Unveiling answers

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Kashmiri Muslim women praying at the Jamia Masjid on the first Friday of Ramzan, in Srinagar in 2011. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

V.P. Zuhra, campaigner of Muslim women’s right to enter all mosques. Photo: by special arrangement

Amina Wadud, American Muslim philosopher. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The book examines, through readings from the Quran and the Hadith, the role of the mosque in Islam, and questions the ambivalence about gender equality that has long permeated Islamic society.

Does Islam go beyond female veiling, seclusion, dispossession and subordination? Does the public space of the mosque denote exclusion of women from prayers? Does the Quran approve of the independent spiritual existence of women? Does Islam establish religious and ethical equality by granting the right to prayer irrespective of gender? Are men and women spiritually equal?

In his insightful and well-documented book, Women in Masjid: A Quest for Justice, Ziya Us Salam discusses these questions, which have assumed considerable significance in a world shaped by Islamophobia.

It is widely believed that Islam insists on the separation of male and female activity and the seclusion and subordination of women. The Quranic injunctions and the sayings of the Prophet that extend equality and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender hardly absolve Islam of being hegemonic, male-centric and patriarchal. The author examines the role of the mosque as envisaged by Islam and why it blatantly goes against the practice and teachings of the Prophet. He attempts to understand how patriarchy converted a socio-religious centre and site of religious discourse and learning into a habitat of tacit discrimination. He also examines the question of the clergy’s insistence on the seclusion of women in their homes, and whether it is reconcilable to what the Prophet exhorted and practised or not, through readings from the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet).

In India, Islam, which draws profoundly from syncretic traditions, has two distinct manifestations: mosque-based and shrine-based Islam. Mosque-centric Islam denies women access to the mosque. Why does this abominable practice exist? The all-powerful clergy refers to only one Hadith, and as the author spells out: “Again and again, women are reminded of only one Hadith, wherein the Prophet is reported to have said that the best prayer for women is in the inner room of her house. The text is readily aired, but the context almost never applied!” Yes, one Hadith can be a mandatory injunction, but another of the Prophet’s decisions relating to women’s testimony that challenges patriarchy is brushed off conveniently by the men of the cloth.

Islam has always been pilloried for blatant gender inequality as Islamic jurisprudence stipulates that the witness of two women is equivalent to that of one man and that the testimony of one woman may be dismissed summarily. This stands in stark contrast to what the Prophet did when he was requested to resolve a case based on a statement made by a woman, an event narrated by the noted scholar Moulvi Mumtaz Ali (1860-1935) in his seminal book Huqooq-e-Niswan (1898).

Mumtaz Ali writes of an event mentioned in “Sahih Bukhari”, the most authentic collection of the Prophet’s sayings: “Sahih Bukhari says that Uqba Bin Haris married a girl, and was informed by a woman that she had breastfed him and his newlywed wife. Uqba pointed out that this had not been mentioned to him before; how could he accept it now? He had a word about it with his in-laws, who also refuted the claim of the woman, but she continued to repeat her assertion.

“At last, Uqba sought the opinion of the Prophet, who found the woman’s submission, though not backed by anyone, admissible, and annulled the marriage, as a wedding cannot be performed between siblings.” The life of the Prophet is replete with many such incidents, which are conveniently ignored by the Ulema in the subcontinent.

The author lists a chronology of events and issues resolved by the Prophet and his companions, with a marked sense of benevolence and evenness towards the dispossessed, the marginalised and the voiceless. He examines Quranic commandments, the Hadith, the practice of the Caliphs and the scholars of the Islamic jurisprudence who codified Islamic laws, to prove that prevalent practice of restricting access to the mosques has nothing to do with what Islam forcefully preaches. In fact, it is similar to the Ulema’s stand on triple talaq.

The author also unravels other popular myths. The second Caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab (584-644 C.E.), who introduced several stringent provisions into the Islamic jurisprudence, is said to have been averse to women’s entry into the mosque. The author quotes several instances at variance with this popular image. Here is such an instance: “Women are never told that Caliph Umar appointed a well-known female companion al-Shifa bint Abdullah Al-Adawiyyah as the supervisor of the markets of Medina. She was appointed not because of the dearth of able men but because she was more meritorious, with better leadership skills. She used to go to the Medina markets with a whip in her hand, ready to strike at any indiscretion.”

The book acquaints us with an alternative perspective, featuring facts not discussed in the texts produced by religious scholars. For instance, no one has the power to revoke what was granted by the Prophet, and the Caliphs were no exception. The author quotes from the Sahih Bukhari Hadith: “The wife of Umar used to go to the mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabwi) for the prayers of the Fajar and Isha. It was said to her, ‘Why do you go out when you know that Umar does not like it?’ She said, ‘What stops him from forbidding me?’ It was said to her, ‘What stops him is the saying of the Prophet who said, “Do not stop the women from the Masajid (mosques) of Allah.”’”

One can take this as incontrovertible proof that the Caliph did not declare the mosque a no-go zone for women. But then, what went wrong? This calls for a thorough analysis of sociocultural mores of the countries where Islam took root. For the author, the subjugation of women is not linked to the Quran, the Prophet and the Caliph, and owes much to those “ill-informed men drunk on potions of male superiority, a society where men decide and women follow, where men instruct and women obey. Sociocultural mores rather than religious dictates are at play, as is the incomplete and the lopsided knowledge of the scriptures.”

The author seeks to strengthen his case by referring to the noted scholar Dr Israr Ahmad, who held that backward and ignorant Muslims imposed their own self-forged model upon Muslim women. Inexplicably, though, the contours of this model are not spelt out.

Divided into 19 chapters, the book offers a glimpse into the ambivalence concerning gender equality that has long permeated Islamic society and unveils arbitrary interpretations with authority. Since the time of the Prophet until now, the active presence and the forced invisibility of women in various countries where a sizeable number of Muslims live has come in for debate. The author focusses on three versions of Islam—fundamentalist, reformist and syncretic—and delineates how they falter on the count of gender justice as they hardly uphold Islamic teachings. While he discusses shortcomings incisively, he rarely feels the need for radical and structural changes. He is of the view that the majority of vexed issues plaguing Muslims all over the world can be resolved if the original teachings of Islam are sincerely adhered to and that reforms, no matter how urgently required, must come from within.

Muslim identity, regardless of gender, ethnicity and social status, can only be envisaged or kept alive if the mosque is made its nerve centre. The book attempts to articulate how the mosque can be revitalised as a place of worship and a space of emotional and spiritual solace. Tracing the history of how Islam’s explicit and unequivocal espousal of subliminal and emotional uniformity was circumvented or endured in different countries, the author provides a glimpse into Almasjidul Haram (Makkah) and Masjide Nabwai (Madina). Then he turns his attention to predominantly non-Muslim societies such as India, the United States, the United Kingdom and Muslim countries such as Pakistan and the like, with a marked sense of objectivity.

Chapter 16, titled “India in the Past: Medieval Mosques Built by Women” and Chapter 17, titled “Women Taking the Lead”, map Muslim women’s contribution to spheres that were considered exclusive male domains. The author reveals that Fatehpuri Begum, a consort of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan, built the Fatehpuri mosque, one of the prominent mosques of Delhi. As the author remarks: “A woman could build the mosque in 1650, but women cannot pray in the mosque in 2019.”

He provides a list of mosques built by women, including Razia Sultan, Maham Anga, the foster mother of Jalaluddin Akbar; Aziz-un-Nisa Begum, or Akbarabadi Begum, one of the wives of Shahjahan; Mubarak Begum, the wife of British Resident in Delhi General David Ochterlony; and Sultan Jahan Begum, ruler of Bhopal.

Chapter 17 gives a graphic account of Muslim women who have firsts in religious studies or practices to their credit. Farhat Hashmi, PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Glasgow, who wrote a commentary of the Quran, is perhaps the first woman scholar to make such an attempt in a society where the clergy’s assertion “A woman’s voice should remain under cover” gained currency. The author also talks about Amina Wadud, an African American who led a mixed gender prayer in New York that generated much heat within the Muslim community. There is also the story of Jamida Beevi, a Kerala-based reformist who became the first woman to lead Friday prayers in India and whose radical interpretation of religious postulates rattled orthodox society. The unrelenting campaign for access to all mosques for Muslim women launched by V.P. Zuhra, the daughter of a Muslim League politician, is also discussed in detail in this chapter.

The two prominent sects of Muslims, Sunni and Shia, differ significantly on several counts. During the sacred pilgrimages, Hajj and Ziyarat, women and men are allowed to pray together inside the mosque, but beyond Makkah, Madina and Karbala, interface is strictly prohibited.The author initiates a judicious debate on this issue. Ziya Us Salam tries to draw a map for making the mosque a living metaphor for women and ensuring that Muslim women will remain faith subservient. Painstakingly researched and written in terse, silken prose, Women in Masjid assures us an enthralling read.

Shafey Kidwai, teaches mass communications at Aligarh Muslim University. He is a well-known critic. His book on Sir Syed Ahmad Khan won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Urdu in 2019.