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Islam’s True Message



      In this essay I argue that Fatima, Mernissi in her book The Veil and the Male Elite, uses a feminist interpretation of early Islam to justify social and political equality for women in contemporary Islamic societies. Mernissi rejects the practice of Muslim men who quote sacred Islamic texts to justify privately held misogynistic attitudes. Masked as a traditional examination of the holy text, she systematically examines the authenticity of the Hadith that she feels does not reflect the egalitarian message of early Islam and the prophet Muhammad. She also attempts to re-evaluate the position of women in this new society. The Prophet’s wives are depicted as outspoken women who, being critical of pre-Islamic practices, are actively involved in the political environment of early Islam. For Mernissi, Muhammad's wives A'isha and Umm Salama serve as models for contemporary Muslim women as well as examples of non-western feminist thought that existed in early Islam. She argues that Islam does not become a misogynistic tradition until after the death of Muhammad, under the influence of men like Caliph Umar. Mernissi uses historical sources to give credence to her arguments. However, her use of these sources becomes questionable under close inspection.


      The feelings Muhammad felt for his youngest wife were clear; “`Amr Ibn al-`As asked the Prophet: `Who is the person you love most in the world?' “A'isha,” he responded (65). However, traditional Muslim scholars have not been so kind. After Muhammad's death, A'isha lost a battle in which she commanded an armed opposition against the Caliph Ali. This conflict was called the Battle of the Camel. A'isha was compelled to take up arms because she felt that the caliph acted unjustly because he did not punish the men who assassinated the previous caliph, Uthman (54). Sa'id al-Afhgani, a traditional Muslim scholar, uses A'isha's defeat as an example of why women should not be allowed to exercise power. He blames her for spilling Muslim blood and for setting in motion the split of the Muslim religion into Sunnis and Shiites. “Al Afgani is convinced that if “A'isha had not intervened in the public affairs of the Muslim state, `Muslim history would have taken the path of peace, progress, and prosperity'” (6). Mernissi takes a different position. She condemns this interpretation and looks at the battle of the Camel from a feminist perspective. Mernissi sees this issue in terms of what it means for contemporary Muslim women. She cites this incident as proof that women existed in the political history of early Islam, and that in fact A’isha played a key role in the lives of the early Caliphs (5) Also, Mernissi criticizes al-Afgani for generalizing and applying his criticism of A'isha to that of all other women, taking away the political rights of a whole gender. The two different approaches taken by al Afgani and Mernissi in interpreting the same event highlights Mernissi's interest in correcting misogynistic approaches to historical events that lower the status of women. Also, her emphasis on A'isha’s role as commander shows her desire as a feminist to establish historical examples in Islam of women in political leadership roles. A’isha's role in the battle of the camel is a perfect example of Mernissi's attempt to turn traditional, misogynistic Islamic scholarship on its head.


      According to Mernissi, A’isha's involvement in the Battle of the Camel is an important factor when we scrutinize a misogynistic Hadith revealed by Abu Bakra. “According to al-Bukhari, it was Abu Bakra who heard the Prophet say: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” (49). Mernissi makes the point that this Hadith is considered authentic because it was accepted by the meticulous collector al-Bukari. However, Mernissi feels like she can shed some light on this issue by inspecting the circumstances that led Abu Bakra to transmit this Hadith. During the Battle of the Camel Abu Bakra remained a neutral party, he did not pledge allegiance to either A'isha or Ali. Mernissi claims that when Abu Bakra transmits his Hadith, A’isha and her army were militarily wiped out and it was clear that Ali would carry the day (53). “This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions, his record being far from satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war (53).” Mernissi believes that Bakra uses A’isha's gender as a way of condemning her, while at the same time justifying his decision for choosing neutrality. His decision not to participate in civil war was not an exceptional one, due to the undemocratic nature of choosing the caliph, many normal citizens abstained from choosing sides. However Abu Bakra was exceptional, according to Mernissi, because only he used the gender of the party to justify his neutrality (57). This is another example of Mernissi accusing men of perverting the egalitarian message of Islam for selfish reasons. It is important for her overarching argument, that the prophets religion is not misogynistic to disqualify Hadith that do not fit with her feminist interpretation. By casting doubt on this Hadith, she takes one more arrow out of the quiver of contemporary Muslim men who use these texts to keep women powerless and outside the public sphere. She attempts to correct what she calls Muslim men's “amnesia as memory” (194).


      Mernissi rejects the idea that Muslim women are veiled, crushed and silent and instead she looks to important women in Islamic religious history to dispel this myth (194). One such important woman is Umm Salama. She was an intelligent, beautiful woman who married the prophet late in life. Mernissi characterizes Umm Salama as an out spoken woman who asked very political questions. She served as a representative of woman's concerns in the new community of Islam. Being the prophet's wife, Umm Salama was in a unique position. She was able to question Muhammad directly and receive answers to her questions from God. One day Umm Salama asked the prophet “why are men mentioned in the Koran and we are not” (118)? Mernissi contends that Umm Salama's concern was the general viewpoint of the women of Medina. “Umm Salama's question was the result of political agitation and not the capriciousness of an adored wife” (119).  Allah's answer to Umm Salama was clear; he spoke of the two genders as being equal as believers and members of the community. Mernissi goes even further to say that this declaration by Allah represented a break with pre-Islamic practices, which caused women to question the male-dominated relationship between the genders (119). Also, new inheritance laws were handed down from God, and women were now entitled to some inheritance. Women were no longer to be treated like property as was custom before Islam. According to Mernissi these ideas show that women hoped to see things change because of the new religion (120). These important questions that show political agitation by women in early Islam form the cornerstone of the argument made by Mernissi. Islam is shown as a way for poorly treated pre-Islamic women to find a position and voice in order to assert their rights. Mernissi suggests:


“We Muslim women can walk into the Muslim world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition”. ( preface viii)


Mernissi argues that the influence of Umar and the men of pre-Islamic Arabia cause Islam's message of equality to be silenced (188).


      Mernissi takes a very controversial approach to Islam; she uses many contemporary ideas like women's rights, democracy and egalitarianism to explain the actions of women in this society. To make her arguments viable she has been very selective with her sources. To some extent she accepts, unflinchingly, sources that support her ideas and attempts to discredit those sources that don't prove as helpful. Mernissi claims that the famous Hadith transmitter Abu Bakra was flogged for committing slander, which causes his Hadith to be unreliable (60). However, this accusation mischaracterizes the event. Under Muslim law, for a man to be convicted of adultery four men have to witness the event, Abu Bakra was one of four such witnesses. When a fellow witness decided to no longer testify, Abu Bakra was automatically subject to the penalty of flogging (61).


      In another instance Mernissi completely manufactures an argument. She claims that al-Bukhari's Hadith does not include an important correction made by A'isha, regarding a saying attributed to the prophet by Abu Hurayra. Mernissi claims, that al-Bukhari's “authentic” Hadith states that: “The prophet said that the dog, the ass and woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the quibla (64).” When Abu Hurayra cited this Hadith in front of Aish’a she would correct him by citing instances where the prophet himself didn’t follow this Hadith. “In the name of God, I have seen the Prophet saying his prayers while I was there, lying on the bed between him and the quibla (70)”. Mernissi utilizes this instance to show that misogyny was inserted into Hadith by men like Abu Hurarya, and that the Prophet acted in an egalitarian way towards his wives. Mernissi's argument appears valid, so it is disappointing to discover that in fact A’isha's corrected Hadith is the one found in al-Bukhari's transmissions (Class Discussion, 9-22-06). Her argument is simply based on incorrect facts. When this passage is taken into consideration her underlying motives come under question, is this a scholarly work or just feminist propaganda?


 Fatima Mernissi attacks what she feels are the source of misogyny which negatively affects Muslim women today. She looks at the position and status of Muslim women in early society to dispel the idea that feminism is an imported western idea and to empower contemporary women to assert their rights. Mernissi uses A’isha and Umm Salama as examples to show how empowered women were involved in politics and public life. This feminist interpretation highlights women’s interest in changing their status in pre-Islamic Arabia, to reflect the more egalitarian message espoused by the prophet and handed down from god. Mernissi examines the same text that men use to oppress women, but she comes to different conclusions. The actions of Muhammad’s wives prove that women were politically involved and the prophet’s message was in support of women’s rights. I personally respect Mernissi’s attempt to reveal a feminist message in Islam, but I feel that this book should be looked at as an argument that has strengths and weaknesses, and not as an early history of Islam. The inconsistent manner in which Mernissi manipulates historical sources deserves serious consideration and detracts from her position.  Mernissi is a woman with a point to make and is very flexible when it comes to finding sources that support her arguments. However, her desire to find a message in Islam that is compatible with women’s rights is commendable.


Works Cited



Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s    Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Book Publishing, 1991.

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