Dossier 17: The Muted Voices of Women Interpreters

Publication Author: 
Bouthaina Shaaban
September 1997
Word Document129.78 KB
number of pages: 
There are few women interpreters in the history of Islam because women are seen to be the subject of the Islamic shari’a and not its legislators. Yet even the few interpreters who have appeared during the long history of Islam have been kept at the periphery, their views never allowed to influence Islamic legislation. Moreover, even men interpreters who were open-minded about women were marginalized and, in some cases, found their authority questioned. In this chapter I shall discuss the contribution to Islam of Muslim women interpreters, the concurrence between their views and the views of later men interpreters, and the deliberate marginalization of their thought by contemporary Islamists. I will focus on Nazira Zin al-Din as one of the more serious and knowledgeable Muslim women scholars of our time.

The first person to believe the message of the Prophet and to become a Muslim was Muhammad’s wife Khadija Bint Khuwaylid, of whom the Prophet said: ‘She believed when people did not, and believed me when others did not, and consoled me with her money when I was abandoned by others’. [1] The first martyr for the Islamic cause was a woman (Summiyya). Women attended the first and the second Aqaba Conferences (Bay’at al-Aqaba al-Awla wa’l-Thaniyya) believed to have founded the Islamic state in Yathrib.[2]

The first Muslim woman whose views have been important to Muslims throughout Islamic history was Aisha, wife of the Prophet. Muhammad’s contemporaries, among them both the muhajerun (emigrants who followed him from Mecca) and the ansar (those who helped the Prophet in Medina) considered Aisha a source of religious rules and an expert on issues of Islamic legislation. When she was mentioned to Ata Bin Abi Rabah, he said: ‘Aisha was the most knowledgeable Muslim and had the best opinion in public affairs; she related 2210 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad among which are 170 which have been approved and Bukhari took 54 sayings from them.’ [3] In Arab Women in Jahiliya and Islam, Abdol Sir Afifi writes: ‘Muslim women scholars are known for their honesty in relating hadith and for their objectivity, which have rendered them free of intellectual suspicion, the things that most men were not fortunate enough to have.’ In Mizan al-I’tidal (The Scales of Moderation), al-Hafez al-Zahabi (died 748 IE, 1347 CE) a renowned Muslim authority on hadith, points to four thousand suspect Muslim hadith tellers and then adds: ‘I have not known of any woman who was accused of falsifying hadith. To this we add, that from the time of Aisha, the mother of believers, until the time of al-Zahabi the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were not kept or related by anyone as they were kept in the hearts of women and related by them.’[4]

The wives and women relatives of the Prophet Muhammad were not an exception in their age. Many women were scholars and teachers.[5] Muhammad Bin Sa’id mentions over 700 women who related hadith from the Prophet Muhammad or from the muhajirun and ansar. Men scholars and pillars of Islam quoted these women.[6] Thus Asma Bint Yazid bin al- Sakan al-Ansariyya is known to have related 81 sayings from the Prophet Muhammad and her uncle Mahmud bin Amr al-Ansari and Abu Sufian and others reported and quoted her. She is also known to have been a woman of science and a defender of women’s rights. It is reported that she led a delegation of women to the Prophet Muhammad and said to him, ‘I am the envoy of women to you. God has sent you to both men and women. We believed in you and in your God, but we as women are confined to our homes, satisfying your desires and carrying your children while you men go and fight, and go to haj and lead holy wars for the sake of God. When one of you goes to the battle field we keep your money for you, weave your clothes and bring up your children. Do we deserve to share your wages?’[7] The Prophet Muhammad acknowledged that she represented women, and he answered her and the women who stood behind her.

Muslim women assumed political power as well as literary authority. They became queens, warriors, doctors, poets, and literary critics. Many won reputations for valor in battle and received praise from the Prophet and his followers. Clearly, the role of women was not confined to encouraging men and treating their wounds; they also played an active part in defending their tribe and their cause. Ismat al-Din, known as Shajarat al-Dur, was the first woman in Islam to assume a throne in her own right. Her husband, king Sala al-Din, died during the crusaders’ invasion of Egypt. She continued to issue military and operational orders, keeping the news of his death secret for over two months to avoid undermining the morale of the troops. She found a man named Swab al-Suhayla who forged her husband’s handwriting so well that no one doubted that the orders were issued by the king himself. She drew up plans, encouraged soldiers and instructed officers to lead the battle against the crusaders during which King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) was captured, making Shajarat al-Dur’s victory final. Once the battle was over and victory secured, Shajarat al-Dur announced her husband’s death, gave him a royal funeral, and openly assumed the throne. Shajarat al-Dur was mentioned in Friday prayers and money was coined in her name.[8] She was known as a ‘knowledgeable queen who is deeply informed of matters, big and small. People felt optimistic during her rule and the poor enjoyed her good deeds. Her government was not authoritarian and she would not make a decision until she convened a council of consultants and listened to the opinions of her ministers and advisers.’[9]Women have also ruled in other Muslim countries. In Yemen there was more than one queen after the fifth/tenth century. The best known among them, Queen Orpha (died 484/1090) assumed total political authority which included planning and executing wars. In the thirteenth century many women were top leaders in Islamic countries, among them Sultana Radia in Delhi and Turkan Khatum, Safwat al-Din Malik Khatun, Sati Bik Khan and Tendo in Central Asia. In the same century, queens ruled Indonesia for 24 years, without interruption and carried names such as ‘Taj al-Alam’ (The Crown of the World), and ‘Nur al-Alam’ (The Light of the World).

Muslim women were poets and literary critics. First among such critics is Sukayna Bint al-Husayn who was the ultimate judge of poetic production in her time. Poets travelled long distances in order to recite their poetry and obtain her judgement, which could affect the future course of a poetic career.[10] Aisha Bint Talha followed in the steps of Sukayna, meeting with poets and story tellers at her home, listened to them, and judged their literary production.[11]Women also played an important role in medicine for which Arabs were renowned. They practiced in Baghdad, Qurtaba, and other cities in Iraq and Andalus.[12] However, their names and their contributions in different fields still await proper recording and authoritative documentation. The information, scattered in books, journals, and newspapers, has not been classified properly in archives and therefore is not yet a part of the mainstream historiography of Islam. Indeed, more often than not, the role of women in Muslim history has been marginalized and obscured, sometimes totally reversed, depending on the whims of men scholars.

Nazira Zin al-Din and Textual Interpreters

‘As women have the right to participate in public governing they also have the explicit right to participate in Qur’anic interpretation and explanation. Women are better qualified than men to interpret the Qur’anic Verses speaking of their rights and duties because everyone is better equipped to understand his or her right and duty,’[13] writes Nazira Zin al-Din in al-Fatat wa’l-shiukh. Nazira Zin al-Din is the most serious and knowledgeable of the women Muslim scholars and interpreters to date. She is the daughter of Shaykh Sa’id Sin al-Din, a judge and the first president of the court of appeal in Lebanon in the 1920s. She was encouraged by her father to study. She tried to understand why Muslim women at the time were kept at home wrapped in darkness that covered not only their bodies but also their minds. The answer was that Islam was responsible. She studied the Qur’an and hadith and arrived at her own conclusions regarding the position of women in Islam. Although she was only 20 years of age when her books were published, her work is a significant source of reference on the relations between men and women in Islam. Very little is known about her personal life except that she is from a Druzi (Shi’i) sect. Her conclusions showed that Islam is not the reason behind the inferior status of women. The main reason is the gender-biased interpretation of the Qur’anic text by men of religion. When her first book was published, men of religion announced their stand against Zin al-Din and started distributing pamphlets against her; they incited demonstrations against the book and threatened the owners of bookshops who carried it. They accused her of atheism and treason. Her answers were sober, based on logic and clear evidence.

Nazira Zin al-Din made a thorough study of the Qur’anic texts and hadith concerning women, their rights, and their duties. Her two books, al-Sufur wa’l-hijab[14] and al-Fatat wa’l-shiukh, are perhaps the best scholarly studies available of Islamic texts and their interpretations dealing with women. Both are controversial, but the first is more so because it touches on the most sensitive issue in contemporary Islam, namely hijab.

In the introduction to al-Sufur wa’l-hijab, Nazira Zin al-Din writes that although she had always been interested in women’s rights, what prompted her to write this book were the incidents in Damascus in the summer of 1927, in which Muslim women were deprived of their freedom and prevented from going out without hijab. ‘I took my pen trying to give vent to the pain I feel in a brief lecture,’ Zin al-Din says, ‘but could not stop writing and my pen had to follow in the trace of my injured self until the lecture became lectures too long to be delivered or attended.’ In this book, Zin al-Din starts from the premise that she is a Muslim woman who believes in God, in his Prophet Muhammad, and in the holy Qur’an, and that all her arguments are informed by those beliefs.

According to Zin al-Din, the Islamic shari’a is not what this or that Muslim scholar says, but what is in the Qur’an and in the hadith. She argues that men have drawn up laws without the slightest participation by women. Yet even major interpreters of Islam such as Baydawi, al- Nusufi, and Tabari did not agree on the meaning of the Qur’anic text in such matters as geography, history, and astronomy, or, for that matter, on rituals and appropriate behavior, one should, therefore, go back to the Qur’an and the sunna to attain knowledge on all religious matters. She writes:

“When I started preparing my defence of women, I studied the works of interpreters and legislators but found no consensus among them on any subject; rather, every time I came across an opinion, I found other opinions that were different or even contradictory. As for the aya(s) concerning hijab, I found over 10 interpretations, none of them in harmony or even agreement with the others as if each scholar wanted to support what he saw and none of the interpretations was based on clear evidence.”[15]

Zin al-Din argues that Islam is based on freedom of thought, will, speech, and action, and that no Muslim has authority over another Muslim in matters of religion, mind, and will. She cites many verses from the Qur’an to show that God did not want even his Prophet to watch over the deeds or misdeeds of Muslims: ‘He who obeys the Apostle, obeys God; but if any turn away, We have not sent thee To watch Over their evil deeds’ (Sura al-Nisa’, Aya 80). God also said, addressing his Apostle: ‘If it had been God’s Plan, they would not have taken false gods: but We Made thee not one to watch over their doings, Nor art thou set Over them to dispose of their affairs’ (Sura al-An’am, Aya 107). And then in another sura: ‘Therefore do thou give Admonition, for thou art One to admonish. Thou art not one To manage (men’s) affairs’ (Sura al-Gashiya, Aya 21-22). Zin al-Din then argues that if God did not allow the Prophet Muhammad to watch over people’s deeds, how do other Muslims assume for themselves such a privilege? Through well-chosen and well-placed quotations from the Qur’an and hadith, Zin al-Din establishes that Islam is the religion of freedom and that Muslims are only accountable to their God. The claims of some Islamists to be the custodians of Islamic practices are therefore against the very spirit of Islam. The Prophet was also instructed to ‘Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom And beautiful preaching; And argue with them In ways that are best And most gracious: For thy Lord knoweth best, Who have strayed from His Path’ (Sura al- Nahl, Aya 125). God also said: ‘And dispute ye not With the People of the Book, Except with means better (Then mere disputation), unless It be with those of them Who inflict wrong (and injury): But say, ‘We believe In the Revelation which has come down to us and in that Which came down to you’ (Sura al-Ankabut, Aya 46).

Through these citations and many similar ones, Zin al-Din argues that the question of belief or non-belief and the question of carrying out the instructions of Islam are matters between God and the individual. Not one on earth, not even God’s apostle, is responsible for those who believe or those who do not, and no measures should be taken against those who refuse to be Muslims. Any logical arguments should be used, and used kindly; true belief should stem from the heart and generate a feeling of satisfaction and inner peace, for ‘If it had been thy Lord’s Will, They would all have believed, All who are on earth. Wilt thou then compel mankind Against their will, to believe!’ (Sura Yunus, Aya 99). In an aya that bears no possible other interpretation, God says ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error’ (Sura al- Baqara, Aya 256). In citing these and many other similar ayas from the Qur’an, Zin al-Din establishes that Muslims are responsible only to their God and that no authority on earth has the right to be God’s representative, especially as God’s Apostle was not allowed to watch over the deeds of Muslims. She convincingly argues that this is a lesson to all Muslims that no one on earth, not even the Prophet Muhammad, is authorized by God to punish people for their lack of faith, as all Muslims are free in will and thought; it follows, then that Muslim women are free in will and thought. The problem lies with the laws legislated in the name of the Islamic shari’a; laws that are in total contradiction to the spirit of Islam. She complains that the practices of some religious authorities violate Islam and God’s shari’a; ‘It is a great shame that some Muslim local authorities dare to disobey the words of God and impose constraints on the freedom of Muslim women in towns, while non- Muslim women in towns and Muslim women in the countryside enjoy their full freedom.’[16]

There is no basis in the Qur’anic text for the idea that men are better than women. God prefers the most pious regardless of gender: ‘O mankind! We created You from a single (pair) Of a male and female, And made you into Nations and tribes that Ye may know each other (Not that ye may despise Each other). Verily The most honored of you In the sight of God Is (he who is) the most Righteous of you, And God has full knowledge And is well acquainted (With all things)’ (Sura al-Hujurat, Aya 13). God also stated in the Qur’an: ‘O mankind! reverence Your Guardian Lord, Who created you From a single Person, Created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain Scattered (like seeds) Countless men and women’ (Sura al-Nisa’, Aya 1). Again it is stated in the Qur’an ‘It is He Who hath Produced you From a single person’ (Sura al-An’am, Aya 98).

Zin al-Din attributes the idea that men are superior to women to the state of servitude to which women have been reduced throughout the ages. She draws a parallel with slavery: ‘That was the case of each nation reduced into slavery and of each people deprived of their freedom. No one slave ever excelled before gaining his freedom because the injustice imposed on him exhausts the powers of his mind and prevents its effects from emerging.’[17] Women’s inferior social status has nothing to do with their mind or religion. Was the inequality that prevailed between the serf and the master the result of the former’s shortcomings? There is not a single aya that grants men a degree over women in either mind or religion: ‘If any one do deeds Of righteousness, Be the Male for Female And have faith, They will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice Will be done to them’ (Sura al-Nisa’, Aya 124).

Zin al-Din’s advocacy against the veil does not aim at depriving women of their status as mothers, nor does she wish to lower their status to that of mere imitators of men. Her advocacy is prompted by her belief that knowledge rather than ignorance preserves women’s dignity and morality.[18] She cites Muslim scholars, including Shaykh Muhammad Abduh, Shaykh Badr al-Din al-Na’sani, Shaykh Yusuf al-Faqih, Shaykh Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhyi’ Din al-Arabi and Shaykh Mustafa al- Ghalayini, who decried the distortion of the hadith and insisted that Islam does not accept judgement without evidence and clear proof. Those authorities insisted that we only follow what God Himself has stated in the Qur’anic text and what his Apostle has explained.[19]

Zin al-Din divides her evidence against hijab into two parts: intellectual and religious. She first cites intellectual and historical arguments contending that hijab encourages immorality rather than morality and decent behaviour. Masking identity is an obvious incentive for wrongdoing: ‘Can’t men see that thieves and murderers mask their true identities in order to have the nerve to commit crimes?’[20] She explains that ‘fear of social disgrace is one of the strongest imperatives that restrain people from wrongdoing. Why do men deny women this important imperative?’[21] She goes on to ask, ‘How could serfdom be an incentive to morality? Only if darkness could be the source of light and death the cause of life and annihilation the reason for existence!’ Zin al- Din stipulates that the morality of the self and the cleanness of the conscience are far better than the morality of the chador. No goodness is to be hoped from pretence; all goodness is in the essence of the self.

Zin al-Din also argues that imposing the veil on women is the ultimate proof that men suspect their mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of being potential traitors to them. This means that men suspect ‘the women closest and dearest to them. What quality of life do they live if they are in a perpetual state of suspicion about their mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, fearing all the time their betrayal?’[22] How can society trust women with the most consequential job of bringing up children when it does not trust them with their faces and bodies? How can Muslim men meet rural and European women who are not veiled and treat them respectfully but not treat urban Muslim women in the same way? She concludes this part of the book by stating that it is not an Islamic duty on Muslim women to wear hijab. If Muslim legislators have decided that it is, their opinions are wrong. If hijab is based on women’s lack of intellect or piety, can it be said that all men are more perfect in piety and intellect than all women?

Zin al-Din then wonders how some people can consider hijab and the total withdrawal of women from public life a sign of their honor and dignity. An honorable woman is someone who does useful things for both herself and for others. If all women are locked behind walls or behind hijab, how can we distinguish one from the other? The spirit of a nation and its civilization is a reflection of the spirit of the mother. How can any mother bring up distinguished children if she herself is deprived of her personal freedom? She concludes that in enforcing hijab, society becomes a prisoner of its customs and traditions rather than of Islam.

In the second part of the book, Zin al-Din sets out to prove that neither the text of the Qur’an nor the hadith require Muslim women to wear hijab. The ayas in the Qur’an concerning hijab are four, two of them addressed to the wives of the Prophet and two to Muslim women in general. She cites each of the two groups of ayas, discusses all the explanations stated in interpretive texts, cites the ayas against these interpretations, and finally reaches her own conclusions. The first two ayas about the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (32 and 53) of Sura al- Ahzab read as follows:

“O consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any Of the (other) women: If ye do fear (God), Be not too complaisant Of speech, lest one In whose heart is A disease should be moved With desire: but speak ye A speech (that is) just. And stay quietly in Your houses, and make not A dazzling display, like That of the former Times Of Ignorance; and establish Regular Prayer, and give Regular Charity; and obey God and His Apostle. And God only wishes To remove all abomination From you, Members Of the Family, and to make You Pure and spotless. And recite what is Rehearsed to you in your Homes, of the Signs of God And His Wisdom; for God understands The finest mysteries and Is well-acquainted (with them).” (Ayas 32-4, of Sura al-Ahzab).

The second aya concerning the wives of the Prophet (53) says:

“Ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses, Until leave is given you, For a meal, (and then) Not (so early as) to wait For its preparation; but when Ye are invited, enter; And when ye have taken Your meal, disperse, Without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys The Prophet; he is ashamed To dismiss you, but God is not ashamed (To tell you) the truth. And when ye Ask (his ladies) For anything ye want, Ask them from before A screen; that makes For greater purity for Your hearts and for theirs. Nor is it right for you That ye should annoy God’s Apostle, or that Ye should marry his widows After him at any time. Truly such a thing is In God’s sight an enormity.”

Zin al-Din reviews the mainstream interpretations of these ayas in the best known books of tafsir (the interpretation of the Qur’an), namely al- Tafsir al-mawsum bi-anwar al-tanzil wa asrar al-ta’wil (The Interpretation Characterized By the Lights of Inspiration and the Secrets of Understanding) by the judge Baydawi, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-jalil (The Interpretation of the Glorious Qur’an) by Imam Ala al-Din al-Sufi known as al-Khazin; Madarik al-tanzil wa haqa’iq alta’wil (Domains of the Text and Truths of Interpretation) by Imam Abdullah al-Nafasi, which is a comment on al-Khazin’s interpretation, and Mujama’al-bayan fi tafsir al- Qur’an (The Cluster of Evidence in Interpreting the Qur’an) by Imam al-Tabari. They all agree that these ayas are addressed to the wives of the Prophet and not to other Muslim women, although they differ on the reasons that caused these ayas to be sent by God to his Prophet. Al-Nasafi adds that when these ayas were addressed to the wives of the Prophet, other Muslim women asked why were they not addressed by God? After that the aya ‘Muslim men and Muslim women, etc.’ was conveyed to the Prophet. Challenging those Muslim interpreters who claim that these ayas call on the wives of the Prophet or all Muslim women to stay at home and inactive, Zin al-Din draws upon many examples of women active in all walks of life during the time of the Prophet and his caliphs. In The Status of Woman in Islam by Prince Ali Khal and in The Rights of Women in Islam by Ahamd Agayeeve, it is stated that Fatima al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, gave lessons and lectures to both men and women and that Shaykha Shanda (5th/11th), known as the Pride of Women, gave lectures and lessons in the schools and mosques of Baghdad in literature, history, fiqh and religion. Imam Shafi’i learned at the hands of Nafisi, who was the grand-daughter of Ali Bin Abi Talib and wife of Ishaq, son of Jafar al-Sadiq. Qatar al-Nada, wife of the caliph al-Mu’tad and mother of al-Muqtadir, met in the presence of ministers the ambassadors of foreign countries and reviewed people’s cases every Friday with judges and advisors in her audience. In brief, Muslim women remained in mixed company with men until the late sixth century IE (eleventh century CE). They received guests, held meetings, and went to wars helping their brothers and husbands defend their castles and bastions.[23]

The other two ayas that are usually taken to justify the imposition of hijab on Muslim women are Aya 30 from Sura al-nur and Aya 59 from Sura al-ahzab. The first aya reads:

“Say to the believing men That they should lower Their gaze and guard Their modesty: that will make For greater purity for them: And God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to 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 except to their husbands, their fathers, Their Husband’s fathers, their sons, Their husband’s sons, Their brothers or their brothers’ sons, Or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves Whom their right hands Possess, or male servants Free of physical needs, Or small children who Have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they Should not strike their feet In order to draw attention To their hidden ornaments.”

Aya 59 from Sura al-Ahzab reads: ‘Prophet! Tell Thy wives and daughters, And the believing women, That they should cast Their outer garments over their persons (when outside): That is most convenient, That they should be known (As such) and not molested.’

Zin al-Din reviews the interpretations of these two ayas by al-Khazin, al-Nasafi, Ibn Masud, Ibn Abbas and al-Tabari and find them full of contradictions. Yet, almost all interpreters agreed that women should not veil their faces and their hands and anyone who advocated that women should cover all their bodies including their faces could not base his argument on any religious text. If women were to be totally covered, there would have been no need for the ayas addressed to Muslim men:

 ‘Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty.’ (Sura al-Nur, Aya 30). She supports her views by referring to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, always taking into account what the Prophet himself said, namely, that everything has to be referred back to the book of God and anything that is inconsistent with it is an ornament. ‘I did not say a thing that is not in harmony with God’s book.’[24] When ordering the wives of the Prophet to wear hijab for special reasons relating to the house of the Prophet, God, as if He feared that Muslim women might imitate the wives of the Prophet, stressed: ‘O consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women’ (Ahzab, 53). Thus it is very clear that God did not want us to measure ourselves against the wives of the Prophet and wear hijab like them and there is no ambiguity whatsoever regarding this aya. Therefore, those who imitate the wives of the Prophet and wear hijab are disobeying God’s will. In Islam ruh al-madaniyya (Islam: The Spirit of Civilization) Shaykh Mustafa Ghalayini reminds his readers that veiling pre-dated Islam and that Muslims learned from other peoples with whom they mixed. He adds that, ‘hijab as it is known today is prohibited by the Islamic shari’a. Any one who looks at hijab as it is worn by some women would find that it makes them more desirable than if they went out without hijab.’[25] A similar argument is produced by Zin al-Din based on interviews she conducted with women before and after wearing hijab.

Zin al-Din points out that Islam is not confined to a few urban Muslim women or to some known families in rural societies. Veiling was a custom of rich families as a symbol of status. She quotes Shaykh Abdul Qadir al- Maghribi who also saw in hijab an aristocratic habit to distinguish the women of the rich and prestigious families from other women. She concludes that hijab as it is known today is prohibited by the Islamic shari’a.[26]

In the fourth part of the book Zin al-Din discusses the answers, objections, and reactions that she received from such important Muslim authorities as Shaykh Sa’id al-Baghdadi, Shaykh Muhammad Ibrahim al- Qayati al-Azhari from the school of Azhar University in Cairo, Shaykh Muhammad Rahim al-Tarabulsi and Shaykh Mustafa al-Ghalayini. It appears that the heated arguments that followed the publication of her first book only made her stronger in her defence of women’s rights. She dedicated her first book to her father, her second book to all women: ‘Because you have the spirit of the mother and because I believe that reform in the East is built on the basis of freedom and your struggle for what is right. May you have an overflow of God’s light.’

Nazira Zin al-Din had her supporters. Writer Amin al-Rihani, head of the Syrian government Taj al-Din al-Husni, and Education Minister Muhammad Kurd Ali [27]sent her letters of support. The French Consul in Beirut wrote to her that he ordered parts of her book to be translated so that he could study it. She was the talk of Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Aleppo, and Baghdad. The Lebanese emigrants in Argentina, the United States, and Brazil sent her letters and wrote in their local newspapers in her support. The book was reviewed in major journals and newspapers in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, New York, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Baghdad, Aleppo and she received letters from men of religion, heads of state and governments, and from editors and publishers all over the world.

At least three Muslim scholars agreed with Zin al-Din’s arguments and raised similar concerns about the necessity of sifting Islamic legislation from rumors and falsifications which later became part of Islamic practices. Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali in his book Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith[28] argues that women can assume any post they are qualified to assume except that of the caliph and this, he insists, is the rule of true Islam. He declares that those who claim that women’s reform is conditioned by wearing the veil are lying to God and his Prophet. None of the four Imams has said that seeing a woman’s face is an offence. In total harmony with Zin al-Din’s arguments Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali expresses the opinion that the contemptuous view of women has been passed on from the first jahiliya (the Pre-Islamic period) to the Islamic society. He uses the same argument, citing the same aya as cited by Mustafa Ghalayini[29] in order to prove that Muslim women do not have to cover their faces and hands. Al-Ghazali’s argument is that Islam has made it compulsory on women not to cover their faces during haj and salat (prayer) the two important pillars of Islam. How then could Islam ask women to cover their faces at ordinary times?[30] Through his detailed study of the time of the Prophet Muhammad he reaches the conclusion that it was a time when sufur was prevalent.[31] He stresses that ‘looking down at women is a crime in Islam, and that true Islam rejects the customs of nations which impose constraints on women or belittle their rights and duties.’ [32] Hence, according to al-Ghazali, our customs and habits should be scrutinized in order to leave only what is closely connected with the Islamic shari’a and our adherence to these rules should be in proportion to their harmony with the Qur’anic text.

Like Zin al-Din, al-Ghazali is a believer and is confident that all traditions that function to keep women ignorant and prevent them from functioning in public are the remnants of jahiliya and that following them is contrary to the spirit of Islam. God said in the Glorious Qur’an: ‘The Believers, men and women, are protectors, One of another; they enjoin What is just, and forbid What is evil: they observe Regular prayers, practice Regular charity, and obey God and His Apostle. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is exalted in power, Wise.’ (Sura Tauba, Aya 71) Like Zin al-Din, Shaykh Ghazali insists on a basic Muslim right to compare different interpretations and different versions of Islamic sayings and to choose the more reasonable and the more useful to follow. The easier to adopt for Islam is the religion of yusur (flexibility) and not of usur (intransigence). As a Muslim scholar, he rejected the undermining of women’s will in marriage and was not against her initiating marriage if her situation required it. Efficient and knowledgeable women should be able to assume any post they like except that of the caliph. Women can consult and give their opinion and the weight of their opinion is in proportion to its validity and correctness. He says ‘we don’t yearn to make women heads of state or government, but we yearn for one thing, a head of state or government should be the most efficient person in the nation.’[33]Commenting on all these wrong attitudes to women al-Ghazali says that during the time of the Prophet women were equals at home, in the mosques and on the battlefield. Today true Islam is being destroyed in the name of Islam.

Another Muslim scholar, Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa, who wrote a scholarly study of women in Islam entitled Tahrir al-mara’a fi’asr al-risalah (The Emancipation of Women during the Time of the Prophet)[34]agrees with Zin al-Din and al-Ghazali about the discrepancy between the status of women during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the status of women today. He says:

“Through my study of the time of the Prophet I found texts and sayings of the Prophet which show women acting in all kinds of professions in total difference to what we see, understand and interpret today. This great discrepancy explained to me why so many women got away from (Islam) because it simply deprived them of the rights of life; that is why I felt it my duty to offer the women from the habits and rules of jahiliyya which are mistakenly thought to be Islamic.”[35]

He agreed with Zin al-Din and al-Ghazali that Islamists have made up sayings which they attributed to the Prophet such as ‘women are lacking in both intellect and religion’ and in many cases they brought sayings which are not reliable at all and promoted them among Muslims until they became part of the Islamic culture.

Like Zin al-Din and al-Ghazali, Abu Shiqa finds that in many countries very weak and unreliable sayings are invented to support customs and traditions which are then considered to be part of the shari’a. Like Zin al- Din, he argues that the text of the Qur’an proves that both men and women are from the same self and quotes the same aya that Zin al-Din quotes: ‘O mankind! reverence Your Guardian Lord, Who created you From a single Person, Created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain Scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; Reverence God, through Whom Ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for God Ever watches over you.’ (Sura Nisa’, Aya 1) He Argues that it is the Islamic duty of women to participate in public life and in spreading good: ‘The Believers, men and women, are protectors, One of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil.’ (Sura Tauba, Aya 71) It is the same aya quoted by Immam Muhammad al-Ghazali to prove the same point.

As for those who prevent women from going to work, Abu Shiqa answers: ‘if women are prevented from going out to work, what is the meaning of the following aya: ‘Do not desire what God had granted to others; For men a share of what they earn and for women a share of what they earn’ (Sura Nisa’ Aya 32). He also agrees with Zin al-Din and Ghazali that hijab was for the wives of the Prophet and that it was against Islam for women to imitate the wives of the Prophet. If women were to be totally covered, why did God ask both men and women to lower their gaze. (Sura al-Nur, Aya(s); 30-1) In most of his arguments he cites the same verses cited by Zin al-Din and shows a similar understanding of them. There is no difference at all between Zin al-Din, al-Ghazali and Dr Abdol Halim Abu Shiqa.

Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah, in his book Ta’amulat Islamiyya hawl al-mara’ (Islamic Speculations About Women),[36] also agrees with these three Muslim scholars on most issues concerning women’s hijab, freedom, work and political responsibilities. He stresses that Islam sees men and women as one in humanity and responsibility.[37] Islam neither absolves women from their responsibilities nor does it undermine their femininity. Quite the contrary: Islam stresses that women should feel and enjoy their beauty but without any display or attempts to provoke desire. This is precisely the understanding of Zin al-Din an dal-Ghazali of Aya 59 of Sura al-ahzab that is taken by some Muslim scholars to mean the imposition of hijab on all Muslim women. It is almost certain that a comparative study of the works of these four Muslim scholars would yield fruitful results. It was Muhammad al-Ghazali who wrote an introduction to Abu Shiqa’s book, Tahrir al-mara’ fi ‘asr al-risalah. In this introduction, al-Ghazali says: ‘I wish this book had appeared centuries ago and exposed women’s issues in Islamic society in such a mature way. Because Muslims have deviated from the instructions of their religion in dealing with women, dark rumors and fabricated hadith spread among them leaving Muslim women deep in ignorance, quite removed from religion and life ... This book takes Muslims back to the correct sunna of their prophet with no minus or plus.’[38]

While the views of the three Muslim men writing over half a century after Zin al-Din are given some space in Arabic papers and journals, Zin al-Din has not been referred to either by them or even by a woman scholar like Fatima Mernissi who addresses the same subject.[39] One wonders what would have happened to Zin al-Din had she published her books in the 1990s instead of the 1920s? Would she find any shaykh to answer her arguments or would she be silenced in one way or another? One cannot help drawing comparisons with Taslima Nasrin, whose statements on Islam are not yet properly quoted, nor is it precisely known what she actually said. Yet some Islamists have called on Muslims to kill her. There is no aya in the Qur’an that allows any Muslim, not even the Prophet Muhammad himself, to subscribe to killing another person simply because he or she has expressed views that contradict the view of a certain Muslim scholar, school, or group. I can only agree with what Lisa Beyer wrote in her article ‘Life Behind the Veil’: ‘If the wives of Muhammad lived in parts of the contemporary Islamic world, they might be paying a high price for their independence’.[40]

Reprinted with permission from:
Mahnaz Afkhami (Editor). Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd) 1995, pp. 61-77.

I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
45 Bloomsbury Square
London WCIA 2HY, U.K.


[1] Qadariyya Husayn, Shahirat al-nisa’ fi’l-’alam al-Islamiyya (Famous Women in the Muslim World). Translated form Turkish by Abdol Aziz Amin al-Khanji (Cairo: Matba’at al’Sa’adeh, 1924), p.33.

[2] Muhammad Shahrur, al-Kitab wa’l-Qur’an (The Book and the Qur’an) (Damascus: al-Ahali publishers, 1992), p 594.

[3] Husayn, op. cit., p. 74.

[4] Abdol Sir Afifi, al-Mara’a al-arabiyya fi jahiliyatiha wa Islamiha (Arab Woman in her Jahiliya and Islam), (Cairo: Matba’at al-Ma’arif, 1933), p. 138.

[5] Ibid., p. 139.

[6] Ibid., p. 142.

[7] Fatima al-Batoul Mersa, ‘Muslim Women in Arab History,’ al-Ahram, Cairo, 15 April 1989, P 5.

[8] Hussein, op. cit., p. 179.

[9] Ibid., pp. 179-180.

[10] See Afifi, op. cit., part two, p. 147.

[11] Ibid., pp. 147-149.

[12] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[13] al-Fatat wa’l-shiukh, printed by Nazira Zin al-Din’s father Sa’id Bik Sin al-Din (Beirut 1929), p. 75.

[14] Nazira Zin al-Din, al-Sufur wa’l-hijab (Beirut: Quzma Publications, 1928), p. 37.

[15] Ibid., p. 37.

[16] Ibid., p. 21.

[17] Ibid., p. 69.

[18] Ibid., p. 27.

[19] See ibid., pp. 42-48.

[20] Ibid., p. 125.

[21] Ibid., p. 125.

[22] Ibid., p. 135.

[23] See ibid., pp. 191-192.

[24] Ibid., p. 226.

[25] Shayk Mustafa al-Ghalayini, Islam ruh al-madaniyya (Islam: The Spirit of Civilization) (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Asriyya, 1960), p. 253.

[26] Ibid., pp. 255-256.

[27] Zin al-Din, al-Fatat wa’l-shiukh, op. cit., part 3, pp. w-6.

[28] Shayk Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, 7th edition, 1990).

[29] Ghalayini, op. cit., p. 254.

[30] al-Ghazali, op. cit., p. 44.

[31] Ibid., p. 49.

[32] Ibid., p. 52.

[33] Ibid., p. 56.

[34] Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa, Tahrir al-mar’ fi ‘asr al-risalah (Kuwait: Dar al-Qalam, 1990).

[35] Ibid., p. 5.

[36] Shayk Muhammad Husayn Dadl Allah, Ta’amulat Islamiyya hawl al mara’ (Beirut: Dar al-Milak, 1992).

[37] Ibid., p. 25.

[38] Abu Shiqa, op. cit., p. 5.

[39] al-Harim al-siyassi; al Nabi wa’l-nisa’ (Political Harim; The Prophet and Women) Translated by Abd al-Hadi Abbas (Damascus: Dar al-Hasad, 1990).

[40]Time, Fall 1990, p. 37.