Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Secret History of Women's Scholarship in Islam

From the New York Times.
A Secret History
by Carla Powers

For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the stock image of an Islamic scholar is a gray-bearded man. Women tend to be seen as the subjects of Islamic law rather than its shapers. And while some opportunities for religious education do exist for women — the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo has a women’s college, for example, and there are girls’ madrasas and female study groups in mosques and private homes — cultural barriers prevent most women in the Islamic world from pursuing such studies. Recent findings by a scholar at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies in Britain, however, may help lower those barriers and challenge prevalent notions of women’s roles within Islamic society. Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a 43-year-old Sunni alim, or religious scholar, has rediscovered a long-lost tradition of Muslim women teaching the Koran, transmitting hadith (deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and even making Islamic law as jurists.
Akram embarked eight years ago on a single-volume biographical dictionary of female hadith scholars, a project that took him trawling through biographical dictionaries, classical texts, madrasa chronicles and letters for relevant citations. “I thought I’d find maybe 20 or 30 women,” he says. To date, he has found 8,000 of them, dating back 1,400 years, and his dictionary now fills 40 volumes. It’s so long that his usual publishers, in Damascus and Beirut, have balked at the project, though an English translation of his preface — itself almost 400 pages long — will come out in England this summer. (Akram has talked with Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States, about the possibility of publishing the entire work through his Riyadh-based foundation.)
The dictionary’s diverse entries include a 10th-century Baghdad-born jurist who traveled through Syria and Egypt, teaching other women; a female scholar — or muhaddithat — in 12th-century Egypt whose male students marveled at her mastery of a “camel load” of texts; and a 15th-century woman who taught hadith at the Prophet’s grave in Medina, one of the most important spots in Islam. One seventh-century Medina woman who reached the academic rank of jurist issued key fatwas on hajj rituals and commerce; another female jurist living in medieval Aleppo not only issued fatwas but also advised her far more famous husband on how to issue his.
Not all of these women scholars were previously unknown. Many Muslims acknowledge that Islam has its learned women, particularly in the field of hadith, starting with the Prophet’s wife Aisha. And several Western academics have written on women’s religious education. About a century ago, the Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimated that about 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women. But Akram’s dictionary is groundbreaking in its scope.
Indeed, read today, when many Muslim women still don’t dare pray in mosques, let alone lecture leaders in them, Akram’s entry for someone like Umm al-Darda, a prominent jurist in seventh-century Damascus, is startling. As a young woman, Umm al-Darda used to sit with male scholars in the mosque, talking shop. “I’ve tried to worship Allah in every way,” she wrote, “but I’ve never found a better one than sitting around, debating other scholars.” She went on to teach hadith and fiqh, or law, at the mosque, and even lectured in the men’s section; her students included the caliph of Damascus. She shocked her contemporaries by praying shoulder to shoulder with men — a nearly unknown practice, even now — and issuing a fatwa, still cited by modern scholars, that allowed women to pray in the same position as men.
It’s after the 16th century that citations of women scholars dwindle. Some historians venture that this is because Islamic education grew more formal, excluding women as it became increasingly oriented toward establishing careers in the courts and mosques. (Strangely enough, Akram found that this kind of exclusion also helped women become better scholars. Because they didn’t hold official posts, they had little reason to invent or embellish prophetic traditions.)
Akram’s work has led to accusations that he is championing free mixing between men and women, but he says that is not so. He maintains that women students should sit at a discreet distance from their male classmates or co-worshipers, or be separated by a curtain. (The practice has parallels in Orthodox Judaism.) The Muslim women who taught men “are part of our history,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you have to follow them. It’s up to people to decide.”
Neverthless, Akram says he hopes that uncovering past hadith scholars could help reform present-day Islamic culture. Many Muslims see historical precedents — particularly when they date back to the golden age of Muhammad — as blueprints for sound modern societies and look to scholars to evaluate and interpret those precedents. Muslim feminists like the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi and Kecia Ali, a professor at Boston University, have cast fresh light on women’s roles in Islamic law and history, but their worldview — and their audiences — are largely Western or Westernized. Akram is a working alim, lecturing in mosques and universities and dispensing fatwas on issues like inheritance and divorce. “Here you’ve got a guy who’s coming from the tradition, who knows the stuff and who’s able to give us that level of detail which is missing in the self-proclaimed progressive Muslim writers,” says James Piscatori, a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University.
The erosion of women’s religious education in recent times, Akram says, reflects “decline in every aspect of Islam.” Flabby leadership and a focus on politics rather than scholarship has left Muslims ignorant of their own history. Islam’s current cultural insecurity has been bad for both its scholarship and its women, Akram says. “Our traditions have grown weak, and when people are weak, they grow cautious. When they’re cautious, they don’t give their women freedoms.”
When Akram lectures, he dryly notes, women are more excited by this history than men. To persuade reluctant Muslims to educate their girls, Akram employs a potent debating strategy: he compares the status quo to the age of al jahiliya, the Arabic term for the barbaric state of pre-Islamic Arabia. (Osama Bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of modern Islamic extremism, have employed the comparison to very different effect.) Barring Muslim women from education and religious authority, Akram argues, is akin to the pre-Islamic custom of burying girls alive. “I tell people, ‘God has given girls qualities and potential,’ ” he says. “If they aren’t allowed to develop them, if they aren’t provided with opportunities to study and learn, it’s basically a live burial.”
When I spoke with him, Akram invoked a favorite poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray’s 18th-century lament for dead English farmers. “Gray said that villagers could have been like Milton,” if only they’d had the chance, Akram observes. “Muslim women are in the same situation. There could have been so many Miltons.”
Carla Power is a London-based journalist who writes about Islamic issues.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Balancing the Prophet

*cross posted from An American Muslim

Balancing the Prophet

By Karen Armstrong

Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure. During the 12th century, Christians were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims, even though Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy. Our Islamophobia became entwined with our chronic anti-Semitism; Jews and Muslims, the victims of the crusaders, became the shadow self of Europe, the enemies of decent civilisation and the opposite of ”us”.

Our suspicion of Islam is alive and well. Indeed, understandably perhaps, it has hardened as a result of terrorist atrocities apparently committed in its name. Yet despite the religious rhetoric, these terrorists are motivated by politics rather than religion. Like ”fundamentalists” in other traditions, their ideology is deliberately and defiantly unorthodox. Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency.

The criminal activities of terrorists have given the old western prejudice a new lease of life. People often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad, are reluctant to put his life in its historical perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian traditions lack the flaws they attribute to Islam. This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion. He is a hero of the American right and author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.

The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ”Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one.”

Islam has a far better record than either Christianity or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim Spain, relations between the three religions of Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe. The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from residing in Jerusalem, but when Caliph Umar conquered the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer doesn’t refer to this. Jewish-Muslim relations certainly have declined as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries of peaceful and often positive co-existence. When discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an ”awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.

People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ”prove” to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.

Eliot Weinberger is a poet whose interest in Islam began at the time of the first Gulf war. His slim volume, Muhammad, is also a selective anthology about the Prophet. His avowed aim is to ”give a small sense of the awe surrounding this historical and sacred figure, at a time of the demonisation of the Muslim world in much of the media”. Many of the passages he quotes are indeed mystical and beautiful, but others are likely to confirm some readers in their prejudice. Without knowing their provenance, how can we respond to such statements as ”He said that he who plays chess is like one who has dyed his hand in the blood of a pig” or ”Filling the stomach with pus is better than stuffing the brain with poetry”?

It is difficult to see how selecting only these dubious traditions as examples could advance mutual understanding. The second section of this anthology is devoted to anecdotes about Muhammad’s wives that smack of prurient gossip. Western readers need historical perspective to understand the significance of the Prophet’s domestic arrangements, his respect for his wives, and the free and forthright way in which they approached him. Equally eccentric are the stories cited by Weinberger to describe miracles attributed to the Prophet: the Koran makes it clear that Muhammad did not perform miracles and insists that he was an ordinary human being, with no divine powers.

It is, therefore, a relief to turn to Barnaby Rogerson’s more balanced and nuanced account of early Muslim history in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. Rogerson is a travel writer by trade; his explanation of the Sunni/Shia divide is theologically simplistic, but his account of the rashidun, the first four ”rightly guided” caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, is historically sound, accessible and clears up many western misconceptions about this crucial period.

Rogerson makes it clear, for example, that the wars of conquest and the establishment of the Islamic empire after Muhammad’s death were not inspired by religious ideology but by pragmatic politics. The idea that Islam should conquer the world was alien to the Koran and there was no attempt to convert Jews or Christians. Islam was for the Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, as Judaism was for the descendants of Isaac and Christianity for the followers of Jesus.
Rogerson also shows that Muslim tradition is multi-layered and many-faceted. The early historians regularly gave two or three variant accounts of an incident in the life of the Prophet; readers were expected to make up their own minds.

Similarly, there are at least four contrasting and sometimes conflicting versions of the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament the four evangelists interpret the life of Jesus quite differently. To choose one tradition and ignore the rest - as Weinberger and Spencer do - is distorting.

Professor Tariq Ramadan has studied Islam at the University of Geneva and al-Azhar University in Cairo and is currently senior research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The Messenger is easily the most scholarly and knowledgeable of these four biographies of Muhammad, but it is also practical and relevant, drawing lessons from the Prophet’s life that are crucial for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ramadan makes it clear, for example, that Muhammad did not shun non-Muslims as ”unbelievers” but from the beginning co-operated with them in the pursuit of the common good. Islam was not a closed system at variance with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that relations between the different groups must be egalitarian. Even warfare must not obviate the primary duty of justice and respect.
When the Muslims were forced to leave Mecca because they were persecuted by the Meccan establishment, Ramadan shows, they had to adapt to the alien customs of their new home in Medina, where, for example, women enjoyed more freedom than in Mecca. The hijrah (”migration”) was a test of intelligence; the emigrants had to recognise that some of their customs were cultural rather than Islamic, and had to learn foreign practices.
Ramadan also makes it clear that, in the Koran, jihad was not synonymous with ”holy war”. The verb jihada should rather be translated: ”making an effort”. The first time the word is used in the Koran, it signified a ”resistance to oppression” (25:26) that was intellectual and spiritual rather than militant. Muslims were required to oppose the lies and terror of those who were motivated solely by self-interest; they had to be patient and enduring. Only after the hijrah, when they encountered the enmity of Mecca, did the word jihad take connotations of self-defence and armed resistance in the face of military aggression. Even so, in mainstream Muslim tradition, the greatest jihad was not warfare but reform of one’s own society and heart; as Muhammad explained to one of his companions, the true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.

The Koran teaches that, while warfare must be avoided whenever possible, it is sometimes necessary to resist humanity’s natural propensity to expansionism and oppression, which all too often seeks to obliterate the diversity and religious pluralism that is God’s will. If they do wage war, Muslims must behave ethically. ”Do not kill women, children and old people,” Abu Bakr, the first caliph, commanded his troops. ”Do not commit treacherous actions. Do not burn houses and cornfields.” Muslims must be especially careful not to destroy monasteries where Christian monks served God in prayer.

Ramadan could have devoted more time to such contentious issues as the veiling of women, polygamy and Muhammad’s treatment of some (though by no means all) of the Jewish tribes of Medina. But his account restores the balance that is so often lacking in western narratives. Muhammad was not a belligerent warrior. Ramadan shows that he constantly emphasised the importance of ”gentleness” (ar-rafiq), ”tolerance” (al-ana) and clemency (al-hilm).
It will be interesting to see how The Messenger is received. Ramadan is clearly addressing issues that inspire some Muslims to distort their religion. Western people often complain that they never hear from ”moderate” Muslims, but when such Muslims do speak out they are frequently dismissed as apologists and hagiographers. Until we all learn to approach one another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace.

Karen Armstrong is the author of ”Muhammad: Prophet For Our Time”

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Veiled for Allah

from this week's Women's issue of City Beat.

Muslim women speak about life beneath the veil

By Nur Saben

The clothes do not make the woman, but they can make an impact during a job interview. Self-expression is a typical explanation for low-riding jeans and funky shoes as much as it is for body piercings and hair color. Yet Islamic women who choose to make an unconventional statement with their attire typically encounter prejudice, unfair treatment and even fear. This is common for Muslim women who wear "hejab," a headscarf tied under their chin, and loose fitting clothing to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.

"My heart is not ready ... for the burden of interacting with people in public places with hejab on," says Paige Robbins, a Woodlawn resident and local music therapist. "I have to be ready for people looking at me like I'm a terrorist. They'll look at me like they're afraid of me. I might lose clients at work. I'll have to stand up for my beliefs -- vocally. Right now, people don't know I'm Muslim."

Robbins converted to Islam earlier this year, but her perspective isn't unique to converts. Iman Bedawi, from West Chester, was born to Egyptian parents and was educated in the American public school system. She attended Islamic religious classes on the weekends, where she learned that hejab was obligatory according to Islam, but there was never any imposition of the rules. Bedawi's mother didn't don the Islamic headscarf until Bedawi was 7 or 8 years old.

"A lot of women don't understand that, when they're interviewing, their physical appearance has a lot of bearing and that is really demeaning," Bedawi says. "It's none of their business how I dress if I have the right qualifications (for a job)."

Obedience not terrorism

In the Quran, God commands the "believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" to anyone other than immediate family members. God also commands, "O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad)."

Because of these two verses, Muslim women believe modesty is a highly spiritual act that's a direct command from God.

The decision to follow this direction is a personal one, Bedawi explains.

"It really has to do with the development of the person wearing it," she says. "Hejab is symbolic of a woman's devotion to God, of her deep desire to be close to him and prefer his pleasure over the judgment of everyone else.

"In high school, my parents never mentioned it in a pressuring way. Once my mother asked me if I would like to wear it. My full-hearted answer was 'Yes,' but I didn't have an idea when. Before the beginning of my last year of high school, it was my decision completely to start wearing it."

Ingrid Ascencio, who grew up Catholic in Mexico and converted to Islam six years ago, agrees that wearing the hejab is simply "being obedient to Allah."

"It really comes down to that," she says. "I didn't grow up with that. It's something that Allah wants me to do."

Concern of being feared is a big obstacle for many Islamic women. The decision to choose traditional Islamic feminine dress means dealing with the suspicion and scorn by those who don't understand the religious and personal implications of a non-Western style.

Ascencio, a mechanical engineer for GE, is not afraid. She wore hejab when she interviewed for her position three years ago and continues to do so with confidence and pride.

"The environment of the company is very professional," she explains. "There is a lot of diversity. They want to include women and minorities, and I'm triple in one. My personality repels criticism. I come across very strong, especially at work. I don't look down, I don't speak softly and I'm straight to the point. I think people can read that. If you have convictions, people don't mess with you."

That confidence took some time to develop.

"It took me two years to get the strength to put it on," Ascensio says. "I don't do things halfway. I didn't want to put it on, and then take it off. First, my wardrobe had to slowly change. I stopped wearing shorts and only (wore) pants, then (from) no sleeves to some sleeves, then full sleeves, etc. Then I went a size bigger than my fitting size. Slowly but surely I changed it.

"Finally I took off for work one morning and I just put it on. I didn't tell anyone. I just did it."

'An obstacle to what?'

The women agree that, although the primary reason they cover is spiritual, there is a secondary benefit to wearing the hejab. Robbins doesn't cover her hair, but she maintains modest dress because she feels protected. She wants to be known for her personality, not for her appearance.

"I dress more conservatively than the average American woman," she says. "I feel more comfortable with my arms, chest and legs covered. I also wear loose-fitting clothing. It gives me comfort to be able to interact with others a little more openly. We can interact with the opposite sex and not worry."

Bedawi says she's often confronted by feminists who take issue with her choice.
"Their argument is ... that this scarf is an obstacle to us," she says. "Sometimes I wonder: an obstacle to what? To my body being admired by whoever wants to admire it? An obstacle to getting boyfriends? ... Yes, it is an obstacle to preventing the woman from being susceptible to the evils that the women of western society are prone to.

"This is a very biased view that hejab is an obstacle. They think it's an obstacle to freedom. We don't believe in unrestricted freedom. Freedom has to be within the will of God."

Moving beyond the personal decision to wear a specific kind of clothing, Bedawi says American culture has a dramatic impact on the lack of equality afforded to Islamic woman in this country.

"Most Muslims the world over hold America as the hope, as a place where we can practice our religion wholly, because of the constitution and the Bill of Rights," she says. "We'd like the greater community to understand us and what we're all about, not to convert anyone but to help them respect our beliefs so we can practice.

"We'd like the freedom to practice without discrimination. American foreign policies are the main obstacle to that dream. The propaganda coming out from the current administration isn't giving a clear picture to the greater American community as to what Muslims in the U.S. and all over the world are really all about."
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the editor

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Qatari Matchbus

In the midst of all of this house hunting, we all started hunkering for a taste of our....well.....(former) home....

Matchbus, called Kapsa in other Gulf states, is a traditional dish...You cook the chicken first by boiling it with fried onions, tomato paste, chopped fresh whole tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, whole cardamom pods, saffron, cloves, black (dried) onions, and cumin. After cooking the chicken for 30 minutes or so you strain the pieces out and reserve the liquid and put the chicken in the oven at 350 degrees F for another 30 minutes or so while you make the rice. You use some of the reserved liquid to cook the rice in, as deemed appropriate for the amount of rice you want to make. Although Basmati rice is traditional, we use calrose rice (sushi rice, also called "Egyptican" rice) in our house.

It's delicious! You put carmelized onions along with some raisins on top and serve it in a communal dish such as the one pictured.

We like to eat with our hands, and on the floor, as this is traditional also.

Dig in!