I’m angry. Really, really angry. I am angry because I’ve just come across a hurricane of howls, hysteria and hyperventilating in the form of the following:
“Allah is perfect!”
“Islam is perfect!”
“The qur’an is perfect!”
“Muhammad, Allah’s Messenger, (peace be upon him), is perfect!”
“To question the word of Allah or his Messenger (may peace be upon him) is to invite invention and transgress Allah’s will!”
“Allah in his wisdom knows what is best for us and we should not question his wisdom!”
If you are (or were) a Muslim who asks questions, challenges traditions, or wonders whether centuries-ago jurists may have had a smidgeon of a patriarchal agenda, you have probably felt the hot gust of these wrathful howls. They are to silence you, and if you are not silenced, the howlers condemn you to eternal hellfire. If you’re a thinking person, this will make you angry.
I am also angry because I believe in equality for women in absolute terms. Not “equal, but different,” not “equal according to his or her contribution,” and not “equal according to his or her biologically determined (ie, socially constructed) rights and responsibilities.”
The howling of those who believe they know who’s ending up in hellfire was in response to a recent article in the Huffington Post that cited 10 Muslim Islamic scholars who argue that the centuries-ago jurists whose rulings are treated as being as perfect as the qur’an got it wrong in one particular instance. The majority of those jurists ruled, leading to conventional wisdom, that while Muslim men can marry Muslim, Christian or Jewish women, Muslim women are only permitted to marry Muslim men. That was their interpretation of two verses in the qur’an.
Verse 2:221 of the qur’an is as follows:
And do not marry polytheistic women until they believe. And a believing slave woman is better than a polytheist, even though she might please you. And do not marry polytheistic men until they believe. And a believing slave is better than a polytheist, even though he might please you. Those invite [you] to the Fire, but Allah invites to Paradise and to forgiveness, by His permission. And He makes clear His verses to the people that perhaps they may remember.
Please, please, please, deep breath, inhale your howls with all the Buddhist compassion (for me) that you can muster, as I know we can take issue with much in this verse. For now, let’s just acknowledge that this verse contains no hint of sex discrimination. Idol worshippers are not permitted to any Muslim.
Verse 5:5 of the qur’an is as follows:
Today the good things are permitted you, and the food of those who were given the Book is permitted to you, and permitted to them is your food; Likewise believing women in wedlock, and in wedlock women of them who were given the Book before you if you give them their wages, in wedlock and not in licence, or as taking lovers. Whoso disbelieves in the faith, his work has failed, and in the world to come he shall be among the losers.
The “Book” is the Old Testament. In case you’re scratching your head, “wages” refers to a dowry. So, this verse permits Muslim men to marry women of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Now, most of the verses in the qur’an speak to men (deep, deep breaths …) so it is rarely assumed by jurists that the rules are sex-specific. It is assumed the verses have universal application. For example:
O you who believe, do not observe the ritual prayer if you are intoxicated until you understand what you are saying, nor if (you are) impure, unless you are on the road – (and wait) until you wash yourself. And if you are sick or on a journey, and any of you went to the restroom, or had intimate relationships with women, and you do not find water (according to God’s revelation we normally wash with water), touch clean soil and wipe your faces and hands. In truth, God is ever Pardoning and Forgiving.
No jurist has interpreted this verse to mean Muslim women can drunk pray, after having drunk sex, without having given themselves a cold shower first.
And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents. His mother bears him with pain, and brings him forth with pain. And the bearing of him and his weaning takes thirty months, till, when he attains his full maturity and reaches the age of forty years, he says, ‘My Lord, grant me the power that I may be grateful for Thy favor which Thou hast bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may do such good works as may please Thee. And make my seed righteous for me. I do turn to Thee; and, truly, I am of those who submit to Thee.’
No jurist has determined that this only applies to men and it’s fine for Muslim women to be sucky to their parents.
I could go on. But there’s clearly no need.
Next: it is an accepted and fundamental principal of Islamic jurisprudence that what is not expressly prohibited in the qur’an is impliedly permitted. So unless there is a verse that expressly prohibits women from marrying men of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then its prohibition cannot be implied because of its omission. There is no such verse. Verse 5:5 therefore has universal application.
Despite this, jurists interpreted verse 5:5 to only apply to Muslim men based on the following patriarchal assumptions:
1. Men are the heads of families and children therefore adopt and follow their father’s religion.
2. Men dominate women and a non-Muslim man may force or intimidate a Muslim woman to leave her faith.
Funny – I know plenty of Christian, Jewish, agnostic and atheist kids of Muslim dads. I’m sure we all do. I’m sure we’ve all seen religious influence that is initially the result of a good relationship with a parent, and ultimately the result of religious conviction. If it’s the result of dominance, kids tend to give dad and his faith the middle finger at the first adult opportunity, if not sooner. And to assume a woman will be dominated and intimidated away from her faith – well, there were plenty of Muslim women who howled “Allah is perfect!” “Islam is perfect!” “The qur’an is perfect!” with such resolute righteousness, that while they buy into the patriarchy, they’re owning it.
These assumptions not only colored interpretation, they invited interpretation where none was needed. Reading these verses literally does not invite questioning the wisdom of Allah. It invites common sense. So howl “Allah is perfect!” “Islam is perfect!” “The qur’an is perfect!” all you like. Because that’s not the issue. A Muslim woman’s prayers count equally as a man’s. So do her days of fasting and her giving of alms. Her pilgrimage counts the same, as does her declaration of faith. Not more, not less. Not equal, but different, and not according to the level of estrogen flowing through her body, nor on account of childbearing, nor because she on average has less muscle mass than a man. Giving men more rights than women is insulting and degrading. And it induces a visceral reaction in me. Not only because women are just as human as men, but most of us can raise our hands and say life does not, and arguably has never, cut us any sex-determined slack. We work, we pay bills, we do more housework and more free work caring for elderly parents and in school PTAs. So think twice before you tell me of the wisdom of an extra burden in life.
I’m not going to argue that Islam is egalitarian, nor that Muhammad was a feminist who revealed many laws that improved the status of women in seventh century Arabia. There is no evidence of this much-touted claim. But I will argue against limiting the rights of women in Islam whenever the qur’an clearly speaks to equality. Muslim women have the same marriage rights as men in Islam, despite what a bunch of centuries-ago patriarchal farts had to say about it.