"On Preserving Women and Female Reciters of the Quran"

I received a considerable amount of correspondence. Every week, Muslims of different orientations with different issues write to me. Among the most challenging correspondence that I receive are from women who present a problem that, by this day and age, should no longer exist. These are women who find themselves locked in marriages that they did not desire in the first place, that are abusive or that they were forced into, often by their parents. It is remarkable that a lot of these women are in the United States. For the women who write, the issue is often a lack of communal support. What seems like a consistent theme is that they approach imams in their communities and don't find a sympathetic party willing to help them. Often, they complain that their imams and their communities counsel patience, effectively condoning the abuse they are subjected to by their husbands.


Today, I want to focus on another kind of abuse: The abuse of Muslim women being pressured into entering marriages that they do not desire. It is remarkable that, in this day and age, we still have a large number of traditional families who immigrate to the United States, who try to solve the anxiety that they feel as immigrants by forcing their daughters into marriages that their daughters don't desire. The parents may worry that their daughters will fall in love with a non-Muslim. But often, it is not just that anxiety, but that they want their daughters to marry someone from the same ethnicity and same precise cultural background. So, they exert a tremendous amount of pressure on their daughters to marry these individuals.


Often, these relationships immediately run into problems. Culture plays a huge role in shaping the human psychology. If you are raised early on with the expectation that your parents will choose your marriage partner, you prepare yourself throughout life to enter into such a relationship. You may not see this as coercion, and you may even find this arrangement desirable. Once you enter into a marital relationship, the entire culture in which you live helps you preserve this marriage, for better or for worse. For so many Muslims who immigrate to the United States, it is highly unjust to try to force that way of seeing things on your daughters, who live in a very different cultural setting and circumstance. I'm not saying that arranged marriages, if they are coerced in other countries, are fair and just. What I'm saying is, is quite often arranged marriages in other cultures are not forced.


In my own family in Egypt, I've seen how young female relatives handle an arranged marriage by their parents. The idea of coercion doesn't even cross their mind. They are happy with the person that their parents pick because, in reality, it is not a marriage of two individuals, but a marriage of two families. That daughter knows that her entire family is part of the marriage. That daughter knows that the culture is set up to help her mediate and negotiate her relationship with her husband. The culture is such that relatives are involved in your marriage, every person in your neighborhood and in your village is involved in your marriage. There is a long established practice of handling arranged marriages so that it does not produce trauma or harm. But, this is very different. When there is trauma, when a woman’s expectations in life are very different because of a very different cultural experience, or perhaps a woman rebels against her own culture and believes in her autonomy and her own right to choose her partner, a marriage under pressure produces deep, deep injury to the psychology of the coerced person. That's precisely what is a serious problem.


It amazes me the number of messages I receive from young Muslim women from various cultural backgrounds that complain that, now that they've reached their 20s, their parents are pressuring them to enter into marriages with someone who is simply of the same ethnicity or from a family friendship, even if these relationships are loveless. Often, the threat is if they don't agree to marry this person, their family will terminate their education, or they will be considered a rebel and disowned. Sometimes parents even threaten to murder their daughters. Once in these marriages, the daughters are told, "It is your duty to remain married, even if you cannot stand your spouse. If you attempt to leave your husband, we will disown you." In this scenario, the poor woman may seek out religious authority, only to find that imams are unsympathetic and will often side with the parents, saying, "Part of your obligation to honor your parents is to remain in a coerced, loveless marriage."’


I am baffled by parents who expect their daughters to surrender their bodies to men they don't love. God has not willed that I have a daughter, but if I did, the idea that I would expect my daughter to give herself sexually to a man she does not love, shakes me to the core. When we strip all the niceties, isn't that the heart of what we are doing to these women? Whether you love the person or not, perform as a wife. If you don't, you will be ostracized by the community, you will be disowned by your family, and you may even be killed by your family. These parents are without honor. If you expect your daughter to lay in the bed of a man she does not love, you are no better than a pimp. Because of your insecurities, your fears, your egoism, your patriarchal obsessions and your misogyny, you expect your daughter to submit her body without love. That's not Islam. That's not faith. God told us, "God created for you partners, so that you can find peace and repose with them." What is the nature of the relationship that God wants between you? Love, mercy and compassion.


Al Ibn Abbas once reported that a woman came to the Prophet saying, "My father pressured me into a marriage I didn't want." The Prophet didn’t respond by inquiring how she was forced, but instead by saying, "You have a choice. Return his dowry and you're free. Or don't, and stay in the marriage. You have a choice." In a very famous hadith narrated by Aisha, a woman goes to the Prophet, saying that her father forced her to marry her cousin to elevate his own social and economic status. The Prophet immediately brought the father and the husband and said, "She has a choice. If she wants, she can return the dowry and she's free. Or, if she wants, she can keep the dowry and stay in the marriage." The woman then utters a statement that resonates through the centuries. She says, "I actually want to stay in this marriage. But, I did what I did to assert a principle that marriage is up to us, not up to our fathers."


Now, male patriarchy had a huge problem with these reports in which the Prophet clearly and unequivocally believed the woman. So jurors, who were men, said, "Well, you have to prove coercion that is compelling." That is the product of patriarchy. The will of God is very clear: no coercion. The sunnah of the Prophet is very clear: your body is yours. You decide who to surrender it to. It is obscene that there are still Muslims today who will tell a woman, "Give your body to a man, even if unwillingly, otherwise the angels will curse you."


In one incident among many that I get like this, I informed the woman in question about the famous story of Thabit ibn Qais’s wife, who went to the Prophet and said, "I want to leave my husband. I find no fault in him, but I can't stand him." The Prophet told her, "Return the dowry and you're free." The woman who wrote to me went to an imam, and as usual in our day and age, the imam told her, "No, you have to stay with your husband." When she asked him about the story of Thabit ibn Qais, he told her, "Thabit ibn Qais was a very ugly man, that's why the Prophet gave her the right to divorce him."


I'll tell you the origin of the story of him being ugly. Among the reports is that the woman tells the Prophet that, "I can't stand Thabit ibn Qais, to the extent that if I didn't fear God, every time I would see him, I would spit at him." Male interpreters assumed, "For her to want to spit in his face, he must be very ugly." They injected a justification for the narration. If you research the story of Thabit ibn Qais, that's the only time we have the description of him as an ugly man. Otherwise, Thabit ibn Qais is described as a normal man.


The far more common, authentic versions of this narration say, "I don't fault his moral character and I don't fault his piety, but I fear that if I stay married to this man, it will test my faith. It will make me less pious as a Muslim, not because Thabit is an impious man, but because living a life without love can often test your faith." Living a life without love can make you do what a lot of these women do – blame Islam for their predicament and start losing their relationship with God. They no longer feel anything when they pray or read Quran. After all, they live a life of sexual captivity, feeling that they are forced to surrender their bodies to men they don't love, to appease their parents.


In yet another version of the report, the Prophet commented, "SubhanAllah, how hearts are in between the fingers of Al-Rahman. Spouses may not like one another for no reason. If there are children, we must talk about the rights of children. But, if there are no children, the priority has to be the relationship that draws you closer to God. If you exist in a loveless life, you will often not know how to love God.” What often happens with these poor women is that their parents push them into these marriages and pressure to get them pregnant. Once they are pregnant, they are stuck because they now have to worry about the rights of the children.


Every jurist would tell you, if you force a woman to eat when she doesn't want to eat, that's haram. If you force a woman to exercise when she doesn't want to exercise, that's haram. If you force a woman to do anything, it's haram. But when it comes to having sex with husbands they don't love, they say, "The angels could curse you all night." How is it that coercion is not okay in all affairs of life, except when it comes to a woman's body and her sexual integrity? Men have to learn that the sanctity of a human body, at a minimum, starts with the principle of no coercion. You can't torture a human being, you can't rape a human being, you can't make another human being suffer. When that human being is your daughter, and you're making her suffer in the most degrading fashion, how can you still think you are a Muslim, or that your prayers or fasting are accepted, or that anything about you as a Muslim is accepted? You are a man with no honor.


For the women who call themselves feminists: Do something for the sake of women's rights. Raise money, so when a Muslim woman wants to leave her husband, she can hire legal representation. A lot of these women are trapped in relationships with no means. They can't hire a lawyer. They can't get a job. They live in fear of their parents doing them harm. Feminists: raise money, work with me, and we can create a situation where these women can get lawyers, shelter, jobs or protection from their criminal parents, if they want that. That is the feminism I understand. That is the Islam I understand. That is what my Islam teaches me. I don't get this from Western values. I get this from the heart of my iman.


Misogyny came in and sullied the waters. So, you find a hadith reported by Abu Hurairah saying, "If a woman asks her husband for a divorce without just cause, she is cursed by the angels until the final day." All the Usuli jurists – as opposed to that of all the Ahl al Hadith – said that the hadith of Abu Hurairah is too weak to have any legal effect. Yet, the Ahl al Hadith, which are the Muslims of today for the most part, made the isolated report by Abu Hurairah equal to the numerous reports that affirm the right of a woman to choose her marriage. Know that your tradition, like all religious traditions, has been sullied by misogyny and patriarchy. Have the bravery to say that what is misogynistic cannot come from our Prophet, because it contradicts the Quran – the Quran that honors women and tells them their relationship with their husbands must be built on love and mercy. The Quran cannot tell women to surrender their bodies to men they don't love. If you don't see that, then there is a serious problem in the way that you understand Islam.


There are men that hear something like this and say, "Khaled Abou El Fadl is a liberal." How is defending the integrity of a woman's body and her honor considered liberalism? What happened to your sense of integrity and honor? This is Islam, not liberalism. Or they say, “Khaled Abou El Fadl is westernized.” Since when has honor, integrity and justice become westernized? If that is not Islam, why are you a Muslim? The justice, ethics and virtue that I learned came from the Quran and from the sunnah of the Prophet. My virtue does not come from liberalism or Americana. My virtue comes from Islam, and so should yours.


Because of inquiries and interest, last khutbah I talked about female reciters of the Quran. I want to thank Madinah Javed, who sent me a sizable amount of scholarship on the tradition of female reciters of the Quran. I started doing a superficial count of women Qāri from the past hundred years. I'm not done, but I've counted about 70. Initially, I thought I would read the names of the Qāri in this khutbah, but it soon became overwhelming.


I want to comment on a particular tradition because of some misunderstandings I found in the scholarship. At the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, the Quran radio station in Egypt started broadcasting famous female reciters of the Quran like Sheikha Sakina Hassan and Sheikha Munira Abdou and many others, which continued on until the end of the 1930s, when Egypt no longer broadcasted female reciters of the Quran. The rule continues today. I read in the literature two things that must be commented on. One said that the tradition of female reciters of the Quran started about a hundred years ago because there used to be a profession of professional female wailers at funerals; that when there was a funeral, women would go out and they would be hired to scream and cry, and that the tradition of female reciters emerged from the tradition of female wailers. The second thing is that, according to the literature, female reciters of the Quran stopped being broadcast on the Quran radio station in Egypt because there was a fatwa by al Azhar in the 1930’s that the voice of a woman is ‘awra.


Both of these points are wrong. The tradition of female reciters of the Quran did not emerge from the tradition of female wailers. It's a gilded profession in countries like Egypt, that goes back centuries and has nothing to do with the Quran reciter guilds. The Quran reciter guilds, which included women, have chains of transmission where many of these sheikhas would learn to recite the Quran in a continuous lineage going back all the way to the Prophet. You would find that they were taught by sheikhas like their sheikhas were taught by sheikhas. The tradition of female reciters of the Quran goes back centuries. Many people don't know that these female reciters taught men who became very famous reciters themselves. To this day, there are very famous sheikhas in places like Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia and Malaysia. Women who don't just recite the Quran, but that've studied the Quran with a continuous chain of transmission.


Female reciters of the Quran dried up from the airwaves not because of a fatwa by Azhar. There is no such fatwa. Female reciters of the Quran dried up because of the influence of Wahhabi Islam and the rise of puritanical Islam in the 1940s. After the defeat in the war of Palestine, Muslim culture became increasingly conservative. Muslim men, as it often happens, take out political and military defeat on their women. Conservatism and misogyny are always sky-high at times of military defeat.


I will close with a very important point that I would be remiss not to mention. You may have heard that there is a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, about a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. This region is historically part of Azerbaijan, but it has a majority population who are ethnic Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent state, which was recognized only by Armenia. Armenia sent military forces to protect the enclave that declared itself a state, one that is not recognized by any other country. Many don't know that what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh is that the ethnic Armenians kicked out the Azaries from that region. They killed about 30,000 Muslim Azaries and ejected about a million Muslim Azaries from the enclave. Now the war is because Azerbaijan wants Nagorno-Karabakh back as territory occupied by Armenia, because that land belongs to Azerbaijan. That is the position of the United Nations and of international law. The ethnic cleansing that took place in Nagorno-Karabakh against Muslims is a genocide.


Los Angeles has made an official declaration supporting the Armenians. In the same way that the Israelis call the West Bank “Judea” and “Samaria”, the Armenians call Nagorno-Karabakh, “Artsakh.” The city of Los Angeles, in their declaration, calls that region Artsakh. In their declaration, Armenian-American lawmakers, stood in a line with fellow Christian lawmakers from Los Angeles, supporting Artsakh, although it is not recognized by any country in the world. They argue that Artsakh has a right to be a free country, that any war by Azerbaijan to try to kick out Armenian army from Artsakh is unlawful. They said that Turkey and Azerbaijan are sending jihadis from Syria and Libya to fight against the Christian Armenians, although there is no evidence.


We all know why they're saying this: To invoke the Muslim terror card. Many Americans volunteered to go fight with the Kurds against Sunnis, against Shiites, against Daesh, against ISIS, against the world, and no one had a problem. No one called them fanatics, no one called them extremists, no one called them jihadis. Why? Because they're Christian or without a faith. We don't have a problem when any Christian country comes to the aid of any Christian country. We didn't have any problem when we invaded Iraq unlawfully, and France, Britain and Canada helped us with our illegal invasion. No one called these countries extremists or jihadis. Why did the city of Los Angeles do this? Because of the influence of Armenian-American politicians.


This is the problem with Muslims. How many Muslims live in Los Angeles, and yet they have no political clout? Armenian-Americans buy political influence while Muslims buy expensive cars and expensive homes.


The city of Los Angeles ignores the ethnic cleansing of Muslims completely. According to that conference held by LA politicians, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are blameless, innocent, victims. They didn't slaughter Muslims. They didn't close down mosques and turn them into barnyards for animals. These politicians didn’t mention Muslims at all. They just talked about how jihadis are flocking to fight their Christian brethren, and how the city of Los Angeles demands that the federal government stand against Turkey and against Azerbaijan and support the independence of the Christians of Artsakh.


Where’s the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an LA-based organization? Where's Bayan, and their rich Muslim donors? Where are you?


God, forgive our sins, grant us the straight path, and the path of light. God, aid us so that we can wake up from our slumber and represent your faith as it should be represented, the faith of enlightenment and beauty and truth and justice, for that is the only faith that comes from You.

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