How Islam can burn through the cancer of misogyny
By Nafeez Ahmed
Islamic feminism is an oxymoron. Or at least, that’s how some see it. It so happens that the advocates of this view sit on opposites sides of an ideological fence.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that Western far-right extremists and Islamist militants both see Islam as inherently opposed to feminism.
The far-right essentialises Islam as a uniquely misogynist faith whose core doctrines oppress women by demeaning their humanity, taking away their rights, and endorsing their routine repression through beatings and rape. Islamist militants don’t repudiate any of this — instead, they claim that such treatment is all part of the way Islam ‘liberates’ women.
To that extent, they are two sides of the same coin, a narrative which claims that Islamic theology fundamentally opposes feminism. But, in between, there are unhelpful voices which feed this toxic narrative.
Some Western feminists insist that Islam is a problem that requires ‘reformation’. In response, some Muslims criticise ‘feminism’ as an imperialistic Western construct that wants to impose Western values without allowing women to choose a different path.
In many ways, these conversations speak past each other, and do little to address fundamental realities.
One fundamental reality is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Islam has a rich tradition for feminist action — feminism meaning advocacy of women’s rights based on the equality of men and women. Muslim men and women can draw on this tradition in firm support of gender equality, dignity and freedom.
No to forced dress codes
That means that Islam can and should be mobilised to oppose the absurd anti-women practices of numerous ostensibly ‘Islamic’ regimes.
For instance, both Saudi Arabia and Iran enforce strict, draconian dress codes for women, which are routinely policed with brutal violence. Yet regardless of where Muslims stand on whether or not Islamic teachings advocate a head-covering (hijab) for women, there is no evidence whatsoever that either the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) ever sanctioned forcing women to wear a head-covering.
The Qur’anic principle of “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) means that no one can be compelled to follow a religious principle or action. And the Prophetic tradition bears out the fact that Muhammed himself never used or authorised the use of physical force to compel any woman to wear the hijab.
The principles of freedom of thought, belief and action are enshrined in Qur’anic teachings.
We can draw on these core principles to disavow pseudo-Islamic justifications to compel or force women to behave in particular ways. The idea that a bureaucratic state or any man-made authority, ostensibly Islamic or otherwise, has the right to force women to dress a certain way is little more than a modern bidah (a heretical innovation into authentic Islamic teachings).
No to patriarchy
Gender equality is also a fundamental tenet of Islamic teachings. Numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings articulate the ontological unity and equality of men and women.
Careful tafsir (exegisis) of the Qur’anic verses on marriage (4:43) further refutes patriarchal assumptions.
Rather than men being appointed “in charge” of women, as many conventional English translations wrongly convey, a rigorous analysis of the Arabic text in the context of Qur’anic deployment of the key terminology reveals a number of oft-overlooked facts: Men are ‘qawwamun’ — to ‘stand for’ or ‘care for’ — their wives; while women are ‘hafitha’ — ‘custodians’ or ‘guardians’ for their husbands.
The term ‘qanitat’ applied to women in this verse, often assumed to mean ‘obedience’ to men, is exclusively and explicitly used throughout the Qur’an to mean ‘obedience to God’ (e.g. 2:116; 3:17; 30:26; 33:31; 39:9), and should hence mean no different in this case.
Thus, for the Qur’an, guardianship in a marital relationship is a mutual responsibility of men and women toward one another, not a patriarchal structure.
No to domestic violence
The same verse (4:34) has been used throughout the ages to justify a husband’s ‘right’ to beat his wife, based on the phrase ‘idribohun’. Yet this view overlooks the nuances in the classical Arabic.
In Arabic, words can take on different meanings depending on their contextual application in the text. Idribohun derives from the root daraba which has several possible meanings, including “to strike” or “to hit”, as well as “to forsake, to shun, to part, turn away, to separate.” The context determines which of these meanings applies.
It was often assumed that for idribohun to mean “to part”, it requires an additional proposition, ‘an’ (i.e. daraba an). As this is missing from this verse, the conclusion was that it has to mean “to hit.”
But this assumption is completely wrong. A number of early authorities on classical Arabic, TA (Taj-ul Urus), S (The Sihah), Msb (The misbah of El Feiyumi) and the K (The Kamoos) confirm show that the preposition ‘an’ is not required for ‘idribohun’ to mean turn away, shun, avoid or separate.
The next piece of evidence is from the Qur’an itself. Whenever the Qur’an uses the term ‘idrib’ to mean physically hitting, it consistently does so by identifying the object that is to be used for hitting, and the object that is to be hit. Both those qualifications are missing from verse 4:34, implying therefore that it does not concern physical hitting.
Other context from the Qur’an comes from verses explicitly prohibiting men from harming or being harsh with their wives, such as:
“… Do not retain them (i.e., your wives) to harm them or transgress their rights. Whoever does that, surely he has wronged himself.” (2:231)
“Lodge them (in a section) of where you dwell out of your means and do not harm them in order to oppress them.” (65:6)
A major precept of tafsir is that interpretation cannot contradict the Qur’an.
The textual evidence from the Qur’an itself thus points to a classical reading of this verse encouraging a husband and a wife to temporarily distance themselves from one another during a marital dispute — rather than a beating.
The final piece of evidence comes from the Prophetic traditions in which Muhammed repeatedly and explicitly forbade his followers from beating their wives, with no ambiguity. In one narration from Sunan Abu Dawud, when the Prophet was asked what he commands in respect of wives, he replied:
“Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them.”
Arguably, this was the earliest tafsir of verse 4:34, and indicates clearly that the Prophet did not interpret this verse as justifying wife-beating, but instead prohibited it.
No to polygamy
The Qur’an also has seemingly surprising implications for other practices often assumed to be promoted by Islam, such as polygamy. Unfortunately, those who take verse 4:3 as carte blanche for a man’s right to marry four wives today in any context ignore the Qur’an itself.
The Qur’an’s permission for men to marry four wives came in a very specific context, and with clear conditionalities. Classical commentators acknowledge that this verse was revealed after the Battle of Uhud, where the deaths of large numbers of Muslim men left many women and children to fend for themselves.
Polygamy was offered as a potential solution to a particular social crisis, where large numbers of women, children and orphans found themselves alone and without support in a society that was already highly patriarchal. And that is why the verse begins with a specific conditionality:
“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four…”
But the Qur’an stipulates quite unambiguously that this is a very specific conditionality, not a desirability, and in fact prohibits polygamy as a universal norm by making justice its key condition.
While verse 4:3 says “… if you fear that you may not be able to act equitably towards all, then marry only one,” in the same chapter the Qur’an goes on to say: “You will never be able to deal equitably with all your wives, however much you may want.” (4:129)
The obvious implication is that, since acting equitably is impossible, you should, essentially, marry only one.
Far from providing universal permission for a man to marry up to four wives willy nilly, a holistic reading of the Qur’an clarifies that polygamy is axiomatically prohibited, except for highly unusual and catastrophic social conditions which cannot really be found in existence today.
No to rape
Another area where there is much confusion about Islamic principles is rape. It is often incorrectly presumed that there are no explicit Islamic precepts against rape. Instead, when we look to many Muslim countries, we find archaic laws which legislate rape on the basis of traditional Islamic precepts prohibiting adultery and fornication.
In such cases, male perpetrators go unpunished because the condition of four witnesses to the crime can never be found; worse, rape victims themselves are penalised as they are then accused of slander, and punished harshly through flogging.
While there is much to say in its own right about how to accurately contextualise Islamic capital punishments, this is another example where the abhorrent practices of Muslim countries amount to little more than bidah.
Credible historical-textual evidence shows that the Prophet and his Companions operated a fairly straightforward zero-tolerance rape policy, which took a rape victim’s own testimony as sufficient evidence to justify harshly punishing the rapist.
According to the following sound (sahih) tradition from Sunan al-Tirmidhi, for instance:
“A woman went out to pray during the time of the Prophet and she was met by a man who attacked her and raped her. She said, ‘This man has molested me!’ The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: He is condemned to death.”
In another authenticated historical narration, the second Caliph after the Prophet, Umar, flogged a man accused of raping a servant-girl.
These narrations show that, contrary to the policies of many Muslim governments today, the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions advocate that women’s testimonials about sexual violence against them must be taken seriously, not dismissed, or used to persecute women further.
A way forward
These are just some of the key teachings on gender equality we can discern by re-reading our Islamic traditions. And yet, common practices we find among many sections of our Muslim communities today ignore such key teachings.
We find, for instance, that — unlike women during the time of the Prophet — women today are often prohibited from entering and praying at mosques. Some mosques also impose strict gender segregation using a physical barrier, despite the Prophet himself not having partitioned men and women in this way.
This reminds us that it is all too easy for regressive cultural practices to accumulate and seep into religious practice over time. But Islam should not be abused as a tool of repression, nor used to sanitise lazy patriarchal practices in our communities. On the contrary, the struggle for women’s rights can be fought powerfully and authentically from within the Islamic faith.
A wealth of ethical, philosophical and spiritual teachings across the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions reinforce the pre-eminence of gender equality, condemn physical and sexual violence against women, and emphasise that women should have as much freedom as men to participate in social and public life.
It is time for Muslims to take true ownership of our feminist Islamic traditions.
You can learn more about Muslim efforts to retrieve authentic Islamic teachings relevant to contemporary social challenges at the website of Perennial, a Western Muslim research collective.
He is the founding editor of the investigative journalism project, INSURGE intelligence. A former Guardian enviroment writer, he reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems analysis to ecological and political violence.