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Student Session: Speakers' Forum on Gender, Justice, and Religion at BRAC University

With: Zainah Anwar Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir

May 17, 2015

Background: This discussion with Zainah Anwar, Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir, and Nani Zulminarni took place on May 17, 2015 at BRAC University, following the second Speakers’ Forum on Religion and Development in Bangladesh, which explored issues of women’s empowerment and religion. This session provided a unique opportunity for students at BRAC University to engage with this group of renowned scholars and activists and ask questions related to their own experience with religion in both the public and private spheres. The discussion was organized by Samia Huq and Nat Adams. The topics discussed range from participatory approaches to scriptural interpretation, and the importance of such an approach in contexts where Islam is used as a basis for public policy. It explored how Islam has been used in the construction of legal rights and social obligations for women and men, taking up specific examples such as polygamy and women’s mobility. The discussion also touched on the rise of progressive Islamic scholarship and stressed the need to be informed and engaged on issues of rights and religion.

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir: Salam alaikum, good morning. I think when we talk about building foundations, we have to recognize that there is perceived inequality or imbalance between the text and the reader. People often believe that the text is at such a high level, so it’s the domain of the clerics. They might think ‘oh, the text is beyond me, I can’t do anything to the text.’ Of course, in terms of tafsir or interpretation we have a problem of knowledge, methods, as well as a question of when we should interpret and when we should not. But the biggest problem I think is with authority. So I just want to raise one issue related to what I said yesterday about a conversational approach to the text. Since most religious believers, I think, feel that they are not in an equal relationship with the text, it is important to feel that the text is a friend. If we take this perspective we can better engage in the interpretation. So a conversational approach means that we see texts like the Qur’an or the hadith in Islam, as our friend, not as a thing that is higher than us. We should not be afraid to interpret or believe that we need a certain level of scholarship to do that—no, I think everybody is an interpreter.

In the terms of gender justice, for example, many feminist activists and colleagues feel that the hadiths are problematic because there are many misogynistic passages. But I think that is why we need women as readers to be invited to interpret using their own perspective. In the community of readers and interpreters, all of us are invited to participate in tafsir and to interpret using our own feeling and imagination. This way we will come to infinite interpretations of the text and of Islam.


This is about big ideas as well as small ideas, in my experience. As I said yesterday, Arabic is a gendered language, and is set out mostly using male pronouns. In the Qur’an for example, it is mostly ‘he, he, he’—so any command or provision is directed literally to men, not to women. The question is how women can become included in that verse. For example, ‘those who believe in Allah and do good things will enter paradise and will have their purified wives’—literally, wives. So the question is how to include women. But of course in the Qur’an there have been many interpretations since the first revelation, because the female companions already asked the Prophet why women are not included in the Qur’an. Then some verses came down—“the male believer and the female believer are the same,” etc.

There are also many, many hadiths using the male language and directed only to men, even the prayers, the dua. This is often the first question directed to me from people in the crowd during the dua of Ramadan, the prayers after the tarawia. All the prayers are set out in very male language. So like ‘give me wife, give me paradise.’ All of the prayers are like this. And the question coming from women in the crowd is, ‘where are we? You are an ulama. Please change the dua, because if the dua is like this then where is the position of women.’ We have that kind of conversation. So then we meet and discuss how to understand the many hadiths that are not directed to women, such as when a husband invites his wife to intimate relations and then the wife refuses the husband, the angel will curse the wife in the morning. Well there is not opposite hadith. So then we might say “oh this is misogyny, we don’t need the hadith, throw it out.” But on the ground they use it every day. But the question is, where are the women.

So I say if we approach the hadith as our friend using the conversational hermeneutic, we can try to see how to make it more equitable. If there is husband and wife, we can switch them. So if the hadith says ‘if a husband invites…’ we can say ‘if a wife invites…’ also. Because the message is not personally about the husband, but about how the partners satisfy each other and how the partners love one another. This is kind of message that is already in the Qur’an, already in the hadith. So now, in Indonesia that’s happening, this kind of reciprocal reading—so every hadith directed to men is also to women, and the hadith directed to women are also to men. So if the hadith says ‘the wife should obey the husband,’ we must also say that ‘the husband should obey the wife,’ because this obedience is about how to keep the family and relationship based on mutuality and also love. Obeying the husband is not absolute obedience, there is no absolute obedience in Islam, because in the hadith, there is no obedience at all, unless in the good thing. So the hadith means that the wife obeys the husband in terms of keeping the family in good partnership, etc. So in that kind of understanding the husband is also supposed to obey the wife.

This is happening with other concepts such as kiwama, wilaya—I mean in the grassroots activism, of course not in all the formal institutions—we try to determine the spirit of reading, and that way, in my experience, many people are happy to have the hadith as their friends, we don’t have to throw away hadiths we don’t like or say “oh, this is too high from us,”—no, feel and imagine the texts as your partner and friend. Thank you.

Nani Zulminarni
: I will take it from what Faqih has been saying about interpretation from the point of view of what we see on the ground in the Indonesian context. I think one challenge for us as Muslims in Indonesia, we don't speak Arabic, and we don’t read Arabic. We read the Qur’an, it’s mandatory that all children must learn it—so I read the Qur’an very well, but I don't understand what it says unless I read the translation. But there is only one translation allowed by the government. In the rural areas especially among women, we have a tradition, what we call spangagia, a congregation where we organize in rural areas. All women must join this congregation, which they do once a week. The preacher is usually a man, and he talks about all of the regulations on women, like ‘women must do this, women must do that, the wife must obey the husband,’ all of that. And there is no space for discussion because the Qur’an is a dogma, you cannot question the Qur’an, you cannot ask questions—that is the first regulation of these congregations. We just listen, and now these people also reach out to the television, so now we have these preachers who have huge followings on the television, always using these misogynist, hierarchical interpretations. So this influenced the way people live, especially in rural areas.

I’m organizing women heads of the family, mostly widows and divorced women. We have a stigma, I don't know if you have this in your context here, we have a very strong stigma, very bad stigma for widows and divorced women, especially divorced women. Divorced women always have a negative stigma, so they cannot move freely. Other women are afraid of them because they think they will flirt with their husband, and the men usually look at them as sex objects. For these women, they are usually excluded from the social system.

I think this is also influenced by all of these interpretations and understandings of women in Islam—the concept of mahram, the concept of the good Muslim women who must marry, they must obey the husband even if their husband is violent. They have to be in their household whether the husband is already not there. So we have so many women whose husbands are already gone for nine years in Malaysia working as migrant workers, never sending money, no news, nothing. They still consider themselves married women with a husband who has been away nine years. The communities around them still consider them as married. So then they cannot do anything—they cannot make decisions for themselves, for the children, or even represent their family because she is not considered the head of the family. This is one of the consequences of these issues, of the concept of marriage in our Muslim context.

It is all very contradictory as well—for example the issue of mahram, which prevents women from freely moving, whenever women become migrant workers, they go to Saudi Arabia, so far away, alone. Nobody questions it. They get hurt, they get raped, they get killed, no one is asking questions about that—how do they treat these women? But because of the economics gains of that, all of that has been politicized. There is no real Islam implanted in those issues, it’s not consistent. And now we’re starting to work with people like Faqih who understand the text very well. This is important for activists who do not understand the text very well, we use an international framework and try to marry this with our tradition. We will not totally ignore the text nor ignore the international framework, but to see the text from a justice perspective. So it’s not easy, of course, our organization and people like me are not accepted in both places. We are not accepted in women’s rights organizations because they say ‘you are not feminists, you’re wearing headscarves, and you’re talking about religion.’

On the other hand we are not accepted by religious groups, because they say ‘you’re always talking about women’s rights, it’s against Islam.’ So it is sort of difficult to convince either side. We are working in the middle and trying to organize around reality—what are women actually facing in their daily lives. But there’s still a long way to go. We try to engage with friends in larger movements, like Zainah and Musawah, just to have more voices, more energy, that yes, we have to engage religion. We cannot disengage with religion, because the grassroots people still believe in it.

Zainah Anwar
: I’ll pick up where they left off. I’ll pick up on one issue, the issue of authority. Who has a right to define Islam? ‘This is how it should be practiced and how it should be codified into law and how it should be complied with.’ As Faqih and Nani mentioned, it’s basically people like us—ordinary Muslims—the religious authorities feel that we don't have a right to speak on matters of religion because we don't speak Arabic, we don’t have a degree in Islamic studies, we’re not covered up—all kinds of reasons, basically to deny us any voice in matters of religion, and that they, the ulama, know best about what Islam is and what it is not. Our job as Muslims is just supposed to be to comply, to obey them in what they say. And what they say is the divine truth and that cannot be challenged. Basically, to me, that can tantamount to “shirk,” equating yourself to God, and that’s totally un-Islamic. But the way that we have organized in Malaysia the group that I helped to co-found, Sisters in Islam, and then the initiation of the global movement Musawah, which means equality in Arabic, is basically claiming the right of ordinary Muslims to speak up on matters of religion. And how do you justify that when you don’t know Arabic, when you didn’t study Islam in al-Azhar or Medina and all these sanctioned universities—God forbid your degree is from Temple University or St. Andrews or these universities in the west, unless of course you agree with them—if you agree with them, that’s fine never mind if your degree is from some infidel country or infidel university. I mean if you look at Nasr Abu Zayd or even Amina Wadud who knows classical Arabic, wears the hijab, got a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, and she’s still attacked. So it’s basically an ideological struggle and a political struggle, and this is where we locate our work.

In countries where Islam is used as a source of law and public policy, everyone should have a right to engage with religion, to define it, to shape it, to respond to it, because what we’re talking about is public law and public policy, it’s not just Islam, the religion. It’s the intersection of theology, politics, law, gender, that’s where we’re at in terms of our engagement. To draw a clear-cut line where theology stops and politics and law take over is very difficult because it’s the intersection of all of these issues. But we have the right to speak on these matters because we are impacted by Islamic laws Islamic law is not divine law. Abdullahi An-Na’im even says Islamic law is not sharia law, and everyone is always so shocked to hear that because it is man-made law, they are constructed laws. And the text of the Qur’an does not speak without human intervention. There’s this great story that I like to use when I talk about Islamic law not being divine law. It’s the story of the fourth Caliph, Ali and his agreement to a negotiated settlement over a dispute with Mu’awiyah. The Khawarij, believed that God was on the side of Ali and therefore any negotiated settlement was inherently wrong as dominion belonged to God. Ali then called for a meeting and placed a large copy of the Qur’an on the table and commanded the Qur’an to speak, to inform people of the law. Of course the Qur’an cannot speak. The point Ali was making was that it is human beings who give effect to the words of the Qur’an. The Qur’an does not speak without human intervention. The minute there is human intervention; human engagement with the text, what comes out of that human intervention with the text is human understanding of the text. It is not God’s words anymore. So it is fallible, changeable, it could be right, it could be wrong. It is human understanding, human constructed law. The source may be divine, but the product of that engagement with the divine text is human constructed law, not divine law. Therefore we have a right to engage, to critique, to reform.

And it’s really important for us to bring that understanding in the context of Malaysia where Muslims have been brought up and pummeled on radio, television, all these talks that they hear in their neighborhood lecture sessions, and all that, that this is divine law and therefore it cannot be challenged.

There is arrogance in asserting that this is divine law, ‘what I’m saying is what God said,’ this does not exist in the tradition. If you look at the classical scholarship, the scholars would always end with saying ‘this is my opinion—I may be right, I may be wrong, only God knows best.’ There is that level of knowledge that makes you humble and open, because the effort to understand God’s word is really an eternal effort. You can never know if you are right. As a good Muslim, you will embark on your best effort to try to understand God’s word, but you can never claim with confidence that this is the truth. Which is what some of the ulama today say and therefore if you challenge them, you are going against God’s word and going against Islam. When you claim the authority of God, confer the authority of God on yourself; this is really abusing the text for authoritarian purposes. And this needs to be challenged.

I know there’s a lot of fear about engaging with religion—and inside you, you think ‘I don’t know Arabic, I didn’t study Islam in a formal manner, what right do I have?’ So think about it not as theology, but as public law and public policy. The source of that law may be divine, the Qur’an, but what comes out of the human engagement with divine text is not divine, it’s human made, it’s constructed, it’s fallible, it might be wrong, it might be right. In the end, what we are concerned about is how such understandings of the religion affect us and our fundamental liberties. There are many wonderful juristic principles in Islam, the principle of maslaha, public interest, the principle of isthisan, choosing the best among many opinions, ihtilaf, differences of opinion. There are so many wonderful, rights-bearing, forward-looking juristic principles that have existed from classical times because even the classical jurists dealt with the circumstances on the ground and developed all of these principles in order to serve the public interest. So the principles do exist within the tradition, to rethink, reinterpret, and reformulate.

In the end for me, there’s this incredible diversity of interpretations within the tradition, incredible juristic principles that we should be proud of in the tradition that allows change to take place, so the issue then is really the political will. This is a political struggle. This is a political issue. Amidst this diversity of principles and interpretations that exist in the tradition, and the realities of our lives today, and given the incredibly profound changes in women’s lives, who has the authority to decide? Why must we always choose the most misogynistic, cruel, punitive opinion that exists in the tradition? I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, it exists in the tradition. But why do you always choose the most punitive, misogynistic opinion to turn into law, when there are so many other, more progressive, more egalitarian opinions that you could use as a source of law? Is this really Islam, or is this because you want to use religion to maintain your privileged status in life, to maintain control over women, over public life? So this questioning is really important. How do you begin to get some of these ideas into the public space so that people will start thinking about this whole issue of the diversity that exists within the tradition and the juristic tools that exist that enables us to argue for equality, justice, for reform. This is particularly important in Muslim contexts today where the modern nation-state monopolizes its massive coercive powers to impose laws and claim a divine basis, and punish those who violate these laws. So these are real issues that those of us who live in Muslim countries where Islam is used as a source of law and public policy and practice we need to begin to challenge this, in ways that reflect the realities of our lives. I’ll end there.

Questions, comments?


Student question:
When the ulamas come to our home, I remember one who was helping me to read the Qur’an gave two statements to me—one is that every religion is equal and we should not judge one another, the other was it is written in the Qur’an that if you are a Muslim and you see a non-Muslim passing by, you should not give space to the non-Muslim because you are a Muslim and you have the authority to pass ahead of that person. So these are two contradictory statements, so how will you interpret or explain them?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir:
Thank you for a very, very difficult question! I hope this discussion brings not only good questions but also good comments. When you find that kind of contradiction, how should you feel, and what should you do? You have to realize that Islam have been dealing with contradictions since the beginning of the tradition, but at that time the Prophet was there to resolve them. Now people are able to ask so many more questions in the age of information, but we have no Prophet to resolve these contradictions. In scholarship the contradiction is known as ikhtilaf. There is a discipline in Islamic scholarship about how to deal with the contradictions. Many scholars say there is no contradiction in the texts; the contradiction is in the interpretation. Since the contradiction is in your mind, you can solve it on your own, using your mind, your experience, and maybe sometimes your logical way of understanding. Like the example at the time of the first clerics, in the Qur’an for example there are some verses that are very cruel to non-Muslims, others are very peaceful, so how can you reconcile them? Some said the cruel ones should be abolished; some said no, we should abolish the peaceful one, because we need to always be at war with non-Muslims. So from the beginning this dispute was there. Others tried to reconcile in context: you might need the cruel while you’re at war, the peaceful when you are at peace with non-Muslims.

So the question is like Zainah said, which Islam will you adopt? Everything is there in the tradition. I will try to quote the concept of Ibn Arabi, the Sufi mystic, very famous in the Muslim tradition. He said that all interpretations are divine, as long as our logic can be derived from the text. Divine and intended by God, even though maybe they are a very cruel interpretation. But the real responsibility lies not in that interpretation, but when you implement that interpretation.

So the text always lives with us and has infinite meaning—not one, two, or three, but thousands, especially in the Qur’an and also in the hadith. That’s why he has big volumes of tafsir—the Qur’an is only 1,000 verses but the interpretation becomes 1,000 volumes. Everyone can have their interpretation, but the responsibility comes when you choose one interpretation to implement in real life. That’s part of the responsibility of human beings.

Student question:
Regarding interpretation of the Qur’an, I think there is a difference between private interpretation and the interpretation of the community. Because I think that it is often the case that influential individuals can push their own interpretation on the community. This is one problem and other one is, if a community can use this power to interpret collectively, that might become hegemonic over private interpretation. My other question is if there is no divine interpretation of the Qur’an, what remains as necessarily Islam?

Because when there’s a book, when there’s a source on it, and every individual has the logical opportunity and right to interpret it in his own way, what remains as the necessary Islam?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir
: I’ll respond to the question of what then is Islam if there is not divine interpretation. The classical scholarship said that the real Islam is only known by God, but we are trying our best to understand. When we see it like this, all interpretations are not divine and not the ‘real Islam’. But there are methods of how to say one thing is closer to the truth than another. When we say closer, of course we mean more Islamic. While other scholars say no, all interpretations are Islamic, and divine. God intended that the Qur’an will be interpreted by human beings in some kind of diversity. So according to this view all interpretations are divine. We should respect them all even if they are very cruel or very problematic, because God created the world like this. So to me, somehow I agree with this, to say that I should respect all interpretations—even if they come from fundamentalists. But when you implement any interpretation, you must also listen to many voices. So now I try my best to listen to women’s voices like Zainah, because I have already listened to the ulama. This is not to challenge what they say, but to complement it, because without the complement the interpretations are not complete. We need all perspectives in order to evolve the science of interpretation. Religious interpretation is like science, it evolves.

Zainah Anwar
: If I can just respond to that question, what is Islam then—we all live in a sea of interpretations and a sea of choices, even when you go to the supermarket, we have choices of coffee, and milk, and soap powder. We never complain that that’s confusing, but when it comes to Islam, when you have so many interpretations, so many voices being heard, people say oh, it’s going to confuse the Muslims and lead them astray. But for me, the principles of faith, you know believing in God, in the Prophet, in the angels, praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan--those things I don’t challenge. For me, those are the articles of the faith. But the problem that we have is, if faith is between you and God, then I say look, it doesn’t matter because it’s up to you to choose which ulama to believe, which interpretation. So it’s fine to have all of these thousands and thousands of classical texts with all kinds of interpretations, because in the end it’s between you and God.

But when the state comes into the picture, and the state adopts one interpretation and then punishes you when you don’t believe in that interpretation then it has to be open to everyone to critique, because in the end what we’re talking about is really public law and public policy. And within the modern democratic state, public law and public policy must be open to public reason, and if the public doesn’t agree with this, if there’s contestation, then you need to use principles of justice, of equality, and non-discrimination, your constitutional principles of freedom of expression, your international obligations, the human rights treaties that we sign, all of these have to come into play. It cannot be ‘oh, this is Islamic law and therefore it cannot be challenged, it cannot be questioned.’

So this is where we need to build that tradition within our community, within our society, to realize that what we’re talking about is public law and public policy. Yes, there is a diversity of interpretations, yes it’s confusing—which is right, which is wrong—but to really emphasize, this is about public law and public policy, about practice that is going to affect people in many adverse ways, so those who are affected have a right to speak out. And I always tell them, if you don’t want me to speak out then take Islam out of the public sphere, make it private between me and God, and I don’t care what you say because it has no effect on me, I can choose to follow, I can choose to ignore because it’s between me and God. But when you want to use your interpretation of Islam and codify it into law, and I’m going to be sent to jail or have my hands and feet cut off because I disobeyed the law, then I’m sorry, I will speak out. So we really need to start a public discussion about what are the essential dimensions of this religion called ‘Islam.’ Are we talking about Islam at the theological level, the political level, the social level? What Islam, whose Islam is the right Islam? This is the debate we need to engage in when the religion is used in such punitive, misogynistic ways to maintain control over our daily lives, rights and freedoms.

Student question:
I remember reading in the Qur’an that only Muslims go to heaven. Anyone who is not Muslim, whether it’s Jews or Christians will go to hell. I think it was in the first, or the biggest sura. It’s been awhile since I read it so I couldn’t quote the verse. I always wondered about Mother Theresa, would God really send Mother Theresa to hell? [laughter]

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir:
There are two verses actually; the first says if you’re not Muslim, you will go to hell. But the other says, those who believe, those who are Jews, those who are Christian, will enter paradise as long as they do good things for the people. This is a very clear verse in the Qur’an, but the people will say this should be ignored, they will say ‘go war the non-Muslims.’ Many others will say the second should be the main principle and the first should be abolished.

Student question
: There is a hadith that says that at the end of the world there will be several groups of Muslims, and only one of them will be accepted. Interpretations can give birth to different groupings in Islam, so this is very confusing. If there are different interpretations of Islam, which will be accepted?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir
: Regarding which interpretation will be accepted. Actually there are two versions of that story. The first is that the believers will divide into 73 groups or sects, and all will be in the hell except one. But which are the 72, and which is the one? There is no further description. So people have had to interpret this. Mu’tazilas say other Mu’tazila are that one accepted group of course, Sunnis say only Sunnis, and Wahhabis say only Wahhabis. But you know there is another version that says that believers will divide into 73 groups and all will be in paradise, only one will not.

But there have been discussions like this from the beginning. That is because a lot of these problematic hadiths relate to political power. Many will avoid these hadiths, saying they don’t want to discuss them because they are related to a particular historical context to comment on whether the followers of the Prophet could be Sunnis or Shi’a, so many avoid that discussion. While others may take the first and say everyone is going to hell, except me. So it’s up to you how to choose.

Zainah Anwar
:
I think that if there is one group that will be favored by God, I would like to think it would be a large group—we’re imagining it’s one group of 7 people standing on an island, no—I think it could be one group over time over the billions of years that the world will have existed, the group will consist of those who genuinely wanted to do good for themselves and do good for others and pray to God for guidance. Whatever they could do given the tools of their time, given the understanding of their time, because what we can do now we couldn’t do 500 years ago. Maybe we have different problems, maybe we have different instruments available. So one group will make it to heaven, I mean if you think of all of humanity, surely people from 500 years ago are also part of God’s creation, it’s not just the civilized world we’re now talking about. So for me that’s a very simplistic way to think about this.

If you have been a do-gooder, because you liked your ulama and you listened to him and he made sense to you and you were really able to live in a peaceful way, a way that brought welfare to yourself and your community; if you did it because one time you met a very inspirational priest; if didn’t even think about religion so much in your life but you were a human rights activist who really thought about the oppression of others, I think you are in that group. If you believe God is just, God is fair, then I feel that if you do good in life, God will recognize that.

So for me, anything that is unjust, that causes harm, that is cruel, cannot possibly be Islam, even if it comes from the sheikh of al-Azhar, even if it comes from some grand Mufti somewhere, it cannot be Islamic. For me, it is my utter faith in a God that is just that drives me forward.

That fundamental belief that is etched in your heart of what God is is so fundamental in helping you decide what is right and what is wrong in this sea of interpretations and understandings and fatwas and pronouncements, to be guided by that sense of justice and fairness, for me that is the most important guidance really.

Nat Adams
: I wanted to ask following up on Zainah’s comment—we can acknowledge because of the social and political influence of Islam in many countries that everyone has the right to interpretation and engagement. But practically how do you democratize Islam? Is it about creating opportunities for dialogue and discussion, or is it about really fundamentally changing the structure of power and authority in the traditions?

Zainah Anwar
: If I can answer Nat’s question about how do you engage, how do you democratize Islam. Just practically, the way Sisters in Islam really began is because of all of these questions of injustice, all the laws that discriminate against women, all of these fatwas being issued, all of these speeches you hear over radio, television, talks at private homes, all of these populist ulama saying misogynistic things. It really began from there, all of these things being said in the name of Islam that don’t really match the realities of our lives.

First we began to look at the law actually, just the discriminatory Islamic family law and the implementation of that law. We would get all these complaints from women—a man has a right to four wives, a man has a right to beat his wife, but in the end these women sigh and say ‘but this is what Islam says isn’t it, so I have to accept it.’ We felt we really needed to go to the source of the law, to the source of the teachings, go back to the Qur’an and try to understand it. That’s why in terms of how you begin to engage, how you begin to democratize Islam, it’s about engaging in the production of knowledge in Islam—knowledge is important, you really need to understand the religion.

You don’t have to have a degree in Islamic studies, you don't have to have a degree in Arabic, but you have to start reading. And you’re lucky you’re starting now! When Sisters in Islam started in 1987, there were only a few sources that were progressive in a language we could understand, but now, things are changing. I’ve met some of the Islamists who have left the movement who say ‘when I was searching for answers, all I had was Mahdoudi and Sayyid Qutb,’ all of these ideologues of political Islam. So that’s how they became radicalized because when they were searching for meaning in their lives, they turned to religion and only had all of these ideological texts produced by all of these ideological political actors. But now we have incredible scholarship that’s available, and scholarship that is produced by activists like Sisters in Islam. Even our little question and answer booklets, which has been translated into many languages—Are men and women equal before God? Do Muslim men have a right to beat their wives? Islam and polygamy, Islam and family planning, we have so many of these booklets now that are so easy to read.

Sisters really began in study sessions, we had weekly study sessions in my house, and it began with eight of us, just eight women coming together every week to read the Qur’an. At that time we had to go directly to the Qur’an, now you do actually have so many wonderful progressive books that you can also read. But you should be comfortable with the Qur’an. Like Faqih said, let it be your friend instead of sitting on a shelf gathering dust and allowing some other person to interpret it for you. We dealt with the verses on polygamy; the Qur’an actually says marry only one, and that will be best for you. Who decided that marrying two, three, four will be the law of Islam, will be the practice of Islam? Who decided that? God did not decide, it was human beings that decided. Why couldn’t ‘marry only one’ be the law of the land and be the practice of Muslims? Why is Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha being used to justify child marriage? Why not his marriage to Khadija, who is 15 years older than him, be the exemplary marriage? And if you really believe in polygamy, follow the Prophet—be monogamous during your first marriage. You want to be polygamous, be polygamous only after your first wife has died. Who decided all this? It was human beings; it was men who decided that polygamy is a right in Islam, child marriage is permissible on the basis of the Prophet’s marriage to Aishah.

We were excited about all of these liberating messages in the Qur’an that we were learning, and we wanted to share it with the public, we wanted to expose Muslims to a different understanding of Islam. We’re not saying our understanding is the only understanding, we want to say there’re different understandings.

So what we did was, we used the letters to the editor column of the newspapers. So that’s really how we began to create a public voice for ourselves, by using the letters to the editor column. We wrote letters to the editor on the issue of polygamy, on the issue of domestic violence, on the issue of equality, women’s right to work, on the issue of dress—so if you go to the Sisters in Islam website, you will find all of those letters to the editor—on the Hudood law, on all kinds of matters. We just conferred the authority on ourselves, we didn’t wait for the religious authority to give us the right to speak on Islam, we conferred that right on ourselves, to speak out on matters of religion because this affects our lives. That’s something, I don’t know in the Bangladeshi context whether that is a possibility, for you to write these letters. We write letters to the editor, we submit memorandums to the government, we hold press conferences to respond to all kinds of injustices committed in the name of Islam.

Samia Huq
: I think we are all fearful of what we can write now, so how does one speak out safely?

Zainah Anwar
: You need to strategize about what is possible within your own context. That’s why I say to some people, I really wish everyone had started this 20 years ago when the space was safer. But in some contexts the space is very dangerous—certainly in Pakistan the space is now very very dangerous. But we’ve got to begin somewhere, because if not we’re basically just giving it up, letting the radical misogynistic mullahs say whatever they want to say. And we have political leaders who are basically cowards and legitimizing that cruel, punitive, misogynistic opinion as if it’s the only opinion, so it goes unchallenged.

It’s important that you engage with that scholarship. It’s that knowledge that is going to give you the courage to speak out and to stand your ground when you come under attack. There are so many books already. You can begin with the Sisters in Islam Q&A booklets, they’re only a few pages long, and there are many other books if you go to the Musawah website, if you go to the Sisters website, and many of these authors now at the forefront of re-thinking Islam. People like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, they all have their own websites where all their works are there. Reading is important. You’re all students, so read! And always question. Just because someone is turbaned and bearded and knows Arabic, doesn’t mean he’s walking, talking God. You can take a position! Have the courage to take a position, and argue for it and support it.

Student question
: I had a question yesterday about the interpretation of al-Nisa passage, regarding the superiority of men over women, substituting superiority for responsibility. Responsibility still sounds a little patriarchal, don’t you think?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir
: I mentioned that there are the three interpretations about the al-Nisa verse—the verse literally says that the man is the leader, the man is in charge of the woman because of his ability and the fact that he brings wealth to the family. So the first group of interpretations says that this verse sanctioned the superiority of man over woman. So they will say there is no equality in Islam, because the Qur’an says that men are superior. In Saudi, there are still many clerics who say there is no equality in Islam between women and men. The majority say no, it is not talking about the superiority, but about the responsibility of men over women. But the majority still see men as holding this responsibility, as long as he is capable, if not we still wait until he becomes capable. So even though the shifted the meaning to ‘responsibility,’ the subject is the man.

That is why men are the leaders in all Arab countries; there is no thinking among Arab people that women can be leaders, that a woman can be president. They believe they need to educate men, if there are no capable men. They are not looking for capable women. In the third interpretation we can exchange roles. If you have a woman that is capable, we can put her in the leadership role. Of course there are other interpretations that say this verse is not even about women and men, but other things.

Student question
: How do you incorporate Sufism in your teaching?

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir
: For me, I say all of the classical traditions including Sufi ideas are my inspiration in terms of dealing with modern, contemporary issues. I respect all the things that I find in the classical interpretations, even though that may be recognized as problematic by ethicists, but I read it and try to respect it and I put it into context. Then I learn from them how to reflect our own issues, in our own context. In terms of how to see, in issues like polygamy, why certain interpretations arise, this kind of perspective is important. How do we reflect our context through the interpretation? Like using the the tradition of how Fatima rejected polygamy in the Bukhari Hadiths. When she rejected polygamy, the prophet said “Fatima is my daughter and my heart, what hurts her hurts me,” meaning that polygamy hurt her, and hurts the Prophet. If we take this one as the principle, the law becomes different. Some scholars from the beginning realized that kind of meaning and applied it at least in their own lives, like Abu Hanifa. He was monogamous, and did not allow the Caliph Harun al-Rashid to take another wife. He said “no, you are not allowed to take another wife because you are not in the position that it can be just, even though you are a wealthy man.” I mean, it is a matter of choice which one you implement. If you have a perspective of justice, a perspective of mercy, the choice is different.

Zainah Anwar
: In Musawah’s latest publication—Men in Charge?—there’s an excellent chapter by Sa'diyya Shaikh from South Africa, that she wrote about Sufi interpretations of equality in the God-human relationship dealing with Ibn al-Arabi and the concept of jamal, the beautiful God, and jalal, the strong God. How have these thinkers understood equality in appeals to the beauty of God, do you appeal to the strength of God? And Amina Wadud’s chapter as well in the book on the tawhidic paradigm—if we believe that God is one, how could there ever be hierarchy in the relationship between God and human beings? Why must men be the intermediary between women and God? That is really to violate the tawhid of God. So there are really some beautiful, metaphysical ideas, Sufi ideas, in trying to derive an understanding of equality between men and women, and the conception of marriage as a partnership of equals.

Student question
: We saw images of women holding signs that said “Polygamy: my right, my life, my choice” yesterday. What of the argument for polygamy in the context of Indonesia, from a women’s perspective?

Nani Zulmernarni
: There is now a huge force promoting polygamy, they even have a polygamy award to be given to somebody who has many wives and children and is living harmoniously. And there is a huge event every year. It is attended by whole polygamous families—father, mother, several wives, and also children. They are coming to this event and promoting polygamy. There are the women’s groups who are against polygamy—we try to organize around the issue, you saw that picture there. We have signs “Polygamy is not the Islamic way.” But there are other Muslim women’s groups that campaign saying “Polygamy is our right.” They are using rights language as well. Of course they argue that this is Islamic, this is in the Qur’an, so if you’re against polygamy, you’re against the Qur’an—that’s their argument. They also say polygamy will save women, like the women I am organizing, women-headed families, from poverty. We want to give women protection, but polygamy is not the best way to do this.

We have this widespread argument, that in Indonesia, there are more women than men in the population. So we show them the statistics that now in Indonesia there are many more men than women. Men are slightly over 50 percent, women are slightly over 49 percent. So we look at this data, their argument about the population figures is not right. But it is true if you look at the data, in Indonesia women have a higher life expectancy than men. So if that is another one of their arguments, that we should marry all of these widows and grandmothers.

Their argument isn’t about the Qur’anic ayah because people in the Family Institute at Fahmina have already collected a lot of these hadiths, examples from the Prophet actually to show them that the marriage in Islam should be monogamous. We try to communicate with people about polygamy using these arguments, but it’s so difficult because of what we call their invisible power, they have a very strong following. They believe that polygamy is sharia, which means it is an obligation for men, so if you don’t apply that means you are sinful.

Zainah Anwar
: I’ve heard that if polygamy is sharia, then if, as a woman, you do not welcome your husband marrying another and welcome that woman, then it is your sin. So can you open your heart sisters, to the co-wife? [laughter] You know it’s very interesting, this whole debate on polygamy and how it got exported to Indonesia, because it was in Malaysia where some ulama began to say that for every one man there are 14 women, therefore polygamy must be allowed to do justice to all these unmarried women.

Really, to have 14 women for every one man, you would have to practice male infanticide, and that is not practiced in Malaysia, so we said ‘how the hell did you get this data?’ And then in Indonesia, they also picked up on that same statistic to justify polygamy. We looked at the population statistics from the census data, and it’s almost equal, in fact there are slightly more men, and the only data point that shows more women than men is among those 60 and above. So if that is your justification for polygamy, then only marry women above 60 years old, not young models, actresses, singers.

There was another time when they wanted to introduce Mut’a marriage, temporary marriage in Indonesia, which is really not practiced in Sunni Islam. In Shi'a Islam it is practiced more commonly. They wanted to introduce temporary marriage and they justified it again saying that there were so many unmarried women, they need to be rescued, they need to be protected, they needed to be provided for, so we should introduce Mut’a marriage. Again I looked at the data, and the data showed that for every 100 unmarried women in Malaysia, there are actually 120 unmarried men. So there are far more unmarried men than unmarried women. So actually men should be complaining that they cannot find women to marry, because all of these older men are marrying all of the young women!

I say look, the issue is not about unmarried women who need to be rescued, the issue is there are many unmarriageable men, who are drug addicts, who are dropouts, and women now dominate the universities and are better qualified than men! So the issue that should be debated is the issue of men who are not marriageable. That should be the concern.

Samia Huq
: Zakir Naik is very popular here. He has this argument for polygamy that there are so many more marriageable women. So it’s clearly a pattern to make the argument for polygamy. It’s a global movement. And also it’s interesting, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, I know somebody who is a matchmaker, and I hear all the time that the complaint is there are no men for these lovely women to marry. She’s not advocating polygamy, but what she is advocating is for girls to marry the next guy who comes along. It’s a very patriarchal understanding.

Zainah Anwar
: There are plenty of men, they’re just not marriage material, this is the problem! There’s a very funny Youtube on Zakir Naik—you know he just makes preposterous statements that are not backed by evidence. So someone put together all of his ridiculous statements and it goes 'beep, wrong, these are the facts.' It’s amazing the kind of statements he makes!


Student question
: I have heard a defense of polygamy during my experience living in Harlem where there is a large African Muslim community from Senegal and other West African countries. Their defense of polygamy is why should we allow it to be morally permissible for a man to see many different women, or have children with many women, but not take care of them. If they’re allowed to marry them they have more rights, they can claim child support, for example, because they actually have a legal claim for some economic support, which they won’t have if they are not legally, contractually married. For me at least, it should not be the solution for anything, for men or women. You shouldn’t depend on marriage for economic security or anything else.

Zainah Anwar
: I have a response to that because I’ve heard this as well. This kind of argument is premised on the assumption that the man should be philandering, or that it’s natural for him to be philandering. I think one way to counter it is to say, does the tradition allow men to be looking here and there and be sexually promiscuous and having children all over the place? That kind of patriarchy has been so ingrained into culture, so as a remedy they just say ‘ok let them marry, because maybe then they’ll become more responsible.’ But the reality is, a man who is irresponsible and is having children all over the place is not going to suddenly become responsible. If he was really God’s representative, it wouldn't even come into question. So you’re offering these shortcuts and you’re not addressing the main issue, the crux of the matter. Maybe for these Senegalese women it’s a reality, that’s how they know best how to deal with it, but they’re still justifying and they’re not getting to the root of the oppression.

Nani Zulminarni
: In Indonesia we also try to bring in the men’s perspective. So we argue that many of these restrictions on women are actually insulting men, because they imply that men always focus on sex, not other things. It’s always like that—that’s why in Indonesia, women cannot wear miniskirts. So if women are wearing miniskirts or sexy clothes, then they will get raped. That is insulting men, it seems like men cannot even look at women. I told them, there are so many good men in the world; there are only a few who rape women, so why do you generalize this behavior to all men, when there are more good men than bad men? Men who rape women are bad men, it’s not because women are wearing miniskirts. I think we should bring more men into the discussion, and men think clearly about these things. Many of these interpretations actually insult men; it’s like saying men aren’t human beings who are intelligent and moral, they only thinking about sex all the time.

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