Friday, January 23, 2015

Outspoken: The Power of a Woman's Voice

“Muslim women should be seen, not heard” is a belief that – if not spoken outright – is implicitly understood and reinforced constantly. “A woman’s voice is ‘awrah” is another catchphrase that is floated around commonly, and used to shame Muslim women who take a stand for themselves in any way. “Women who speak are fitnah!”

If anything, one common trait amongst all the wives of RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) - besides being of those who were guaranteed Jannah - was that, in their own way, they were incredibly strong women who were never afraid to stand up for themselves or to speak out.

Juwayriyyah bint al-Haarith was the daughter of an Arab chieftain - making her, in essence, a princess of sorts. When her father's tribe waged war against the Muslims and were defeated, they captured prisoners and spoils of war as was customary at the time. Amongst the prisoners was Juwayriyyah, who was the prisoner of Thaabit ibn Qays.
Despite the fact that Juwayriyyah's husband had just been killed in battle, rendering her a widow, and her own captivity, she was nonetheless both courageous and intelligent. She immediately began to arrange her own ransom, reaching an agreement with Thaabit that she would ransom herself for nine measures of silver.

She also arranged it so that she was given a meeting with RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam). With her head held high, her dignity undiminished by her circumstances, she addressed him with an eloquent and powerful speech.

"O Messenger of Allah! I am Juwayriyyah, the daughter of al-Haarith, the leader of his people. You are not unaware of what has befallen me. I am a captive of Thaabit ibn Qays, and I have bargained with him to ransom myself for nine measures of silver - so help me to free myself!"

In these brief words, Juwayriyyah established herself as a woman of intelligence, dignity, and of faith. Her very first words made it clear that she had accepted Islam - why else would she refer to him (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) as the Messenger of Allah? - and called attention to her situation by emphasizing her former position as the daughter of a leader, and her current position as a prisoner.
She made it known that she was not going to remain helpless and idle and allow herself to remain a prisoner, ensuring that everyone present was aware of the fact that she had taken pro-active measures, but also called upon RasulAllah's sense of honour, compassion, and generosity to assist her.

And indeed, this small speech was all it took to guarantee freedom not only for herself, but for her entire tribe.
RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) was so impressed by her that he immediately told her, "Would you like something better than that?"
Quick witted as ever, Juwayriyyah didn't simply accept, but rather asked, "What is it?"
RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said, "I will pay your ransom and marry you as well."
Her answer was swift. "Yes, O Messenger of Allah!"

And with that, she was included amongst the ranks of the Mothers of the Believers. Not only that, but due to her acceptance of Islam and her position as the wife of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), she secured the freedom of her entire tribe… as well as their Islam. The power of her words, of her voice, was clear.

Unfortunately, it’s common today in many Muslim cultures and communities to find that women who speak up, whether in defense of themselves or for a specific cause, are penalized for voicing themselves. Their modesty, their piety, and even their personal lives are often targeted, sometimes with crude insinuations made. It is appalling that these accusations are thrown around at women who are doing little more than following in the footsteps of the heroines of Islam – the wives and daughters of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), his female Companions, and the great women scholars of the Tabi’een.

In a time when the Muslim Ummah is besieged on numerous fronts – militarily, economically, socially – the example of Juwayriyyah (radhiAllahu 'anha) is one to be told to every Muslim man and woman, reminding us that no matter what situations we find ourselves in, Allah helps those who helps themselves. In Juwayriyyah's case, it was her pro-activeness, her quick mind, and her courage that changed her from not only prisoner to princess, but into a woman of Jannah. By modeling ourselves on Juwayriyyah, we will discover that one of the greatest tools for changing our less-than-ideal circumstances is complete trust in Allah, and never backing down from the numerous obstacles that will inevitably be in our paths.

{Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.}
(Qur’an 13:11)

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Handsome Men, Women's Desire, & Umar ibn al-Khattab

There is a famous story set during the time of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s khalifate regarding the man who was ‘too handsome for Medinah.’ The story is as follows:

As was his wont, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab patrolled the streets of Medinah at night, observing the state of his community at its most relaxed and vulnerable. Passing by a house, he heard the voice of a young woman raised in longing as she recited a couplet.

هل من سبيل إلى الخمر فأشربها؟
أو هل من سبيل إلى نصر بن الحجاج

“Is there no way for me to receive wine that I may drink it? Or is there no way for me to be with Nasr ibn Hajjaj?”

Alarmed by the desperation and longing in her voice, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab knew that he had to do something. The next day, he summoned the man known as Nasr ibn Hajjaj – and discovered that he was one of the most handsome men of Medinah.

Hoping to diminish the effect that this young man obviously had on the women of Medinah, Umar commanded that Nasr’s hair should be cut from the front - only to realize with dismay that the man’s beauty only increased.

Next, Umar told Nasr to wear a turban and cover his hair completely – with the same result. Exasperated, Umar finally demanded that Nasr’s hair be shaved off entirely. Unfortunately, Nasr’s handsomeness simply became even more obvious.

In response to Umar’s actions, Nasr composed the following poetry:

لظـن ابـن خطـاب ٍعلـي ّ بجُمـة ٍالى رُجّلت تهتـز هـز السلاسـل ِ
فصـلّـع رأســا ً لــم يصلّـعـه ربّــهيـرف رفيفـا ً بـعـد أســود جـائـل ِ
لقد حسد القرعان اصلع ُ لم يكناذا مـا مـشـى بالـفـرع مُتخـايـل ُ

"Umar could not see my curls,
My hair which when combed waved like a chain;
He made that head bald where once there was profuse hair;
He who was bald headed felt jealous of him who had hair,
As he could not be proud of his hair, he deprived me of his hair."

News of ‘Umar’s actions spread, and the young woman who had first recited the fateful couplet that had begun this entire saga shared her own feelings on the subject.

حلـقوا رأســه ليـــكـسـب قــبـحاً
غيرة مـــنـهــــم عـليـه وشـحـــا
كـان صـبـحـا عـلـيـه لـيـل بـهـيـم
فمحــوا لـيـلـه وأبـقــوه صـبـحـــا

"They shaved his head so that he may become ugly, jealousy from them of him and a stinginess,
The morning on him was like a dark night, then they erased his night and left him as morning. "

‘Umar was further vexed by how dramatic the situation had become. “Ya Ibn Hajjaj!” he exclaimed. “You’ve charmed the women of Medinah! By the One in Whose Hands is my soul, I do not want you as a neighbor in any town I live in.”

So saying, ‘Umar ordered Nasr to be exiled to the city of Basra (in Iraq), which was a military town. A few days later, Nasr sent ‘Umar a letter, pleading his innocence and asking to be allowed back to Madinah. Nasr’s mother went to ‘Umar, begging him to allow her son to return.
“Your sons are with you,” she told him. “But you have exiled mine! This is truly unfair.”
“Your son is a danger to the morals of the women of Medinah!” ‘Umar retorted. “As long as I live, I will not allow him to return and create temptation with his looks.”

While this story is usually mentioned with an air of jest, or as part of a discussion on the wisdom of ‘Umar’s policies, I want to take a moment to look at this incident through a slightly different lens.
When it comes to female desire, many Muslims react in one of two ways: either they deny it entirely, or they demonize it as a source of evil and ‘fitnah’ for men. A woman’s expression of desire, whether it be verbal or otherwise, is condemned as being something filthy and in need of being immediately silenced.

Yet when we look at this story and the way that ‘Umar (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) reacted to the unnamed woman’s poetry, we see a completely different attitude. ‘Umar did not storm into the woman’s house and command her to be quiet, or to be ashamed of herself, or to rebuke her for daring to give voice to her emotions.

Instead, he recognized her desires as being completely natural, and rather than targeting her for being out of line, went to the source of the fitnah itself: the object of her longing affection.
‘Umar’s concern for the women of Medinah was not tied to labeling them the fitnah or uncontrollable, but to acknowledge their difficult circumstances (it is said that this was a time during which many of the men in Medinah were participating in Jihad elsewhere) and to do what he could to make it easier for them to bear.

Consider this in comparison to the way that Muslim women today are treated when they dare to mention the struggles they experience, whether it be with regards to the temptations of developing emotional relationships with men they interact with regularly at school or at work, or the very real issues of masturbation and porn addictions.

We today need to change the way we look at women and female desire, and instead of viewing them as something strange, impure, or impious, remember the attitude of Ameer al-Mu’mineen ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (radhiAllahu ‘anhu): to understand, to empathize, and to help in a productive manner.

Ibn Sa'd
Ibn Asaakir; Taareekh Dimashq
Ibn Hajr; Al-Isaabah
Umar ibn al-Khattab, Volume 1, by Dr. as-Sallabi)