Dr. Abou El Fadl recently watched a video that unsettled him so much that he found it very challenging to focus on anything else. The video was of a woman – a widow and orphan herself with one child - in Egypt, pleading for help because a police officer started harassing her six months ago, demanding that she submit to him sexually. When she refused, he arrested her younger sister – a divorcee with no children – and has kept the sister in detention without charges for several weeks. The officer told this woman that unless she submits sexually, they will not only keep her sister but will continue sexually assaulting her sister in the police station. These women, being orphans and of disadvantaged social status, are powerless. They have no connections nor protection.
The first task when working in the fields of human rights is to verify the authenticity of events and get information on the victim, offender and circumstances. This police station is a habitual offender in the area, there are numerous reports of them victimizing and abducting women from the region and committing numerous sexual offenses against them.
The woman in the video is not only pleading with the officer in charge of that police station, but she's pleading with President Sisi to intervene and help her, with the shaykhs of Al-Azhar to help her, with Muslims around the world to help her. Everywhere she goes to get help, she only finds abuse or neglect. She went to the officer’s superiors and they not only dismissed her but further abused her.
The problem of sexual abuse by authority in a country like Egypt is not rare; it is persistent and systematic. The government has noticed but doesn't care. It is another instrument of subjugation and control towards its citizens. If you teach people that they have no dignity, they will expect no honor nor rights, they will be broken and submissive.
Muslims often wonder why their prayers are not answered. Consider this from the perspective of the Grantor of mercy, beauty and forgiveness. This is a Muslim woman begging because she is powerless, and her situation is not the exception. Sexual abuse in a country like Egypt by authority is all over prisons, police stations and military units. Think of how easy it would be for this woman's fellow Egyptians, fellow Muslims or even fellow human beings to help her. Any Egyptian with high ranking authority in their family or any wealthy businessperson in Egypt could easily use connections to get this woman help. Not only that, rich Egyptians living in the United States could call their contacts and get this woman protected. Anyone working in American government could call their contacts in Egypt or go through formal channels to protect this woman. Even regular Americans who plan on vacationing in Egypt could cancel their trip due to this woman’s injustice. If the Egyptian government got just ten of these complaints, they would do something about it immediately. In Egypt, everything is done through contacts. Normally, when the shaykhs of Al-Azhar want something for their family or friends, they make the necessary calls. Those shaykhs could call their contacts in the military and ask for help for this woman.
There is a temptation for us in the United States to say, "It's not our problem." But look at the magnitude of failure by Muslims all over. There are thousands of women who are victimized yet no one hears their stories. Look at the number of people who have the connections to help this woman but fail. Where are Al-Azhar’s shaykhs, who call the military and police for favors constantly?
The problem is the level of apathy that plagues us as Muslims. Imagine if, upon hearing this woman’s plea, Muslims around the world caused an uproar online? The Egyptian government would help her immediately because they would not want the embarrassment. Instead, Muslims focus on issues like whether or not the hijab is oppression. The issue is moral apathy and spiritual defeat. God sees Muslims being silent about women who are victimized, persecuted and subjugated. God also sees Muslims failing to care. It is unlikely to find another khutbah talking about this matter.
When you beg God for help, do you think God will not remember the time you heard someone else plead for help, when you could have done something and failed to do it? Do you think God will help you when you help no one but yourself? To avoid helping, many people will dismiss this woman’s story as a fabrication. They will not go through the effort to verify the story and even if they have an opportunity to do so. They don't want to know.
Muslims are part of a single tapestry, interwoven like the threads of a single rug. God looks at us collectively. What do we do with each other and what do we do for each other? Even if you are not in a position to do anything, God looks at if you cared, even if only for a few minutes. If that at least is not fulfilled, do not expect any barakat (blessings) from God.
This reminded Dr. Abou El Fadl of a story from the Sirah of the Prophet – the story of Umm Salama, her husband Abu Salama and their child Salama. Umm Salama and Abu Salama came from a Meccan tribe called Banu Makhzum, they were among the early converts facing persecution in Mecca, so they immigrated to Abyssinia. They heard rumors that Mecca was treating Muslims better than before, so they traveled back only to discover that the rumors were unfounded and that Meccans were persecuting Muslims worse than ever. So, they returned to Abyssinia but later went back again to Mecca. Upon their arrival, they found that Muslims were emigrating to Medina to escape persecution from Meccans. So, Umm Salama and Abu Salama decide to also migrate to Medina.
Their tribe found out that they were escaping to Medina, so they pursued and captured them. Umm Salama's family told her husband, "If you want to travel to Medina, we cannot stop you. But you will not take your wife or son with you. Either you remain in Mecca suffering persecution with your wife and son, or you join the Prophet in Medina without your family." Abu Salama knew there was no point to staying in Mecca because the persecution was intense, so he continued to Medina while Umm Salama and her son headed back to Mecca.
When they got to Mecca, Umm Salama's family took away her child, saying she cannot raise him as long as she is Muslim. She constantly pleaded with her family to let her see Salama. She went to the spot where she was forcibly separated from her husband and remained there, crying and praying. Umm Salama's family noticed that she wasn’t eating and crying constantly, but she wouldn't leave Islam. After about a year, after concluding that at this rate, Umm Salama would die before ever leaving Islam, they relent and finally let her have her child back. Immediately after being reunited, Umm Salama wanted to travel to Medina to be with her husband.
However, the only way she could travel from Mecca to Medina was to walk on foot about 250 miles in the hot desert. Walking alone as a woman in the desert, there was a high risk that she could be raped and killed, or that she and her son could be captured and sold into slavery. Still, Umm Salama found that she could not continue living in Mecca; her passion for her husband, the Prophet and the community of Muslims was worth the risk to travel, despite all the dangers.
Traveling through the desert, a non-Muslim named Uthman Ibn Talha saw Umm Salama and her child. Uthman at that time was a sworn enemy of the Prophet and his people – he hated Muslims and fought in battles against Muslims. But when he saw this woman alone with her child, his sense of ethics moved him to get off his camel, put Umm Salama and her child on the camel, and walk ahead of them, leading the camel all the way to Medina. When they got close to Medina, Umm Salama offered to walk the rest of the way so Uthman could have his camel back, but because there was still about 20 miles to go, he gave her his camel and instead, walked back from Medina to Mecca on foot himself.
Muslims often ask, "Why did Allah send Islam to the Arabs of past, not the Arabs of now? It is because of people like Uthman. Although he was a sworn enemy of Muslims, his dignity could not stand the idea of a woman – even one from the enemy camp – traveling in the desert alone with her child. Out of sheer moral rectitude, he walked her all the way from Mecca to Medina, gave her his camel and walked back on foot. These were the Arabs of the past. For the Arabs of today, if they saw Umm Salama in the desert alone, they would be more concerned with her ethnicity or family lineage, or would question why she was in the desert alone.
When thinking about the video of the woman in Egypt, Dr. Abou El Fadl kept remembering the story of Umm Salama and Uthman Ibn Talha. Is this man, in his state of kufr (unbelief), closer to God than the Muslims of today, who deny the existence of injustice and are mainly concerned with ritual? Is he closer to God than the shaykhs of Al-Azhar, who are more concerned about their beautiful adhans and Quran recitations than they are about a disadvantaged woman being raped or threatened?
Why are Muslims not at the forefront of defending human rights? Why do Muslims care more about hijab or the permissibility of nail polish instead of being at every level of government, working for justice and equity around the world?
The Egyptian police would not dare exploit this woman if America’s government condemned it. Do you understand the power of the United States around the world? If the U.S. State Department told Sisi, "We don't want your police officers sexually abusing Egyptians,” sexual abuse in police stations would end overnight. America funds the oppression taking place in countries around the world; we support dictators and empower the immoral and the abusers. If you understand the power of the United States around the world, you cannot say, "It's none of my business." When Americans vote for a president or senator, we are voting for a public official who will not only govern the United States but will also rule the world. So, when voting, think of the world, not just the U.S.
What good faith effort has humanity shown God, when a country that has an institution like Al-Azhar and has thousands of religious scholars also has no one coming to the aid of a woman who's an orphan, whose sister is being raped, and who is in imminent threat of being raped herself? If you were in God’s place, what would you do with these people, with their prayers, with their supplication, when they are in a time of need? What would you do with people who indulge in luxury after luxury, bragging about their connections to powerful people, but dismiss a woman in need as a fabricated story?
Federal authorities in New York seized a 13-ton shipment of beauty accessories suspected to be made out of human hair taken from people locked in Chinese Muslim internment camps. These are our fellow Muslims in China, held in concentration camps, raped and murdered, not allowed to practice their religion, nor even allowed to keep their hair. As an American citizen, when you vote, do you care about whether you are electing an official who will take a firm stand against the exploitation and abuse of Muslims in China? So many in the Muslim world spend hours assuring the world that they are completely opposed to the holocaust, as they should be, but do nothing about holocaust against Muslims going on in China now.
Uthman Ibn Talha walked in the desert hundreds of miles, gave up his means of transportation just for a woman's safety – and he was a kafir (an unbeliever). You might be a praying, fasting Muslim, but which of you is better in God’s eyes?
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