Q. Because we are talking about the decline of women, if we talk about South Asia, we find a similarity in the decline across the countries, not just in education but also how some ayat or ahadith have been misinterpreted about beating women, about witnesses (two women being equal to one man). The feminist ideology plays on this and tells Muslim women that this is humiliating for you all. What do you think? What are your suggestions for the ‘ulema to make the situation better?
A. As for feminism, it’s not helpful for women. It’s not a good thing really. It is another extreme. I have written another book critiquing feminism, it will come out some time soon In Sha Allah. Feminism has one good thing – it draws attention to what is justice for women. We agree on this matter, that women should be treated fairly and with justice. But the solutions they have given are not good. It is going to harm women.
Regarding your question, I will tell you a story that will help you understand. There is a hadith that was in circulation in the time of Aisha RA that if a man is praying and a woman passes in front of him, then the prayer becomes invalid. A great scholar and faqih, Aswat bin Yazid from Kufa, who was close to Aisha RA, asked her – O, Umm al Momineen, what do you think about this hadith? She became angry, O, people of Kufa! You people have made us women equal to donkeys and monkeys. The Prophet (saw) used to pray and I used to be in front of him and nothing happened. She was able to correct this misunderstanding. Then, all the madhahib, they also corrected their understanding on this basis. Because of the hadith of Aisha RA, this misconception is corrected. So what do we understand from this? If women are not in the field, the men will say whatever they like about them. There is no one to question them!
Maulana Maududi – may Allah’s mercy be on him – I respect him deeply. I encourage my students to read his books. But he was also a man of his time. We learn so much from his books but in Pardah, I feel it is tinged by more of Indian cultural Islam rather than Islam that the Qur’an teaches about women. He supported the position that niqab is mandatory, and the reasoning he gave was that if you have pearls and precious diamonds in the house you hide them. So he gave this allegory that women are like precious stones and diamonds. We used to believe this argument ourselves. But there is a fundamental mistake – precious stones don’t have a life, or a mind! Women have thinking minds. They know what is good or bad for them. The Qur’an didn’t tell Adam AS to teach his wife good or bad, it addressed both of them! Allah SWT spoke to both of them. Women know good and bad. Don’t treat them like stones. They have life, a mind of their own, thinking minds. When people address women, they should think they are human beings with intellect and reason. This is how Allah addresses them. In fact, I tell people – if this is the argument that women are so precious and we should hide them in the house, then someone can make an argument that men are more precious than women, so let’s put them in the boxes! If women say men are precious and let’s hide them – will men be happy? This argument was not used by the Prophet SAW, nor by the Qur’an. This is how people have interpreted. Let’s see how the Qur’an deals with women. And then let’s see, how Umar ibn Khattab RA used to distribute the spoils of war, the money to men and women of Madeenah. He used to send a message to every house. Let men come and take their share; let women come and take their share. No one should represent anyone else. He used to give the money to women himself. If a brother or husband takes your money on your behalf, it’s not right, he advised him.
Abdullah ibn Masood’s wife, she once had a question. He did not have an answer for her; so he said, you go and ask the Prophet SAW. She said, no you go and ask. He refused and told her to go. She went and asked directly. Now in our times, men will say, no no, you don’t go to the mufti, I will go on your behalf. Women used to go and ask questions to the Prophet SAW, because it is everyone’s religion. The way we have changed our societies, it is not normal. What is normal is trusting women – to acknowledge they are thinking beings, you respect their minds, and let them obey their Lord sincerely from their hearts. You will see! They will be more pious than men. But when you impose piety, it can never be imposed. Piety is only from the mind. Are stones pious? Are the walls pious? Walls don’t do zina or lie. Is it pious? No! Piety comes when you have a choice between good and bad, when you think and make a choice. If you cannot do that, you are not pious.
Let the women choose their path. Allah SWT says that “And did We not show him the two highroads (of good and evil)?” (90:10). I advise all of you – whether the argument is from Maulana Maududi, Maulana Ali Nadwi, from Deoband – always test their arguments. Our religion is based on sound arguments, not on weak arguments.
Q. As a scholar, do you think there is a need to revisit fiqh, especially with regards to women?
A. This religion is based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. What is fiqh? Only one part of it is Qur’an and Sunnah. Most details of the fiqh are from people’s inference and ijtihad. And this is based on custom and time. Even the fiqh of the great jurists, it used to change from time to time, from generation to generation. They are human made. They differ from each other. There are multiple meanings. We are not going to change the Qur’an and Sunnah. But we will explain it in the light of time and space. Without going back to the society of the Prophet SAW, we cannot explain the Qur’an. How did the Prophet SAW treat women in Madeenan society? He encouraged women to go to the mosque – we must encourage them. He encouraged women to farm, run businesses and shops – we must encourage them. Umar ibn Khattab RA appointed a lady to be in charge of the marketplace (Al-Shifa bint Abdullah). There were so many Companions, but he gave her the responsibility! He appointed another woman to be in charge of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil in the society – Samra’a binth Naheeq. She used to have a stick and charge people with their misdeeds. Women were so active! When I wrote this book, I was at the University of Leicester, some ‘ulema came to me and said “Your book is going to change Islam.” I said, no. It is going to remove the change. It will bring back people to the society of the Prophet SAW. I told them, you are ‘ulema, tell me if there is a mistake in referencing, in sources, I will delete it. Once I gave a talk in a mosque in England, and said that they should encourage women to come to the mosque. The imam came to me later and said, you teach whatever you like but don’t say this. I said why? Is there an issue in my argument? He said, no the argument is fine, but we don’t like it if they come to the mosque. When they reject women from coming to the mosque, it’s not because they have a solid argument! It’s culture. The only thing important to some people is Muslim culture, not Islam. Islam is not culture, but religion. It is guidance from Allah SWT and the protected book of Allah. The men and women must move together. My students are now alim and alima, and now with another course, they can become mufti and muftiya.
One thing I always teach is – don’t fight, don’t argue. Peacefully keep teaching. Teaching addresses the mind, it doesn’t force.
Q. Since you spoke of ahadith, Muslim women have had a strained relationship with some ahadith and aspects of fiqh. Have you faced any such questions from your own students?
A. People have mixed up culture with religion so much. When you marry, what does marriage mean in Islam – I have taught this course many times. Recently I wrote the third volume of my book on fiqh, the third volume is about family law. Marriage, divorce, women’s rights etc. All the jurists agree that when a man marries a woman, he has to provide her an accommodation, independent of his relatives and her relatives. A place where she does not have to observe hijab, and where she is not afraid of anyone coming in without her permission. A husband cannot bring and make his wife stay in his parents’ or brother’s house. This is agreed in all madhahib. People say – I have got my parents. But women also have their parents. The wife does not have to serve her husband’s parents. If they need help, you help them, find someone to help them; your wife has no obligation. If she does, it is a favour and you should recognize the favour. It is not her duty. Do not create problems in the house because she does not serve your parents. You must also provide her expenses – medicine, clothing, food, even education. It is not a favour. Whatever men spend on women is not charity or sadaqah. Even if she has millions of rupees, he still has this obligation. I am only obligated to spend money on my other family members if they are poor; but not with the wife. That is my responsibility. Additionally, her money is her money. Ask any mufti. It is a duty.
Sometimes people ask me – Islam ensures so much money for women. What will they even do with it? I said – they will give charity, make mosques. Like in the past! Women spent a lot of their money on such services. Irony is that the same college – Al Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco – built by a woman, Fatima al-Fihriyya, did not allow women for a long time! I gave a talk there and the entire audience was ‘ulema. I said to them – this place was built by a woman. For a thousand years, you did not allow women to study here. Now they do allow it. Similarly, there are many mosques in India built by women that do not allow women. People don’t read their own religion. I tell people – don’t listen to arguments unless they provide to you the context of the Prophet’s society, and clear citations from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. We don’t need to fight anyone, but we need to teach them.
Q. Finally, Dr Akram, what is your advise to women and girls, who want to pursue scholarship in Islam, particularly in the subcontinent?
A. I have been in England for more than 30 years. I realized that men and women should both pursue mainstream education, because we don’t have an alternative or the means to provide it. But at the same time, we ought to provide Islamic education – Arabic language, Islamic studies, etc. So that is why I started the course for alim and alimas. So in India as well, I believe men and women should study in the mainstream universities, but should spend one day of the week pursuing Islamic education, Arabic etc. They will serve their religion better. If you don’t know the religion, you won’t have confidence. Once you learn, you will be confident. Anyway the girls studying in universities are talented and for them to learn Arabic and other aspects will not be difficult. All they need is opportunity. Women excel in my exams, ahead of their male counterparts. Sometimes women are even busier in their lives – having children, being married, but still they manage. Either audit classes or start your own. But don’t force women to leave their education, they can study in secular universities, but they can take up classes on the side. You will see really, they will become even more pious! Sometimes, women used to come to my class, those who were pursuing PhDs, no headscarf, nothing, studying Sahih al Bukhari. People came and told me, these women are studying such an important book and don’t even wear a headscarf. I said to them, don’t worry. Let them come, you’ll see. They change completely – they wake up for tahajjud, they teach their families, and so on. If they don’t know, how can we force them? Once they know, they follow Islam. They also want the hereafter, they also want Paradise, like men. So let them study and learn .
I am not happy with Indian women’s madrasas. Their standards are very very low. They keep women for five, six years, and they don’t learn much really. It’s better they study in universities and find time on the weekends. If a woman is restricted only to the madrasa, and she enters the public sphere, she often doesn’t have the confidence. Instead, she should develop her confidence. Some cases, when women defend their religion, men become very happy! I said to these men, you are the people who don’t want women to learn. Now when they learn and defend Islam, you are happy. Why don’t you let them learn?