Stepping up: Approaching controversial Islamic issues

By Iman Amin

A few weeks ago in my fiqh class a fellow student posed a series of questions to my teacher on the topic of slavery in Islam, and more specifically, the topic of having intimate relations with your slave girl. So my teacher proceeded to answer his question, followed by the teacher from next class who overheard. I watched in admiration as both teachers took their time to answer with the best of their abilities, seeing how they carefully worded their answers and instead of dodging the controversial parts, attempted to give the most comprehendible yet uncompromising answers for a layman in the 21st century. And no, I’m not going to share their answers as this isn’t the point of this article, but rather I want to share some advice my teacher gave us shortly after.

We’re all aware our Deen is being attacked on all four sides, its being intellectually challenged. Some of the topics that people often have an issue with are slavery (as mentioned before), polygamy, inheritance, rights of divorce, the age of Aisha RA and the list goes on. And when these ‘issues’ are brought to surface, there’s a common theme – women’s rights. Many accusations are thrown at us and it is incumbent upon us that we clarify the matter for people and defend the Deen rather than tippy toeing out of the situation. However these topics are vast, and for any sincere person who wants to fully understand, you must rely on someone of knowledge to help. For those who have/are studying fiqh, you know the lengths our past scholars went to in order to understand a matter, with its rulings, exceptions, and context all fully taken into account. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal spent a whole nine years just studying the fiqh of menstruation.

But unfortunately as my teacher pointed out, the amount of female scholars/people of knowledge we have now compared to males, is extremely low. And so it’s often left to our learned brothers to stand at the front line, and address allegations being made, clarify, and counter them. However in the current context of today, whether the enquirer is being sincere or not, people ‘living in the wake of liberal tradition’ as my teacher says, have their own yardstick for determining right from wrong, their own preconceived notions, and their own conditions for determining who can answer their questions. Another condition that has been taken on today is that men cannot speak on women’s issues (for more discussion on this see: “Can Men Talk About Hijab?”), and so any male gets dismissed from the get go. Regardless of whether we subscribe to that condition, as sisters, I sincerely believe we should not be content with having to rely on others to defend our rights, but rather we should seek knowledge and equip ourselves to defend them too.

The exasperation with Islamic ways for showing no consistent tendency to fade out, combined with the ancient aversion to Islam – it predates the modern European languages in which it is expressed – is the principle reason for the virulence of some feminist critique of it. Muslims, understandably want their religion defended from that.

…the aim of undoing injustices suffered by women (wherever they are suffered) is acceptable to Muslims. But it is entangled in the theoretical underpinning of the feminist critique, which is not acceptable but which nevertheless invades Muslim minds”- Sh Akram Nadwi in his book Al Muhaddithaat

Claims of patriarchy being in the Qur’an and part of the Islamic tradition must be countered, and as sisters, we must step up. But in order to do so, we must learn and study our deen so that we know its boundaries. That being said, it should not be our main objective to ‘get into debates’, but to our sisters who are seeking knowledge, and know that our yardstick in life is what Allah and His Messenger saw says, I sincerely think there is almost a responsibility on us to go the extra mile for the sake of those who genuinely have doubts and to firmly address those who attack our Deen with claims of patriarchy. The reality is, many Muslims do not know how to properly counter criticisms and accusations thrown at us because we lack having basic knowledge of our religion, and these doubts can manifest into bigger problems if they’re not addressed. However we know our reality as females living in the 21st century and the problems we face, and we also know that this Deen elevates and honours us greatly. Having the above two means we are able walk the bridge from Islamic discourse to feminist discourse and clarify misunderstandings in an empathetic and uncompromising way.

We are all aware the Prophet (saw) said “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.” (Sunan Ibn Majah 224), however as sisters, the path can be very difficult and often disheartening. Responsibilities at home, lack of facilities and classes available for you to attend, being discouraged by family members, having children, they all add up and can hold you down from treading on the path to seek knowledge. But I want to remind you all of a hadith where the Prophet (saw) says

He who follows a path in quest of knowledge, Allah will make the path of Jannah easy to him. The angels lower their wings over the seeker of knowledge, being pleased with what he does. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and even the fish in the depth of the oceans seek forgiveness for him. The superiority of the learned man over the devout worshipper is like that of the full moon to the rest of the stars (i.e., in brightness). The learned are the heirs of the Prophets who bequeath neither dinar nor dirham but only that of knowledge; and he who acquires it, has in fact acquired an abundant portion.” [Abu Dawud and At- Tirmidhi]

We should aim high and not do ourselves an injustice by setting limits and expecting failures before we’ve even tied our shoelaces. Instead of looking down to see our hands full, look up to the achievements of our female scholars, and aim for the best.

Maryam bint ‘Abdul-Qadir, a classical scholar and scribe of the books of hadith said in a book she wrote: “I hope those who might find a mistake in the book which I might have made unintentionally forgive me since I was writing with my right hand while rocking my baby’s cradle with the left.”

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