We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more LIBERAL ISLAM A SOURCEBOOK - A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam - A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam

By:
Fatima Mernissi
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Related Content

A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam

Fatima Mernissi

Commentary

Fatima Mernissi (Morocco, born 1940), “one of the best known Arab-Muslim feminists,” was part of the first generation of Moroccan women to be granted access to higher education. She studied at the Mohammed V University in Rabat and went on to receive her doctorate in sociology in the United States in 1973. She returned to Morocco to teach at her alma mater and currently works at a research institute in Rabat. “She is a recognized public figure in her own country,” and her work has been translated into several European languages. 1 Amal Rassam, “Mernissi, Fatima,” in John L. Esposito, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), volume 3, pp. 93–94. According to a fellow academic, Mernissi is the first Muslim woman in the Middle East to succeed “in extricating herself from the issue of cultural loyalty and betrayal” that plagues so many Muslim feminists torn between their double identities. 2 Leila Ahmad, “Feminism and Feminist Movements in the Middle East,” Women's Studies International Forum, volume 5, number 2, 1982, pp. 153–168. According to a fellow African Muslim, Mernissi represents “the aspirations of women who, while remaining Muslims, wish to live in modernity.” 3 Fatoumata Sow, “Le Harem Politique” (The Political Harem), in Fippu, Journal de Yewwu Yewwi pour la libération des femmes (Fight Back, Journal of “Liberation through Consciousness” for the Liberation of Women) (Dakar, Senegal), number 2, April 1989, p. 33. One of the recurring themes of Mernissi's work is the mistreatment of women in Islamic societies. In this excerpt, Mernissi argues that the Qur'an and other Islamic sources have been systematically misinterpreted on the subject of the position of women.

“Can a woman be a leader of Muslims?” I asked my grocer, who, like most grocers in Morocco, is a true “barometer” of public opinion.

“I take refuge in God!” he exclaimed, shocked, despite the friendly relations between us. Aghast at the idea, he almost dropped the half-dozen eggs I had come to buy.

“May God protect us from the catastrophes of the times!” mumbled a customer who was buying olives, as he made as if to spit. My grocer is a fanatic about cleanliness, and not even denouncing a heresy justifies dirtying the floor in his view.

A second customer, a schoolteacher whom I vaguely knew from the newsstand, stood slowly caressing his wet mint leaves, and then hit me with a hadith [tradition of the Prophet] that he knew would be fatal: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity!” Silence fell on the scene. There was nothing I could say. In a Muslim theocracy, a hadith is no small matter. The hadith collections are works that record in minute detail what the Prophet said and did. They constitute, along with the Qur'an (the book revealed by God), both the source of law and the standard for distinguishing the true from the false, the permitted from the forbidden—they have shaped Muslim ethics and values.

I discreetly left the grocery store without another word. What could I have said to counterbalance the force of that political aphorism, which is as implacable as it is popular?

Silenced, defeated, and furious, I suddenly felt the urgent need to inform myself about this hadith and to search out the texts where it is mentioned, to understand better its extraordinary power over the ordinary citizens of a modern state.

A glance at the latest Moroccan election statistics supports the “prediction” uttered in the grocery store. Although the constitution gives women the right to vote and be elected, political reality grants them only the former. In the legislative elections of 1977, the eight women who stood for election found no favor with the six and a half million voters, of whom three million were women. At the opening of Parliament, there was not one woman present, and the men were settled among their male peers as usual, just as in the cafes. Six years later, in the municipal elections of 1983, 307 women were bold enough to stand as candidates, and almost three and a half million women voters went to the polls. Only 36 women won election, as against 65,502 men! 4 Morocco, Ministère de l’Artisanat et des Affaires Sociales, Les Femmes marocaines dans le développement économique et social, décennie 1975–1985 [Moroccan Women in Social and Economic Development, the Decade 1975–1985].

To interpret the relationship between the massive participation of women voters and the small number of women elected as a sign of stagnation and backwardness would be in accordance with the usual stereotypes applied to the Arab world. However, it would be more insightful to see it as a reflection of changing times and the intensity of the conflicts between the aspirations of women, who take the constitution of their country seriously, and the resistance of men, who imagine, despite the laws in force, that power is necessarily male. This makes me want to shed light on those obscure zones of resistance, those entrenched attitudes, in order to understand the symbolic —even explosive—significance of that act which elsewhere in the world is an ordinary event: a woman's vote. For this reason, my misadventure in a neighborhood grocery store had more than symbolic importance for me. Revealing the misogynistic attitude of my neighbors, it indicated to me the path I should follow to better understand it—a study of the religious texts that everybody knows but no one really probes, with the exception of the authorities on the subject: the mullas [religious scholars] and imams [prayer leaders].

Going through the religious literature is no small task. First of all, one is overwhelmed by the number of volumes, and one immediately understands why the average Muslim can never know as much as an imam. [Muhammad ibn Isma‘il] Al-Bukhari's [810– 870] prestigious collection of traditions, Al-Sahih (The Authentic), is in four volumes with an abstruse commentary by one [Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Hadi] al-Sindi [died 1726], who is extremely sparing with his comments. 5 Al-Bukhari, Al-Sahih (Collection of Authentic Hadiths), with commentary by al-Sindi (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Ma‘rifa, 1978). The hadith quoted by the schoolteacher is in volume 4, p. 226. Now, without a very good commentary a non-expert will have difficulty reading a religious text of the ninth century. . . . This is because, for each hadith, it is necessary to check the identity of the Companion of the Prophet who uttered it, and in what circumstances and with what objective in mind, as well as the chain of people who passed it along—and there are more fraudulent traditions than authentic ones. For each hadith, al-Bukhari gives the results of his investigation. If he speaks of X or Y, you have to check which Companion is being referred to, what battle is being discussed, in order to make sense of the dialogue or scene that is being transcribed. In addition, al-Bukhari doesn’t use just one informant; there are dozens of them in the dozens of volumes. You must be careful not to go astray. The smallest mistake about the informant can cost you months of work.

What is the best way of making this check? First of all, you should make contact with the experts in religious science (faqihs) in your city. According to moral teaching and the traditional conventions, if you contact a faqih for information about the sources of a hadith or a Qur'anic verse, he must assist you. Knowledge is to be shared, according to the promise of the Prophet himself. Fath al-bari by [Ibn Hajar] al-‘Asqalani (he died in year 852 of the hejira [1372–1449 A.D.]) was recommended to me by several people I consulted. It consists of 17 volumes that one can consult in libraries during their opening hours. But the vastness of the task and the rather limited reading time is enough to discourage most researchers.

The schoolteacher in the grocery store was right: the hadith “those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” was there in al-‘Asqalani's 13th volume, where he quotes al-Bukhari's Sahih, that is, those traditions that al-Bukhari classified as authentic after a rigorous process of selection, verifications, and counter-verifications. 6 Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Huda al-sari, muqaddimat Fath al-bari [The Traveller's Guide, Introduction to “The Creator's Conquest”], commonly known as Fath al-bari [The Creator's Conquest]. It comprises al-Bukhari's text with a commentary by al-‘Asqalani. The hadith that concerns us here, on the necessity of excluding women from power, is found on p. 46 of volume 13 of the edition of Al-Matba‘a al-Bahiya al- Misriya (1928) and on p. 166 of volume 16 of the edition of Maktaba Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi fi Misr (1963). (Future page references are to the 1928 edition.) Al-Bukhari's work has been one of the most highly respected references for 12 centuries. This hadith is the sledgehammer argument used by those who want to exclude women from politics. One also finds it in the work of other authorities known for their scholarly rigor, such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal [780–855], the author of the Musnad and founder of the Hanbali school, one of the four great schools of jurisprudence of the Sunni Muslim world. 7 The Muslim world is divided into two parts: the Sunnis (orthodox) and the Shi‘ites (literally, schismatics). Each group has its own specific texts of fiqh (religious knowledge), especially as regards sources of the shari‘a (legislation and laws). The Sunnis are split between four madhahib (schools). . . . The differences between them most frequently relate to details of juridical procedures.

This hadith is so important that it is practically impossible to discuss the question of women's political rights without referring to it, debating it, and taking a position on it. . . .

According to al-Bukhari, it is supposed to have been Abu Bakra [died circa 671] who heard the Prophet say: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.” Since this hadith is included in the Sahih—those thousands of authentic hadith accepted by the meticulous al-Bukhari—it is a priori considered true and therefore unassailable without proof to the contrary, since we are here in scientific terrain. So nothing bars me, as a Muslim woman, from making a double investigation—historical and methodological—of this hadith and its author, and especially of the conditions in which it was first put to use. Who uttered this hadith, where, when, why, and to whom?

Abu Bakra was a Companion who had known the Prophet during his lifetime and who spent enough time in his company to be able to report the hadith that he is supposed to have spoken. According to him, the Prophet pronounced this hadith when he learned that the Persians had named a woman to rule them. “When Kisra died, the Prophet, intrigued by the news, asked: ‘And who has replaced him in command?’ The answer was: ‘They have entrusted power to his daughter.’” 8 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46. It was at that moment, according to Abu Bakra, that the Prophet is supposed to have made the observation about women.

In 628 A.D., at the time of those interminable wars between the Romans and the Persians, Heraclius, the Roman emperor, had invaded the Persian realm, occupied Ctesiphon, which was situated very near the Sassanid capital, and Khusraw Pavis, the Persian king, had been assassinated. Perhaps it was this event that Abu Bakra alluded to. Actually, after the death of the son of Khusraw, there was a period of instability between 629 and 632 A.D., and various claimants to the throne of the Sassanid empire emerged, including two women. 9 See Hodgson, Venture of Islam, volume 1, p. 199. Could this be the incident that led the Prophet to pronounce the hadith against women? Al-Bukhari does not go that far; he just reports the words of Abu Bakra—that is, the content of the hadith itself—and the reference to a woman having taken power among the Persians. To find out more about Abu Bakra, we must turn to the huge work of Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani.

In the 17 volumes of the Fath al-bari, al-‘Asqalani does a line-by-line commentary on al-Bukhari. For each hadith of the Sahih, al-‘Asqalani gives us the historical clarification: the political events that served as background, a description of the battles, the identity of the conflicting parties, the identity of the transmitters and their opinions, and finally the debates concerning their reliability—everything needed to satisfy the curiosity of the researcher.

On what occasion did Abu Bakra recall these words of the Prophet, and why did he feel the need to recount them? Abu Bakra must have had a fabulous memory, because he recalled them a quarter of a century after the death of the Prophet, at the time that the caliph ‘Ali [reigned 656–661] retook Basra after having defeated ‘A’isha [wife of the Prophet, circa 614–678] at the Battle of the Camel. 10 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

Before occupying Basra, ‘A’isha went on pilgrimage to Mecca, where she learned the news of the assassination of ‘Uthman [caliph, 644–656] at Medina and the naming of ‘Ali as the fourth caliph. It was while she was in Mecca that she decided to take command of the army that was challenging the choice of ‘Ali. Days and days of indecision then followed. Should she go to Kufa or Basra? She needed to have an important city with enough malcontents to aid her cause and let her set up her headquarters. After numerous contacts, negotiations, and discussions, she chose Basra. Abu Bakra was one of the notables of that city and, like all of them, in a difficult position. Should he take up arms against ‘Ali, the cousin of the Prophet and the caliph, challenged maybe but legitimate, or should he take up arms against ‘A’isha, the “lover of the Beloved of God” and the “wife of the Prophet on earth and in paradise”? 11 On this dilemma and the division that it occasioned, see ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 49. On the political implications and the philosophical debates that the Battle of the Camel aroused, see the extraordinary description by [Abu Ja‘far Muhammad] Tabari [died 922] in his Tarikh alumam wa al-muluk [History of Imams and Kings] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al-Fikr, 1979), volume 5, pp. 156–225. If one realizes, moreover, that he had become a notable in that Iraqi city, which was not his native city, one can better understand the extent of his unease.

It can be said that Islam brought him good fortune. Before being converted, Abu Bakra had the hard, humiliating life of a slave in the city of Ta’if, where only the aristocracy had the right to high office. In year 8 A.H. (630 A.D.) the Prophet decided that it was time for him to undertake the conquest of Ta’if. He had just conquered Mecca, making a triumphal entry into that city, and now felt himself strong enough to subdue the inhabitants of Ta’if, who were still resisting Islam. But they put up a strong defense. The Prophet camped outside the city and besieged the citadel for 18 days. In vain. The chief tribe that controlled the city, the Banu Tamim, and their allies were entrenched in the fort and used bows and arrows against the attackers, causing casualties among Muhammad's army. Twelve of his men were killed, causing him distress, as he had hoped to win without losses. Each soldier was a Companion; he knew their families; this was not an anonymous army. He decided to lift the siege and depart. But before doing so, he sent messengers to proclaim around the fort and the besieged city that all slaves who left the citadel and joined his ranks would be freed. 12 [Muhammad] Ibn Sa‘d [784–845], [Kitab] al-tabaqat al-kubra [The Great Book of Classes] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Sadir, no date), volume 3, p. 159. A dozen slaves answered his call, and Abu Bakra was one of them. The Prophet declared them free men, despite the protests of their masters, and after their conversion to Islam they became the brothers and equals of all. 13 Ibn Sa‘d, Al-Tabaqat, p. 159. In this way, Abu Bakra found both Islam and freedom.

And then we see him a few years later, a notable in an Iraqi city, the incarnation of Muhammad's dream—that all the poor, the humiliated of the world, could accede to power and wealth. The rapid rise of this one Companion summarizes very well what Islam meant for a man like Abu Bakra, who would never have been able to imagine leaving his native city as a free man and especially changing his social status so quickly: “You, the Arabs, were in an unspeakable state of degradation, powerlessness, and profligacy. The Islam of God and Muhammad saved you and led you to where you are now.” 14 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 622. In fact, since his conversion Abu Bakra had scaled the social ladder at a dizzying pace: “Abu Bakra was very pious and remained so throughout his life. His children were among the notables of Basra as a result of their fortune and their erudition.” 15 [‘Izz al-Din] Ibn al-Athir [1160–1233], Usd al-ghaba fi [ma‘rifat] al-sahaba [The Lions of the Forest, on Knowing the Companions of the Prophet] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr li al-Tiba’a wa al-Tawzi‘, no date), volume 5, p. 38. . . .

So why was he led to dig into his memory and make the prodigious effort of recalling the words that the Prophet was supposed to have uttered 25 years before? The first detail to be noted—and it is far from being negligible—is that Abu Bakra recalled his hadith after the Battle of the Camel. At that time, ‘A’isha's situation was scarcely enviable. She was politically wiped out: 13,000 of her supporters had fallen on the field of battle. 16 Mas’udi [died 956], Muruj [al-zahab] [Meadows of Gold], volume 2, p. 380; and the French translation of this work, Les Prairies d’or [Prairies of Gold], volume 3, p. 646. ‘Ali had retaken the city of Basra, and all those who had not chosen to join ‘Ali's clan had to justify their action. This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions, his record being far from satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war. Not only did he refrain from taking part, but, like many of the Companions who had opted for nonparticipation, he had made his position known officially. ‘A’isha, who often used to accompany the Prophet on military expeditions, knew the procedure for the negotiations that took place before the military occupation of a city and had conducted matters correctly. Before besieging the city, she had sent messengers with letters to all the notables of the city, explaining to them the reasons that had impelled her to rebel against ‘Ali, her intentions, and the objectives that she wanted to attain, and finally inviting them to support her. 17 Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 182. It was a true campaign of information and persuasion, a preliminary military tactic in which the Prophet excelled. And ‘A’isha was going to use the mosque as the meeting place for a public discussion to inform the population before occupying the city. Abu Bakra was thus contacted from the beginning in his capacity as a notable of the city. 18 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

‘A’isha did not take this course of action only because of faithfulness to Muhammad's methods. There was a more important reason. This was the first time since the death of the Prophet that the Muslims found themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. This was the situation that Muhammad had described as the worst possible for Islam: fitna, civil war, which turned the weapons of the Muslims inward instead of directing them, as God wished, outward, in order to conquer and dominate the world. So ‘A’isha had to explain her uprising against ‘Ali. She reproached him for not having brought the murderers of ‘Uthman, the assassinated third caliph, to justice. Some of those who had besieged ‘Uthman and whose identity was known were in ‘Ali's army as military leaders. Many Muslims must have thought as ‘A’isha did, because a large part of the city of Basra welcomed her, giving her men and weapons. After driving out the governor who represented ‘Ali, ‘A’isha set up her headquarters in Basra, and with her two allies, Talha [ibn ‘Ubayd Allah al-Taymi, died 656] and al-Zubair [ibn al-‘Awwam, seventh century], members of the Quraysh tribe like herself, she continued her campaign of information, negotiation, and persuasion through individual interviews and speeches in the mosques, pressing the crowds to support her against the “unjust” caliph. It was year 36 A.H. (656 A.D.), and public opinion was divided: should one obey an “unjust” caliph (who did not punish the killers of ‘Uthman), or should one rebel against him and support ‘A’isha, even if that rebellion led to civil disorder?

For those who held the first opinion, the gravest danger that the Muslim nation could face was not that of being ruled by an unjust leader, but rather of falling into civil war. Let us not forget that the word “islam” means “submission.” If the leader was challenged, the fundamental principle of Islam as order was in danger. The others thought that the lack of justice in the Muslim chief of state was more serious than civil war. A Muslim must not turn his back when he sees his leader commit injustices and reprehensible acts (munkar): “The Prophet said: ‘If people see munkar and they do not try to remedy it, they incur divine punishment.’” Another version of this hadith is: “Let him who sees a situation in which munkar is being perpetrated endeavor to change it.” 19 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, pp. 50 and 51 for the first version, and p. 44 for the second. This was the argument of the group that assassinated Anwar Sadat [1918–1981] of Egypt, and is representative of the very prolific literature of the Muslim extremists of today. 20 See the analysis of Hamied N. Ansari, “The Islamic Militants in Egyptian Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, volume 16, number 1, 1984, pp. 123–144.

At Basra in year 36 the dilemma that confronted a Muslim—whether to obey an unjust caliph or to take up arms against him—was not just being posed in the circles of the ruling elite. The mosques were veritable plenary assemblies where the leaders came to discuss with the people they governed the decisions to be taken in the conflict between ‘A’isha and ‘Ali, and it must be pointed out (after reading the minutes of those meetings) that the people spoke up and demanded to be informed about what was going on. The ordinary people did not even know what the quarrel was about; for those citizens the important problem was the absence of democracy. It seemed mad to them to get involved without knowing the motives that were driving the leaders and the conflicts that divided them. They gave as the reason for their refusal to get involved on either side the lack of democracy in the selection of the caliph. In one of the debates that took place at the Basra mosque when ‘A’isha's partners were invited by the people to explain their motives, a young man who did not belong to the elite made a speech that illuminated a whole area that was not very clear in the dynamics of Islam at the beginning and is often “forgotten” today—the nondemocratic dimension of Islam, which was noted and felt as such by the ordinary people. This young man took the floor in the Basra mosque, an act that would cost him his life, and addressing the allies and representatives of ‘A’isha who were pushing him toward subversion, said to them:

It is true that you Muhajirun [the original migrants from Mecca] 21 [Bracketed comments in indented quotations in this chapter are the author's, not the editor's.—Editor] were the first to respond to the Prophet's call. You had the privilege of becoming Muslims before all the others. But everyone had that privilege later and everyone converted to Islam. Then, after the death of the Prophet, you selected a man from among you without consulting us [the common people, who were not part of the elite]. After his death, you got together and you named another [caliph], still without asking our advice. . . . You chose ‘Uthman, you swore your allegiance to him, still without consulting us. You became displeased with his behavior, and you decided to declare war without consulting us. You decided, still without consulting us, to select ‘Ali and swear allegiance to him. So what are you blaming him for now? Why have you decided to fight him? Has he committed an illegal act? Has he done something reprehensible? Explain to us what is going on. We must be convinced if we are to decide to take part in this war. So what is going on? Why are you fighting? 22 Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 179.

Thus the decision not to participate in this civil war was not an exceptional one, limited to a few members of the elite. The mosques were full of people who found it absurd to follow leaders who wanted to lead the community into tearing each other to pieces. Abu Bakra was not in any way an exception.

When he was contacted by ‘A’isha, Abu Bakra made known his response to her: he was against fitna. He is supposed to have said to her (according to the way he told it after the battle):

It is true that you are our umm [mother, alluding to her title of “Mother of Believers,” which the Prophet bestowed on his wives during his last years]; it is true that as such you have rights over us. But I heard the Prophet say: “Those who entrust power [mulk] to a woman will never know prosperity.” 23 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

Although, as we have just seen, many of the Companions and inhabitants of Basra chose neutrality in the conflict, only Abu Bakra justified it by the fact that one of the parties was a woman.

According to al-Tabari's account, Basra, after ‘A’isha's defeat, lived through many days of understandable anxiety. Was ‘Ali going to take revenge on those who had not supported him, one of whom was Abu Bakra? “In the end ‘Ali proclaimed a general amnesty. . . . All those who threw down their arms, he announced on the day of the battle, and those who returned to their homes would be spared.” 24 Mas’udi, Muruj, volume 2, p. 378; and the French translation, volume 2, p. 644. “‘Ali spent some days on the battlefield; he buried the dead of both sides and said a common funeral prayer for them before returning to the city.” 25 Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 221.

Nevertheless, everything was not quite so simple, if we take the example of Abu Musa al-Ash‘ari [614–662], another Muslim pacifist who had refused to get involved in a civil war that he regarded as senseless. Abu Musa al-Ash‘ari lost both position and fortune. However, it is true that the situations of Abu Musa and Abu Bakra are not comparable, except for their refusal to get involved. Abu Bakra's support was solicited by ‘A’isha, the losing party, while that of Abu Musa was sought by ‘Ali, the victor. Abu Musa was none other than a governor in ‘Ali's service, his representative, and the symbol of the Muslim state as the head of the Iraqi town of Kufa. ‘Ali, before proceeding to Basra, then occupied by ‘A’isha, sent emissaries to Abu Musa demanding that he mobilize the people and urgently send him troops and weapons. Not only did Abu Musa personally choose not to obey his caliph, but he also thought himself obligated to “consult with” the population he governed. He decided to involve the people, whom he called together in the mosque for information and discussion, and to enlighten them about the position of the Prophet on the subject of civil war. Abu Musa recited to them the hadith condemning fitna, and ordered them to disobey the caliph and not answer his call to enlist. For him, the duty of a Muslim in the case of fitna was absolute opposition to any participation. He recited many hadith at the Kufa mosque, all of them against fitna—against civil war plain and simple. It was not a question of the sex of the leader! 26 Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 188. Al-Bukhari assembled all hadith on the subject of civil war in a chapter entitled “Al-Fitna”; among them was Abu Bakra's hadith—the only one to give as a reason for neutrality the gender of one of the opponents. 27 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, pp. 221ff.

What is surprising to the modern reader who leafs through the chronicles of that famous Battle of the Camel is the respect that the people, whatever their position toward the war, showed to ‘A’isha. Very rare were the occasions on which she was insulted—and even then it was never by one of the political leaders, but by some of the ordinary people. 28 Mas’udi, Les Prairies d’or, volume 2, p. 645. The historians recall that only the Shi‘i chroniclers (the pro-‘Ali ones) find fault with ‘A’isha. Why, then, did Abu Bakra distinguish himself by a completely unprecedented misogynistic attitude?

Abu Musa al-Ash‘ari was dismissed from his post and banished from Kufa by ‘Ali. He was replaced by a governor who was less of a pacifist, and above all more tractable. 29 Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 190. If this happened to Abu Musa, the situation of other “pacifists” who were less highly placed was very delicate indeed. It would seem providential to also remember having heard a hadith that intimated an order not to participate in a war if a woman was at the head of the army.

Abu Bakra also remembered other hadith just as providential at critical moments. After the assassination of ‘Ali, Mu‘awiya [ibn Abi Sufyan] the Umayyad [circa 605–680] could only legitimately claim the caliphate if Hasan [624–669], the son of ‘Ali and thus his successor, declared in writing that he renounced his rights. And this he did under pressure and bargaining that were more or less acknowledged. 30 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, pp. 51ff; Mas’udi, Muruj, volume 3, pp. 4ff; and al-Tabari, Mohammed, Sceau des prophètes [Muhammad, Seal of the Prophets] (Paris: Sindbad, 1980), volume 6, p. 95. It was at this moment that Abu Bakra recalled a hadith that could not have been more pertinent, under political circumstances that had unforeseen repercussions. He is supposed to have heard the Prophet say that “Hasan [the son of ‘Ali] will be the man of reconciliation.” 31 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 56. Hasan would have been a very small baby when the Prophet, his grandfather (through his daughter Fatima), would have said that! Abu Bakra had a truly astonishing memory for politically opportune hadith which curiously—and most effectively—fitted into the stream of history.

Once the historical context of a hadith was clarified, it was time to go on to its critical evaluation by applying to it one of the methodological rules that the religious scholars had defined as principles of the process of verification. 32 For assistance with the research for this chapter, I am indebted to Professor Ahmed al-Khamlichi, Chairman of the Department of Private Law, Faculté de Droit, Université Mohammed V, Rabat, Morocco. The first of these rules was to consider “this religion as a science,” in the tradition of Imam Malik ibn Anas (born in year 93 A.H. [710–796 A.D.]), who was considered, with [Abu ‘Abdallah Muhammad] Shafi‘i [767–820] and Abu Hanifa [circa 699–767], one of “the three most famous imams in Islam because of their contribution to the elaboration of the knowledge that enables the believer to distinguish the permitted from the forbidden.” 33 Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr [978–1070], Al-Intiqa’ fi fadl althalath al-a’imma al-fuqaha’ [The Selection, on the Merits of the Three Founding Jurists] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, no date), pp. 10, 16. Malik ibn Anas never ceased saying:

This religion is a science, so pay attention to those from whom you learn it. I had the good fortune to be born [in Medina] at a time when 70 persons [Companions] who could recite hadith were still alive. They used to go to the mosque and start speaking: The Prophet said so and so. I did not collect any of the hadith that they recounted, not because these people were not trustworthy, but because I saw that they were dealing in matters forwhich they were not qualified. 34 Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 16.

According to him, it was not enough just to have lived at the time of the Prophet in order to become a source of hadith. It was also necessary to have a certain background that qualified you to speak: “Ignorant persons must be disregarded.” How could they be considered sources of knowledge when they did not have the necessary intellectual capacity? But ignorance and intellectual capacity were not the only criteria for evaluating the narrators of hadith. The most important criteria were moral.

According to Malik, some persons could not under any circumstances transmit a hadith:

Knowledge [al-‘ilm] cannot be received from a mentally deficient person, nor from someone who is in the grip of passion and who might incite bid‘a [innovation], nor from a liar who recounts anything at all to people. . . . And finally one should not receive knowledge from a shaykh, even a respected and very pious one, if he has not mastered the learning that he is supposed to transmit. 35 Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 16.

Malik directs suspicion at the transmitters, emphasizes the necessity for Muslims to be on their guard, and even advises us to take the daily behavior of sources into consideration as a criterion for their reliability:

There are some people whom I rejected as narrators of hadith, not because they lied in their role as men of science by recounting false hadith that the Prophet did not say, but just simply because I saw them lying in their relations with people, in their daily relationships that had nothing to do with religion. 36 Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 15.

If we apply this rule to Abu Bakra, he would have to be immediately eliminated, since one of the biographies of him tells us that he was convicted of and flogged for false testimony by the caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [reigned 634–644]. 37 Ibn al-Athir, Usd al-ghaba, volume 5, p. 38. This happened during a very serious case that ‘Umar punished by execution—a case involving zina [fornication], an illicit sex act. In order to end the sexual licentiousness and promiscuity that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia and in an effort to control paternity, Islam condemned all sexual relations outside marriage or ownership as zina, encouraging women and men to marry and labeling celibacy as the open door to temptations of all kinds. It gave men the right to have several wives and to divorce them easily and replace them by others, provided that it was all within the framework of Muslim marriage.

‘Umar, the second caliph of a new community still under the influence of pre-Islamic customs, had to act rapidly and severely to see that a key idea of Islam, the patriarchal family, became rooted in the minds of believers. Capital punishment for zina would only be applied if four witnesses testified to having seen the adultery with their own eyes and at the same time. These were conditions so difficult to prove that it made this punishment more a deterrent than a realistic threat. It was necessary, moreover, to avoid having enmities and slanders lead to the condemnation of innocent persons. If there were only three witnesses who saw the accused in flagrante delicto, their testimony was not valid. In addition, any witness who slandered someone by accusing him of the crime of zina would incur the punishment for slander—he would be flogged for false testimony. 38 ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab institutionalized the recourse to capital punishment for fornication; his contemporaries were not at all in agreement with his position. See Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, pp. 146ff. . . . ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab . . . was [also] the instigator of the wearing of the veil and was in complete disagreement with the Prophet about the way to treat women.

Now this was what happened in the case of Abu Bakra. He was one of the four witnesses who came before ‘Umar to officially make the accusation of zina against a well-known person, a Companion and a prominent political man, al-Mughira ibn Shu‘ba [died 670]. The four witnesses testified before ‘Umar that they had seen al-Mughira ibn Shu‘ba in the act of fornication. ‘Umar began his investigation, and one of the four witnesses then admitted that he was not really sure of having seen everything. The doubt on the part of one of the witnesses made the others subject to punishment by flogging for slander, and Abu Bakra was flogged.

If one follows the principles of Malik for fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], Abu Bakra must be rejected as a source of hadith by every good, well-informed Malikite Muslim.

To close this investigation, let us take a brief look at the attitude of the religious scholars of the first centuries toward that misogynistic hadith that is presented to us today as sacred, unassailable truth. Even though it was collected as sahih (authentic) by al-Bukhari and others, that hadith was hotly contested and debated by many. The scholars did not agree on the weight to give that hadith on women and politics. Assuredly there were some who used it as an argument for excluding women from decision making. But there were others who found that argument unfounded and unconvincing. Al-Tabari was one of those religious authorities who took a position against it, not finding it a sufficient basis for depriving women of their power of decision making and for justifying their exclusion from politics. 39 ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 47.

After having tried to set straight the historical record—the line of transmitters and witnesses who gave their account of a troubled historical epoch—I can only advise redoubled vigilance when, taking the sacred as an argument, someone hurls at the believer as basic truth a political axiom so terrible and with such grave historical consequences as the one we have been investigating. Nevertheless, we will see that this “misogynistic” hadith, although it is exemplary, is not a unique case.

Throughout my childhood I had a very ambivalent relationship with the Qur'an. It was taught to us in a Qur'anic school in a particularly ferocious manner. But to my childish mind only the highly fanciful Islam of my illiterate grandmother, Lalla Yasmina, opened the door for me to a poetic religion. . . . This dual attitude that I had toward the sacred text was going to remain with me. Depending on how it is used, the sacred text can be a threshold for escape or an insurmountable barrier. It can be that rare music that leads to dreaming or simply a dispiriting routine. It all depends on the person who invokes it. However, for me, the older I grew, the fainter the music became. In secondary school the history of religion course was studded with traditions. Many of them from appropriate pages of al-Bukhari, which the teacher recited to us, made me feel extremely ill at ease: “The Prophet said that the dog, the ass, and woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the qibla [the direction of Mecca].” 40 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 99. . . .

By lumping [woman] in with two familiar animals, the author of the hadith inevitably makes her a being who belongs to the animal kingdom. It is enough for a woman to appear in the field of vision for contact with the qibla—that is, the divine—to be disturbed. Like the dog and the ass, she destroys the symbolic relation with the divine by her presence. One has to interrupt one's prayer and begin again.

Arab civilization being a civilization of the written word, the only point of view we have on this question is that of Abu Hurayra [died 678]. According to [Shams al-Din] Ibn Marzuq [1311–1379], when someone invoked in front of ‘A’isha the hadith that said that the three causes of interruption of prayer were dogs, asses, and women, she answered them: “You compare us now to asses and dogs. In the name of God, I have seen the Prophet saying his prayers while I was there, lying on the bed between him and the qibla. And in order not to disturb him, I didn’t move.” 41 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 199. The believers used to come to ‘A’isha for verification of what they had heard, confident of her judgment, not only because of her closeness to the Prophet, but because of her own abilities:

I have seen groups of the most eminent companions of the Prophet ask her questions concerning the fara’id [the daily duties of the Muslim, the rituals, etc.], and Ibn ‘Ata’ said: “‘A’isha was, among all the people, the one who had the most knowledge of fiqh, the one who was the most educated and, compared to those who surrounded her, the one whose judgment was the best.” 42 Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-sahaba [A Biographical Dictionary of the Companions of the Prophet] (Cairo: Maktaba al-Dirasa al-Islamiya Dar al-Nahda, no date), volume 8, p. 18.

Despite her words of caution, the influence of Abu Hurayra has nevertheless infiltrated the most prestigious religious texts, among them the Sahih of al-Bukhari, who apparently did not always feel obliged to insert the corrections provided by ‘A’isha. The subject of many of these hadith is the “polluting” essence of femaleness.

To understand the importance for Islam of that aspect of femaleness, evoking disturbance and sullying, we would do well to look at the personality of Abu Hurayra, who, as it were, gave it legal force. Without wanting to play the role of psychoanalytical detective, I can say that the fate of Abu Hurayra and his ambivalence toward women are wrapped up in the story of his name. Abu Hurayra, meaning literally “Father of the Little Female Cat,” had previously been called “Servant of the Sun” (‘Abd al-Shams). 43 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 427. The Prophet decided to change that name, which had a very strong sense of idolatry about it. “Servant of the Sun” was originally from Yemen, that part of Arabia where not only the sun, a female star in Arabic, was worshipped, but where women also ruled in public and private life. Yemen was the land of the Queen of Sheba, Bilqis [tenth century B.C.], that queen who fascinated King Solomon [reigned 962–922 B.C.], who ruled over a happy kingdom, and who put her mark on Arab memory, since she appears in the Qur'an:

[Hud-hud] said: “I have found (a thing) that thou apprehendest not, and I come unto thee from Sheba with sure tidings.” Lo! I found a woman ruling over them, and she hath been given (abundance) of all things, and hers is a mighty throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of God. . . . (Sura 27, Verses 22–24)]

Abu Hurayra came from the Yemeni tribe of the Daws. 44 ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Salih al-‘Ali al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘ ‘an Abi Hurayra [In Defense of Abu Hurayra], second edition (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Qalam; Baghdad: Maktaba al-Nahda, 1981), p. 13. At the age of 30 the man named “Servant of the Sun” was converted to Islam. The Prophet gave him the name ‘Abdallah (Servant of God) and nicknamed him Abu Hurayra (Father of the Little Female Cat) because he used to walk around with a little female cat that he adored. 45 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 426. But Abu Hurayra was not happy with this nickname, for he did not like the trace of femininity in it: “Abu Hurayra said: ‘Don’t call me Abu Hurayra. The Prophet nicknamed me Abu Hirr [Father of the Male Cat], and the male is better than the female.’” 46 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 434. He had another reason to feel sensitive about this subject of femininity—he did not have a very masculine job. In a Medina that was in a state of full-blown economic development, where the Medinese, especially the Jews, made an art of agriculture, and the immigrant Meccans continued their commercial activities and managed to combine them with military expeditions, Abu Hurayra preferred, according to his own comments, to be in the company of the Prophet. He served him and sometimes “helped out in the women's apartments.” 47 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 441. This fact might clear up the mystery about his hatred of women, and also of female cats, the two seeming to be strangely linked in his mind.

He had such a fixation about female cats and women that he recalled that the Prophet had pronounced a hadith concerning the two creatures—and in which the female cat comes off much better than the woman. But ‘A’isha contradicted him, a Companion recounted:

We were with ‘A’isha, and Abu Hurayra was with us. ‘A’isha said to him: “Father of the Little Cat, is it you who said that you heard the Prophet declare that a woman went to hell because she starved a little female cat and didn’t give it anything to drink?” “I did hear the Prophet say that,” responded Father of the Little Cat. “A believer is too valuable in the eyes of God,” retorted ‘A’isha, “for Him to torture that person because of a cat. . . . Father of the Little Cat, the next time you undertake to repeat the words of the Prophet, watch out what you recount.” 48 Imam [Muhammad ibn Bahadur al-]Zarkashi [circa 1344–1392], Al-Ijaba li-irad ma istadrakathu ‘A’isha ‘ala alsahaba [Collection of ‘A’isha's Corrections to the Statements of the Companions], second edition (Beirut, Lebanon: Al- Maktab al-Islami, 1980), p. 118.

It is not surprising that Abu Hurayra attacked ‘A’isha in return for that. She might be “The Mother of the Believers” and “The Lover of the Lover of God,” but she contradicted him too often. One day he lost patience and defended himself against an attack by ‘A’isha. When she said to him, “Abu Hurayra, you relate hadith that you never heard,” he replied sharply, “O Mother, all I did was collect hadith, while you were too busy with make-up and your mirror.” 49 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 440.

One of the constant themes of conflict in Islam from the very beginning is what to do about menstrual periods and the sex act. Are periods the source of sullying? ‘A’isha and the other wives of the Prophet never lost any opportunity to insist that the Prophet did not have the phobic attitude of pre-Islamic Arabia on that subject. Did the Prophet purify himself after making love during the holy month of Ramadan? “I heard Abu Hurayra recount that he whom the dawn finds sullied (janaban, referring to sullying by the sex act) may not fast.” 50 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 112. Upon hearing this new law decreed by Abu Hurayra, the Companions hastened to the wives of the Prophet to reassure themselves about it: “They posed the question to Umm Salama [wife of the Prophet, circa 596–682] and ‘A’isha. . . . They responded: ‘The Prophet used to spend the night sullied without making any ritual of purification, and in the morning he fasted.’” 51 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 112. The Companions, greatly perplexed, returned to Abu Hurayra:

“Ah, so. They said that?” he responded. “Yes, they said that,” repeated the Companions, feeling more and more troubled, because Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Abu Hurayra then confessed, under pressure, that he had not heard it directly from the Prophet, but from someone else. He reconsidered what he had said, and later it was learned that just before his death he completely retracted his words. 52 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, pp. 112, 113.

Abu Hurayra was not the only one to report hadith about the purification ritual, and this was a real bone of contention between ‘A’isha and the Companions. “[‘Abdallah] ibn ‘Umar [died 693] ordered women who were doing the purification ritual to undo their braids [before touching their hair with wet hands].” ‘A’isha is supposed to have responded when someone reported to her the teaching that he was propounding: “That's strange. . . . Why, when he was about it, didn’t he order them to shave their heads? When I used to wash myself with the Prophet, we purified ourselves with the same bucket of water. I passed my wet hand over my braids three times, and I never undid them!” 53 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 111. ‘A’isha insisted on these corrections because she was conscious of the implications of what was being said. Pre-Islamic Arabia regarded sexuality, and the menstruating woman in particular, as a source of pollution, as a pole of negative forces. This theory about pollution expressed a vision of femaleness that was conveyed through a whole system of superstitions and beliefs that Muhammad wanted to condemn. He saw it as, on the one hand, the essence of the jahiliya [pre-Islamic era], and, on the other hand, the essence of the beliefs of the Jewish community of Medina.

The religious scholars who took part in the debate on the subject of pollution, recorded at length in the religious literature, came down on the side of ‘A’isha. Their argument was that her version of the hadith seemed to agree more with the attitude of the Prophet, who tried by all means to “struggle against superstition in all its forms.” 54 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 115.

This was not a matter that interested only the imams. The caliphs were also greatly concerned about it: “Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan [reigned 661–680] asked Umm Habiba, the wife of the Prophet [circa 588–680], if the Prophet—may God pray for him—had ever prayed in the garments in which he had made love. She said yes, he had, because he saw nothing bad in it.” 55 Imam [Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-]Nasa’i [830–915], Sunan [Hadith Collection] (Cairo: Al-Matba‘a al-Misriya, no date), volume 1, p. 155. Imam al-Nasa’i explains to us why he laid such stress on the subject of menstruation in his chapter on the purification ritual. The Prophet, he said, wanted to react against the phobic behavior of the Jewish population of Medina, who declared a woman who was having her period unclean: “He ordered them [the male believers who had asked him questions on this subject] to eat with their wives, drink with them, share their bed, and do everything with them that they wanted except copulate.” 56 Nasa’i, Sunan, volume 1, p. 155.

The books of fiqh devote whole chapters to the purification rituals that every Muslim must carry out five times a day before praying. It is undeniable that Islam has an attitude bordering on anxiety about bodily cleanliness, which induces in many people an almost neurotic strictness. Our religious education begins with attention focused on the body, its secretions, its fluids, its orifices, which the child must learn to constantly observe and control. The sex act imposes a more elaborate ritual for the grown man and woman, and after menstruating the woman must wash her entire body according to a precise ritual. Islam stresses the fact that sex and menstruation are really extraordinary (in the literal meaning of the word) events, but they do not make the woman a negative pole that “annihilates” in some way the presence of the divine and upsets its order. But apparently the Prophet's message, 14 centuries later, has still not been absorbed into customs throughout the Muslim world, if I judge by the occasions when I was refused admittance at the doors of mosques in Penang, Malaysia, in Baghdad, Iraq, and in Kairouan, Tunisia.

According to the meticulous al-Nasa’i, Maymuna [circa 593–672], one of the wives of the Prophet (he had nine at the time, that concerns us here, the last years of his life in Medina), said: “It happened that the Prophet recited the Qur'an with his head on the knee of one of us while she was having her period. It also happened that one of us brought his prayer rug to the mosque and laid it down while she was having her period.” 57 Nasa’i, Sunan, volume 1, p. 147. Already at the time that Imam al-Nasa’i was writing (he was born in year 214 or 215 A.H., 830 A.D.), the scholars suspected that there was a message there that was disturbing the misogyny ingrained in the peoples of the Arab Mediterranean area, before and after the Prophet, and they made great efforts not to betray that very disturbing aspect of the Prophet's message. These religious scholars, who saw in misogyny the danger of betrayal of the Prophet, doubled their precautions and did a thorough investigation of the sex life of the Prophet by listening to the reports of his wives, the only credible sources on this subject. They accumulated details about his life at home as well as in the mosque. Ibn Sa‘d devoted a chapter of his book to the layout of the Prophet's house. This chapter, as we shall soon see, is extremely important for the clarification of a key dimension of Islam: the total revolution it represented vis-à-vis the Judeo-Christian tradition and the pre-Islamic period with regard to women. However, very quickly the misogynistic trend reasserted itself among the religious scholars and gained the upper hand. We will see the resurgence in many hadith of that superstitious fear of femaleness that the Prophet wanted to eradicate.

One can read among al-Bukhari's “authentic” hadith the following one: “Three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.” 58 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 3, p. 243. Al-Bukhari did not include other versions of this hadith, although the rule was to give one or more contradictory versions in order to show readers conflicting points of view, and thus to permit them to be sufficiently well informed to decide for themselves about practices that were the subject of dispute. However, there is no trace in al-Bukhari of ‘A’isha's refutation of this hadith:

They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the Messenger of God said: “Three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.” ‘A’isha responded: “Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He only heard the end of it. What the Prophet said was: ‘May God refute the Jews; they say three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’” 59 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 113.

Not only did al-Bukhari not include this correction, but he treated the hadith as if there was no question about it. He cited it three times, each time with a different transmission chain. This procedure generally strengthens a hadith and gives the impression of consensus concerning it. No mention was made of the dispute between ‘A’isha and Abu Hurayra on this subject. Worse yet, al-Bukhari followed this misogynistic hadith with another along the same lines which reflected the same vision of femaleness as a pole of destruction and ill luck: “The Prophet said: ‘I do not leave after me any cause of trouble more fatal to man than women.’” 60 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 3, p. 243. The source of this hadith is ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar (the son of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph), who was known for his rare asceticism and for nights interrupted by prayers and purifications. 61 The biography of ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar can be found in ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 4, pp. 182ff. ‘Abdallah was a source very highly valued by Bukhari. He was the author of another famous hadith, in which he throws women into hell: “‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar said: ‘The Prophet said: “I took a look at paradise, and I noted that the majority of the people there were poor people. I took a look at hell, and I noted that there women were the majority.” ’ ” 62 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, p. 137.

What conclusion must one draw from this? That even the authentic hadith must be vigilantly examined with a magnifying glass? That is our right, Malik ibn Anas tells us. Al-Bukhari, like all religious scholars, began his work of collecting by asking for God's help and acknowledging that only He is infallible. It is our tradition to question everything and everybody, especially the religious scholars and imams. And it is more than ever necessary for us to disinter our true tradition from the centuries of oblivion that have managed to obscure it. But we must also guard against falling into generalizations and saying that all the imams were and are misogynistic. That is not true today and was not true yesterday. The example of this is Imam Zarkashi, who, luckily for us, recorded in writing all of ‘A’isha's objections.

Imam Zarkashi was of Turkish origin, but born in Egypt in the middle of the 14th century A.D. (year 745 A.H.). Like all the scholars of his time, he traveled throughout the Muslim world in search of knowledge. He specialized in religious knowledge and left behind no less than 30 compendiums. Many of these are lost to modern researchers, and we know only their titles. Among those that have come down to us is a book devoted to ‘A’isha's contribution to Islam, her contribution as a source of religious knowledge. The book begins as follows:

‘A’isha is the Mother of the Believers. . . . She is the lover of the Messenger of God. . . . She lived with him for eight years and five months; she was 18 years old at the time of the death of the Prophet. . . . She lived to be 65 years old. We are indebted to her for 1,210 hadiths. 63 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, pp. 37, 38.

And he explains:

This book is devoted to her particular contribution in this field, especially the points on which she disagreed with others, the points to which she supplied added information, the points on which she was in complete disagreement with the religious scholars of her time . . . . I have entitled this book Collection of ‘A’isha's Corrections to the Statements of the Companions. 64 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 32.

This book remained in manuscript form until 1939. [Jamal al-Din] Al-Afghani [1838–1897] discovered it while doing research for his biography of ‘A’isha in the al-Dahiriya Library of Damascus, Syria. Why did Imam Zarkashi, one of the greatest scholars of the Shafi‘i school of his time, undertake his work on ‘A’isha? A work that, by all accounts, he must have considered extremely important, since he dedicated his book to the Judge of Judges (qadi al-qudat)—the equivalent of the Minister of Justice today, the supreme authority in religious matters in a Muslim city. Because, he says, “the Prophet recognized ‘A’isha's importance to such an extent that he said: ‘Draw a part of your religion from little al-humayra [red woman].’” 65 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 31. One of the Prophet's favorite pet names for ‘A’isha was al-humayra, referring to her very white skin made radiant by a light sunburn, something rather rare in the Hijaz, the northern part of Arabia. 66 Zahiya Qaddura, ‘A’isha, Umm al-mu’minin [‘A’isha, Mother of the Faithful] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1976).

‘A’isha disputed many of Abu Hurayra's hadith and declared to whoever wanted to hear it: “He is not a good listener, and when he is asked a question, he gives wrong answers.” 67 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 116. ‘A’isha could take the liberty of criticizing him because she had an excellent memory: “I never saw anyone who had so much knowledge about religion, poetry, and medicine as ‘A’isha.” 68 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 8, p. 17. Abu Hurayra knew how to rile her. “But who has heard about that from Abu al-Qasim [the Prophet's surname]?” she exclaimed when someone recounted to her another of Abu Hurayra's traditions, this time describing what the Prophet did after making love. 69 Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 120.

It is not wasted effort for us to tarry over the personality of Abu Hurayra, the author of hadith that saturate the daily life of every modern Muslim woman. He has been the source of an enormous amount of commentary in the religious literature. But he was and still is the object of controversy, and there is far from being unanimity on him as a reliable source. The most recent book about him, jointly published by a Lebanese and an Iraqi firm, is a tribute written by one of his admirers who devotes not less than 500 pages to defending him. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Salih al-‘Ali gave his book a rather eloquent title: In Defense of Abu Hurayra. 70 [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘. It was obviously a success, since a new edition was published in 1983. The author begins by asserting that “the Zionists and their allies and supporters have found another weapon against Islam; it is to introduce doubt about the narrators of traditions . . . and especially about those who were the source of many hadith.” 71 [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 7. This gives an idea of the intensity of the controversy surrounding Abu Hurayra. What is certain is that Abu Hurayra, long before Zionism, was attacked by Companions of his own generation. He had a very dubious reputation from the beginning, and al-Bukhari was aware of it, since he reports that “people said that Abu Hurayra recounts too many hadith.” 72 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34. ‘Abd al-Mun’im, to his credit, cites all the incidents in which he was strongly challenged, including by those other than ‘A’isha. He assures us that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second orthodox caliph, did not say that “the worst liar among the narrators of hadith is Abu Hurayra.” 73 [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 122. He disputes the claim that ‘Umar threatened to exile him, to send him back to his native Yemen, if he continued to recount hadith. 74 [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 122.

‘Umar, who enjoyed an unparalleled influence on the Prophet and the Muslim community of yesterday (and still does today) because of his prestige as a man of politics, his boldness in military matters, his strong personality, and his horror of lying, avoided recounting hadith. He was terrified at the idea of not being accurate. For that reason, ‘Umar was one of those Companions who preferred to rely on their own judgment rather than trust their memory, which they considered dangerously fallible. 75 Muhammad Abu Zahra, Malik [Malik ibn Anas, 710–796] (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, no date), p. 146. He was very irritated by the facile manner in which Abu Hurayra reeled off hadith: “‘Umar al-Khattab,” we can read in al-‘Asqalani's biography of him, “is supposed to have remarked as follows about Abu Hurayra: ‘We have many things to say, but we are afraid to say them, and that man there has no restraint.’” 76 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 440.

For the pious Companion the fallibility of memory was an occasion for meditating on the fragility of existence in the face of the flowing river of time, which steals not only youth, but especially memory. ‘Umar ibn Hasin [seventh century], another Companion who was conscious of the treacherousness of memory, said:

If I wanted to, I could recite traditions about the Prophet for two days without stopping. What keeps me from doing it is that I have seen some of the Companions of the Messenger of God who heard exactly what I myself heard, who saw what I saw, and those men recounted hadith. Those traditions are not exactly what we heard. And I am afraid of hallucinating, as they hallucinate. 77 Abu Zahra, Malik, p. 145.

The Arabic word is yushba, literally “to hallucinate,” that is, to see a reality that does not exist but that has the appearance of reality.

Abu Hurayra, on the contrary, for the three years that he spent in the company of the Prophet, would accomplish the tour de force of recalling 5,300 hadith. 78 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 432. Al-Bukhari listed 800 experts who cited him as their source. 79 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34. Here is how Abu Hurayra explains his excellent memory: “I said to the Prophet: ‘I listen attentively, I take in many of your ideas, but I forget many.’” 80 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34. Then the Prophet is supposed to have told him to spread out his cloak while he was speaking to him, and afterwards to pick it up at the end of the session. “And this is the reason that I no longer forgot anything.” 81 Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34. Telling the story of the cloak was not the best way to be convincing in a religion like Islam, which has a horror of mysteries of all sorts, where Muhammad resisted the pressure of his contemporaries to perform miracles and magical acts, and where the religious scholars became well-versed from very early on in an exaggerated pragmatism.

Abu Hurayra also gave another explanation that was a bit more realistic than the first. The other Companions, he said, put their energy into business matters and spent their time in the bazaars drawing up contracts and increasing their fortunes, while he had nothing else to do but follow the Prophet everywhere. 82 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 517. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was well known for his physical vigor and who awoke the city every day to say the dawn prayer, disliked lazy people who loafed around without any definite occupation. He summoned Abu Hurayra on one occasion to offer him a job. To his great surprise, Abu Hurayra declined the offer. ‘Umar, who did not consider such things a joking matter, said to him:

“You refuse to work? Better people than you have begged for work.” “Who are those people who are better than me?” inquired Abu Hurayra. “Joseph, the son of Jacob, for example,” said ‘Umar to put an end to a conversation that was getting out of hand. “He,” said Abu Hurayra flippantly, “was a prophet, the son of a prophet, and I am Abu Hurayra, son of Umayma [his mother].” 83 ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 517.

With this anecdote we come back to our point of departure, the relationship of “Father of the Little Female Cat” to femaleness and to the very mysterious and dangerous link between the sacred and women. All the monotheistic religions are shot through by the conflict between the divine and the feminine, but none more so than Islam, which has opted for the occultation of the feminine, at least symbolically, by trying to veil it, to hide it, to mask it. Islam as sexual practice unfolds with a very special theatricality since it is acted out in a scene where the hijab [veil] occupies a central position. This almost phobic attitude toward women is all the more surprising since we have seen that the Prophet has encouraged his adherents to renounce it as representative of the jahiliya and its superstitions. This leads me to ask: Is it possible that Islam's message had only a limited and superficial effect on deeply superstitious seventhcentury Arabs who failed to integrate its novel approaches to the world and to women? Is it possible that the hijab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jahiliya mentality that Islam was supposed to annihilate?

Bibliography references:

1. Amal Rassam, “Mernissi, Fatima,” in John L. Esposito, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), volume 3, pp. 93–94.

2. Leila Ahmad, “Feminism and Feminist Movements in the Middle East,” Women's Studies International Forum, volume 5, number 2, 1982, pp. 153–168.

8. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

10. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

13. Ibn Sa‘d, Al-Tabaqat, p. 159.

14. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 622.

17. Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 182.

18. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

22. Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 179.

23. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 46.

25. Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 221.

26. Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 188.

27. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, pp. 221ff.

28. Mas’udi, Les Prairies d’or, volume 2, p. 645.

29. Tabari, Tarikh, volume 5, p. 190.

31. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 56.

34. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 16.

35. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 16.

36. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Al-Intiqa’, p. 15.

37. Ibn al-Athir, Usd al-ghaba, volume 5, p. 38.

39. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 47.

40. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 99.

41. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 199.

42. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-sahaba [A Biographical Dictionary of the Companions of the Prophet] (Cairo: Maktaba al-Dirasa al-Islamiya Dar al-Nahda, no date), volume 8, p. 18.

43. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 427.

45. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 426.

46. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 434.

47. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 441.

49. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 440.

50. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 112.

51. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 112.

52. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, pp. 112, 113.

53. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 111.

54. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 115.

56. Nasa’i, Sunan, volume 1, p. 155.

57. Nasa’i, Sunan, volume 1, p. 147.

58. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 3, p. 243.

59. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 113.

60. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 3, p. 243.

62. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, p. 137.

63. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, pp. 37, 38.

64. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 32.

65. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 31.

66. Zahiya Qaddura, ‘A’isha, Umm al-mu’minin [‘A’isha, Mother of the Faithful] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1976).

67. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 116.

68. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 8, p. 17.

69. Imam Zarkashi, Al-Ijaba, p. 120.

72. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34.

75. Muhammad Abu Zahra, Malik [Malik ibn Anas, 710–796] (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, no date), p. 146.

76. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 440.

77. Abu Zahra, Malik, p. 145.

78. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 432.

79. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34.

80. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34.

81. Bukhari, Sahih, volume 1, p. 34.

82. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 517.

83. ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 7, p. 517.

Notes:

3. Fatoumata Sow, “Le Harem Politique” (The Political Harem), in Fippu, Journal de Yewwu Yewwi pour la libération des femmes (Fight Back, Journal of “Liberation through Consciousness” for the Liberation of Women) (Dakar, Senegal), number 2, April 1989, p. 33.

4. Morocco, Ministère de l’Artisanat et des Affaires Sociales, Les Femmes marocaines dans le développement économique et social, décennie 1975–1985 [Moroccan Women in Social and Economic Development, the Decade 1975–1985].

5. Al-Bukhari, Al-Sahih (Collection of Authentic Hadiths), with commentary by al-Sindi (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Ma‘rifa, 1978). The hadith quoted by the schoolteacher is in volume 4, p. 226.

6. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Huda al-sari, muqaddimat Fath al-bari [The Traveller's Guide, Introduction to “The Creator's Conquest”], commonly known as Fath al-bari [The Creator's Conquest]. It comprises al-Bukhari's text with a commentary by al-‘Asqalani. The hadith that concerns us here, on the necessity of excluding women from power, is found on p. 46 of volume 13 of the edition of Al-Matba‘a al-Bahiya al- Misriya (1928) and on p. 166 of volume 16 of the edition of Maktaba Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi fi Misr (1963). (Future page references are to the 1928 edition.)

7. The Muslim world is divided into two parts: the Sunnis (orthodox) and the Shi‘ites (literally, schismatics). Each group has its own specific texts of fiqh (religious knowledge), especially as regards sources of the shari‘a (legislation and laws). The Sunnis are split between four madhahib (schools). . . . The differences between them most frequently relate to details of juridical procedures.

9. See Hodgson, Venture of Islam, volume 1, p. 199.

11. On this dilemma and the division that it occasioned, see ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, p. 49. On the political implications and the philosophical debates that the Battle of the Camel aroused, see the extraordinary description by [Abu Ja‘far Muhammad] Tabari [died 922] in his Tarikh alumam wa al-muluk [History of Imams and Kings] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al-Fikr, 1979), volume 5, pp. 156–225.

12. [Muhammad] Ibn Sa‘d [784–845], [Kitab] al-tabaqat al-kubra [The Great Book of Classes] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Sadir, no date), volume 3, p. 159.

15. [‘Izz al-Din] Ibn al-Athir [1160–1233], Usd al-ghaba fi [ma‘rifat] al-sahaba [The Lions of the Forest, on Knowing the Companions of the Prophet] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr li al-Tiba’a wa al-Tawzi‘, no date), volume 5, p. 38.

16. Mas’udi [died 956], Muruj [al-zahab] [Meadows of Gold], volume 2, p. 380; and the French translation of this work, Les Prairies d’or [Prairies of Gold], volume 3, p. 646.

19. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, pp. 50 and 51 for the first version, and p. 44 for the second.

20. See the analysis of Hamied N. Ansari, “The Islamic Militants in Egyptian Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, volume 16, number 1, 1984, pp. 123–144.

21. [Bracketed comments in indented quotations in this chapter are the author's, not the editor's.—Editor]

24. Mas’udi, Muruj, volume 2, p. 378; and the French translation, volume 2, p. 644.

30. ‘Asqalani, Fath al-bari, volume 13, pp. 51ff; Mas’udi, Muruj, volume 3, pp. 4ff; and al-Tabari, Mohammed, Sceau des prophètes [Muhammad, Seal of the Prophets] (Paris: Sindbad, 1980), volume 6, p. 95.

32. For assistance with the research for this chapter, I am indebted to Professor Ahmed al-Khamlichi, Chairman of the Department of Private Law, Faculté de Droit, Université Mohammed V, Rabat, Morocco.

33. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr [978–1070], Al-Intiqa’ fi fadl althalath al-a’imma al-fuqaha’ [The Selection, on the Merits of the Three Founding Jurists] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiya, no date), pp. 10, 16.

38. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab institutionalized the recourse to capital punishment for fornication; his contemporaries were not at all in agreement with his position. See Bukhari, Sahih, volume 4, pp. 146ff. . . . ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab . . . was [also] the instigator of the wearing of the veil and was in complete disagreement with the Prophet about the way to treat women.

44. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Salih al-‘Ali al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘an Abi Hurayra [In Defense of Abu Hurayra], second edition (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Qalam; Baghdad: Maktaba al-Nahda, 1981), p. 13.

48. Imam [Muhammad ibn Bahadur al-]Zarkashi [circa 1344–1392], Al-Ijaba li-irad ma istadrakathu ‘A’isha ‘ala alsahaba [Collection of ‘A’isha's Corrections to the Statements of the Companions], second edition (Beirut, Lebanon: Al- Maktab al-Islami, 1980), p. 118.

55. Imam [Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-]Nasa’i [830–915], Sunan [Hadith Collection] (Cairo: Al-Matba‘a al-Misriya, no date), volume 1, p. 155.

61. The biography of ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar can be found in ‘Asqalani, Al-Isaba, volume 4, pp. 182ff.

70. [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘.

71. [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 7.

73. [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 122.

74. [Al-‘Ali] al-‘Uzzi, Difa‘, p. 122.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2018. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice