Monday, January 11, 2016

The Lioness of Ahlul Bayt

Either you carry Islam, or Islam carries you. Those in the former category are those who uphold the honor of this Ummah and are its strength; those in the latter category are like those who are carried in Ṭawâf – weak and unable to do much for themselves. – Dr. Zaid Al-Dakkan

WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK about the role of women in the Muslim Ummah, quite often the same phrases are repeated, “Women are created to be mothers, to raise the next generation of Muslims!” The only contributions required of Muslim women, it seems, are those of a domestic sort.
However, when we look to the history of Islam from its earliest days, when we turn to the life of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and his Companions, male and female, we see something very different. Certainly, women did have a domestic role to play—but they were not limited to that sphere alone.
In the harsh desert climate of ancient Arabia, women were not weak and timid, but strong enough to withstand the prevalent oppression against them, intelligent enough to recognize the perfection of Islam, and strong enough to fight back against the Jâhiliyya that surrounded them.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib was one of those women—an individual who carried Islam forth from the very beginning, who embodied what it meant to be strong and indomitable. She was the paternal aunt of The Prophet œ and though she was younger than him in age, she was very close to both him and her brother Hamza ibn Abd Al-Muṭṭalib. When The Prophet ascended Mount Ṣafa and gave his historic speech to Quraysh, he addressed her directly, beseeching her to heed his call.
Knowing what it meant to defy all of Qurayshi society, to be in opposition to people like Abû Lahab –her own brother– Ṣafiyyah made the decision to accept her nephew’s message of Islam. It was a choice that required not only spiritual conviction, but an understanding of the brutal reality that she would have to face from then on. Without hesitation, she accepted Islam and all that it meant to be a Muslim in an environment of merciless hostility.
Safiyyah was a woman who came from a family that was not only noble in social standing, but full of individuals who were famed for various reasons. Her brother, Abû Lahab, held immense influence over the chieftains of Quraysh; her other brother, Ḥamza, was renowned as a warrior of unparalleled stature, and was given the unique epithet of Asadullâhthe Lion of Allah. When these were her brothers, and her nephew was the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), it was only natural that she, too, be a person of greatness.
She was much like her brother Hamza in temperament: a woman of strength, ferocity, and even harshness. She raised her son Al-Zubair ibn Al-Awwâm to be fearless and able to withstand the most difficult of treatment and circumstances. Her training methods with him were at times extremely harsh: She would push him to his limits and hold him to very high standards. Once, when he came to her complaining of bullying from his peers, she rebuked him and in fact struck him right there in the street. A relative passing by entreated her to treat the young orphan gently, and she retorted: “How else will he become a man of strength and power?”
Thanks to her, Al-Zubair was one of only two people in all of Makkah who were trained to wield a sword in each hand. She would take great pride in having him challenge others to duels, and then winning them. As a young man, he once got into a fight with an older man who insulted him – and injured him badly. The wounded man was brought to Safiyyah, who told him: “When you fight with Al-Zubair, this is what you deserve!”
When Al-Zubair had a son of his own, Abdullâh, Ṣafiyyah also took part in raising him, utilizing many of the methods she had used with Al-Zubair. She was determined to make her grandson as fearless and unbeatable as his father. One example of how she trained Abdullâh was that she would take him out to the desert at night and leave him there, instructing him to find his own way back home. When others expressed their shock at her unconventional methods, she told them: “This is the only way he will learn what it takes to become amongst the greatest of warriors.” Indeed, Abdullâh ibn Al-Zubair grew up to become renowned for his prowess on the battlefield and his mastery of the arts of war.
Ṣafiyyah regularly accompanied The Prophet to his battles. At the Battle of Uḥud, when the Muslim army began to retreat, she seized a spear and began to strike at enemy soldiers viciously. Alarmed, The Prophet told Al-Zubair to bring her back behind the fighting lest she be harmed; Al-Zubair had to physically seize his mother in order to pull her away!
When she heard that her brother Hamza had been killed, Ṣafiyyah insisted on seeing his body. Worried that she would be devastated and traumatized by the sight, The Prophet told Al-Zubair that it was better for her not to see him. Ṣafiyyah told her son to go back. “Why should I leave when my brother has been mutilated and killed for the sake of Allah?” Ignoring the protests of those around her, she strode forward to stand over her brother’s body. Poised even as she looked down at his mangled corpse, she recited Istighfâr (a short prayer for Allah’s forgiveness) and expressed the formal Islamic expression to be said at times of grief and calamity: “Inna lillâhi wa inna ilayhi râji'ûn,” (to Allah we belong and to Him we return.) As a poet, she expressed her sorrow in terms of elegance and eloquence, demonstrating once again that she was no wilting wallflower but rather, a woman of refined self-possession and grace.
During the Battle of the Trench, Ṣafiyyah considered herself the guardian over the other women and children. Though Ḥassân ibn Thâbit remained with them due to his illness, he was unable to do much. When an enemy soldier approached, Safiyyah grabbed a pole and impaled him. “Strip his body of the armour,” she told Ḥassân, who reminded her that he was incapable of moving. Shrugging, she rolled up her sleeves and stripped the body herself, beheading the corpse and tossing it over the fortress walls. Taking charge in the harsh manner required in the moment for her party to gain the upper hand, she unflinchingly accepted the role of a militant combatant who must kill or be killed. As the enemy approached, they all caught sight of the disembodied head and pulled back in fear—they were convinced that a great warrior was guarding the place. In truth, it was Ṣafiyyah alone who stood ready to destroy anyone who dared breach the fortress walls.
At the death of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), she did not allow the confusion of others to influence her. She stood tall in front of the masses and composed an impassioned eulogy that remains recorded even today.
Safiyyah lived to see the khilâfa (caliphate) of Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, and during her lifetime, was respected and consulted by many of the Companions.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib’s indomitable strength and her status as a member of the Prophet’s household easily mark her as a woman without parallel—a lioness of Ahl Al-Bayt. In her, we see the example of a woman whose role in the Ummah was neither shallow nor restricted; we see that women played an active part in the Muslim society at the time of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam). She demonstrates to us that not every Muslim woman is required to fit a narrow, limited mold of what it means to be a female member of the Ummah.
Ṣafiyyah epitomizes what it means to be a woman of power, a force to be reckoned with, who felt no hesitation in engaging with society whenever she felt that she had a role to play. She never backed down and never allowed others to intimidate her—in fact, she felt no qualms in being the one to intimidate others.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib is a reminder to Muslim men and women alike that one should never underestimate—or under-appreciate—the power of a woman.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Passion and Power: The Politics of the Ideal Muslimah

IT IS HUMAN nature to be hyper aware and critical of those in the public eye, and Muslims are no different. Imams, shuyûkh, and other popular figures in the Muslim public sphere are all subject to scrutiny and fascination.
Muslim women who are engaged in the public sphere are even more vulnerable to criticism. Every aspect of their lives – whether it’s their marital status, the color of their hijabs and jilbâbs, how many children they have or (God forbid they get a divorce!) why they weren’t good enough wives to begin with (and how their publicity was probably the reason for it) – is up for discussion by the general masses, who are vicious critics with lots of sanctimonious self-righteousness and very little usn al-ann (benefit of the doubt).
No matter how religious or scholarly, Muslim women who find themselves having a public presence are always expected to fit a very specific mould – one of the ‘ideal Muslimah.’
However, this ‘ideal Muslimah’ is fictional: it was not fully embodied even by the best of women, the wives of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), his female Companions, and the women of the Tâbiîn. We have allowed ourselves to create a false narrative that the women of those times spoke only in a certain way, dressed only in a certain way, and interacted with society at large in a very limited and specific way. We have been led to believe that they were devoid of personality quirks, strong opinions, and personal conflicts with even their husbands; we have been led to believe that they were Madonnas whose piety ensured a lack of normal humanity.
Yet none of this is true. It is true that they were women of taqwa; women of knowledge, wisdom and understanding; women of modesty and chastity; women who were dedicated to the worship of Allah. But they were also women who chose to lead armies into battle; women who not only disagreed with their husbands, but insisted on following their own opinions; women who were passionate and did not allow others to dictate how they would speak or behave.
One such woman was Âishah bint Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydillâh. Her father was the Sahabi Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydullâh, her mother was Umm Kulthûm bint Abi Bakr Al-Siddîq, and her aunt was Umm al-Mu’minîn Âishah bint Abi Bakr.
Âishah bint Ṭalḥa was a muadditha (scholar of Hadith), a faqîha (jurist), a muftiyya (one who issues non-binding legal rulings), and an abida (worshiper) who was considered nearly equal to Âishah bint Abi Bakr, the Prophet’s wife, in piety, knowledge, and intellect.
She was also known to be the most beautiful woman of Madinah, a woman who had three husbands, and who was unmatched in the sheer force of her personality.
She also did not cover her face. Though she observed hijab and covered herself with a khimâr and jilbâb, she left her face bare – and as a result, her beauty became famed both within Madinah and outside of it.
It is narrated that once Aishah got into a fight with her husband Abdullâh ibn Abd Al-Raḥmân ibn Abi Bakr Al-Ṣiddîq and left her home in a state of fury. On her way to Al-Masjid Al-Nabawy, where she was going to visit her aunt ¢Âishah, she came across the Sahabi Abu Hurairah. In shock, he stared at her and exclaimed, “SubânAllah! I’ve just seen one of the Hûr Al-În!” (As for the fight with her husband – Âishah stayed with her aunt for four months before she decided to go back home.)
Anas ibn Mâlik once told her directly, “By Allah, I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you other than Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyân when he is sitting on the minbar of RasûlAllâh!” Her response was one of complete self-assurance. “By Allah, I am more beautiful than a powerful flame seen by a man who is freezing on an icy night!”
Imagine how such a woman would be considered today – a woman who has the audacity to reply with such confidence, who not only acknowledges what others say about her, but emphasizes it. (And forget about a woman who leaves her husband’s home in anger and doesn’t go back until she so chooses!)
One point of note is that Âishah demonstrated that it was apparently not considered harâm for her to leave her husband’s home without his permission; after all, she spent the duration of those four months in the home of Umm Al-Mu’minîn Âishah. If she had committed a sin in doing so, wouldn’t her aunt have rebuked her and sent her back to her husband? The situation was a far cry from what we hear from many people today – that for a woman to even step foot outside of her husband’s home without his permission is wrong; that for a woman to leave her husband’s home out of anger is tantamount to minor kufr!
Her second husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair, was a man who loved her deeply and began to feel jealous over the fact that her beauty was so obvious to all who saw her. One day he told her, “Either stay within your home or cover your face when you go out!”
Her reply?
Allah has given me this distinction of beauty, so I want people to look upon me and know my virtue over them; I will never cover it when it comes from Allah. And by Allah, Allah knows that there is no fault in my character upon which anyone can comment!
The narrator who was relating this story to Imam Al-Ṣafadi commented, “This was true. She was extremely strong in character, and that was what the women of Banu Taym were like.”
In this incident, what stands out is that – lack of niqâb aside – this was a clear case of a man commanding his wife to do something… and the wife choosing to follow her own fiqh opinion in the full confidence that she was not doing something displeasing to Allah.
While one may disagree with her choice not to wear niqâb, it is particularly intriguing that for a woman known to be one of the greatest Tâbi'iyyât of her time. She was described as thiqa (strong and trustworthy in the Science of Hadith) by Yaḥya ibn Ma'în, Al-Dâraquṭni, Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and others; she was also classified as ujja (one whose statements and actions are used as evidence in legal matters), which is a category very few individuals were considered worthy of. Also, she defied what is commonly taught as a primary requirement in the marital relationship: the unwavering obedience of a wife to her husband in absolutely every sphere of life.
Obviously, it is undeniable that Allah gave men the role of qawwâm (guardian – a man responsible towards the women of his family) – but perhaps it is also time for us to acknowledge that over time, Muslims have over-exaggerated what that role entails. The Sahaba and Tâbi'în, it appears, did not have such a stringent concept of wifely submission to a husband’s every whim and desire.
Examples from her life were recorded in the books of fiqhAfter the death of Âishah’s first husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair proposed marriage to her, but for one reason or another, she refused to accept… and went as far as swearing an oath of dhihâr. “If I marry him, he will be forbidden to me like my father’s back!” she declared. It was an unprecedented moment of Islamic jurisprudence. For one reason or another, she eventually relented, and the scholarly decision was that she needed to pay an expiation for her oath. As kaffâra (expiation), she bought and freed a slave worth 2,000 dinars.
On another occasion, she swore an oath of dhihâr once again – and again, to her husband Mus¢ab. She locked herself in her rooms and refused to allow him anywhere near her, reminding him of her oath, though he begged and pleaded to be able to even speak to her. In the end, he summoned Âmir Al-Sha'bi, the faqîh of Kufa, to discuss the matter with Âishah. Having had a change of heart, she asked Âmir Al-Sha'bi how to resolve the matter. His fatwah was that the oath was invalid, and that she was required to pay the kaffâra. She agreed with his conclusion, and allowed Mus'ab to return to her. In appreciation, she gave Âmir Al-Sha'bi 4,000 dirhams for his efforts in solving the fiqh conundrum.
There are numerous other stories from Âishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life that demonstrates just how different she was from our preconceived notions of what ‘true scholarship’ was like. Today, a woman who conducts herself in such a manner would never be accepted as a person of righteousness and authority. She would be spoken of in harsh terms, accused of being a ‘fitna’(temptation, tough test) to those around her, denied any public position of Islamic education to the masses.
Yet in Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s time, she was considered to be a woman of extreme piety and worship, a woman who taught men of the Tâbi¢în, a woman who was recorded as being amuadditha, a faqîha, and a muftiyya. Despite all these stories that were known about her, no one seem to have found a contradiction in the fact that she spoke and behaved in such a way, and that she was still such a woman of righteousness. There were many Sahabah who lived at her time, yet they apparently accepted her for the way she was.
What we can learn from Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life is not necessarily to derive fiqh opinions aboutniqâb or dhihâr –or whether wives can walk out on their husbands– but rather to reflect upon how we consider women, their personalities and their conduct, and their presence in the public sphere. Our ideas of what an ‘appropriate Muslim woman’ is meant to be has been so clouded by our own filters – both cultural ones and Islamicly justified ones – that we fail to realize that the greatest generations of Muslims often had very different ideas of what was considered acceptable.
Though we have come to believe that a pious woman is a silent woman, or a woman who restricts any and all aspects of herself to the private setting, or a woman whose public presence is as minimal and stark as possible, it is obvious from the biographies of female scholars of the past that this was not always considered the ideal. A woman’s role was seen as far more flexible as it is today; a woman’s ability to stand her ground and be more than automatically obedient was recognized and not castigated.
The Ṣahâbiyyât and Tâbi'iyyât lived as normal human beings with emotions, temptations, quirks of personality, issues in their relationships, and so on – yet this did not detract from their greatness as believers and scholars whose worth was recognized.
It may just be that we have a great deal of changing to do when it comes to how we perceive and perpetuate ‘the ideal Muslimah’ – whether she is a scholar in the public sphere, an individual in the domestic sphere, or both. For us to be able to raise new generations of heroines of Islam to revitalize the Ummah, it is necessary for us to challenge our own narrow ideas of what type of women those first heroines of Islam were to begin with.
(Author’s Note: The source for the narrations about Âishah bint Ṭalḥa were related by Sh. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, referencing Imam Al-Ṣafadi.)

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Double Standards of Desire

“Brother, the fitnah! It’s too difficult! If I don’t get a second wife right now, I’m going to do the haraam!”
This statement is not only common to hear amongst Muslim men, but acceptable as well. Guess what, bros – polygyny isn’t the solution to your all-important male arousal. And really, let’s face it… you can’t afford a second wife to begin with. So if your first wife won’t compromise some of her basic Shar’i rights in order to cater to your libido, what are you going to do, hire a prostitute? Watch porn? Really? Are you that desperate for ‘variety,’ when at the end of the day – as RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said – your wife has the exact same thing the other woman has?
Newsflash: Your physical desire isn’t the center of the universe.
Now how about we stop for a moment and consider the flip side. Oh, I know what you’re thinking – what flip side? Women can’t possibly understand what men go through; women don’t have anywhere near the levels of libido or triggers of desire… do women even have desire, really?
If you ever bothered to ask a woman, she’d tell you – hell yes. We know all too well what you’re going through, because the fitnah we go through is just as bad. It is, perhaps, even worse when you consider the fact that so many Muslim leaders perpetuate the idea that women don’t experience any sexual fitnah to begin with.
For every Muslim man who complains about the fitnah of other women, they don’t realize that Muslim women are going through the exact same thing… if not worse.
Muslim women are groomed from young adulthood to believe that their role as wives is all-encompassing: to take care of a husband spiritually by waking him up for Fajr, to take care of him physically by cooking and cleaning for him, to take care of him by fulfilling his need for progeny by bearing his children, and to take care of him sexually by being always, constantly sexually attractive and available.
A woman who is not perfectly coiffed, waxed, and shaved is responsible for any illicit sexual desires that he may be troubled by; a man who develops a potbelly and showers a couple times of a week within the first few years of his marriage is considered perfectly normal and ‘a good guy’ as long as he remembers to take out the trash.
While Muslim men complain that their wives don’t match up to the Hollywood actresses paraded before their eyes, they don’t stop to think that they in turn don’t match their wives’ standards of attractiveness either.
Even before marriage, Muslim women can expect very little of their male cohorts; Muslim men, it seems, are not raised with the some of the basic grooming standards that many nonMuslim men (especially today with the hipster and lumberjack craze) have picked up on. Whether it has to do with a sense of dress, hygiene, or beard grooming habits (the only reason so many Muslim women appear to be repulsed by beards is because of how poorly Muslim men keep them), nonMuslim men these days far exceed Muslim men in the basic necessities of looking decent. Many Muslim men seem to think that they deserve praise for wearing clean socks and putting on deodorant.
NonMuslim men are also raised in an environment where – with all its other unpleasant realities acknowledged – they are expected to put in some effort in wooing a woman. From at least high school onwards, they’re taught the basics: dress well, smell good, bring some flowers, and take the woman out somewhere nice. The woman is given the sense that she is wanted and that the man is willing to make an effort to be desirable to her in return. In short, there is a courtship ritual.
For all that people make snide comments that the only reason nonMuslim make any effort whatsoever in either grooming themselves or how they conduct themselves with women, is because they want to get laid – well, duh. That is precisely the point. NonMuslim men do all these things without a guarantee of having sex after all that work; Muslim men have a guarantee from their wedding night onwards that they will never, ever be turned down for sex (and if they are, then the angels are right there to curse those disobedient women)… and yet make little effort to maintain even a simple level of physical attraction.
Every Muslim woman has been through the cringe-worthy experience of listening to a pot-bellied imam lecturing them on how to be attractive to their husbands – and inevitably rebuking them for not doing enough to spare them from ‘the fitnah.’
Now imagine, if you will, the following scenario instead:
“Shaykh, the fitnah is too much… my husband is no longer attractive to me, he is overweight and doesn’t try to look good for me. If I can’t be sexually satisfied soon, I’m going to do the haraam!”
I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the response would be a collective outburst of self-righteous rage: “AstaghfirAllah sister, how dare you say such a thing! Have modesty and do not allow Shaytan to whisper to you in such horrific ways!”
There is little to no acknowledgment whatsoever of the sexual fitnah Muslim women experience when faced by well-groomed, courteous nonMuslim men in contrast to the men they are either married to, or can look forward to marrying – the type who either make a (painfully) half-hearted attempt in university before abandoning themselves to early onset uncle-hood, or those who assume that being religious means never daring to emasculate themselves by grooming their beards.
Few, if any, will stop to mention that Ibn Abbas (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) used to brush his teeth, comb his beard and hair, and scent himself before going home. When asked why he did so, he retorted, “For my wife! I like to beautify myself for her just as I like her to beautify herself for me.”
Rather, the idea that women need to be physically attracted to their spouses appears alien amongst many Muslims today. The idea that women need to find their husbands sexually alluring is almost bizarre. And it is precisely because of this refusal to acknowledge Muslim women’s sexual needs within their marriages, that the dangerous door to sexual fitnah outside of their marriage exists.
Neither men nor women are immune to sexual fitnah – it is a desire that exists in all human beings, not solely within one gender. Women have eyes that see as much as men do; women have desires that exist just as men do, even if that desire is considered socially unacceptable to voice. Unlike men, women do not have the option of marrying more than one husband… so it could be said, perhaps, that there is more of an onus on men to please their wives and be physically attractive and sexually available to them than is commonly purported.
So please, for the sake of your womenfolk – Muslim men, please do more than take a shower.