Leading PostsMay June 2005

Conventions Should Not Be Mistaken For Islam

Future Islam

Mothers, sisters and daughters of the Ummah,

Assalamu Alaikum O Rahmatullah.

This is not the first occasion when I have had the opportunity to visit a religious educational institution meant for women. However, what delighted me the most here is the expression of your deep longing to spread the message of the True Faith
(deen-e mubeen) in the world, of which I had a glimpse in your painting competition. To speak the truth, you have put me in a difficult position by making me the judge of the event. Though I am not an expert in the field, yet intellectually, I very much liked the painting in which a student of six or seven years has depicted her longing for the dominance of Islam in the world. May Allah make all of us realise this dream of ours sooner rather than later.

It was apparent from the speeches made by students in the afternoon sessions that your institution is not like any other conventional educational institution. Your teachers have the deep awareness that they are preparing you for the future Islamic revolution. That such a small institution is undertaking a momentous task like this entitles you to the highest accolade of the community.

On this occasion when all of you – boys and girls – are going to obtain your degrees and then enter practical life, it is in the fitness of things that I should tender some advice to you. Whatever you have learnt so far from your studies, and I am saying it specifically to girl students, the way you have expressed your desire to sacrifice everything for the propagation of Islam, and the way you have chalked out your programme to spread awareness among Muslim women, may not appear to be so easy when you begin to work on the ground. It is quite possible that your own society, i.e., Muslim society may not approve of or appreciate your good intention and dedication to your religion. It may not like the idea that you should come out of the narrow confines of the kitchen and raise the banner of Islam’s dominance over the world. It can also happen that those people and those members of your family from whom you had expected cooperation and support would turn against you. They may very well say to you, “Daughter, whatever you are saying may be true, but the society does not approve of your ways. That is why it is better that you give up your agenda, even if temporarily.” I want that you should be ready for such criticism from now on so that when the challenges do come your way you are prepared to face them. You will not be discouraged and dissuaded from your path. It should also be clear that you have been entrusted with the grave responsibility of disseminating Islam and its revolutionary message. As regards the religious concepts prevalent in the Muslim society currently or the social restrictions, customs and traditions which are widespread, they should be respected as long as they have a respectful attitude towards the message of Islam. It should not happen that the things and events that the Muslim society had invested with holiness because of social expediency or historical compulsions should be taken to be the real Islam by you. God forbid, if such a thing happens then in place of being zealous advocates of Islam you will turn out to be the advocates of Indo-Islamic culture.

To clarify this, let me point out to you that the way we Muslims practice Islam in our daily life sends the message to the non-Muslim that this indeed is the real and proper Islam. Thus, many of our wrong actions present a false image of Islam before other people. Each and every mistake committed by us presents an extremely distorted image of our religion to others. This is especially true of the concepts that have become entrenched in our society regarding women. People mistakenly take them to be Islamic concepts. That is why in your practical life you should strive hard to follow only the real Islam and keep away from conventions. These conventions may have been prevalent in the Muslim society for a long time and may have been invested with a certain kind of holiness because of whatever reasons.

In this country of ours women have been accorded a despicable position for centuries. In the Hindu society women have been regarded as mere adjunct to men. There would hardly be any culture or religion except Islam where one finds the image of a woman as an independent entity, with her own individual identity. What, in fact, has happened in the Muslim society in India is that slowly many non-Islamic concepts pertaining to women, have crept in among Muslims. There was a kind of general consensus on the issue that the potentialities of women can find their best expressions only in the kitchen, or that women can at best do small, odd domestic jobs in the house with quiet efficiency. As for the question whether she can also have an intellectual self like men, and that she can also have sound judgements, the answer was mainly in the negative. In fact, such questions gradually disappeared from the collective memory of the Muslim community. The negligence of women reached such an extent that in the traditional religious families, all the resources where invested in the education of men, but women were regarded undeserving of such an investment. If ever the issue of women’s education was brought before religious circles, it was agreed that women could acquire some little education at home, they could learn a bit of the Urdu language, and that they could acquire the skills whereby they would be able to read the Quran by sight, and that was all. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, the famous Muslim religious scholar of the Indian sub-continent also imposed the condition that it was desirable that such education be imparted by women teachers and free of cost. According to him, knowledge is its own reward. As for the question whether equal opportunities for higher education should be available to women like men, even the most enlightened section of our religious hierarchy did not agree to this. Even Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who is regarded as the greatest pioneer of education among Muslims and who had spearheaded a movement for the education of Muslims despite stiff opposition from the community, did not accept the fact that women too have equal rights to higher education, just like men. Sir Syed declared it unambiguously that he was not ready to impart education to women and thus make them aware of their rights under Islam. In his words, “Illiterate women are unaware of their rights and that is why they remain happy. If they acquire education and become aware of their rights as women, then their lives will become a hell.”

When the most enlightened scholars of the community opposed women’s education merely because of the fear that they should not be aware of the rights given to them under Islam, you can well imagine the obscurantism of the people who are not so enlightened and who consider the opinions expressed by anyone who appears to be a learned person simply by virtue of his external appearance to be the real Islam, and what kind of misconceptions they will entertain about the status of women in Islam. On the one hand, there was this attitude prevalent in Muslim society of depriving women of education; on the other hand, we have the categorical statement by Prophet Mohammad before us : “It is obligatory for all Muslim men and women to acquire education.”

The Muslim society in India made all efforts so that Muslim women should not acquire their real status in society, and that they should not be made aware of their responsibilities for leading the society in the correct direction. So much so that there was a time, and that time was not long ago, when religious scholars wrote articles in which they opposed learning of writing by women. On top of it, this attitude was sought to be endorsed by Islam and the sharia. The ideas that did not have the remotest connection with Islam were considered desirable merely as a measure of expediency or resolving specious disputes. A cycle of self-styled interpretations began on the basis of which even Allah’s Book and the Sunnah, and many clear instructions emanating from them stood abrogated. It was forgotten that no individual was entitled to augment or reduce the rights given to women by Allah and His Prophet. Some things might appear to us to be opposed to social harmony, but Islam is the name of the religion that instructs us as follows: “You accept whatever the Prophet gives you and stay away from the things he forbids.”

When women are not regarded to be deserving of higher education and they are confined to the four walls of the house, they remain ignorant of whatever is happening in the outside world, and their opinions in the affairs of the world carry no weight. In such a situation it is only natural that a section of the community will remain devoid of intelligence and understanding, unaware of the problems of the ummah and without any idea of how to become good and useful members of the Ummah. It is obvious that the children born from the womb of such illiterate women cannot become aware of or carry out the lofty mission of life. These illiterate mothers have played an important role in the decline of the ummah.

What happened, unfortunately, in our decadent feudal society was that the false concept of honour created by or associated with that society was taken to be an Islamic concept. It gave currency to the idea that the ideal image of a woman in Muslim society is that of a person who was totally secluded from the world outside her home and about whom people should not know anything. Her individual identity was totally negated, so much so that it was considered a social taboo for the outsiders to have any familiarity even with her name. No one should hear her voice, no one should get to know about her innermost thoughts. The worldly affairs were controlled exclusively by men. In this set up it was expected that women should merely obey men in whatever they said, even if it was wrong. The only parameter for judging whether something said was correct was that whether it was uttered by men. The way our topmost religious leaders instructed women to obey their husbands in all circumstances slowly blurred the distinction between right and wrong. The standard by which to measure truth and falsehood broke down. Women were not allowed even the right to judge the instructions given to her by her husband in the light of the Book and the sunnah, and express her reservation in the mildest way, if the instructions ran counter to the Book and the sunnah. It was expected of her that she should obey the commands of her husband without any kind of opposition. Though this attitude has nothing to do with Islam, but the instructions related to obedience that were imparted to her in the name of religion created the general impression that Islam really demanded such obedience from women. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi who has left a great impact on Muslim thinking, and his well known book, Baheshti Zewar has been very popular among Muslim women. As a matter of fact, from all indications it can perhaps be said that this book is taken to be the most reliable source book of Islam after the Qur’an by them. In that book, too, it is demanded of women that they should carry out the commands of their husbands blindly. Maulana Thanvi writes in Baheshti Zewar : “Women should carry out the orders of their husbands without the slightest reservation. Even to the extent that if he asks her to carry a heavy piece of rock from one mountain to another, and then to a third, she should be ready to do so.” At another place he writes: “If he calls the day to be night she should also be accustomed to do so.” Now, if such unqualified obedience is regarded to be the real Islam in the Muslim society, then what to speak of righteous women to emerge from that society, even the distinction between right and wrong gets progressively blurred.

Dear sisters, you must remember that in Islam both men and women have their distinct status. Both will have to render their accounts before Allah. On the Day of Judgement you will not be able to exonerate yourself by saying that your husband, brother or father had ordered you to commit transgression, and that is why they should be responsible for your actions. You must understand that if, unfortunately, the male members of your family have become accustomed to living in sin, if they have severed all connections with Islam and the Islamic movement, it would not provide justification for committing sin on your part. No, surely not. They are responsible for their actions and you are responsible for your actions. Of course, in such a situation you will have to shoulder double responsibility. Not only that you should remain steadfast in the way of the Faith but you should strive through all possible means to bring all the other members of your family to the path of Islam. This is the true Islamic attitude. If, unfortunately, the husband is indulging in sin, and if acts contrary to the commands of Allah and His Prophet are being committed in your house, then it is not proper for you to remain passive and resign to your fate. As a matter of fact, this is what is expected of women in traditional Muslim families, that the wife should submit to the wishes of the husband without any protest. It is regrettable that even conventional Islamic religious books also render similar kind of advice to women. Baheshti Zewar and such other books will endorse such a stance. Maulana Thanvi has written that if the husband has liaison with another woman then the wife, in privacy, should try to dissuade him from doing so. If he still persisted in his sinful ways then the wife should exercise patience. In this context, the Maulana has recorded an anecdote relating to a woman from Lucknow whose husband had liaison with a prostitute. He not only made his relationship with this woman public but also used to have his wife cook food for the prostitute. The obedient and loyal wife protested in the beginning but then submitted gladly to the wishes of her husband. The Maulana recorded approvingly that the people of the entire city appreciated the wife’s loyalty to her husband, and everyone praised her. In our opinion this image of womanhood is not consistent with the Islamic concept of a righteous Muslim woman. We have the clear command of the Prophet before us: “Obedience cannot be obligatory in sinful acts.”

Islam wishes to establish a pure and morally just social system where each individual, imbued with religious zeal, has the right to show others the rightful way. Rather, it becomes his obligation to do so. Even a younger person can politely point out the mistakes of a person older than him. In matters of following the good and avoiding evil, there is no distinction between young and old, men and women. If for any reason your husband strays away from the right path it is your duty to strive in all possible ways to bring him back to it. It should not happen that both of you should pave your way to hell in the name of obedience as it is conventionally understood.

Daughters of the community, when you will enter practical life after obtaining your degrees, you will have to constantly face up to the misconceptions prevalent in the Muslim society about women. You will often feel that the Muslim society is not ready to allow you to do things that have not only been allowed but even recommended by Islam. During the Gulf war of 1991, about forty to fifty Muslim women had come out on the road driving their cars in the city of Riyadh. In a way, it was an indirect demand that women should be allowed to drive cars while observing purdah. The event had created great commotion in the conservative Muslim society of Saudi Arabia. Consultative meetings were held, Muslim religious scholars engaged themselves in discussions and debates, to find a way out of this impasse. I myself was present in an assembly of religious scholars where spirited discussions were going on. I said that in normal circumstance a Saudi woman was compelled to go out in a car driven by a foreign driver. Often it so happens that when her husband is busy in his office the wife has to go out with the driver who is a stranger and with whom she is not allowed to mix up. Now, if women are allowed to drive while observing the injunctions regarding hijab, then they will get rid of the drivers who are strangers to them. And this situation will be preferable in the eyes of the sharia than the earlier situation. But the scholars responded by saying, “You are right. But the problem is that once they begin to hold the steering of the car you will not be able to control them anymore.” The age-old traditions of the Saudi society would not allow women to drive cars, while Islam allows women to move about in the society in normal circumstances as long as they observe the instructions regarding hijab. In your practical life you may often find that social traditions and Islamic values run counter to one another, and you should have no reservations in rejecting social traditions and accepting Islamic values, even if you have to face the stiffest opposition.

The final degrees awarded to you today is indicative of the confidence reposed in you by this institution that you have acquired the capability to distinguish truth from falsehood in the light of the Book and the sunnah. By the grace of Allah you are now aware of the demands of the Book and the sunnah. Now you have to see that whether the steps taken by you are endorsed by the Book and the sunnah. To speak the truth your real task is that like others you should not confuse established traditions with Islam. When the measuring standards in the form of the Book and the sunnah are available to you, you should judge everything on the crucible of these standards. Accept the things that pass the test and reject those that are not endorsed by the sharia, even if you find statements by great Islamic scholars in their support. This is because for us only the commandments of Allah and His Prophet are to be taken as definitive proofs.

If you leave aside Allah’s Book and the sunnah of the Prophet and make something else your standard of judgment, or you rely simply on great names in Islamic scholarship and consider their understanding and interpretation of Islam to be perfect, then you will not be able to derive any advantage from the education that you have acquired here. You must benefit from the insights of great Muslim divines, as also you must benefit from the writings of old and new scholars who engaged with issues pertaining to Islam from time to time, but you must keep it firmly imprinted on your mind that while deciding on any issue, only the statements by Allah and His Prophet should have the key role. You will be surprised to know that even in the cases of some established Muslim thinkers, because of their blind adherence to traditions, you can encounter such thoughts that you will find difficult to accept. As a matter of fact, your real test is this. In comparison with readers who are unaware of this and accepts everything that emanates from Muslim scholars of great repute as actual commandments of Islam, you should be different and you must judge everything in the light of the Qur’an and the sunnah. If you do so you will see how amazingly different some of the instructions are. You might think that after studying the Book and the sunnah you have become equipped to provide constructive suggestions to your husband in your practical life. But a religious attitude predicated upon traditions will not accept this role of yours. Without going too far in this context, I present to you an example from Imam Ghazali’s famous book, Ahya al-Uloom. The author of Ahya al-Uloom has written this on the authority of Hazrat Omar: “Decide your actions against the wishes of women because there lies blessedness. Invite suggestions from women and act against those suggestions.” Now, on the one hand, you will claim that you have become capable of offering suggestions to your husband in the light of the Qur’an and the sunnah, but the traditional religion will not accept you in that role. Imam Ghazali has written the following regarding Hasan Basri: “One who remains subservient to his wife, and does as she wishes him to do, Allah will hurl such a person to hell upside down.” This and similar other statements are directed towards keeping women away from the role of advisors. These statements are not in consistent with the image of women portrayed in Islam. Even in a critical moment like the battle at Hudaibia, the Prophet thought it desirable to seek advice from his wife, Umme Salma. You will remember that when, as a result of the truce at Hudaibia there was general disaffection among the Prophet’s Companions, so much so that they had reservations about carrying out the instructions of their beloved Prophet, at that moment Umme Salma had advised the Prophet to be the first to make the sacrifice of the animal by slashing its windpipe, so that seeing his strong will and determination others would be inspired to follow his example. It happened exactly as she had predicted. So, on the one hand we have the example provided by the Prophet where right advice given by women is accepted, and on the other there are traditional religious books that dismiss any advice coming from women as worthless.

You should be grateful to Allah that the knowledge of the Qur’an and the sunnah is accessible to you. In the prevailing atmosphere in the Muslim society characterised by decay you will have to chart out your own ways. If you can separate Faith from the overbearing burden of traditions it will be easier for you to move ahead.

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