Women’s hidden role writing Islam’s rules

From The Times April 14, 2007 Women’s hidden role writing Islam’s rules A Muslim scholar is rewriting history by revealing the extent of women’s influence on the formation of Sharia Carla Power Mohammed Akram Nadwi is an unlikely champion for a Muslim gender-quake. Soft-spo-ken and shy, he is a graduate of madrassas in his native India, and an unabashed religious conservative. But the current work of this Oxford-based alim, or religious scholar, could shatter the stock notions of Muslim women’s roles, both in society and Islamic scholarship. Hunting through classical texts, Akram, 43, a researcher at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, has uncovered a tradition of female Muslim scholars dating back to the 7th century. Muslim women’s religious scholarship is seen as sort of a cottage industry: if women study, it is pretty much in the purdah of their own homes or in segregated rooms in mosques or madrassas. If they teach, they usually teach only women. But trawling through centuries of biographical dictionaries, madrassa chronicles, letters and travel books, Akram has found evidence of thousands of muhaddithat, or female experts in Hadith, the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. He has found accounts of women teaching men and women in mosques and madrassas, touring Arabia and the Levant on lecture circuits, issuing fatwas, and making Islamic law. Who knew that in the 15th century, Fatimayah al-Bataihiyyah taught Hadith in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, and that the chief male scholars of the day, from as far afield as Fez, were her students? (Such was al-Bataihiyyah’s status that she taught at the grave of the Prophet, the mosque’s most prestigious spot.) Who knew that hundreds of girls in medieval Mauritania could recite al-Mudawwana, a key book of Islamic law, by heart? Or that Fatimah bint Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Samarqandi, a jurist in medieval Samarkand, used to issue fatwas and advised her far more famous husband on how to issue his? Presumably not the Taleban, who banned women from education while in power, and even now threaten administrators at Afghan girls’ schools. Nor, one imagines, Saudi Arabia, which bans women from driving or travelling freely. A few Islamic historiographers have known about a few women Hadith experts. A century ago Ignaz Goldziher, the Hungarian orientalist, estimated that about 15 per cent of medieval Muslim scholars were women. And Muslims widely acknowledge there have long been learned women, starting with Aisha, the Prophet’s favourite wife. It is less well-known that she narrated about a quarter of the laws forming the basis of Sharia, and was the preferred interpreter of Sharia by the founders of three of the four schools of Islamic law. Akram, himself a Hadith expert who has written more than 25 books, is shocked at the scope of his discoveries. When he started on the project, he expected to find 20 or 30 women, enough to fill a single-volume biographical dictionary. Seven years on, he has found more than 8,000, and his dictionary now stands at 40 volumes. It is so long that his usual publishers, in Damascus and Beirut, have balked at the printing cost. (An Oxford publisher, Interface Publications, will publish the preface to the book in English this summer.) And he is convinced that the women he has found only hint at the true numbers of working women scholars. If I can find 8,000 in the sources, he notes, it means that there were many, many more than that. Since Islamic knowledge is based on oral transmission through chains of scholars linking back to Muhammad, narrators’ reliability is crucial. Weighing Hadiths’ authenticity is itself a branch of Islamic science. Few muhaddithat have been accused of fabrication or inaccuracy, notes Akram. As women didn’t work, they had no reason to invent or embellish prophetic traditions. Hadith wasn’t a source of income for them, and they didn’t do it because they wanted to become famous, he observes. Purdah kept their accounts pure. After the 17th century, women’s scholarship dwindled. Colonial governments, favoring Western-style education, neglected the madrassa system, so custom flourished in lieu of solid Islamic scholarship. Weak leadership from the ulama, many of whom have busied themselves with politics rather than scholarship, has left Muslims ignorant of their own history. Akram believes that Islam’s current cultural insecurity has been bad for both Islamic learning and Muslim women: Our traditions have grown weak, and when people are weak, they grow cautious. When they’re cautious, they don’t give their women freedoms. Akram’s discoveries are particularly powerful because they have been made by a working alim, not a Western academic or a self-styled Muslim reformer. Muslim feminists such as the Dutch reformer Ayaan Hirsi Ali may make headlines in the West, but they often lack credibility among ordinary Muslims. Akram’s approach is fundamentally conservative. Uncovering past muhaddithat could help to reform present-day Islamic culture. Many Muslims see historical precedent – particularly when it dates back to the golden age of Muhammad – as a road map for sound modern societies. The way Muslim society is now isn’t the way it was in the time of the Prophet, observes Akram. Muhammad didn’t hide the accomplishments of his wives or daughters, which many Muslims still do today. When Akram lectures at mosques and madrassas around Britain, his research has met with cautious interest. Women are far keener on his research than men, he wryly notes. His audience is a conservative crowd, wary of teachings that unpick social mores. People think my work will change the structure of society, he says. Critics have accused him of championing free mixing between men and women. He is not, and believes that many segregations should be preserved. I’m not issuing a fatwa that men and women need to study together, he says. But Muslim women scholars are part of our history. And by looking at that history, we can bring Muslim society closer to what it once was.

Rewriting the ad rules for Muslim Americans

Consumer companies and advertising executives are focusing on new ways to reach out to Muslim consumers in the United States. Grocers and consumer product companies are considering ways to adapt to Muslim dietary prescriptions, including the concern over the use of gelatin and pig fat often used in food, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Retailers are looking to provide more conservative skirts – not just in the colder months, but in summer too, hoping to appeal to Muslim women conscious of modest apparel. Companies in the Detroit area, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the country, are making some visible changes in their stores. A McDonald’s there serves halal Chicken McNuggets, the Walgreens has signs in both English and Arabic, and the local Ikea has been touring local homes and talking to Muslims to figure out their needs. In other cities, stores like Macy’s and Whole Foods, are the increasing number of Muslim-owned companies and media outlets, are allowing some Muslims to feel increasingly validated, and a bit less othered.

Keith Ellison, a Democratic state lawmaker and lawyer, has become the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress

On the campaign trail in his urban Minneapolis district, Ellison, 43, talked little about his religious background, focusing instead on his call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and his support for single-payer health care. He broke from more conservative Muslims by favoring gay rights and abortion rights.

Italian Editor Apologizes To Muslims

ROME (AP) – The editor of an Italian monthly has apologized for any offence to Muslims over a humorous caption for a drawing showing the Prophet Muhammad in hell, Italian news reports said Sunday. The journal Studi Cattolici (Catholic Studies), which offers a variety of opinions on cultural issues, ran the caption and drawing in its March issue. Italian news agencies Sunday quoted the journal’s editor, Cesare Cavalleri, as “apologizing, as a Christian,” for any offence. Milan daily Corriere della Sera said that the journal had run a caption next to the drawing, which was inspired by Dante’s depiction of Muhammad in hell in his Divine Comedy. The Union of Italian Islamic Communities said it had protested the caption. The organization’s secretary, Roberto Piccardo, declined to comment on the reported apology. Cavalleri was quoted as saying the vignette “was interpreted as being anti-Islam when, if anything, it was a denunciation of a cultural identity crisis in the West,” the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Cavalleri as saying. “In any case, if, contrary to my and the author’s intentions, someone felt offended in his religious feelings, I willingly apologize as a Christian.” News reports said Cavalleri is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative religious organization that had the favour of the late pope John Paul. Opus Dei on its website said that while it had no responsibility for the magazine, “we desire to apologize for any offence that was made.” Muslims make up a small percentage of people in predominantly Roman Catholic Italy. Earlier this year, a minister in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government was forced to resign after wearing a T-shirt with a caricature of Muhammad on state TV. The incident was blamed for rioting in Libya against Italian interests.

Muslim Groups Slam German State’s Immigrant Test

BERLIN – Islamic groups on Monday vowed to fight a test introduced by a German state this month for potential immigrants which they said singled out Muslims for discrimination. “We will not rest until the state government withdraws the questionnaire,” the spokesman for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Mounir Azzaoui, said. The conservative-ruled southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg introduced the battery of questions January 1 in which candidates for immigration who are considered unlikely to integrate are asked about their personal views.

Greater Surveillance Of German Muslims? Some Want More Spot Checks Of German Mosques

Conservative German politicians Thursday called for increased surveillance of Germany’s Muslim community following the revelations that the London terrorist attacks last week were likely carried out by British Muslims. “We have to know what’s going on in every mosque,” Bavaria’s interior minister, G_nter Beckstein, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “We have to have an intelligence presence there where extremist ideas are being preached.” Beckstein, who is tipped as a potential federal interior minister if the conservative opposition wins this fall’s possible early election, said greater efforts were needed to watch Germany’s Muslims amid the unsettling realization that the bombing attacks in London were the work of British citizens of Pakistani origin. “Accordingly we have increase surveillance of religious fanatics,” he said, calling on the German Muslim community to increase their cooperation with the authorities. “We need the help of tolerant Muslims.” Beckstein’s sentiment was echoed by other conservative politicians. Wolfgang Bosbach, the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary spokesman for interior issues, said suicide attackers could not be scared off by heightened security, making it more important to recruit informants from the local Muslim community for the intelligence services. Uwe Sch_nemann, the conservative interior minister of Lower Saxony, even called for increasing the frequency of random control checks at German mosques. “We need this instrument and we must make greater use of it,” he said. Sch_nemann also called for a special sitting of parliament during the summer recess to pass measure creating a proposed national terror suspect index. “This has to be done quickly since we’ll need it before the World Cup,” he told the paper. Boosting Video Surveillance Beckstein also said more closed-circuit cameras to help secure soccer’s largest sporting spectacle, which Germany will host next summer. Officials in Berlin have already decided to boost security on public transport in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg with the installation of more video surveillance. “Following the attacks on the British capital, we don’t want to be accused of not doing everything we can,” the head of the company responsible for the public transport in Berlin (BVG), Thomas Necker, told the Berliner Zeitung. The BVG will also keep all video footage recorded for three days instead of the current 24 hours. Brandenburg’s interior minister, J_rg Sch_nbohm, has also outlined plans to install closed-circuit cameras in various public areas including train stations and airports. “The swift success of Britain’s police investigations just goes to show how important closed-circuit cameras are,” Sch_nbohm told the tabloid Bild. In London, video footage of the four suspected bombers was able to be retrieved just five days after the attacks took place.