“So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.”
– John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women
On August 30, 2013, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) had their 50th annual convention in Washington D.C. As per usual practice in such Muslim conventions, the first main hall session was opened with a recitation of the Quran. But this time it was the first one in which the reciter was a woman. Ustadha Tahera Ahmed, an Associate University Chaplain and Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University gave this masterful recitation to mark this historic occasion:
It’s not surprising that unlike other opening recitations, this one didn’t go unnoticed. As expected, Muslims split into two camps. In the one corner were those who were vehemently opposed to such a “transgression” against the Sacred Law. In the other corner were Muslims advocating for women’s rights and “equality.” Depending on which side one views this event from, it was either an accomplishment or a calamity and a sign of the end of time drawing nearer.
Regardless of how this event has been received, it highlighted some issues that should be addressed. The majority of backlash against Ustadha Tahera’s recitation was a result of an emotional reaction to that which is not familiar. There were numerous recitations during the convention, and many others that took place in previous ISNA conventions, none of which received the type of attention this one has. The negative reaction in this case was of the same quality as the one generated in response to the controversy of women leading prayer in a mixed congregation. It’s of the same quality because if one were to ask most Muslims why they have a problem with it, the answer would be something like, “because women are not supposed to do that.” When pushed for a religiously justified reason for why women are “not supposed to do that,” most Muslims will not be able to give a real answer.
For the few who are able to give an evidence-backed answer, there’s a difference between the issue of women leading a mixed congregation and having her recite the Quran in public. The issue of female prayer leadership has been expounded on by Imam Zaid Shakir in a well-referenced article that tackles all sides of this manufactured controversy. As for female public recitation of the Quran, there’s a peculiar observation. Where the authentic Hadith tradition is used as the primary source of evidence for not allowing women to lead a mixed congregation in prayer, it’s the rulings issued by scholars that are being cited in support of not allowing women to recite the Quran in a public gathering. Although both issues had their rulings derived based on Usūli principles (foundations of Islamic jurisprudence), they’re derived differently and are not equivalent in strength.
It seems that we’ve fallen into two extremes, the effects of which manifest quite glaringly when it comes to issues with Muslim women. One extreme is a neo-Traditionalism with a hyper focus on the works of the scholars and what they had to say, at the expense of seeing what the Quran and Hadith tradition have said as primary sources. The justification for this approach is that our previous scholars knew Islam better than us and we’re safer following in the footsteps of those in the graves than anyone walking the earth right now. As the Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s companion Ibn Masoud RA said, “Let none of you follow in their religion anyone, when he believes he believes, and when he disbelieves he disbelieves. If you must follow, then follow one who died, because the one living is not safe from tribulation.”
The other extreme is the neo-Salafism that completely rejects the tradition and considers it the source of our problems today. It views traditionalism as a form of blind following and a rejection of the Quran and Hadith that are available to us. As Prophet Muhammad PBUH said in one of the narrations of this Hadith, “I’ve left with you two things: the Book of God and my Sunnah (way).”
Extreme actions result in extreme reactions. Neo-Salafism is in reality a response to neo-Traditionalism, just as neo-Traditionalism is a response to neo-Salafism. The neo-Traditionalist spends all his time mastering what the scholars have said and can readily quote them. But will unfortunately neglect the primary evidence to the extent that if they’re to hear a verse from the Quran or a statement of the Prophet PUBH, they will deliberately not think about it out of complete trust and submission to the scholars of the past they’ve been studying. This saves them from having to deal with the occasional cognitive dissonance they’ll necessarily feel at times. This is further enforced by the fact that the more one digs into the Islamic Tradition, the more they find previous scholars having talked about what literally seems like everything.
The neo-Salafi on the other hand takes the opposing extreme. Aside from certain texts that are indispensable for the student of Sacred Knowledge, the neo-Salafi acts as if 1400 years of scholarship doesn’t matter, and will even at times go against a consensus on certain matters citing the Quran as evidence without realizing the very real possibility of a not having understood the cited verses properly.
Although both the neo-Traditionalist and the neo-Salafi are on extreme sides, they do share a problematic equivocation. It’s the assumption that the subjective understandings of Muslim minds can be equivocated for the objective nature of primary Islamic sources of legislation. Whether one elevates the previous scholarly minds over their own, or their own mind over previous scholarly minds, both positions carry within them the assumption that the final conclusion is devoid of relativism and subjective projections onto the primary sources. This is not to negate that the Quran and Hadith have clear injunctions that no one will differ on. But depending on which background one comes from, the same objective text can have multiple readings, much the same way the same image can be seen as an image of a young woman looking to the back or an old lady looking to the left.
Lest one think that this opens the door for the Quran to give contradictory interpretations or for anyone and everyone to claim, “this is what it means to me,” such thinking would render the verses about the Quran being a source of light, guidance, and a clear book meaningless. There are a set of finite tools one must first master before they can delve into it to derive meanings and rulings. As for the meanings, they become manifested as time progresses. But when it comes to rulings that establish one’s relationship with their Lord and their moral conduct, this matter has been settled from the very beginning of Islam.
Where the relevance of social projections onto the text comes in with regards to women, for example, is how women are perceived in the particular contextual setting of the scholar. A working example to make this issue clear would be the hijab. The command for women to cover themselves and not make their adornments manifest in public is not ambiguous and is clearly stated in the Quran. Anyone who claims otherwise, or cites historical roots for the hijab in order to negate its obligation is not speaking with academic honesty. The real issue here is not the command to cover up. It’s in the way a woman does it, i.e., in the application of the command. Islam didn’t come to make everyone into a monolith. Women in different cultures have chosen to manifest the hijab in numerous ways that conform to the general guidelines of it, and what can be considered inappropriate for one scholar in one context is perfectly appropriate for another scholar elsewhere. What’s inappropriate is to issue a condemnation based on an understanding that stems from a projection of one’s context onto the text.
When it comes to Ustadha Tahera’s public recitation, it was clearly evident that the negative response was more based on general conception of women that was supported by statements and rulings of many, if not most scholars over the permissibility of her recitation. The focus was on how the voice of a woman is a fitnah, i.e., a cause for temptation for the men. This made it worse given that such a voice is being used to recite a Sacred Text, and so now Ustadha Tahera is causing men to link seduction with the Quran.
Of course when the reverse situation is asked about, it generates a general dumbfounded reaction. It’s inconceivable for many men to comprehend that women can be equally, if not more so, tempted by a man’s voice. So for the sake of intellectual consistency, especially when it comes to legal rulings, where is the ruling that it’s impermissible for a man to recite in public out of fear that his voice is a fitnah for women? The point of this facetious question is not to demean the position of many scholars that a woman is not allowed to recite the Quran in public. But it is to illustrate a point not to give a contrary fatwa, but to trigger one to reflect. Interestingly, the ruling that many Muslim relate scholars have stated is usually phrased in relation to the man. Rather then saying if a woman’s voice is a cause of temptation she’s not allowed to raise it, the ruling states that if a woman’s voice is a cause of temptation for a man that’s not her husband or immediate relative, then it’s impermissible for that man to listen to her.
In the midst of the backlash against ISNA and Ustadah Tahera for her public recitation, which can be an area of contention among the scholars given that there’s no clear primary text against it, there were violations of basic Islamic principles of conduct towards fellow Muslims, which have clear primary texts warning about them. Ustadha Tahera is traditionally trained and is reported to have certificates granted from renowned Muslim scholars. Being a student of Sacred Knowledge, she maintains connections with scholars as part of her ongoing student-teacher relationship. If we’re going to avoid having negative assumptions then we should expect that Ustadha Tahera would’ve contacted her teachers to seek their opinion and approval before having agreed to recite in public. Moreover, we would also expect that ISNA’s board would’ve sought the opinion of scholars before inviting Ustadha Tahera to recite publicly.
Whether it was a wise move to go against a majority opinion, regardless of whether one thinks it has a weak or strong basis is another subject to discuss. Also, was it really an effective move to advance in the struggle of Muslim women to attain their full Islamic rights that many Muslims have stripped away from them? Was having a woman recite the Quran publicly conducive to the spiritual development and state of the heart for those in the Muslim community? More importantly, is publicity the measure of success now? After all, most famous people are certainly no role models.
In reality, this is not a matter of competition between men and women, or a matter of copying non-Muslim Western feminism as many Muslims negatively define their Islam – it’s not the Western way of doing things. It’s not matter of ISNA progressing down the path that will eventually have them bringing a future “Muslim” version of Miley Cyrus to twerk on stage as one disgruntled commenter remarked in his unfair and frankly unIslamic comparison of Ustadha Tahera reciting the Quran to Miley Cyrus. It’s not even a matter of whether it’s permissible for a woman to recite the Quran in public or not. It’s a matter of which side of scholarly opinion those arguing about it are cheering for, which is a cheering driven largely by a certain conception of women’s role in Islam and society at large.
As things stand today, too many Muslims are in denial over the state Muslim women are in. We keep reading stories of the past about how Prophet Muhammad PBUH, the companions, and various figures in our Islamic Tradition treated women as God intended for them to be treated as noble beings. We live vicariously through out history and avoid dealing with our present problems. Regardless of where one stands, there is certainly more to having a female student of Sacred Knowledge like Ustadha Tahera publicly recite the Quran than meets the eye.