Zia Sardar weighs in on Wadud debate
Posted by Matthew Smith
It’s been a few months since I last contributed an entry to the “ZiaWatch” category, which lies sort-of orphaned with just three entries. Ziauddin Sardar’s writings are a topic which is dear to my heart because the book he wrote, Introducing Islam, was a heavy influence on my becoming Muslim. The problem is that he presents the opinion of a relatively small number of academics as Islamic fact, declaring these opinions to the western media. He has an article in the present edition of “emel” (meaning ML, for Muslim Lifestyle), which is published in east London and is edited by Sarah Joseph. It won’t surprise anyone that he supports Amina Wadud’s action.
The article (Three Cheers for Women Imams, issue 11, page 19), in its tone, actually reads like it was intended for MWU.
It starts out sarcastically and mocking the scholars of Islam:
The heavens have been shaken. Imams, mullahs, sheikhs and the ulama are hopping mad. A centuries old custom has been challenged: a woman has led a mixed gender congregation for Friday prayers in New York. Whatever next? Women claiming the right to do ijtihad?
His claim that this action has been some sort of earth-shattering event is exaggerated; it has become well-known because of its heavy publicity. A few men have decided to nullify a prayer by praying behind a woman, drawing mockery and hostility on our community in the process. It’s interesting that he compares this to women doing ijtihad, as there has been a whole history of Muslim female scholars, including the teachers of several major Imams (notably Sayyida Nafîsa, the teacher of Imam al-Shafi’i).
In his next paragraph, he slanders the people who run the International Islamic University in Malaysia. Apparently they were sufficiently deceived by her “deep Islamic knowledge” to give her a teaching position, and when they realised that she was a “natural born rebel” – or was it before they realised her extremely deviant ideas? – they kicked her out. They certainly would not have found a place for her if they had heard her say that it was the Qur’an that gives us the authority to “say no to the Qur’an”.
Not content with slandering the IIU in Malaysia, he next slanders the whole community, and particularly its scholars:
How have the great leaders of this great ummah of ours reacted? To begin with there were the inevitable death threats.
Where’s the proof that any “leader” was behind this? Perhaps the threats actually came from Wadud’s supporters in an attempt to smear her opponents; perhaps it was someone outraged by her attack on what everyone knows is proper Islamic practice. Where is the evidence that it was an organised campaign, let alone that any leader did it or called for it? And as for being incapable of civilised behaviour, her opponents did not resort to slander or to playing the race card, which is more than can be said for Sardar and Amina Wadud.
Apparently, the organisers of the “mixed jumu’ah” had to vet their congregation to make sure there were no hostile elements! I wonder if they employed the people who do the same at George W Bush’s rallies. (According to some Islamic authorities, a jumu’ah is not valid anyway if it’s not open to everyone.)
He then trots out the notorious straw-man argument that the reason people oppose women leading jumu’ah is to do with their menstrual cycles and the possibility of spillage! Now, some imam somewhere may have said this, but no proper scholar would suggest that it was relevant. If it were, women might be prohibited from sitting on the same chairs as men, in case the man later got a drop or a trace on his trousers or thobe. It is actually not Islam which is superstitious and fearful of women’s menstrual cycles. We are not the people who tell women not to cook for their families during their periods, or that a man becomes impure if he touches the bed a woman sleeps on during her period. There is even a hadeeth in Bukhari in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) prayed on a mat on which one of his wives, who had her period, was sitting. Bear in mind, it was more difficult then to protect clothes from blood than it is now.
Sardar admits that the argument “is inapplicable in any case as women do not do the ritual prayers during that time”; but one wonders if the argument had genuinely been advanced by anyone. Imams do have wives – they are not like celibate priests, and even they are raised by mothers and often with sisters and other female relatives around. It’s very rare that a man sees anything of his female relatives’ periods other than what they use to protect their clothing. If anyone had really said this, it would have been better to point it out to him in private, rather than to repeat it in the press as a basis for people to ridicule him and the entire body of Islamic scholars.
He next goes onto the issue of a man being led astray by the sight of a woman’s behind in front of him while he prays, using the usual sarcasm and mockery:
I mean, if our brothers are so lacking in moral fibre that the mere sight of a woman covered from head to toe like an Egyptian mummy can lead them astray then there is something seriously wrong with them.
The problem, of course, is that a lot of brothers could be distracted. There is huge wisdom in having women pray behind the men if they pray in the same room; look what most men wear during the salaat – jeans and a T-shirt, usually – and imagine that a lot of women will be wearing a pair of trousers or a skirt, a cardigan or pull-over and a headscarf. A few, of course, will wear a jilbaab of some sort. Bear in mind that in a lot of Muslim countries sexual harrassment is a huge problem, even for sisters in hijaab. It is as logical not to have a woman in front when a man prays as it is not to have advertising, because a man should, indeed, be thinking about his prayers, not women or anything he might buy.
He then goes on to celebrate the infestation of opinionated women with faulty ideas about Islam – he’s a big fan of Fatima Mernissi, for example. Apparently “almost every Muslim community now has a leading female scholar of Islam determined to challenge every unjust custom, every oppressive tradition perpetuated in the name of Islam”.
Of course, he confuses academics with scholars of Islam – you won’t find any of them, I’m sure, who have memorised any large part of the Qur’an or large body of hadeeth, although they will be perfectly able to find scholars of whatever persuasion to give some (ostensibly) favourable opinion. One suspects he is not so fond of those women (and men) who learn the deen through the proper channels, at the feet of the scholars (male or female), in order to impart knowledge of the deen to a community desperately in need of it.