By Dr Elie ElHadj*
On March 11, 2002, fire struck a girls’ school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Firemen and concerned citizens were quickly on the scene. However, the religious police locked the schoolgirls inside the inferno rather than let them escape into the streets without their veil and head-to-toe cloak. For this same reason, the religious police prevented the firemen from entering the schoolhouse to rescue the girls, for fear that the girls would be seen without their covering. Fourteen young girls were burned to death and dozens more were injured. Is this treatment Islamic?
To answer this question, a comparison will be made between the noble treatment that the Prophet Muhammad reportedly accorded to the most celebrated Muslim woman of all, His first wife Khadija, on one hand, and the treatment of women that emerged under Sharia. We are told that the Prophet’s first wife was the best born in Quraish, a successful businesswoman and, too, the richest. We are also told that Khadija employed young Muhammad in her business, that she proposed marriage to him when he was about 25 years old, and that she was about 15 years his senior and twice a widow. We are told that for the 25 years of the Prophet’s marriage to Khadija, until her death in 620, He remained monogamous to her, that she was the one person to whom He turned for advice and comfort, and that Khadija was the first convert to Islam. Such an image makes Khadija an emancipated, commanding woman of high standing in Meccan society and in the eyes of her husband par excellence, and that the Prophet treated her with faithfulness and devotion.
The difference between the Prophet’s treatment of Khadija and the treatment of women that emerged under Sharia Law is stark. To begin with, the Quran subordinates women to men. In 2:228: “men have an edge over women.” In 4:34: “Men are the masters [protectors, maintainers] over women... As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish them and refuse to share their beds and hit [beat] them.” In 18:46: “Money and sons are the finest adornment of earthly life.” Curiously, daughters are not included in 18:46. On the legal standing of men relative to women, one man is equal to two women when bearing witness in a legal setting. In 2:282: “Have two of your men to act as witnesses; but if two men are not available, then a man and two women you approve, so that in case one of them is confused the other may remind her.”Also, in inheritance, a male’s share is equal to that of two females: In 4:11: “The share of the male is equivalent to that of two females.”
On marriage, the Quran allows Muslim men to have up to four wives simultaneously, on condition of equitable treatment. In 4:3: “Marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you cannot treat so many with equity, then only one.” Regarding divorce, a husband can divorce his wife without giving reason, though the Prophet is reported to have described divorce as the most hateful privilege granted by God. A wife can divorce her husband only after establishing good cause such as impotence, madness, or denial of her rights. Allowing the Muslim male to marry four wives simultaneously and divorce any one of them at will without giving cause is synonymous with unlimited polygamy.
Additionally, Shiite religious scholars interpret Verses 4:4 and 4:24 of the Quran as if men are allowed a temporary marriage contract (when travelling, for example), called Mut'a for which a payment to the woman is made by the man in return for her companionship for a specific period of time with no consequent obligations. In 4:4: “Give to women their compensation (dower) willingly, but if they forgo a part of it themselves then use it to your advantage.” In 4:24: “Give those of the women you have enjoyed the agreed remuneration (dower).” Shiite ulama believe that the Prophet allowed the Mut’a contracts, but Omar, the second Caliph (634-644) prohibited it. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, “it is certain from Tradition that Muhammad really permitted Mut’a to his followers especially on the longer campaigns. But the Caliph Omar strictly prohibited Mut’a and regarded it as fornication (a group of Traditions already ascribes this prohibition to the Prophet).”
Then, there is the Misyar marriage, sanctioned by the Sunni ulama. Under Misyar the man is not responsible financially for the woman and the couple live apart; the man visits the woman at her home whenever he wishes. Unlike Mut’a, Misyar has no date certain for divorce. Misyar has been sanctioned by the Mecca-based Islamic Jurisprudence Assembly, which declared on April 12, 2006 that a marriage contract in which the woman relinquishes her right to housing and support money and accepts that the man visits her in her family house whenever he likes, day or night is valid. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the Grand Mufti of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Islam’s venerable thousand-year-old university, have both sanctioned Misyar. The Misyar contract has become widespread. A recent survey conducted by the Saudi newspaper Arab News found that in Saudi Arabia some marriage officials say that many marriage contracts they conduct are Misyar marriages.
The Prophetic Sunna contains Traditions unflattering to Women as well. Sahih Al-Bukhari attributed to the Prophet saying that most of those who are in hell are women, that women’s "lack of intelligence" is the reason why a woman’s testimony in an Islamic court of law is equal to half that of the testimony of the Muslim male, and that the reason why women are prohibited from praying and fasting during menstruation is due to them being "deficient in religious belief." Sunan Al-Nasai attributed to the Prophet saying: “People who entrust the management of their affairs to a woman will fail.”Thinking of women as having less religious belief, being less intelligent, and more sinful than men reduces women to wicked deficient beings.
Sharia Law is not applied uniformly. In Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, the Wahhabi ulama, acting on behalf of their benefactor rulers, interpret Sharia as if to eliminate the potential political opposition of one half of the population to the Saudi government. Saudi Sharia means guardianship over and responsibility by the male in the family (father, brothers, husband) over the actions of the women in their charge. Saudi Sharia means strict segregation of the sexes at work, schools, hospitals, shops, public parks, elevators, etc. It also means banning women from driving motorcars, travelling without the guardian’s written permission, and wearing a black cloak from head to toe to conceal not only their face and hair but also the side of their shoes. It is not surprising, therefore, that Al-Bukhari's attributions became a common popular Saudi proverb: "women are light on brains and religion.” A well known Saudi cleric told Lebanese television viewers on June 19, 2008 that it is permissible for girls to get married as young as age one but have the consummation of the marriage postponed until age nine; following the example of the Prophet who took Aisha to be his wife when she was 6, but had sex with her only when she was 9.
By contrast, in Muslim non-Arab Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, Sharia Law is interpreted in such a way as to give women more rights, including becoming presidents and prime ministers. The contradictions between the Prophet’s fine treatment of His first wife Khadija and the way Sharia evolved on the treatment of women need to be reconciled. Harmonizing Sharia with the Prophet’s way of life (Sunna) is all the more important because the Prophet’s Sunna as a way of life has been made by the ulama of the tenth century equal to the Quran as a source of Sharia Law.
A meaningful first step here was announced in June 2006. Turkey has formed a committee of thirty-five religious scholars to study the removal of all Hadith references attributed to the Prophet that encourage violence against women. To recap, in marriage, divorce, inheritance, social standing, legal rights, and piety Muslim women are left with fewer rights than men, leading to damaging attitudes towards women. Consider, for example, the saying in the popular culture of some Arab communities: Women are like Persian carpets; they get better with beating.
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