Women and faith

31 May 2012

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LAST year, I had gone to Afghanistan for a series of lectures on women’s rights. I also spoke on this subject in a gathering of distinguished ulema and one of the issues which came up for discussion was about women being naqisat al-'aql (short of reason) and naqisat al-iman (short of faith).

I asked if these definitions were in the Quran, as I did not find them anywhere in the holy book. When I asked if they were in the hadith, the answer was yes. However, I pointed out that any hadith which goes against the Quran cannot be accepted as authentic.

All the ulema agree that the Quran gives equal rights to men and women and both enjoy equal dignity. Then how can a woman be short of reason and faith? An alim who was insisting on women’s shortcomings was unable to reply and instead murmured and sat down.

Recently I was going through a book written by Maulvi Nazir Ahmed, a great scholar of Islam with somewhat liberal views, where he discusses the story of the creation of Adam (AS) and his being expelled from paradise for eating the forbidden fruit.

Maulvi Nazir Ahmed mentions that though Satan could not mislead Adam as he was firm in his resolve not to eat the forbidden fruit, he succeeded in misleading Hawwa (Eve) as she was short of reason and she persuaded Adam; both ate and were expelled from paradise.

It is highly surprising that a scholar of the stature of the Maulvi did not bother to consult the Quran, which nowhere says that Satan succeeded in misleading Hawwa. The Quran directly blames Adam for being misled and thrown out of paradise.

In Ayah 121 of Surah Ta Ha it is said “And Adam disobeyed his Lord and went astray.” Here Adam is directly being blamed for allowing himself to be misled and going astray, while Hawwa is not mentioned.

Despite this, Maulvi Nazir Ahmed and most of our ulema blame Hawwa for yielding to temptation and persuading Adam to eat the fruit of the tree. The evidence of the Quran is totally ignored and the ulema rely on hadith. Why did it turn out this way?

The reason lies in our anti-women attitude and thinking in general, which dictates that women are inferior to men and that men are the rulers. Where does this attitude come from? Naturally from the patriarchal values which are prevalent in society.

We would continue to think this way and quote prominent ulema without understanding that our ulema were products of certain periods and were prisoners of their time. In other words, we have to adopt a socio-cultural approach to religion. What we call Islam is not merely based on the Quran and Sunnah but also our social and cultural values. The social structure of that time was not only patriarchal but the prevalent patriarchal values also deeply penetrated our understanding of the Quran and our theology, though we consider our theology divine.

Women in the past feudal and patriarchal structure of society were subjected to severe restrictions including the denial of any public role. The segregation of women from men also became part of our treatment of women. During the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) time women played active roles, took part in various public debates and even accompanied the Prophet to the battlefield.

However, all this changed once Islam entered the era of monarchy and a feudal culture became the ruling culture. The monarchs maintained large harems and made women their prisoners to be guarded by eunuchs. It was in this environment that women lost the rights that they had been given in the Quran and Sunnah. Men were now projected as their superiors, totally ignoring what the Quran had to say.

The Quran gave equal rights to women in every respect (see verses 33:35 and 2:228). The holy book did not use words such as husband and wife but used zawj or zawja instead (zawj or zawja means one of the couple). Thus the husband and wife are referred to as zawj and our ulema, later on — under the influence of the feudal and patriarchal culture — began to quote a hadith that had prostration (sajda) been allowed for man, I (the Prophet, peace be upon him) would have ordered the wife to prostrate before her husband.

The Quran also avoided using the word ba'al as in Arabic it signified a deity. The Quran uses the word ba'al only three times and that too for narrating stories of the past; otherwise, it uses the word zawj for ‘husband’. The use of the word ba'al was avoided lest it be misinterpreted. The husband in Islam is no more than one half of the couple, signifying the equality of both husband and wife. Yet our ulema privilege the husband over the wife.

Since women were confined to their homes and their role reduced to that of a housewife, they lacked experience of the outside world, while parents thought that a person destined to be a housewife did not need any higher education. The woman thus usually remained illiterate and could acquire no experience of public life outside the home and hence came to be described as naqisul 'aql (short of reason).

Today, conditions have changed drastically; women are working in every field of life and have become great achievers. In fact, they have proved themselves to be superior to men in several fields. To describe them as naqisul 'aql is to display one’s own self as being short of reason.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.