Marriage and Relationships

Some Misconceptions about Islam in the West

Some Misconceptions about Islam in the West (Mustafa Yusaf McDermott) Myths are weeds that grow in the garden of the mind; unless they are removed truth will never grow. On the subject of Muslim women and Islamic marriage, these myths have grown into a virtual jungle of distortion and misconception. The Muslim world has often been projected by the West as a Disneyland of Arabian Nights and Turkish Delight, in which dark-eyed Sheikhs on Arab stallions charged across the desert carrying off reluctant maidens to exotic harems. Even in these petro-dollar days, there are some highly intelligent Europeans who seriously believe that Muslim women are denied their human rights and are regarded by Muslim men as unintelligent and inferior. Even in Britain there is a startling number of people who really believe that most Muslim men have four wives hidden away in domestic subservience, restricted to a life of toil and.unceasing satisfaction of their master’s carnal lusts. Making such contemporary generalizations from historical exceptions may help to provide a television fantasy world into which we can escape from facing reality and confirm our prejudices, but it is seriously detrimental to the promotion of tolerance, understanding and rapport in the plural society of Britain. The propagation of myths serves only to divide us. The three most outstanding misconceptions, derived from the indiscriminate mass media projection of myth and fantasy, concerning Islam in general and Muslim women in particular revolve around the following inexactitudes and distortions: (a) Arabia is Islam! — Islam is Arabia! (b) Polygamy is the common form of Islamic marriage, (i.e. all Muslims have four wives). (c) Muslim women have no rights! (“Women are the servants of men”). Islam is Arabia! It is from this popular misconception that most other myths about Muslims are derived. SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM IN THE WEST 23 Islam, a comprehensive spiritual guidance and complete social system, is the Divine path revealed by God for all mankind. The believers of this unique faith are spread throughout the whole of the civilised world and represent every ethnic group and language of the five continents. Islam, in its final stage, was revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) in Arabia and in the Arabic language, over a period of twenty-three years in the seventh century after the Prophet Jesus (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him). From the time, Islam continued to spread with amazing speed, incredible success and with a far reaching influence on all aspects of life, leaving an indelible imprint on the development of science, art and social development in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies. The focal point of Islam to which every Muslim turns to pray is the Ka’bah in Makka (Arabia) which was built by the Prophet Abraham (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) about 4,000 years ago, at the command of God, as an inviolable place of worship to which millions of Muslims make an annual pilgrimage (Hajj). Of the nearly one billion Muslims dispersed throughout the world, the combined population of all the Arab-speaking countries is only about 130 million (roughly 15%); Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Emirates, about which there are so many current legends, account for less than 13 million; the whole of North Africa (47 million) and Egypt (33 million), with which Europeans appear to be best acquainted, total approximately 80 million. It is significant that the combined Muslim population of Indonesia (125 million +) and Malaysia (6 million +) is greater, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India account for a further 131 million. In Turkey (38 million) and Iran (32 million) there are 70 millions Muslims. The total Muslim population of China incidentally, exceeds the total population of Saudi Arabia. The combined population of Muslims in the communist countries or Europe and the Soviet Union is 81 million and in the non-Arabic speaking countries of Central and South Africa, there are more than 87 million.1 From this brief outline of the glob al spread of Islam, the cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity of Islam becomes clearly apparent. Although the Muslim community is inalienably coherent by a commonly shared and actively expressed structure of norms and values, we find within it many variations in customs, traditions and folklore relating to dress, diet, temperament, attitudes, art, occupations, -etc., obviously influenced by varied environments. Nevertheless, in respect of modesty, free intermingling of the sexes, family, marriage and morality, this polyglot of nations more or 1. For full details of the population of the Muslim world, see M. M. Ahsan, Islam: Faith and Practice, Islamic Foundation 1976, Section: Appendix. See also World Muslim Gazetteer, Umma Publishing House, Karachi, 1975. 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS less follow the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) and do their best to conform to Islamic injunctions and prohibition without contravention, and within this framework of cultural diversity. To project contemporary Christianity to the Muslim world in terms of the diabolical activities of some of the Borgia family of Italy, the marital record of Henry VIII, and the European involvement in the African slave trade to America in the eighteenth century would be ludicrous and totally unjust. To accept the equally absurd projection of Islam in Western mass media and literature is similarly irrational and contrary to the successful establishment of economic, social and cultural exchange which prevailing circumstances in the world necessitate. Polygamy Polygamy, in Islam, is not an imposed and universal form of marriage. It is a Divine concession to the distressing reality of social circumstances such as war, and the surplus of women it creates, childlessness and the chronic sickness of the first wife which can make it necessary and practicable as a prevention and solution of social problems which these unfortunate circumstances would otherwise create. Individuals may face circumstances such as have made extra-marital sex a common occurrence in many societies. Polygamy is socially more secure for women, infinitely fairer to children, legally binding and morally preferable to bigamy, prostitution, mistresses and other similarly permissive patterns of sexual behaviour which appear to threaten the stability and dignity of family life. It certainly reduces the pressures leading to divorce and separation and assures the children a stable family life. However, in the whole of contemporary Islamic society, monogamy is the norm; polygamy is the exception. In Arabia, Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc., polygamy is very rarely practised by Muslims and most certainly there is little evidence, even as the exception to the rule, that it is prevalent among the settled Muslim community in Britain. Polygamy functions in Islam when the circumstances it was meant to contain prevail; when these circumstances, such as prolonged war etc. do not exist, polygamy ceases to flourish and monogamy is, as now, the norm. The majority of Muslim men are quite content with one wife and the almost negligible number who do practise polygamy do so for the legitimate reasons outlined above, and not from insatiable sexual appetite and for status symbols as legend and myth would have us believe. The Rights of Muslim Women “Muslim women have no freedom, they are slaves to their husbands” SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM IN THE WEST 25 declared an English mother as she quickly packed processed food into her shopping bag during a lunchtime break from the factory. “Freedom from what?” asked the young Muslim student in her break from college, “Freedom to share her earnings and wealth with her husband; freedom to share responsibility for keeping the children, freedom to leave the children to roam the streets; freedom to go home and cook and wash and clean after a day at the factory, and still be a friendly and a loving wife?”2 Equality of the Sexes — Within the Family The position of men and women in the internal organization of the Muslim family, within the Islamic community in Britain as elsewhere, is clearly defined in the Qur’an and there is little possibility of role conflict between husband and wife and other adult males and females in this extended family structure. Role obligations and rights naturally conform to the obvious physical differences between men and women and take into account innate abilities and aptitudes. For equality will be a hoax if women have to be on a par with men in every sphere of life and still bear and rear children. In industrial management, it would be called “rational deployment of manpower resources”. In the Muslim family it is simply the right person for the right job. The husband’s major responsibility is that of earning all the economic and material needs of the family, thus, in effect, fulfilling his wife’s clearly defined right to this provision, without being in any way compelled to contribute financially herself, however independently wealthy she may be. The husband is the head of the family and this, in Islamic terms, quite rightly imposes upon him more obligations than rights. He is more suitable for this obligation, but not the superior member of the team, and his functions are matched to this strength, aptitude, natural inclination and disposition. Many of his responsibilities lie outside the family and, in addition to employment in the community, he has to look after the relations of the family with the rest of society, education, employment, health, social services, housing etc. The father is mainly responsible for the internal discipline of the family, but mostly the power remains delegated to the mother. The wife’s major responsibility is primarily, but not exclusively, concerned with the internal organization of the family; training and educating the children in an atmosphere of affection and commitment to the spiritual and social values of Islam. The father may supply the materials and general plan of action, but it is the mother who fashions and develops the minds and personahties of the children, creates a home and provides an Islamic refuge of belongingness, security and loyalty for the father and offspring. The mother is 2. From an actual conversation reported by a student, in a classroom discussion. 26 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS indisputably the central pivot around which the whole gamut of family relations revolve and hers is unquestionably a vital and important role which is beyond the natural capabilities and inclinations of men. Children, too, have defined roles and clear responsibilities, and in addition to learning their adult roles without confusion they act (particularly in the Muslim community of Britain) as interpreters and links between two cultures — it is indeed thek striving to overcome the difficulties they share that binds them together. Muslim women in the Islamic community in Britain appear to enjoy their role which, while it is different from that of their husbands, is equally essential. They do not underestimate the importance of their contribution to family stability; they are proud of their status and secure in the knowledge of their many rights. Muslim women meet with each other regularly, informally and formally, and in this way they too make a contribution to linking the family with its focal point •— the community, coherent in the common religion which they share and in which they have equality in the eyes of God and men. Specific Rights of Muslim Women Contrary to popular opinion in the West, women in Islam have en extensive range of specific rights encompassing: (a) the spiritual; (b) intellectual; (c) social; (d) economic; and (e) political aspects of life. These rights are bestowed on women by God, safeguarded by the infallibility and unique wisdom of the Qur’an and perpetuated by the sublime example of the Prophet (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him). These rights were granted to women fourteen hundred years ago; they were not grudging concessions to the demands of womens’ liberation movements nor a reaction to the heroic, but nevertheless undignified, protestations made by Emily Pankhurst and her dedicated supporters. The most basic right of a woman in Islam is to be accepted as having rights for which she never needs to fight. Spiritual Islam does not subscribe to the idea of original sin; and woman, according to the Qur’an, is not held responsible for Adam’s first mistake; both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented and both were forgiven. In terms of religious obligations — daily prayers (Salati), fasting (Sawrn), poor dues (Zakah) and pilgrimage (Hajj) •— women have the same duties and are promised the same rewards for carrying them out. However, with compassionate regard to certain physiological situations peculiar to females, women are exempted from prayer and fasting during menstrual periods and forty days after childbirth. Intellectual Not only have women a right to full intellectual development but, along SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM IN THE WEST 27 with men, they have an obligation to seek knowledge, as the Prophet (blessings of Allah and peace be upon him) said: “It is a duty for every Muslim, male and female, to seek knowledge”. Islam credits women, as also men, with the capacity for learning, understanding, teaching and intellectual development. The knowledge it creates is necessary in the vital process of becoming more conscious of God and for performing the roles that have been assigned, maternal or paternal, domestic or economic. There is nothing at all in Islamic teaching that could be interpreted to mean that Muslim girls or women have less right than Muslim boys or men to an education related to their intelligence, ability, natural inclinations and aptitude; from play school to university, from “O” levels to a doctorate degree. Within the Muslim community in Britain a high percentage of Muslim girls continue their studies beyond “O” levels and are certainly encouraged to study at “A” level and prepare for University, College and professional/ vocational training courses. There is no significant evidence to indicate that Muslim parents in Britain attach more importance to the education of their sons, rather than their daughters and to both they appear to give equal freedom of choice in careers, with due regard to the equality important but essentially different primary roles they will play in adult life. Social Islamic teaching specifically protects women in all stages of development. However, the most common misconceptions relating to women in the social area are marriage and divorce. Marriage Contrary to popular myth, but strictly according to Muslim law, Muslim women cannot be forced to marry without their personal consent and without being consulted at an early stage in the negotiations. The fantasy image of a beautiful young maiden being forced to marry some cruel but rich old man, chosen by her parents, is the “plot” for a fairy story. It is, however, quite true, and according to Islamic teaching, that parents should look for a suitable partner for their children and thus seek to influence them towards a wise decision. In any event, the final decision remains with the boy and girl, because Islamically no marriage can be contracted without the consent of the bride and groom; moreover Islam emphasizes that the marriage partners should see one another before making a final decision. After discussion and negotiation between both sets of parents and agreement about the prospective bride’s dowry,3 meetings and discussions concerning the 3. Dowry (mahr) in Islam is not, as in certain other cultures, a bride price of symbolic gesture. It is a gift given by the husband to his wife for her exclusive use at the beginning of their married life. It can take the form of money, property or jewellery, etc., and is given strictly according to the husband’s means. 28 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS proposed marriage may take place between the young man and woman. It is important to realize that when a boy or girl gets married they are marrying into an entire extended family—common agreement of both parents and the young couple eliminates the tensions and conflicts commonly associated with “in-laws” in Western society, and contributes to the social cohesion of the Islamic community. The privacy of young married couples is assured, their isolation and independence is never enforced or even encouraged. Marriage in Islam extends a family; it does not fragment it. Divorce Islamic teaching strongly disapproves of divorce, but recognizes the existence of marital situations that are irreconcilable and in such cases stipulates provisions for divorce which protect the wife and do least harm to the family as a whole. The initiative for divorce lies in the hands of the husband, but the wife can obtain divorce from a court, even on the plea of dislike of the husband. Also a woman can obtain the right to divorce her husband, without going through legal process, if the marriage contract which binds them has made specific allowance for this contingency. In all cases the emphasis is on reconciliation which involves the representatives of the two extended families. It is significant that this framework of reconciliation and procedure for divorce has endured in Islamic society for fourteen centuries. Divorce in Islam is a family affair; free from complicated legal procedures and unwarranted publicity, it is not likely to lead to local scandal or national upheaval as is so often the distressing case in Western society. Economic Ownership One of the most fundamental rights of Muslim women is the right to independent ownership. In Islamic law, a woman’s right to her own money, land, property and other negotiable assets is indisputably acknowledged and is not subject to change by marriage. This right is equally applied to the property and wealth she has before marriage and any other possessions she requires subsequently. Transactions Legally Muslim women are absolutely free to buy, sell, exchange, mortgage or lease the whole or part of their property. Income The whole of a woman’s private income, from profits, rents, capital SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM IN THE WEST 29 appreciation and earnings etc., belong entirely to her and unless it is her own personal wish, cannot be “absorbed” into the housekeeping or used for general expenses related to the husband’s sole responsibility to provide a home, education and welfare for his wife and children. Obviously, in an Islamic marriage, based on love, a rich wife would be inclined to use her wealth, if the husband agreed, to generally raise the quality of life for the whole family. The important thing is that she has the right to decide about this and the husband has no right in law to his wife’s property, nor in any but the most exceptional cases can he take back gifts, however substantial, that he has made to her; they are absorbed into her own private wealth. Inheritance A woman’s right to inherit, like her right to property is similarly indisputed, safeguarded and determined in quite minute detail in Islamic law (Shari’ati). A woman’s share is, by common practice, about one half of the man’s share and, far from implying that a woman is worth only half a man (a popular, yet gross misinterpretation circulated in the West), this division of the parental estate quite justly allocates inherited economic resources in direct relation to economic responsibilities. A woman’s wealth, as already stated, is unquestionably her own to spend or accumulate as she wishes. The man in Islamic society is totally responsible for the maintenance of his wife and children and may also have economic responsibilities relating to needy relatives, particularly the females — widows, unmarried sisters, etc. Employment There is no decree in Islam which forbids a woman from accepting employment in the community, particularly as doctors, nurses, teachers, and other occupations which are compatible with her distinct nature, aptitude and abilities and in no way at variance with the respect and dignity accorded to women in Islam. However, the whole question of employment for Muslim women can only be coherently discussed in relation to the acceptance of women’s primary social role in the community as a wife and mother, regarded in Islam as vital and sacred. Islam recognizes that there are situations in which employment for a woman may be necessary and family circumstances in which the employment of a mother is practicable and not likely to jeopardise family stability. In these cases, Islam encourages women to make their many talents available for the good of the community. Political Recorded in history and supported by Islamic teaching, Muslim women 30 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS have equality with men in political rights. A woman has the right to vote and to be nominated for various political offices and to participate in public affairs at local and national level. What is very important to realize is that Muslim women, who have always had these rights, certainly take advantage of them, and did not have to fight for them. In Islam, many famous women have figured prominently in the affairs of state. In Britain, within the Muslim community itself and British society as a whole, Muslim women are increasingly taking part in public life and in addition to the Muslim Women’s Association in London and many other such societies representing women’s interests and opinions etc., they attend, alongside men, public lectures conferences, seminars, schools and act as magistrates and sit on juries etc. The extent to which Muslim women vote in British elections is determined (as it is for men) by their ability to comprehend the propaganda presented to them. Conclusions The rights of Muslim women are entrenched in Islamic history, enshrined in the Qur’an and made real in life by the obligations imposed on Muslim men as Gamal Badwi concludes: (a) The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century. (b) It is impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of women by any decree or rule embodied in the Islamic law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce or distort the clear-cut legal rights of women in Islamic law. (c) Throughout history the reputation, chastity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by impartial observers.