Imam Hussain, Love, and Social Justice

I know I mentioned to a few friends that I was taking a brief hiatus from blogging, but since it is the month of Muharram, I wanted to share a few thoughts about Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both), and how his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala still carries significance today.

Before I continue, it seems impossible to talk about the events of Karbala without also acknowledging the spiritual diversity within Islam. Unfortunately, Orientalist discourses, particularly on the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, have produced many misconceptions and distortions about Islam. It is also disheartening when Muslims internalize these stereotypes and reproduce Orientalist narratives which create barriers towards intra-community dialogue, understanding, and respect.  For instance, whenever discussions arise about “different sects” in Islam, it is often code for anything that is not Sunni.  Sunni Islam, which represents the majority of Muslims worldwide, is not only the dominant and central focus of discourse, but also regarded as the “true” or “authentic” Islam. The implication, whether intended or unintended, becomes about casting non-Sunni Muslims as the groups that “deviated” and splintered off into “their own version” of Islam.

While I was raised Sunni, there was a point in my spiritual journey when my research on Sufism intersected with Shi’ism. For about 3-4 years now, certain Shia beliefs have been very central to my faith, such as believing that Imam Ali was the rightful successor of the Prophet. I also believe in the infallibility of all God’s messengers and the Panjtan Paak (The Holy Five, or Ahl-ul-Bayt/People of the House), the latter being (1) Prophet Muhammad, (2) his daughter Fatima, (3) his cousin  and son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons (4) Hassan and (5) Hussain (peace and blessings upon them all).  As with Sufism, I didn’t see Shi’ism as a “separate religion,” but rather as an expansion of my knowledge of Islam. Sufism, for example, is a term I use to identify the deeper and mystical teachings in Islam, not something “outside” of Islam (Sufis can be either Sunni or Shia, though there tends to be a lot of overlapping with Shi’ism).

Differences in theology and practice does not stop me from seeing Sunni Muslims, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and others as my brothers and sisters in Islam.  I don’t look at issues confronting Sunni-majority communities or countries and think to myself, “Well, that’s a Sunni issue, I don’t have to worry about.”   I believe in real unity of Muslims. That is, unity based upon understanding, respect, and appreciation of spiritual diversity, not “unity” based on conformity to one monolithic school of thought.  I strongly believe that Faith is very personal, so rather than endlessly debate about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” I believe our communities should not only have discussions rooted in the Islamic teachings of compassion and brother/sisterhood, but also put those teachings of compassion into practice by respecting one another.  As Prophet Muhammad once said, “One who has no compassion for others is not entitled to compassion (from God)” (Reported in Sahih al-Bukhari & Muslim).

Despite my not seeing Shi’ism separate from so-called “mainstream Islam,” I also have to understand my privileges because my community identity is still Sunni.  What I mean by this is that when I attend Sunni Mosques or social gatherings with my family, I don’t have to worry about being stigmatized in the same way a Shia family might. I have the privilege to avoid that stigma by not “outing” my Shia beliefs because people know my family is Sunni, therefore I, too, must be Sunni.  Orientalists perpetuate misconceptions about Sunnis and Shias by persistently discussing the “Sunni and Shia” divide within the context of “sectarian violence.”  It is equally important to have this critique while also not glossing over the way Twelver Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis, and other non-Sunni Muslim groups are stigmatized and persecuted by Sunni-majority governments (many of which adopt or are influenced by Wahhabi ideology, not to mention being simultaneously backed and exploited by western imperialist powers). Furthermore, it is easy to say, “All Muslims should just call themselves ‘Muslim,’” when one has never had to deal with the struggles faced by non-Sunni Muslims.  Of course all Muslims self-identify as Muslim, but it is also important to not ignore the reality in which non-Sunni Muslims are treated differently due to their beliefs.  Rather than calling on Muslims to their erase their diverse identities for the sake of a problematic “melting pot” and assimilationist ideal, we should be appreciative and respectful of these differences.

There are a lot of great books and sources available to learn more about the spiritual diversity in Islam, so instead of delving into those rich and complex histories, I will focus on the events of Karbala and the lessons all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can learn from Imam Hussain’s stand against the tyrant Yazid.  Regardless of theological differences, all Muslims recognize that Imam Hussain and his 72 soldiers were brutally massacred by Yazid’s army of 5,000 (some sources report 30,000) on the tenth day of Muharram, known as “The Day of Ashura.” Differences surface in the way Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is commemorated or observed by various Muslim groups, but the stand against Yazid, a man who appointed himself as Caliph without council or election, is remembered as resistance against corruption and oppression.  Despite the insurmountable odds, Imam Hussain stood firmly in the face of tyranny for the sake of reviving the message of Islam and spiritual leadership for all Muslims. In a beautiful manqabat (Sufi devotional poem) written by Pakistani poet Hafeez Jalandhari and sung by the late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imam Hussain’s defiance is expressed in vivid detail:

Libaas hai phata hua, ghubaar mein ata hua
Tamaam jism-e-nazneen, chida hua, kata hua
Yeh kon ziwiqaar hai, bala ka shahsawaar hai
Ke hai hazaar qaatilon ke samne data hua

Yeh bilyaqeen Hussain hai
Nabi ka noor-e-ain hai

(Translated from Urdu)

His dress is torn, with mud it is worn
His splendid, delicate body is cut, slashed, and torn
Who is this dignified, master horseman?
Who is standing his ground in front of an army of thousands?

Indeed it is Hussain, it is Hussain
The Light of the Prophet’s eyes, it is Hussain

The poem describes the violent wounds inflicted upon Imam Hussain’s body, yet emerging from all of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of Karbala is praise for the Prophet’s grandson and his unwavering spirit of resistance.  Even though Imam Hussain and his army of 72 were slaughtered, it is their stand against injustice that remains eternal and serves as a reminder for the oppression that exists in our present world.  As it is stated in the Qur’an: “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. No, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (3:169).  Indeed, the physical body dies, but it is the soul that lives on. The message of what those individuals stood for lives through the people who follow their example.  In fact, Imam Hussain’s famous quote on the day of Ashura powerfully captures the call for social justice: “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.”  The narration reminds Muslims that injustice is everywhere and that every day must be lived with consciousness of our responsibilities in the constant struggle to end all forms of oppression.  Values such as selflessness, serving humanity, aiding those in need, and trusting in a higher power should be implemented in each day of our lives.   Prior to the Battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain asked fellow Muslims for assistance, but many of them did not help or speak out.  We learn about the importance of being mindful of our privileges and not neglecting or being complicit in the oppression of others.

Since Prophet Muhammad is taught to be the role model for all Muslims, it is interesting to explore how poetic praise of Imam Hussain symbolizes the way he followed the example of the Prophet.  In the poem above, Jalandhari illuminates the intimate relationship between Hussain and his grandfather by referring to the former as the noor (light) of “the Prophet’s eyes.” This special praise for Imam Hussain is not uncommon in Sufi poetry, but there is often a perception that such expressions of Love are shirk (generally translated as idolatry or polytheism). To overcome such unfortunate misunderstandings, which tend to cause judgmental attitudes among Muslims, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that there are infinite ways to show Love and devotion for God.  Because someone glorifies the Prophet’s grandson does not mean they are worshiping Hussain, but rather commemorating and celebrating him. Imam Hussain stood up for the rights of all human beings by sacrificing himself, but is self-sacrifice or martyrdom the one and only way to express one’s commitment to justice?  Of course not.  It is the essence that matters.  So, while one person may express Love for God by exalting God’s name in prayer, another person may be expressing Love for the Divine by showing Love for God’s creation.  This is not shirk, but rather demonstrating that serving/Loving humanity also means to serve/Love God.

According to Syed Akbar Hyder, author of “Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory,” the following is probably the most recited Persian quatrain in South Asia, even by those who do not speak or understand the language:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, Deen panah ast Hussain
Sar dad na dad dast dar dast-e-Yazid,
Haqqa key bina-e la ilah ast Hussain

King is Hussain, Emperor is Hussain
Religion is Hussain, the refuge for religion is Hussain
(He) gave up his head, but did not give his hands in the hands of Yazid
The truth is that the foundation of la ilaha (negation of all gods except God) is Hussain

This poem, written by Indian Sufi master (khwaja/pir)  Muinuddin Chisti (d. 1236 C.E.), was also popularized in a Qawwali (South Asian Sufi devotional songs) by the aforementioned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  As Hyder illustrates:

The truth, according to this thirteenth-century Sufi (Chisti), is that the very core of Islam, its essential creed of tawhid, or Divine Unity, ‘la ilaha illa lah Muhammadan rasul Allah,’ or ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger,’ is Hussain. Since Hussain refused to pay allegiance to Yazid, in spite of having to make innumerable sacrifices, he is projected as an embodiment of Islam’s creed that refuses to acknowledge any power other than that of God. (emphasis added)

Related is how philosopher and poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) centered on Karbala’s religious symbolism in conjunction with the “political project to unite and mobilize Muslims, especially the Muslim minorities in the South Asian subcontinent.”  Iqbal not only connected his “evocations of Karbala and martyrdom” to the “subsequent discourses of anti-colonialism and nationalism,” but he also saw the spiritual and political message of the Qur’an in Imam Hussain himself.  As he passionately articulates in Persian:

Ramz-e-Qur’an az Hussain amukhtim
za-atish-e-ou shola ha andukhtim

I learned the lesson of the Qur’an from Hussain
In his fire, like a flame, I burn

Since the beginning of Muharram this year, I have been reflecting on these words, which I feel prompt the question: “Well, what is the lesson of the Qur’an?”  Much of what Imam Hussain’s martyrdom means for us to resist oppression has been written above, but I also think there needs to be a critical analysis of the way we discuss religion and religious symbolism, especially within the context of social justice.  For example, when we talk about Islamophobia, racism, and military occupation of Muslim-majority lands, we often think exclusively about male experiences.  An article on anti-Muslim violence against Muslim women was recently published on AltMuslimah and highlighted on this point of male-centrism, not to diminish or negate male experiences with Islamophobia and racism, but rather to address the way racist and violent attacks on Muslim women have been remarkably ignored by Muslim civil rights groups, mainstream western media, and American women’s rights organizations. When the Qur’an says, “There is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice” (42:42), it is not only relevant to struggles against racism, classism, and war, but also sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence because all of these forms of oppression intersect. Racism, classism, and war produce distinct forms of oppression against women, specifically women of color, as sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence are integral to the larger structures of white supremacist power, heteropatriarchal domination, and state violence.

When we talk about Imam Hussain’s commitment to justice, equality, and liberation – all of which mirrors the Qur’an – we must think of ending all forms of oppression, whether they be racism, sexism, classism, abliesm, homophobia, etc.  We must have this discussion because without centering intersectionality politics in social justice struggles and honestly examining the problems that exist in our own communities, we undermine the values we claim to be standing for.  We look very hypocritical when some of us are commemorating the memory of Imam Hussain, but then participate in rape culture by blaming rape victims. We perpetuate victim blaming logic when we, on the one hand, claim Islam is about brother/sisterhood, but then, on the other hand, accuse the Muslim men and women beaten by police officers at an American theme park of “victimizing themselves” or “being at fault.”  We demonstrate failure in understanding of our spiritual teachings when we exalt Hazrat Fatima (peace be upon her), but then deny women equal rights in Mosques, schools, workplaces, etc. Although it is crucial to fight Islamophobia and demand for our rights in non-Muslim majority countries like the United States, where is the compassion when anti-racist and anti-imperialist critiques of an administration that bombs, kills, and rapes Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani bodies in Muslim-majority nations are ridiculed, insulted, or ignored by Muslim representatives of civil rights groups?  Religious context or not, how do fully understand what interconnectedness of humanity means when some of us are only talking about unity, acceptance, and respect inside the United States?

As previously mentioned, sacrificing one’s self for justice is not the only expression of resistance or activism, even though bell hooks’ reminder about struggle comes to mind: “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Prophet Muhammad once said, “If you see a wrong, you should stop it with your hand; if you cannot, then you should speak out against it; if not that, then at least condemn it in your heart, that being the weakest form of faith” (Sahih Muslim). It is easy to see how Imam Hussain exemplified this Hadith in his life, but also worth examining is the internal struggle. That is, Imam Hussain spoke out against injustice, even if it was in his own community. In our present reality, Muslim communities, like all communities, are no exception to sexism and misogyny.  Muslim men obsessing over the way Muslim women dress, for example, comes from patriarchal entitlement and sense of male “ownership” of women’s bodies.   Denying women prayer space or refusing to engage in dialogue about gender segregation in Mosques (and this is mostly in the mainstream Sunni context since there are other Muslim groups who do not have gender segregation in Mosques) not only perpetuates sexism, but also seeks to marginalize and silence critiques of patriarchal interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an. Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,” asserts that the Qur’an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal. Misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, argues Barlas, do not stem from the teachings of the Qur’an, but rather from history of Muslim men who have interpreted the text to speak to their own realities while excluding or interpreting experiences of Muslim women.

Some of the poems I shared above can probably be read as patriarchal, but if we critique them with Asma Barlas’ thesis in mind, we can reinterpret them as expressions of Love for Imam Hussain rather than “evidence” that somehow only male figures in Islam carry such importance.  Shia scholars have written that one cannot mention Imam Ali without mentioning Hazrat Fatima (Prophet Muhammad’s daughter) because she was “his companion in life and suffering.”  They also contend that one cannot mention her children Hassan, Hussain, and Zainab without mentioning Hazrat Fatima because she was “the secret of their personalities throughout their lives.”  The Prophet Muhammad once said of Hazrat Fatima:

Fatima is part of me; whoever angers her, angers me and whoever harms her, harms me (Sahih al-Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmadhi, Musnad Ahmad: v.4, p. 328., Khasaes An-Nisaee: p.35)

Elsewhere, the Prophet said:

Surely, God is angered when you (Fatima) are angered, and is pleased when you are pleased. (Mustadrak al-Hakim: v.3, p.154., Tadhkirat al-Bast: p.175., Maqtal al-Khawarazmi: v.1, p.54., Kefayat At-Talib: p.219., Kanz al-Umal: v.7, p.111., Sawiq: p.105)

This link between Hazrat Fatima and Prophet Muhammad and God is quite remarkable when read within the context of patriarchal interpretations of Islam as well as western non-Muslim accusations that Islam is “inherently sexist.”  I remember when I first started reading Shia works about Hazrat Fatima, I was surprised to learn that she is a role model for both women and men.  As one scholar writes:

When we present Fatima as a role model, we are not talking about women only. We present her as a role model for both men and women because she is a constituent element of Islam and the Muslim people as a whole, not just of women.

Another scholar writes of Asma bint Omais, the wife of Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who asked the Prophet if any verses of the Qur’an were revealed in regard to women. She asked the Prophet if women were “caught with loss and detriment,”  to which the Prophet asked, “Why?”  Asma replied, “Because in Islam and the Qur’an no virtue has been announced in relation to them as there has been for men.”  The Prophet replied with this verse from the Qur’an:

Surely, the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, And the humble men and the humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their modesty and the women who guard, and the men who remember God much and the women who remember God much: God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an 33:35)

In respect to this verse, many male scholars agree that the Qur’an stresses on equal values for women and men.  Of course, this is not to gloss over how many of these scholars assert sexist attitudes towards women’s role in society, but it is interesting to read their own words against them!  Having said that, if women and men are equal, as the Qur’an teaches, then we must see violations against gender equality as injustice. Similarly, if Muhammad is to be the role model for all Muslims, then so should Fatima, whether one believes both of them to be infallible or not. Indeed, Fatima and her daughter Zainab endured hardship and challenges throughout their lives, and while some poetic praises from Muslim men honor these women, they tend to focus more on their sorrow than their immensely active political roles.  Hazrat Fatima constantly questioned authority up until her death, while Hazrat Zainab was taken prisoner by Yazid, but never submitted to his rule. On the contrary, she constantly condemned him, despite the risk of being executed herself.  Iqbal often writes of Hussain’s greatness because he is the son of Fatima, but Iqbal also goes further to say that had it not been for God’s laws of monotheism, he would have “gone round and round her (Fatima’s) grave-site” and “would have done sajdah (prostration) on her grave.”  Although Iqbal is known to challenge patriarchal Muslim jurists in regard to women’s rights, his conservative views on gender need to be critiqued.  It simply makes no sense for Muslim men to celebrate women like Khadijah, Fatima, and Zainab and yet persist with sexist attitudes and practices that aim to relegate women to the background.

Lastly, I think there needs to be a critique of Love and the way it is presented in relation to Islam and the Qur’an.  If Love is equality for all human beings, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., then Love is foundational to Islam.  Orientalists offer a very simplistic understanding of mourning in the Twelver Shia tradition and fail to highlight on the multiple ways people express their grief and sorrow during Muharram. What they also fail to emphasize is that Imam Hussain’s martyrdom was one of Love, i.e. Love of the Divine and Love for humanity. Sufism is not immune to Orientalist misrepresentations either, as we find many western New Age writers, poets, and musicians participate in spiritual appropriation.  For example, poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi are shamelessly mistranslated and distorted by Coleman Barks and others who do not speak Farsi and go as far as deliberately omitting Rumi’s Islamic references. When one reads these New Age “translations,” one might think of Sufi poetry as merely “universal” and “inspirational” quotes with an “exotic flare.”  Of course Sufi poems are inspiring, passionate, and breathtaking, but incredibly rich and complex cultural, religious, and literary themes are lost in western New Age romanticism and appropriation.  For instance, the way the poems I shared earlier shift so fluidly from the grief of Karbala to praise of Imam Hussain reflect the larger Sufi theme of joy and sorrow mirroring one another. This theme is rooted in the Qur’anic verses: “God will grant after hardship, ease” and “truly, with every hardship, there is ease/relief” (65:7, 94:5-6).

These verses are proven by the struggles of Muhammad, Khadijah, Ali, Fatima, Hussain, Hassan, and Zainab.  Further, we are reminded that Love is not without struggle or endurance through hardship.  Interestingly, I’ve noticed in some casual conversations that there is a general misinterpretation of the relationship between joy and sorrow.  Some say such poetry is “too depressing,” while others say it “idealizes” suffering.  On the contrary, poems that speak of struggle on the path of Love are deeper expressions of the human soul; it’s longings, desires, sorrows, joys, uncertainties, etc.  Zeb-un-Nisa (d. 1702 C.E.), who is reported to have participated in the mourning of Muharram, writes the following about Love:

Here is the path of Love—how dark and long
Its winding ways, with many snares beset!
Yet crowds of eager pilgrims onward throng
And fall like doves into the fowler’s net.

Despite the “winding ways” on the “path of Love,” she illustrates how the seekers/Lovers persist, even if the end result is doom.  Like many Sufi poets, Zeb-un-Nisa refers to Love in her poetry as Love for God, so there is a fitting analogy that can apply to Imam Hussain’s struggle in the way of God/Love.  One of my personal favorite verses from Zeb-un-Nisa beautifully captures God’s assurance of relief after hardship:

And see the thorny waste
Whereon your bruised feet their pathway traced,
This wilderness, touched by your blood that flows,
Blooms fragrant as the rose.

I don’t read poems like this as merely romanticizing pain or suffering, but rather as acknowledging that struggle exists in our lives.  Struggle manifests itself differently for everyone, which underlines the importance of being aware of our privileges and responsibilities.  As we reflect on Ashura, we can also use this time to bring our communities closer together.  If we believe the Qur’an’s message of peace, Love, respect, and liberation for all human beings  is represented in Imam Hussain’s stand against tyranny, we must recognize the Karbalas that exist in the present world – Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Native American land that we non-Natives occupy, everywhere.  Love within the context of social justice eliminates domination and establishes commitment to others, no matter where the oppressed are found, as Paulo Freire writes. bell hooks adds that Love is also about understanding that all of us, irrespective of race, class, gender, etc. have “acted in complicity with the existing oppressive system.”  Understanding our complicities serves as a reminder to keep ourselves in check and not recreate oppressive hierarchies in social justice movements.  Our commitment to interconnectedness with others, consciousness of our own responsibilities, and fighting all forms of oppression everywhere is, like the struggles of Muhammad, Fatima, Hussain, and Zainab, rooted in Love.

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

It’s Time to End Gender Segregation in Mosques

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I already know what many of you are thinking.  “This is haram/biddah/un-Islamic,” or perhaps my favorite, “This an example of people following their own desires over what God wants or commands.”  Some go as far to call Muslim feminism an “oxymoron,” or “extremely stupid,” and some even say it’s a “perversion” of Islam.  I’ve heard it all before, so if you don’t have anything new to contribute in what I hope will be a civil/mature discussion about gender relations in Islam, please don’t bother commenting.

We all know what the stereotypes say about Islam and women.  “Islam oppresses/enslaves/subjugates women!” cries the Islamophobe, and in response, all Muslims — female and male — get rightfully offended.  We get offended because we know our faith and our history.  We know how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, abolished sexist and misogynist practices, such as female infanticide, in order to promote women’s rights and gender equality.  We know how the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, peace be upon her, was an independent business woman who initiated a marriage proposal to Muhammad.  We know that the Qur’an, unlike the Torah, does not blame Eve for the first sin, but rather makes it clear that Adam and Eve were both in the wrong and then pardoned.  And while many of us dispute over how a woman is supposed to express the Islamic teachings of modesty, it is agreed upon that the Qur’an mandates women and men to be modest, respectful, and humble to each other.

We look around our community and know that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women choose whether or not they want to wear the hijaab (headscarf).  We read our history books and learn about empowered Muslim women over the centuries such as the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, peace be upon her, Rabia Al-Adawiyyah, Zeb-un-Nisa, and Razia Sultana.  In modern times, we have seen female prime ministers of Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Muslim women are athletes, journalists, authors, politicians, actresses, filmmakers, photographers, activists, bloggers, students, and teachers, among so many other things.  With all of this in mind, it sounds like the Muslim community enjoys gender equality.  Unfortunately, when we look closer, especially at our Mosques, we see a very contrasting picture.

Muslim Women in Mosques and Male Privilege

In the majority of Mosques, women are isolated in a separate room that is often smaller than the men’s section.  In some Mosques, men and women are separated by a wall or barrier, while in others, women pray behind a curtain.  I’ve been to some Mosques where a balcony is built specifically for women, which makes it easy for men to forget that women are in attendance and easy for women to feel like they have no participation in the Mosque.   Some Mosques, mostly in Muslim majority countries (but in the West as well) may not even have enough space for women.  Their argument is that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray in Mosques.  Women, according to them, can pray at home and take care of their “womanly duties.”

Depending on how big or wealthy the Mosque is, some Muslim women may be lucky enough to get a sound system and a television in their rooms so that they can hear and see the imam deliver his khutbah (sermon) during Friday prayers.  Sadly, as most Muslim women know, Mosques are infamously known for their poor sound quality and malfunctioning televisions.  But it’s more than just about bad sound or vision.  An article from “Islam for Today,” describes the discriminatory setting that Muslim women experience in Mosques:

…[A]mong those mosques that do let women in, I’m sorry to say that most of the ones I have seen relegate the women to an inferior status. They banish them to basement rooms or other segregated spaces. Too often the second-class spaces allotted to the women are poorly maintained, uncomfortable, cramped, filthy, or otherwise substandard, while the men reserve the best areas for their exclusive use. This kind of treatment makes the preaching about women’s status being equal in Islam sound awfully hollow. Too many places don’t allow women any chance to speak and be heard, let alone have any say in the way the mosque is run.

Muslim women never give sermons or lead prayers, unless it’s front of an all-female congregation and the men can’t hear/see them.  While men are limited to speaking to men only, they have better access to the imam and can make announcements to promote events after the Friday prayer.  If a Muslim woman wants to announce an upcoming event, she must do so through a man.  In other words, she cannot even announce something in her own words or voice.  On important Islamic events and holidays, a Muslim woman’s spiritual experience is significantly affected by the gender segregation.  Krista Riley, a Muslim feminist and contributing writer of Muslimah Media Watch, shares her experience:

On the 27th night of Ramadan – the night most widely believed to be Laylat-ul-Qadr, the Night of Power – I went to the mosque for tarawih prayers, in which they would be completing the recitation of the Qur’an that they had been doing all month. This experience, of praying together on this special night as the Qur’an is completed, is a beautiful and powerful one. At least, so I am told.

What happened in reality is that the women’s section, far too small to fit all of the women who had come that evening, was crowded and uncomfortable. I ended up having to pray close to the elevator, on the marble floor, because that was the only place left when I got there; I had people walking around and in front of me all evening. On top of that, it was NOISY. Several families had brought their small children, who were all sent up to the women’s section (where the “children’s area” was, although few children stayed inside it), and who were yelling, crying, and even running around at various points throughout the prayer. While I could hear the emotion in the Imam’s voice as he recited, I could barely focus on his words, because of all of the noise and activity around me. When the prayer was over, I could not get out of that mosque fast enough. It was, without a doubt, the most stressful prayer experience I have ever had. Far from being inspired, I was annoyed, agitated, and more than a little bitter.

Krista added that she later spoke with a male friend who had no idea about the chaos she experienced.  This reveals the male privilege that too many Muslim men are utterly oblivious to.  As Krista explains:  “Completely disconnected from the women’s space, the Imam and his male followers had the luxury of truly focusing on the beautiful words whose revelation had begun that same month, so many centuries before.”

Muslim male privilege is a reality that cannot be denied, but it often seems difficult for many Muslim men to understand.  Muslim men do not have to worry about having enough space in the Mosque nor do they have to worry about easy accessibility to the imam or shaykh.  Although women have religious and Qur’anic classes, they cannot have the same aspirations as men, such as becoming an imam or shaykh.  As a result of male-dominated spiritual leadership, men can abuse their power and preach sexist interpretations of Islam in order to control women.   Muslim men also have better chances of establishing positions on the administrative board and do not have to worry about being discriminated against because of their gender.

Prior to reading Muslim feminist literature, I was virtually unaware of the sexism that took place within our community, which exposes my own male privilege.  Some Muslims do not consider it sexism, however, and they often present theological arguments to justify segregation.  For example, a study called “Mosques, Collective Identity and Gender Differences Among Arab American Muslims,” by Amaney Jamal, reports that female Mosque attendance is considerably lower than male attendance, but the opposite argument would be that women are not obligated to attend Mosques as men are.  To justify the partition, the argument is that segregation is about modesty and respecting the opposite sex.  Some Muslims believe it is impermissible for a woman to lead men and women in prayer or give a khutbah because their voices and physical appearances can be “distracting.”  While I strongly value the teachings of modesty in Islam, I argue that the manner in which most Mosques practice segregation actually sexualizes gender relationships in ways that many don’t realize.

The Case Against Partition

There is a lot of evidence from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) that barriers did not exist during the time of the Prophet.  Interesting enough, a Hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of Muhammad, reported that a woman used to pray directly behind the Prophet while he led prayer.  Muslim feminist and filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, points out in her documentary film, “Me and the Mosque,” that women used to speak up at Mosques and even refute the speaker if they had to.  For example, after the Prophet’s death, a woman challenged the Caliph, ‘Umar bin Khattab, by citing the Qur’an after he tried to reduce the mahr, a monetary gift a man gives to a woman before marriage.  It was ‘Umar who was ultimately responsible for relegating women to separate rooms.

As I mentioned, separating the sexes on the basis that women and men are physical (read: sexual) distractions to one another sexualizes gender relationships  (it’s really presented as women being distractions to men).  Like all societies, gender socialization is no different in the Muslim community.  Men and women are conditioned by socialized gender roles and expectations, i.e. men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.  I remember at a Youth Group meeting, our Mufti was teaching Muslim male adolescents that their primary focus (after being a good Muslim) was on establishing a career that (1) required the least amount of work and (2) paid the most amount of money.  He stressed that careers were important because it enables Muslim men to get married, and settling down with a family is what all Muslims should aspire for.  When we spoke with our Youth Group about dating, I only heard condemnations and unrealistic lessons on how to avoid girls and keep interactions as minimum as possible.  Women were not being presented as individuals, but as temptresses who are after a man’s purity/virginity.   Women, according to the coordinators at my Mosque, need to be avoided until a man is ready for marriage.

Sobia Ali, a Muslim feminist who has also contributed to the aforementioned Muslimah Media Watch, shares her perspective on the sexualization of Muslim women (emphases added):

The reason Mosques segregate is so that men and women do not get distracted by each other. However, the greater concern is with men’s distraction. The segregation is MAINLY so that men are not distracted by women – more specifically women’s bodies. It is not women’s mere presence, but rather seeing her body, or hearing her voice which could distract him. Why? Because men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies and this will interfere with his worship. Therefore, knowing this, and then being forced to be in a completely different space than men, does nothing but remind me that my body, my female form, is a sexual distraction to the men in the Mosque.  This of course makes me feel like a sex object or sexual being.

The moment we say a woman’s voice may tempt a man, we are making a sexually-charged remark.  We are opposed to the idea of a woman leading prayer because we immediately think that men will “check her out.”  Yet we never seem to realize that women can be attracted to the voice of a Muslim man too.  I remember in my freshman year of college, some Muslim girls I knew were raving about how beautifully a Muslim man was reciting the Qur’an during prayer.  And there was more to it than just appreciating his spirituality and devotion.  “Well it’s different for men,” I remember a Muslim friend telling me once.  “Men are weaker, and they’re easily attracted to the opposite sex.”

Why do we treat gender interactions as a potentially sexual act?  Are Muslim men so weak that they’re unable to control their urges?  Are Muslims supposed to get married based upon socio-economic compatibility over Love and friendship?  I remember a fellow Muslim told me, “Just find someone you’re compatible with, don’t wait to fall in Love.”  At the Mosque, I made a comment once about how I Love Lebanese food, and the response was, “Oh, we’ll have to find you a good Lebanese sister for you, insha’Allah (God willing).”  I’ve noticed that a “good Muslim wife” in the eyes of the Muslim men at my Mosque is someone who is obedient, religious, wears hijaab, and knows how to raise a family.  God forbid if there is anything about romance or a woman’s individuality/personality.  Why aren’t we taught about the Love that hazrat Khadija and Muhammad had for one another?

Who’s Afraid of Amina Wadud and Female Imams?

Amina Wadud is a Muslim feminist and scholar who made international headlines when she led Friday prayer for a mixed-gender congregation in New York on March 18th, 2005.  Over 100 Muslim women and men participated in the prayer despite the controversy and protests that took place.  The Muslim protesters held signs reading, “Mixed congregation today, hell-fire tomorrow,” and one of the speakers was a young Muslim man screaming his head off  about how Amina Wadud is a “prostitute” and “whore.”  Apparently, if a sister in faith is doing something conservatives disagree with, the best way to teach her about modesty is to degrade her sexuality.  Who objectifies who again?

Wadud’s prayer was not the first female-led mixed-gender congregation in Islamic history, but it was the first that received international attention.  Most of the outrage comes, unsurprisingly, from Muslim men, who argue that Islam does not permit a woman to lead a mixed-congregation.  These reactions are interesting to me because I believe they reveal an underlying fear of empowered Muslim women.

It is always irrational when men get offended by feminist movements.  The fear that women want to “enslave men” is a result of the bruised male ego.  Men often neglect the fact that women have been treated as property, non-equals, and sex objects for centuries (and still are) by a male-dominated world.  A lot of men, whether they’re conscious of it or not, do not want to give up their position of power and they’re afraid of losing their dominance over women.  In the case of Amina Wadud, some Muslims argue that a female imam contradicts Islamic Law, but will not bother to read her book or alternative arguments, as if Islam is a monolith and only has one rigid interpretation.

Are we really taught that hazrat Khadijah was an independent tradeswoman and yet women are not allowed to lead prayers?  Are we really taught that “paradise is at the feet of your mother” by the Prophet, and yet we can’t listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah because of whatever “genetic disposition” she has as a female?  Can we really believe that Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, will be the first person to enter the afterlife, and yet the voices of Muslim women are completely shut out at Mosques?  How can we truly follow the Qur’an, which teaches that men and women are equal spiritual beings, when our community treats women as intellectually inferior to men?

The Muslim Ummah can never move forward or become enlightened unless we evolve spiritually, empower Muslim women, and truly practice gender equality.  Allah gave us brains and encourages us to our reason and logic.  Instead of raging against Muslim women leading prayers, why aren’t we focusing on the horrible sexual double standard that takes place in our community?  What about the Muslim men who fool around with multiple women, but then eventually settle down with a virgin Muslim woman?  It is impossible to deny that Muslim women are far more stigmatized and penalized if their shortcomings are discovered by their male counterparts.  Why don’t the angry protesters at Amina Wadud’s prayer express their outrage at their Muslim brothers who get drunk, sleep around, and deny the rights of their sisters?

Moving Forward

First of all, we need to get rid of this notion that “feminism” is a bad word.  It’s not.  Feminism is about promoting the respect, dignity, and equality of all human beings — women and men.  Second, Muslims need to stop associating feminism with “Western decadence,” or “Western liberalism,” which usually means “secularism.”  Muslim feminist values are rooted in Islam, not in something external.  I believe with all of my heart that Islam is a perfect religion that teaches gender equality, but Muslims are not perfect, which is why it’s important to address these issues.

Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. Muslim women should be encouraged to be leaders in our communities, as imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on.  I personally believe in removing the barrier and having Muslim men and women praying in the same room — with men on one side and women on the other.  Separate rooms should be made to accommodate for the Muslims who have more conservative views or want privacy.

Muslims need to remember what their religion teaches them.  If Muslim men really understood modesty and humility, we’d be showing so much more respect to women. If a Muslim woman leads prayer or gives a khutbah, we should not be thinking sexual thoughts. If a man has sexual thoughts going into the Mosque, nothing — not even a barrier — is going to stop him from having sexual thoughts or desires unless he restrains himself.

Lastly, the phrase “tear down the walls of separation” is an Islamic mystical (Sufi) expression used to convey the passionate longing that exists in our Souls — longing for the Divine, longing for Oneness, longing for self-actualization, and so on.  Beyond the physical, beyond gender, and beyond this shell we call “body,” there is a Being at the center of it all.  It is not your mouth or tongue that speaks, but rather your Being from within — that mystery we call “heart” and “soul.” The Qur’an teaches gender equality, and yes, women and men are different in many ways, but rather than limiting ourselves to roles based upon gender expectations, we should emphasize on celebrating and appreciating our differences.  If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, it will persist and only move one step closer to becoming permanent.

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts” – Qur’an 13: 11

Fatima

002

I dreamt of being awake,
traveling through dust and sand
of an unknown desert realm.

Lines on my hands
turned to the alien sky
as my weeping blood-tears
left flooded trails
across the crimson dune sea.

Darkness and its caravan
passed me a thousand times
striking my body
with sword and arrow;
trying to batter me
into ungodly submission.

The horde dispatched a one-eyed creature,
a satanic beast hungry only for flesh and blood,
its charging feet pounding the earth like meteor-blasts,
claiming to kill in the name of God.

The dark army lingered behind
“We are the hounds of heaven!” they barked.
“We are here to purify you of your transgressions!”

My weak soul trembled in fear
I am unable to hold my ground.
One more pass
And death will be near.

I recited my kalimah
And suddenly felt the desert wind;
The zephyr’s calm whispered enigma
to my mourning soul.

I turned in the direction of mystery
and saw a green-robed warrior,
galloping on her heavenly steed;
my words became lost to beauty,
my mind lost all sense of logic and reason.

Her weapons were Star-lit flowers
thrown onto the battlefield;
thorns burst out of roses,
and like raining daggers
they pierced into the hearts of the enemy;
beneath them, the sand opened like a tunnel,
I watched the desperate army
sink into the nameless abyss
darkness fell into emptiness:
non-existence, nothingness;
and like a dragon’s breath
a violent fire-storm erupted from below
and launched into the sky.

Heaven’s fire
set the new garden ablaze;
flowers in the desert,
jade blossoms coiled on the gates;
I watched her bless this place.

Beneath her feet
I saw the seven heavens
unfolding like solar blossoms;
I felt my soul fainting
at the sight of this surreal vision.

Before I awoke to transitory reality,
I said:

You are our infallible queen
Daughter of the apostle –
Muhammad, the Chosen one –
May Allah’s peace and eternal blessings be upon you

For you are Fatima,
Rose of the Empyrean