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Extreme Interpretations of Islam: A Step Too Far!

November 17, 2006

By Yasmin Amin

My cousin, a professor at Cairo University told me about an incident that happened to her. One of her best students, an extremely polite and well-mannered shy veiled girl came into her office crying. Asking her about the reason she said she was asking her professor a question in class, when a colleague of hers wearing the niqab, told her that a good Muslim female student is not supposed to ask her male professor any questions in class to avoid eye contact and raising her voice.

My cousin told me that her student wearing the niqab was also one of her good students and therefore she called her to the office and told her how disappointed she was about the comment she made. She patiently explained that this was because it meant that she did not see this person as a professor who spent years and years of his life for the sake of research and knowledge and then more years towards transmitting and sharing it. She did not see him as a professor or a father or perhaps as an elder brother. All what she saw in him was that he was a man. She also did not see herself as a willing student nor a daughter or a younger sister. She only saw herself as a female, which is very humiliating to them both. I thought that this incident was very significant and needed to be written about.

Never mind, that learning was called a form of worship and Hadith asked believers to seek knowledge all the way even to China, while the Qur'an placed great emphasis on learning as per Sura [39.9]: "... Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful...."

Not engaging in any personal, active, immediate, face to face discussions and not even answering or asking questions seems to be based on the misconception that a woman's voice is "awra", meaning that women should lower their voice to whispers or preferably even complete silence, except when they speak to their husbands, male relatives or other females. Many Mullahs have issued fatwas about the act of communication from and by a female as being a source of temptation to the poor male who cannot seem to be able to control himself.

Sadly, the example of this particular student is not an isolated case. Her views are shared by many, way too many. Unfortunately this student represents the new generation, the so-called future hope of the Muslim Ummah. I wince at such mentalities. I flinch at taking every small straight forward concept stated to ensure decency in human exchanges way too far and imposing narrow-minded intolerance on it. What really upsets me the most though, is the jump from the injunction of good behaviour and observing decency to prohibiting something which Allah has allowed and imposing new false rigid ways of behaviour which lead to much harm. It just makes me angry.

The student does not realise that not replying to teacher's questions is a form of treatment that is rather impolite and insulting, to both of them. A female student with a male teacher and vice versa, a male student with a female teacher should be focusing on the curriculum at hand and not on their respective genders. An old Arab proverb says "The teacher is almost a prophet." So were does that leave us today?

Women were teachers even during the Prophet's time and the believers were allowed to engage them in discussions to learn from them. The Qur'an specifically and clearly mentions that those seeking knowledge or any information from the Prophet's wives were to address them (from behind a screen yes, but still address them [33:53]). Since questions require an answer, the Prophet's wives answered questions to those who asked and also narrated Hadiths. This to me certainly implies a conversation. I hardly think that sign language was used as the curtains would surely have prevented that.

Furthermore, women were allowed to question the Prophet even in the presence of men. A whole collection of hadiths proves that fact. This naturally shows us that they were neither prevented from being heard nor from speaking up and neither from participating in an exchange with men. There is one particular case I would like to mention, the case when Caliph Umar was challenged by a woman during his khutba on the minbar. He did not deny her nor cut her off nor ask her to remain silence, despite the embarrassment to him in public, but instead he admitted that she was right and he was wrong.

There are many more examples of women speaking up in public and having their voices heard in the Qur'an, such as the two daughters of the Sheikh mentioned in [28:23] and the Queen of Sheba in [27:44]. All these examples, even those predating Islam, support the fact that women are allowed to speak up and to voice their opinion publicly, for whatever has been prescribed to those before is prescribed to us now.

Taking the words rigidly and stopping at their literal meaning, while denying their underlying principles was never Islam. Twisting definitions and explanations to serve some personal agenda promoting discrimination and denying anyone some rights already granted was never Islam. Injecting personal prejudices and imposing fanatical views was never Islam. Reducing a religion and a living text to becoming only dead words on useless paper was never Islam. Selectively applying words and heartlessly and mindlessly and missing their meanings was also never Islam.

The choice of not listening to a professor and not replying back even if it was solely related to the curriculum denies learning and its value. What happened to tolerance and lenience? What happened to equity and niyyat? The first word of the Qur'an was "Iqra'" (read) and that means learning, acquiring knowledge. It does not mean read the Qur'an only, and then it most definitely does not mean to read it with only your eyes and shut off your mind and thinking.

First the niqabs so women shouldn't be seen and now this, so women shouldn't be heard. Denying females the rights to be heard is imposing restrictions on half the Ummah. Seeing everything in black and white like this reduces every noble value to something ridiculous and downright outrageous.

The second United Nations Arab Development Report examined the methods available to Arab states to overcome the knowledge deficit in their societies. The report noted the high levels of illiteracy among women and highlighted the fact that many children do not have access to basic education. The authors of the report made reference to the fact that an alliance between some oppressive regimes and certain types of conservative religions has led to an (mis)interpretation of Islam which serves governments but is detrimental to human development, particularly with respect to freedom of thought, the interpretation of judgements, the accountability of regimes to the people and women's participation in public life.

The report concluded, on the optimistic note, that there is sufficient human capital in the Arab world for a knowledge renaissance, a return to a society where the acquisition of knowledge is valued and encouraged, but that there are constraints hampering the acquisition. Well, when students behave in this way, then why are we surprised when we see such results and conclusions published?

Sometimes I really think that some Muslims are their own worst enemies.

Yasmin Amin is a bibliophile living in Cairo, with interests relating to religious studies and Middle Eastern history


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