Silencing women is not the prophetic way
February 06, 2020
Islam came to liberate women from the abusive and oppressive mentality which had existed towards in the Arab community for centuries. Islam gave woman the freedom to express herself and to be independent, financially and socially. She could get an education, she could do business, and she had a voice.
It is culture which perpetuates the myth that women, like Victorian children, should not be seen or heard. Ironically Islam gave women more rights than Victorian women, let alone children. During the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) women were not second-class citizens. Yet, in many ways and in many places the reality is that there is a tendency towards treating women in this way.
The prophetic treatment of women
The Prophet (peace be on him) listened to women just as much as he listened to the men in his mosque. He valued their opinions, appreciated their contributions and took their questions and dilemmas seriously. He gave them his full attention and until they were satisfied he did not end their conversation.
In his mosque, the Prophet (peace be on him) would take questions from the men, and then wait for the women to ask their questions as well. There were instances when men would hide issues when the Prophet (peace be on him) posed questions, which the women would expose. For instance he once asked them if they discussed their intimate relations with other men, as this is a big sin. He asked them ‘Do you do this?’ but they remained silent. Then a young female companion called out ‘Yes, they do this, but they are not telling you!’
The prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Is there any man among you who approaches his wife, closes the door, covers himself with a curtain, and he is concealed with the curtain of Allah?
They replied: Yes. He said: later he sits and says: I did so-and-so; I did so-and-so. The people kept silence. He then turned to the women and said (to them): Is there any woman among you who narrates it? They kept silence. Then a girl fell on one of her knees. The narrator, Mu’ammil, said in his version: a buxom girl. She raised her head before the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) so that he could see her and listen to her.
She said: Messenger of Allah, they (the men) describe the secrets (of intercourse) and they (the women) also describe the secrets (of intercourse) to the people.
He said: Do you know what the similitude is? He said: The likeness of this act is the likeness of a female Satan who meets the male Satan on the roadside; he fulfils his desire with her while the people are looking at him. ( Abu Dawoud).
A woman’s voice is NOT her awrah
A woman has the right to express herself. Though culturally there is a popular myth that the Prophet (peace be on him) said, ‘You should not speak. Your voice is ‘awrah’ (nakedness). To say a woman’s voice is part of her awrah is not a hadith. This is completely wrong. If this had been the case the Prophet (peace be on him) would not have listened to women. 50% of the population would have no voice. However he listened, answered their questions, understood their concerns and the revelation often came to answer their questions. Women even delivered speeches at the time, but were not told to sit down and not speak because they would cause fitnah (temptation).
There is no authentic evidence that women’s voice is their awrah. The literature that is widely quoted is not authentic. Sadly, in some communities the mentality that women should not speak still exists today.
In 2000, when I began delivering courses in the U.K. I was invited to East London to teach, which is more conservative than other parts of London. There were around 100 students and there was screen between the men and women and my table was in the middle but they had not realised that I don’t sit and teach – I walk around, so I asked questions to the men and women. I tried to get the sisters to participate but they were dead silent. For the first few hours I didn’t hear a peep from them. They would not reply to any question – so I wondered had they not understood anything, (as my English was very broken at the time) or if the topic not interesting to them (though it was an important topic; it was why we have different schools of opinion and whether we have to follow them). I was struggling. Then one lady asked a question in a very low voice. I answered it. Emboldened another lady asked another question and eventually then they began to engage with the course. At the end of the course, a lady said this is the first time they had come across a shaykh who was interested in listening to their questions. Usually they had to watch the shaykh deliver his talk on a television screen, without any access to him. This was an alien idea to me, because I used to teach in the Shariah College in Lebanon, where we had male and female students and teachers, and they participated equally in discussions.
As I had gone against the ingrained traditions, I was never invited back to teach there again. The organisers sent their most learned shaykh to debate with me on the issue. However I am not interested in arguing. He asked what evidence I had that men could converse with women directly. I asked if he could give a single piece of evidence that the Prophet (peace be on him) built a wall or partition in his mosque to separate men and women. There is no single hadith that the Prophet (peace be on him) separated men and women with any barrier, or even a curtain. It was not due to a lack of materials, because they had no shortage of fabric or wood. Yet they did not use to partition the space.
In fact, you can read in Bukhari that the Prophet (peace be on him) asked female companions to postpone raising their heads from sujood until the men had risen, because they did not have underwear at the time, so they might have become exposed when coming up from sujood.
Narrated Sahl bin Sa’d:
People used to offer the prayer with the Prophet (ﷺ) with their waist-sheets tied round their necks because of the shortness of the sheets and the women were ordered not to lift their heads till the men had sat straight. (Bukhari)
Even with the possibility that men’s awrah might become visible, the Prophet (peace be on him) did not build a wall. Unfortunately, erecting barriers is still common today and reflects that this mentality is still in operation in parts of the UK still.
Instead of erecting a wall, the Prophet (peace be on him) built taqwa (the fear of Allah) in their hearts. It is problematic that due to our failure in establishing taqwa, we started building artificial Taqwa.
Some people might say the companions did not require walls because they were more pious than us. However they were human like us. They committed sins and made mistakes like any other people in any other society. Among them were sinners and worshippers. There were those with a high level of imaan and those whose imaan was low. There were thieves whose hands were chopped, men and women who committed zina (adultery) and were punished, companions who got drunk or were alcoholic and had to be lashed. The only difference between them and us is that they had the companionship of the Prophet (peace be on him). No one can match the honour of this. Today, there are some scholars who are more knowledgeable than some of the companions of that time, but they will never achieve the level of honour of the companions, because that companionship is very special.
Can women be leaders? Can they be visible in the public sphere?
The Prophet (peace be on him) never discriminated against women. There is no restriction on women taking up any position of leadership, with only one exception. A woman may be a judge, consultant, or prime minister but she cannot be the head of the state or can’t lead men in prayer. This is the only restriction.
With this in mind, ISOCs (Islamic societies at universities) tend to be male dominated. Whereas there is no reason why women cannot be the head of ISOC. We have plenty of ISOCS where they create barriers between the brothers and sisters. It is not a beach, where women are turning up indecently dressed. There is no need to erect barriers. Yes we should have good intention and taqwa in our hearts, but not erect artificial barriers. Islam has limits, but we do not block the means to goodness.
Imagine if there is a woman is specialised in a particular field but she cannot give a speech about it, because she is a woman. This is injustice. Islam is about justice and fairness.
We cannot dismiss the participation and contribution of women. The Prophet (peace be on him) made them equal in everything except in a few scenarios like jihad. They would go with the troops to support them and a very small number even participated in battles, but it was not an obligation for them.
The authentic hadith that is quoted to prevent women from leadership positions is:
‘Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler’ (Bukhari)
However this hadith referred to a particular woman. It has a context. It is not reference to women in general. In the story of Queen Bilqis (Sheba) in the Quran, the Prophet (peace be on him) never said that it was wrong for her to be in a position of power. Rather her story reveals her to be a wise leader.
Can women recite the Quran or sing in public?
There are many women reciters who have recited in international competitions in front of male and female Qaris in the Arab world and South Asia. Though people may object, there is no evidence to suggest that they may not do so. If there is a need women can recite in public but reciting the Quran is not meant to be a show or entertainment.
Women are permitted to sing in public, provided the songs and their lyrics are decent, for example, singing the national anthem. As long as there is nothing that contains temptation, (which some nasheeds do), and the circumstances around the singing are decent and within the shariah, it is permissible. The Prophet (peace be on him) himself was present when women sang, and he would listen to the lyrics and correct them if they went against the Shariah, for example, when he heard them sing, ‘Rasul allah knows what is in tomorrow.’
Why can’t women find places to pray? Why do mosques prevent women from entering?
There is a strange mentality which we need to change that bars women from entering mosques. Many mosques do not realise they are doing anything wrong by not allowing women to pray. On the contrary, they see it as an intrusion that women want to come to the mosque. How dare they? They should be at home. This is completely nonsense. Women were never barred from entering the mosque in the time of the Prophet (peace be on him).
Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said: ‘Do not stop Allah’s women-slaves from going to Allah’s Mosques.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
This behaviour stems from a principle, which is disagreed upon, known as sadd al dharai’ in which you block the means that lead to sin, though the means are not themselves sinful. If x might lead to y, x is blocked. However this means that many blockages arise, including preventing women from entering the mosque. The blockages should be removed. We should return to the original status, particularly in the treatment of women.
Men often quote this authentic hadith as their justification:
Umm Humayd the wife of Abu Humayd al-Saa’idi came to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I like to pray with you.’
He said, ‘I know that you like to pray with me, but your prayer in your room is better for you than your prayer in your courtyard and your prayer in your courtyard is better for you than your praying in your house, and your prayer in your house is better for you than your prayer in the mosque of your people, and your prayer in the mosque of your people is better for you than your prayer in my mosque.’ So she issued orders that a prayer-place be prepared for her in the furthest and darkest part of her house, and she used to pray there until she met Allah (i.e., died).’ (Ahmad)
This is used to imply that women are sinful if they go out to pray. Instead, the Prophet (peace be on him) was giving women the compensation that if they find it difficult due to their commitments to go to the mosque, they should not feel sad that they will miss out, as they will still receive the reward of praying in the mosque. This is not the same as telling a woman who is twiddling her thumbs at home watching Bollywood that it is better for her to pray at home. She should go to the mosque.
We need to understand the the context and spirit of the message, not just the letter. We need to know the context of the hadith. Not just quote it out of context and use it as a weapon against women.
Similarly it was not made obligatory for women to go to the mosque for Jummah – they were given the ease of having a choice. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
‘Jumu’ah is a duty that is required of every Muslim in congregation, except four: a slave, a woman, a child or one who is sick.’ (Abu Dawood)
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim at the Youth Circle in December 2019
Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001.His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College).He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.
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