I really am not the right person to do this. I am a bloke. I am not a Muslim. But I cheer on the idea of a feminist reformation of Islam, and in this post I am going right out of line by doing some more mansplaining and arguing for it from an Islamic feminist perspective. Some may say I have no right to do so, but if freedom of speech means anything it means that even middle-aged male atheists can argue for Islamic feminism. What is truly fucked up is that I’m likely to be taken as seriously as a Muslim woman making the same case.
So here is a plug for someone who is arguing from the right place, as a woman and Muslim. I haven’t met her, and I know very little about her beyond her Tweets and her online profile. She’s a Londoner with Bengali Muslim heritage, and from what I can tell she’s pretty awesome. Anyway, she’s angry about the patriarchy in Islam, about the way Muslim men seem to control the money and how she wasn’t taught what the Holy Qu’ran says about how women should be treated, that in many Muslim communities this is ignored and distorted by the patriarchy, that in Islam women are entitled to their independence because the Prophet said so, and that she wasn’t even taught about the women who were so important in the Prophet’s life. Here’s a link to her website. Don’t listen to me, listen to her. She’s not the only one, by the way. They are a small but growing band, and in them is the power to save Islam from the combined forces of Islamophobia on the one hand and Daesh and the rest on the other.
Now, the purpose of this post is actually to say that modern Muslim feminists should be more radical still. The Holy Qu’ran doesn’t go far enough; today, nothing less than full equality between men and women – as our secular law in the west essentially provides, but doesn’t deliver – is enough. And we can argue that were the Prophet alive today, he would be making exactly the same case, supported by the strong and independent women in his life, because we are talking about the twenty-first century, not the seventh; because we don’t live in a society where political and military alliances are made by marriage, we don’t settle our disputes with tribal warfare, because we are not Daesh, who do want to return us to the time and the values and the technology of the world where the Prophet lived.
But we can learn from those times and the life of the Prophet. Incidentally, let me make a couple of Islamic theological points. I know, I know, I’m not actually qualified; but here goes. You can call these heresies… First, it is shirk to claim that the Prophet, peace be unto him, was perfect, because perfection is reserved only to God, and Muhammad the Messenger of God was not God, is not God, but an ordinary, fallible, flawed human being. A very good and remarkable one, even the best ever to walk this earth, but not perfect. That’s the point; unlike God, humans are fallible, and Muhammad was human. My second point of Islamic theology is that to interpret the Holy Qur’an purely literally is also shirk. It is God’s word as revealed to the Prophet, by the Angel Gabriel, but it is not God. It was revealed to the Prophet in the language he understood, Arabic, a human language, with all the linguistic inadequacies that entails. How can a language understood by humans ever convey the whole wonder that is God’s message? The truth of God’s message is contained many layers deep in the spiritual meaning of the Holy Qu’ran, and not in the superficial words. Consider poetry, the greatest form of human literature. Do we understand the truth of a great poem just from the superficial words? No, we understand it from the way it moves us in our heart and in our soul. Only the basic form of human literature, technical manuals, instruction books, books of account, law books do we take only at face value. The truth of the Holy Qu’ran will not be found in the superficial meaning of its words, but in the deeper spiritual meaning, like great poetry but much more so. To interpret the Holy Qu’ran just at face value, as if it were a mere instruction-book, is to demean it and worse, to demean God’s message. We will only do justice to the Holy Qu’ran if we don’t take it literally – which deals, conveniently, with the awkward Sura 4.34.
I had better stop theologising now before I get myself into any more trouble, although the folk history of the first Muslims is probably just as tricky ground…. and that’s what’s coming next. The first Muslim, the first to declare the shahadah, that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger, was Khadija, the one woman to whom Muhammad was married for most of his adult life. She was an independently-wealthy woman who had first employed Muhammad as a young man to look after her trading caravans. She ran her own business, and she supported Muhammad as he preached the Message of God to the Quraysh, the main tribe of Mecca. Theirs was a love marriage; they were happily monogamous for twenty-five years, despite losing several children at a young age. However, three daughters did survive, including the youngest, Fatima who went on to marry Ali. During Khadija’s life, more and more Quraysh converted to Islam and although it was a threat to the ruling polytheists, they did not leave. It was only after her death that the Quraysh started to persecute the Muslims in earnest, eventually driving them to exile in Medina. There, Muhammad didn’t just have a religion to lead, he had a whole community to organise and to defend against the attacks from the Meccans. He had to adjudicate in domestic disputes, to inspire the young men who were fighting for the whole community, and he had to lead and unite what was a new nation. He needed to make alliances with other tribes to get their support, and by the custom of the time alliances were cemented with marriage. All of the Prophet’s later marriages were political alliances of convenience.
The Prophet’s last and youngest wife was Aisha. The story of her marriage, as recounted in several well-regarded hadiths, is troubling to us today. If it were true today, Muhammad would be locked up and reviled as a paedophile. Apparently she was six or seven years old when she was married, and nine when the union was consummated. She was the only one of the Prophet’s wives to have been a virgin at marriage, a fact which was considered important and is argued by some Sunnis as being proof that she was the most favoured of them. I feel slightly sick writing that. Yet the same hadiths that record Aisha’s young age also record that she was jealous of the affection that Muhammad still retained for his first wife, Khadija.
Nevertheless, Aisha is an important feminist icon, although more complex and troubling than Khadija. She bore the Prophet no children and I prefer to think that it was a spiritual marriage. The evidence is that at a spiritual level it was a strong one, Aisha was something of an intellectual prodigy, an important thinker, and independent enough to hold her own in debate with a man more than forty years her senior. She might be called “feisty” today – a word I don’t like using, because it’s only ever applied to women, and that kind of independence of spirit should be valued equally in men and in women. But it is also clear that as a child Aisha was a pawn in a political power-struggle between her father, Abu Bakr, and Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, the husband of Fatima, his daughter by Khadija. Ali resented the growing influence of Abu Bakr and accused Aisha of adultery; when the Prophet took Aisha’s side, Ali’s influence was much reduced. At the death of the Prophet, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, although he only survived for two years, to be succeeded by Umar and then Uthmann. When Ali became the fourth Caliph, Aisha objected – no doubt still bearing a grudge against him for the accusation of adultery – and tried to mount a coup, raising and leading an army herself against Ali. She lost and retired from political life, becoming a scholar and a teacher until she died at the age of sixty-four.
We have, then, in Khadija and Aisha, two powerful role models for women today. Khadija the independent businesswoman, the loving, faithful and supportive wife of a loving, faithful and supportive husband; Aisha, the smart child prodigy, the intellectual, the teacher. They were both fully engaged in the public life of the time, commercial, political and religious. Not for them a life hidden from view, cooking, cleaning and serving their husbands. Both, in their own way, stood up to and challenged the patriarchy of their time.
Aisha never knew Khadija. I like to think that the rivalry between them was manipulated by the men in their lives: Aisha’s father and Khadija’s son-in-law, to justify their own political rivalry and to perpetuate a patriarchy that thrives on enmity and divisions. That division is a betrayal of Tawhid, the vision that the Oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of humanity. The patriarchy’s split between Abu Bakr and Ali is in the ummah today, between the Sunni and the Shi’a.
What a force they could have been together, Aisha and Khadija.
What a force they could still be.