Original Sources vs. Contemporary Misinterpretations

In the 21st century, one of the hotly debated topics is ‘the role/ status/ position/ of women in Islam’. Numerous works have been written, from different perspectives (historical, feminist, gender justice, liberation theology, etc.) to deliberate on this issue. Besides, a number of Feminist/ Gender Justice Supporters/ liberal organizations (NGOs etc.) as well as ‘Women’s/ Gender Studies Centres’ are working for highlighting and addressing the women issues in general and of Muslim women in particular.

This ‘grim’ situation has arisen in the contemporary ‘patriarchal’ societies because of the problems and issues faced by Muslim women, as they have been snatched of their freedom, rights and role given to them by the Creator. That is why world is abuzz today with the slogans of ‘Women Empowerment’, ‘Gender Justice/ Equality’, and ‘Liberation of Women’. Thus, one sees that there are “lots of discussions on the status of women in Islam” and “this debate on the rights of Muslim women appears to be a never-ending one”.

To get a clear picture of the rights, status, contribution, role, and problems (social, educational, political, etc.) faced by Muslim women, Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai and Dr Juhi Gupta (both from Aligarh Muslim University ) came up with an Edited Volume, Muslim Woman—What Everyone Needs to Know (hereinafter MW) in 2019 (Viva Books, New Delhi). Consisting of 22 chapters (covered under 6 major sections), MW examines “various aspects of the lives of Muslim women particularly in education, career, personal law, economy, social relations, etc.” With contributors from Kashmir (IUST), Haryana, New Delhi, Lucknow, and (mostly from) AMU, belonging to “diverse disciplines ranging from Women’s Studies to English, Literary Studies, Islamic Studies, Arabic, etc.”, MW analyses “various issues concerning Muslim women, while taking into account the Quranic perspective” and seeks “to answer questions which are rooted in widespread misperceptions about Muslim women”. Interdisciplinary in nature, MW provides a “holistic picture of contemporary issues and challenges that Muslim women face today” in ‘patriarchal’ societies, while not overlooking their rights and position as envisaged in the original Islamic teachings (p. xxiii). It helps to establish how ‘true  Islam is both contemporary and liberal and bestows upon Muslim women the same status as men’; and attempts ‘to seek answer questions which are rooted in wide spread misperceptions  about Muslim women; and thus attempts to help in learning about ‘the Islamic stance on women and how it has been misconstrued down the ages resulting in various misconceptions and misinformation about Islam itself’.

The book is preceded by ‘Foreword’ (xi-xii) by Prof. Akhtarul Wasey (President, Maulana Azad University Jodhpur); ‘Preface’ (xiii-xix) by Editors; and a ‘Prolegomenon’ (xxviii-xxxiv) by Claire Chambers (University of York). In his ‘Foreword’, Prof. Wasey very eloquently points out the “growing transformation in the Muslim mind set about gender parity”, though today “the world is abuzz today with the slogans of women empowerment” (p. xi). He also points out that “Islam treats men and women alike, as is evident from their attributes discussed in the Quran”, but “women do not get their due in Muslim society” today; they are “denied what Allah and His Messenger granted them”; “Islam had bestowed upon women the very same rights and privileges, which are being demanded now” by them through protests, through NGOs, and through the discourse of ‘Islamic feminism’, etc. He substantiates his standpoint by referring to the role of the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives like Khadijah, Aisha, Umm Salamah (RA), and Saiyyidah Zaynab (daughter of Fatima and Ali [RA]) in in the fields of “economic independence”, “female educational empowerment”, “political domain of Islam”, and her “crucial role in the Karbala tragedy”, respectively; and concludes: “In the face of such shining examples throughout Islamic history, it is intriguing that Muslim women are denied their due” (pp. xi, xii).

In his ‘Prolegomenon’, Chambers focuses on “Post-colonialism and Feminism” by examining “some key feminist essays of the last four decades [1977-2007], in order to explore the productive overlap that exists between postcolonial studies and feminism” (p. xxvii).

In the Preface, the editors provide the context and structure of this Volume. “Owing to a lack of accurate knowledge about Islam and its teaching”, they argue, “common people are often misled in their interpretations of Islam”, and are “often influenced by the prevalent patriarchal social system”, and as a result, “a lot of misconceptions are on rise about Islam, which project Islam as being exploitative to its women” (p. xiii). In this backdrop, the present volume intends “to address these stereotypes related to the treatment of Muslim women in the theological/ social/ cultural/ moral/ political/ economic and other aspects of their life”; and through “relevant examples and reasoning”, the chapters in this volume, not only explore “the reasons for this false image of Islam” but provide “appropriate references to the religious text about rights and position of women as endorsed by God” (p. xiii).

The issues highlighted, and major arguments put forth in the respective chapters under six (6) major ‘Sections’ of MW, are summarized below:

Section-1, ‘Muslim Women in the Primary Islamic Sources’ (chapters 1-2): Prof. Kidwai, by quoting ample Quranic verses, Ahadith, and examples of women in the Qur’an, in his chapter (pp. 3-28), asserts that, “the Quran is remarkably free of any misogyny” because the “Quranic stance on woman, supplemented and complemented by Hadith, stands out for gender parity, justice and fairness” (p. 28). M Haris bin Mansoor (Research Scholar in English from AMU) in his chapter (pp.  29-38) draws attention to those Quranic verses and Ahadith, which are “quoted out of context in order to bring women to heel”, clarifies “how these misinterpretations tarnish the image of Islam and Quran” and “tries to show the dignified status of women as ascribed in Islam through Quranic verses and Prophetic reports” (p. 29).

Section-2, ‘Muslim Women’s Rights and Laws’ (chapters 3-8): Javid Ahmad Bhat (Research Scholar in Islamic Studies from IUST), in his chapter (pp. 41-47) answers the debatable question of polygamy in Islam by exploring its different dimensions, and concludes that Islam “merely permitted the practice [of polygamy] under specific conditions” with the aim of providing “protection and dignity to the widows, and the orphans”, and it was “designed as a practical strategy to solve a particular social problem” (p. 46). Irfan Jalal (another Researcher from IUST), in his chapter (pp. 48-58) answers the highly debated issue of ‘Divorce’ by comparing the position of Islamic laws of divorce vis-à-vis modern interpretations in the context of gender equality, human/ fundamental rights movements (p. 48) and concludes that though it is permissible in certain circumstances but “if the procedure for divorce is followed in accordance with the teachings of Islam, it will prove divine and not draconian” (p. 58). M. Waheed Khan (Research Scholar in English from AMU), in his chapter (pp. 59-67), discusses the permissibility of ‘Instant Triple Divorce’ by analysing the arguments of both circles of scholars about its legal validity and by defining and explaining three categories of talaq (Ahsan, Hasan, and Bidah). He reaches the conclusion that in the current societies, “the issue of instant triple divorce has become an oppressive law for them”, therefore it is “the inimical mind set of our society towards women”, not Islam, which is “responsible for making the instant triple divorce as a draconian law” (p. 66). M Yunus Kumar (third Researcher from IUST), in his chapter (pp. 68-78) highlights and analyses the scholarly contribution of Professors Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud and Asma Afsaruddin to find answer to a strange misconception and an irksome question, ‘Are there any contemporary Muslim women scholars?’; and thus aptly concludes that  their vast academic contributions shows that “interpretation of Islam is not monopoly of men” and thus explicate the “misconceptions regarding women that they do not possess the intellectual faculty at par with men” (p. 76). Gowhar Quadir Wani (a Kashmiri Islamic Studies Researcher from AMU) in his chapter (79-86) discusses, through recourse to the Islamic primary sources and early practice, the issue of “forbidding women from frequenting mosques”, which he finds as a “discrimination against” women and a practice “against the very teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah besides the practice of earlier generations of the Muslims” (pp. 79, 85). He eloquently concludes: “It is need of the hour to let the mosques be open for women so that they exercise their right of religious learning and experience in the spiritual environment of the mosques” (p. 85). Huma Yaqub (Assistant Professor in English, MANUU, Lucknow campus) in her chapter (87-94) deliberates on the question of “the freedom to choose a career” by Muslim women, and argues that “Islam has freed women from ages of oppression rather than keeping them in the shackles of bondage” and in the past women have contributed in different literary aspects and thus today “they need to introspect” why their condition has “take downhill path” in present times (pp. 87, 94).

Section-3, ‘Muslim Women and Education’ (chapters 9-11): this section opens with the chapter of Dr Faiza Abbasi (Assistant Director, UGC HRDC, AMU), who focuses on the refutation of the popular misconceptions about Muslim woman and AMU, especially the issue of girl students’ entry in the AMU library (pp. 98-111); Sadaf Hussain (Research Scholar in English from AMU) highlights the ‘Status of an Educated Successful Muslim Woman in the Middle Class Indian Society’ (pp. 112-122); and Prof. Sami Rafiq (Professor of English, AMU) in his chapter looks into the past, especially the ‘golden age of Islam’, in order “to understand and analyse the cause of the lack of education among Muslim women” today, through a contrast between modern times and the past, asserting that they themselves need to be “proactive towards” their education (pp. 123-132).

Section-4, ‘Socio-Economic Status of Muslim Women’ (chapters 12-15): this section, opens with the chapter by Dr Juhi Gupta (Assistant Professor, Women’s Studies, AMU, and co-editor of this Volume; pp. 135-146) wherein she addresses the “widespread erroneous misconceptions about the status of Muslim women” in different aspects concluding that “to conclude that Muslim women are oppressed in Islam would be erroneous and misleading” (pp. 135, 146);  Syed Ali Hur Kamoonpuri (Research Scholar in Arabic from AMU), in his chapter, highlights the issue of discrimination against ‘girl child’ (pp. 147-163) and argues that Islam has not only “honoured the girl child and placed her on a very high pedestal of dignity and sanctity”, but has “brought an unparalleled transformation in people’s attitudes and perceptions vis-à-vis the girl child” (p. 148); Mustafa Nadeem Kirmani (Associate Professor, Clinical Psychology, Amity University, Haryana), explores, through ‘Psycho-Quranic perspective’ (pp. 164-172), the spiritual, social, economic, legal, educational, etc. aspects of “equity” as the principles of “fairness, equity, mercy, and compassion”, he argues, are given “utmost importance” in the Quran, “irrespective of gender” (pp. 165-66); and Kishwar Zafir (AP, English, AMU), relying on a survey and random interviews with the ‘Muslim women of lower income groups’ living in an urban slum locality of Aligarh’ (pp. 173-180), asserts that such a class of society continues “to struggle for their place in society—for identity, for dignity, and for self” (p. 180).

Section-5, ‘Muslim Women vis-à-vis Feminism’ (chapters 16-17): This section addresses and explores the issues of ‘Islamic feminism’ (pp. 183-188) and contrasts ‘rights of women in the West’ vs. ‘rights of women in Islam’ (pp. 189-197) by Md. Sajidul Islam (Associate Professor of English, AMU) and Sherin Shervani (Director, Angel Global School, Aligarh), respectively. In his chapter, Islam argues that “Islamic feminism”, a rubric of ‘religious feminism’ which “seeks to interpret Islam in the light of equality of men and women before God”, with primarily “focused on gender justice and methodological reform”, became visible in 1990s with the works of Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, and Asma Barlas, and “got wide currency in the first decade of the 21st century” (pp. 183-85). Shervani, in her chapter, “explores and brings about the contrast between the rights of women achieved in the West through the efforts of the Western feminist [movements] versus the rights given to a woman in Islam” (p. 189) and dispels the myths revolving around this issue, and concludes that the “rights given to women in Islam are broad-spectrum and encompassing various aspects of life” (pp. 196-7).

The final section (Section-6, ‘Interviews of Contemporary Women Studies Scholars and Creative Writers’, chapters 18-22, pp. 200-232), includes five interviews by Wahida Firdous (Research Scholar in English from AMU) with the leading British novelist Qaisra Shahraz; Anam Nawaz (AP, English, Delhi University) with women’s rights lawyer and activist Ms Flavia Agnes; and Haris Qadeer (AP, English, Delhi University) with three renowned contemporary feminist scholars, namely Prof. Mariam Cooke, Shelina Janmohamed, and Prof. Sylvia Vatuk, of diverse aspects of ‘feminist/ gender/cultural studies’.

Thus, this Edited Volume brings together interdisciplinary perspectives not only to highlight, and explore, diverse issues faced by Muslim women currently, but also clarifies various stereotypes, misconceptions, and misperceptions associated with the rights, role, contribution and responsibilities of Muslim women. It truly justifies its claim  to help readers in learning about ‘the Islamic stance on women and how it has been misconstrued down the ages resulting in various misconceptions and misinformation about Islam itself’ and thus Muslim Woman—What Everyone Needs to Know is a must-read for everyone to get a ‘holistic picture of contemporary issues and challenges’ faced by Muslim women in current ‘patriarchal societies’ vis-à-vis the role and position of women in the light of original Islamic teachings.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).