How Islam empowers women

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The western discourse has consistently argued that the women in Islam are oppressed, subjugated and degraded. Muslim women, the vociferous feminists in the West contend, have no ‘voice’ and need to be ‘liberated’.

Hijab has drawn tremendous amount of attention and backlash, often seen as a ‘symbol of oppression’ and perceived as a threat in countries like France where the government has banned it in public spaces.

Western mainstream media has played a key role in perpetuating these fallacies and stereotypes of Muslim women. On the contrary, what the veiled women have to say about hijab is totally different from the critique of feminists in the West.

The concept of women’s rights and women’s emancipation in Islam has a fairly long history. Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, referred to as the ‘age of ignorance’, young girls were buried alive and women were degraded and used as objects of lust. Islam liberated them and empowered them. Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) enforced justice, making it obligatory for men to respect the rights of women. Women were freed from slavery of men and given the ownership of their life and property.

Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) first wife Hazrat Khadija (sa), who was the first person to accept Islam and divine revelations that culminated into the Holy Qur’an, was also a successful and independent businesswoman. She inherited her father’s business empire which she expanded by trading goods from Mecca to Syria to Yemen.

Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) enforced justice, making it obligatory for men to respect the rights of women. Women were freed from slavery of men and given the ownership of their life and property

Holy Prophet’s daughter, Fatima (sa) was another exemplary woman in the history of Islam.

As Dr. Ali Shariati notes in Fatima is Fatima, Holy Prophet (pbuh) was the inheritor of Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus, while Fatima (sa) was his only heir. “In a society that felt the birth of a daughter to be a disgrace which only burying alive could purify, where the best son-in-law a father could hope was called ‘the grave’, Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) knew what fate had done to him. Fatima knew who she was. This is why history looked in amazement at the way Holy Prophet (pbuh) behaved towards his young daughter, Fatima (sa), at the way he spoke with her and at the way he praised her.”

Then we have an example of another woman in the history who shook the foundation of an evil empire with her extraordinary resistance and resilience. When Yazid ibn Muawiya asked “who is this arrogant woman?” The woman rose to answer: “Why are you asking them? Ask me. I will tell you who I am. I am Muhammad’s granddaughter. I am Fatima’s daughter.”

There was stunned silence in the court of Yazid. Zainab’s (sa) delivered a historic sermon. “O Yazid, You can never reach the level of our lofty position, nor can you destroy our remembrances, nor can you wipe out the ignominy you have earned for yourself by your abominable and vile actions. Your decisions are poor and your days are numbered. Your party will disperse the day when the Announcer will announce – Allah’s curse be on tyrants and transgressors.”

There are many examples of women in Islam who changed the course of history through their actions, something you don’t see in any other religion. As Annie Besant writes in The Life and Teachings of Mohammad (1932), it is a slander to suggest that the women in Islam are subjugated and denied freedom. “It is only in the last twenty years that Christian England has recognized the right of woman to property, while Islam has allowed this right from all times.”

In modern times, we have seen Muslim women play an instrumental role in peace building processes in places like Sierra Leone, Philippines, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Lebanon etc

Contrary to the popular perception, Islam does not promote gender disparity. “And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed” (Quran 4:124). A man, in Islam, has the responsibility to safeguard and strengthen the family, provide food, shelter and other basic needs. In terms of rights, both women and men share the same pedestal which is clearly illustrated by this verse: “And for women are rights over men, similar to those of men over women.” (Quran 2:228)

In modern times, we have seen Muslim women play an instrumental role in peace building processes in places like Sierra Leone, Philippines, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Lebanon etc. For example, in Afghanistan, many progressive steps have been taken towards women’s inclusion in the peace process with Taliban, especially since the landmark UN resolution 1325 (2000) that enables women’s intervention at all stages of peace building, peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

From Pakistani teenage activist Malala Yousufzai, Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Yemeni journalist and Noble Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, Malaysian feminist Zainah Anwar, Afghanistan’s first female prosecutor general Maria Bashir, to Kashmiri activist and APDP chairperson Parveena Ahangar, there are numerous stories of extraordinary courage, conviction and resilience.

In Kashmir, which is the modern world’s longest and most militarized occupation, women have been at the forefront, demanding justice for the crimes committed against them. They are not passive, voiceless victims but the agents of change. Many accomplished women writers, poets, artists, teachers and scientists have emerged in Kashmir in recent years, making their presence felt, in and outside their homeland.

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory. There are still numerous challenges on multiple fronts and lot of work is still required to empower women and make them equal partners. In Kashmir, where has traditionally been a patriarchial society, things are changing for good, which is evident from the way girls are outshining boys in academics and competitive

And it’s important to remember what the great Khan Abdul Ghaffar said once: “If you wish to know how civilized a culture is, look at the way they treat their women.”

(First published in The Witness)

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Islamic unity key to defeat takfirism and sectarianism

 

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

For Muslims, the staggering fall from grace can largely be attributed to fragmentation in their ranks, exacerbated by the scourge of sectarianism fanned by divisive forces. The condition of Muslims today, in both the realms of spiritual and temporal, is appallingly poor.

Having ruled the world for eight to nine centuries, bringing people out of barbarism into civilization, abolishing idolatry and advocating monotheism, Muslims have gradually and worryingly slipped into an abyss of despondency and darkness. While the Holy Quran promises that the “honor, power and glory belongs to God and to His apostle and to the believers” (Surah Munafiqun), it also cautions that the “Almighty does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves” (Surah Ar-Ra’ad).

How can we leap forward as a divided house, with so many warring groups baying for each other’s blood. How can we progress without clutching hands and pulling in the same direction as emphasized in the Holy Quran in unequivocal and unambiguous terms. “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Aali Imran).

Even hardnosed European evangelists admit that the modern world was built on the scientific breakthroughs made by Muslim scholars at a time when the Europeans were struggling and stumbling. So what led to the decline and degeneration of Muslim Ummah?

In the words of Scott Gilmore, a social entrepreneur and writer, the easiest response is to say Muslims did this to themselves. “From the jungles of Sulawesi to the deserts of Libya, Muslims are killing Muslims at a rate that dwarfs the more highly publicized conflict with the West,” he says.

How can we progress without clutching hands and pulling in the same direction as emphasized in the Holy Quran in unequivocal terms. “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Aali Imran)

At a time when the contemptible project of sectarianism and takfirism is being promoted by unscrupulous elements to create fissures in the Muslim Ummah, it has become essential for every conscientious Muslim to uphold the banner of unity and be the vocal advocate of truth and justice.

The enemies of Islam succeed not because they have superior ideas or moral high ground but because we are fragmented and vulnerable. Unless Muslims close ranks, bury the hatchet and develop mutual-understanding, they will continue to be afflicted with misery and despair.

Holy Quran reminds us: “Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle and those who are (truly) with him are firm and unyielding towards disbelievers, (yet) full of mercy towards one another (Surah Fatah).” This beautiful element of ‘mercy towards one another’ is what actually defines the essence of Muslim unity and brotherhood.

Takfirism – the phenomenon of declaring ‘others’ as heretics – has gained traction across the world today, engulfing many Muslim societies. It is a grand project spearheaded by forces that fear Muslim unity, because if Muslims band together the enemy wouldn’t have the temerity to bombard Muslim countries and exploit their rich resources.

What makes matters worse is the fact that some of us are willfully playing into the hands of enemies. Zionists, aided by the Western imperialist powers, have occupied Palestine because some Arab countries don’t wish to antagonize their friends in Tel Aviv. For them, petty political interests overshadow the larger interests of Muslim Ummah.

Takfirism is a grand project spearheaded by forces that fear Muslim unity, because if Muslims band together the enemy wouldn’t have the temerity to bombard Muslim countries and exploit their rich resources

Today, Muslims are being mercilessly killed in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan because our Arab-Muslim leadership is apparently sleeping with the enemy, aiding and abetting the genocide of Muslims. When innocent civilians are killed in Brussels or Berlin, whole world erupts in anger and fury; but when there is a massacre in Kabul, Quetta or Baghdad, only few odd voices speak out.

That is because they are united and we are divided. This divide-and-conquer strategy works well for our enemies.  The need of the hour is unity and rapprochement, and what better time to shun antagonism and embrace the spirit of camaraderie than the birth anniversary of our beloved Prophet (pbuh).

In mid-1980s, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution in Iran, proposed an idea of ‘hafta e wahdat’ (week of unity and solidarity) in the month of Rabiul Awwal so that Muslims, cutting across sects, can come together to honor the memory of their Prophet (pbuh), who championed the cause of Islamic unity and tolerance all his life. “The origin of this question concerning Shia and Sunni, the one on one side and the other on the other side, is caused by ignorance and by the propaganda spread by enemies,” said Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 1990, a year after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought was set up by his successor Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, which organizes the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran every year to mark the birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Last year, the theme of the conference was ‘The Muslim World’s Current Crises’ and more than 600 Muslim scholars from 70 countries were in attendance. In the final statement, the participants agreed that the crisis facing Muslim world today is due to disintegration of Islamic world and lack of trust amongst Islamic states. “This has led to division which has paved the way for penetration of enemies into Islamic communities in a bid to fuel clashes between Muslims,” it said.

In contemporary times, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Sistani have played an instrumental role in forging Muslim unity and countering the vicious campaign to divide Muslims

Looking back, many Islamic luminaries made indefatigable efforts to bridge the chasm between Shias and Sunnis. Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut, a legendary Islamic scholar who served as the grand Imam of Al-Azhar between 1958 and 1963, issued a famous fatwa (religious edict) in 1959 pertaining to the faith and beliefs of Shias, which continues to be a symbol of hope for those who advocate unity and proximity between the two schools of thought.

Ayatollah Syed Hussain Borojerdi, who was a leading Shia religious authority in 1950s, also worked untiringly to foster unity among Muslims and established close contact with Dar ul-Taqrib Center in Egypt. Other Islamic scholars who deserve a mention include Muslim Brotherhood founder Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, Egyptian scholar Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, Iranian scholar Allameh Seyed Mohammad Hossein Tabatabaei, Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Syed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Pakistani scholar Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Afghan ideologue Syed Jamaluddin Asadabadi to name to few.

In contemporary times, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Sistani have played an instrumental role in forging Muslim unity and countering the vicious campaign to divide Muslims.

The efforts of Hassan al-Banna deserve a special mention. Abd al-Mutaal al-Jabri, a student of Hassan al-Banna, in his book Limatha Yuqitla Hasan (Why Hasan al-Banna was Assassinated), writes about the historic meeting between Hassan al-Banna and Ayatollah Kashani in Mecca in 1948, shortly before the former was assassinated. “If the life of this man (al-Banna) had been longer, it would have been possible to gain many benefits for this land, especially in the agreement between him and Ayatullah Kashani to uproot the discord between Sunnis and Shi’ites. They met each other in Hijaz in 1948. It appears that they conferred with each other and reached a basic understanding but Hasan al-Banna was quickly assassinated,” he writes.

That is what has happened throughout history. Those who have championed the cause of Islamic unity and brotherhood have paid the ultimate price, but the idea has lived on.

There is clearly more that unites us than what divides us. In his book Al-Muslimun Man Hum (The Muslims – Who are they?), author Samih Atif Zayn says the most important basis of differences lies in understanding the Holy Book, and both Sunnis and Shias have never disagreed on Holy Quran. “We must eradicate the sectarian spirit, full of hatred, and bar the road of those who spread rumors and quarrels in religion, until Muslims return to how they were before: one society, cooperative and friendly, rather than divided, separated and hating each other,” he writes, stressing the importance of brotherhood as mentioned in the Holy Quran: “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher” (Surah Al-Anbiya).

So, it is binding on all the believers of Islam to collectively strive towards a common goal, lest they go astray. “Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects – you, (O Muhammad), are not (associated) with them in anything. Their affair is only (left) to Allah; He will inform them about what they used to do” (Surah Al-Anam).

The warning is clear for those who stoke the flames of sectarianism or aid the efforts in dividing Muslims into sects. And the warning is also for those who don’t advocate unity, amity, tolerance and brotherhood.

(First published in The Witness magazine)