Learning Tools: Essays

Of Muslims and Muhammad by Azizah Al-Hibri

Dr. Azizah Al–Hibri, teaches in the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond. She is the founder of KARAMAH, an organization of Muslim women lawyers "dedicated to empowering Muslim women within an Islamic framework."

I remember when I was a little kid, lonely, curious and full of energy. I had lost my mother, and I cleaved to my father. My world revolved around him, and he was a very busy man. Men streamed into our house every day to visit my father. They sat long hours in our living room slowly sipping green tea poured out of a samovar. They thanked God, praised the Prophet, and discussed topics ranging from local and global politics to business and religion. Mostly, they talked about religion.

Some recited the Qur'an, others recited poetry. Still others raised controversial religious issues and spent long hours arguing about them. Once in a while, someone came in with a dream or some mystical experience to share. The guests were usually either notable ulama' (scholars) or religious leaders in their communities. They were pious people, thoughtful, and often with a healthy sense of humor. The discussions were fascinating and instructive. Even when they challenged my young wits, I relished them.

I could hardly wait for the afternoons and weekends to arrive and the groups of visitors to descend upon our house. I listened to every word, thought about every argument, laughed at the funny jokes (for humor and congeniality did not detract from the seriousness of the gathering). But I rarely spoke out. No, I was not afraid or intimidated. It is just that I was rarely invited to sit at such gatherings. It was not appropriate for a little girl.

But I listened anyhow. I sat in the dar (the larger reception hall reserved for special or family occasions) near the window separating it from the living room. The window was usually open, but covered with a Persian rug for privacy. I could hear every word, as if I was there in person. I just could not let my presence be known, not even to my father. On the few occasions when I was caught listening, my father smiled, saying, "You are eavesdropping on us, huh?" I would get embarrassed, then do it again. I found no better conversations than those. My nanny tried to tell me children stories about l'Shattir Hassan and l'Sitt B'dour. But these were romantic stories, and they all tended to be the same and end the same. What I was listening to in the dar was much more real and much more interesting.

There were other gatherings as well, not in our home but at other locations. I did not attend those gatherings, but I repeatedly heard about them from some of our male visitors. They would congregate once a week to listen to their sufi leader. She would teach them about the depths of their spiritual gifts, the real world around them, and what is truly important in life. Every week she gave a different lesson, and then they asked questions, prayed, chanted, and danced. They always seemed to leave these sessions spiritually invigorated.

They talked about their teacher with a great deal of admiration and respect. Her gender did not seem to be a noticeable issue for them. That alone endeared our sufi guests to my heart, (along with their flowing robes, incense and herbal perfumes). They were a happy but serious bunch. They believed in matters that seemed incredible to me at the time, and they relied totally on God's kindness and mercy. Theirs was an inspiring, all-embracing level of faith.

These days are long gone. I am now approaching old age in the United States, less lonely and somewhat less energetic, but still curious. When I first arrived here, I met imams who did not know their religion very well, and other imams who wanted me to write their speeches anonymously. I recognized the pretending imams who were more interested in power than spirit. I also ran into aggressive young Muslim men at women's conferences who wanted to speak in my name and the name of other women. They were boring, angry, and lacked a sense of humor. They had rules, suffocating rules about what I and other women can and cannot do. They claimed that they were the protectors of Islam. They ran around in long beards and shortened pants. They said this was the sunnah of the Prophet. They claimed he was their role model!

So have many others I've come across since then. The collection of men that claims to follow the example of the Prophet is as varied as their claims are offensive. Some use the Prophet to intimidate their wives who may know very little about religion. I found that these men knew very little themselves, but needed to refer to an authority figure to intimidate their wives. Just today, I received an e-mail message from a woman who has been emotionally abused by her husband. She wants to leave him, and what has he done to persuade her to stay? No, he did not think of improving his conduct. Instead, he threatened her with the Prophet. He said that the Prophet disliked divorce and she would be disobeying the Prophet himself to seek one. The e-mail was sad and heart wrenching. The woman was oppressed in the relationship. Nonetheless, she wrote, if that is what the Prophet would want her to do, then certainly she would not divorce. What was my advice?

In my reply, I pointed out the importance of mediation in Islamic marriages and, failing mediation, divorce. After all, Muslim jurists have recognized even verbal abuse as sufficient justification for divorce. If his relatives and her relatives cannot improve the situation, then she should get out. God made divorce legitimate in Islam, and spousal abuse is certainly an adequate justification. The husband in this case has been narrowly, self-servingly selective about the Prophetic tradition. While the Prophet did state that divorce is the most hated permissible act (halal) in God's sight, he also enjoined men to be good to their families. He said, the best amongst you are those who are best with their families, and I am the best amongst you because I am the best with my family.

So then, what happened to this sunnah? Why is it that we do not teach it in mosques more often? Why is it that we expect our women to be great mothers when they are secluded from public life, and especially from religious life? Too often our mosques relegate Muslim women to the back of the praying hall, or to more remote, less well-equipped quarters. Some excuse this removal by saying that the children become too noisy. It makes me laugh. I remember how our Prophet carried his children with him as he prayed, how he instructed an imam not to lengthen prayers inordinately, so that the women might attend to their babies. Women in the early days of Islam spent a lot of time in mosques. Some even slept there on occasion. But that tradition is now gone, and the sunnah of the Prophet is being distorted and used by ignorant patriarchal men to subjugate their women and to exclude them from centers of religious life.

Then there are Dr. Mahmoud Abu Saud, Imam Abdel Mun'im Khattab, Professor Fazlur Rahman (may God rest their souls in peace), and Dr. Taha Jaber al-Alwani, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, and others still among us. These are homegrown American Muslim religious scholars and leaders, with deep knowledge of their religion, a sense of humor, and the capacity to think constructively. They bring back old memories of a gentle, humane religion revealed to all humanity to liberate, not to oppress. They help women, they teach women, and they work with them as full partners in society. Despite their age and circumstances, these men better represent the face of the new American Muslim male, who is a product of this century and this place, than do some young Muslim males intent on intimidating and excluding women.

Al-Azhar University in Egypt, an ancient institution of religious education, already holds this traditional yet progressive point of view. Many years ago, it opened its gates to female scholars and is taking an active part today in correcting past injustices visited upon women through the patriarchal interpretation of Prophetic precedents meant to help them. The same is true in many parts of the Muslim world today, (though not all). I remember the day Sheikh Hassan Khalid (may God rest his soul in peace), then the mufti of Lebanon, visited our home near Washington, D.C. We were not together more than ten minutes before we started talking about certain Qur'anic passages, and he shared with me what he called the Story of Iblis (Satan). I was immediately returned to the good old days, where religious intellectual discourse was as common as sipping tea. But now I was a grown woman, and so I could be present and participate in such a serious discussion. He talked, I listened, then commented. It was a wonderful afternoon that has forever affected my thinking about the heart of Islam.

How I miss these old and old-fashioned men in my life! They were so good and pious; at least they tried. They had a heart, not just a voice, and when they spoke, their voice was gentle. They believed in the hereafter, and acted accordingly. They visited the sick, were good to their neighbors, and looked after orphans and needy people. They were the glue that brought the community closer together in public life. They were mostly married to women who also knew their religion. These women were not shadows moving in the dark. They had voices, personalities, and preferences. This is why some women could lead, and some men could follow without any eyebrows being raised in those old days.

As we sink our roots deeper into American soil, we need to ask ourselves about the society we are trying to establish. Muslims before us were brought here under adverse conditions and were forced to renounce their religion. Today, we are somewhat better off. Since the terrorist acts of September 11, however, our civil rights have come under serious attack in the name of combating terrorism. Suspicion alone is too often considered sufficient to remove from us the fundamental protections of the constitution, and our religion has come under unprecedented and uncivil attacks. Through it all, the silence of some old "interfaith" friends has been sickening.

I feel badly for the new generation of American-born Muslims. They had no prior notion that this could happen to them. I, on the other hand, read Lillian Hellman's book, Scoundrel Time, soon after arriving in this country. I also read about Wounded Knee, the Hay Market massacre and many other incidents of injustice that took place on American soil before my arrival. On one memorable occasion, I was also briefed by Brother Malcolm X in Beirut about the tragic condition of African Americans' civil and economic rights. All in all, I was somewhat prepared. Even so, in time I forgot.

Today, as I write this, Muslims have increased difficulty tithing because our government has frozen the assets of many of our charities. Governmental officials have even refused so far to transfer frozen donations to charities acceptable to them. Several law enforcement and national security agencies have raided institutions of Islamic learning, even the Fiqh Council of North America. On more than one occasion, they came into our bedrooms with guns drawn in the faces of sleeping women. They refused to allow women, uncovered in the privacy of their own home, to cover themselves before strangers. Now, as Muslims are no longer secure in their homes, possessions or even persons, I remember the travails of the Prophet in Makkah. He was born an orphan and had no power within his tribe, but he was known for his honesty and skills in communication and conflict resolution. Even so, the Makkans tried to harm him. So, he went to Madinah to build a just society.

Today, we who come from abroad are already immigrants in this new land. Due to international turmoil, many of us have been immigrants more than once. Some had no choice in being brought here, while others did. In either case, most of us are orphaned, cut away from our roots, and vulnerable. We face challenges at home and at work. Our religion and ancestral homes are denigrated and our integrity is often impugned, like that of other maligned groups before us. Given our current state, perhaps we should do what the old men in my childhood would have done: Figure out why we are here, and what is the divine wisdom in all of this. Because God is good, it can only be good.

Perhaps we are here because, after all these years, we need to ally ourselves with other upright citizens to teach some of our compatriots, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, about the true meaning of the American constitution. It is a meaning that is neither occasional nor ephemeral. We need to teach that freedom of conscience becomes significant exactly at the point when it becomes least tolerable by the majority. We need to teach that true democracy is not just about going to the ballot box, but about protecting the rights and dignity of every citizen, in hard as well as easy times. We need to teach about the banality of intolerance, and the destructiveness of prejudice. After all, both Jesus and Muhammad would have found much in these recent events appalling.

The Qur'an states very clearly that there is no compulsion in religion, that all humans are created from the same nafs (soul), and that God created diversity for us to enjoy each other's company (li ta'arafu). So, in reacting to racial and religious profiling and other forms of discrimination against us by teaching about the American constitution and its values, we would be living our faith and responding, as the Qur'an enjoins, to a bad deed with a better one. After all, the Qur'an tells us that a good word is like a goodly tree, its roots run deep into the earth and its branches reach out to the heavens. It bears its fruit at all times. So, let us start sowing the seeds of lasting liberty, respect for every human's dignity, and a genuine appreciation of diversity. And then, only then, will America be truly beautiful. That, I believe, is our calling, American Muslims.

Dr. Aziza Al–Hibri, teaches in the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond and is currently a scholar in residence at the Library of Congress. She is the founder of KARAMAH, an organization of Muslim women lawyers "dedicated to empowering Muslim women within an Islamic framework."