majah and for Ibn Hibban in their Sahih). In this way, it is an attempt to avoid beatings without giving up the possibility (which is a fact) of reading the verse of an-Nisa in the sense of “beat them”. A stratagem – when the causes that have made it necessary are left to one side, one gives way to ambiguities and misunderstanding.

Opposing these types of arguments (casuistry typical of Islamic jurisprudence of the 9th to 12th centuries), other Muslim scholars stated emphatically their rejection of any possibility of “ill-treatment” of wives, no matter how remote or “limited” it claims to be. In this case, the “limitations” do no more than leave the door open, just as it has been shown in cases of domestic violence in which a Muslim man has sought protection in his religion in order to justify his actions.

In this controversy, the determinant point is the meaning of verse 34 of the surah an-Nisa. The verb daraba is eminently polysemous and that in the very Qur’án it has different meanings.

To travel, to leave: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273

To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4

To beat: 8:50; 47:27

To give examples: 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11

To take away, deprive: 43:5

To condemn: 2:61

To seal, to hide: 18:11

To cover: 24:31

To explain: 13:17

In the Qur’án, daraba appears with at least ten different meanings which are only some of the more than thirty meanings of this Arabic verb. When the scholars explain how the ablutions (wudu) should be carried out they use this verb – “pour” (daraba) water over the face. Other meanings are: “imprint” (coin); “multiply” (numbers); “finish” (a job); etc. From this, one understands that each reader of the Qur’án in Arabic reads this part of the verse according to his or her own understanding.

Not all scholars read the verb daraba, in an-Nisa 34, as “beat”. Some argue it cannot refer to ‘ill-treat’ or ‘physically beat’. In any case, it would refer to ‘beat’ in a figurative sense – a coup de théâtre or ‘to set an example’ in order to bring about a change.

The Saudi Dr. Abdul Hamid Abu Sulayman, president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia affirms in his article ‘Chastising Women: A Means to Resolve Marital Problems’: “A correct reading of the term daraba advises a husband to ‘separate’ from his wife, to ‘distance himself’ from her and to ‘leave’ the conjugal home”. In addition, he indicates that when the Qur’án talks of “strike physically” it uses the verb jalada (flog), as at the beginning of the surah an-Nur (punishment in the case of adultery).

Edip Yuksel, translator of the Qur’án into Turkish, states that the translation “beat them” is erroneous, and that it ought to be translated as ‘separate from one another’. One of the meanings of daraba is ‘to travel’ or ‘to leave’ as found in the Qur’án (3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:29; 2:273). This opinion is shared by numerous authors, such as Mohammed Abdul Malek (‘Does The Quran Sanction The Beating of Women?’), Uzma Mazhar (‘Treatment of Wife’), and many others.

This reading is reinforced by the verse as a whole and the verse that follows it. One needs to step back a little in order to see the whole picture. The whole can be understood as follows. If you have domestic problems, in the first place try to talk calmly. If this does not solve the problem, leave your wives alone in bed. As a last resort it is best to separate. If they are in agreement, in no way should you look for excuses to abuse them. Seek an arbitrator to settle your disputes and formalise the divorce.
This translation is in accordance with other passages of the Qur’án which deal with the subject of divorce:
A divorce may be [revoked] twice, whereupon, the marriage must either be resumed in fairness or dissolved in a goodly manner.
(Surah 2, Al-baqara, 229)
And so, when you divorce women and they are about to reach the end of their waiting-term, then either retain them in a fair manner or let them go in a fair manner. But do not retain them against their will in order to hurt [them]: for he who does so sins indeed against himself.
(Surah 2, Al-baqara, 231)
If you marry believing women and then divorce them ere you have touched them, you have no reason to expect, and to calculate, any waiting period on their part hence, make [at once] provision for them, and release them in a becoming manner.
(Surah 33, Al-Ahsab, 49). 
And if a woman has reason to fear ill-treatment from her husband, or that he may turn away from her it shall not be wrong for the two to set things peacefully to rights between themselves: for peace is best, and selfishness is ever-present in human souls.
(Surah 4, an-Nisa, 128)
In the case of a serious domestic conflict the Qur’án recommends “resolving the matter in a goodly manner”, “without hurting them” and “in a becoming manner”. Between this and “beat them” there is an abysm, and as such this translation appears incongruous. 
In his translation of the Qur’án published by Princeton University Press (1988; pp. 78-79), Ahmed Ali offers an alternative reading:
As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).
Where some read “beat them”, Ahmed Ali reads “go to bed with them”. In other words, make love. This may seem frivolous, and yet Ahmed Ali uses as a basis two indisputable authorities in order to justify his translation. The first is the Qur’ánic commentator Zamakhsari. The second is Raghib’s Al-Mufridat fi Gharib al-Qur'an. According to Raghib the verb daraba could have the metaphorical meaning “have sexual relations”. He cites a well-known Arabic expression in which daraba means “have sexual relations” - daraba al-fahl al-naqah (the male camel mates with the female camel). Raghib gives as an example of the sexual meaning of the verb daraba precisely verse 34 of the surah an-Nisa. 

These translations (separate/to give an exemple/make love) have the advantage of not contradicting other passages of the Qur’án that deal with the relationship between spouses and of not clashing with the example of Muhammad (peace be upon him) or with the teachings of Islam as a whole. It is true that this verse from the Qur’án is polysemous and that, taken out of context, it can be read as permission granted by God to physically punish disobedient or rebellious women. But it is also true that this reading is incoherent with other Qur’ánic verses which deal with the topic of domestic conflict and divorce. Therefore, we must conclude that the usual interpretation of this verse is contradictory.

We could cite more examples in order to demonstrate that a patriarchal reading of the Qur’án has distorted much of the egalitarian message of Islam, always opting for the interpretation which is most detrimental to women.

Beyond the need for an answer to certain specific verses from the Qur’án, a feminist reading seeks to regain the egalitarian message of the Qur’án, based on rigorous hermeneutics, recovering the message of the Qur’án as an organic whole, a dynamic, open text, and not only as a book of laws, and even less a catechism which must give an answer to every question. This way we wish to show that Islamic feminism has its foundation in the Holy Qur’án, as revealed by an analytical reading of the text. In other words: if, to begin with, we have shown that the traditional patriarchal reading has always chosen the interpretation most detrimental to women, out of all possible readings, a interpretation in the context of the whole shows that this reading cannot be upheld in the least. The error often committed is precisely that of avoiding this reading of the Message of the Qur’án as a whole, looking instead for verses which regulate the life of believers. This is the essence of judicial Islam: transforming the Qur’án into a book of laws, contrary to all the evidence.

They are mistaken those who think that Islamic feminism constitutes a heterodoxy, as opposed to the orthodoxy represented by the patriarchy, as if this constituted true Islam, and feminism were a modern movement that tries to adapt the message of the Qur’án to contemporary reality. In fact it is just the opposite: an egalitarian reading of the Qur’án respects the text as the revealed Word, without the need to twist its meaning. By contrast, the patriarchal reading of the text represents a clear manipulation in many aspects, in many cases offering interpretations which cannot withstand the most minimal analysis. If these interpretations are maintained over the centuries as unchanging truth, it is only because of the constant pressure from the traditionalist clergy who are at the service of totalitarian power. This alliance between reactionary clergy and despotic power constitutes the essence of the patriarchy. This alliance is seen not only in all that concerns women’s rights, but also in the very system of government and social organization. The community spirit of Islam has been substituted by a religion of the State. The making of collective decisions in traditional assemblies has been eradicated. The concept of the caliph, according to which every human being is a caliph of God over the earth, has been converted into the expression of despotic power.

As opposed to the patriarchal religion which we have inherited, through Islamic feminism we open up to a new dimension of our tradition, so as to recover the balance that should prevail in a rightly guided society. Islamic feminism is deeply rooted in the Message of the Qur’án. In the Qurán, we are quite far from worldviews which present a male superiority over the female. Think of Hesiod’s worldview: woman represents the chaotic forces of nature, a creature contrary to Civilization and Culture. For Hesiod, Civilization is produced as a result of male dominion over the female. Pandora, the first woman, enters later than man, a poisoned gift from Zeus, a punishment for having stolen fire. Woman is a punishment, a great calamity, representative of the blind forces of nature that man must master. The case of Hesiod is paradigmatic to all Greek thought, a patriarchal conception, strongly misogynous, which passed from mythology to philosophy. This view has dominated Western thought for many centuries, up until the arrival of modern times.

On the contrary, in the Qur’án there are none of the ideological elements which justify the establishment of a patriarchy. The Qur’án speaks to us of Creation of men and women from a single soul, from a unitary, undifferentiated base, from which the beginnings of both masculine and feminine appear. At no time is an ontological difference established between men and women. All human beings enjoy the same rank before Allâh, and they are only differentiated by their inner qualities. The ontological equality between men and women takes us to the cosmic image of the Balance. “We created everything in pairs”, says Allâh in the Qur’án. We live in a world of polarities: cold and hot, active and passive, body and spirit. All these opposing or complementary pairs are held in tension within the human being.

Only a full awareness of the equilibrium between male and female responds to these teachings. This balance can never be based on the idea of male superiority over the female, or in man’s guardianship of woman. In this sense, we must realize that patriarchy means the destruction of Islam as a spiritual path. Patriarchy is nothing more than fiction, it represents a break from the order of creation, from the very inner dynamism of things. The subjection of the female to the male leads to a stagnation of society, upon exclusion of women. The patriarchy is in essence unjust, contrary to the message of the Qur’án, contrary to the example of the Prophet Mohammed, contrary to our original nature, to that innate feeling of justice engraved on the heart of every creature.

In short, Islamic feminism presents itself as a movement for spiritual restoration as well as a social movement. In the social arena, recovering the message of the Qur’án corresponds to the struggle for gender equality, against all discrimination that they try to impose on us in the name of Islam. On the spiritual sphere, this gender jihad consists in recovering the balance between the masculine and feminine within each one of us.

To affirm that the Qur’án does not uphold the patriarchy has great implications. This is not just a nice statement, to play to the gallery, but rather to become conscious of what this means and to act accordingly.

First of all, it means recognizing that a large part of the knowledge passed down to us by the great wise men of the past is corrupted by a patriarchal view which disfigures the Message of the Qur’án on important points. If one takes Qur’ánic commentary from the classical period, this bias is plainly seen, to the point that it can be said that many of the great commentators respected as great wise men by the majority of Muslims were absolutely misogynous, to extremes that are difficult to imagine. This is so in almost every area, not only in jurisprudence, but also in Qur’ánic exegesis, in philosophy, and even in mysticism and Sufism. This does not mean that we must throw this immense legacy away–that would constitute intellectual suicide. Instead, it means that we must maintain a critical approach to the Islamic legacy from the classical period.

Second, to affirm that the Qurán does not uphold the patriarchy places us in opposition to a whole caste of misogynous and reactionary clergy. Resistance to Islamic feminism from these sectors is enormous. Let us not forget that the patriarchy has constituted the substrate of Islamic society for fourteen centuries, and permeates all aspects of society. The criticism of Islamic feminism from other Muslims focuses on two points: (1) feminism is a Western movement which undermines the cultural and religious identity of the Muslims; and (2) feminism is a movement which destroys the family.

Theological criticism of feminism focuses on the idea that God has created man and woman as differentiated creatures. Even though ontological equality between the two is accepted, it is considered that the woman is especially gifted for maternity, the care of children and tasks of the home. From fundamentalist positions, it is considered that in a society guided by the laws of Islam, woman must remain under the guardianship of man. It is considered that women are not qualified to interpret the Qur’án and Islamic Law. From this perspective, Islamic feminism is seen as contrary to the values of Islam, a threat against which we must defend ourselves. As an example of this belligerent attitude, it is worth quoting the words of the Saudi Sheij Al-Munajid to an Iqra Television station: “Those who want total equality between the sexes are criminals, traitors and violators of the Qur’án and of the Sunna. They are apostates and enemies of religion.” In order to understand how far-reaching these words are, one needs to know that in Arabia, apostasy carries the death penalty.

Attacks on Islamic feminism come not only from these fundamentalist sectors, but also from moderate Muslims who consider that feminism is something Western.

Faced with criticism on the part of other Muslims, we must make clear that (1) Islamic feminism is based on an analytical reading of the Qur’án, and (2) Islamic feminism is not against the Shari’a.

Insistence on fighting against injustices which are committed in the name of the Shari’a is not fighting against the Shari’a: it is fighting against injustice. Actually, the big enemies of the Shari’a are those who try to apply discriminatory laws. We are not speaking of abstractions, but of stark reality. During the conference, Shaheen Sardar Ali will speak to us about the hudood laws in Pakistan, where the woman who reports a rape is required to have four male witnesses who corroborate the facts. Otherwise, she may be accused of zina, adultery, or even be punished for reporting a rape that she cannot prove. Under these circumstances, most rapes are not reported, thus giving incentive to rapists, who know they will go unpunished. And all this because of the strong pressure from Islamic parties to maintain this law, which has nothing to do with Islam, but is presented as a part of the Shari’a. These Islamic groups are the ones who are creating a strong rejection of the Shari’a among the Muslims themselves. Faced with this reality, Islamic feminism can be seen as a defense of the Shari’a in modern society, based on an egalitarian reading of the Qur’án. One good example of this attitude is Ayesha Imam, who after her fight against sentences of stoning and other punishments imposed by the Shari’a courts in Nigeria, has publicly defended the right of Nigerian Muslims to be governed by the Shari’a.

We find ourselves, therefore, needing to carry out an interpretation of the Shari’a which does not enter into contradiction which the legal principles of equality between the sexes, of non-discrimination. This implies leaving behind medieval codifications and carrying out a radical transformation of Islamic jurisprudence. In practice, this means revising all those discriminatory laws, those against women as well as those which discriminate against religious, sexual or racial minorities. My position on this is very simple. If what we call Shari’a involves the least discrimination, I will oppose it with all my strength. By contrast, if the Shari’a means a possible application of the Qur’ánic Message of social justice and equality of all human beings, in this case I will defend the right of Muslims to be governed by the Shari’a, without any contradiction with human rights and democracy.

In order for this egalitarian view of the Shari’a to be fruitful, it must be absolutely clear that it cannot be based on discriminatory criteria, or on a segregation of man and woman, separated by some idealized view of male and female, assigning social roles according to gender and not according to the qualities and abilities of each human being. In order for this egalitarian view of the Shari’a to be fruitful, it must be based on a deep awareness of the essential dignity of each human being, regardless of their sex, as a caliph of Allâh over the earth, charged with caring for the earth and improving one’s surroundings.

This criterion involves recovering the Qur’ánic view of the human being, al-insan. It must be stated clearly: the Qur’án does not establish roles as a function of sex, but it considers each creature as insan, a transcendental creation, gifted with reason and judgment, a creature capable of loving and giving itself to another, of being fulfilled as a caliph of God over the earth. The assigning of differentiated roles for man and woman is a social construction that was imposed as a basis from which to limit the egalitarian message of Islam. As Asma Barlas rightly states, it is not a matter of criticizing the great thinkers of Islam from the classical period for not having the same criteria as we do. It is rather a matter of recognizing that they applied criteria which intervened in their interpretation of the Qur’án, and of deciding whether this criterion is valid for us.

As a movement rooted in the most authentic Islamic tradition, Islamic feminism should not remain in what is merely ideological. It must be able to get past our differences and to accept the struggle which, from different trends and sensitivities, is taking place on behalf of women. In this sense, the movement must know how to reach out both to Islamist movements and to secular Arab feminism, drawing from the most authentic aspects of their positioning and legacies. Going beyond the ideological means considering ourselves a movement for spiritual renewal. Only from a renewed commitment to the values of Islam can we reach our objective. The patriarchy is nothing more than fiction, an ideal order created by man in order to veil our access to the Unique Reality, where masculinity and feminity are perfectly balanced.

In summary, what we propose is a genuine transformation, carried out from a deep connection with the Message of the Qur’án, from opening our heart to Allâh as Just and Merciful, al-‘Adl wa al-Rahman, a profound Fountain of Love that reaches everywhere, who has established the Balance, al-Miçan, the perfect equilibrium of forces which run through Creation, and affect the creatures, as an unending movement from the One towards the One.

But only Allâh knows.

[1] Islam, Modernity and Justice for Women. Paper presented at the Islam and Human Rights Fellow Lecture, October 14, 2003, organized by the Islam and Human Rights Project, School of Law, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

“The struggle against discrimination should involve men and women equally”

octubre 15, 2006

From November 3-5 2006, the Catalonian Islamic Council will be organizing the II International Conference on Islamic Feminism, focusing on issues of the Sharia and family-related codes currently in force in countries with Muslim populations. In anticipation of this gathering, we interviewed Abdennur Prado, event director.

Question: Please tell us how this idea came about, and what the objectives are.

The project originated out of our work with Webislam. As we verified some of the current news concerning the Islamic world, we discovered the other side of the picture, precisely that which the mainline Western press tends to conceal: the existence of a broad intellectual movement within Islam, critical of both modern Western society and of codified tradition. We realized that in recent years many collectives of Muslim women have appeared, groups which fight against discrimination and claim their rights from within the framework of Islam, in countries as far away as Malaysia, Nigeria or Pakistan, to mention a few. All these movements had something in common which we have called “Islamic feminism”: Muslim women claiming their rights from within the framework of Islam. Out of this came the idea of gathering together some of these intellectuals and activists in an international conference, so that Islamic feminism could be visualized as a whole, a renewal movement of the Ummah , from within. It was a pioneering initiative, carried out in the year 2005. The enthusiasm generated by the first conference has encouraged us to move forward.

Some people believe that Islamic feminism is an oxymoron, a contradiction. What is meant by Islamic feminism?

It’s a terminology problem. For many Muslims, the word “feminism” is something linked to modern Western society, with all the rejection that that entails, especially with regard to memories of colonialism and to the degradation of the human condition inherent in neoliberal globalization. Faced with the destructive aspects of modern life, Islam appears as an essential tradition, a way of being in a world that considers the human being as God’s caliph over the earth, a creature capable of transcendency. This explains the difficulties of some in accepting the term “Islamic feminism”. But if we reflect for a moment, we realize that such a contradiction does not exist. If we understand feminism to mean the struggle for respect of women’s rights, in harmony with the egalitarian Message of the Koran, no Muslim would doubt that feminism is fully Islamic. In fact, as Sheija Amina Teslima states, the word “feminism” is redundant, since it is implicit in the word Islam. On the contrary, for many non-Muslims, the expression “Islamic feminism” appears to be a paradox, breaking away from prevailing ideas about women in Islam. Thus the term’s impact in the media.

Within Islamic feminism there is great diversity of postures, as is the case with global feminism.

Diversity is inherent to feminism, as a movement that is merged with the real life of women. The feminism of an English suffragist from the 19th century cannot be identical to that of a Moroccan woman in the 21st century. Each woman must respond to a concrete historical situation. In the same way, large cultural and contextual differences in the Islamic world have always existed. Muslim women do not constitute a homogeneous block; their conditions are very heterogeneous and vary according to their social class, their level of education and their geographic location. In some places patriarchy has a more aggressive face than in others: Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan. But there are Arab countries where women enjoy great autonomy, such as Syria. In sub-Saharan Africa we find Muslim societies where the woman has had much impact. Within Islamic feminism there is great awareness of this diversity as something positive, as opposed to both Western cultural imperialism and the Pan-Arabianism being promoted from Arabia. Thus, an Indonesian activist, Lily Zakiyah Munir, is able to reject any link between the Islamic feminism which she defends and Arab feminism, affirming that her feminism is rooted both in Islam and in the tradition of the island of Java.

Could you comment on some of the different types of feminism within the Muslim world?

At the ideological level, three main trends are usually distinguished. On one hand, we find Western-style feminism, which feels that there is no possibility of gender equality within Islam, and that Islam itself should be fought against. This feminism is a sub-product of colonialism. In contrast to this we find Arab feminism, which calls for women’s liberation from within an Arab/Muslim cultural paradigm. Arab feminism is culturally Muslim, but it denounces Islam as a patriarchal religion which has historically been detrimental to women. The difference between Arab feminism and Western-style, secular feminism lies in Arab feminism recognizing Islam as a rightful, defining heritage, with positive aspects that can be drawn out. However, both denounce Islam as a patriarchal religion.

The third trend is Islamic feminism, which calls for the possibility of attaining equal rights for men and women within the framework of Islam. These are believers who reject the male chauvinism which prevails in the majority of Muslim societies. This movement considers that there was been a degradation in the Islamic tradition and distortion of the sacred texts. It is a spiritual movement, in a very profound sense. Thus, Amina Wadud insists that her feminism is a result of her faith, that she will always consider herself first a believer, and second a feminist. I identify deeply with this outlook: if I consider myself feminist it is precisely because I am Muslim, someone who recognizes their submission to the Creator of heaven and earth, and who tries to act accordingly.

To what extent are these feminisms opposed to one another? Do you think they can work together?

I have no doubt in the least: not only can they, but they must work together. But in order to do so, the culturally Muslim feminists need to revise their concept of Islam as a patriarchal religion, and the anti-religion feminists must reconsider their belligerent posture towards religious reality. In other words: they should gracefully accept the presence of millions of human beings who wish to live out the spiritual dimension of their existence, without their having to accept any discrimination on that account. Other than this, from within Islamic feminism there is no difficulty in collaborating with secular or lay Arab feminists, just as there is no difficulty in collaborating with Christian, Buddhist or Jewish feminists. We must be aware that we live in a time of globalization, where global responses are required of us, beginning with full respect for our differences. It is necessary to overcome any kind of sectarianism..

What are the biggest challenges for Islamic feminism, and why is it important to carry out this task of claiming rights for Muslim women within Islam?

Several levels must be differentiated. On one hand, there are the concrete challenges: social projects which tend to improve women’s lives, the demand that states respect international agreements referring to women’s rights, the struggle to abolish or reform discriminatory laws, campaigns against abuse and crimes of honor, or for access to education as a right of Muslim women. It is necessary to move forward in consolidating Islamic feminism as a cross-national movement, a legitimate trend within Islam, creating cross-national networks which share information and strategies for fighting. There need to be forums available for intellectuals and activists to meet one another, to develop a solid plan for emancipation. It should be clear that only local movements have the power to change things: they are the ones who know what their needs and possibilities are. On the other hand, there is a general, long-term objective which is shared by all branches of feminism: the abolition of patriarchy. On this matter it must be clear that Islamic feminism does not mean a reduction in feminist demands in their more universal sense. Islam is not a patriarchal religion, and we cannot accept that patriarchy continues to govern social relations in the framework of Islam.

The Conference focuses on the topic of the Sharia and family-related codes. Can you explain why this was chosen?

The reason is obvious: if we speak of Muslim women’s struggle against sexual discrimination, we must analyze the content of these family-related codes, which in many aspects are strongly discriminatory. We must speak about divorce, polygamy, abortion, segregation of the sexes, man’s guardianship over woman… about all those topics where the real teachings of Islam are being distorted. All of this means being critical of our legal tradition, and recognizing that the large schools of Islamic jurisprudence were codified under parameters of patriarchy. We do not mean throwing out the classical fiqh, but making a critical examination which will allow us to preserve what is most valuable from this immense legacy. Today such a review is essential. We cannot forget that political movements exist which demand application of Islamic law just as it was codified ten centuries ago, in a context completely unlike our own, which ends up meaning a loss of rights for Muslim women.

Is Islamic feminism, then, opposed to the Sharia?

Not at all. This idea can only come from someone who is ignorant of the pretensions of Islamic feminism. Insistence on fighting against injustices which are committed in the name of the Sharia is not fighting against the Sharia: it is fighting against injustice. Furthermore, the Sharia contains not only punitive laws, as some ignorant people think, but also how to do prayers and fast: how could any Muslim be against the Sharia? Actually, the big enemies of the Sharia are those who try to apply discriminatory laws. I am not speaking of abstractions, but of stark reality. During the conference, Shaheen Sardar Ali will speak to us about the houdud laws in Pakistan, where the woman who reports a rape is required to have four male witnesses who corroborate the facts. Otherwise, she may be accused of zina, adultery, or even be punished for reporting a rape that she cannot prove. Under these circumstances, most rapes are not reported, thus giving incentive to rapists, who know they will go unpunished. And all this because of the strong pressure from Islamic parties to maintain this terrible law, which has nothing to do with Islam, but is presented as a part of the Sharia. These Islamic fundamentalist groups are the ones who are creating a strong rejection of the Sharia among the Muslims themselves. Faced with this reality, Islamic feminism can be seen as a defense of the Sharia in modern society, based on an egalitarian reading of the Koran. One good example of this attitude is Ayesha Imam, who after her fight against sentences of stoning and other punishments imposed by the Sharia courts in Nigeria, has publicly defended the right of Nigerian Muslims to be governed by the Sharia.

How can men contribute to improving the discrimination situation in which many Muslim women find themselves?

By not accepting discrimination which is committed in the name of Islam, denouncing this fearlessly. We must reject the idea that Islam has assigned differentiated, inflexible roles to woman and man, and recover the Message of the Koran as an expression of an order based on the ontological equality of men and women. The Muslim woman must be recognized in her condition of a caliph of Creation, charged with caring for the world, capable of fulfilling all roles. One key issue is revising Arab patterns of masculinity, which have nothing to do with the example of the Prophet, may he rest in peace. We must recognize our feminineness, the fact that the masculine and the feminine are a part of us, as qualities that should be balanced. In a more concrete sense, promoting women to positions of responsibility, not attending meetings where women are rejected or segregated, demanding women’s access to our mosques in equal conditions as men… feminism affects our general attitude toward life. From an Islamic point of view, it is clear that the struggle against discrimination should involve men and women equally.

You say that “We must reject the idea that Islam has assigned differentiated roles to woman and man”, but, isn’t it biology itself which has defined these differentiated roles?

Of course, motherhood and fatherhood are different and very concretely affect the lives of men and women, alhamdulil-lâh. But I am not referring to what is obvious. The problem comes about when, beginning with biological differences, some people derive a whole system of thought where the man should occupy the dominating social positions, and the woman should be relegated to the domestic arena. The next step is to decree total segregation of the sexes, such that woman’s presence in society becomes invisible. Already in the 12th century, Averroes (the andalusian thinker Ibn Rushd) predicted that the separation of women from productive life would mean ruin for Muslim cities: you cannot keep half of the population in passivity. This has no justification in the Koran or in the Sunna of our beloved prophet, who married an extraordinary woman, Khadiya, who not only was an merchant, but was also his boss for many years. The prophet cleaned her house and cooked. His women were not his maids, but his companions in a community-based spiritual adventure. Of course there is nothing wrong with a woman dedicating herself to the tasks of the home, if this is what she wishes. The point is that, based on biological differences, we cannot deny women the right to become judges, scholars or national presidents, to occupy any post for which their natural talent has suited them. Ontological equality between men and women takes a higher place than any biological difference.

Critics state that Islamic feminism belongs to a small minority group, restricted to academic circles. What can you tell us about this, what are the expectations?

We must visualize Islamic feminism as a cross-national movement which is finding its way into every corner of the ummah. There are important women’s movements in all Muslim countries. The list of organizations and their objectives is impressive. We are speaking of groups against ablation, against crimes of honor, against forced marriages, against sexist family codes. We speak of activists who are carrying out important literacy campaigns and campaigns to help women. Some of these activists are recognized as feminists and others are not, but their struggle concurs in many ways with the purposes of Islamic feminism. From my point of view, we must connect these movements with the discourse of female thinkers such as Asma Barlas, Lily Zakiyah Munir, Ziba Mir Hosseini, Amira Sonbol or Shaheen Sardar Ali… and so many others. This discourse is rooted solidly in Islam, and provides all the keys for answering the orthodox pretensions of reactionary ulemas. Once this becomes known, I am sure that it will be seen as something necessary. There is much to do, but my confidence in the possibilities of Islamic feminism is enormous. We are dealing with a movement that can be preached broadly among Muslim youth around the world, and can take effect in communities which are fed up with fundamentalism, a line of reasoning which does not respond to their expectations of life and spirituality. I am convinced that the mental and legal structures which seek to justify segregation are doomed to disappear, and that this disappearance will open immense possibilities for the future.

International Congress on Islamic Feminism

Presentation on Islamic Feminism. First International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Barcelona, 27th October 2005

octubre 27, 2005

Bismil-lâhi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim.

As salamu aleykum, may peace be with you.

abdennurmoghadam.jpgI have the honour of introducing to you today Valentine Moghadam, a woman whose career arouses the greatest admiration, both for her contributions to the academic world and her work as an activist, with her personal commitment to attaining justice for women. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to read her writings are struck by the sensitivity with which she deals with issues, the knowledge she has of the realities she speaks about from the inside, always in touch with the women she speaks of and for whom she works. If I had to in any way summarise Val Moghadam’s career and all the conferences, activities and speeches she’s been involved in, we would have no time for anything else, so I will simply recommend that you read her texts on the economic foundations of patriarchies, the gender issue and globalisation, the plans for a trans-national women’s network, Islamism and Islamic feminism, or the situation of women in Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

No-one better than Valentine Moghadam to explain the emergence of Islamic feminism, some of the responses it has brought about and the web of relationships in which this movement has arisen and attempts to forge a way forward. As Director of the UNESCO Gender Equality and Development section, she will take a global stance on the issue, with human rights as the background to the scene: human and sexual rights, minority rights, rights to one’s own image, the right to profess one’s own opinions and beliefs, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. These are undoubtedly some of the rights that Islamic feminism is calling for, the retrieval of certain rights that have been usurped from Muslim women by a patriarchal and totalitarian interpretation of Islam. On the basis of this, a connection can be made between Islamic feminism and the global feminist movement, defined by Valentine Moghadam herself as:

the discourse and movement of women aimed at advancing the status of women through greater access to resources, through legal measures to effect gender equality, and through the self-empowerment of women within national boundaries but through transnational forms of organizing and mobilizing. (…) The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action may be regarded as the “manifesto” of global feminism (Moghadam, 1996a).

It is essential to consider Islamic feminism in relation to the globalisation process. It must also be seen in the light of the 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Since then, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the main obstacles stopping women from achieving their rights are neo-liberal globalisation and religious fundamentalism. In relation to the first point, this is not the right place and time to discuss it, although it clearly affects the discourse of women in countries of the so-called Third World. It is precisely this steamroller of a neo-liberal market that is rejected by all fundamentalist movements in the name of their endangered traditions, in the name of communities’ right to survive.

Strangely enough, in the very same Beijing 95 forum, while the danger of fundamentalism to women was being highlighted, an alliance was being set up that has been defined by Nareyeh Tohidi as “the Islamic-Catholic conservative religious alliance against women’s rights”, and which has been present in later world conferences for women. We should remember that this alliance was set up on the initiative of the Vatican, which has managed to mobilise several nations against the recognition of abortion as a women’s right.

Putting Islamic feminism into a global context also means putting it into a local context. These very same alliances are repeated in different contexts. Without having to go any further, in Spain, we have recently seen how the more reactionary sectors of the religions present in Spain have formed a united front led by the Catholic Church, in this case to oppose homosexual marriage. It seems as though mankind’s great spiritual traditions are only able to speak as one when it is a matter of defending the patriarchy and perpetuating injustice and discrimination, with the gender issue always there as a backdrop.

Once Islamic feminism has been positioned as part of global feminism, we should listen to what the feminists of Islam have to say, what their arguments and their expectations are, what form of collaboration can be set up on the basis of shared goals. This is the objective of the Congress that we are inaugurating today. It is about entering into a dialogue that aims to draw up joint strategies, on the basis of mutual respect and confidence in women’s ability to transform their reality from the inside out.

From this perspective, one can understand the need expressed by Fatima Mernisi, amongst others, to “open up feminism”. It is a question of breaking away from a hierarchy of feminisms that hinders joint action among women from different realities. This requirement is referred to by Lena de Botton, Lídia Puigvert and Fatima Taleb in the following words:

“Feminism has to start out from the capacity that women have to transform gender practices and relations, so that they are more egalitarian. It must also take into account that the bond between all women is what will make it possible to overcome situations of exclusion. We must trust in the ability of Muslim women to form an agency (they are beings with the capacity for language and action) to reflect on their own reality and to act in consequence. In feminism, taking these women’s voice away from them is not very functional, because it means that we are wasting a huge potential for proposals that can be of great use to all of us” (El velo elegido, 84-85).

Accepting the emergence of Islamic feminism leads us to acknowledge a plural reality and to bringing this reality to the forefront, to attach all its inherent importance to it. Feminism is not a monolithic movement, but a series of ideas designed to achieve gender equality. It is rooted in the actual history of women and adopts different expressions depending on the circumstances. In the words of Mary Nash, author of Mujeres en el Mundo, feminism cannot be reduced to a philosophy or a metaphysic, nor to an essentialist common denominator. From a historical point of view, it is clear that the cultural, social, political or religious environments have affected and continue to affect the development of feminist theory and have played a decisive role in the very way feminism is interpreted.

From this perspective, there is no doubt that the fact that an enormous number of women call themselves Muslim must affect the way they look at feminism. Amongst Muslim women, those that see themselves as feminist are those that have reached the conclusion that there is nothing incompatible between their religious beliefs and the basic vindication for women’s equality. Moreover, as we will have occasion to see over the next few days, it is their very condition as Muslims that leads them to call for the repeal of discriminatory laws and to vindicate equal treatment, to reinterpret their traditions and to cast doubt on the very textual foundations on which patriarchy is built.

In this case, the key is to understand that the adjective Islamic does not imply a reduction in the basic demand for gender equality in its more global sense. In the words of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirín Ebadi:

“If Islamic feminism means that a Muslim woman can also be a feminist and feminism and Islam do not have to be incompatible, I would agree with it. But if it means that feminism in Muslim societies is somehow peculiar and totally different from feminism in other societies so that it has to be always Islamic, I do not agree with such a concept.”

According to Shirín Ebadi, there are two ways of understanding the term “Islamic feminism”. First: feminism… but with the restrictions (supposedly) imposed by Islam. In other words: a (supposed) feminism in which the adjective Islamic implies a reduction of the basic objectives of feminism: the end to all discrimination on the grounds of gender, the fight against patriarchy. Second: feminism, but within a specific framework (of situations and reference points). From the understanding of feminism as a historical movement, one has to contextualise women’s struggle for equal treatment. The feminism of a 19th century American suffragette is very different to that of a 21st century American woman, but they are both feminism. In the same way, the feminism of a Muslim activist in Nigeria cannot be identical to that of a European atheist academic.

Once Islamic feminism has been positioned not in opposition to but as an integral part of global feminism, we can more accurately deal with the key question: What is Islamic feminism? Of all the definitions that I am aware of, one of the most complete is precisely that of Valentine Moghadam:

“Islamic feminism is a Koran-centred reform movement by Muslim women with the linguistic and theological knowledge to challenge patriarchal interpretations and offer alternative readings in pursuit of women’s advancement and in refutation of Western stereotypes and Islamist orthodoxy alike. Islamic feminists are critical of women’s legal status and social positions and agree that women are placed in subordinate positions – by law and by custom – in the family, the economy, and the polity. In particular, they are critical of the content of Muslim family laws and the ways that these laws restrict women’s human rights and privilege men. And yet they vigorously disagree that Islam is implicated in this state of affairs. Their alternative argument is that Islam has been interpreted in patriarchal and often misogynistic ways over the centuries (and especially in recent decades), that Sharia law has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that both the spirit and the letter of the Koran have been distorted. Their insistence that what appears as God’s law is in fact human interpretation is an audacious challenge to contemporary orthodoxy. (…) Islamic feminism is part of what has been variously called Islamic modernism, liberalism, and reformism – a transnational effort to marginalize patriarchal, orthodox, and aggressive forms of Islamic observance and emphasize the norms of justice, peace, and equality.”

This definition generally coincides with the one given by Margot Badran: “it is a feminist discourse and practice articulated within an Islamic paradigm. Islamic feminism, which derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeks rights and justice for women, and for men, in the totality of their existence.”

Seen from the outside, this insistence on “saving the Qur’an” may seem disconcerting. However, it is a constant in the movements to which we are referring. It means nothing more and nothing less than that there is an absolute belief that the Qur’an does not justify patriarchy. Indeed, patriarchal readings of the Qur’an have resulted in the patriarchal structure of most Muslim societies. On the basis of this certainty, a deconstruction process is needed, a form of hermeneutics with a feminist narrative by which the message of the Qur’an can be regained, along with its call for an egalitarian society.

There are now countless studies along these lines. Some of them will be among us over the next few days. Reading these texts is an unforgettable experience: the books of Amina Wadud, (Qur’an and Woman) and Asma Barlas (Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an); or the essays of Riffat Hassan, Aziza al-Hibri, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and others.

This is not a vindication that keeps itself to the academic sphere, but one of the principles invoked by organisations known for their fight for women’s rights. On their website, the Malay group Sisters in Islam, whose executive director Zainah Anwar is also here with us, introduced itself as:

“Sisters in Islam (SIS) is a group of Muslim professional women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam. Our efforts to promote the rights of Muslim women are based on the principles of equality, justice and freedom enjoined by the Qur’an as made evident during our study of the holy text. We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.”

This is undoubtedly what gives rise to our particular link to feminism, as men and women who call themselves Muslim, who voluntarily recognise their submission to the Creator of the heavens and of Earth: the fact that we are dependent and incomplete, that everything depends on the Will of Allah, a mercy that creates and that touches everything. Our point of view is not sociological, but the point of view of believers practicing a faith that has been revealed, for whom Islamic feminism is above all an action and implies hope. This hope is that we can live by our faith fully, with harmony and equity, overcoming situations of oppression in which many Muslim women are engulfed. As action, Islamic feminism is based on recognition. Recognising the structural injustice of most Muslim societies inevitably leads us into confrontation with these structures (be they legal, ideological or mental) which support this oppression.

In particular, Islamic feminism is opposed to the implementation of a codification of the Sharia or Islamic Law that goes back to the 10th century and which aims to rule as though it were an undeniable truth which all Muslims must obey, and which in practice means nothing other than corporal punishment, justification of domestic violence against women, dress codes that restrict freedom, highly chauvinistic and discriminatory family laws restricting women’s right to divorce or inheritance or to exercise certain professions. A whole system of thinking that aims to relegate women to a lower level, to erase them from the public space, from the centres of knowledge and decision-making, from all the tasks by which Muslim women could develop their own creativity, in a word: free themselves from power structures that have been created to subjugate them. Islamic feminism declares that this alleged Islamic Law is not “God’s law”, as is claimed by those who promote it, but a human creation (all too human, as Nietzsche would say) codified centuries ago in the context of societies in which women were considered to be the property of men and religious discourse lay in the hands of men.

To finish, and coming back from the global down to the specific, we have pinpointed as one of the priorities of the congress to set up a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim feminists in relation to shared objectives. We must not forget that in most western countries, Islam is controlled by the more conservative sectors, with the difficulties that this brings to its integration into the value system of democracy. In Spain, too, there exists the possibility that a patriarchal and deeply reactionary form of Islamic leadership will be generated, similar to the one that dominates in countries such as France, the United States and England. To give just one example, we cannot take away from the fact that many mosques in Spain forbid the entry of women or relegate them to poky little rooms at the back.

In view of these and other discriminatory situations threatening Muslim women in Spain, I believe it is necessary to plan some form of collaboration with the various organisations and bodies responsible for safeguarding equal rights between women and men. The First International Congress on Islamic Feminism also aims to be seen as the beginning of such a collaboration, and the participation of the Instituto de la Mujer of the Spanish Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs, the Institut Català de les Dones of the Government of Catalonia and Barcelona City Council’s Concejalía de la Mujer leads us to hold the greatest hope in this regard.

Gender Jihad

septiembre 26, 2005

Bismil-lâhi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim

As salamu aleykum

The term ‘gender jihad’ is used to describe the struggle against male chauvinistic, homophobic or sexist readings of the sacred texts of Islam. Throughout the 20th century an extensive movement in favour of overcoming patriarchal readings developed, carried out mainly by women demanding equal rights as full members of the Muslim faith. This movement has the interesting feature of having arisen spontaneously and simultaneously in a number of countries with a Muslim majority. Its origin can usually be found in the first decades of the 20th century in Egypt, when some Egyptian feminists posed the majority of the questions which are still being debated today.

Despite the progress to date, at the start of the 21st century the gender question continues to be one of the pending issues in societies with a Muslim majority. It is akin to a Gordian knot around which a conservative reading of the religion has grown, a reading which discriminates, restricts individual liberties and tends to perpetuate hierarchical power structures which exclude the majority of these societies’ citizens.

Today there is an extensive theoretical debate about ‘Islamic feminism’ which includes arguments about the appropriateness of this term. Feminism, as the struggle for women’s liberation, has no specific label. The qualifier ‘Islamic’ cannot be defining of a type of feminism distinct from Western feminism, but rather it is a way of placing in context the problem of liberation in relation to Islam. In no way should it be a ‘limiting’ qualifier, in the sense of reducing the value of the basic claim to female equality. Despite the terminology, the fact is that there is a broad movement which, by confronting the male chauvinistic, homophobic or sexist interpretations that dominate in many areas of the Islamic world, can truly be called feminist.

Overcoming patriarchy

There are those who take it for granted that Islam oppresses women and that this is a state of things which cannot be changed by any means. From this perspective, Westernisation, understood as the renunciation of Islam, is the only path to the liberation of the Muslim woman. Opposing this reading, there is a women’s movement that claims that it is possible to achieve liberation within the framework of Islam. For the most part these are women who do not want to give up their traditions and reject the male chauvinism and sexism that now prevail in Muslim societies. This movement considers that a degradation of Islamic tradition and distortion of the sacred texts have taken place. Moreover, this movement affirms that true Islam contains important elements of liberation and calls for the recovery of these elements as a framework for social emancipation.

Discrimination against women has gone from being thought of as an essential part of Islam to being condemned as a distortion of tradition. Women’s liberation cannot be achieved by attacking Islam as a whole, but rather by attacking those views which require the subordination of women, destroying their arguments and offering Muslim women the tools and insights necessary for their liberation.

A new understanding of the Islamic phenomenon is needed in order to assess this movement’s significance. It involves an attempt to recover the spiritual dimension and the feeling of belonging in the world in the face of those who seek to reduce Islam to an ideology. This is an understanding based on the concepts of complementarity, justice and balance, and rooted in The Message of the Koran. 

Islam, as a cosmic view that provides for the integration of all forces that govern life, should not entail the subordination of women to men. In the indivisible cosmos, all the forces of nature are found integrated, in constant movement, in equilibrium. Within this view, the equilibrium between the two poles of a couple (the masculine and feminine forces) is a determining factor. Masculine and feminine do not correspond to man and woman, but they are rather an internal part of every creature. That which is feminine is in equilibrium with that which is masculine just as much in a man as in a woman. To try to limit that which is feminine to women and subordinate it to that which is masculine as being the exclusive essence of men is to upset the internal equilibrium of men and women, a polarity which is present in all creatures.

Patriarchy upsets this equilibrium established by Allah in nature, fostering a society based on oppression and authority. Male chauvinism is the destruction of Islam as a well-balanced way of life. It breaks with the very order of creation and imposes an artificial order which we call patriarchy. It must be said that the ideological foundations of patriarchy are not found in the Koran or the Sunna. A fresh reading of the sacred texts is needed in order to expose the inconsistencies in the male chauvinist interpretation of the tradition. So we believe that Islamic feminism is not only a political or social movement, but a spiritual restoration of the Message of the Koran.

The dichotomy of the Muslim woman

In relation to those countries which are experiencing a large growth in Muslim immigration, Islamic feminism could constitute an effective part of their integration. It involves an attack on the very roots of discrimination and injustice. An attack, based on the sources of Islam, which refutes the totalitarian interpretation forcibly imposed as the only one and true version of Islam.

Opposing this internal criticism (deconstruction of the patriarchy based on the sources of Islam), we believe that Western culture’s claim to superiority is not an effective argument against fundamentalism, as this attack fails in its objective and tends even further to inflame these opposing stances. The more aggressive the pro-Westernisation stance is and the more it relies on arguments based on a fear of Islam, the more strength is gained by the fundamentalist movements that present themselves as defenders of their religion in the face of these attacks ‘from outside’.

Nor are attempts of ‘social engineering’ effective, such as that of Kemal Ataturk, put in practice in Turkey – banning the veil, closing the sufi associations, replacing the Arabic alphabet by the Latin alphabet, repressing all public expression of religious acts, etc. This policy was a spectacular failure. The social engineering and spread of anti-religious secularism carried out have not achieved their aim. In fact, Turkey has gone from being a region characterised by syncretism, the mixing of cultures and religious pluralism, to being a country in which traditional Islam is threatened by political Islam (Islamism).

Confronted with this Westernisation/Islamism dichotomy, we offer the recovery of and giving of priority to the numerous elements of traditional Islam that are compatible with a democratic system and human rights.

Islamic feminism is having a powerful influence in some countries. This is not an isolated matter, but rather involves the lives of millions of people. It is crucial for the positive development of Islam and the defeat of fundamentalist interpretations that this movement is made known and supported on an international level. It is a common error in the West to point continuously to the dark side of Islam and ignore those Muslims who do face up to this.

In the fight against discrimination, we ought to unite our efforts and go beyond cultural or religious barriers, these being barriers that the very fundamentalists seek to establish as immovable. To go beyond these barriers is the task of all those who desire a globalisation that respects diversity and that does not become the hegemonic plan of one state or part of the world over another.

Muslim immigration

In the context of modern societies, where the weight of the media is so great, it is necessary to make room for pluralistic expressions of Islam. Establishing a different viewpoint breaks with the monolithic belief that the fundamentalists seek to introduce. It is important to offer alternatives, to make room for discussion and to facilitate the breaking of patriarchal and unilateral models.

One of the goals that the Junta Islámica Catalana (Catalonian Islamic Board) has set itself for the following years is to offer an Islamic interpretation of the gender question that is compatible with the modern world and constitutional values. We need this feminist reading to reach Muslim women, so that they can know there is an alternative to the eradication of or patriarchal readings of their traditions. We need to make known this extensive movement in favour of the recovery of women’s rights in Islam.

In this, as in every task of integration of Muslims in society as a whole, the activities of one organisation alone are not enough. Each social sector involved in the task of integration and construction of pluralism is able to provide its own platforms for action and communication in its attempt to make sure this message reaches society in general as much as it reaches the Muslim population. It is a message of coming together, in which a multicultural society may have the chance to develop without loss of the freedoms so painfully gained, in an organic and sensible manner, avoiding pitfalls and offering consensual solutions.

Presentation of the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism

Barcelona, 26 September 2005.

About the Friday Prayer led by Amina Wadud

marzo 10, 2005

In March, a group of American Muslims announced that Amina Wadud Muhsin would lead the jum’a prayers on Friday 18th of March in New York, delivering the khutba and leading the collective prayer. The announcement was impressive. Some see it as an awakening of the comunity, a revolutionary issue. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Amina Wadud is accustomed to disqualifications. She is woman, a “nigger”, a muslima and a North American. Her knowledge of racism and human discrimination is due to multiple factors.

The reaction of the official communities of New York has been negative. The prayer was summoned at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery. A bomb threat forced the organizers to cancel the act. Finally, the yum’a prayer took place on the foreseen day, in a room provided by the Anglican Church. More than a hundred men and women attended the prayer, which took place among strict security measures.

The act has caused an authentic shock wave, and has been disclosed thoroughly in the Islamic world. Some see it as an awakening of the ummah, a return to the equalitarian way of Islam. For others, it is an infamous innovation. Among the differing voices, that of the imam of the mosque of the University of al-Azhar, Sheij Sayed Tantawi, the Great Mufti of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Imams of Mekkah and Medina, and other “religious authorities” of Morocco, Pakistan and Jordania.

After this simple introduction, we should begin by answering the question: is a woman able to lead men and women in prayer? For some, the question is simply offensive. We are accustomed to this kind of question, and answer patiently with the Qur’an at heart, and the example of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, as a mercifull guide:

1. There is no ayat of Qur’an or Tradiction of the Profet (saws) that states that a woman cannot lead men and women in prayer, or that denies their right to deliver the khutba.
2. The Qur’an affirms women’s capacity to direct a community, in the political and spiritual realms, even to the degree of prophecy.
3. The conditions required to deliver the khutba are: knowledge of the Qur’an and of the Sunna and teachings of islam, and the person’s interior condition (their imam or trust in God). None of these are gender related.
4. There is a hadiz where it is said that the prophet Muhámmad (saws) chose a woman to direct the collective prayers of his community.

This should be enough to close any debate. We should treat the prayer of the 18th as a historical event, as a recovery of genuine islam, and a break from the macho islam which has nothing to do with the Prophet’s teachings, peace and blessings be upon him. An event that encourages us to discern between genuine islam and historic or cultural influences, and to recover islam as a message of universal liberation.

This is enough for us, but the reaction among some scholars and institutions has been very agressive. On March 17th, a fatwa on the subject was issued by Yusuf Qaradawi, President of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and published in Islamonline:

“Throughout Muslim history it is unheard of that a woman has ever led the Friday Prayer or delivered the khutba… It is established that leadership in Prayer in Islam is for men only… Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different movements of the body… Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose physique naturally arouses instincts in men, to lead them in Prayer and stand in front of them, as this might divert their attention and concentration, and disturb the required spiritual atmosphere.”

At the end of his fatwa, Qaradawi talks about “innovation”, and makes this statement:

“My advice to the sister referred to in the question [Amina Wadud] is that she should revert to her Lord and religion and extinguish this unnecessary strife. I also advise my Muslim brothers and sisters in the United States not to answer this stirring call and to stand as one before the trials and conspiracies woven around them.”

In their statement, the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America has been more severe:

“There is unanimous consensus for the entire Ummah, in the east and west, that women cannot lead the Friday Prayer nor can they deliver the sermon. If anyone does takes part in such a Prayer, then his Prayer is nullified. It has never been found in any jurisprudential text of Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi’is or Hanbalis, nor even from Shiite scholars, that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer or deliver the sermon. This opinion [that a woman can lead the Friday Prayer] is an innovation and a heresy on any account, nullified by all scholars… and anyone who calls for it or helps implement it is a heretic.”

The arguments for this prohibition are the following:

1. A woman’s body is provocative, and it could distract the men during their prayer.
2. The prophet allowed women to direct the salat only before other women or relatives, and only in a private environment.
3. It’s an innovation, something unknown in the history of the islam.
4. A consensus exists among scholars that denies women’s imamate before men.

On the first point, I only can show my bewilderment. Opinions of this sort offer us a poor impression of Muslim men, unable to concentrate before a dressed and veiled woman. Since Qaradawi has never carried out the salat behind a woman, I can only refer him to my own experience, that salat is for Al-lâh, behind a woman or behind a man.

The limit imposed on the imamate of women is based on a very peculiar reading of the following hadiz:

“It is testified of Umm Waraqah —who had learned the Koran by heart—that the Prophet —peace and the blessings be upon him— used to visit her; he ordered she to act as imam for people of the house (ahlu Dariha), and she had a mu’adhin [person who did the call to prayer], and she was accustomed to act as imam for the people of the house.”

Qaradawi dedicates most of his fatwa to commentaries on this hadiz. The reason: since no text of the Qur’an or of the Sunna exists that forbids the imamate of women, he tries to carry out a restrictive reading. According to Qaradawi, this hadiz limits the feminine imamate to their own home, and only in case that she were the most versed in the Qur’an.

This opinion is based on a limited reading of the Arab term dar. This word means house in a metaphoric sense, like in the expressions to dar al-islam, or Darfur, the earth of the Fur. The necessity of a mu’adhin shows that the call to the prayer goes beyond the domestic environment. Also, other hadith show us that among the people of her house there were also men, including the mu’adhin. For this reason, I think that the restrictions are not in the hadiz but in the mind of the reader. Another posible interpretation could be: Umm Waraqah bint Abdullah, a woman of the Ansar, was designated by the Prophet —peace and the blessings be upon him— as imam of the Mosque of her area, located in Medina’s proximities, where men and women used to pray.

This is the interpretation provided by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, a indian born scholar, recognized as one of the most authoritative scholars in Islamic Law, writer of several books on islam and translator of the Qur’án in French and other languages:

“It is stated that the Prophet (peace be upon him) appointed her leader or imam of a mosque in her locality and that men prayed behind her. The mu’adhdhin, who calls the faithful to prayer, was a man. It is obvious that he too prayed behind the Imam. This account occurs in the Sunnan of Abu Da’ud and the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.” (The emergence of Islam. Published by Adam Publishers & Distributors Shandar Market, Delhi, India, 1985)

About the “scholars unanimous consensus throughout history”, we have to say that a honest study doesn’t allow for this statement. Among the outstanding scholars that have defended the woman’s imamate, it is necessary to mention Abu Thawr (died in 240 of the Hijra), of the school of Imam Shafi’i. There was also Abu Dawud al-Isfahani (died 270 H), founder of the Zahirí school, and Tabari (dead the 310 H), Qur’anic commentator and creator of a school of jurisprudence. ibn Rushd affirms in his Bidayat al-Muÿtahid that Abu Thawr and ibn Tabari are an exception among the scholars, since “they allow the women to lead men in prayer without restrictions” (Vol.1, pg.354).

Some of the defenders of the so called “consensus of scholars” don’t ignore these cases. They simply argue that the consensus was established with posteriority, and therefore cannot include Abu Thawr or Tabari. Here we must ask: when does this consensus take place, and who does it include? Our perplexity increases as we discover that there are many opposing definitions of what “consensus among the scholars” really means: there is no consensus on what a consensus implies.

It is surprising that even among the hanbalis, women’s imamate is acceptable, at least in certain cases. Qaradawi mentions az-Zarkashei:

“In accordance with Imam Ahmad [ibn Hanbal] and most of his followers, it is permissible that women may direct men in the tarawih prayers.”

Our confusion continues: how is possible that permission is granted in these cases and prohibited in others? How is this recognition of the feminine imamate included in a fatwa that begins saying that “it is established that the leadership in prayer should be for men”, in a fatwa that claims that women cannot be positioned before men in prayer because they might excite them? Is a woman’s body less provocative for men in tarawih prayers than in other regular prayers?

We can also mention the words of ibn Taymiyah (died 728 H):

“A learned woman leading unlettered men in the night prayers of Ramadan is permissible in the well known statement of Ahmed [ibn Hanbal], and as for all other superagatory prayers, then there are two narrations.” [Radd al-Maratibul-Ijma, Ibn Taymiyyah, pg. 290, ed. Dar ibn Hazm].

Ibn Taymiyah refers to the narrations contained in the Musnad of ibn Hanbal, where it is affirmed that women can also direct the salat of the men in nafl prayers (that are not obligatory). It is necessary to point out that some specialists deny that ibn Taymiyah wrote this. However, also in the recopilation of his fatawa, ibn Taymiyah refers to the permisivity that women lead the prayer, when she is well versed in the Qur’án (Majoo al-Fatawa, Vol. 23, Pg. 248).

The so called “Sheikh of the hanbalíes”, ibn Qudamah (died in 720 Hijra), states that a discussion existed among traditional scholars on women’s imamate, not only in the tarawih and nafl prayers, but also in general prayers. ibn Qudamah talked against those who defended the women’s imamate without restrictions (Al-Mughni, Ibn Qudamah, Vol.3, pág.33, ed. Dar al-Hijr), so in his time there was still a discussion on this matter.

In conclusion, the “scholars consensus” against the woman’s imamate is nonexistent, and there is no Tradition of the Profet or versicle of the Qur’an that forbids a woman from leading the Friday prayers.

In the issue of the imamate of women, all opinions are respectable. If some Muslims consider that it is illicit for a woman to deliver the khutba and lead the friday prayer, they are in their right to do so. The contradictions among scholars are not necesarily bad. We have to consider them as an expresión of the variety and vitality of islam, and never as a fitna.

In spite of their weak arguments, it’s acceptable that Qaradawi intervenes in this controversy by giving his opinion. If Qaradawi (or any other Muslim) considers this kind of prayer illicit, there should be no problem: he is not obliged to attend them. What is incomprehensible is that he reprimands Amina Wadud and other muslim women, advising them that they “should revert to her Lord and religion”, as if she is no longer a Muslim or has strayed fom the path. As for the statement issued by the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America, we consider that attents to the human dignity and liberty of concience stablished in the Qur’án. To call someone “heretic” or “disveliver” to bolster their own opinion it remits us to a religion of totalitarian clergymen very far from the teachings of Muhámmad (saws).

The Secretary General of Islamic Commission of Spain, Mansur Escudero, supports the prayer, and gives his congratulations to Amina Wadud and the organizazers. Woman-led prayer during mixed-gender congregations is permissible, so long as the congregation agrees to it. We agree. Wa al-lâhu aalam.

Living Islam in democracy

junio 30, 2004

Throughout history, there have been groups in all religions that have tried to establish a dogmatic teaching, override divergent interpretations and offer themselves as the sole doctrine, as orthodoxy.  The trauma that this attempt entailed for Western Christianity is well known – the battle against heresy dyed the continent red with blood. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism have also experienced attempts of this type, resulting in religious wars between conflicting views of the same message.


There is a tendency to reify the spiritual experience of mankind’s teachers, as if their message were too open to be adapted to an exercise of power. In this respect, one would have to differentiate between spirituality and religiousness, between a genuine experience of transcendence and its reification in dogmas and doctrines, these being transitory forms too devoted to worldly interests to be able to be passed off as harmless.


In the Koran this phenomenon is called “the religion of the ancestors” and can be defined as a mechanical repetition of rites and instructions which are faithfully applied to the customs of the ancestors, despite the fact that they no longer give meaning to or nourish the spiritual life of those who continue to repeat them. When Prophet Abraham (as) reproaches his people for revering lifeless figures, they answer “But we found our fathers doing this!” (Koran 26: 73).  Lack of reflection and questioning and mechanical repetition of dogmas are the signs of a reified religion.  The majority of them never use their ability to reason; since when they are told ‘Come to what God has revealed, and to the Messenger’ they say, ‘What we found our parents doing and believing is sufficient for us’.” (Koran 5: 105).


We have heard this many times in our lives as Muslims. Years ago I heard a young Palestinian (half drunk, by the way) state that anyone who abandons Islam must be killed. A few days ago a young man of Lebanese descent stated that Islam prohibits a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim. When I asked for the source of their statements neither of the two knew how to answer me. They relied on hearsay, repeating phrases whose origins were unknown to them. At no time have they asked themselves if these phrases correspond with the message of the Koran or the example of the Prophet (saws). If they had done so, they would be surprised to discover that the local imam from whom they heard these phrases was not talking about Islam, but rather about the laws of the Omeya or Abbasida Empires.


Thus Islam is reduced to thoughtless repetition of the centuries old interpretations of learned men who lived in very different situations to ours, with the consequent discrepancies that this brings about. All the prophets reacted to this type of attitude.   As opposed to reified religion, the revelation presents itself to us as a return to reflection and genuine experience, to recuperate the fullness of those gestures and words whose meaning we had lost.

What is it that maintains such empty worship? Abraham himself offers us an answer, “You worship idols instead of God, just to preserve some friendship among you in this worldly life…”. (Koran 29: 24). What keeps worship of the empty forms of the religion alive is the attempt to maintain the bonds of tribal friendship, bonds based on convenience and the construction of identities rather than on awareness of the one Truth.


In many aspects this reminds us of the type of religiousness that is spread throughout many Muslim-majority countries – a state religion, based on habit and the mechanical repetition of instructions of a legal nature (“he who abandons Islam should be killed”, “Islam prescribes the death penalty in cases of adultery”) or of a theological nature (“God made Creation out of nothing”, “the Koran is the uncreated Word of God”).  There is no more to the matter than to say it, to believe it and to accept it as dogmas of faith, without asking oneself neither what it means nor what it implies in our daily life.


One no longer knows at what point in the chain of transmission the content was left behind and was substituted for those types of instructions, which have been so obscure since they were enunciated. We can verify that the transmission of the libertarian message of Islam has been interrupted, that education has lost its ability to awaken in believers the profound sense of the revelation, here and now.


It is at this point that the importance of the presence of Islam in the West is established, in the context of liberty.  We find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the first years of the preaching of Prophet Mohammad (saws), when Muslims were a persecuted minority. A situation which favours the experience that man can have of God, the meeting of man with his Provider, without intermediaries and without the burden of an inherited religion, which often takes the form of a prison for our most profound and fundamental hopes.


While they avoid the imposition of dogma and favour plurality of interpretations, democracy and secularism favour the overcoming of the “religion of the ancestors”, with all the generational tensions that this produces. For this overcoming to be effective it is essential that each believer is able to question the entire content of the inherited religion in order to find his or her own path within it. By means of this in-depth study and questioning, the religion transforms us and enriches us, it adapts to change and is able to provide answers to new situations. When religion is reduced to the repetition of dogmas, it is left behind, trapped by history. It can become a useless impediment to progress in the present, as we have seen on many occasions.


There is a paradox in this that deserves to be highlighted. That which is forbidden to believers in a supposedly Islamic context, the radical questioning of Islam as an inherited religion, can be fully expressed in a secular context. All of this means that the presence of Islam cannot be reduced to the appearance of suitable representatives nor to the advice of imams imposed from outside. It is necessary for Muslim men and women to have access to the media, to participate in politics and to be able to argue freely about everything that affects their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. They need to participate and find a space that allows them to interrelate with society despite the dogmatic structures that block their path.


Democracy adapts perfectly to Islam’s message, plurality favours the renewal of reasoning and our fulfilment as people. This has its basis in the fact that each believer has a duty to receive the revelation and apply it in his or her life according to what God gives him to understand. Every human being is a Caliph of God on earth. As such, he or she ought to assume responsibility for caring for the world, in accordance with his or her abilities.


Mohammad’s prohibition of all dogmatic teachings, as an intervention in the direct relationship between the Creator and man, is well known. The absence of the church necessarily implies interpretative freedom and diversity of doxias, of ways of understanding the same universal message, which is expressed before each person and in each context in a non-transferable manner. Remember Mohammad’s saying, “Diversity of opinions is the mercy of God for the community of believers”. It is an expression of the calling of Islam to establish itself as an open religion, to reject the construction of a sole thought, which has to be accepted by all believers. When different interpretations are given it is incumbent upon each person to choose for him or herself the best of those interpretations, that which best adapts to his or her fundamental needs. This implies the exercise of our reason and personal responsibility before the Revealed Word.


For this, we affirm that democracy is the system of government that best adapts to the needs of Muslims, in as much as it creates conditions favourable to a radical questioning of the inherited dogmas and laws and of the idols that have accumulated throughout the centuries. We know that true Islam is only possible in liberty, outside of the attempts at dogmatic control that are experienced in many Muslim-majority countries. Today this idolatry exists especially in the form of obsolete laws, which restrict the freedom of believers (their right to be mistaken) and have nothing to do with obtaining justice.