(This is the fourth in a series on Islam as liberation theology and on Muhammad as a prophet for our times. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad, prophet for our times: London, Perennial Books, 2006.)
Have you noticed how champions of women’s liberation come out of the woodwork and suddenly materialize in the unlikeliest of places to justify wars against Muslims? After all, they argue, Sharia Law won’t even let women drive automobiles. How shocking! This contravenes (rich) women’s unalienable right to drive cars the same as men! Let’s go to war to liberate women!
And then there are those awful burkas and veils imposed by Islam. How cruel! Women should be allowed to wear mini-skirts and bikinis if they want. They should be allowed to coif themselves according to the West’s latest fashions, and to show their faces in public. Hell, if they want to be pole dancers, that’s their right! Those not recognizing it are worthy of death!
As we all know, such arguments have actually been used to mobilize support for wars in places like Afghanistan, Libya and Iran. And they’ve often been advanced by Republicans who like Rush Limbaugh, otherwise despise Women’s Liberation movements, and ridicule feminists as Femi-Nazis. But if it means killing Muslims, GOP Tea Partiers are happy to display pink ribbons. Whatever. Or as a Great Man once put it, “Bomb, bomb, bomb . . . Bomb, bomb Iran”
These are the same people, by the way, who downplay the seriousness of rape. They blame it on men’s “understandably” uncontrollable impulses in the presence of women “provocatively” attired. After all women’s bodies are so programmed that pregnancy hardly ever results from rape. Or as another Great Man once said, “When rape is inevitable, just lie back and enjoy it.”
Can you spell “hypocrisy?”
Actually, according to Karen Armstrong, burkas, driving prohibitions, and veils have little to do with the Holy Qur’an and the spirit of the prophet Muhammad. Armstrong argues that he was a champion of women far ahead of his time. In general, women recognized in Muhammad a prophet on their side. In the face of cultural prohibitions, he allowed his wives to express their opinions freely and even to confront and disagree with him in front of others.
Muhammad also advocated complete equality of the sexes, with men and women sharing the same duties and responsibilities. Women were no longer to be treated as property bequeathed from one male to another. They could inherit estates, initiate divorce suits, and hang on to their dowries even following dissolution of marriage. As a result of such revolutionary teachings, women located themselves prominently among the prophet’s earliest and most enthusiastic followers.
Still, however, the western enemies of Islam insist on vilifying Muhammad as a lecher, pedophile, and gold digger. But these accusations turn out to be invidious calumnies. They stem from a failure to appreciate Arab culture 1400 years ago. It was an ethos that encouraged polygamy, just as had been the case among Israel’s patriarchs like Abraham and kings like David and Solomon.
In particular, Arab custom recommended the incorporation of vulnerable widows into the harems of those who could afford them, in order to protect the women from starvation and abuse. Additionally, treaties between tribes and nations were customarily sealed by marriage – again just as they had been in the culture of ancient Israel as described in the Hebrew Testament.
Acting in accord with such norms, Muhammad eventually assembled his own harem which came to include “child brides.” These were often part of the treaties just referenced. In such cases, cohabitation was postponed until the bride’s coming of age.
As for “gold-digging,” this accusation stems from Muhammad’s first marriage to Khadija, a distant relative who as a widow inherited a fortune from her first husband. She was a shrewd trader and employed a twenty-five year old Muhammad as one of her traveling merchants. This eventually led to a proposal of marriage on the part of the older woman. Muhammad accepted.
However, far from providing evidence of gold-digging on the prophet’s part, the history of the subsequent union offers ample proof of sincere love and respect between Muhammad and Khadija. She became his principal confidant as his revelations began to unfold. She encouraged him when they ceased for over two years. Following Khadija’s death, Muhammad continually upset his other wives by regularly singing her praises in their presence.
No, like other calumnies uttered against Muhammad and Islam, the ones about his repression of women contradict a reality that runs in quite the opposite direction.
It was men whose patriarchal instincts caused them to resist Muhammad’s leadership in this field. It was men who following Muhammad’s death interpreted one of the Qur’an’s surahs as requiring women to be segregated and veiled in public.
The surah in question (Number 33) was spoken by Muhammad during the reception following one of his late marriages. There some of his enemies acted passive-aggressively by overstaying their welcome, speaking disrespectfully to Muhammad’s wives, and generally preventing the newly weds from retiring for the night.
In response, after admonishing his guests about good manners, Muhammad gave Surah 33 the following expression:
“And as for the Prophet’s wives, whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen; this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.”
It was not until three generations after the prophet’s death that those controversial words were used to justify the veiling and segregation of Muslim women in general, as though they applied to all of them and not just to Muhammad’s wives.
Still even those late interpretations are understandable in the light of threats to Muslim culture, including those of our own day. As Karen Armstrong puts it,
“In times of vulnerability, women’s bodies often symbolize the endangered community, and in our own day, the hijab (veiling) has acquired new importance in seeming to protect the ummah (community) from the threat of the West (170).” (Parenthetical translations my addition)
In other words, Muslims are not blind. They see clearly the disrespect, abuse, and violence to which western women are routinely subjected. Evidently, it’s their judgment that such repression and negativity can best be avoided by eschewing mini-skirts, bikinis, fashionable hairdos, pole dancing, and even driving.
As another Great Man has said, “Who are we to judge?”