By: Ismael Mukhtar
As Muslim communities in North America grow and become more established, they are bound to deal with a variety of issues that are peculiar to them and reflect their unique local circumstances. Among many of these issues, the role of women and their relations to men will be the most prominent. The “North American born” second generation Muslims who are now gradually taking leadership roles have no allegiance to the traditions and practices of their parents’ generation. They are increasingly challenging and questioning the legitimacy and authenticity of some of these traditions and practices, particularly issues pertaining to women. Discussions and debates between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who question them are becoming common across communities in North America.
A few of the many issues that are the subject of heated and sometimes emotionally charged debates and discussions include: Can a woman be a member of the governing council of the community? Can she be a chairperson? Can a woman address men in a lecture? Should there be a barrier between men and women? etc. This ongoing debate raises a number of scholarly issues that need to be addressed in order to establish a clear framework for discussion and discourse. From the point of view of Fundamental Principles of Fiqh (Usool AL- fiqh) these issues can be broadly categorized into two main areas. The first area encompasses issues that have rulings based on a clear-cut text (Nas Qattee’) from Quran and authentic Sunnah or are based on an established scholarly consensus (Ijma’). Juristically, these issues are absolute and need not be the subject of discussion or disagreement. No one has the authority to alter them as they represent the divine will expressed through the revealed text. The second area includes issues that have rulings based on texts that are not clear-cut (Nas Zanee) or the authenticity of the some of the narrators, in the case of hadith, is the subject of some divergence. Issues that fall within this category are the source of a variety of scholarly opinions and positions. These positions are mostly based on the textual understanding and interpretation of their proponents. Sometimes the evidence from the text, though not absolute, could favor one position over the other, occasionally leading to opinions supported by the majority (Jumhoor) or the four schools of Fiqh. Likewise, other fiqh views held by some scholars could possibly be based on clearly weak and questionable evidence. The fiqh positions and rulings within this category vary in how much leeway they give to woman in terms of participation in public life, interaction with men, and rights and obligations in general. As a result, varying fatwas are often issued by authorities on the same issue, one prohibiting and the other permitting. There is a well established methodology within Islamic Jurisprudence relating to the evaluation of the different fiqh positions and opinions (Tarjeeh). It involves a meticulous scholarly research process which includes: employing linguistic tools, evaluating the chain of narrators, examining the context, considering the spirit of Islamic law and the overall objectives (maqasid), weighing the benefit (Maslah) and harm (mafsada), and taking into consideration the local customs and traditions (urf).
The challenge facing Muslim communities in North America is how to strike a balance between North American customs considerations and unique circumstances on one hand and adherence to the authentic teachings of the revealed text on the other hand. The ultimate objective isn’t to create a fiqh that follows the public mood, nor a fiqh that is purely driven or colored by the local culture but rather to create an objective fiqh based on authentic text; a fiqh that upholds Islamic values of respect, protection, and equality for women. The crucial point is how to address these issues and resolve them without compromising internal cohesion of the community and without crossing the bounds of Islamic jurisprudence. To that end, the following points need to be considered.
1) Exercise professionalism in addressing issues.
A leading contemporary Muslim Jurist, Imam Abu Zahra, states that Islamic Jurisprudence is one of the richest, most comprehensive, most detailed, and thoroughly researched in the world. It has the capacity to address every situation and provide solutions that serve the greater benefit of the community. To properly understand, apply and formulate positions within the bounds of this extensive fiqh, qualified professionals and authorities become indispensable. These authorities need to be well versed in “classical Islamic sciences”, fully informed of contemporary trends, well aware of local customs and realities, combined with an objective state of mind. As Muslim communities in North America are still within a stage of infancy, individuals with such a caliber remain few and thinly spread out. Furthermore, given the intertwined complex social and economic structure of today, this goes beyond any given individual’s capacity to master. Accordingly, a collective body made up of competent scholars and authorities becomes the best and most reasonable option. Many of the polarized debates, frictions, undue restrictions, or excesses that we notice are the result of partially informed, one sided and amateur way of addressing these issues. A thoroughly informed, objective discussion would certainly avert divisive and polarized discussions.
2) Reject culture- based positions that impede women:
Cultural and temporal factors influence people’s judgments, positions, expectations, and perceptions. Accordingly, it is essential to differentiate between opinions formulated under the influence of a certain social setting and opinions formulated on the basis of objective and sound evidence. Furthermore, opinions based on extremely weak and questionable textual evidence need to be identified and rejected outright. No effort should be spent in defending these positions, especially if they infringe on the rights of women and compromises the spirit of the law. Al-Imam Al-Shawkani addresses such an issue in his book Naelu Alawtar in the chapter relating to women’s participation in Eid prayer. He categorically rejects one particular fiqh opinion common in a number of Muslim countries which bans all women with no exception from attending Eid prayer. In rejecting that opinion, he clearly states that this opinion is contrary to the authentic Hadith and upholds traditions at the expense of the established Sunnah. Trying to defend these practices or promote them isn’t only futile, but a misallocation of priorities and resources.
3) Recognize and adapt to the changing realities.
It is essential to recognize that the young and educated North American Muslim women have a different set of expectations and are brought up in different social settings. They are more assertive, more outspoken and they expect to be engaged and communicated directly, not through a third party. Furthermore, they tend to be more critical, sophisticated, and they expect a message that is convincing and logically sound. Given this reality, it is of paramount importance that within the bounds of Islamic jurisprudence, North American women be allowed to exercise their distinctiveness, reach their aspirations, and achieve their highest potentials. Insisting on maintaining the status quo or taking the approach that what worked in other places should work here not only alienates women of the second generation, but it deprives the Muslim community at large from the much needed positive contribution of women.
4) Leading the way to reform.
The Islamic jurisprudence is broad and has room for a great degree of flexibility. Considering the challenges, we face and given the surrounding circumstances, it is vital that we be at the forefront of allowing women greater equality, greater freedom, and greater chances of participation within the limits and boundaries allowable in Islamic Fiqh. Simply selecting the most restrictive of opinions or being satisfied with the status quo will only play into the hands of those who want to violate the tenets and fundamentals of Islam. Dr. Turabi, a leading Muslim intellectual, states: “a revolution against the condition of women in the traditional Muslim societies is inevitable. The Islamists are urged by their own ideals to reform the traditional society and to close the gap between the fallen historical reality and the desired model of ideal Islam. This is even more urgent with respect to the present state of women. Contemporary social trends in an ever closer world require an early initiative to take the direction of change in hand before it takes its free course, when the alien trends take root and are assimilated, and it becomes too late to undertake right-guided Islamic reform.” He further states: “The teachings of their own religion call upon Islamists to be the right-guided leaders for the salvation of men and women, emancipating them from the shackles of history and convention, and steering their life clear of the aberrations of mutative change.”
5) Tolerance and understanding:
Proponents of the different positions on these issues need to refrain from the mentality of “my position is the only valid position” and avoid pointing fingers or questioning the faith and sincerity of others. This is particularly true in the case of active, Islamically observant and committed sisters who within the bounds of Islamic Fiqh demand more participation and greater say in the affairs of the community. Occasionally these sisters are chastised and given all sorts of “unkind” labels. Realizing that there are legitimate fiqh differences on certain issues, the way to resolve issues is to engage in meaningful objective dialogue, understanding the underlying factors, following the Islamic ethics of disagreement, and considering issues with an open and objective mind.
(Reproduced from Manitoba Muslim Magazine)
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