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Women’s access to holy places

December 07, 2012

RECENTLY a women’s organisation in Mumbai, the Akhil Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Association, conducted a survey and found that in 18 Sufi mausoleums women are prohibited from entering the astana, or sanctum sanctorum, in which they were previously allowed.

Main among these mausoleums is the Haji Ali dargah, which is highly popular among non-Muslims as well. Hundreds of non-Muslims, particularly Hindus, can be seen visiting this dargah.

The report was released to the press and caused a furore. It became a hot topic of discussion attracting full media attention. A number of newspapers and TV channels began focusing on why women cannot enter mausoleums and mosques.

Is it really prohibited? And if so why and on whose authority? In fact for everything Muslim maulvis and maulanas rush to consult hadith, and if something is stated in the hadith they follow it without question.

They do not want to understand that even if a hadith is authentic it has a context and the Prophet (PBUH) said something in a particular context. Our ulema simply quote hadith completely ignoring the context. According to some scholars, it was for this reason that the Prophet discouraged people from collecting hadith as he knew it would cause a lot of problems after his passing.

Naturally, when the press questioned some ulema about prohibiting women from entering dargahs they promptly quoted hadith and said since it is prohibited in the traditions they cannot be allowed. In fact they were not even honest enough to state that the whole issue is controversial. Some quote hadith from Imam Bukhari saying it is prohibited while some quote hadith from Muslim saying it was prohibited but later on the Prophet allowed it.

In fact the Holy Prophet had prohibited women from entering cemeteries because some women would embrace the graves of their loved ones and wail. The Prophet always discouraged excessive weeping, wailing and breast-beating and encouraged dignified ways of grieving.

Women were found to be grieving in such a manner more than men and hence the Prophet discouraged women from entering cemeteries but later allowed it if they visited graves in a dignified way.

But many ulema (aslaf), who thought that women are weak and unable to control themselves, ignored this later tradition of the Prophet and treated it as an absolute ban and enforced it wherever they could.

The Prophet was very humane and had asked women to avoid going to cemeteries out of consideration, but some of his followers treated it as an absolute ban. There is no other reason for banning entry of women in cemeteries and in fact they are as much entitled to enter cemeteries and visit the graves of their loved ones as men.

One maulana even went to the extent of saying that women’s entry to dargahs is banned as when women enter a dargah they (the Sufi saints buried there) see them unclothed. There is a limit to absurdity of belief.

How could the saints, who strictly controlled their passions during their lifetimes, give in to temptation and be disturbed by women after their deaths? Religion is something noble and transcendent and should not be stretched to such absurd lengths. Such comments show the intellectual level of some people.

In fact, instead of raising ourselves to the high moral level of religion we drag it down to our lowly thinking. I need not repeat here that the Quran has accorded equal dignity to women.

In South Asia women are not allowed to enter mosques whereas they are allowed everywhere else, including the holiest mosque, the Kaaba, where men and women pray together and perform the tawaf (circumambulation) of the Kaaba together.

The Prophet clearly has said that do not stop Allah’s female servants from entering His house, yet our ulema do not allow them to enter mosques. Is it not because of their misogyny?

I asked one maulana if Friday prayers were obligatory for women and should they not pray in mosques on Friday as men do? He said they should but then who would cook the afternoon meal if women were in the mosque? The maulana did not even know that under the rules of maintenance it is for a man to either serve cooked food to his wife or pay for a cook, as per the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri.

The Quran, through its teachings, has tried to take us beyond the status quo so that women could realise their full potential and dignity but men, with their hardened patriarchal attitudes, have not been ready to accept gender equality as it hurts their male ego. Hence through various means men have managed to lower women’s dignity to pre-Islamic levels.

The Islamic world has an unenviable record as far as women’s rights are concerned. If Muslims are serious about Islamic teachings it is high time they raise themselves to the level of the Quran and accord women what is due to them.

The Quran and hadith both lay great stress on acquiring knowledge (ilm) and yet our ulema have issued fatwas instructing believers not to teach women beyond what is necessary to perform their obligatory rituals like prayers etc.

It is a matter of great shame and the earlier we rectify things the better it would be for us. Women’s education and high status is a sine qua non for our progress.

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